There was a time when I would roll my eyes at the Goldies, Shlomos and Sadies of the world those old-country Jewish folks with their old-fashioned shtetl names. They may have embodied my heritage my peeps but I winced at how out of step their monikers made them seem.
It was surprising, then, that when it was my turn to give out names, I found myself adhering to similar kinds of traditions. My daughters are half Mexican not an easy thing to be in Lou Dobbs' America and my wife and I wanted to make sure they remained proud of their Hispanic heritage. We thus tagged them with Elisa and Paloma elegant, uncommon and undeniably Spanish.
But the question is, will the Paloma of today be the Flossie of tomorrow? Social scientists suggest that the answer is yes.
In May, the Pew Hispanic Center released a study of first-, second- and third-generation Hispanics in the U.S. a look at how the Latin-American population has grown and assimilated over the past three decades. As recently as 1980, just 9% of U.S. kids under 18 were Hispanic, compared with 22% today. Only about a tenth of that population are first-generation Latin Americans meaning they were born outside the U.S. More than half (52%) are second generation born in the U.S. to at least one foreign-born parent; and 37% were born in America to American-born parents. By 2025, the study estimates that close to 30% of all American kids will have some Latino ancestry.
What happens, of course, when an immigrant group heads toward assimilation, is that each successive generation gets more educated (82% of first-generation Latin-American kids ages 15 to 17 attend school, compared with 97% of second-generation kids hardly perfect but moving toward parity) and more proficient in the national language (by the third generation, 95% of Latino kids ages 15 to 17 speak English exclusively or very well). Another thing that happens is that parents start moving away from baby names like Guillermo and closer to names like William. "When [immigrant or later-generation] parents name their children, they are combining their own attachments and affinities with their hopes and aspirations for their children," says Guillermina Jasso, a sociology professor at New York University and a second-generation Hispanic American. The emotional complexity of that cultural changeover means that parents don't just switch from Latin names to English ones in a single go. Rather, says Jasso, they may pass through a three-stage process, "with bilingual names becoming popular for a while. Those are names like Hector and Daniel for boys and Sandra and Cecilia for girls."
The Social Security Administration has tracked the fashions in baby-naming since 1880, and confirms that many such bridge names are currently enjoying an uptick. On the yearly list of 1,000 most popular names, Hector has improved from No. 193 in 1981 to 181st most popular in 2008; Daniel has gone from 12th place to 5th over the past decade; and Cecilia has similarly risen from slot No. 300 to 270. Sandra has bounced around in the top 40 for decades, but since 1990 has inched up from No. 33 to 27.
Certain girls' names, Jasso points out, survive the Spanish-English crossing better than boys' names, since the a ending (Victoria, Cordelia, Diana, Maria) is popular in both languages, while the o ending for boys' names is not. A Spanish Marco becomes an Anglo Mark; Antonio similarly becomes Anthony, and Teodoro becomes Theodore. "If names exert an influence on their own," Jasso says, "then Hispanic girls will be more likely to assimilate, and to assimilate more quickly than boys."
Though a fair number of Spanish names for both sexes will find asylum on American shores, the majority appear doomed and the Social Security Administration has the cold numbers to illustrate the point. Juan lost 18 spots in the past decade, going from 48th to 66th. Its sister name, Juanita, fell through the floor, plummeting from 792nd place to 1,002nd in the same period. Guillermo lost more than 100 spots between 1998 and 2008, sliding from No. 369 to 470. Angelica crashed from 109th place to 257th in the same stretch; Manuel has gone from 147th to 186th.
Some names benefit from a temporary faddishness. Selena was languishing at 780th place in 1990, but rose to 300th by 1994 as the fame of Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla grew. The name vaulted to No. 91 after Quintanilla's murder in 1995 but has since settled back to 352. Diego has enjoyed a similar bump, going from 186th place to 68th in the last decade, perhaps due to the popular boy sidekick in the ubiquitous Dora the Explorer cartoons. Designer Paloma Picasso may be giving a similar if subtler bump to my own daughter's name, which has gone from No. 897 in 2000 to 789 last year. As for Elisa, my older daughter's name a two-decade decline from 421th place to 622nd.
If the Elisas and Jorges and Angelicas of this era are fated to go the way of the Moeshes and Mitzis of an earlier one, the consolation is that with such nominative extinction comes melting-pot belonging. That's always been at the heart of the American experiment and it likely always will be.