A few weeks ago I wrote about gendered traditions and expectations when it comes to naming and marriage. Many brilliant commenters pointed out that I was working from a very American perspective and that many cultures handle this differently. One such commenter was my internet friend Juliana who is currently studying in Brazil. Here’s the story of her name, plus a bit about how this whole naming bidness goes down in Brazil:
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My name is Juliana Britto Schwartz. Schwartz is my last name, from my father, carried over the Midwest of the U.S. from my paternal great-grandfather. Britto was given to me by my mother, tracing back to my maternal great-grandfather, a farmer in the interior of Brazil. Though Britto is technically my middle name, ever since I hit high school I started writing out both names on forms and such, much to the confusion of school officials, who never gave up on trying to hyphenate it. It felt important to me that both my halves be included each time I put my signature to something. However, it was only once I arrived here in Brazil that I understood my parents’ reason for giving me my mother’s last name.
In Brazil, children are traditionally given their mother’s last name first, followed by their father’s. Throughout my informal research for this post, I found that though there is no law that mandates it, this tradition holds true almost every single time. I have yet to meet someone who did not receive both parents’ names, in that order. As a feminist, I find this exciting, because it provides each child with a mark of their maternal lineage. And most importantly, unlike in the United States, each and every person has the opportunity to pass on their maternal surname to their own children. However, this rarely happens, and if it does, it never lasts beyond grandchildren or great-grandchildren. This means that most children receive last names passed on from their grandfathers, one from each parent.
Why is this important? Because in Brazil, a country constructed through colonization, there are huge families linked by surnames. On one side of my family, I have 24 people of varying generations who are all referred to as “the Martins.” So, it’s a pretty big deal that Brazilian women very rarely pass on their names. Women almost always take on their husband’s name when they marry, often dropping their maternal surname in order to shorten what would otherwise be quite a mouthful. The woman then passes on only her paternal surname to her children. And soon, that name dies too. So why don’t Brazilian women keep their maternal surnames in the family? Some women wanted to have the same last name as their children, others wanted to avoid excessively long names. For some single mothers, they give their children the father’s name because Brazilian bureaucracy often requires that information. But for most of the women I talked to, tradition was the main factor. This is what needs to be changed. Someone has to start the change.
My mother was an exception to this rule. Having lived abroad for 5 years, once she married my father, she decided that she didn’t want to take his name. Her excuse is that it had only one vowel, but I think that both my parents are bigger feminists than they have yet to admit. So my mother still has her maternal and paternal surname, and I still have mine. And if I get my way, my mother’s name will go with me to my death certificate, and will make it to my children’s birth certificates. Because I believe that we all have the right to carry a bit of the women who have come before us in our names. I’m going to start a new tradition.
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Juliana is a college student living in Brazil for the next year. She likes salsa dancing, cooking, and language. In her spare time, she likes to explore the city of Rio de Janeiro and hit up the beach! You can follow her travels at her photo blog, or follow her Latina feminist blog. She’s also on Twitter and Facebook.
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