When I was born, my father decided it’d be neat to name his firstborn son after himself. (Was it tradition? Insecurities about personal legacy? Something of that sort.) So I was named Oscar.
My last name has a longer story. Originally, my legal name was Gamboa. I remember the day it changed to Mahoney. I was four, and sitting in a car with mom, in a parking lot, waiting for my dad to come back.
“By the way,” Mom said, “Your last name’s Mahoney now.”
And it was so.
I learned how this happened much later. When my father came to the United States from Costa Rica, he had two things: a tourist’s visa he was intending to overstay, and a blank space on his birth certificate where my grandfather’s name was meant to go. Apparently, my grandfather had been known more for his virility than his fidelity, and so my dad was born a bastard. My grandfather left before his birth and never legally recognized him, leaving him with little more than that blank on his certificate. Years later, in the United States, having well overstayed his visa and now working as an illegal immigrant, my father befriended and started working for a middle-aged Irish couple, the Mahoneys. In order to get him a green card, Mr. Mahoney offered to go forth with an adult adoption proceeding made possible by his certificate. Mahoney declared in court (lied, technically) that he had once travelled to Costa Rica, fathered my father, but travelled back before his birth, unable to legally recognize him from the United States.
When I turned five, my parents divorced, and since then I’ve hardly kept any ties to my father. It’s been years since we’ve spoken, in fact. I don’t mean to say that I am resentful, or pity myself (or this history), but I do want to say that I can’t credit my father with the identity behind my name. I am Oscar, like my father, but strictly nominally, and I am Mahoney, but only thanks to a lie.
This is all the history my name recounts, as far as I’m concerned. Normally, last names — family names — connect you to those who bore the name before you, those who may have lived in far off places, those who may have belonged to and passed down a culture. My last name, Mahoney, is a legal marker, not a bearer of history. I have no blood relation to any Mahoney other than my sister, who got her last name the same way.
But again, I can’t resent the fact. Given a name that strips me of familial or historical inheritance, a name that had no pre-existing meaning in its brand, I’ve been given a clean slate to write a meaning free from history. And so, since I’ve been Oscar Mahoney, I feel like the meaning of that name has been self-defined. The identity that I’ve formed around this name, through my character, the events in my life, every journal entry and letter I’ve signed off “O.M.,” is a self-curated one.
I think I might want to change my name at some point to my mother’s maiden name, Loría, but I’ve lived with this one nearly two decades. I sometimes fear that, while I’d obviously remain the same person, I’d be leaving behind part of myself in time. It’s a strange anxiety, and not a very logical one, but an anxiety nonetheless. Regardless, I still really want a name that would not only tie me to my relatives — to a part of my identity that does stretch back centuries — but also to my children in the future, one that would tie them to my heritage. I hate the thought of someday passing down the name Mahoney to my kids, and explaining to them that their name deprives them of a history.
So, my last name is Mahoney, but perhaps it won’t be for long. Soon (whenever I get past that anxiety, and more importantly, the paperwork), I might be Oscar Loría. Loría is a name with history. It isn’t all that common in Latin America. One rumor has it that all Costa Rican Lorías are descendants of one of the country’s founding conquistadors. A more likely story traces the origin of the name to France’s Loire Valley and to a group of Sephardic Jews driven out by the Spanish Inquisition. Etymologically, it might be derivative of Laurus, the Latin word for laurel, a symbol of status since Classical Antiquity. (True or not, as a Classics major, I find this origin-rumor the most flattering.)
So: will I soon take hold of that ambiguous though rightfully inherited history, and carry it as my name in order to someday pass its legacy on? Maybe. I still want to spend a bit of time as Mahoney. I’ve crafted something out of this strictly legal name, something worth reflecting on just a little longer. There are still a few more journal entries to sign off, articles to write, and stories to tell before I claim and wear that older name, that rightful laurel crown, and begin telling a new story.