Saturday, June 27, 2009

What’s in a name?

The letter comes like most of our letters to the editor still do, via snail mail. It’s signed, has a local return address. Good. We don’t publish unsigned letters, and rarely publish those sent from outside our readership area.

Angela opens it, but I take it out of her hands before she gets to read it – I have a small space to fill on the editorial page and if the letter is short enough, or readily edited without sacrificing its essence, I can lay it out and call the page done.

As I scan the first couple of sentences I’m hopeful.

Its impetus, the writer says upfront, is a column that appeared several weeks ago on the bilingual page of the paper, written by Moises Sandoval, a veteran editor, writer and Catholic News Service columnist.

If it’s criticism, I think to myself before continuing to read it, at least I won’t have to console any of the local columnists I’ve encouraged-cajoled-bullied into writing for us. Sandoval’s probably a lot tougher than my guys, I think. He can take it.

Turns out, I’m the one who can’t take it.

The writer is disturbed about the Church’s insistence on humane treatment for “illegals” and tired of the U.S. Bishops’ calls for comprehensive reform of existing immigration laws. That’s disheartening, but not completely unexpected. The results of the poll currently up at the Catholic Standard & Times web site’s homepage ( indicates that a large number of our readers feel similarly, if perhaps not quite so strongly.

But the letter goes downhill from there. It is evident from the statistics quoted in it that the writer uses illegal as a synonym for Latino. And later in the letter, the people crossing into the nation from the southern border are assigned other epithets: Criminals. Leeches. Parasites.

When I hand the letter back to Angela, I am uncharacteristically subdued.

“Don’t people get that we all bleed the same color?” she says after she reads it.

Angela is African American and Native American and I know she doesn’t expect an answer to her question.

“Have you ever seen ‘Stardust?’” I ask after a moment, seeking refuge in non sequitur. “You know, the movie based on the novel by Neil Gaiman?”

She nods.

“Remember how when the prince’s throat is cut, he bleeds blue instead of red?”

We laugh together at the visual pun, then go back to the unending stream of tasks necessary to ensure that a newspaper goes to press on time.

I should probably confess at this point that I have an abiding love of fairy-tales and folktales. I admire the way these stories work – flights of fancy that nevertheless hold real insights. So it’s no surprise that my mind has flown straight from that letter to the editor to a filmed fairy-tale like “Stardust.” Many fantastical stories have as a central conceit the theft, discovery or bestowal of a name. Remember Rumpelstiltskin?

But it’s not only in fairy-tales where names mean something.

When we strip people of their human dignity, we take their names along with it. It allows us to think of people as some collective other. They become “illegals and criminals.” Or “leeches and parasites.” Not made of the same flesh, bone and blood as we are. Not prey to the same worries and needs; not filled by the same joys.

This week the 18-year-old who put a noose around Robert Cantu’s neck, dragged him behind a pick-up truck and threatened to hang him in the town square while yelling “spic” and “border jumper” at the teen, pled no contest to charges of ethnic intimidation (he was sentenced to 10 days in an Ohio jail). The killers of Marcelo Lucero, José Sucuzhañay and Luis Ramirez all attacked their victims as representatives of some fearsome, collective “other” – Hispanic, undocumented, gay.

We’re seeing this unnaming play out in Iran as well.

Governments can be good at turning human beings into a collective “other” to be subdued or jailed or exiled or eliminated. I am reminded of Central America during the bloody, undeclared civil wars of the 1980s – and of how, even beyond those who lost their lives, hundreds of thousands lost their names.

Ah, but then, as in my beloved fairy-tales, something quite unexpected happens.

El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero reads the names of the dead during broadcasts on the Catholic radio station. The day the first civilian president of Guatemala is elected after 30 years of military rule, thousands gather at a silent protest holding up placards with the names of the disappeared. At prayer vigils, neighbors and family read out the names of the 137 victims of homicide in Philadelphia this year. And perhaps most spectacularly – despite the jailing of Iranian journalists (33 to date according to Reporters without Borders) and despite controls on every major form of information dissemination – we all learn Neda Soltan’s name.

At the end of the workday in which I read the letter to the editor, I’m still thinking about names, the words that are substituted for names, and the way a name – given even one person to hold it higher than fear, higher than circumstance – can help us remember our shared humanity.

We all bleed, Angela says. We all hope, I say.

On the way in to the train station I see three homeless people who regularly sit at the entrance I favor. They ask, unobtrusively, for money. Unbidden, a line from Isaiah 49 pushes its way into my thoughts: “The Lord called me from birth, from my mother’s womb He gave me my name.”

I’ve never asked their names.

I’m not so different from the letter writer who precipitated this blog post.

I rummage around for change, then drop the coins into their separate cups as I ask.

Cathy smiles when she tells me.

Earl stammers through his beard.

Poor Boy explains that his is a nickname his mother gave him as a boy, but that it doesn’t mean they were poor.

Next time, I’ll remember.

Photo of immigration rally CS&T file photo. Rumpelstiltskin engraving by Anne Anderson from Wikimedia Commons. Photo of homeless person by Sarah Webb for the CS&T.


Comment on this post: