I spent much of my young childhood playing in the strangely out-of-place sand of my grandmother’s front yard. Her neighbors, just up the street, took a great interest in me. Kat and Tomas didn’t have any children of their own and, since their young niece and I were best friends, they doted on us. When that niece died in a car accident, they held me even closer.
Of course, as I got older and started, in the words of my grandmother, “smelling myself,” I was less interested in hanging out there. When my grandmother died, I saw Kat and Tomas even more rarely. They saw me out and about and always took time to check up on me. A few years ago, Kat died from cancer. I still see Tomas occasionally and he always has a ready smile.
To hurry up and get to the point, I have to tell you that Tomas is Mexican American who came to my hometown in 1975. (That will be relevant in a moment, trust me). He socialized mostly in the black community—Kat was black and, before 2000, the census never counted more than 10 Latino residents in my hometown--and worked mostly in the white community, on local farms and doing odd jobs. He faced a lot of prejudice in both places, at first, he told me, but it “got better.”
Today, I went to him to have him proofread a survey I had written in Spanish. One of the questions asked if the “native” residents of hometown were welcoming to new migrants. He pointed me to a certificate on the wall that proclaimed his permanent residency in hometown. A sign of acceptance, in his opinion, but, my cynical self noted that it was dated 2002, 27 years after he first came here. And then, I noticed something else. The first name on the certificate was Jose.
“Tomas is your middle name?” I asked. He shook his head. Jose is not difficult to pronounce I reasoned, so why Tomas? His explanation: “When I first came here, I worked for an old white man who didn’t like Mexicans. He wouldn’t call me Jose and whenever he wanted me he’d point and tell someone, ‘Call Tom.’ So I said okay and then people thought it must be Tomas and I would answer.”
I was horrified and embarrassed because I thought I knew this man so well. He reassured me that it was okay to call him Tomas, but I can’t do that. Not now that I know some old bigot took it upon himself to re-name Jose, in the process hoping to erase, to shape something that was not his to erase or shape or change. I feel that Old Man R, as Jose calls him, symbolically claimed some sort of ownership when he called this man Tom.
And yet, I am doing the same thing in my mind. That stubborn thing will not wrap itself around the name Jose. Jose is not my Tomas, not the man that gave us pie plates for our mud pies and bought us way too much candy and still asks my mom about me when I am away. Even as I acknowledge my selfishness, I feel torn, feel like copping out with, “Well, he said it was okay.”
But it’s not. Not okay to rename someone, to try to change his/her identity for personal comfort. So, I'm trying to imagine how he must have felt at having something so personal, so much a part of him taken away. One day, I'm going to work up the nerve to ask.