The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

My Two Last Names
By Allen R. Pérez Somarriba
English translation by David Reich

Commentary March/April 2000

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It’s May 3, 1997. I’m with my wife, Debbie, walking down a corridor in the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport. We’ve just arrived from Costa Rica. Our passports having been inspected, we’re going to take care of some formalities with the INS. We enter a quiet, businesslike office, a rather melancholy place, far from the bustle of the airline counters, fast food stands, and crowds of people waiting for a plane or to greet a loved one. It’s been a long trip, we’re tired, and we still have another flight to catch. Still, I feel hopeful. I feel as if I’m here on a privileged basis, for with me I have all the documents I need to qualify as a permanent US resident.

One of the INS officers, a woman with olive skin and dark eyes like mine, is talking with another officer, and I can hear from her accent that she is Latina. This makes me even more optimistic. I’m expecting a big welcome. Clearly, I have a lot to learn.

When I get to her desk, the immigration officer turns to me and, in rapid-fire English, demands my documents. Her voice is impersonal, and she makes no eye contact. There’s no greeting. Not even a friendly gesture.

After she examines my documents, she takes my hand roughly and fingerprints me. Then she asks me to sign a form in five places. I sign it, “Allen Pérez S.”

“What’s the ‘S.’?” she explodes.

“It’s part of my name. In Latin America we use two last names, and anyway all my documentation has been signed that way.” For a second I believe I’ve won her over. My reasoning couldn’t be stronger, I think. And after all, she is Latina.

“You are in the United States. Sign again without the ‘S.,’” she orders me in perfect Spanish.

When my wife, a US citizen of Anglo Saxon heritage, comes over to help, the officer screams at her to sit back down. I feel cornered and defenseless. I sign without the “S.”

In effect, this incident served me as an entry visa. From the moment I signed without the “S.”, I stopped being Costa Rican and started becoming a foreigner, a Hispanic with only one last name. It was the first of a number of unhappy surprises.

My next story takes place in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My wife and I were taking a class in African drumming. Every Thursday at 6 pm, we took the same bus with the same driver, a white man in his 50s. My wife and I took turns carrying the djembe drum, and the one who didn’t have the drum paid the bus fare.

The first day of class, I took the drum. I got on the bus first. I hadn’t gone two steps when the driver in a harsh voice ordered me to pay the fare, even though my wife had already paid it. The second Thursday, the same thing happened. The Thursday after that, we decided to switch roles. Debbie walked past the driver without any problems while I paid the fare.

We tried our experiment eight more times; each time, the same thing happened, like clockwork. The four times I carried the djembe drum, the driver called me back and asked for the fare. The four times my wife carried the drum, he allowed her on the bus without incident.

I’ve heard similar stories from Hispanics born here. One of them comes from my friend Tracy Johnson. Tracy has attractive, coffee-color skin and expressive dark eyes. When she arrived back in Boston from a trip to Bolivia, the immigration officer asked her in Spanish what country she was born in—even though Tracy had a US passport that said she was born in the United States. Tracy was so surprised by the question that she nearly forgot her middling Spanish. In English, she answered that she was—as we say in Latin America—a “gringa.”

Experiences like these make one seek out the company of other Hispanics, for purposes of solidarity. But it isn’t as simple as all that. After all, my tormentor from the Dallas airport was herself Hispanic. What is more, the term Hispanic doesn’t describe a single monolithic reality. Think of the different universes of the Nuyorican and the Chicano. Then compare those to the life of an immigrant recently arrived from anywhere in Latin America. Or to the life of a second- or later-generation immigrant who doesn’t even speak Spanish.

Is there a common ground—political and economic—where most Hispanics can meet to join in struggle and cooperative endeavor? Before I try to answer, let’s consider a few more data.

Last year, I visited McAllen, Texas—right across the Rio Grande from Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico. While in McAllen, I found myself at a birthday party attended by a number of the area’s richest Mexican Americans. More than once, the topic of illegal Mexican immigrants came up. Without exception my interlocutors voiced a deep antipathy for these “lazy bums.” The man of the house summed up their views thus: “Here, we want honorable, hardworking people who know enough to invest their money in a business.”

I couldn’t resist asking him about the miserable colonias of McAllen, where less fortunate Mexican Americans—110,000 of them according to county government statistics—lived without telephones, electricity, paved streets, plumbing, or potable water. “They’re poor because they want to be,” my host replied laconically.

Our next stop is Miami. Far-right Cubans dominate the city. Politics, business, even the arts—nothing escapes their scrutiny. These Caribbean plutocrats are obsessed with money and the dream of a Cuba “made in the USA.”

I can’t blame them if César Chávez isn’t one of their heroes or if the struggle over Vieques leaves them cold. Nor do I care to pass judgment on their “goodness” or “badness.” But given their class interests, it shouldn’t surprise us that they identify with the world’s greatest power and its predatory capitalism. And the fact that they dance salsa and speak good Spanish doesn’t do anything to change this fact. If I lived in Florida, I’d vote for the liberals of any race who stood the best chance of throwing them out of the government.

Where do we look for common ground, then? The Hispanic poet Dionisio Cañas suggests an answer in his well-researched article “Latinos in the USA: A Virtual Nation.” “The latest government statistics,” Cañas writes,

reveal alarming things about Hispanics: for one thing their buying power has dropped 5.1 percent in the last two years (and 14 percent since 1989). And for the first time in history, their poverty rate is higher than that for African Americans. But according to the president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, by the year 2000, Latinos will own more than 1,000 companies—a 76 percent increase since 1987. Clearly, a small nucleus of Hispanics in the United States are getting richer and richer, but the majority of Spanish speakers make up the poorest group in the population of North America.
Once again, I ask, is there a common ground where most Hispanics can meet?

The answer is yes. Aside from our culture, we have two important things in common: poverty and racial discrimination. But other people face these problems, too. That’s why I’m convinced that we Hispanics have to join together with other oppressed peoples—African Americans, indigenous people, and other people of color.

And what about poor whites? Though poor whites don’t suffer under the whip of racial discrimination and they receive certain privileges for being white, they still face economic discrimination and multiple barriers to their material and intellectual advancement.

Middle-class people also have a key role to play in our struggle. Their situation is far from comfortable, politically or economically. Every year, they work harder and earn less, save nothing and owe more and more. Instead of making middle-class lives easier, today’s booming economy only makes them harder.

Conditions of property ownership, the division of labor, wealth distribution, the relation between economic and political power are, I believe, the central questions that people of all colors must study if they want to understand the causes of class struggle and racial discrimination and construct a true multiracial alliance against injustice. We’ll have a real “democracy”—from the perspective of most people in this country—only when we have a democratized economy a precondition, after all, for truly fair elections. I’m referring to pluralist society where the dominant means of production are communitarian. Our historical legacy of racism stands a much better chance of disappearing under these conditions.

Until then, our most urgent task is to organize a broad, multiracial alliance of the oppressed to fight for justice in every sense of the word. But because of its obvious importance, economic justice is the first of these.

Harvard Professor William Julius Wilson said as much in his recent Nation article “Bridging the Racial Divide,” in which he called, as I do, for a multiracial economic justice movement, writing that

as long as middle- and lower-class groups are fragmented along racial lines, they will fail to see how their combined efforts could change the political imbalance [between economic elites and the rest of us] and thus promote policies that reflect their interest. Put another way, a vision of American society that highlights racial differences rather than commonalities makes it difficult for us to see the need for mutual political support across racial lines.
As for us Unitarian Universalists, we must not shy away from the most important economic issue of our time: the current debate over globalization. We have an appointment with the fate of the planet. Let’s define our stance and set forth a plan to help stop the crimes of neoliberalism. Let’s be troublesome freethinkers. Difficult pacifists. Let’s stop being distinguished and start being subversive. Let’s honor—with our activism—the hundreds of UUs who marched in Seattle for a better world and against a global economy that lacks a human face. I congratulate UUs for a Just Economic Community (UUJEC) for mobilizing the UU presence at the Seattle demonstrations.

When I came to the US, I stopped being Costa Rican in order to become a Hispanic foreigner with one last name. Today I see that I was wrong. My work on social issues and my adverse experiences in this country, as well as the solidarity I’ve experienced here, not only reaffirm but reinforce my identity. I’m Hispanic, Costa Rican, and proud of my color. And as a UU I can never be a foreigner. Allen Pérez S. is my signature and name. It’s the name of a citizen of the world.

Lawyer Allen Pérez Somarriba co-hosts the Spanish-language television program Continente on Boston’s Channel 19. Since 1997, he has belonged to the Community Church of Boston.

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