October 9, 2009

The name my father gave me


Make no mistake about it. There’s an overwhelming body of evidence to corroborate this claim. His name appears as ‘FATHER’ on my birth certificate. He read me stories when I was a child, sent me to good schools, got called to the principal’s office when on rare instances I strayed into the terrain of impertinence. He attended my graduation, clothed and fed me until a few years ago. We tower in a crowd, sport goatees, develop itch during winter conditions, and are predisposed to diabetes. Due to advances in the field of genetics, a laboratory can verify that we are of the same gene pool. And to erase any doubts of his paternity, he did the ultimate thing by giving me his own name— Gutierrez. Henceforth I became The Second, his Mini-Me.

By what motivation he decided to give me his name I did not bother to find out anymore. Whether it was out of pure vanity, a testament to his virility, or the simple pleasure of siring a child that inspired him to give me exactly the name that his father gave him –the namesake of the first Filipino governor of Cotabato— is of no consequence to me now.

“It sounds like a family name…” is a comment often repeated, causing me a slight discomfort, my eyeballs to roll, and, because of the gift of storytelling that I also inherited from my father, an occasion to spin my own tale of the provenance of this unusual name. I will narrate the fabricated story to anyone –at the school registrar, airport, embassy, bank, hospital, and lately in an interfaith dialogue seminar— who care enough to lend me their ears for a minute or two.

My story goes something like, “During the Second World War, my grandfather had a good friend, Captain Gutierrez. One day they raided a Japanese military detachment, and in the course of the fighting Captain Gutierrez sustained a gunshot right through his heart. My grandfather mourned the loss of his friend. When his first son was born, he named him Gutierrez, in honor of a friendship. My father gave the name to me when I was born, so that we may not forget that once a Muslim and Christian became the best of friends. A reminder in this age when differences can sometimes get in the way of potential friendships.”

I have repeatedly told this story and, at one point, accepted this lie as truth. For what is the business of naming but the invention of illusion. One of our neighbors in Cotabato was named Maximo – an extremely masculine name that conjures images of the contravida in Filipino movies who perennially wear a black leather jacket despite the tropical heat and a tacky ponytail. As it turned out, Maximo was the gayest person that I have known in my childhood. Except for the first Adonis that I met in life who was really handsome, everybody I know seems to possess the opposite attributes that their names represent. My classmate Mussolini was one of the most diplomatic people on earth. My cousin Melody could hardly carry a tune. Iskandar Julkarnain, another cousin who was named after a Maguindanao sultan in the nineteenth century, lead a life of boozing and drug addiction.

The business of naming a child is a matter that should not be taken lightly. Names endure time, outliving their owners. Great men and women are remembered for their deeds, the same way thieves, mass murderers, dictators, and rapists continue to bring horror to the living. Mahatma Gandhi’s “Be The Change” remains an inspiration today. The memory of Adolf Hitler never fails to send shivers to the spine.

A name defines the Self. It sums up what and who we are. And since it’s the duty of parents to give names to their children, we leave it to their wisdom and foresight to exercise their right of taxonomy. We may never fully grasp why boys end up with girly names like Jennifer, Abigail, or Jocelyn; perhaps their parents expected a daughter. Ten years from now children will wonder why they are called Marimar, Zaido or Luna Mystika, and, expecting some profound explanations, they will get disappointed upon learning that their names are a product of Nanay’s couch potato habits.

The variety of Maguindanaon names is a subject of great interest. Some of my ancestors were named after nature. Ubal, monkey; Tapudi, grasshopper; or Umbos, bud. Again, the wisdom behind these names may never be fully revealed. Was it planting season when the child was born? Or was it the intention of the parent to allude to the happy-go-lucky attitude or destructive tendency of a grasshopper? Others had names that were vivid and descriptive. Latog, erection; Masebud, fat; or Balikwat, turned upside down. Parenthood is something the Maguindanaon wears proudly; hence, people are called the parent-of-the-name-of-their-firstborn. My parents are addressed as Ama-ni-Teng and Ina-ni-Teng. With the growing Muslim consciousness, children are now given names that declare their faith – Abdullah, servant of God; Khadija, the first wife of the Prophet; or Amir, commander. Some names are never mentioned out of deep respect. For instance my ancestor Datu Ali of Kudarangan is always referred to as Nasabil, or The Martyred. Disapproving of American colonial authority, he was killed in an ambush in 1905.

At age twenty I thought of changing my name into something indigenous along the native-American way of personality description. A law had been passed making it possible for people to legally change their names, like in the case of Kidlat Tahimik who used to be Eric de Guia. However, I was afraid that it would be misconstrued as being disrespectful of my father. So I settled for a second name –Redsun, or Pulang Araw. It perfectly suited my personality. I can be impatient and prone to making fits. I used it for the first time when I registered for a French language class. My teachers called me Soleil Rouge. I was proud of my invention. I thought that if I continued using this name people would begin to be inured to it. It was going to be the rebirth of a new me, but the name game did not last long. Writing a twenty-two-letter name on documents was already a Pilates workout for my left hand muscles. Adding six more letters would literally push it to the edge of the page.

Looking back, my decision to have a name change was borne out of the cargo of living in my father’s shadow. I was my father’s son only when I accomplished something that my old man could be proud of. In high school, winning quiz bee after another, people would say, “You inherited your father’s smarts. He must surely be proud of you.” But when I started softening like frozen marshmallow in a roasting pit, the same people advised me, “Toughen up. You do not want to be an embarrassment to your father.”

I am proud to be my father’s son. I share his name –a legacy that I have learned to live with responsibly— but we are two very different persons. Our personalities are a study in contrast. My father is realistic, purposeful, cool headed, tactful, decisive, and frugal. I am spontaneous, inclined to take a chance on almost anything, impulsive, vacillating, and extravagant. While I bask in the glory of my father’s illustrious name, I would like to have the power to mold my own being, like a clay in a potter’s wheel in the ultimate act of creation, being shaped and reshaped in the process, unmindful of the slight mistakes until it’s time for me to revel in the glow of the kiln.

No comments: