Like many little girls whose daddy’s abandon them at a young age, I was left with nothing more from mine than his last name: Rodriguez. He did also pick out my first name, Julissa, naming me after the Mexican actress and singer he crushed on in the ’70s. He even selected my middle name too, Cristina — his sister’s name. But apart from those names — and a few foggy memories — that’s it.
People called him by his middle name, Luis. His full name was Jose Luis Rodriguez. For some reason, in Latin American countries, it is customary to refer to someone by their middle name, rather than their first. Jose Luis Rodriguez also happened to be the name of a very popular Venezuelan singer in the ’80s. That celebrity’s nickname was “El Puma,” and so it became my father’s as well.
That is the last name of all five of my older siblings, the grandmother I grew up with, and even my own when I was first born. My mother was not married to my father, and she still carried the Catalan name back then. Before calling me Julissa Rodriguez, the hospital records referred to me as Baby Catalan.
The last name Catalan doesn’t belong to my mom’s side of the family; the five aforementioned brothers and sisters have a different father from me, and his last name is Catalan. Biologically speaking, my abuela wasn’t really my grandmother. She was my mother’s ex-mother-in-law – the paternal-grandmother to my half-brothers Juan and Byron, and half-sisters Mirna, Emma and Vivian.
Juan would go on to be the over-protective brother that scared boys away, while Mirna and Vivian behaved like typical older sisters — often giving (sometimes unsolicited) advice and letting me tag along everywhere with them. In addition to our mom, I grew up living with Byron and Emma, and so they became like a father figure and second mother to me.
Emma and Vivian looked practically interchangeable, and people often assumed they were twins, if not the same person. I, on the other hand, was hyper-aware that I bared no resemblance to any of my siblings, and not even to my own mother – our one genetic link. Like his name, I also took on my father’s dominant genes, which produced exaggerated features: big eyes, a big forehead, big lips, and even big knuckles.
But, alas, I didn’t mind looking different from my family because I was treated the same and was groomed to have the same personality as them. To me, the word Rodriguez was the only thing that set me apart from my family. This would become painfully obvious each time my siblings and I were separated for things according to alphabetical order, or when nosey acquaintances asked why I had a different last name from the rest.
By then, Julissa was who I was, and even though Cristina was given to me as an homage to an aunt I never met, I could still accept that one — but the Rodriguez had to go.
The process of changing your name is far easier than one would think. It took a total of three months and $400.00. To show their support, my mom and each one of my siblings contributed to the name change fund, each writing a check for $50. I never had to appear in court in front of a judge, but I did have to print out paperwork, fill it out, and drop it off at the local clerk’s office. Under “I request to change my name for the following reasons,” I wrote:
As part of the name change process, I had to put an ad out in a local newspaper, making my request public, a month before the judge was to make his ruling. This gives the community 30 days to contest the legal name change. Unsurprisingly, my father, nor anyone else, tried to stop me. Although, I presume this is done more so for those who are attempting to commit fraud.
I can’t say that I had everyone’s backing on this decision. Some people would say it was a drastic, unnecessary move. “You are going to eventually get married anyway, and then your last name will change. So just wait till then,” some friends might argue. But what if I don’t get married? I would respond. Or what if I got divorced, then back to Rodriguez I would go. What if I decided to have children on my own? I wouldn’t want them to carry on a family name that they would have no ties to.
As young girls, many of us would decorate our notebooks with false signatures of our first name attached to the last name of our crush. We practiced so that one day, when we married the man of our dreams, our new signatures would look just right.
I didn’t doodle a boy’s last name. I would sign Julissa Catalan over and over again, so that when it legally became my own, it would come on as effortlessly as it should.