Printed on my birth certificate you’ll find several names: Erica Chaves Barreto born to Anaracy Oliveira Chaves and Helder Manuel Vieira Barreto. My parents’ Brazilian and Portuguese names sound like music when pronounced with fluent passion, stemming from the romance language they both inherited and forgot to pass on. For those of you who don’t speak Portuguese, like me, you can easily refer to my parents as Ana and Manny. I know I did. In the early years of my life, I didn’t even know my parents had names beyond their Americanized identities. I assume it was easier for them, or for the people who had trouble mastering a foreign tongue. Several of my friends thought my father’s name was Elder because the “h” in Portuguese is silent. (Having been born in 1949 and being frequently mistaken for my grandfather didn’t help him very much either, but that’s another story.)
This story begins in preschool where I would tease one of the boys saying My middle name is Travis! because it sounded similar enough to Chaves. I couldn’t really tell the difference, but developing my language skills and learning how to read surely corrected that hiccup soon enough. Chaves is my mother’s maiden name, and I’m quite happy to carry a piece of her when naming is a patrimonial act. In both Brazil and Portugal, it is custom to give your daughter the mother’s maiden name as her middle, but once she is married, the daughter must replace the mother’s name with her father’s, and add her husband’s. My older sisters decided to hyphen their last names, and boy is that a mouthful. I don’t think about marriage often enough to know whether or not I could part with Chaves, but knowing I can keep Barreto must make my father of five daughters pleased to know his name will pass on.
I used to dislike my last name because children would poke fun at me, mispronouncing it as “burrito.” I remember when I moved to a new elementary school, one of my teachers was taking attendance and called me Erica Burrito, asking if I would like cheese and salsa. That sense of humor didn’t help me make many friends, but I find it funny now, especially when Siri on my iPhone makes the same mistake. In Portuguese, two “r”s make an “h”, so in actuality, Barreto is pronounced “Ba-het-o”, which is the farthest thing from delicious Mexican cuisine. My father tells me the name Barreto goes back to the beginning of Portugal, and the Internet assures me this is true. There are hundreds of Barretos in history, one of the earliest being Francisco Barreto, a Portuguese soldier, explorer and Viceroy of Portuguese India.
Then there’s me, the first Chaves to be born on American soil with perhaps the most American name within my immediate family, which is ironic because my name was decided for me before either of my parents immigrated to the States. I was named after my mother’s favorite doll. She took care of the doll as if it were real, giving it her pillows and blankets, which my grandmother would return to her after she’d fallen asleep. At sixteen years old, my mother’s family lost everything, including the doll, and although my mother was old enough to let go of the toy, she swore she’d name her first daughter Erica. Had I been a boy, however, I would have been named after my father’s father, Enrique. (I think it’s safe to say I lucked out with Erica.)
My father thinks my name is strong, and maybe that’s why he was rough with me growing up, treating me like the son he never had. Turns out he was right. In Norse, it does mean forever strong; in German, it means noble; in Latin, it means plant; and in Scandinavian, it means “ever kingly.” Can you picture me a king? It’s an interesting image. From the looks of it, coupled with the reputable list of Barretos in history, I have a lot to live up to if I truly want to embrace my name. Or perhaps I could create my own meaning. (That’s what writers do, right?) But I’d make sure to stray away from the vulgar definitions on Urban Dictionary that substitute my name as a sex position, and lean towards definitions that accentuate my identity–whatever that may be.
The latter half of my name represents my place in history as a first-generation immigrant, as a cultural figure in a society that wants to whitewash eccentric names like Anaracy and Helder. My middle name carries on a tradition that seeks to include women (or at least until I’m married). And what is there to make of my first name? I cannot count on one hand how many times I’ve been told male writers are more likely to get published. Hearing this was discouraging, but then provoked me to create a pseudonym: eb. But what does that say if I’m willing to drop my name for the sake of success? It’s hard to say. Though I do know what I love about my name, and for these reasons I’ll hold on to it a little bit longer.
I enjoy the way “Erica” writes in cursive. I admire hearing it pronounced with an accent, even if my parents are upset with me. I find it hilarious how sometimes I think people are calling my name when they say “America.” I’m infatuated with the way it sounds whispered from my lover’s lips, and I swell with joy when toddlers attempt and butcher it beautifully. I love that there are 44 ways to spell Erica (and that mine is surely the best way to spell it). I am proud that “Erica” or “Eh-ka” was my younger sister’s first word. I get excited when there are songs and stories written about me because they are rare. I savor the taste of my name every time I introduce myself because it’s the beginning of a connection.