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A Gonzales by any other name

By
June 15, 2007

Forget about whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales remembers too little, deletes too many e-mails, fires federal prosecutors for partisan reasons or justifies the use of cruel and unusual punishment. The real issue bedeviling Hispanics is why he insists on torturing his surname.

The real name is Gonzalez.

The attorney general can’t blame his peculiar spelling (and it is very peculiar) on an Ellis Island error. There’s no legal immigration record for three of his foreign-born grandparents.

What’s the difference between -es and -ez?

Plenty.

Surnames ending in az, ez, oz or iz are all patronymics. That’s a word from the Greek meaning “father’s name.”

In Spanish, Gonzalez means “son of Gonzalo,” the way the English Johnson means “John’s son,” the Norwegian Eriksen means “Erik’s son” and the German Mendelsohn means “Mendel’s son.”

Alvarez is “son of Alvaro,” just as Diaz, Diez and Dieguez are all forms of “son of Diego”; Ruiz is “son of Ruy” and Perez, one of the most common surnames, is “son of Pedro.”

There are arguments among linguists about how the -z endings came to be patronymics. Some say it comes from the Latin genitive case, particularly the -is ending in the third declension.

Others argue that it comes from those Barbarians who invaded Romanized Spain around the 5th century of our era, the Visigoths. (They’re the ones who give some Spaniards light skin and sometimes even blue eyes and blond hair.)

Why was establishing paternity so important?

No, not child support, but inheritance.

In the Middle Ages, when surnames came into use in Europe, women rarely acquired title to property and more often were themselves deemed chattel. Incidentally, that’s the very origin of the biblical injunction against adultery. It messes up claims to paternity, especially if the woman commits it.

This should come as a relief to Alberto Gonzales’ Republican presidential candidate pals who have multiple messy divorces involving adultery. Adultery has nothing to do with family values; it’s all about money, which is a very Republican thing.

If this sounds confusing, think about the confusion the attorney general is imposing on the rest of us Hispanics, especially those, like me, who have a surname ending in -es.

Since Gonzales should be Gonzalez, should Morales be Moralez?

Absolutely not! Just as with adultery, my name has nothing to do with morality. Morales comes from the word for mulberry, mora. A mulberry tree is a moral. A mulberry grove is (presto!) Morales.

A number of localities in Spain are named Morales del Rey, signifying that they were the king’s mulberry groves; no freelance picking allowed.

Many surnames in Spanish end in -es. Like mine, they are often place names; they do not indicate paternity (because probably there was nothing to inherit, darn it).

Perales, like Morales, comes from pear (pera) grove. Cespedes has to do with lawns. And so on.

Finally there’s the other spelling problem of — my fingers almost refuse to type it — Gonzales.

Gonzalez, the real name, carries a diacritical or accent mark over the a. That’s for the well-known rule that words stressed in the penultimate syllable are accented if they do not end in a vowel or the consonants n or s.

So what do we do with the name-mangling attorney general? Purists insist that since the name ought to be Gonzalez, Gonzales should have a accent.

In matters of Spanish, which unlike English has rules decided upon by the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, purists abound. In some cases, they’re right.

Still, I just can’t bear to accent Gonzales until it gets changed to z.

Whichever way you type it, it’s like Johnson. Don’t leave home without it.

(Cecilio Morales is executive editor of the Washington-based Employment & Training Reporter. Contact him at Cecilio(at)MIIpublications.com.)