ON A SCORCHING Saturday in Jonuta, a poor region of the tropical Mexican state of Tabasco, a woman sits in the shade by a river cradling her granddaughter. The child’s name is Sirse, a twist on Circe, a Greek sorceress who turned her enemies into animals. “I saw the name in a novel and I liked it,” explains Sirse’s mother, Nabil. The trend towards greater variety in names is a global one. In Tabasco, giving babies unusual names, often based on Greek ones, is a proud tradition.
It impressed Amado Nervo, a Mexican poet. In every family “there is a Homer, a Cornelia, a Brutus, a Shalmanasar and a Hera,” he wrote in “The Elysian Fields of Tabasco”, which was published in 1896. Rather than scour the calendar for saints’ names, he wrote, parents of newborns “search for them in ‘The Iliad’, ‘The Aeneid’, the Bible and in the history books”. Andrés Iduarte, a Tabascan essayist of the 20th century, concurred. Tabasco is a place “of Greek names and African soul”, he wrote, endorsing the cliché that the state has similarities with Africa.
Nearby Yucatán and Veracruz also have a fondness for unusual names. But it is strongest in Tabasco, the home state of Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. It may have originated as a creative way to resist pressure from the Catholic church to name children after saints. Tomás Garrido Canabal, an anticlerical governor in the 1920s and 1930s, christened his farm animals Dios (God), Jesús and María. He named his son Lenin. Alejandro Rojas Díaz Durán, a candidate to lead Morena, the Mexican president’s political party, proposes changing the name of the state itself to Tabasco de López Obrador.
Some attribute the state’s inventiveness to the weather. As its climate boils, “so too it boils our tongues and drives us to talk up to our elbows. Otherwise, we would burst,” observes the introduction to a dictionary of Tabascan slang, published in 2010.
Although Greek names are less popular than they were, the taste for non-Spanish ones continues. “I am not Arabic,” says Abderraman Ortíz, a street seller in Villahermosa, the state capital, “but once an Arab told me that my name means something about a caliphate.” If so, it is probably a reference to Abd al-Rahman III, the first caliph of Córdoba in Spain, who ruled a thousand years ago. “My name comes from the Russian astronaut,” explains Aldrin Guadalupe Díaz Castro, an insurance agent. “But my mother was a teacher. She had a pupil named Aldrin in her class and she liked it.” The pupil was probably named after the American moonwalker Buzz Aldrin.
“People get offended when you get their names wrong,” says Livny Isabel Morales Jiménez, who encounters plenty of odd ones as she scribbles them for coffee drinkers on Starbucks cups. One regular is called Uba, “like the fruit uva [grape], but with a ‘b’”. Ms Morales’s first name is a variation of Libni, a son of Gershon, who is mentioned in Exodus. Geney Torruco, Villahermosa’s official chronicler (see article), recalls a friend, a “well-read traveller”, whose daughter, Penicilina, was born ill but cured by a dose of antibiotics.
Some Mexican states discourage “pejorative” names that might hurt children in later life. On Sonora’s blacklist are Burger King, Usnavy, Christmas Day and Aniv De La Rev (short for “anniversary of the revolution”). Should Tabasco follow suit? Even there, onomastic originality exacts a price. “They bully the kids here in the school, from primary until university,” says Gerald Washington Herrera, a legislator in Tabasco. Last year he proposed a law that would restrict what names parents could give their children and make it easier for adults with awkward names to change them. The legislature did not debate his idea. Tabascans revel in marvellous monikers. The more boys there are called Yonefequénedi (say it aloud) the less they will suffer in the playgrounds.■
This article appeared in the The Americas section of the print edition under the headline “Tabascan onomastics”