When Isabel was born I was sure I was having a boy, so I had five boy names and only 2 girls names: Leticia and Isabel. Leticia was because of an ESL student from Spain who told me her name referred to the joys of the Blessed Virgin. (From Latin, “Laetitia”). As pretty as that sounded, when they put my daughter in my arms for the first time the name “Isabel” just fit. It was there, at the tip of my tongue. “Isabel” was who she was. “Blanca”, Mauricio’s mother’s name, was his suggestion, another beautiful name which means “white” in Spanish. Both fit the general concept I have of a good name, they were beautiful, simple, meaningful, common enough to be comprehensible but not too common as to be trendy. I have three criteria in mind for a good name, although I’m flexible as its hard to find a name that meets all 3.
Spanish/English transferability: The name should exist in both languages and be pronounced relatively similarly in both. My own name is an excellent example of this. It’s even the name of the badass hacienda owner in Venezuelan author Rómulo Gallegos’ novel and the telenovela based on it. As we are a bilingual/bicultural family it’s important that the child’s name not be a stumbling block while moving between the two sides of her identity. Transferable names might include “Claudia,” “Laura” “Paula”, “Samuel” “Sara” “Maria” and “Ana”. Some names exist in both but undergo a radical change in pronunciation or spelling: “Steven” becomes “Esteban” and “Henry” becomes “Enrique”. Also there are cultural differences in how certain names are used in both. Ariel in Spanish is a boy’s name while in English it’s a girl’s (Thank you Disney), and while “Jesús” is a very common Spanish name, in English it sounds odd (and a bit presumptuous).
Faith connection: For Catholics, naming a child after a saint or a figure from the Bible is a very long-held and honorable tradition. It connects the child vertically with the faith of her family and provides a patron Saint to intercede and pray for that child throughout her life. Isabel is named for Saint Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist. Saint Elizabeth was chosen because of my husband becoming a father in his old age, and because I always imagine her as helping Mary, who was very young and newly pregnant, understand what childbirth was. There was something remarkably practical about the angel sending Mary to visit her cousin who was in her sixth month of pregnancy. Mary was an only child and a consecrated virgin who had no expectation of motherhood. Visiting Elizabeth was a way to prepare herself in a kind of apprenticeship. When I found out I was pregnant with Isabel I was completely clueless and blindsided by the news, I could relate to the need for guidance.
Family Connection. I think it’s good to have a name that connects you to your family history. Latinos have done this for centuries, hence the gordian knot of multi generational names in Gabriel García Márquez One Hundred Years of Solitude. Isabel shares her first name with both an aunt in El Salvador and with her grandmother. It’s a way to create bonds between members and between generations, and to reinforce the roots that every child has which help to define who she is.
These are some of the names I have in mind…of course this list is bound to change as I get closer to my due date.
Pros’: These days I’ve been reading the stories of King David and I’m drawn to a lot of the male personalities. Samuel, the prophet of the lord, chosen from childhood to anoint the King of Israel, first Saul, then David. I also like Jonathan, Nathan and David as possibilities. It’s also the name of my favorite Sci-fi character of all time, the Christlike Samuel Beckett from Quantum Leap.
Cons: No family connection, and also the nickname “Sammy” is just…urgh! On the other hand…it does sound good in the sentence “Your neurosurgeon will be Dr. Samuel Valencia. He comes highly recommended.”
Pros: Hispanicization of my Dad’s first name. Won’t be mispronounced or misspelled, could go by “Leo” which still sounds cool. Also a saint, and a DaVinci.
Cons: Also a DiCaprio…
Pros: The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary, and she conceived by the Holy Spirit. I love archangel names. Michael and Raphael are also possibilities here.
Cons: Playground factor “Gay-briel? Are you a gay Gabriel?”
Pros: This is actually the name of one of my husband’s childhood friends, and while there is no family connection, I secretly love this name because it’s so very badass! “Magno” is the Spanish version of “Magnus” which in English means “The Great” (Alexander the Great = Alejandro Magno) I can see my strapping 6 foot 10 son “Magno” strolling into the kitchen with his broadsword kissing his 5’11’’ mother on her forehead saying “hey mom, guess what? This afternoon I conquered five cities and changed the balance of power in the region.” “That’s good sweetie, now go wash up, I made fish-tacos for dinner” “Awesome. Fish tacos are the shit!” Of course, even if he’s only 5’6 and his conquests are all on “World of Warcraft,” he still has a badass name.
Cons: Badass or not, the name is very likely to end up on “Baby’s named a bad, bad thing” along with the woman who names her son “Emperor”.
Pros: Spanish version of Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, the razor-sharp intellect who defined the Christian faith. My due date is July 7th, if the baby is born on July 12th he will also share a birthday with Pablo Neruda, one of my favourite poets, thus it would be cool to give him that name.
Cons: Pablo Neruda was a great poet, but also a womanizing douchebag and an unrepentant Stalinist who would trash other poets in public. Probably not the best example.
Maria or any variation:
Pros: Latinos are so fond of the Blessed Mother that they overwhelmingly choose it for a girl’s name. Rather than having 25,000,000 Marias (sounds like a great title for the next Santana + pop flavor of the month collaboration) they use Mary’s many titles. Thus you have Carmen (Maria del Carmen), Tránsito (Maria del Tránsito), Lourdes, Rosario, Guadalupe, Dolores and Socorro. Anything that honors the Blessed Mother is good.
Cons: My husband already has a daughter named Maria. The rest of those names sound odd in English, especially Tránsito. The only exception is “Carmen”, and I don’t feel comfortable with my daughter sharing her name with an opera whose titular character is murdered by her jealous lover—no matter how good the music is. Call it a touch of superstition.
Pros: Patron Saint of music. We love music in my house, my husband classical, I pop.
Cons: Playground factor “Sissy, Sissy, Sissy”
Pros: Means both “bright” and “transparent” in Spanish. Also St. Clara was the beloved friend of Francis of Assisi and started one of the first orders of religious sisters which encouraged the nuns to go out on the streets and interact with the poor rather than remain in the cloister.
Cons: Two names from The House of the Spirits makes me sound obsessed. Truthfully I can no longer relate to or stomach Isabel Allende’s anger.
Pros: Two of my favourite saints in one name: Catherine of Siena and Catherine of Alexandria, also the hard-done by first wife of Henry VIII (and the daughter of Isabel of Aragon), who should be a saint in her own right.
Cons: Don’t really like the Spanish version, sounds like salad dressing. (Playground Factor)
Pros: There are so many great “Juanas” out there, from Juana de Arco to Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. It’s a name so rich in history and associated with strong, intelligent, faithful women.
Cons: Playground factor “Wanna” “Wanna”
I will keep adding to this list as more ideas come up. But for now, there it is. I’m open to suggestions.