A history of Jesús, and also Angel.
“CAN I HAVE A name for the order?”
Angel, I say.
For as long as I remember, even before coming to the United States, my name has been a point of inner contention. Jesús Ángel Rodríguez Bohórquez, with accents on all four names.
First, I hated the religiosity of it. I was supposed to be named José Jesús, which would have made my name slightly less obviously religious but much more common. How many José Rodriguezes have you met? I can count at least four. And I’m related to all of them.
The nine months before I was born are filled with chisme. I hope to one day tell the story. The point being, though, that my mother found out that the person who came up with José Jesús was my father’s ex-girlfriend at the time. She resoundingly rejected it. The honor was instead bestowed upon my little brother, who wears the name much better than I would have.
With a name like that, Jesús Ángel, you shouldn’t be committing so many maldades—the word that school administrators used to talk about the countless acts of naughtiness I committed as a kid, which translates roughly as “evilnesses.” You should hope to become a priest! It’s not that my parents were that religious (I was a child out of wedlock lol), it’s just that my father’s middle name was de Jesús and my grandfather’s middle name was Ángel. And yet the younger me was deeply frustrated, almost rancorous, that some predestined path had been fixed at my birth.
Jesús is a common-enough name in Spanish. If, upon meeting someone, you tell them your name is Jesús, they won’t bat an eye. Maybe there’s a stray joke here and there, after you’ve known each other, but nothing like in the United States.
Here—even though the cross-border labor exchanges that have fueled capitalism for roughly the past century must have brought with them plenty of Jesúses—people just find it irresistible to make something out of your name when you meet them. The second reason I disliked my name is because no one seemed to understand it. In my assimilationist era, I told baristas that my name was Jay (but then I had to spell it out) or James (but have you ever looked at me). I don’t fault the immigrant women who drive Lyft and do a double-take at the back seat when I get on. “Oh my goodness, this is going to be the best drive!” they exclaim, almost in praise. “I have been blessed today!” I changed my name on the app to Jesús, with the accent, but the mechanized voice defaults to, On the right, drop off Jee-zus. Oh, haha, so sorry about that, some of the drivers say.
It’s fine, I tell them. And for the most part it is fine. I don’t have control over these small tyrannies.
But every person who gets my name wrong does have a choice. (Some people make actual accidents, and I’m not talking about them.) The recruiter at a legal organization who opened up my interview with “So is it pronounced Jee-zus or Hay-zoos?” had a choice to search how my name is pronounced. So did the literary agent who started off my week by calling me “Jesse” in an email I’d signed off “All my best, Jesus.” So did the reporter who years ago suggested I think about changing my byline. And so do the people who have in multiple occasions carelessly baptized me José, Jorge, or—get this—Rodrigo. The only one who gets a pass is the priest at my college who, after meeting me, lowered his voice and confessed, “… I think I work for you.” That one was funny.
As I’ve mentioned on these virtual pages, in February 2020, I started going by Angel. I had just recently met my partner, come out as queer to my mother, and the world was falling apart, as it tends to do. It was the closest I have had to a Eureka moment. I’d kept my middle name hidden (it only would have exacerbated the religious talk), but this time I didn’t feel ashamed of it anymore. Indya Moore’s character in Pose is named Angel, and the actor who plays Lil Papi is named Angel. It was a unisex name, and someone who had not heard my voice would not have been able to divine my looks. Maybe I was a woman! It worked in English and in Spanish. It was a term of endearment and a manner of being addressed, all in one. It dawned on me that I liked being non-binary.
I’ve only shared that name with very few special people who are close to me, and I use it mostly in queer spaces. At this point, I wouldn’t be upset if someone who knew me called me that in person, provided they actually know how to pronounce Jesús. I still keep that card close to my chest, though; Angel is not a name I picked to make life easier for white people. I still sign my emails off with Jesús and I still write professionally as Jesús A. Rodríguez. (This has admittedly unleashed a little chaos, when I forget how I’ve been introduced to other people.) I don’t know if I’ll change my name ever. For now, I’m taking solace in the fact that the answers to our torments can be found within us already.
But it feels so right to use that name, like it almost softens me when I walk up to order coffee.
Some moments later, the busy barista calls out an iced americano.
It’s for me, but he says, inescapably, “For Andrew.”
There’s a water crisis in Mississippi. More than 150,000 people in the state’s capital, which is 83 percent Black, are without access to safe drinking water. The governor there has declared a state of emergency. Last week, I wrote about the uses and misuses of water and its value to democracy.
If you’re looking for a longer read to enjoy this Labor Day weekend, check out the essay I wrote about, and to, Los Angeles.
Two other recent pieces I’ve enjoyed: An investigation into the psychology of TikTok and a searing profile of Samuel Alito.
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Personally, I finally decided to embrace the accent mark in my middle name - it was incredibly empowering in spite of my younger self who would frequently face mispronunciations of my last name with excuses: "it's fine, it's difficult to roll the double r, it has a lot of vowels."
It came to a point where I have outright told people "no, it's not fine." White people can pronounce "white" names (like Timothée Chalamet) just fine - they can do their best to pronounce my last name and all names that have been "othered" by Western society.