I always tripped over the double R’s in my last name. The trilling ‘rrrrr’ sound that I should have made when I tried saying it ended flat and tongue-tied. I had a small lisp and the speech impediment made some words difficult to say; unfortunately one being my own name.
Still, I was determined to learn how to say my last name correctly. Already, none of my teachers seemed to be able to say it, opting to call me ‘Samantha C.’ instead of Samantha Chavarria. If no one else would take the time to say it right, then at least I would learn to try how.
My dad used to help me and my sister practice rolling our Rs for that reason. He would tell us that he refused to marry our mother, a white woman, until she learned how to pronounce the Latinx name that she would become her own. We needed to learn to pronounce it ourselves if we wanted to stay in the family, dad would tease. My sister and I eventually realized he was joking but we were properly motivated.
I always loved my last name. Chavarrias weren’t very common, so I was proud to have an identity that made me feel included in a whole community while singularly unique among them.
My last name also felt like proof of my origin.
Being mixed, I didn’t always feel that I belonged in my Latinx culture. I never learned to speak Spanish and I didn’t look like the other Latinas so I wasn’t seen as Mexican enough. Isolated, I sometimes felt stuck between accepting my identity and being accepted by my community.
But my name was validation of where I came from. It was actual proof of the blood that ran through my veins; blood belonging to offspring of Spanish colonizers and Indigenous North Americans of Mexico and Texas. My last name — which had survived European expansion and cultural erasure — tethered me to my Latinx heritage; just as surely as my first name was forever joined to my last.
My father was the other force that kept me connected to my community. He was the one who taught me to use the flavors of our culture — chile, comino, cilantro y orégano mexicano. He taught how to roll the perfect tamal and that masa should be just so in order to easily spread. He taught me that Latinx speak love in the language of food.
Driving late night road trips through south Texas, my dad’s gentle singing to the Selena songs on our radio made me fall in love with Tejano music. The novelas he’d watch with my grandmother when we’d visit was a curious new form of entertainment to me. So I wouldn’t miss out, he always translated the fast dialogue for his Spanish-challenged daughter.
In these ways and countless more, he taught me to love everything about being Latinx and to celebrate it louder than those who would try to strip me of my culture. I knew I’d never shed myself of my last name — not even for the man I loved.
I met my future husband when we were both in high school. And, like my mother, he was white. Though we wouldn’t get married until years later, I was upfront with my guy from the beginning about who I was and what I wanted. My family is important to me; my culture is important to me; my name is important to me.
As we got more serious, we talked about what a future together would look like. I wanted children but the thought of having them and not passing on my last name felt like I was excluding them from my culture. Plus, our particular Chavarria line was poised to end with my generation.
My dad days ago, barely able to walk one his own. My dad 9 years ago, healthy and happy with his first grandson. My parents & their grandchildren. My dad & his first grandson a few months ago. pic.twitter.com/9sVT8Q64aL
— Samthegreat (@teoami) July 24, 2018
My grandfather was the only son and his sisters had all married, taking their husband’s names. My dad’s sister’s had all taken their husband’s names too so their sons were a mix of other surnames. His brothers birthed daughters — who, again, took other names for their children.
There was no one to ensure another generation of Chavarrias. The long lineage that saw our family in Texas for so long was soon to be dead. I couldn’t let that happen.
My husband and I married in March of 2005. I walked down the aisle on the arm of my father, through a wedding arch he built by himself. “Ave Maria” played softly in the background and my dad prepared an amazing asado for the occasion. And I kept my last name.
Four months later, our son was born and another generation of Chavarrias officially entered the world. Adding a whole new branch to the bloodline, two more baby Chavarrias joined him in the year to come.
People used to ask my husband how I managed to convince him to give our children my last name and his answer was always the same. I had a connection to something and he didn’t. I was trying to preserve my culture while he didn’t need to. I was acting on love for my father where he had none for his.
So I talked to my dad on the phone and just poured my heart out about how much I love him & how he was my first & greatest teacher in life. I told him things I really had been wanted to say. That I didnt want to be left unsaid. My head hurts and he had to get off the phone
— Samthegreat (@teoami) July 24, 2018
It was that love for my father that got me through the hardest experience of my life. In 2017, after waiting several months for a diagnosis, my dad was confirmed to have Stage 3 pancreatic cancer. Being the tough chingón he was, he stretched his two-month life expectancy into a year. Still, losing him was like a punch in the gut and a splash of ice water all at once.
The man who had loved me and raised me was gone. Left in his place was a scared little girl, crying for her daddy and still putting too much emphasis on those double Rs.
As his oldest child, making his funeral arrangements was a long and upsetting endeavor. But it was made slightly better by one small grace. Dad had gone with a local funeral home run by a Mexican-American family. They didn’t mispronounce our name even once.
The connection I have with my father and my Latinx culture might appear small, but this tiny act was significant enough to ease the worst pain I’ve ever felt. I know there’s a community here for me — the same community my dad loved and that he raised me to love — and I will always feel that my last name is proof of that.