Name Droppers

Every year hundreds of Miami's titularly challenged discover that a new name can mean a new you

On the face of it, John Stuart Maxwell Blood was pulling a blatant ethnic switcheroo when he became Jason Stuart Eisenberg on February 14. In fact, sounding Jewish was an indirect benefit. Eisenburg's father was an Irish Catholic from Philadelphia, his mother a German Jew. As a tribute to his mother's side of the family, he decided to adopt her maiden name in 1985 (a brother retains Blood). Both Eisenburg and the court lost the 1985 name-change paperwork, so he had to go through the process again this spring to get a passport.

"The last name of Blood isn't all that socially acceptable," points out Eisenburg, who works in marketing on Miami Beach. "And in my field having a Jewish last name doesn't hurt. They ask you your name and you tell them and it's like, 'Hmm, okay, he's one of us.'"

Juan Antonio Marques arrived in Miami on February 2, 1967. The first thing he did was to get a job in a factory. The second was to enroll in an English-language night course at a local high school. Act three was changing his name to John Anthony Marques. On March 6 of this year he went back to Juan Antonio. "At the beginning, when I came to this country, I was stupid enough to change my name to an American name," says Marques. "But time passed by and at this age -- I'm 64 now -- I felt like I was losing my roots. I went back to my natural name. I am still very proud to be an American, part of a democratic society where you can express your own opinions and feelings, your heart. But Juan Antonio is what I was, and it's what I am. It just took me a long time to realize this."

Form 12.982 doesn't directly ask the applicant to state why he or she wants a new name, but some people volunteer an explanation anyway. When Ramon Chester Gonzalez became Raymond Chester Bulit 36 years after moving here from Cuba, he had his lawyer write: "Petitioner desires to adopt an Americanized version of his given name and would also like to adopt his mother's maiden name, and therefore, likes to legalize that name."

Even more to the point was Jean Primi de Vicente, born 26 years ago in Mexico and originally named J. Primitivo de Vicente: "The petitioner desires to have his name changed because he dislikes his current name." This past April 9, attorney Doug Stratton presented the following explanation for another change, in the chambers of Judge Lawrence A. Schwartz: "Barbara DiBenedetto, beginning in the year 1980, entered into a long course of psychiatric and psychological counseling with the goal being a sex-change operation and, as part and parcel of this process, legally petitioned for a change of name from Richard DiBenedetto to Barbara DiBenedetto. The planned operation has been abandoned, and your Petitioner has been living as Richard DiBenedetto."

Name changes, the linguistic equivalent of body piercing or tattooing, are neither cheap nor painless. The filing fee for the necessary documents in Dade County is $171. Gum up the works with a lawyer, as most applicants do, and the cost goes up by as much as $350. Only one person in the last six months (Miss Misu) availed herself of the one-page Affidavit/Certificate of Indigence, thereby pulling off the whole operation for free.

"I disrespect the court for making me pay for this," fumes the former Leon Westley Ivery, now Hamza Khalid. "I had to go get the forms, deal with the arrogance of the clerks down there, sit there and listen to their comments about what a nice name I had and why would I want to change it. As far as I'm concerned, this is a change-my-name-back situation. I don't think it was right for me to carry a European name all my life. They didn't take Kunta Kinte in a court and tell him did he want to be called Toby. Hey, you beat the shit out of my ancestors and called them Johnsons and Iverys. I think the government should be paying me a name-change fee.

"I've used the name Hamza since 1973 when I became a Muslim, but it's just since I got into Dade County that I thought about making it legal. I've never encountered such racism and prejudice. I'd be standing there in the elevator and they're talking about African Americans like they were dogs.

"Hamza is the prophet Mohammed's uncle. Khalid means immortal and forever. Since I changed my name I've encountered better acceptance, better respect. People are curious. The name says, You don't define me, I define me. Names are important. If they weren't, we wouldn't have them. Names express your history and geography, your personality, your character and your demeanor. If you don't think your name is important, forget it for a week. They have to put you on TV and ask who is this guy we found on the street? A man without the knowledge of his roots is a dead man."

Khalid, a 49-year-old businessman and a Nation of Islam adherent, notes that he's not surprised that the largest identifiable group of name changelings in Dade County comprises American-born blacks adopting Arabic or African appellations. "Back in the Seventies people didn't just go around picking names," he asserts. "Now they do. For some it's a fad, but for a lot of people it's not a fad at all. The young people have a new consciousness. And we are not doing this to say thumbs up America's ass. The mere fact that people can change their names says that if black Americans want to get to know themselves, explore their deeper identities, then America will help them do it."

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