Migration Paths - A Migrant Genealogy of Naming


From 2003 onwards, Tom Kiefer has been collecting and photographing confiscated items from detained migrants along the Mexico-U.S. border. His growing hoard includes crosses, keys, toys, perfumes, and decks of cards, eerie remains that reinsert the vivid lives and hopes these migrants carried and carry with them. 

Jason De León, who exhibited at UC Santa Barbara's Art, Design, and Architecture Museum and was covered by impactmania here, likewise maintains an interactive exhibit wherein visitors help fill out over 3,000 toe tags, representing those who lost their lives trying to cross the Mexico-U.S. border. The toe tags are then mapped onto where the remains of each individual were found, alongside the items and artifacts they left behind. 

Their work inspired me to think about the materiality of migrants’ lived experiences. On the basis that migration is a transitory state, I asked myself, what does one choose to bring with them from their past and into their future? How do they decide? Is there something that always remains? In other words, is there something that cannot be taken away? 

This got me thinking about names. 

My project considers migrants’ names, which, depending on how “foreign” they appear, might sometimes have to be whitewashed, pronounced incorrectly, or replaced with a nickname instead. What does a name convey about a person to others, especially given the fact that in the United States, “ethnic” sounding names are disproportionately discriminated against in resumes? 

Even further, what does a name convey to the person it belongs to? We name children after ourselves to continue a legacy and achieve a quasi-immortality of sorts, which a migrant can complicate as they try to achieve both new beginnings and new futures. Someone may have a Biblical name — and many do — but not necessarily identify with the religious tradition from which it came. Yet, they carry the name around, maintaining the idea it invokes in society either consciously or subconsciously. For those who do not live in their country of origin, their name can be a source of pride or of shame, both of which deal with questions of responsibility.


My project involved researching the social, political, and legal dimensions of names and naming. The social component involved a survey of over 40 individuals on the significance of their names; the political, investigation into name and accent discrimination alongside how immigrants name their children; the legal, an (in progress) interview with a U.S. Senator on the importance of birth certificates and ID's recognizing accent marks in names. 
Survey Highlights
What/who were named after?
My grandmother who died before I was born / Queen Elizabeth I / A Japanese grocery store in Santa Rosa / A movie character / Joseph in the Bible / My dad / My Sicilian Great Great Uncle who died in World War II
Do you like your name?
Yes love it, it's Persian and not too hard to pronounce for Americans / I had to learn to like my name. I grew up being buillied for my name... / I love the meaning, I remember it whenever I'm in a tough situation / I actually love it. It has religious and cultural meaning / I do like it, but it's very common and I sometimes wish I had a more unique name / It is irritating growing up in a country where a name like mine is never pronounced correctly. I can count the number of times people have said my name right on the first go when meeting me on two hands.