In Love in the Time of Cholera Gabriel García Márquez’s heroine faces discrimination due to her less than stellar origins: though Fermina Daza’s father is a mule driver, he dreams of catapulting her into the elite through marriage. Fermina’s father succeeded, much to the surprise of the other young ladies vying to be Juvenal Urbino’s bride. Especially since many of these ladies were actually ladies, and part of Juvenal’s social orbit by virtue of their multiple last names. García Márquez communicated this subtle critique of class politics through a lovely visual, like a string of pearls (how suitable), and I was reminded of it today when I read the third installment of “La Mujer Chilena en la Memoria,” a series from the Society section of El Mercurio. Last names in Latin America are a tricky business. Many countries still preserve the Spanish tradition of two surnames, so little Blue Ivy would be known as “Blue Ivy Carter Knowles.” If she married Moses Martin, their children would be “first name + middle name + Martin Carter.” Beyoncé would be struck from the name record but never from our hearts. I actually like this practice because at least women don’t need to change their last names when they marry and it makes it much easier if you’re crafting a family tree. Among the upper-class there’s a tradition of adding the husband’s last name, so Blue Ivy’s mother would be Beyoncé Knowles de Carter. Add to the mix the fact that many of these elite women also have lengthy first and middles names (María Jesús del Carmen, for example) and you can see how the names multiply like a plague. Moreover since these names matter most among the elite, having lots of the right names gives the bearer more prestige.
El Mercurio’s series on Chilean women features women with lengthy last names. The purpose of the series is to track down the descendants of the women who appeared in the 1908 book, La Mujer Chilena, published by Zig-Zag. I’m a sucker for genealogy and can’t pass up a two-page spread of early twentieth-century portraits and contemporary group shots. But I couldn’t surrender myself completely to these snapshots, in the same way I devour news about the Duchess of Cambridge. Since I’m not a royal subject I can follow the British with removed interest. But in terms of the former, I have a dog in that fight.
In the early twentieth century, as these genteel ladies were having their wedding portraits taken, my ancestors were scraping by as sharecroppers. There no photographs of them, no birth or death certificates. In some cases my family and I don’t even know their middle names. Since these relatives were illiterate, there is no material record of their thoughts, frustrations, or ambitions. Beyond a few anecdotes kept alive through my family’s oral tradition, my great-grandparents simply didn’t exist. This painful absence of history becomes more difficult to bear among stories of great-grandmother going to Europe and supporting a young Alberto Hurtado.
I don’t mean to pick on Rebecca Sanfuentes Echazarreta, I’m sure she was a lovely person but there’s something off about this series. The profiles make it seem as if these women were somehow absent from history, though this is not true. They were often highly educated and enjoyed pursuits outside the domestic sphere, like charity work. I don’t begrudge the elite their photographs, their string of names, but what’s the point behind “La Mujer Chilena en la Memoria” parts I, II, and III? I recognize that El Mercurio is a very conservative newspaper with an eye on a certain demographic, why else would their Society pages feature so prominently and over so many pages? Maybe since a century ago the literate in Chile were the same people having their portraits taken, uniting wealthy families through marriage, and traveling to Europe it made sense to report on them. I simply have to wonder whether 100 years later El Mercurio can get away with making the exploits of the elite central news.