It's no joke to have an unusual name
By MICHAELA CABRERA
WE’VE ALL heard a joke or two about names like Mary Chris Mas, Washington Dy Sy, and Edgar Allan Pe. What about the Japanese girl named Taeko who married an American and became Taeko Brown? In Naga, a couple nicknamed their children Adobo, Menudo, and Igado (an Ilocano dish). We get a good laugh from it, but those who have to bear the unusual names are not laughing.
In Paete, Laguna, where I traveled with TV journalist Howie Severino and our crew to produce a documentary on unusual names, we encountered barangay chairman Hermie Bagongahasa. In Tagalog, his surname translates to “newly raped.” A bald, soft-spoken man, Hermie says that being a Bagongahasa has made him an easy target for teasing. “I served in the military. When we went out drinking and I got teased, I got angry. There are many people out there who have nice-sounding family names, but their record is tainted, linked to rape, murder, or what.”
In Paete, people are used to the name Bagongahasa, so it doesn’t illicit as many guffaws as it would in other places. But he’s had to explain his name many times. “Sometimes I would get nervous and sweat, like when the governor asked, ‘Is this man a rapist?’”
Hermie and his wife Elsa are worried about their five children, especially their two daughters, facing the same embarrassment. Once he’s earned enough extra money, Hermie plans to file a legal petition for a change of surname.
Hermie’s older brother, Oscar, has gone to court. Also concerned about his children, Oscar petitioned to change “Bagongahasa” to “Basa” in 1993. He spent P25,000 and waited for one year for his request to be granted. Not everyone in the Bagongahasa clan, however, thinks they should become Basas. Honorio Bagongahasa, Hermie’s uncle and a retired US Navy service man, wears his name like a badge of honor. “Why would I change it? It’s what I inherited from our elders. You just have to learn to joke about it.”
Honorio’s niece, Nena, was saved from her infamous last name when she got married, but she can’t forget the times she recoiled at people’s reactions to it. For instance, when she applied for a tax identification number and the person in charge called out “Bagongahasa” over the microphone, everyone in the room commented: “Kasagwa! (How horrible!)” “How does she look like?”
Our team traveled to Batac, Ilocos Norte, where we met the Pecpec family. The word pekpek means vagina in Tagalog. Julio Pecpec, father of five children, says their family name used to be Faustino. Their ancestors changed it during World War II to avoid getting caught by the Japanese. James, one of Julio’s sons, dreams of a life outside their farm. Hoping to become a seaman, he took up marine engineering at the National University in Manila.
“When my name would get called, everybody would laugh. Or the teacher would only call my first name, not my last name,” he recalls. Unable to stand the teasing, he stopped attending college after a year and a half.
The names that the Bagongahasas and the Pecpecs were born with don’t necessarily reflect their character or capabilities, but admittedly these have affected their chances in life. Fortunately for them—and others with unusual names—laws provide a way out. And just as when people acquire a new face, a new “gender,” or even a new nationality, a new name can bring them new possibilities.
A PERSON’S first name or nickname can be changed under Republic Act 9048, which allows local civil registrars or consul generals (for Filipinos abroad) to change the person’s given name without court proceedings. This law also gives civil registrars the authority to correct clerical or typographical errors in the entries in a person’s birth certificate.
A first name can be changed if the person “finds it to be ridiculous, tainted with dishonor or extremely difficult to write or pronounce.” An alias or nickname that a person has been using can be legalized. Any change in name to “avoid confusion” is normally granted.
From 2002 to October 2006, according to the National Statistics Office (NSO), 41,783 people petitioned to change their first names, roughly half of them because they had come to be known by their aliases.
A petition under RA 9048 takes about a month to be processed and decided. For a change of surname, an individual has to file a petition before a family court or a regional trial court, which hears and decides the case within three to six months. An announcement is made in a newspaper that a petitioner wants his or her surname changed.
The NSO has yet to consolidate its statistics on this kind of petition, but it says that the courts approve almost all such petitions. A surname can be changed if the substitute family name has been habitually and continuously used by the petitioner; if the surname is ridiculous or embarrassing; and if it causes confusion or mistaken identity.-- (First published: December 17, 2006; updated: 4 March 2007)