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Jesus and Estefana Alcaraz, top center and right, and children Jose and Karla, surround the youngest member of the Decatur family, Patricia, holding a statue of the baby Jesus.  Jesus Alcaraz  said when people only hear his name pronounced as  Hay-SOOS, they don’t comment. But sometimes if they see his name written, they draw attention to it.
Daily photo by John Godbey
Jesus and Estefana Alcaraz, top center and right, and children Jose and Karla, surround the youngest member of the Decatur family, Patricia, holding a statue of the baby Jesus. Jesus Alcaraz said when people only hear his name pronounced as Hay-SOOS, they don’t comment. But sometimes if they see his name written, they draw attention to it.

Jesuses in Alabama
Name popular with Hispanics; pronunciation is Hay-SOOS

By Melanie B. Smith
msmith@decaturdaily.com· 340-2468

And they called his name “Jesus.”

At least many local Hispanics or their parents did when they picked out names for their sons.

The Spanish pronunciation, of course, is Hay-SOOS.

Jesus is a surprisingly common name in the U.S. According to the Social Security Administration, 6,266 baby boys were named Jesus last year. It is the 129th most popular name according to 1990 Census records.

In North Alabama, Jesuses work production lines, go to school, work in research labs and teach in college.

Jesus “Jesse” Castillo, for instance, moved his family to Decatur from Chicago for his job with General Electric. He and his wife, Emma, named a son born in Decatur Jesus.

Emma Castillo said she gave her husband his nickname when they were dating, just to do something different. Now most people call him Jesse.

Her son hasn’t always had it easy being named Jesus, she said. Now 7, he’s sometimes been teased at school.

She asked his teacher to help classmates remember the correct way to say her son’s name, and that helped, she said.

Emma Castillo also said one friend often asks her, “Where’s Jesus?” purposely giving her son’s name the English pronunciation, JEE-sus in a jesting way.

Emma said she points up to say that Jesus is in heaven.

Others say it’s the written name that gives people pause.

Jesus Alcaraz of Decatur said when people only hear his name pronounced as it should be, Hay-SOOS, they don’t comment.

But sometimes if they see his name written, they draw attention to it.

He said at one business, a secretary told coworkers, “We’ve got Jesus coming to work with us.”

She pronounced it JEE-sus.

Alcaraz said some people ask him if the “J” is pronounced “H,” wanting to say his name correctly.

He said he grew up in California, where the name is common.

He has uncles and cousins named Jesus.

He and his wife, Estefana, who is an office aid and translator at Somerville Road School, named their son José de Jesus. An Oak Park Middle School student, he said he doesn’t
get teased because he goes by José.

Why the name?

Encountering people named Jesus has become more routine locally as Hispanics arrived from Latin America or from other parts of the U.S.

Hispanic culture, of course, draws on Spain for many of its traditions. In that traditionally Catholic country, Jesus is a common name, said Robert Adler, associate professor of Spanish at The University of North Alabama.

“I know three Jesuses in Spain and some in Latin America and Brazil,” he said.

Adler said the naming tradition came up in one of his Spanish classes a few weeks ago. Students couldn’t imagine naming a son Jesus.

“It freaked them out. They thought that it was too high a bar to aspire to,” he said.

Adler said he talked to colleagues who teach other languages, but they couldn’t come up with a reason why Spanish and Portuguese cultures use the name but other European Catholic countries don’t.

“It’s very curious,” he said.

Adler said he knows why so many women from Spain have the name Maria (Mary): It once was the law.

All females had to have Maria as one of their names while Franco ruled, he said.

Mary, too

One Alabama woman who has the names of both the madonna and the child is Maria Jesus Centeno, a native of Spain.

A Spanish teacher at The University of Alabama at Birmingham, Centeno said she was one of four girls named Maria Jesus in her school class.

“People from other countries have told me my name is very weird,” she said.

Centeno said she doesn’t know where the tradition in her home country originated or why her mother picked the name for her.

Even the professor of Catholic studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Patout Burns, said he has no idea why the name Jesus is used by Hispanic and Portuguese people and not those of other Catholic-dominated countries.

By any other name

North Alabama’s early white settlers were mostly Protestants with English, Irish, Scots and Welch ancestry, and they did not name their children Jesus — although they used nearly every other biblical name from Abram to Zachariah.

As Adler observed, English-speakers borrow the names of all of Jesus’ family members, but not that of Jesus.

But a version of the name of Jesus actually is common in the U.S., Joshua.

Joshua (Yeshua) is the Hebrew origin of the name Jesus; both names mean “salvation of the Lord.”

Joshua is the 38th most popular name for U.S. males.

Decatur resident Joshua Terry, who goes by Josh, said he couldn’t imagine being named Jesus instead.

“I don’t think I’m fit to carry that name,” said Terry.

He thinks no one could measure up to Jesus, so it might be offensive to give someone the name.

However, Terry said that he and his wife gave their sons middle names that are intentionally biblical to reflect their beliefs and lifestyle. Their 6-year-old is Logan Joshua Adam and their 4-year-old is Landon James Thomas.

No more Jesuses?

Jesus may not be so common for the next generation of Hispanics living in the Tennessee Valley. Decatur General Hospital didn’t have any baby Jesuses born in 2006, said marketing director Susan Claborn.

Robbie Clapp, head nurse at Marshall Medical Center South in Boaz, said she has noticed Hispanic parents using the name Jesus less often.

American names are taking its place.

“I told someone the other day that those who plan to stay here pick American names and those who plan to go back pick Hispanic names,” she said.

About 30 percent of the Marshall Medical’s patients are Hispanic, Clapp said.

Jesus, the name

  • More than 226,000 Jesuses live in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau’s 1990 data.
  • U.S. residents named Jesus are priests and pastors, newspaper editors, mayors, boxers and professional wrestlers.
  • At least one is a federal fugitive. Jesus Nunzez-Garcia is on the Most Wanted List of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
  • In Germany, courts have ruled that Jesus is a forbidden name, according to “The Language of Names” by Kaplin and Bernays.
  • Names most common in 1605 England included the biblical names Jacob, John, Joab and Josias, recorded William Camden, but not Jesus.
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