Search for perfect last name leads to greater discovery

puerto rican flag
I realized that the only way I could educate others about my heritage was to educate myself. So I’ve been learning as much as I can about my ethnicity and what it means to be Puerto Rican.

As you can see next to this essay, my last name is McConnell.

Except it’s actually Thomas.

Or is it Clemente?

I don’t blame you for being confused. I’ve felt the same way these past couple of months.

I was born with the last name McConnell. Says so on all my personal records, and will be that way for the rest of my life unless I legally change it as an adult.

But my mom always told me that family tradition is important. And deep down, I knew that McConnell wasn’t representative of our heritage.

McConnell is my step-grandfather’s last name. He isn’t my mom’s father, but instead, the father of her half-siblings. However, because he married my grandmother and is listed as my mom’s father, she has his last name of McConnell.

So you see, it is, but it isn’t our last name.

Tommy Thomas is my biological grandfather and he was Puerto Rican. Except for reasons I’d rather not go into — and don’t have time to explain — he changed his last name often. So it doesn’t have the best or most authentic association for my family.

I tried to find our traditional last name, but didn’t have any success. That’s when I came up with a solution.

If you receive a friend request from me on Facebook, don’t expect to see either Freddy McConnell or Freddy Thomas. On social media and at school, I’m Freddy Clemente.

I’m of Puerto Rican descent, and proud of it. So when my mom expressed that we should promote our family heritage more, I turned to arguably the greatest Puerto Rican baseball player who ever lived — Roberto Clemente.

I knew exactly what this last name would accomplish, that when people heard Clemente, they would think of me as a Puerto Rican. Sure enough, friends and strangers would ask whether we were related, or at least get the full scope of me as a Rican whenever I introduced myself as Freddy Clemente.

This is the name that would bring pride to my family. This is what my mom wanted.

Or so I thought.

During a recent attendance check in school, the teacher called out my last name as McConnell. Because of the confusion, all eyes immediately turned to me. That’s when one of my classmates rudely said, “You little liar. I knew your name wasn’t Clemente.” I was about to explain why I had been introducing myself with that name, but I would have only ended up feeling like a fake.

Feeling unsettled about my racial identity is something I’ve wrestled with ever since I was young.

I was never a Rican outside of my home because people always assumed that by having brown — not black skin — and the last name McConnell that I was automatically African American. Ricans also aren’t widely known to live in Minnesota, plus whenever I speak, I don’t have a deep Rican accent.

Now, I wouldn’t want to have been known as “that one Puerto Rican kid,” either. But that’s mainly because I’d rather not even have race be my defining characteristic in the first place.

Because it’s always an issue — kids asking, “What are you? What are you?” — I’ve had to come to terms with “defining” myself in some easily explainable way.

So, what does it mean to be Puerto Rican?

That’s where my mom comes in. She’s been my ultimate teacher. Together, we watch YouTube videos about Rican culture and she’ll point out the stereotypes that exist, good and bad.

The biggest way she’s given me an appreciation for my heritage is by cooking traditional food like Albondigas Con Salsa Verde (meatballs with green sauce), Tostones (fried green plantains with salt), Fritas de Pollo (chicken with fries) and Besitos de Coco (coconut kisses). She also teaches traditional dances like Plena, Bomba and Salsa, while opening my ears to Caribbean music styles, particularly Reggaeton.

Yes, I’ve even been known to play the Congas (bongos) while my younger sister, Tianna, dances around in her flower dress.

I realized that the only way I could educate others about my heritage was to educate myself. So I’ve been learning as much as I can about my ethnicity and what it means to be Puerto Rican.

The first thing you have to understand is that there are two types of Ricans — by blood and by location. Ricans by blood are known to have Taino blood (native ancestry). Ricans by location are determined by where they were born, but neither parent has Taino ancestry. It’s the equivalent of living in Minnesota and being called a Minnesotan, but actually being born in Florida.

Tainos were also the natives who inhabited the islands in the Caribbean. In fact, this particular group of natives was called Caribs. While different tribes lived in scattered parts of North and South America, a lot of physical similarities existed. That’s why a large number of Latinos who came from neighboring tribes look so similar.

I could recite more facts about food, dancing, baseball, Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. commonwealth or popular holidays like Three Kings/Wisemen Day. But what’s most important is the realization I came to about my heritage.

Turns out having a Rican sounding last name like Clemente isn’t what my mom wanted. I’m Rican because it’s in my blood. That’s what she wanted me to embrace.

So whether I choose to introduce myself as McConnell, Thomas or Clemente, deep down, I have to be comfortable with how I see myself, nothing else.

After all, ethnicity isn’t a choice. As I’ve come to learn these past few months, it’s a gift to explore and have fun with.