For many 19th- and 20th-century immigrants or their children, it was a rite of passage: Arriving in America, they adopted a new identity.
Charles Steinweg, the German-born piano maker, changed his name to Steinway (in part because English instruments were deemed to be superior). Tom Lee, a Tong leader who would become the unofficial mayor of Chinatown in Manhattan, was originally Wong Ah Ling. Anne Bancroft, who was born in the Bronx, was Anna Maria Louisa Italiano.
The rationale was straightforward: adopting names that sounded more American might help immigrants speed assimilation, avoid detection, deter discrimination or just be better for the businesses they hoped to start in their new homeland.
Today, most experts agree, that traditional immigrant gambit has all but disappeared…
The New York Times examined the more than 500 applications for name changes in June at the Civil Court in New York, which has a greater foreign-born population than any other city in the United States. Only a half dozen or so of those applications appeared to be obviously intended to Anglicize or abbreviate the surnames that immigrants or their families arrived with from Latin America or Asia…
The vast majority of people with clearly ethnic surnames who applied to change them did so as a result of marriage (belatedly adopting a spouse’s surname or creating a new hyphenated one) or childbirth (because they were legally identified when they were born only as a male or female child or were adopting a parent’s name)…
“If you are talking about 1910, the social forces on conformity were much stronger,” said Marian Smith, senior historian of the United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, “whereas now an immigrant arrives with all these legal and identity documents, a driver’s license in their pocket, a passport, with one name on it. To change this is a big deal…”
Nancy Foner, a sociology professor at Hunter College of the City University of New York, said: “Jews and Italians changed their surnames in the past so that people wouldn’t identify them as Jews or Italians, the famous cases of course being movie stars…Betty Joan Perske became Lauren Bacall, and most people didn’t know she was Jewish; whatever name she used, Lena Horne was black.”
And the fools whose understanding of humanity hasn’t progressed beyond 1910 are the bastion of forces demanding conformity to the most reactionary standard of America’s past: if you’re white, you’re right!
Some of the history is perfectly ordinary. My Italian grandfather: Eduardo Adamo Trotto became Edward Trotter. What counted over his lifetime was his skill as a tool and die maker. But, the land he owned and occasionally farmed might not have been sold to him if he was Trotto instead of Trotter.
His wife, my Italian grandmother, has always provided me with the best story I know that combines the history of European imperialism with the ignorance of America’s political police. In a confrontation with an FBI agent back in the 1960’s, the hotshot tried to threaten me with his detailed knowledge of my family – asserting he even knew my grandmother was German not Italian.
The poor bugger knew nothing of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and that the village in the Italian Alps where she was born had been overrun by grasping Habsburgian soldiers in the 19th Century. Following the naming conceits of the time – all the residents of her village were forced to acquire Germanic names. She entered the United States as Clara Fritz.
Fitting into the ideology of 1910 America.