What’s an Urtuzuástegui? And some thoughts on diversity.

Here's a good icebreaker for a team-building event. Have the participants write their full names on a flipchart. Then ask them to explain the meaning of their names.

Here's my version:

Michael Francis Urtuzuástegui Melcher

(1) Melcher. This is my father's surname. He was born on a farm in Nebraska, the 2nd out of 8 kids. His grandparents were from Bavaria. He moved to Wasco, California in junior high, after his mother became fed up with trying to operate a farm in the dustbowl. My father was the first in his family to go to college—he was thinking of becoming a carpenter until a high school teacher suggested he consider college. He is a retired professor.

(2) Urtuzuástegui. This is my mother's maiden name. My mom was born Maria Trinidad Urtuzuástegui and grew up in Somerton, Arizona, a small town near Yuma. Her parents were from Chihuahua, Mexico.  While Urtuzuástegui is a Basque surname, our family line is typical mestizo and was originally from Sinaloa or Durango.  My mom was 11th of 12 kids, although only six lived through adulthood.

Melcher family

Like my father, my mother was the first in her family to go to college. She graduated from Arizona State University at a time when fewer than 1% of Hispanic women went to college.  She was the first Hispanic woman in the U.S. to get a doctorate in accounting. She is also a retired professor.

As a pre-teen during WWII, my mom did the bookkeeping for her family’s gas station when her older brothers were in the Service. When she graduated college in the early 1950s, she was told by employers that she could not pursue her dream of being an accountant because she was a woman. She went into teaching instead and the rest is history.

My parents divorced when I was a child and mother raised my sisters and me on her own from the time I was eight.

(3) Francis. This is after my maternal grandfather, Francisco, who was a man-about-town and entrepreneur. Several of my older aunts and uncles spent parts of their childhoods working in the fields in Arizona but eventually started businesses.

My grandmother, Dolores, spent her life raising children, making meals, and keeping things together, but she had an avid interest in the world. She tracked the battles of WW II on a big map in the kitchen.  She told my mother not to waste time incompetently helping her wash the dishes and instead to go play the piano.  (My mom’s high-school recital piece was Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# minor.)

I never met either of my maternal grandparents. We would have enjoyed getting to know each other.

(4) Michael. The most common boy's name the year I was born. People who met me before the age of 21 call me Mike.

The moral of this lengthy story is that education utterly transformed family’s trajectory and undesired obstacles can lead to greater things.


Question: You don't look Mexican. 

Answer:  What does a Mexican look like?

In my experience, when most people see a non-Latino last name, it’s virtually impossible for them to imagine any Latino-ness beyond that.  There are countless people who have the same ethnicity as I do, but with parentage reversed (Latino father, white mother), such that they have Spanish surnames—and they never get this question.

Question: I thought you were Jewish.

Answer: Many of my favorite people are Jewish, so thanks for the compliment. On the other hand, it has not escaped my notice that when people meet a well-educated person with olive skin and dark hair and eyes who seems pretty on the ball, they don’t say, "Oh, you must be one of those half-Mexicans I've heard so much about."

Question: Do you speak Spanish?

Answer:  I speak Spanish fluently.  This is from years of study rather than growing up speaking it.

Question: You seem to be proud of your heritage

Answer:  I am proud of my heritage.  But I don’t think any person’s heritage is better than any other person’s heritage.  Everyone is worthy of respect.

Question: How have your intersecting identities determined your lived experience?

Answer:   I tend not to use terms like intersectionality and lived experience. This may be generational.

In my experience, identity characteristics can affect how you see the world, and how the world sees you, but not in a mechanical or even predictable way.

For example, I spent many years learning Chinese partly because I grew up with a mother who could speak Spanish when I could not, and I thought it would be cool to learn languages.  Or another example:  when the COVID pandemic hit, I wasn’t much worried because I had already survived the AIDS epidemic, which was far worse in every way.

Question: What are your views on diversity?

Answer:  On questions of diversity and related topics, I am a short-term pessimist but a long-term optimist.

I’m a long-term optimist, because in the words of Martin Luther King, I believe that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

I’m a short-term pessimist because we collectively are in the messy middle. People tend to confuse passion with truth, all actions can have negative unintended consequences, and we are wired to seek immediate gratification. In addition, as diversity has become valued in companies and institutions, it has become more conformist.

Still, I think we will inevitably make great progress towards a better society.  We are likely to get there sooner if we follow Enlightenment values like open dialogue and empiricism.

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