“It felt like we had created a new identity, like we’d become superheroes.”
Five people who abandoned their names
My mom chose the name “Marchelle” when she was pregnant with me. She had a friend named Marchelle, who everyone describes as the Contra Costa County Mother Teresa: She would help the homeless and organize community events. She got cancer and thought she was dying, so five women in the area decided to name their daughters after her. I was one of them.
My dad was abusive and not a good person, and has been in and out of my life from the day I was born until I was about 7, when he completely split. My mom had a difficult delivery. When the nurse asked, “What do you want to name her?” my mom was kind of out of it. He told the nurse “Courtney,” which wasn’t what was agreed on. So I was stuck with a name my mother didn’t want for me.
I’ve been Marchelle my whole life. I’ve never known the name Courtney. When my mom signed me up for preschool, she had to put my legal name. I’m like, “Who’s that?” So she told me the whole story. The only time I was ever called Courtney was the first day of school, during roll call. They’d say “Courtney,” and then I’d raise my hand, “No, actually I’m Marchelle.”
When I was 10, my mom got tired of it. She went to the school district office and said, “You’ve got to change it. You can’t keep calling her by the wrong name.” To her, “Courtney” was a constant reminder of my dad and the letdown. So in middle school and high school, “Marchelle” was on all the paperwork.
I’ve wanted to change my name legally since I was 16. We were waiting until my 18th birthday because if I was still a minor, my dad would have to show up with us. We didn’t even know where he was.
The day I turned 18, my mom took me down to the courthouse, and we filled out stacks of paperwork. The whole day, I was waiting for my dad to burst through the doors and say, “No, I don’t approve.” My dad was an alcoholic and a drug addict, and he left a lot of damage in his wake. By changing my name, I finally got to shed all of that.
I haven’t met the original Marchelle — she survived — but I have met three of the Marchelles named after her. It’s always been in random places, usually when I worked retail. Someone would say, “Oh, that’s my name.” And I’m like, “Were you named after…?” and we’d have that aha moment. We keep joking that we’re going to track everyone down and have lunch one day.
I was about 10 years old when I first saw a bullfight. We went to Nogales, on the Mexican side of the border. My mother wanted to see this particular bullfighter, an American woman. I was enthralled. As I got older, I would go to the library and read anything I could about bullfighting.
When I graduated high school in ’59, I told my folks I was going to fight bulls. I bought a motorcycle and rode it to Mexico from Tucson. I wrote out a plan of what I had to do. I had to learn the culture and the language. I realized there’s no juh sound in Spanish. “James” was not going to cut it for my career. You can translate “James” to “Diego,” “Santiago,” “Jaime,” “Jacobo,” or “Iago.” I liked “Diego.”
In my early 20s, I had my alternativa in Tijuana. It’s a ceremony where you go from being a professional novice to a full matador de toros. You take out your cape with your name on the back; mine said “Diego O’Bolger.” My mother was there with an aunt. They saw everybody calling me Diego, especially when I did laps around the ring.
In Mexico, the people are living next door to Godzilla; there’s a complex that everything is bigger, better in the United States. I didn’t want to force “James” onto them. And for me, changing my name was like, Now, this is what I want to be. I was shy and introverted, but in bullfighting, you’re performing. You project yourself to people. So I took acting classes and a dance class, too. What changing my name did was make my bullfighting career official.
Alisha We met in high school. In college, it just so happened that Math ended up living in the apartment next door, and we started dating. It took ten years of being together before we decided to get married, and one of the factors we struggled with was how we felt about the institution. But it started to feel dangerous to not be married. We watched family members go into the hospital and started thinking, What would happen? Math wouldn’t be able to make any decisions on my behalf.
MATH In the end, we thought, Well, if it’s just our own personal hang-ups about marriage, we can define it the way we want.
Alisha I knew a couple that got married and created a last name together, and we thought it was a cool idea. We went back and forth for a year about different ideas — it was so painstaking.
MATH It got to the point where we were throwing out any word we liked, and then just making up words. I was at work one day, and she texted me a list of names she had come up with, and one of them was A-E-R-A-O. I remember liking it and saying maybe we drop a letter so it doesn’t look like “aero,” like “aerospace.” We could pronounce it the same. It struck a chord. Because we were also into archery at the time, it felt fun. And unique: When you Googled it, it didn’t already mean something. It felt like we had created a new identity, like we’d become superheroes.
Alisha Most of my life, my relationship to my old last name was mostly negative. I grew up in a little racist town in Florida. Though I was raised mostly by my mother, who is Italian, I looked more Venezuelan, which is my father’s side. A lot of my teenage years were spent doing things to hide my race. Disliking my last name was part of that, along with wearing blue contacts and other weird stuff that amazes me when I look back on it. Now that I’m on the other side of it, there’s a little part of me that mourns my old last name.
MATH In some ways, changing our name was more impactful than the marriage itself. It felt like we were bound together and not just by paperwork.
The first time I went to Israel, in 1990, I learned the word “kame’a,” which means “talisman” in Hebrew. I thought it was the most beautiful word I had ever heard. I said to my friend who taught me that word, “Someday, that is going to be my name.” Then it went out of my head.
I got married. I got divorced. I got married again. I got divorced again. My given name is Jane, and my last name after my second marriage was Murphy, which I never really felt comfortable with because that is not a good name for a nice Jewish girl. While we were married, I still practiced Judaism, and we kept conveniently kosher in the house. Nothing really changed in the way I lived my life except for the fact that I was a Murphy and we’d visit my husband’s family for Christmas.
When I got divorced in 2011, I woke up one morning and thought, If I’m going to change my name, I don’t have to change just my last name. I can change my name, period. I decided I want to be Kamaya.
I changed my name legally in 2012, about a year after my mom passed away. “Jane” became my last name, and “Kamaya” became my first name. I kept Jane because my maternal grandmother died when my mom was 9 years old, and I was named after her because that’s what Ashkenazi Jews do. You name people after people who have passed away to keep their spirit alive.
In Kabbalah, they say that if your life isn’t going well, you can change your name and it changes everything. I think it really did do that. Believe it or not, I’m going to give marriage a shot for a third time. When I met my fiancé, one of my very best friends had already started calling me Kamaya, and she was the person who introduced me to him. So my fiancé has always known me as Kamaya. After we get married, I will be Kamaya Jane Cohen.