Academic, Creative Writer, Editorial Consultant, Journalist

what’s in a name

what’s in a name

You may notice messages from a Matthew Frye Castillo. That’s me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my family history and the nature of White supremacy for several years. There are many personal and political reasons to change my last name, but the writer Ana Castillo nicely sums up one of my aims: “A crucial distinction between labels we have been given by officials of the state and our own self-naming process is that only doing the latter serves us. The very act of self-definition is a rejection of colonization.”

Frye was my mother’s last name. While my mother was raised White, her father, Joe Frye, was raised Black. His census and Navy records show this, but as I grew up, race was “rude” to bring up and no one talked about the past. I only got to meet Grandpa Joe three times. Many White people praised him for his quiet humility, a presumption I now view as problematic. Genealogical records show that his grandfather, Birdsell Frye, was born a slave in Virginia on a Tobacco plantation before migrating to Ohio. Frye is a German name for “free” adopted by many former slaves.

Castillo was my grandmother’s maiden name. She grew up in the “Mexican colony” in Jerome, Arizona, a mining town. Spanish was her first language. I didn’t realize until I was nine that the crazy-sounding noises she made when praying or talking to herself were Spanish (I guess in the 90s, those English-only rants against Spanish in Coca-Cola commercials really worked!). As a teen in Anchorage, had I known that her belief in the power of VapoRub and her love of maracas, Jesus headbands & telenovelas was just what abuelas did, I would have realized she was part of a long line of similarly spirited women and not viewed her, like many people in Alaska did, as an out-of-place weirdo. 

I’ve thought a lot about the power dynamics of speaking about/claiming these histories vs. exercising the White privilege that can hop in and out of a racialized society when convenient. I don’t have all the answers and I am probably both right and wrong in this move. But for me, it feels true to history and who I am. In acknowledging myself as Frye Castillo, I am honoring the memory of the two women whom I was closest with. It was also the Frye and Castillo/Palacios families who put love into action by helping me pay for college, not to mention showing me love in my bleakest moments. A name isn’t some magical gesture to resolve injustices or summon the life you want, and no name can entirely capture a family’s past, spirit, values, or hopes, but this does feel like a step in the right direction.

Thanks for joining my celebratory move toward recognizing all of history, and I appreciate you updating that contact list 😉




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