He liked the name “Juan” since he was a child”. That’s how people knew him, how he introduced himself to his wife, his four children called him that. He also identified himself that way to the police one night in December when he was arrested for drunk driving and hit two cars outside a bar in Los Angeles.
As this immigrant did not carry an official document that guaranteed his identity, the Police Department’s database registered his fingerprints under the name of “Juan Zavala.”
Apparently, the deep depression caused by the incident, which put him behind bars and destabalized his income, led this man to commit suicide at his home in Los Angeles on January 18.
“Because he had no immediate family that [the coroner] could contact, the body was fingerprinted as ‘Juan’” said his widow, Martha Espino, who lives in Mexicali, Mexico.
But when she came to Los Angeles to claim her husband’s body to take him to that border town, she learned that the death certificate had the name “Juan Zavala”, the alias he used although his real name was Gonzalo Zavala. There was another person officially dead, not her husband.
Similar to this problem caused by an illegitimate change of name, the Consulate of Mexico in Los Angeles receives at least one case per day, some so complicated that they have put migrants at risk of being deported or they must go before a judge in their hometown to solve it.
For that reason, it has also happened that corpses are stranded in this country or children have failed to be granted Mexican citizenship, explains the embassy.
“Due to this issue of the name change I could not bring him back that week, I had to wait another one because they could not make the transportation,” said Espino over a phone interview with La Opinión, who is a factory worker.
Zavala, who was 52 when he died, was a gardener and had immigrated to this country when he was young. As he used a third name, the one from the social security number’s owner that he used to work, his last check was not cashed.
“He did not leave us any pension, he left us without anything”, said Espino.
A Common Problem
Using another name or date of birth is common among immigrants. They do it to find jobs, because they do not like their original name, to try to avoid problems with this country’s laws, because they do not know there will be consequences or that it will prevent them from taking advantage of the opportunity offered by the naturalization process.
Sometimes they “borrow” birth certificates from relatives in Mexico and change their identity.
“For a while it allows them to find a job, to obtain some identification, but problems come along later,” said Georgina Marina, consul of legal affairs.
For the government of Mexico, only a judge from his country can authorize a name change and it requires the applicant to go to a court in their hometown.
Dead and Stranded
The consulate advised the family of a woman whom, for two years, was registered with a false name in a hospital to avoid paying the bills. But when she passed away the death certificate was issued under another name –literally- for another person.
Due to that disparity, the Consulate did not grant the permission so the woman’s ashes could be taken to Mexico, until they do not verify her real identity
“We cannot authorize a transportation [of remains] with the death certificate of a person who maybe is alive in Mexico,” said Marina, arguing that such a fraud is at par with receiving an illegal life insurance.
If everything is resolved in favor of the relatives, a process that would include paying off the debt of the hospital, the woman’s ashes could reach Mexico in about six months.
There are simple cases, such as when a parent wants to transfer the Mexican nationality to his child and there are differences in the documents of both of them (for example, if the father registered with false data), which is resolved by an amendment in the county office of Civil Registrar.
“That father, although it may sound absurd, is not the father of the child he is registering,” Marina said.
However, there are situations of higher risk. Marina said that immigrants can get into serious trouble if they use illegitimate documents to try to regularize their migratory situation.
“The immigration authorities may consider that as a fraud”, she said.
“Not only will it jeopardize the possibility to become a citizen, but can even bring forth the possibility of deportation.”
Marina explained that if someone identifies themselves to the police with another name, as Zavala did, his fingerprints will be registered on the judicial system with that name and not their legal one. This can cause problems once that individual seeks to change their immigration status.
The Mexican consulate recommended asking for their advice for any case of this kind.
In early February, after a two-week delay, the body of Gonzalo Zavala crossed the border and it was buried in Mexicali. The name he always liked was engraved in his tombstone: “Juan.”
Changes That Mexico Does Not Recognize
Maria de Jesus Fernandez became an American citizen 21 years ago and since then she calls herself Maria Melendrez, after eliminating her surname and taking on her husband’s last name.
But when she claimed a property in Mexico that her husband inherited her, she found out that the change –that she did by writing her new name in a migratory form- was not recognized by the Mexican government.
“The immigration agent did not explain anything to me, he only told me that I had to put my husband’s last name to claim a pension”, the woman said.
Although the Mexican authorities accept that its female citizens to adopt their husband’s last names, something common in this country, it requires that the name changes are guaranteed after a process called “trial approval,” a cumbersome process that takes place there.
Otherwise, the person cannot claim properties or inheritances in Mexico.
“That generates two identities to us”, said Marina, consul of legal affairs. “What we recommended is not to change the name, perhaps to use an alias,” she emphasized.
At the moment, the Mexican passports and consular registrations include a note that specifies the spouse’s last name, as an explanation to the migratory authorities of this country.