My story begins with a kidnapping. This was back in another time, in the year 1837, and the child they took from my family must have been around seven years old, though they tell me that he was small for his age. From what I know, from what my relatives can remember and have told me, the boy was taken from Linares, Nuevo León. He was playing with some other children at the fair; they were chasing one another around the bandstand and booths when their mothers first screamed out to them. But already it was too late. The Indians were attacking and killing the fathers and mothers. They took the children on their horses and rode to the north. The Mexican soldiers chased them through the night, gaining on them, but by dawn the Indians had crossed the river into what a year earlier had become another country. There they lowered one child to the ground before riding off farther into Texas with the rest. No one knows why they left behind the one child—maybe to slow down the soldiers? What we do know is that the boy they left was my great-great-grandfather.
This, more or less, is how I recounted my family’s story to the young receptionist at the Palacio Municipal, in Linares, the one place I figured might have some clues as to what had really happened back then. The year was 2002, and I was beginning my research for a novel. It would be based partly on this kidnapping, one of the first stories my Tío Nico, my father’s youngest brother, had told me, when I was maybe five or six. According to my tío, our family was actually from the state of San Luis Potosí, just south of Nuevo León, but my great-great-grandfather had been visiting Linares with his parents when the Indians attacked. A family of early settlers living near present-day Hidalgo, where the kidnappers had crossed into Texas, rescued him and, when it was clear he had no one to go back to, raised him but allowed him to keep his last name. My great-great-grandfather and the Casares name began anew on this side of the river. As far as I know, I was the first descendant to return to the small city where my great-great-grandfather’s kidnapping had taken place 165 years earlier.
Because no one in my family had found a written account of this particular event and so many of the details had been forgotten, there was some dispute as to whether the story was true or simply legend. Tío Nico, who is known for his stories, liked to tell this one in epic terms, adding a touch of predestination to our forefather’s being carried away by original inhabitants of the Americas and left in a new country, which was also an old country, since it had been part of Mexico before the Texas Revolution and, later, the U.S.-Mexican War, a conflict that had stripped many early settlers of their property and rights, including my tío’s generation along the border. My father, on the other hand, was pretty sure his little brother was making the whole thing up. Their ongoing quarrel didn’t matter so much to me—I was writing a book of fiction—but I was curious how much of this story might be based on real events. So late one afternoon I’d walked across the bridge from Brownsville to Matamoros, caught a bus to Monterrey, and there, after a long wait, boarded the overnight bus that delivered me to Linares.
I remember the receptionist had pink braces, and her upper lip would bulge when she caressed the wires with her tongue. As I was telling her my story in Spanish, I heard what sounded like a short gasp and noticed her eyes widen, as if the kidnapping had happened only this morning and there was still time to do something. Then she reached for her rotary phone and the ledger she had asked me to sign earlier.
She dialed upstairs to her supervisor. Dating back to the late 1800’s, the Palacio Municipal is a historic monument, its Doric columns a relic of the country’s colonial past, and its occupants endure without the modern convenience of air-conditioning, instead leaving the French doors agape to allow the occasional breeze. The two-story administration building stands near the cathedral, and as government buildings and churches in colonial Mexican cities customarily face the main plaza, the Palacio and the church face the Plaza Principal de Linares. With most of the doors throughout the Palacio open, we could hear our call ringing in the office above us. The receptionist gazed at the ornate design on the ceiling, moving her eyes from one corner of the molding to another, as if she might be able to see how close the person above her was to answering. When he did, it was only after chitchat and answering a question he had about some document that needed to be typed that she was able to explain the purpose of her call: a gentleman is here from the United States, and he wants to speak to the archivist.
“His name is Oscar Casares,” she said, reading the name as I had written it on her ledger.
“KAH-sa-rez,” I corrected her, stressing the first a, as my family always did. She had said it “Ka-SAH-rez,” with a stress so slight it might have gone unnoticed by someone else. The difference is confusing, I realize. But however subtle, the fact is that “Ka-SAH-rez,” as she had pronounced it, is another family’s name.
She glanced down at the ledger and nodded, though I sensed she was agreeing not with me but with something her supervisor had said.
Then she covered the phone with one hand and asked if the archivist was expecting me. Not exactly, I told her. It had occurred to me only that morning that I should have made arrangements and not simply arrived on an overnight bus. I gathered from her conversation that the archivist had just left town to attend a conference. I might have walked out right then, but she was still on the phone explaining to her supervisor that he should hear my story. “Urgente,” I heard her say more than once. A moment later she hung up and asked me to follow her.
On the second floor of the Palacio, she presented me to her supervisor, a man in his sixties who had a thick grayish mustache covering the top of his mouth and spoke with the hint of a Castilian accent, which he used to mispronounce my name, saying “Ka-SAH-rez,” as his receptionist had just done for the second time. Since I had traveled this far into Mexico, it seemed that the name of our family, the one I had come here to investigate, ought to be said the proper way. When I corrected them, she shrugged and informed him that I had written my name without an accent, something I explained my family had never used. But by then the supervisor had stepped behind his desk, where he was waiting for me to get on with my story, the one so urgente. After hearing about the Indians taking my great-great-grandfather, he was silent for a moment, nibbling a corner of his mustache as if trying to keep track of all I had just said, which he nonetheless had me retell to two of his colleagues down the hall. Finally one of them was able to locate the cell phone number of the archivist, Armando Leal Ríos, and reach him in Monterrey, where he agreed to meet me the next day. What I didn’t realize then is that everyone there had heard the story of the attacks, from family or legend, but none of them had met someone who had this piece of the puzzle, what happened after the children were taken.
To meet with Leal Ríos in Monterrey, the supervisor instructed me to tell the bus driver that I wanted to be dropped off near the Walmart (of which there are many throughout this northern metropolis). From there, I was to use the pedestrian overpass to cross to the other side of the sprawling highway. Once I exited the overpass, I would see the Vips (a Denny’s-style restaurant of which there are also many). Inside this particular one, I would find the archivist for Linares.
Leal Ríos was waiting for me at the door. A distinguished-looking man near sixty, he wore the sort of large-framed glasses one might expect a scholar to have worn thirty years ago, though they mainly reminded me of the ones my Tío Nico still favored. We were waiting for our coffees when Leal Ríos presented me with three books he had written about Linares, one of which, as it turns out, documents the many Indian raids and kidnappings that took place in the mid- to late 1800’s, a period when both Mexico and the U.S. were hunting down Indians and offering bounties for their scalps.
So Tío Nico’s story was based on some truth. But by now I was preoccupied by what seemed like a more pressing question about my family’s history: How exactly is my family name supposed to be spelled? Without adding the accent, had we been misspelling it for more than a century and a half? After all, we were apparently relying on a kidnapped seven-year-old boy’s spelling and pronunciation. Even Leal Ríos, the revered chronicler of Linares, had mispronounced my surname, after which he kindly advised me to consider adding an accent if I cared about others pronouncing it correctly. Nearing forty at the time of my visit, I was pretty sure I knew how to say my name. Yes, I had heard strangers mispronouncing it in every way imaginable and even some ways you wouldn’t imagine. Yes, I had become accustomed to meeting someone for the first time and that person craning her neck so I could repeat—this time saying it a little slower and more directly into her ear—what she thought was such an unusual name. Yes, over time it had become my habit, especially when ordering something over the phone, to say my name and then immediately spell it: C-A-S-A-R-E-S. And yes, I would wince when the well-meaning person on the other end of the line would attempt to pronounce it, assuming any attempt was better than nothing, and then ask, “How’s that?” all proud of himself for trying. And more times than not I had answered, “Better than most,” when it actually wasn’t. But this happened in places like Austin or Dallas or Minneapolis. It wasn’t supposed to be happening in Linares, Nuevo León, the place where my great-great-grandfather’s fate had changed once upon a time.
So this is where my story takes a turn: the story of my chasing down the truth about our family’s arrival in this country now becomes the story of what may or may not have occurred when a little boy, held captive atop a horse, plunged into the waters of el Río Bravo del Norte and, a few minutes later, emerged on its north side, where the same river is known as the Rio Grande. Because, after returning from Mexico, it seemed clear to me that just as the river’s name changed from one muddy bank to the other, so had my family’s, in the manner it was written or perhaps in the way it was supposed to be said.
Our pronunciation and spelling were in clear violation of one of the basic rules of Spanish: unless otherwise indicated with an accent mark, the stress of a word ending in a vowel, n, or s falls on the second-to-last syllable, which means that “Casares” would be pronounced “Ka-SAH-rez.” So by leaving off the accent, my family was inviting people to mispronounce our name, or at the very least, we weren’t doing anything to help with the ongoing confusion. My family’s name needed an acute accent over the first a if I wanted people to say “KAH-sa-rez.” I knew this! But it had never been a problem growing up along the border, where people, and particularly those in my family, spoke in a language whose ease and functionality had, over time, superseded its correctness.
For the first time, I wondered if I should add an accent mark over the first a. It might even be fun, I thought, to sign my name and then end it with a little flourish, as I imagined I might do if I were writing with a quill. On the other hand, the idea of it felt foreign, both figuratively and literally. Figuratively because it was strange and unfamiliar to me to think of adding an accent when this had never been necessary living in Brownsville. And literally because to me an accent had a certain exotic flair that signaled the name of a foreigner, which I wasn’t. I had been raised to see myself as Mexican in heritage and American in nationality. We had been here for more than 165 years, and, like most people living along the border, this duality was not something we gave much thought to, not any more than we would when speaking English and then switching midstream to Spanish and back again, because so often the truth of the matter couldn’t be found in only one language, no more than our histories could be found in only one country.
Perhaps a more conclusive and satisfying answer lay in the birth records of San Luis Potosí, where the delivery of my great-great-grandfather might have been documented, in 1830. A church might have baptismal records. But no matter what this or any other source turned up, there was still the question of what I and everyone else in my family had come to believe, and to say, was our name. Would whatever I uncovered make any difference if, after all, three other generations had lived with this discrepancy without knowing or caring to resolve it?
It’s not like our name had been free of curious twists. We knew there were distant relatives throughout South Texas who, over time, had changed the spelling, though this was also at points when the family tree had splintered off. I remember when I was younger my father would occasionally mention that his nephew Pepe, whom he had once helped care for, spelled the family name differently: “Cazares.” A modest change from one sibilant to another, from a hiss to a slightly stressed hiss, but one very apparent when written, the soft curves of the s replaced by the sharp angles of the z. One of Pepe’s sons is a dentist and another is an attorney, and driving down the main strip in McAllen, we could see their names on the bright signs outside their offices. “Con una zeta,” was all my father said when we drove by, this last letter of the alphabet seeming to carry away our family name. When he was alive, Pepe’s father, Eduardo, had also used the z, but this was before I was born, and so I always associated the different spelling with the son. My father always suspected his brother’s family had altered the name for frivolous reasons. But it turns out there’s a story behind it, as is usually the case with my family. It was only this past summer at the Casares reunion that Pepe finally shared it with me.
His story also started off with a boy, though this one was a baby boy, still crawling when he fell into an empty well at a family ranch, across the river outside Reynosa. The boy was Eduardo, and the year was 1908. He had been born in Texas, but his grandparents on the other side of the border were taking care of him. Left with a limp after the accident, he stayed in Reynosa for seven years, where he could receive special attention from his father’s side of the family. The first day of school there, Eduardo’s teacher informed him that his last name was incorrect as he wrote it, that it was actually spelled with a z, and right then and there she changed it. The boy did not argue and began to write it in this new way until it became an old way and he had adopted it as his own. Later, when he returned to his family on this side of the river, he continued to write his name as “Cazares,” which no one paid particular attention to or took very seriously because he was only a child.
The narratives surrounding our family name are widespread, and their varied story lines can be seen at the old cemetery in Donna, my father’s hometown. Last time I was there, I found four spellings among the headstones—Casares, Casarez, Cáceres, and Caceres—all belonging to my family, each with its own story. “Caceres,” as some have come to tell it, took root after one of my father’s uncles, wanting to leave all his money to only one of his sons, secretly contracted a lawyer to legally change the spelling of their two names. My mother’s godson, who lives near the cemetery, told me that another one of my great uncles had changed the way he spelled Casares to escape the draft during World War I.
As if my great-great-grandfather’s arrival in Texas and the true spelling of our surname weren’t mysterious enough, having so many other stories only muddied the waters, making anything and nothing possible when it came to answering my questions. The issue of my last name resurfaced anytime I traveled in Latin America for a conference or reading tour. In the U.S., when someone asked me about my name, it was so they could be clear about how I wanted it pronounced; in places like Mexico and Colombia, when someone asked me about my name, it was so they could teach me how to say it. In each instance, I didn’t know if they were right or wrong, only that one of the most basic aspects of my identity—what to call myself—had come into doubt. Because doesn’t at least part of our identity come from the very sounds we hear from our families? It begins with the child learning to respond to the name he is called. In time, he realizes that Mama and Papa have other names, proper names they use with the grown-ups. And eventually the child learns that he shares a second name with his parents, that together they are part of the same tribe.
And so, nearly ten years after my journey to Linares, I found myself walking into the Travis County Law Library and asking what it might take to legally add an accent to my last name. After spending half an hour searching through records for any sort of decree that mentioned accent marks, the administrator on duty said that there was no documentation for such a procedure, most likely because the addition of an accent mark did not change the letter, only the pronunciation, and so it was not considered an actual name change.
I finally decided to add the accent, as you can see on the first page of this story, not because of what may have occurred when a little boy was left on the bank of the Rio Grande but because my son was starting school in a Spanish-immersion program, taught by teachers from all over Latin America, and I knew there would be questions about how to say and write his last name. I figured it was a good thing to relieve him of that one burden, of always having to explain the pronunciation of his surname and never knowing if he was right. So I started signing my checks this way, then letters and birthday cards and receipts. Now I even know how to add an accent mark to my name on the computer, a handy trick that I use in my emails. Every once in a while, though, I’ll notice in the reply that the other person’s computer isn’t able to read my accent and so, instead, converts it into a question mark, which somehow seems about right.