Tuesday, October 26, 2010

To be, or not to be

It can get boring living out here beyond the pale; there are no concerts, lectures, or art museums nearby.  But government bureaucracies transcend geographical limitations so even out here I can and do find legal hassles.

Soon after I came to Spain I decided that when I was eligible, I would become a Spanish citizen.  Having no intention of going back to the U.S., it would give me the right to vote here (where I follow the issues), and it would make me more a part of the society where I live.  Spain makes you renounce any other citizenship and turn in your former passport, but America does not have that restriction so you only have to apply for a duplicate to have your American passport back.

About a year ago the time had come.  Among other things that were required was that pesky criminal record that I wrote about last April.  Once I had those fingerprints correctly done by the Catalan police, it took another few weeks to actually get the official statement from California.  In fact there was some irregularity to what I had sent, but the sheriff was kind enough to let it go through.  He is a very nice and helpful sheriff and has a standing invitation to come and visit.  I had the statement officially translated into Spanish in Tarragona and added it to the growing mountain of papers.

In the middle of collecting endless documents for my citizenship application, I was also immersed in trying to get myself inscribed as Manuel’s wife in Panama, the country from which he gets his largest retirement pension.  They won’t pay out any extra for me, but getting listed as his wife will give me widow benefits if he dies before I do.

We’ve sent numerous documents to Panama over several years and made many follow-up attempts by letter and phone.  Manuel even went into the Social Security office in Panama City in person last year.  They wanted this, then they wanted that, then they said that something we sent (at considerable trouble and expense) never arrived, even though we had sent it registered mail.  That was my birth certificate.  About three years ago we went to the Dominican Consulate in Barcelona to request a copy of my birth certificate.  They told us that you can only do it in person in the Dominican Republic.  If you can’t go, you can ask a friend or family member to go in for you.  Of course I don’t know a soul in the Dominican Republic.  In hindsight I see the trick they were playing on me, but at the time we were desperate, so we were grateful when the functionary said he would find an attorney who would take care of it for us.  That only cost us about 300 euros.  Now I needed yet another birth certificate for my citizenship application, so I decided to try a different route and requested it online through the Dominican Embassy in Washington.  It cost me $10 plus postage (actually my stepson Manuel graciously wrote the check for me).  No one got rich off of that certificate.

Unfortunately, the social security office in Panama later informed us that I would have to provide a court statement certifying that my name was legally changed from the one on my birth certificate to the one I currently use, the same one that is on my American passport, our marriage certificate, all my Spanish documents, everything that is current.  Not only that, but I have a Spanish court issued statement certifying that I am alive.  If I have documents to prove that I am married to Manuel and up-to-date identity papers that certify that I exist and am currently alive, a citizen of the U.S., and a resident of Spain, why do I even need a birth certificate?  What difference could where or when I was born possibly make in this matter?

Changing my name has been a kind of hobby of mine.  Possibly it has to do with an identity problem – something I’ve evidently been plagued with over the years.  I’ve changed my first name, my middle name, and my family name, and the latter I’ve changed more than once.    But some years ago I settled on what I use now, having my father’s original last name as my middle name and my first married name as my family name.  In fact, I’ve used this family name twice as long as I did my maiden name (and my maiden name was not our original family name because my parents had changed it when we immigrated to the U.S.). 

So I sent Panama an affidavit stamped and sealed by the American Consul in Barcelona explaining and testifying to the name change.  But it wouldn’t do.  Nothing short of a legal statement from an American court would do.  I thought of applying for the court order myself using a Nolo Press do-it-yourself book, but part of the procedure is a personal appearance in court and besides you are supposed to be residing in the court district.  Since it wasn’t straightforward, I asked Howard, an old friend of mine from Los Angeles who practices law in the Bay Area to help me.  So I am now in the middle of trying to obtain a court order certifying the legal change of my birth name to my present name.  It has cost me a lot of time and may end up also costing several hundred dollars.  But after I obtain the court order, I’ve promised myself never to change my name again.

Back to my Spanish citizenship.  In August, when I thought I had all the required documents, I went in to the government office in Tortosa.  But of course I didn’t have everything after all.  So I went away and worked on assembling the rest.  And finally, last week I went in with the full complement of papers.  They went through it all and could find nothing missing except the marriage certificate issued here in Spain, certifying our American marriage.  But I had the official signed and stamped receipt for having filed the request for it, and that would suffice until the real document is produced.  It seemed that everything was, after all, in order.

I thought we were finished, but they still had one small surprise in store for me.  Just as I was getting ready to leave, the clerk mentioned that once my citizenship was approved, my name would be changed.  What?  I don’t want to change my name.  Yes, my name would be changed to the Spanish way of doing last names.  After all, at that point I would be Spanish, and Spanish family names are in two parts: first the father’s family name, and then the mother’s.  What a nightmare!  I didn’t grow up with my father’s real last name; he had changed it when I was two.  Some years ago I adopted my father’s real family name as my middle name, and it now appears on all my official papers, but I’ve never used it as my last name.  I can’t even pronounce my mother’s maiden name properly.  Besides, the one she put on my birth certificate was not her real maiden name.  She had been using this one during the War as a kind of protection because her own was so obviously more Jewish.  I guess changing names is an inherited family trait.

Now this new development presented some serious problems for me.  First of all I am in the middle of a long distance legal process to get the name I use officially certified, court-ordered, and recorded.  Then the next thing I do is go change it to something else again!  Apart from the fact that I don’t like being dictated to, changing my name again seems to me to be asking for a lot more trouble down the road.  And besides, my name is part of my identity.  I like my name.  I chose my name.  It’s been mine for forty years.  It’s who I am.  Who are these people to say I must change it?

I left the Civil Register office with all my documents in hand, telling the clerk that I would have to think about it.