The Miami Herald
Sun, Nov. 20, 2005

What's in a (Spanish) name? A shot at being famous

Hispanics with non-Spanish names can find it challenging when trying to make it in media and entertainment.


Ingrid Hoffmann's Teutonic name has always provoked queries about its origin ever since she was growing up in Colombia. But now that she's branding herself as a Miami-based Latin cooking and entertainment media maven, the attention has gotten more than a little irksome.

'I was doing a presentation for a major retailer and they said `is she really Latin?' People don't think I'm Latin enough because of my name!'' says an indignant Hoffmann.

It's a far cry from the days when the likes of Ramón Estévez and Richard Valenzuela had to become Martin Sheen and Ritchie Valens, respectively, to make it in show biz.

Now with the Hispanic population mushrooming and Spanish-language media drawing record audiences, it's hip to be Latino -- and even better if you have the Spanish name, either first or last, to prove it.

But due to accidents of ancestry, some Hispanics like Hoffmann, whose grandfather emigrated from Germany to Colombia, have neither. And increasingly common in this country are the progeny of Hispanic mothers and non-Hispanic fathers who sometimes end up with a Hispanic identity that doesn't readily reveal itself on paper.

''In Latin America, people don't blink and just pronounce the name in Spanish,'' says Chuck Walker, Latin American history professor at the University of California at Davis.

But in this country, being Hispanic often means conforming to a stereotypical name and look in both Spanish- and English-language entertainment spheres.

As Hoffmann and others have found, it can be a trifle sticky in select careers where being Hispanic matters.

Take Telemundo WSCV-TV 51 meteorologist John Morales. The son of an Irish-American father and Puerto Rican mother, he was born John Toohey and grew up in Puerto Rico.

His name only became an issue when he moved to the U.S. mainland 14 years ago to work for Univisión. A condition of the job: ditch the ``Toohey.''

'It wasn't a big deal. In Puerto Rico, I was 'Toohey Morales' because they use both the father's last name and the mother's,'' says Morales, whose legal name remains Toohey. 'Toohey would've been harder for [Spanish-speaking] people here to understand. In Puerto Rico, they never could figure out how it was spelled. They spelled it `Tui,' or think it was 'Dewey.' ''

Others who work in Spanish-language media admit non-Hispanic names can be challenging for their audiences, but say it's really about the person not the moniker.

''I don't feel anyone has to have a Spanish name, it goes much deeper than that,'' says personal finance guru Julie Stav, who was born Julieta Alfonso in Cuba.

Years ago when she worked for PBS, people never dreamed that she was Hispanic. ''I would be asked if I needed a translator for Spanish,'' she says.

Stav is her married name, which she chose to use for family reasons. And Julie? 'I hated it when [non-Hispanics] would call me `Joo-lieta' not ''Hoo-lieta','' recalls Stav, who does radio and TV shows and pens columns and books. 'So I became `Joo-lee' because in Cuba, that's what they would call me.''

Stav knows that her audience stumbles over that surname, which she pronounces in Spanish ''Estav.'' 'One lady asked me `is that like `estafa,' which means fraud in Spanish. I thought 'wow, here I am dealing with money and people think my name is `estafa!' '' she says.

Names can be a factor in developing a career, said Raúl Mateu, senior vice president of William Morris Agency in Miami, which represents many Latin performers.

''Ultimately, it doesn't make a difference if the talent is really good,'' he says. 'There's great confusion in the general market about what is Hispanic. We have a lot of Hispanic talent with white skin and blond hair. They get sent out to casting calls and told `you're not Hispanic enough.' But if you focus only on the look or the name, you're going to fail.''

Singer-actor Carlos Ponce, who lives in Pinecrest and has a role on WB's Seventh Heaven, has the name, but not quite the look, which he admits has cost him a few ''Latin'' roles. ''I'm a little lighter than the stereotype. They simply want tall, dark and handsome,'' he says.

His solution to underscore his Hispanicity: ''I thicken my accent even more,'' he laughs.

Names are less important in offstage careers, but identity still matters. Coral Gables publicist Tadd Schwartz is quick to let people know that despite his name, he's half-Hispanic -- the son of a Cuban mother and Jewish American father.

'I've never viewed my name as my identity. I'm just as much `Soriano' as 'Schwartz,' '' Schwartz says, referring to his mother's maiden name and father's surname respectively. ``But when people find out I'm Cuban, they are surprised because I don't wear my culture on my sleeve.''

For Colombian Hoffmann, who has a show on DirecTV called Delicioso, segments on Univisión's Despierta América and writes columns for Buenhogar and the Rumbo chain of newspapers, her name has now become a point of pride.

Many people have suggested she be known simply as ''Ingrid,'' but she refuses. 'It happened just the other day. I was filming a commercial for Buenhogar and the producer says `do we have to say your last name? I said 'yes! It's my name!,' '' relates Hoffmann, who has a Latin lifestyle book coming out next year. ``I have to be true to myself. I want to show the other side of the stereotype. We Hispanics come in different colors, faces and flavors.''