Hitler lives in Uruguay. Yes. In this eastern republic of South America lives a Hitler Aguirre and a Hitler da Silva. There’s Hitler Pereira and Hitler Edén Ganoso. There’s even a Hitler de los Santos—”of the Saints.” Though only six such names appear in the national phone book, it’s hard to know how many other Hitlers have a phone or how many prefer to be listed under different names in order to avoid being misjudged or mocked. To be called by the surname of the perpetrator of the worst genocide of the twentieth century—that is, Hitler—wouldn’t that give one cause for shame?
“No one knows that’s my name,” Luis Ytler Diotti confesses over the phone. He keeps his middle name a family secret, as his father advised him when he was a child. Everyone knows him as Luis, period.
Hitler Pereira’s case is similar: those who know him call him Waldemar, his middle name. His son, who picks up the phone, refuses to connect me to his father: there’s nothing to talk about.
Juan Hitler Porley declines to be photographed: “I’m don’t want to advertise this,” he says, distrustfully.
I interviewed Hitler de los Santos in 1996, when he had already begun the process of changing his name. It seems he succeeded, because it’s now impossible to find him in the phone book.
But there are those who bear the name Hitler without shame, even with pride. Hitler Aguirre, for example, a small business owner, never wanted to change his name. For him, being called Hitler is the most normal thing in the world, and he doesn’t see it as a cause for embarrassment. Talking with him is somewhat disquieting: this man, the owner of a wholesale shop in Tacuarembó, a small city in the northern part of the country, says he’s a leftist, was even persecuted for his ideas. At the same time, he insists that Hitler is a name like any other. So normal that he named his firstborn son Hitler as well.
All of the Uruguayan Hitlers (at least those in the phone book) are elderly. All were born just before or during World War II, when the German dictator Adolf Hitler divided the world between his sympathizers, his detractors and his victims. All the Uruguayan Hitlers belong to that period but one: Hitler Aguirre Junior, the oldest son of Hitler Aguirre, is 38 years old and the only exception. Can he live at peace with his name?
In Uruguay, strange names are a century-old tradition. At the end of 2007, the chief of the parliamentary guard was still the commissioner Waldisney Dutra. And a politician surnamed Pittaluga was called Lucas Delirio. Similar cases occur in other countries. In Venezuela there is debate underway over whether or not to ban names like Batman, Superman and Usnavy. The Spanish town of Huerta del Rey proudly calls itself the Mecca of strange appellations, as 300 of their 900 inhabitants have been christened with such names as Floripes and Sinclética. But with respect to the oddity of citizen nomenclature, Uruguay rises to the top.
The principal historian of private life in this country, José Pedro Barrán, says extravagant names began to multiply at the beginning of the twentieth century, when the anticlerical president José Batlle y Ordoñez promoted the separation of church and state, and people discovered they weren’t obligated to baptize their children with names of Christian martyrs and saints.
Around this time, the doctor Roberto Bouton traveled around the country, practicing medicine and getting to know his countrymen, who had names as removed from the Roman Catholic calendar as Subterránea Gadea, Clandestina da Cuhna, and others that translate, along with their last names, to Traffic Knight, Valiant Feline, Sweet Name Rosebush and Spotted Love Knot. He treated a man named Maternity Tower and another christened Cierrense Las Velaciones, an profoundly untranslatable name calling to an end to the velorio, a traditional Latin American wake. The law permitted parents to choose whatever names they fancied, never mind how appalling. The Civil Register certifies the existence of Pepa Colorada (“Pink-Face”) Casas, Roy Rogers Pereira, Fall-Down Freire and Selamira (meaning, roughly “All Eyes on Her”) Godoy, among others. Meanwhile, the Electoral Court includes such Uruguayan citizens as Ugly Pretty Méndez, Forget-Me-Not Rodríguez, Democratic Palm Tree Silvera, Filete Suárez, Teléfono Gómez and Oxígeno Maidana. In those years, naming a child was like a crazed battle of wits. How else can you explain parents surnamed Leche (“milk”), deciding to call their son Tomás—meaning “to drink”?
But reason also had its heroes. There are functionaries who could very well be decorated for refusing to register degrading names. Around the middle of the twentieth century, the magistrate Óscar Teófilo Vidal, who worked in the remote town of Cebollati, in the eastern part of the country near the Brazilian border, kept a notebook all the names he successfully suppressed in his career. The list, published in a local newspaper in 2004, included Coito García, Prematuro Fernández, Completo Silva, Asteroide Muñiz, Lanza Perfume (“Exuding Perfume”) Rodríguez, Socorro Inmediato (“Immediate Help”) Gómez, and Sherlock Holmes García.
Of course, it’s one thing to want to name your son Sherlock Holmes, and quite another to condemn him to the name of Hitler.
Uruguayan historians believe rational explanations exist for the abundance of Hitlers in their country. The greater part of the population descends from immigrants, in general Spanish or Italians, but also Germans, French, Swiss, British, Slavs, Jews, Syrians, Lebanese, and Armenians. The settlers paid attention to what was happening in their native lands. “Uruguay has always paid great attention to what was happening outside its borders, because we’re a country of immigrants. The Uruguayan nationality is based on an open and cosmopolitan idea,” the historian José Pedro Barrán told me with some annoyance, as if emphasizing the obvious.
In the beginning of the twentieth century, Uruguay was proud of its openness to the world, says José Rilla, another historian. Public schools had names like England and France. Holidays, like the Fourth of July, reflected foreign celebrations. Resentment against the foreign influence didn’t exist, and the newspapers dedicated their front pages to international news. In the thirties, for example, people followed Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia with passionate intensity, and soon after, their interest began to appear in the names Italian immigrants and other Uruguayans gave their children. More than half a century later, eleven citizens still survive in the phone book with the name of Addis Abeba, after the Ethiopian capital, as well as two Haile Selassies, after the prince who faced Benito Mussolini’s troops.
Addis Abeba Morales, born in 1936, loves her name, though those who know her prefer to call her Pocha. “My name was my godmother’s idea,” she tells me proudly over the phone. “She was with my mother at the London Paris stores, in the center of Montevideo, and there was a news ticker that showed headlines from the war. My mother was pregnant, and as they read the news, they decided, ‘If it’s a girl, we’ll name her Addis Abebba; if it’s a boy, Haile Selassie.'”
On the opposite side of this imaginary battlefield, other parents christened their sons with the name of the Italian dictator. Today, Manuel Mussolini Garcia is a retired banker, 70 years old, who sometimes entertains himself unraveling the mysteries of his name. “Mussolini was a hero,” he says, resigned. “Later, in 1942, when he allied with Hitler, that crook, he became an undignified man, but I already had his name.” He later tells me that his daughter married a man with the last name of Moscovitz. “Look at life’s paradoxes: I, Mussolini, now have a Jewish grandson.”
Just as with the war in Ethiopia, Germany’s expansionist politics in the 1930s and 40s generated news that Uruguayans followed with the same delight they now get from telenovelas. Then, by a similar process of imitation, a wave of Hitlers was born in this placid South American country.
“I was born in 1934, and at that point my mother already had eleven children. She’d run out of names; she didn’t know what name to give me. She had just read about Hitler in the newspaper, and she liked the name,” Hitler Edén Gayoso told me the evening I conversed with him by phone. “She didn’t know politics; she lived in the middle of the country. How was she going to know who Hitler was?”
Something similar happened to Luis Ytler Diotti, also born in 1934, the son of an Italian immigrant. His father wanted to name him Hitler, but the boy was registered as Ytler for reasons now unknown. “I was born when Hitler was appointed chief of the German government. At the time, naming your son Hitler seemed like a good thing. But afterward, he realized it wasn’t such a great idea.”
Juan Hitler Porley, who played soccer as a youth, was born in 1943, when Hitler’s dismal profile was much clearer. However, Porley assures me that his father wasn’t a Nazi. “I never asked him why he gave me my middle name,” he said when we talked over the phone. “I think he believed Hitler was like any famous name, like naming a child Palito, after Palito Ortega,” an Argentine actor and pop star.
The stories of Hitler Edén Gayoso, Luis Ytler Diotti and Juan Hitler Porley have one thing in common: the three say their fathers chose their names out of novelty or ignorance. The three seem to feel a certain discomfort when the topic comes up.
The cases of Hitler Aguirre and Hitler da Silva are different. Their fathers did believe in Hitler and his ideology. Both are protagonists in the documentary Dos Hitlers, by the Uruguayan filmmaker Ana Tipa. Tipa, who lived in Germany, observed how shocking it was for the people in towns involved in World War II to find that someone could be named Hitler, as occurs naturally in Uruguay. So she made this movie.
Hitler da Silva was born in Artigas, a one-street town on the northern border with Brazil. His father was a police officer who overflowed with admiration for the Nazi leader. “He liked his ideas, his way of being, the things he did,” da Silva tells me one rainy night, dressed in blue jeans, at his daughter’s modest Montevideo apartment. “My father listened to the news, saved newspaper clippings, everything he could get about Hitler. If somebody criticized him, my father defended him vehemently. In 1939, when I was born, he named me Hitler, just like he’d promised, in spite of my mother’s opposition,” he says. “Then, he wanted to name his second son Mussolini, but my mother, who was illiterate, firmly refused. She preferred more common names.”
During the same period, not far from here, in the department of Tacuarembó, the Aguirre brothers argued over international politics, as was the custom. Who’s better? they’d ask each other: Hitler or Mussolini? “The old brutes would debate who killed more people—how barbaric! In the end my uncle named his son Mussolini, and my father named me Hitler,” Hitler Aguirre tells me. He is the Hitler who sells wholesale goods in Tacuarembó. The disquieting, leftist Hitler who never wanted to change his name.
“If your father named you Hitler out of stupidity,” I asked him over the phone, “Why did you name your son Hitler?”
“Tradition. How stupid!”
It is now known that Hitler’s actions and ideas caused the death of millions of people. When the crimes his Nazi army committed became known around the world, bearing his name became a social stigma. The father of Luis Ytler Diotti, for example, soon regretted the name he had chosen for his son. “The atrocities that man committed weighed on him. My name had taken on an idea that had nothing to do with what my father thought when he named me. He sought advice about the process he’d have to go through to change my name, but he saw it wasn’t that simple. I was a grown boy when he told me: never use this name again, and don’t sign with it, either. From that day, I’ve never mentioned it.”
Hitler da Silva’s classmates constantly upset him. They would chase him, jeering: “German! Assasin!”
One day little Hitler came home in a rage and rebuked his father for giving him the name. His father looked at him, patted his head and said that one day he would feel very proud of it.
But that day never came. Hitler da Silva was a police officer like his father, even survived gun battles with the leftist Tupamaro guerillas in the 1970s. In his native city of Artigas, many people still greet him, “Heil, Hitler.” Da Silva, a tall man with a full head of white hair and features that could pass for “Aryan,” doesn’t feel proud of it. “The man had crazy ideas: rejecting people on the basis of their skin or their race, what he did to the Jews, the Holocaust. His opinions aren’t mine,” he says.
The name Hitler hasn’t brought luck to Da Silva. You can see in his gaze that life has treated him harshly. He didn’t rise in the ranks of the police force, and, now retired, he lives on almost nothing. He doesn’t even have a phone in his house. He says that more than once, he’s felt the rejection his name provokes, and for that reason, never considered naming any of his children Hitler. Once he visited Buenos Aires: every time he showed his ID at a hotel, he was told there were no rooms available.
Hitler Aguirre, on the other hand, insists that he’s never had problems with his name, never felt any kind of rejection. The magistrate who registered his birth didn’t oppose it; neither did the priest who baptized him. The only person who tried to convince him to change his name was the director of the hospital in Tacuarembó, who was also his high school teacher. At the time Aguirre was some thirteen years old, and he ascertained that the process was very costly. His family was poor. “So I never wanted to change my name,” he tells me over the phone, reaffirming his decision. “Doctor Barragués told me about the things Hitler had done, but the truth is that they didn’t matter to me. And when my first son was born I named him Hitler, as tradition dictates.”
During three long phone conversations, I asked Hitler Aguirre about the horrors of Nazism in every possible way. But his name doesn’t provoke any reaction. “Frankly, I don’t care what Hitler might have done. I focus on my own life. What happened, fine. I didn’t have anything to do with it. Each person makes his own history, and the name he has doesn’t matter.”
Has he seen any movies that narrate the horror of the Holocaust? Hitler Aguirre says he never goes to the theater and never watches TV. He doesn’t have a VCR or a DVD player. He doesn’t use a computer. He never leaves his little town of Tacuarembó. He’s only gone to Montevideo a couple times in his life, and then, to see the doctor. “When I was 17 years old, I shut myself in, working at a bar day and night, Saturdays and Sundays straight through,” he tells me. Working like that, he came to own one of the biggest bars in the city. He had started to vote for the Frente Amplio, a leftist party, out of protest because the vote became obligatory in Uruguay. When a military dictatorship took power in 1973, he stayed under surveillance, along with everyone on the left. Accused of usury, he was jailed for fifty days. His bar got one tax inspection after another, until the inspecting accountants imposed such a large fine that he was forced to sell the bar and go live in the country. The chief of the team of inspectors was a Jewish woman. When Hitler Aguirre remembers those days, he’s overwhelmed with the fury and hate he used to feel. “If Hitler really killed seven million Jews,” he says, “this accountant wouldn’t have existed. And she wouldn’t have fucked me over.”
Hitler Aguirre didn’t consult with his wife to choose the name his firstborn son would have to carry. Like his grandfather and father in their time, Aguirre decided on Hitler alone. He who commands is the man of the house, he explains. He wanted to name another of his sons Líber Seregni, after he first leader of the Frente Amplio, a soldier who was jailed for a decade during the right-wing dictatorship. Now he remembers that a nurse convinced him it might be better just to call him Líber.
As for Hitler Aguirre Junior, everyone calls him Negro. This Hitler Negro never reproached his progenitor for the name he was given. Nor does he feel uncomfortable calling himself Hitler, nor has he encountered any problems because of it. An ophthalmologist he frequents in Montevideo says he’s simply going to call him H. He thinks the doctor’s only joking. “I never had a problem with the name,” he also says over the phone. “People pay attention to novelty. But it doesn’t affect me at all. In his time, Hitler must have been famous.” He later confesses that he never liked to study. He finished school, studied one year at a polytechnic institute and later abandoned classes to work in the country. Today he raises cows and sheep.
Unlike his father, Hitler Aguirre Junior has seen a few movies about the Nazi leader. “What terrible killings!” he says. Was he moved when he learned about the crimes of his most famous namesake? “Yes, I’m disturbed by what he did,” Aguirre recognizes, without changing the tone of his voice. “But the name, no, the name doesn’t damage me at all. Maybe people see things differently in Montevideo, but here in Tacuarembó, mine is a name like any other.”
Isn’t it paradoxical that a person named Hitler is called Negro? He laughs. He says that in his land no one goes around parsing this kind of subtlety.
The case of the Uruguayan Hitlers (and the Haile Selassies and Mussolinis) should be understood in its historical context, the historian José Rilla explains. “In those years, people had a faith in politics, in great leaders, in progress,” he says. “Today, political leaders have lost that prophetic dimension. No one is going to name their son after Tony Blair. Politicians today don’t garner a lot of support.” If Rilla’s affirmations are true, in a short time Uruguay’s Hitlers will be extinct, and they won’t be succeeded by children named George Bush, Vladmir Putin, Hugo Chávez or Osama Bin Laden. The country has changed. It is not as cosmopolitan as it once was; it no longer receives immigrants. The newspapers sell ten times less than they did half a century ago, and international politics no longer spark the collective imagination. Now almost no one believes that a leader will come to save the world. Today’s parents take their inspiration from TV when it comes time to baptize their children. Government officials working in the Civil Registry remember a wave of boys named Maicol (pronounced Michael) in the 1990s, in honor of the protagonist of the American TV series, Knight Rider. There were also thousands of girls named Abigail, after the heroine of a Venezuelan soap opera.
In the middle of the countryside, Hitler Aguirre Junior, el Negro, also has a television. And in spite of the movies he’s seen about the Nazis and their killings, up until recently his dream was to have a son and name him Hitler, like he and his father. “I didn’t decide it because I was a fanatic, nothing like that. It’s tradition, and you have to follow it,” he explains. But since time has changed a few things, he did consult on the name with his wife. She accepted the idea and only asked that their son have a middle name also. They were going to call him Hitler Ariel, and he might have been the only Hitler in the world with a Jewish middle name. But it didn’t happen. His wife got pregnant twice, and both times gave birth to girls: Carmen Yanette, now 16, and María del Carmen, 12. El Negro laughs when he talks about these incidents. He wanted a son, but he’s resigned himself. He ended up with two girls he adores, and he doesn’t want any more children. “The factory’s closed,” he tells me. And with that, it seems the Hitler dynasty has ended.
Our colleagues at the Lima-based magazine Etiqueta Negra are redoing their website. While their site is under construction, n+1 will be running a bilingual series of articles from the magazine.