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South county name difficult but well-known
Quick — say Urtuzuastegui.
It's a hard surname to pronounce and spell, but the unique name is very big in south Yuma County, where a street is even named after the well-known family.
Somerton resident Josephine Urtuzuastegui, 86, has had nearly 70 years to get used to her married last name, but she'll still admit that it's been a challenge. The former Josephine Obeso was 17 years old when she married Charles Urtuzuastegui in 1941 and went from having a simple surname to a 13-letter mouthful.
“I've lived with the name for almost 70 years,” Josephine told the Yuma Sun. “It's a beautiful name and I love it.”
But she confessed the name had to grow on her.
“When I first got married, nobody could pronounce it. I was really embarrassed and would just say, ‘Call me Josephine.'”
Then she had three sons — Charles Jr.; Alex, who passed away in March; and Robert — and with children came doctor visits.
“The doctor could never say Mrs. Urtuzuastegui. I told him to call me Mrs. Josephine. After that everyone called me ‘Mrs. Josephine.'”
Nevertheless, she's “very proud” to be part of the well-known pioneer family. Her late husband, who passed away in 2007, co-founded with his brother the longtime Charles and Frank stores in Somerton and San Luis, Ariz.
“There's no other name like ours,” Josephine pointed out.
The San Luis City Council agreed and renamed the uninspired A Street to Urtuzuastegui Street.
Josephine's granddaughter, Alexis Urtuzuastegui, 40, who lives in Yuma and is a teacher at Gila Vista Junior High, credits her late father, Alex, with making it happen.
“He is the one who initiated the naming of the street in San Luis and went through all of the red tape to make it happen,” she told the Yuma Sun.
Robert Urtuzuastegui, 58, Josephine's youngest son, said: “We're just honored, very honored that it was named for my dad.”
Although Urtuzuastegui is a familiar name in Somerton and San Luis, some people still object to having a public street with such an unusual name. When the Yuma Sun reported on a paving project on Urtuzuastegui Street, a reader posted the comment: “Leave it to the San Luis City Council to adopt a street name that is unspellable and unpronounceable.”
Businesses located on the street have also had their share of challenges. Leticia Aragon, owner of Bella Fashion, 710 E. Urtuzuastegui, has resisted changing the name on her business card.
“Every time I say it, there's a problem, people don't get it. It's like a tongue-twister,” Aragon recently told the Yuma Sun in Spanish. “Just yesterday, I was trying to change the address for my insurance, but they couldn't understand it. They have to see it written down.”
And it's not only English-speakers who have trouble pronouncing it; Spanish-speakers also trip over the name, Aragon said.
“If you live here, you know it. But if they're not from here, people are, like, what? It's an unusual name. I had never heard of it before. Now, after three years, I can say it. But to write it out, I have to think it through,” she explained.
The Urtuzuasteguis also run into trouble when trying to do business, as Alexis will concede.
“Going to stores or calling business on the phone usually prompts the question ‘Can I just call you Alexis?'”
But while this family name is unique, it certainly isn't new.
According to a past Yuma Sun article on the family's history, the surname can be traced back to about 1400 to the European Pyrenees Mountain area and the southeast coast of the Bay of Biscay, homeland of the Basque people.
The Urtuzuasteguis' ancestors migrated from Europe into Mexico. After the Mexico Revolutionary War in 1910, Francisco Juan and Dolores Urtuzuastegui moved their family from Chihuahua, Mexico, to Los Mochis, Mexico, and then into Arizona Territory.
Along the way, the family's surname also underwent a slight change.
A post by Frank Urtuzuastegui on Geneology.com reads: “When my grandfather Fco Juan came to Arizona he changed the spelling from Urtusuastegui back to Urtuzuastegui. Many relatives in Chih(uahua) and Sinaloa spell the last name with s instead of z.”
The name is still so unique that WhitePages.com lists Urtuzuasteguis only in three other states: Washington, California and Colorado. But the greatest concentration remains in Arizona.
Facebook even has a page dedicated to people who share the surname.
Robert, Josephine's son, said the most frequently asked question has been how long did it take you to learn to pronounce it properly? His answer: By third grade.
Josephine's advice? “If you pronounce it like it's written, you'll get the hang of it.”
But perhaps you'll need to start off slowly, which is the method that Robert uses to help others pronounce the name. “It helps if they separate the name: Ur-tu-zua-ste-gui.”
Alexis promises that the more it's pronounced, the easier it gets.
“As the name looks very daunting at first, upon learning how to pronounce it, most find it easier than it looks. Pronouncing the name and teaching people how to say it has become such old hat that I don't even realize it anymore. However, sometimes I am tempted, when asked, ‘How do you pronounce that?' to reply ‘I am not sure, no one ever taught me.'”
But she won't easily let her students off the hook.
“As a high school teacher, I encourage my students to use my full last name. I spell it phonetically for them on the first day of school and give them time to practice. They know that if I am going to learn all of their names, they should learn mine. It takes them awhile, but they finally get the hang of it. Until that time, they call me Ms. U.”
Sometimes it takes a little more creativity to pronounce it — sort of.
“My brother-in-law, on learning my last name, found it easier to pronounce it as ‘You are a squashed kitty,'” Alexis said.
Mara Knaub can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-6856.