BOGOTA—If you think you got teased as a kid, try growing up with the name Alka Seltzer, Telefono, Chorizo, Cosita Rica (Tasty Little Thing) or even Putica (Little Whore).

Such unfortunate names are not uncommon among the Wayuu, Colombia's largest indigenous group. Many members of the tribe were assigned nonsense names by mischievous government officials who didn’t understand the Wayuus' original names so wrote down whatever occurred to them or sounded close, even if it was a total mockery.

But now, thanks to a new law, hundreds of misnamed indigenous people can finally change their name to something more appropriate.

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In November, the Colombian government started to dispatch officials to fix the problem in small Wayuu towns.

“I’m really pleased with my new name,” said Felipe Jusayu, a 96-year-old Wayuu elder who in 1961 was given a state ID card with the name "Cachon" (Spanish for cuckold).

Felipe Jusayu's state ID also mispeled his last name

Jusayu says he didn't know what his name meant, because he hardly speaks Spanish.

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“Whenever I went with him to a hospital and he had to show his ID, people would look at us strangely and ask where that name came from,” his bilingual granddaughter Isabel told me in a phone interview. “Sometimes they’d even laugh.”

For many, a name change is about righting an old wrong. Indigenous activists say the embarrassing name designations were mostly given to the Wayuu by clueless, or even malicious government officials.

“They mocked us,” said Estercilia Simanca, a Wayuu writer and lawyer who helped produce a documentary on the issue.

A man named Grillo (Grashopper) holds his ID

According to Simanca  many people were given weird names during election years, when "documentation brigades" rounded up whole villages and quickly churned out national ID cards as a way of padding voting registries to help incumbent politicians.

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“There was a man called Rafael Pushaina but he could not pronounce the F cause that letter doesn’t exist in the Wayuu language,” Simanca said. “So he told the registrar he was called Rapayel…and the registrar understood Raspahierro (iron scratcher) and that’s what showed up on his ID.”

In 1961 Rafael Pushaina was given a state ID card which named him "Raspahierro"

Chorizo Epinayu had a similar problem.

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“My name was Turizo, but in the registrar’s office they misunderstood me and wrote down Chorizo (sausage). They screwed up and because I didn't know how to read, I left without noticing,” Epinayu told Colombian newspaper El Tiempo.

Simanca estimates that there could be as many as 5,000 Wayuu with incorrect names—at least one person for every Wayuu settlement in Colombia.

“There is Coito (intercourse) and Cazon (shark), Baloncita (little ball), Bombon, Jesus Christ and Cuarenta (forty)," she said. "There’s a guy called Payaso (clown) and Payasito (little clown)…and there’s also the case of Condom.”

Payaso is no clown and was happy to change is name.

Another oddity is that many of the Wayuu with weird names have the same birthdate: December 31. It's another example of the government's sloppy job issuing IDs.

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“The Wayuu were coming across officials who did not act humanely and were just interested in expediting things as quickly as possible,” Simanca said.

Simanca (right) poses for a picture with Baloncita Jusayu, who had her name changed to Elizabeth
Photo via @SguerreroB

Fortunately, cultural attitudes are starting to change.

In the last week of November Colombia’s National Registrar and the Ministry of Justice visited seven municipalities with large Wayuu populations, where they helped 45 people—Chorizo and Cachon included—to change their names.

Chorizo Epinayu prepares to get his name changed to Turizo, during a visit by officials to the town of Manaure

But Simanca, who's been petitioning the National Registrar's Office to fix the problem since 2005, said it wasn’t easy to convince the government to make amends.

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“Back then they told me that those names corresponded to the information that people gave to the national registry, which obviously wasn’t true,” Simanca said.

Nine years later Simanca filed a second petition, following the release of the documentary and several subsequent TV reports on the misnamed Wayuu. The government responded by issuing a decree that said any indigenous Colombian could change his or her name for free if they thought they had been misidentified on their ID cards.

A community leader explains the new naming scheme to the residents of Manaure, speaking in the Wayuu language

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The “for free” part was crucial Simanca said, because many Wayuu cannot afford the legal fees associated with changing a name in the national registry.

“As a Wayuu I am very proud to have been part of this,” Simanca said. “We actually built a new public policy.”

Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.