You might say I was fated to be a writer – either that, or a con-artist or a spy or some other kind of criminal – because I was endowed at birth with a double identity. – Margaret Atwood
For about the first four years of my life, I wasn’t quite sure what my name was, or that it was customary to have just one. My parents called me, “Nena,” (NEH-nah) when addressing me directly, and, using the Argentine habit of adding “the” to a person’s name when talking about them, “La Nena,” when pointing out my foibles between them. (“Nena” means “little girl” in Spanish). “Nena” sometimes gave way to “Cheni,” for reasons I would not decipher for a decade. At odd times, they’d call me something longer, compound. I’d put my head down and go back to my coloring.
At four I remember going to a playground with wonderfully, impossibly high swings of the variety that today would get a town sued and a large settlement paid for serious injuries, along with tall metal slides that burned the backs of your thighs on the way down and made your heart flutter at how high you had to climb to slide down. There were also my favorites: little horses on a metal chain at the front and back which, if you pushed the pedals, swung back and forth and sometimes caught your ponytail in the back chain if you weren’t careful. This playground was heaven but for one catch: it had other children in it, most of whom only spoke English, a language I had not quite mastered. When I approached them asking if they wanted to play, they invariably asked one question: “What’s your name?”
I’ve always been a quick study, so I learned young that telling new kids my name was a recipe for confusion. I learned to dread it. My name is not Maria, you see, not just Maria. I told you through Ms. Atwood that I was born with an alias. I hadn’t yet learned to understand my many-namedness at four, so, instead I would muster up my courage and tell them the long name, the one I understood was the whole enchilada: “Maria Eugenia.”
Let me stop here for a moment to tell you several things. First, the pronunciation. “Maria” you can probably pretty much get through, although I assure you the way you’ve heard it said in the United States bears little resemblance to how it’s pronounced in the Spanish-speaking world. American English has a certain confident laziness about it, like not all syllables are crucial, like enunciation is for sissies, which turns the crisp “Mah-REE-ah” to something more like “Mm-ree-uh.” Fair enough. Where it all falls apart is on the second part. Why-oh-why, parents, couldn’t you just leave well enough alone at “Maria”? Well, the reason, I later went on to learn, is that Maria is a kind of catch-all in Catholic countries, an honor to the Virgin Mary, and so comprises at least some part of about 75% of female names from a certain generation back. In order to avoid the confusion, most Hispanic women with “Maria” in their names also have another part to them, a compound name, much like you’d add “red” to “bicycle” when trying to distinguish between models in a vast and full bicycle store.
So my middle name is Eugenia. That’s pronounced “Eh-oo-HEH-nee-ah” for those keeping score at home. (That was the source of the sometimes “Cheni” nickname, short for “Eugenia,” apparently). The full thing was real fun to share on a playground. When I gave them the whole package, Maria Eugenia, first kids would scrunch up their nose, then give it a valiant effort. “Mah-ree-HEN-ya?” I’d smile weakly and say, “Sure,” one of the few English words I had learned on Sesame Street, and lead them over to the swinging horse ponytail eaters.
When I was six we moved to Argentina for two years, where Maria Eugenia was something like Mary Sue. Everyone got it. Which is not to say I liked Argentina – I didn’t – but at least my name did not mark me a freak there (there were other things for that). Also, it’s where the second part of the story of my name really came to life for me. Maria was my father’s mother’s name, Eugenia my mother’s mother’s. We lived intermittently with both during those two years, and I was reminded again and again that my name was special, that I had been chosen, that Spain had had a queen with the same middle name as mine. I secretly wished the queen had been named Veronica instead. I loved “Veronica” ever since I encountered it in Archie comics. Maria Eugenia was the name of exactly zero snooty rich girls in any comic book in history.
I returned to the United States at age eight to peers more sophisticated in their verbal taunting. Luckily, I also returned craftier after two years of dealing with the teasing of my South American cousins: when asked my name, I decided on the fly to only offer up only “Maria.” I banished the “Eugenia.” While it painted me vanilla and vaguely ethnic, it didn’t leave me exposed to outright abuse. So I went with it. It worked for me with my straight-As and my neat pigtails.
My brother was born shortly after we returned to the United States, and at about a year old he decided my name was “Yaya.” Because what one-year-old can say “Maria Eugenia”? Once he was old enough to attempt it, it was too late. Thirty four years later, it is still Yaya, an identifier used for me for only one person.
By the time I was middle-school-aged, I was chafing against the boring-ness of “Maria.” What great actress or acrobat was ever named just plain old “Maria”? What great adventures were undertaken by Marias? What great poet fell in love with an alluring “Maria”? No one that I could find. (Later, when Mariah Carey hit the scene, I’d briefly flirt with the idea of adding an “h” to my name). When I shared this lament with my best friend at the time, she came up with a solution, my initials: “M.E.” Pronounced out loud, it sounds vaguely like the award, much more melodious than my full name. I would be M.E. all through high school and my first job. I can still identify what period of my life a friend is from based on what she calls me.
When I finished college, left my first job and started my own business, I got tired of explaining “M.E.” to every new customer. I met my husband around that time, in my mid-twenties, and he didn’t seem to get it either. So I reverted back to “Maria,” unseasoned, color-within-the-lines, old white-bread “Maria.” I did this not with acceptance but with resignation. I lacked the energy to go through a legal name change or the resoluteness to pick the right one. Every time I heard of some American woman who had changed her name to “Shanti” or “Lakshmi,” I thrilled secretly at the courage in that. But I didn’t follow suit.
A few years later, I earned my favorite name of all: Mommy. To make up for my disappointment in my own colorless moniker, I gave my children names with Z’s and drama in them, unique spellings, flair and style. When they got old enough, they asked me why I had to make it so complicated. I suppose naming is that thing that both defines us completely and not at all: a thing that labels us but which we do not choose for ourselves.
I know writing convention dictates that I end this piece with a paragraph about how I’ve accepted my name, how I even love it now. And there are a few upsides to “Maria,” I will allow. I have more pop songs with my name in them than anyone else I know: the Ricky Martin “Maria” (a song that describes “Maria” as addictive and exciting and which I’m told is actually about cocaine) being my favorite. Alas, other than that small allowance, I must disappoint. I’ve accepted not accepting my name, knowing that I swim through the waters of life with camouflage, a name for every different pool, a thing that catches each light I bask in. I like my aliases. That’s why I was so electrified to find the above quote in a passage of the writing book Negotiating with the Dead – A Writer on Writing by that most talented and smart of all writers, Margaret Atwood. In it, she explains that she was named after her mother and, as so many namesakes are, given a nickname. Her “real” name was not to be her own for many years and is the name she uses on books. But, like me, she has others.
Maybe writers need to be able to pretend to be other people. I don’t inhabit “Maria,” and for me, that’s okay. (And that’s not to disrespect the many wonderful women named Maria. This is about me personally, not a criticism of a perfectly delightful name). It’s just that when I think of naming the spirit of what I am – complicated, quirky, loving, maddeningly stubborn, inventive, sometimes afraid, always curious, I don’t think that person is captured well by the name “Maria,” or even “Maria Eugenia,” or “M.E.” or any of the others. But maybe that’s okay. Sometimes I feel like my name is something else but I just don’t know it yet. I like imagining I am a thing apart, unnameable, the essence of which can be approximated but never fully labeled. So call me what you will. I can learn to answer to it.