It started in third grade one day when I realized that every other little Latina was a Maria. We would line up on the playground at recess and the teams would pick players. When Maria was called, four or five us would step forward which resulted in mild panic and confusion until we could sort out if it was Maria Esperanza, Maria Rosa or Maria Teresa whose killer throw was needed for third base. Every now and then some brave parent would deviate a bit and a Luz de Maria or Gloria Maria would enroll, eliciting sympathy from the other Marias for these poor souls whose first and middle names had gotten mixed up on the birth certificate. But no matter where it fell, there was always a Maria tucked in there as tight as the buns of the neighborhood donas who reminded us Marias to be grateful we were named after the Blessed Mother. Never mind that her name meant “bitter.” We were ordered to be happy about it.
It’s not that I didn’t love the Blessed Mother. I did. I loved her Bible name, Mary, but the Spanish translation, was well, just so aburrido. Why couldn’t I be Mary Louise which was so much more intriguing than Maria Luisa? Mary Louise owned a color TV and lived in a two-story house and never ate boiled rice out of a pot. Mary Louise had Breck girl hair, no split-ends and golden-hued. Mary Louise brought her lunch in a paper bag, a Jiffy peanut butter sandwich made with white Wonder Bread.
Maria Luisa, with kinky brown hair and eyes, ate thick homemade bread and arroz con pollo out of a gray, metal lunch box. One day, the lunch box clasp popped open and the bread came tumbling out. Its thickness made it more cylindrical than flat and after it plopped out it started rolling down the playground. Several boys standing around began kicking it, wondering aloud what it was.
“Who brought the hockey puck to school?” someone shouted.
“Yeah, who brought the hockey puck to school?” I blustered, quietly shoving my metal lunch box under the table.
I could live with the dullness of my pedestrian name, the daily navigating of two cultures, and even the disapproving clucks of the viejas who said I would come to a bad end if I didn’t embrace my heritage. But it was those moment when I met someone whose name was just a tweak away from Maria, but light years ahead in coolness, that sent me into a tailspin.
Right before Thanksgiving, the teacher announced a new girl had transferred from another school.
“Everyone say hello to Maritza Antonioni.”
Maritza? As in the Italian Mary? With the simple insertion of a tz the boring Maria moniker had been taken to new heights. The melodic name practically rolled off the tongue like so many cheese-stuffed manicotti. “Maritza” brought forth visions of tile and marble Italian villas drenched in sunshine where homework was outlawed and Saturday morning cartoons played endlessly. I wanted to hate this new girl with the exotic name. I really did. I tried to find every reason to, but like her name she was fun, bubbly and bright.
A few days later, I found myself sitting next to her at lunch. She opened her metal lunch box and pulled out some left over pasta.
“What kind of weirdo brings pasta for lunch?” I scoffed, hoping she hadn’t heard about the hockey puck.
She looked at my burrito.
“The same kind of weirdo that brings tortillas for lunch,” she shot back.
“Well, you know what you are? You’re a… you’re a… you’re a Maritza Pizza, that’s what you are!”
“Better Maritza Pizza than Maria Tortilla.”
She leveled her gaze at me and I leveled right back. Neither of us was backing down. Then we broke out in hysterical laughter and were inseparable for the next three years. Maritza Pizza and Maria Tortilla, terrorizing the playground and exasperating the teachers.
In junior high and high school there were less Marias since my parents scrimped and scraped to send me to private school where Kims, Debbies and Kathys were the popular baby names of the 70s. The lack of competition, actually gave my name a little flair. I was the ethnic, mysterious Latina at the lily-white Private Christian High School. And the only girl who could actually dance. My sultry moves were not appreciated by the Higher-Ups at a school that banned dances.
Life was grand until Marissa showed up. Marissa! Who did this double SS girl think she was, inserting two simple letters and turning the boring Maria into an ultra- feminine label? I wanted to tell her the hissing sound of her double constants sounded like the snake she probably was, but truth be told, I wanted to be Marissa. I wanted to get on plane, fly to Bogota and march into the Registro de Nacimientos and demand to see my birth certificate. With a dramatic flair, I would take a black pen and insert SS into the pathetic Maria, thus lifting it to glorious heights while shouting, “Mira! Mira! Yo soy Marissa, no soy Maria.” But it wasn’t meant to be. The following year, Marissa was joined my Marseille and I knew that I was doomed to forever be the plain vanilla of nomenclature.
Certainly this nondescript life would all end when I went away to college. I knew no one, and no one knew me. Such glorious anonymity meant I could be Maritza, Marissa, or Marseille. Since I wanted to be writer, I even toyed with the idea of dropping Maria altogether and just going by Luisa, but adding an O to be Louisa, like Louisa May Alcott. With this bold plan in mind, I stepped up to the freshman orientation line, filled out the paperwork with my name, social security number and date of birth, ready to have my photo taken and begin my charmed life as Marissa Louisa. But when I stepped out of the photo booth, my hands eagerly reaching for my new, shiny laminated identity card, M-A-R-I-A stared back at me.
“Sorry, no nicknames or fake names. It has to match the name on your social security card,” the pinko-commie behind the counter told me.
Still, I made delusional attempts of wiping out a lifetime of Maria Tortilla by introducing myself as Marissa to new people I met. Whenever the professors called out Maria for attendance I kept quiet, racking up unexplained absences and jeopardizing my scholarships. My classmate wondered who this scofflaw Maria was who kept ditching lectures.
Yet despite my lackluster name, I turned out alright. I graduated from college with honors, became a reporter and a writer, got married and had three kids. I didn’t come to a bad end. We even eat tamales on Christmas Eve, somewhat, if not fully, embracing my heritage. The viejas would be proud. Maria Luisa and I had made peace.
Not only that, but since my third-grade playground days I learned that a lot of people were enamored with my name. B.W. Stevenson had been crooning about, “My Maria,” since 1973, and R.B. Greaves was asking his beautiful assistant to “Take a Letter, Maria.” Even Tony on the Westside was letting everyone know he “just met a girl named Maria,” the most beautiful sound he had ever heard!
About a year ago, I was driving home, listening to talk radio. The host was sharing an article warning parents not to give their babies weird names. Weird name equals weird life. Well, I knew I had to call in. Not because Maria Luisa was weird, but because my siblings all had strange names (a future topic, to be sure). I pulled over and punched in the number, eager to testify to the article’s veracity. When I got through and the radio host asked for my name, he said, “Oh, what a lovely name. Is that after Maria Luisa, the queen of Spain, the daughter of King Carlos IV?”
The queen of what, the daughter of who?
All these years I thought I had been named after my peasant grandmother back in Colombia. Here I had been carrying on like a commoner. But no, my namesake was Queen Maria Luisa Josefina Antonieta Vicenta de Borbon, the only member of the Spanish royal family to directly oppose Napoleon. Stripped of her lands by that wily Frenchie, she wrote her memoirs to strengthen her claims against the unlawful seizure. She was no beauty, but what a spunky gal! And a writer to boot! Clearly, it was divinely ordained that I should inherit such a noble name.
Why, yes, I am Maria Luisa. You may arise, knave, and fetch me some arroz con pollo.