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So, what’s in a name anyway?
What is your name? What are you called? What name do you go by? The name on your birth certificate? Your middle name? A nickname? What did your mother call you? How about your siblings, or your best friends? Do you wear your name comfortably? Are you able to introduce yourself without a second thought as to which name to use?
Bond. James Bond.
Are you laughing? Do you think I’m nuts? Is this something you’ve ever even thought about?
Well, I’ve thought about quite a bit, because I’ve been called so many variations of my name. And until very recently I often found myself making a split second decision about how to introduce myself. Most people I know have only ever been called by a single name—Kristi, Linda, Scott, Susan, Becky, John, etc. They don’t know how lucky they are! Maybe you’re one of these privileged souls.
The name on my birth certificate reads Maria—crossed out—Elena Hawkins, with Marie handwritten over the crossed out Maria.
So, from the day I was born, there was an uncertain element to my name. Yes, there’s a reason. My parents fell in love dancing to the big band era song, Maria Elena—Marie Elena in English. There’s a sad side to the story, though. A baby born 3 years before me; Maria Elena was stillborn. My parents wanted to honor and remember her, but give me a slightly different name, so here I am—Marie Elena.
My mom was from Costa Rica, so Spanish was her native language and my first. My mother always called me a run together “Marielena” that rolls off the tongue with a rolled “r” that sounds a bit like an English “d” in the middle. This Spanish sounding “Marielena” is me.
My father called me Marie Elena as only an American can. My maternal grandparents called me “Marielena” and my paternal family members called me Marie Elena. My dad’s mom, however, feeling that a Hispanic name was an unforgivable embarrassment to the family, came up with Neena. ?! I have no idea why, but I hated it. Despised it. Yes, she knew I hated it. Just the writing of it still ticks me off! Needless to say, she didn’t welcome my mom or me happily into her arms. So, back to the name thing.
No one could understand my mom when she said my name.
So in first grade, I became Marie, which was not a common name in and of itself in East TN. But for the next 13 years, this would be my school name. However, when neighbors or adults heard my dad say my name, they assumed I was Maria or Elena. No one ever knew quite what it was for sure.
So, by the time I was ten years old, I answered to Marie Elena, Marielena, Marie, Maria, Elena, Neena, and to my baby brother’s nickname of MaNena, because he couldn’t pronounce the “Marielena” as he heard my mom call me. Are you starting to understand my name situation?!
At age 18 I moved to Costa Rica, where I would live for the next two decades. It was heavenly because for the first time, I was only “Marielena” to family and friends and coworkers. And, even my North American friends in CR could pronounce it “right.”
A little aside here—In Latin America and Spain, women do not change their names when they marry. It isn’t a choice. Your maiden name is your legal name for your entire life. So even during the many years I lived in CR, I was Marie Elena Hawkins.
Then, I returned to Tennessee to live. My former neighbors still called me Maria—the only people in the whole world who do. I could instantly narrow down who was calling when I heard Maria.
Most everyone who called asked for Marie. I had no idea that when my thirteen-year-old daughter answered the phone she was telling them they had the wrong number. Weeks later she heard me introduce myself to someone as “Marie.”
“You’re Marie?!” She was shocked! “Why?”
“Because people here can’t pronounce Marielena.”
“But that’s your name!”
That first month I called an old family friend to get insurance for my car.
I said: “hey, this is Marie Hawkins, how are you?” There was a polite, but clearly neutral response on the other end. “Mickey, this is Marie Elena Hawkins.” Hmmm. “Mickey, this is Elena.” Light bulb moment for him–“Oh, Elena! How are you? When did you get in?!” He’s one of a handful of “Elena” folks.
I would spend the next 20 years introducing myself as Marie to native English speakers, and “Marielena” Spanish style to foreigners who could pronounce it correctly. (This is where that split second dilemma comes in.) A foreign friend invited me to her very American book club a few years ago and had the same reaction my daughter did when she heard me introduce myself as Marie. “Wait, I thought you were Marielena. You’re Marie?” Sigh…..yes. sort of. Story of my life.
As a bi-cultural person, I am at home in two places, while not quite fitting in perfectly in either one. My various names reflect the pieces of me spread unevenly over two continents, many decades and what feels like several lifetimes.
Marie Elena as “Marielena” is the Costa Rica side of me.
Marie is the American side. My very Americanish brother is the only family member to ever call me Marie, and after a lifetime, it still sounds weird to me. At high school reunions, Marie Hawkins is the teenager I used to be.
Professionally, I was known as Marie Browning, because for 14 years I took my American husband’s name. Now, that name identifies a specific chapter of my life, and a me who no longer exists. After his death and complications beyond the scope of this article, I had my maiden name restored in time to publish my first book because I couldn’t bear not to publish it as Marie Elena Hawkins.
And at last, I come to the heart of this article. The name we go by, the name we call ourselves, is not just a name.
It speaks to the essence of who we are. Hearing my name pronounced as my mother lovingly did is a validation of who I am. It comforts my heart and my soul. It is the sound of the name I first identified myself with.
As of last year, I’m living back in Costa Rica again. I’m happy hearing my name spoken in a way that feels comfortable and true, and I don’t have to hesitate when introducing myself. It feels good to be “Marielena” again.
So that’s my “what’s in a name” story. What’s yours?