What is your name? What name do you go by? The name on your birth certificate?  A nickname? What did your mother call you? How about your siblings, or your best friends? Have you ever changed your name, or considered doing so? 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?  Is how to introduce yourself something you’ve ever even thought about?

Well it’s something I’ve thought about quite a bit, because I’ve been called so many variations of my name throughout my life, and I’ve often found myself having to make a split-second decision about how to introduce myself. Most people I know have only ever been called by one name—Kristi, Scott, Patty Jo, Victor, or Linda. They don’t know how lucky they are! So simple! Maybe you’re one of these privileged souls.

The name on my birth certificate reads “Maria”—crossed out—“Elena Hawkins,” with “Marie” hand written over the crossed out Maria. So, from the day I was born there was an uncertain element to my name.

maria marie

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 an “r” that sounds (to English speakers) a bit like a “d” in the middle. This Spanish sounding Marielena is me. (The italicized name in this article will indicate its Spanish sounding pronunciation.)

My East Tennessee born father called me Marie Elena as only an American can. My Costa Rican family members all called me Marielena of course, while family members on my dad’s side called me Marie Elena. My dad’s mom, however, feeling that this Hispanic name was a dreadful embarrassment to the family, came up with Neena.

Horrible. I have no idea why, but I hated it. Despised it. Yes, she knew I hated it. Hearing it was like the sound of fingernails scratching on a chalkboard. I would practically shudder. Even my mom rolled her eyes at it. Just writing it still ticks me off! Thankfully, the name never caught on with anyone else, and by the time I was old enough to have called her on it, I was living in CR.

Nobody could understand my mother when she called my name, which is why beginning in kindergarten, I became Marie; not a common name in East TN either. For the next 13 years, this would be my school name, but when neighbors or adults heard my dad say my whole name, they assumed I was Maria or Elena. No one seemed quite sure what it really was.

So, by the time I was ten years old, I answered to: Marie Elena, Marielena, Marie, Maria, Elena, Neena (I was a complacent child!), and to my baby brother’s nickname of MaNena, because he couldn’t pronounce Marielena as he heard my mom call me.

Are you starting to understand my multi-name situation?!

Shortly after high school 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 everybody;  family, friends, and coworkers. Even my North American friends in Costa Rica could pronounce it!

A little aside here—In Latin America and Spain, women do not change their names when they marry. It isn’t a choice. The name you’re born with is your legal name for your entire life. So even during the many years I lived in Costa Rica, both married and single, I was always Marie Elena Hawkins.

Then, I returned to Tennessee to live. My former neighbors still called me Maria—the only people who do. I could instantly narrow down who was calling when I heard Maria.

However, almost everyone who called in those first months upon my return 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!”

“Not here.”

Ah, the mystery of all those people who couldn’t seem to reach me was solved!

That first month I called an old family friend to get insurance for my car. I said “hey Mickey, 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.” Silence. Hmmm.

“Mickey, this is Elena.”

A short pause and the light bulb comes on, “Oh! Elena! How are you? When did you get back 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, as Marielena to foreigners who could pronounce it, to neighbors I called as Maria, and so forth. This is where that split-second dilemma starts to make sense.

A foreign friend I’d known for 18 years invited me to her very American book club and had the same reaction as my daughter 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 bicultural person, I am at home in two places, but I’m not always a perfect fit in either. My various names reflect the pieces of me spread unevenly over thousands of miles, many decades, and what feels like several lives.

Marie Elena spoken as Marielena is the Tica side of me; Marie is the Gringa. My very American brother is the only family member to ever call me Marie, and in spite of the many years he’s called me that, it still feels a little awkward to me. At high school reunions especially, “Marie Hawkins” reminds me of the teenager I used to be.

As a credentialed professional in the U.S. I was known as Marie Browning, because for 14 years I took my American husband’s last name. It’s a name that defines a particularly bittersweet chapter of my life, and in the end it was a reminder of pain and betrayal. Even then, changing it was an emotional decision that took me months to come to terms with. After his death, and complications beyond the scope of this article, I chose to have my maiden name legally restored in time to publish my first book, because I couldn’t bear not to publish it as Marie Elena Hawkins. But because Browning had been my professional name for so long, I appeared as Marie (Browning) Hawkins in articles and seminar announcements for over 6 months.  Hundreds of published articles floating about in cyberspace still bear my Browning name. It took me almost a year to  be able to sign my name as Marie Hawkins again without thinking.

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 hesitate when introducing myself. It feels good to be Marielena again. It is the sound of the name I first identified myself with. Hearing my name pronounced as my mother called me is a validation of who I am.

And at last I come to the heart of this article. The name we go by, the name others call us, is not just a specific combination of letters or sounds. The name we identify with speaks to the very essence of who we are.

The return to being Marielena is like burrowing into a familiar cozy bed under the most exquisitely soft comforter. It warms my heart and satisfies my soul in a way that I cannot describe.

As I was writing this, I began to wonder if this might be a part of what always connected me to Costa Rica and drew me back after all these years. I began to examine feelings and observations as they rose to the surface of my psyche. My mind was brimming with questions.

Is this name dilemma part of the indescribable missing “something” I haven’t been able to put my finger on? Is it possible that I always feel more “me” here in Costa Rica simply because the name others call me resonates with the inner me?

Did answering to so many different names somehow cause me to lose a vital connection to my original heartfelt, mother-instilled identity?  Could it be that each of those names represented versions of me that were “almost me” but lacked a deeper sense of authenticity?

Those things may sound like psychological silliness; considerations of something relatively unimportant, but I’m starting to realize that what I’ve always considered just an amusing inconvenience might actually go much deeper than I ever imagined.

What’s in a name? A great deal, apparently. I know that I’ll continue to explore this because I’m sure there’s research on it somewhere.

If any part of what I’ve written resonates with you, or you have some of your own “what’s in a name” stories, I’d love to hear about it! Please leave your comments about this post below.

Pura Vida!