I remember listening to Santana’s “Maria, Maria”, and wondering what the hell kind of Latina I was for not being more like HER. In college in Southern California, I even used to think: she’s not far from me now. She’s out there, falling in love in East LA, and here I am, earning a college degree and making passes at men outside my family’s income bracket.
That gap between me and Maria only kept on widening. If I fumbled over the word “chicharron” at a restaurant, I felt lightyears away from Maria. I saw her tossing her hair and placing her order, rolling her RRRRRs with ease. I imagined her bright span of teeth. Her stubborn tone of voice. Her effortless beauty.
Man, if I ever met that Maria, I knew I’d never stand a chance against her.
When I first started writing my novel THEY COULD HAVE NAMED HER ANYTHING, the first thing I ever knew was that my protagonist was named Maria. I wanted her to grapple with the idea of being a stereotype, a caricature, in a way that was so obvious, it hit you right over the head. Throughout the book, my protagonist grumbles about why she can’t be called anything other than America’s stock Latina name.
Sometimes, I get startled by how angry she is. It’s like she’s peering right up at me, the author, and asking, “WHAT THE FUCK?” I feel like Maria’s befuddled parents in that moment, shaking their heads at their too-moody daughter, clicking their tongues. Por dios, no seas tan exagerada!! Stop being so overdramatic, Maria!
Because just like them, I treat Maria with love, even if she doesn’t always see it. I want her to resist being reduced. That’s not an easy task at her all-white, private school, where Maria is the living embodiment of her classmates’ ideas about Latinidad.
Sometimes, it’s easier to live up to a person’s preconceived ideas about you rather than asserting who you really are. Sometimes that works to your advantage–like when Maria is Carlos Santana’s love interest. Oh, that Maria is something! She’s graceful, exotic, lovely, brave. She’s mythical through her struggle. She’s dignified by it, rendered a goddess.
But what about when Maria isn’t a muse? When she’s just a teenager at Bell Seminary Prep? When she’s convinced she’s ugly, dumb, and inferior to her white peers–despite her scholarship? This is the flip side of living up to what people expect out of you. The same struggle that dignifies Maria in the song is what–in the world of my book–isolates her, makes her a pariah.
I want to tell you a true story now, something that really happened. The other day, I’m walking down the street in Brooklyn, and a group of men catch sight of me. The year is 2018, and it’s been nearly two decades (19 years, actually) since “Maria, Maria” was originally released, but somehow it crosses their minds as if it just dropped on the radio last week. They start singing the lyrics, don’t miss a beat. I smile, then I start laughing. What? they yell out after me. Your name really is Maria, isn’t it?
In this moment, I could turn around. Flip my curls, jingle my hoop earrings. I know what they’re seeing–that lovely Maria, that myth of Maria, the Maria of vivid dreams! I could be her. I could shake my head yes.
But some things make more sense as fiction.