Every story has a beginning, middle, and end, but not necessarily in that order. Likewise, so does my name.
The beginning of the middle: Cata
Now go back and read it again in your best Spanish tone. That was my first name, as I was called. I can look back through old vcr tapes labeled “cata” and hear my mother’s voice calling it out from behind the camera. Before I moved to the us, everyone used it: teachers, friends, even strangers. In the years after I moved, though, I heard it a lot less. “Cata” became a secret codename that only my mom, dad, and brothers knew.
I remember the first time one of my American friends tried to use it. She had probably heard my mom using it and wanted to try it. It sounded weird, and the pronunciation wasn’t right. Even though I could tell that she was trying her hardest to make it work, it didn’t quite fit in her mouth. She got better at it, until her tongue learned the movement by heart, and her use of it no longer pricked my ears. But the trend didn’t spread, and since then, I can count no more than a handful of friends who have adopted the nickname. I still hear it every time I’m on the phone with my parents, and it sounds like home.
The beginning: Maria
My first name, as it appears on official documents, is Maria. Some people knew me for years before they realized that they’d been calling me by my middle name. I still struggle to explain this phenomenon when asked. “Wait, so why do you use Catalina and not Maria?”
It’s complicated. My name is Maria Catalina, and I go by Catalina. My mother’s name is Maria Veronica, and she goes by Veronica. Her mother’s name is Maria Pilar, and she goes by Pilar. It was never any parent’s intention that we be called Maria. If I had to guess, I’d say the use of Maria as a first name was a common religious practice. A lot of girls in Spanish-speaking countries end up with the Virgin’s name, and many of them go by it. In my family’s case, however, there was never the intention to call me Maria, and the name was chosen as a prefix.
This arrangement has been very frustrating at times. It forced me to speak up on the first day of every class, as roll was called. Every year, I would come home and declare that I was going to legally change my name some day, and just get rid of Maria. She was annoying, commonplace, and her name kept going on my certificates and diplomas. But as I’ve grown older and less shy, this became less irksome, and I’ve all but dismissed the idea of a legal name change. Maria is commonplace. She’s plain and boring. But, she’s the introduction to my name, and a link to my maternal line. Plus, she’s been around for so long now, I couldn’t possibly get rid of her.
The end: Trigo
Not Tri- as in triangle or tricycle, but Tri- as in Tree. Tree as in that family tree project I made in the third grade, still a novice to glue that came in sticks instead of bottles. The tree whose oldest branches spread far back to Spain, and in some cases, to Italy or France. The tree from which later branches grew in Argentina, a place where many branches still remain. Until, this newest, fledgling branch ended up on new American soil, taking up roots as it keeps trying to grow.
In Spanish, Trigo means wheat. I haven’t found confirmed records of this, but if someone with the surname Smith can assume that at some point his family worked as a smith of iron in England, then I will assume that at some point, my ancestors were farming wheat in Spain.
The middle: Catalina
The name Catalina in Spanish–which has Greek origins, from the word katharos meaning “pure”–can be translated into English as Catherine or Katherine. In fact, when Catalina de Aragón, daughter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, moved to England to marry Prince Arthur, the British renamed her Catherine. European history is littered with Catherines who are all secretly Catalinas. Catalina de Medici was born in Italy and became Queen of France when she married Henry II. There have been many Catalinas in the House of Habsburg, including one who is still gracing the covers of Hola! and Caras. The queen of them all was, of course, the Catalina in Russia, known as Catherine the Great. I wasn’t named after any of them.
I also wasn’t named after “the Fucking Catalina Wine Mixer.” I haven’t even seen the movie Stepbrothers, but enough people have brought it up around me that I now understand the reference. It seems a rather incongruous term to associate with me since I’m not in the practice of fucking or drinking. Neither have I ever been to Catalina Island in California, though I hear it’s lovely. And yes, I have seen the containers of salad dressing at the grocery store with my name on them, but no, it is not my favorite type of dressing. I haven’t run into many people who share my name, but I have found it scattered in the weirdest places. There was even a Catalina Drive in the Florida town I lived in.
Before I was born, my parent’s top baby name was Carolina. Every time I imagine living my life as a Carolina, I cringe. I love my name. My grandmother on my father’s side is named Lucia Catalina. She goes by her first name, Lucia, so it was by luck and chance that my mother learned of the name. The rest, as they say, is history, and my grandmother remains, to this day, my favorite Catalina.
The beginning of the end: Trig
I am at the Chabad house for dinner, and Rabbi Webb calls out to me, “Trig!” I feel a surge of happiness from being called that. My friend from home, Sarah, was always “Trig.” Her last name is Trigoboff, which meant that from the sixth grade until graduation, we saw a lot of each other. It’s a miracle we ever became friends since we were so different. She was blonde, cool, and popular. I was quiet, studious, and weird. But we did, and by the time we sat next to each other at graduation, as we had for so many years, we were inseparable friends who shared more than just eerily similar surnames. We had learned so much from each other. I smiled because “Trig” made me think of Sarah, but I also smiled because I would love to go by her name.
The beginning of the middle: Cat
This is new for me. No one ever called me Cat before. Now that I’m at Princeton, however, a lot of my friends, from a range of circles, have started calling me Cat. It threw me off at first. I’m not a feline. I think cats are cute, of course, and love curling up by a sunny window like one, but I’m actually allergic to them. This admittedly complicates my long-term goal of eventually getting a cat and redefining the term cat lady.
The name is growing on me, though. As I become more comfortable in my new environment, I’ve become more comfortable by what it calls me. The other day, I even signed an email with