Originally Published November 3rd, 2021
My mother-in-law and her sister were boarding a plane in Germany on their way back to Spain when a random security screen pulled them into a second line for an extra glance. To be honest, they’re quite suspicious and dangerous-looking characters, so I can’t say this was an entirely “random” decision. [insert sarcastic emoji here]
The agent looked at my mother-in-law’s passport and boarding pass. They passed the sniff test and he handed them back. He then asked for her sister’s documentation. After skimming it for a moment, his head slowly swayed to one side and eyes darted back to my mother-in-law.
“Excuse me, are you related?” he asked.
“Yes, we are sisters.” was the simple answer.
“And you both have the exact same name?” he pressed.
“Well, not really...” was the beginning of a more complicated explanation.
“Both of these tickets are made out to Maria. Both of your passports show Maria as the first name” he continued.
As they recounted this story over Sunday dinner, I scanned the table and realized I was the only one missing the punchline. Not once in my life have I heard anyone refer to either of them as Maria. In my mental Rolodex, they are Pilar and Mercedes. I was just as confused as Mr. Airport Polizei. Time to wave the foreigner card. “What are you guys talking about?”
My mother-in-law’s name is Maria Pilar. Her sister’s name is Maria Mercedes. I knew Maria was a common name (thanks West Side Story) but this was a little wild. It gets wilder. I now find out that my wife’s friends’ names are: Maria Carmen, Maria Allende, Maria Cristina, and Maria Amparo. What is going on?
Turns out, for a period of nearly 40 years in Spain from 1939 to 1975, all baby girls were required to be named Maria. But not just Maria by itself. It had to be “Maria Something.” This is yet another example of the lovely oddities that living under the Franco dictatorship could have on daily life.
As I have described on other occasions, we live in the politically unique Basque Country region of Spain. This area had further restrictions under the dictatorship. No Basque names of any kind were permitted. While not everyone agreed with the rules, there are only scarce examples of citizens breaking them because of the potential fallout.
One example is pretty famous around here though. A father in the 1950s went to the priest to baptize his young daughter, Laura. The priest referred to her as Maria Laura and the father stopped him. “No, just Laura.” The priest refused and the father went back home. Several days later the same scene played out. A week later and the priest offered an alternative. “Her name can be Laura Maria.” The father walked out.
This game of chicken continued until finally, the father gave an ultimatum. The child will be named Laura. Just Laura. Either that or he and his family will not be returning to the church. The priest acquiesced.
The custom (nee decree) of naming your daughters Maria faded quickly in Basque Country. My wife’s name is just Nora. But it managed to hang on long enough elsewhere in Spain that Maria Millenials are an actual demographic.