by Margarita Mooney Clayton on July 9, 2021
In 1998, working on my graduate school application essays, one them asked me to reflect on how I would contribute to diversity. I wrote,
“My father is Irish-American from New York. My mother was born and raised in Havana, Cuba. I’ve never quite known where I fit into the diversity conversation. But as I’ve spent the last three years living, working and traveling around Latin America, my love for Latin music, food and culture is burning inside of me.”
I was born in Frederick, MD, and given the name of Margaret Ann Mooney. My mom insisted she wanted her four kids to have names that sounded virtually the same in Spanish or English. But she wanted my legal name to be Margaret because it is easier to pronounce than a name like hers—Eulalia. I always knew I was named after my aunt Margarita, and that older family members were also Margarita.
But whether speaking to me in English or Spanish, my mom mostly called me “mami”—a colloquial Spanish way of addressing your children by the name children should call their parents. My father pronounced my name with his distinctive New York ‘r’—Mahrghret.
For the first 21 years of my life, Margaret was the name most people called me at school—but I never liked it. But in my large Cuban family—my mom is one of 14 children and I have more than 50 first cousins on her side of the family—I was often called Maggy or Margarita.
Growing up, everyone knew my mom so I didn’t have to explain that, despite having an American name, I have Hispanic heritage. But when I went to college at Yale, “Where are you from?” and “What are you?” were common topics of conversation. I wanted to be loyal to two heritages. Saying I was half Cuban and half American just didn’t sound right.
My presence and my voice—my writing and speaking—has always been a blend of my two heritages. Growing up, I learned to speak Spanish in conversations at home and with my Cuban relatives and many Latin American friends. But I also learned Spanish through folk songs my mom played on the guitar (like Guantamera) and colloquial sayings she shouted like (No me diiiigas).
I loved Spanish classes in school and exceled in AP Spanish literature my senior year of high school, where I was captivated by the magical realism of the Argentinian poet Jorge Luis Borges and the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. At Yale, I relished my upper-level Spanish literature classes where we read (in the original Spanish) El Cantar del Mio Cid and Don Quixote de la Mancha.
After graduating from Yale, I moved to Costa Rica in 1995 to work for Oscar Arias Sanchez, a former president of Costa Rica. I embraced the opportunity to go by Margarita publicly and with friends. And, as is the custom in Latin America, I used two last names—my father’s and my mother’s. Margarita Mooney Suarez became my professional name. When my first niece was born while I was living in Costa Rica, I wrote to my brother than I wanted her to call me, “Tia Maggy” (tia means aunt in Spanish).
Living in Costa Rica, it was clear that my customs and habits had been shaped by the fact that I was born and raised in the United States, that I had studied in the United States and that I was fluent in English. But I was also clearly an insider to Latin American culture—it was in my blood, in my Cuban colloquial Spanish, and in my memory.
In Latin America, no one ever asked me if my parents named me after a drink.
Rather, people said things like, “Oh, my first girlfriend was Margarita. My grandmother is Margarita.” Or, they would quote the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío, like, “Margarita, está linda la mar.”
Identity, voice, and loyalty were united.
When I moved back to the United States in 1998 for graduate school at Princeton, I changed my legal name from Margaret to Margarita, becoming Margarita Ann Mooney. I never rejected my Irish-American heritage but simply wanted my legal name to reflect my complex, blended identity and my experiences living in Latin America.
But at Princeton, I stopped using two last names—Mooney and Suarez. I returned back to only using Mooney simply because it is not the custom in the United States to use two last names unless one gets married.
But, more than 20 years later, I’ve decided to go back to using both my father’s and my mother’s last names as my professional byline. In my writing and speaking, I’m beginning to share more about how my voice has been shaped by my loyalty to multiple traditions.
For example, in a forthcoming article in Plough magazine entitled Rafagas (machine gun fire), I reflect on my work with ex-combatants of the civil wars in Central America. I called a recent talk I gave to young leaders Ganas (a Spanish word loosely translated as desire). In that talk, I shared how even though I’ve been under-prepared or under-qualified for professional opportunities I desired, I always throw myself into everything with passion.
In 2021, I spoke in Spanish via Zoom to a group of university students in Peru about the importance of the life of the mind in a time of crisis. To another group of young leaders across the globe who believe in freedom, I reflected on my seven trips to Cuba between 1994-2007. Speaking to a group of high school students in the summer of 2021, a young Mexican-American woman asked me how I understood my own femininity drawing on two cultures with often different expectations for women.
The fact that I have gone by Margaret Mooney, Maggy Mooney, Margarita Mooney and Margarita Mooney Suarez just means that many of us at times us different versions of our name because it seems to fit best. My oldest niece—who is now 25—still calls me “Tia Maggy,” and my youngest niece, who is 6, calls me “Titi” (short for Tia Margarita). Going by different names doesn’t change my fundamental identity. Different versions of our name signify affection, loyalty and identity.
Part of my identity is precisely that I have gone by different names in different contexts. The question I got at Yale—“What are you?”—defies a simple answer. My best answer is simply: “I’m me. Listen to my story.”
Yet I know that names, labels and what box you check matters. I may fit into more than one box, use more than one version of my name, and be identified with different labels, but I am just one person.
I wrote this essay to explain why I now will go by Margarita Mooney Suarez in my career. By emphasizing my Hispanic heritage in my name, I am not denying that my father is Irish-American, or that I was born in a small town in Maryland. Compared to someone my age raised in Cuba, I can’t deny the difference my American father and my American citizenship made in my education and culture.
As I wrote in the diversity essay I submitted for graduate school applications in in 1998, “I feel both like an alien and a sister to the people I’ve met in Latin America.” But that feeling of sisterhood and alienation I wrote about, an experience of closeness that is also a recognition of difference from my Latin American brothers and sisters, is no longer a source of confusion or inner conflict for me. My umbligo—my belly button, my core, has not changed.
My two parents each gave me incredible gifts from which to do the work I do and be who I am. The name Margarita Mooney Suarez fits both who I was born as—American and Cuban—and who I’ve come to be—an American-raised, Irish-American, Cuban-American woman who has lived, worked and traveled extensively in Latin America.
My life has only grown in complexity and diversity. I have written a book about Haiti, I have studied mental illness and addiction in small towns across the US, and I have grappled with existential questions raised by suffering and death. Whatever name I have used, I hope what I’ve shared transcends my own experiences and speaks to the universal search for beauty and wisdom.
I have no problem with anyone calling me by the legal name I was given at birth—Margaret Mooney—especially if that’s what I went by when they knew me. At times for convenience or to be recognized as the author of more than two decades of publications as Margarita Mooney, I may only use one surname. I hope my family members still call me Maggy, Tia Maggy, Tia Margarita, and Titi. I used to be embarrassed that my mother called me mami—but now I own it.
But in a time when I want my voice to spring from my heart and reach outside the academy, Margarita Mooney Suarez will be my professional byline. Margarita Mooney Suarez sounds poetic to my ears. It resonates with my heart and reveals my roots.
When people see, read and hear more from Margarita Mooney Suarez, I hope my voice is heard as speaking from the heart from which springs the words and ideas I want to share.