Spanish Last Names and the Naming System

Have you ever wondered why some Spanish-speakers seem to have so many names? For example: Ana María García Fernández or Juan Martínez Ortega.

The answer is very simple – and actually, very cool. Instead of the traditional way that is done in the United States, where the child takes only the father’s last name, most families in Spain and Latin America give their children both the father’s and mother’s last names. The men will keep their given name their whole life, and most women will too – regardless if they get married or not.

How does this work?

Let’s see how Spanish last names are derived by looking at two different personas.

Juan Martínez Ortega: Juan is the person’s first name. Martínez is his father’s last name. Ortega is his mother’s last name. This will be his name his whole life.

Ana María Romero Ayala: Ana María is the person’s first name – not first and middle name – but her whole first name. Romero is Ana María’s father’s last name. Ayala is her mother’s last name. Most likely, she will keep this name her whole life – regardless if she gets married. (I will talk about exceptions below.)

Let’s look at this in more detail. Let’s say baby Jose was born to Ana María and Juan. His full name would be Jose Martínez Romero.

Study that for a minute. Can you break it down and figure out why?

Jose Martínez Romero

Jose  – This is his given first name.

Martínez  – This is his father’s father’s last name. (The mother’s name does eventually get dropped, but it takes an extra generation than in the traditional U.S. naming system.)

Romero  – This is his mother’s father’s last name.

What would your last name be?

Let’s try it!

Your First Name:
Your Father’s Last Name (most likely your last name at birth):
Your Mother’s Maiden Name:

So your name would be:

_______       ___________      ______________
(first name)     (father’s last name)    (mother’s maiden name)

This would be your name your whole life! Pretty cool, isn’t it?

Exceptions

There are some exceptions to this I have seen – especially in the United States given our different forms and database systems.

  • To match our systems, Latinos born here in the United States may decide to use only their father’s name on their birth certificate (Jose Martínez) or hyphenate their name (Jose Martínez-Romero).
  • In Mexico (perhaps other countries in Latin America), a woman may take her husband’s last name when she gets married, connected with the word de (of). In our example, the married woman’s name would be Ana María Romero de Martinez.
  • In Spain, it has become more common to switch the traditional order of last names. When a child is born, parents must decide whose last name goes first. (Most still choose the father’s last name, but it is now an option to have the mother’s name go first.)

I personally love this system. I love how it is common practice for both of your parent’s names to be represented in your name – and how generally, you keep your name your entire life. If you have children, then your family names are connected through them and not necessarily through your marriage.

Finally, if you are interested in the origin of Spanish last names and the naming system, make sure to check out Ancestry.com’s blog. I have been teaching this naming system for almost 3 decades and learned so much from this one article alone. For example, the common naming practice of the two last names, which started in 16th Century Spain, did not become common until the 1800s. That is really not that long ago! And all of those -ez, -az, -is, -oz  at the end of many names (Ruiz, Hernandez, Lopez)? Those suffixes actually mean son of – such as son of Ruy/Roy, son of Hernando, or son of Lope. I had no idea!

Hopefully, this helps clear up confusion as to the multiple last names many Latinx have. It is so important to understand this system to make sure that their records are filed and classified appropriately. Plus, it is just fun to learn of another naming convention in other cultures!

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