What’s the deal with last names in Spain?

January 28, 2009 By: erik Category: Spain 26,996 views

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Surnames in SpainFor outsiders visiting or learning about Spain, the system of surname inheritance in Spain may seem very strange and foreign. Not surprisingly, all non-Spanish systems seem pretty weird to Spaniards. Humans have a tendency to think “We know what we know and we assume that our way of doing things is the best!” That’s one of the most eye-opening things about traveling and learning about other cultures; you learn that the way you and your country have always done things is not the only way. To be a contented expatriate, you have to become very accustomed to saying, “Huh! That’s different! It’s not necessarily better or worse, but different from what I’m used to.Everything has pros and cons. In this post, I will attempt to explain the Spanish system of last names to non-Spaniards.

There are four basic rules to surname inheritance in Spain:

  1. Everyone has two last names.
  2. Your first last name is your father’s first last name.
  3. Your second last name is your mother’s first last name.
  4. Women do not change their last names when they get married.

That’s it. That’s the whole system. To Spaniards, the fact that women in some countries change their last names when they marry seems like a loss of identity. “How can you just give up who you are like that?”, they say. Occasionally, they will play the feminist card and claim that giving children only their father’s surname is chauvinistic and that the Spanish system isn’t because it values the surname of the mother, but if you look closely, the Spanish system is only valuing the mother’s father’s surname. The truth is that women’s surnames do get lost in Spain, it just takes another generation to do so.

Here’s a family tree to illustrate the process. The names have been anglicized and the last names have been reduced to initials for clarity.

Surnames in Spain

Another way to write rules #2 and #3 from above would be:

  1. Your first last name is your paternal grandfather’s first last name.
  2. Your second last name is your maternal grandfather’s first last name.

A consequence of this system is that your siblings, because they have the same mother and father, all share the same two last names. And yes, it is quite common for someone to have two identical surnames, if their grandfathers had the same common surname.

Another consequence is that you can’t refer to a nuclear family unit as “the Joneses” or “the Simpsons” in Spain. I suppose you could refer to Tommy, Susie, and their parents in the diagram as “the A____ E____ family”, but it’s almost never done. And there’s really no need because the concept of the nuclear family unit is so fuzzy in Spain.

No one has a middle name in Spain, but it’s fairly common to have multiple first names, e.g. Juan Carlos, Marí­a José, Luis Miguel, etc. Sometimes these are contracted to names like Majo or Luismi, and some people have two first names but only use one.

When a Spaniard becomes famous, it is quite common, when referring to the person, to drop the most common of the two surnames.

I’m not sure if this is done mainly to avoid confusing non-Spaniards with all the names or if it is just to shorten things because famous people are talked about a lot. I suspect the latter.

And there you have it! I hope that you agree that this Spanish system is different but not necessarily better or worse than what you are accustomed to.

 
  • Lance

    Spain, you so crazy.

  • http://simonlitton.wordpress.com simon

    Thanks for that clarification. This will actually help me at work, believe it or not.

  • http://www.hillbillyplease.com/blog/ jane

    Cool. I had no idea.

    Also: “Huh! That’s different! It’s not necessarily better or worse, but different from what I’m used to.”

  • http://landofnospice.blogspot.com Sharon

    i like the spanish system of surnames, but what you say is true, the feminist argument only sort of works with this system.. and in common everyday usage most people only use the first surname, ie the father’s name…. my only complaint with the system as an expat with only one surname is that i do occasionally run into probs with banks and other such institutions which have inflexible computer systems that require two surnames.. in these i’ve taken to using my mother’s maiden name as the second surname and for some strange reason it doesn’t seem to bother them that none of my identity documentation contains this second name!

  • Fernando Alvarez del Castillo

    Then as spaniard, it is my turn to defend this system as the best one. Although it is true the mother surname is lost in the second generation, she doesn’t loose her birth surname when she marries. Why should she? You possibly cannot imagine how alien seems that – abandoning your own surname just because you get married (and woman)! – doesn’t he also gets married? why doesn’t he changes his surname and adopts hers?

    Additionally the rest of surnames could be maintained, in the example the grandson could take the names:
    Tommy A-B E-F (again only two surnames, with hyphens) but that is considered a little pedantic and only used if the surnames are famous for any reason.

    Or even:
    Tommy A-B de C-D y E-F de G-H (again, only two surnames) or any shorter combination, I think you get the idea) but that would be extremely pedantic and ridicule.

    One solution for foreigners with only one family name is to duplicate it: John Smith would be John Smith Smith, or using her mother maiden name as second surname. Again the spanish way of thinking kicks in: Would be your mother be very proud and grateful of you for using her – and her parents – family name? Don’t you think so?

    But I also find problems when I go to the US with my spanish name: Fernando ílvarez del Castillo: I don’t have a middle name. I didn’t even know what was that the first time I went there. People doesn’t understand my name – they think my family name is Castillo and Alvarez is my middle name: I have received letters for Fernando A. del Castillo. Wrong!!

    • Stephannie

      I was just wondering since your name is del Castillo how do you do you
      initials? Do you use FAD, or FAdC, or FAC? My future son in law’s name
      is Diego Del Brocco and he says that his last name initials are DB. I don’t
      know if he has a middle name, but how can my daughter get anything
      monogrammed with LDBN (Lauren Nicole Del Brocco) I think that the
      del should be left off in monograms and it should read a big B for the last
      name. They are Italians and I don’t know if this would make a difference
      in the way it is done in Spain. Thanks for your help!

      • http://www.erik-rasmussen.com/ Erik R.

        I’m pretty sure you leave off the preposition when abbreviating to initials. That’s what other languages do, I think. e.g. von (German), van (Dutch), de (Spanish), da (Italian), of (English), etc.

        Leonardo da Vinci would be L.V. and Wernher von Braun would be W.B.

        But I think you’d be better off checking with your daughter just to be sure.

  • http://www.erik-rasmussen.com/ Erik R.

    Gracias, Fernando! Great comment.

    Telefonica wouldn’t let me get a mobile phone contract until I gave them two last names. As a computer programmer, I can understand why it’s probably better to have better field validation at the cost of awkwardness to foreigners, but I found it funny at the time.

  • Avelha

    Women’s surnames do not necessarily get lost in Spain. You can have the maternal surname before the paternal surname.

  • http://www.erik-rasmussen.com/ Erik R.

    Yes, Avelha, but for how many generations?

  • http://www.eyeonspain.com/tv The Siesta Show

    Thanks for the clarification. Do you know if there is any stigma attached to only having one surname, as most expats do? Thanks

  • http://www.erik-rasmussen.com/ Erik R.

    Stigma? No. It’s more a matter of confusion and/or fear of/laziness to deal with the strange or unknown. It’s just the inverse of what a Spaniard would experience in the US or UK: “You have two surnames?? Why would you have two?? Weird!” I wouldn’t call it a stigma.

  • avelha

    Well that will depend upon what your offspring decide to do when they have children themselves. In theory the maternal surname might never be lost.

  • Art.

    Hi there,

    In the past it was true that with our system the mother’s last name got lost as it was always put in second place, after the father’s.

    But the law was changed at some point and now couples can decide to give their last names to their children in any order. The only thing is that the order has to be the same for all the children they have, so brothers and sisters have the same combination of last names.

    So, in your example, James and Sara could decide to name their children Tommy A E and Susie A E or Tommy E A and Susie E A.

    In reality, though, not many couples dedide to put the mother’s last name first. Perhaps because of lack of knowledge, perhaps not.

    My two euro-cents

  • http://donlorenzo.com Lorenzo Bohme

    In Spain as in most countries surnames didn’t even exist until the 18th-19th centuries, John was called John the baker which later became John Baker, or John son of William which became John William. For legal and fiscal purposes it eventually became necessary to give people fixed, permanent surnames. This was especially important in Spain where the limited number of given names (taken from saints, usually) and surnames (Rodriquez, Lopez, Martinez, which originally meant son of Rodrigo, Lope, Martin) made it difficult to identify people with just one surname. So they were required to use two, first their father’s and then their mother’s, thus making them easier to pin down. I am told that this peculiar arrangement was enforced by government decree at the end of the 19th century for the purpose of a national census but I haven’t been able to find the name or date of the law. Can anyone help me do so?

    • http://www.erik-rasmussen.com/ Erik R.

      That’s fascinating, Lorenzo. Thank you for that!

    • http://www.erik-rasmussen.com/ Erik R.

      Lorenzo, I imagine the law you are referring to is the one that established the Registro Civil on June 17, 1870.

  • http://www.donlorenzo.com Lorenzo Bohme

    It could well be the 1870 one as you suggest but I would like to see the clause or text that requires people to use two surnames.
    Thanks!

  • http://catalansiaragonesos.blogspot.com/ Silvia

    Before the fifteenth century the Spanish had only one name, the surname of the father. Between the fifteenth and sixteenth century Castilian nobles start a new fashion: the fashion of adding a second name to the surname of the father. It was made especially when the mother’s lineage was more prestigious than the father. It was not the same to be Juan Garcí­a than Juan Garcí­a y López de Haro (the Lopez de Haro was a very powerful lineage). The surnames were separated by the conjunction “y”.

  • http://catalansiaragonesos.blogspot.com/ Silvia

    In those days the second name was not mandatory, it was just a fad of the nobility and gentry. The second name was sometimes the mother’s, sometimes not. For example, the writer Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra. His mother was Leonor de Cortinas, therefore he should have been called Miguel de Cervantes y Cortinas. However, he choose Saavedra because he admired his uncle, the brother of one of his grandmothers.

  • http://catalansiaragonesos.blogspot.com/ Silvia

    The common people always end up copying the style of the rich and famous, and it did with the fashion of the second surname. Gradually everyone added a second surname, usually the mother’s surname. In the mid-nineteenth century came a law to regulate definitively the Spanish surname system, I do not remember the date.

    Sorry, I do not know English, I’m using a translator!!!

    • http://www.donlorenzo.com Lorenzo Bohme

      Silvia, es muy interesante lo que me has escrito y te lo agradezco. Así­ mismo, quiero identificar el decreto que hizo obligatorio el uso de los dos apellidos.
      in English…
      Thanks very much for this interesting information you have sent me! I still want to know exactly what law made it compulsory to use two surnames.

  • xavi

    In some places in Latin America it was also customary when a woman got married to substitute her second last name with her husband’s last name, so for example if Mirta Lopez Gatica got married to Diego Sotolongo Alvarez she may be called Mirta Lopez de Sotolongo. I think this was more common among the upper classes. I don’t think that in Spain they will do that, but in Italy sometimes its used.

  • Andres

    I’m from Chile and In Chile we have both our father’s and mother’s last name, as well as a middle name. we have to use our full name everything except the more basic day to day activity. Females in Chile that get married do not change their name. They instead add their husband’s last name to theirs. example: If Maria Sofia Alvarez Pardo got married to Luis Alberto Vazquez Sanchez. Her new name would be Maria Sofia Alvarez Pardo De Vazquez. Only her marriage license would have this. All of her personal documents would still have her birth name.

  • Deborah

    So……if an English woman (with one surname obviously) marries a Spanish man what does her surname become, or does it follow the same rules and doesn’t change? Plus if they have children, do the same rules apply (the Fathers first surname followed by the Mothers)?

    • http://www.erik-rasmussen.com/ Erik R.

      Obviously you’re allowed to do whatever you want. But yes, that’s typically what happens. The few expat women I know who have married Spaniards have both kept their maiden names and given their maiden name has their kids’ second surname.

  • Kat

    Hi, I am really confused! I understand the wholse spanish process with regards to the names and think that it’s great! I lived in Barcelona for a bit and my boyfriend is from there. We have recently been wondering though – when we get married what will happen to our surnames?? Could anyone help me?

    I have looked all over the internet for the legal ramifications but can’t find anything. I am english and therefore it would feel a bit funny for me not taking his name, but also it would be very strange for him if i did because then it would be more like I was his sister when we are in spain!

    Would it be possible to use one thing in england and one in spain??…please help me! Thanks.xx

    • http://www.erik-rasmussen.com/ Erik R.

      Nothing will happen to your surnames automatically. You would have to request any changes you want. It’s really completely up to you.

      What I don’t think you can do is have one name in one country and another in another just because you don’t want to seem weird in either. Your relationship is multicultural; some things from one culture are gonna seem weird to the other side of the family.

      If I were you, I wouldn’t change my name and just let your family back in England deal with it. That requires the least paperwork and hassle.

    • Alex

      You have a hard question there. Erik has replied adequately… I don’t know about laws, so I can only help you with the obvious things mentioned above:

      As it is said, if you live in Spain and get married there, your original surname(s) will remain without changes. You are just mentioned in the Civilian Registry as married with ‘this man’.

      And also, by the Equality Law, you have the right of surnames transpotition. If you have children with that man, they could have as the first surname your own surname or his. An example:

      If you are called Katherine Smith, and your husband is called Enrique Guerrero, your children could be Guerrero Smith (this is by default) or Smith Guerrero.

    • Mia

      Am in a similar situation as you are in at the moment. My problem is that my surname is extremely hard to pronounce here in spain and don’t really like the alternative that our future children will have a name that is that complicated to spell. Is it even possible in spain to register a surname that has letters that don’t exist in the spanish alphabet? But since we most likely will end up living here I guess it would be very odd if our entire family would have the same last name, although I personally like the idea of it since it for me symbolizes that a family is a unit.

      Another thing is that if I decide to change my surname will I only use his first surname or both of them?

    • Katsx

      I had completely forgotten that I posted this a year ago. My boyfriend an I got engaged last month and have just started searching the Internet again re the name issue! You are all completely right and I am coming around to the idea of not changing my name. I think it’s more the fact that in England on the wedding day so much is made of talking about Mr and Mrs blah blah that I just find it a bit strange. Anyway it will be lovely for our kids to have my surname as well :-) thank you for taking the time to help me!xx

  • Kathy

    I am writing a work of fiction in English about Spain. Readers will be confused at the non-traditional method of names. I’m worried no one will realize who is related to whom and how. Will it be an insult to Spaniards if I refer to characters as Senor Sanchez, his wife, Senora Sanchez, and their son Ramon Sanchez?

    • http://www.erik-rasmussen.com/ Erik R.

      I suppose there are always accuracy vs. readability tradeoffs when writing novels set in foreign countries. I don’t think Spaniards would be insulted; they’d just know that you got it wrong, like if a Spaniard wrote a novel set in the US and assumed everyone had two surnames. It’s up to you and how authentic you want it to be. If you’re not going to market your novel in Spain, then I imagine that most readers would never know the difference.

    • Julie

      Why not just include a family tree at the end? Or check the novels of famous Spanish and Latin American writers. It really can’t be that confusing at all, plenty of English speaker have read a work such as “Don Quixote” or “100 Years of Solitude” etc.

      Just make sure YOU understand it, if you don’t then your readers won’t but if you DO understand than that will come through.

  • Eddy

    Have a look at the link that I’ve pasted, below, for an example of a Mexican whose numerous surnames (he has far more than two) are all (but one) from what he calls “the female line”, e.g. maternal and paternal grandMOTHERS: not grandFATHERS. Only the men’s surnames getting lost, there:) You can’t argue that that isn’t less chauvinistic… can you, Erik?

    http://users.panola.com/AAGHS/ARTICLES/SURNAMES.html

    • http://www.erik-rasmussen.com/ Erik R.

      No, of course not. At some point either the paternal or maternal surname must be dropped, otherwise we’d all end up with 2n surnames.

  • Eddy

    Obviously… thus, equally as obvious, drop the paternal surname! Joking aside, I but speak for myself… albeit as a “man”:) Anyway, I merely wanted to point out to the crowd that there are some groups, including MANY – albeit still a minority of – Indonesians, that value the mother’s surname more than that of the father.

    Cheers,
    Ed.

  • Angela

    Excellent explanation. This is also true for most latin american countries.

  • Robinbooth

    brill explanimation, well done, keep up the good work, this is great… understood loveltyly.. i love you

  • Azael

    While largely accurate, yet this explanation rather overlooks the entire name situation when a woman marries.  While, true, she retains her last name (paternal, in any event), yet she does usually and normally add her husband’s paternal last name by tacking on “de [husband’s paternal last name]” as follows:

    Let’s say that Maria Elena Vasquez Sanchez marries Eduardo Ramon Pereira Alvarado.  As explained above, the paternal last name for both would be Vasquez (for Maria Elena) and Pereira (for Eduardo). 

    After marriage, while Eduardo’s name does not change, yet Maria’s would as follows:  Maria Elena Vasquez de Pereira. 

    (Sanchez, the maternal last name, is for all intents and purposes dropped in all but the most official of records)

    From then on, Maria will be commonly called…  Senora Maria Elena (or simply Maria) Pereira.  Or… Senora Pereira.

    Thus… their custom is rather similar to our own regarding a woman’s last name change to that of her husband’s.  This is rather similar to the English/American system now fairly common in which a woman will likewise include her maiden last name (that of her father) and add her married last name, thereafter (e.g., Katherine Anderson McClelland), sometimes as a hyphenated, especially following a divorce (e.g., Katherine Anderson-McClelland).

  • Azael

    While largely accurate, yet this explanation rather overlooks the entire name situation when a woman marries.  While, true, she retains her last name (paternal, in any event), yet she does usually and normally add her husband’s paternal last name by tacking on “de [husband’s paternal last name]” as follows:

    Let’s say that Maria Elena Vasquez Sanchez marries Eduardo Ramon Pereira Alvarado.  As explained above, the paternal last name for both would be Vasquez (for Maria Elena) and Pereira (for Eduardo). 

    After marriage, while Eduardo’s name does not change, yet Maria’s would as follows:  Maria Elena Vasquez de Pereira. 

    (Sanchez, the maternal last name, is for all intents and purposes dropped in all but the most official of records)

    From then on, Maria will be commonly called…  Senora Maria Elena (or simply Maria) Pereira.  Or… Senora Pereira.

    Thus… their custom is rather similar to our own regarding a woman’s last name change to that of her husband’s.  This is rather similar to the English/American system now fairly common in which a woman will likewise include her maiden last name (that of her father) and add her married last name, thereafter (e.g., Katherine Anderson McClelland), sometimes as a hyphenated, especially following a divorce (e.g., Katherine Anderson-McClelland).

    • http://erikras.com/?utm_source=disqus&utm_medium=profile&utm_campaign=Disqus%2BProfile Erik R.

      I have to disagree with your “usually and normally” statement. Perhaps you’re speaking of the situation a generation or so ago, but I’ve never seen this “de [husband’s paternal last name]” phenomenon. Can you cite any cases of famous people I might’ve heard of (or could look up on Wikipedia or something)?

      Maybe you’re thinking of countries other than Spain?

      • bawa

        Have to totally agree with Erik. Have never seen-heard what you say and have been living here for over 20 years now.
         

        • Robert Jamaar Powe-Fischetti

          I don’t know of any women who have done the “de ‘husband’s last name,'”, but my female friends here (I live in Asturias) have told me that it is possible.  It is probably rare because the paperwork to do anything in Spain is just unbearable! ;)

          This would also explain why it may have been more commonplace in olden days, as there weren’t funcionarios, paperwork, or computers!

          I’m fortunate that I’m American and married to an Italian.  As we are both men, I have double-barreled our last names together so that our kids carry both…of course if there are any daughters it will eventually get lost…unless they’re famous–foreign last names are automatically less common and more likely to survive fame!!!!

          • http://erikras.com/?utm_source=disqus&utm_medium=profile&utm_campaign=Disqus%2BProfile Erik R.

            Oooh, interesting. How biased of me; I hadn’t even considered homosexual marriages. Was it hard to decide which name to put first in the hyphened version, or does your husband have the same two, but with his first?

            It’s a complicated issue, and someone’s name has to die off eventually or else we end up with names like “Marí­a del Rosario Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart y Silva”.

      • Alex

        This “de [husband’s paternal last name]” phenomenon used to happen uintil more or less the 1970s. I remember seeing one of my parents’ visiting card from the early 60s whre she appears as Ana Soto de Pedreño. But on another one from the 80s she already appears with her two last names as Ana Soto Cuéllar.

    • Luz

      I am Spanish and in my whole life I have not seen that. Here you have your two surnames, from your mother or your father for all your life, doesnt matter you are a male or female, married or not. In addition now is impossible to know if you are married or not, only with the surnames, or ID like driver license, DNI (Spanish ID) or Passport. For example, Picasso the painter, it is his mother surname (grandfather), he was Pablo Ruiz Picasso. And last changes in law, you can choose exactly the two surnames and the order for your children, prefectly you could give them the two granmothers surnames… but it is not really usual.

  • Bea216

    how does it affect a spanish woman marrying an emglish man in england?

    • http://erikras.com/?utm_source=disqus&utm_medium=profile&utm_campaign=Disqus%2BProfile Erik R.

      That’s entirely up to the woman getting married.

    • bawa

      When I got married in the UK 25 years ago, we asked about how I could follow the Spanish custom of keeping my name. The legal answer was “There is no law in England that says a women has to take on her husband’s surname and give up her own: it is a matter of social convention that women change their surnames”
      If you do want to change, you go around to the banks and stuff with your marriage certificate, and they will do it for you, but its entirely up to you.
      Lastly, you might want to register the marriage with a Spanish Consulate if you want to get a Libro de Familia.

  • Anw25

    One more thing you missed:

    Nowadays, under Equality of Genders Law, spanish children can be borned with their mother’s surname instead of their father’s, as it was tradition. Example:

    Helena A_ E_ marry Antonio H_ T_, and they have children. Their children can be A_ H_ or H_ A_, that’s something Helena and Antonio have to discuss, reach a mutual agreement of which surname survives.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/3JLG6UEPCOAJUUKW7IEZP6GID4 roman v

    I know why  Spaniards have two surnames,it is really easy if you think about it,What`s the best way to identify a Jew?Judaism is transmitted thru the mother,so two surnames identify if your mother is Jewish or not.Very clever

  • Ashly

    So say you’re a non-spanish woman that marries a spanish man…does she just take the first last name as well?

    • http://erikras.com/?utm_source=disqus&utm_medium=profile&utm_campaign=Disqus%2BProfile Erik R.

      Most women I know that have done that don’t change their names at all.

  • Gh

    This is in mexico too(:

  • Sarah Rodriguez

    I’m American and married a Mexican man, but we live in the U.S so we decided to follow my customs and I took his first last name. (His two last names are Rodriguez Trejo). People ask what do we do etc but it’s up to each person what they want. Sometimes in Mexico Mexicans will not understand we are married and think we are brother and sister because we have the same last name, and I just explain to them that in my country the family adopts a single name. It’s no big deal, I am proud to have my husbands name.

  • SCB

    Love it, I consider the hyphenated name a twist on this quite frankly. I have Spanish heritage through my mothers side. However my last name is the typical American father’s last name and I rarely know my father. Was thinking of switching the hyphen to put my mothers maiden name with my husbands, as he suggested, was also thinking of just choosing a familial spanish name that was shorter, from my maternal line. I do not think its such a big deal to end up with two names or for each subsequent generation to get a different name, because our mothers constantly change their name each generation in America. As you can see by your very example, only one name disappears but each name can be called a maternal name and a paternal name because of who you got it from either your mother or your father. In Iceland they have patronym and sometimes matronyms and each generation that will be different as your father or mother is different from your Grandfather or Grandmother.

  • kevin

    Supposedly your fathers name is first on your documents can you still use your mothers last name instead and pass it down to your children rather than your fathers?