18    Jul 201111 comments

Spanish Naming Conventions – Part 1: The Basics

With the influence that Spanish culture has had around the world, you may very well have Spanish roots somewhere in your family tree.

For those unfamiliar with Spanish naming conventions, finding and exploring ancestors may be a little confusing.

Today we start with Part 1 of our Spanish Naming Conventions series – The Basics

We’ll progress beyond that in the next few parts of this series but, as with all things, let’s begin at the beginning…

Getting Started

Many of you will notice that Spanish names tend to be longer than in many other cultures. By longer I don’t mean they have more letters, I mean they have more words.

Before we get into why this is the case it’s important to understand that the concept of a “Middle Name” doesn’t exist in Spanish naming conventions.

Once you forget about the Middle Name, understanding the full name becomes significantly easier.

Throughout this post I’ll use the current Spanish Prime Minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, and his family, as an example to explain Spanish culture naming conventions.

Keep in mind though, that where I use the word Spain or Spanish, I’m really speaking about Spanish culture extending all around the world, not just culture from the country of Spain.

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First/Given Names

In Spanish cultures, people either have one or two given names. For instance Juan or, like the Spanish Prime Minister, José Luis.

Note that, as mentioned above, Luis is not the Prime Minister’s middle name but part of a full, single, given name – José Luis.

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Surnames

In Spanish cultures, people traditionally have 2 surnames.

The first is the paternal surname (apellido paterno), the father’s first surname, and the second is the maternal surname (apellido materno), the mother's first surname.

As you may have realised, this means that what we would call the mother’s maiden name, is passed down a further generation than in traditional Anglophone cultures.

Going back to our friend José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, using the information above we now understand that Rodriguez is his paternal surname and Zapatero is his maternal surname.

This point about the paternal surname coming first and the maternal surname coming second is an important one to remember, as we’ll discuss below in the paragraph about how to address someone by their surname.

Married Names and Children’s Names

In Spanish culture, women do not change their name when married.

What that means is that the mother, father and children in one family will all, generally, have different surnames.

For instance:

José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero is Married to Sonsoles Espinosa Díaz (Espinosa is her paternal surname and Diaz is her maternal surname) and their children’s names are Laura Rodríguez Espinosa and Alba Rodríguez Espinosa.

Check out a snippet of their family tree below to see how all the different surnames fit within the family (click on the picture, then click on it again when the new page loads, to see a larger version):

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Addressing Someone By Their Surname

When addressing someone by their surname in Spanish cultures, as a general rule you use their paternal surname.

So, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero would be known as Señor Rodriguez, not Señor Zapatero.

Without trying to confuse you, it is important to note that dropping the paternal surname is not unusual when it is a very common one.

This is the case with the Prime Minister who, because of how common the surname Rodriguez is, is actually known as Zapatero.

That having been said, focus on the general rule and you should be OK.

Also, keep in mind that it’s becoming more popular amongst Hispanic cultures in the Americas to hyphenate the two surnames. This is an attempt to avoid confusion when dealing with Anglophone countries that aren’t familiar with Spanish naming conventions

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Let’s leave it there for now as this has been an excellent start and will help those of you unfamiliar with Spanish naming conventions to get up to speed on how these conventions are different to those you may be more familiar with.

If you have any issues or questions please feel free to leave them in the comments.

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Comments (11) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Hi, I am living now in Spain but I am Venezuelan in origin and I have never heard before arriving in Spain the use of the second surname as it does in the case of Zapatero or in Rubalcaba (minister). I think it is a particular case in Spain, and it would be interesting to trace when it began to happen, otherwise we will find in a trouble... Greetings!
  2. Thanks for the comment.

    Finding when this started sounds like a tough challenge! Though an interesting one :)

    I questioned whether or not I should put the information about the second surname sometimes being used into the post but thought I would add it just as a bit of information.

    As you say (and as I mention in the main article) as long as people remember the main rule of addressing people by their first surname they should be OK
  3. I agree. Thanks for the information. As a general rule, we have to keep in mind what you have writte. It is also interesting to point the exceptions out, I am nor sure but I think there could be differences between countries and periods. For instance, in Venezuela, when my grand mother got married she took my grand father surname (1920). She was Rebeca Ricardo and she became Rebeca Clemente. When my mother got married (1952) she became Maria "de Monsalve", she lost her surname Clemente. Arround 1980 women can retain their surname (legaly).
    In present times, women in Spain use their surname, but it was always that way? Interesting subject of course.
    Again, thanks a lot for your article...
  4. Another interesting article! Perhaps this explains why my nephew, who has a Spanish father, was not given a middle name when he was born. I'll pass this on to to encourage him to start working on his Spanish heritage!
  5. What about when you see so and so "de" somelastname another last name "Y" anotherlastname? How does the "Y" connect or denote where the surname is from????
  6. Hi Erin, the Y generally means that it's the second last name, taken from the husband's mother. So if you were called "name lastname 1 y lastname 2", lastname 1 would represent your fathers father's name, and the lastname 2 would represent your father's mothers name. It was a way of keeping both names in the family. It has Spanish origins but today many people have dropped the y.
  7. I am trying to determine what my grand-mothers maiden name was.
    I think she was married twice because she had children with differant names:
    1. unknow husband
    2. Husband Julio Belford
    3. My grand-mothers name was Camila Arzon De Belford
    4. children: Julio Belford De Arzon
    Amelia Belford De Arzon
    Step-children: Rose Enrique Y Arzon
    Jaime Enrique Y Arzon
    5. After Julio (husband) died, Camila used the name Camila Enrique and it was changed to Enriquez when she came to USA.

    Can anyone tell me or guess, what Camilas maiden name would have been and can we take a guess as to what her first husbands name was (first name would be unknown)?

    Thank you,
    Mike Enriquez
  8. Is the use of de with 2 last names strictly for married people ex sara rodrigues de arroyo. Husband name is arroyo. Or can a child be named maria perez de ramirez. Taking dad & mom last name but using the de or is de strictly to denote marriage?
  9. When the Spanish had slaves, they often would have the owner's last name with a "de" in front of it.
  10. Thank you for helping me figure out my Grandfather's name. First of all somewhere along the time he left Spain and his working on the Panama Canal his last name was changed. I have his birth certificate from Spain and I couldn't figure out what his real name would be. Father's name Jose' Martin Rodrigues, Mother's name Juana Gonzalez. It say's Rafael Martin Gonzalez for my Granfathers name and His father signed his own name as Jose' Martin. The name he used was Rafael Herrera. Go figure, very confusing, thanks
  11. Wonderful! That's a great step to learn more about your grandfather's history!

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