Spanish Naming Conventions – The Basics

Spanish Naming Conventions – 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.

Research your Spanish surnames in MyHeritage’s historical record collections

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.

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.


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.

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 former Prime Minister of Spain, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, 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.

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 an interesting Spanish surname, leave us comment below.

If you’d like to do more research on your surname, start by searching the billions of historical records on MyHeritage.


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  • Maria Mercedes Monsalve Clemente

    July 18, 2011

    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!

  • Kim

    July 19, 2011

    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

  • Maria Mercedes Monsalve Clemente

    July 19, 2011

    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…

  • Suellen

    July 30, 2011

    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!

  • Erin Willer de Garcia

    May 20, 2012

    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????

    • Aaron

      May 20, 2012

      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.

  • Michael Enriquez

    June 22, 2012

    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

  • Janice Brown

    June 3, 2014

    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?

  • Ed

    June 6, 2014

    When the Spanish had slaves, they often would have the owner’s last name with a “de” in front of it.

  • Judy Hall

    July 10, 2014

    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

    • Emma

      July 10, 2014

      Wonderful! That’s a great step to learn more about your grandfather’s history!

  • rafa

    May 3, 2015

    Just a comment. Parents can actually choose the order of their childrens surname so the first family name of the wife can be the first surname of the children and it’s the husband surname the one wich is going to disapear.
    If they don’t agree I am almost sure that it s decided by alfabetic order
    Zapatero was the one who approved this law

  • Paul

    September 22, 2015

    As a letter carrier in the U.S. you cannot believe how much confusion this otherwise wonderful practice with all it’s variations can cause when people change their address. I wonder how they keep track of people moving?

  • Patricia

    January 28, 2016

    Paul, a way to handle the Hispanic paternal/maternal surname issue here in the US is to hyphenate the two surnames in order to “force” the appropriate order. For example, Jose Luis Rodriguez-Zapatero. It becomes one name, sort of. It’s a workaround, but it helps to maintain it the way it’s supposed to be, saves losing one of the names and also saves some explaining when trying to answer the question, “but, what’s your last name?”

    And if you think Hispanic conventions are confusing, consider what they do in Brazil! There the mother’s surname is first, then the father’s, plus they also add filho (son), neto (grandson), and soubrinho (nephew) somewhat similar to the way we use Senior, Junior, or III. There’s a lot of fluidity with names, you can take up a maternal grandfather’s surname and then put “Neto”, and so you can have a different name from your siblings! Maybe someone from Brazil can add a comment.


  • Carmen

    June 17, 2016

    Patricia in Spain that would be not so easy
    If we hyphenate it could be crazy, I would have a double surname but my children would have 2 double and my grandchildren 4 and so on…

  • Patsy

    July 1, 2016

    in Italy people often write their names with the surname first and then their given name, ie Smith Joanna. Is this also done in Spain? i have a correspondent whose names both look like first names and don’t know how to address him! Mr 1st name or Mr 2nd name?

    Thank you.

  • Asad

    July 2, 2016

    Can the short form of “Maria Del Carmen Orrala” be just “Maria Orrala”?

  • kc

    September 24, 2018

    If Ana López García and Juan Santos Moreno have a son named Diego, what would Diego’s full name be?

  • Ramsey

    February 8, 2019

    I have a Puerto Rican wife and was a bit offended when she didnt want to change her last name to mine. After reading this, I totally get it. I like to embrace her culture whenever I can and now that I know keeping her surname is a part that, I’ll all for it.

  • Fran

    February 21, 2019

    Where is part 2?
    Don’t know why some people here think this is only in Spain. Spain spread out and conquered many other places and the custom stayed, so it has been this way in P.R. and in Mexico since the Spaniards also settled there believe it or not.

    • E


      February 26, 2019

      Hi Fran,

      You can see Part 2 here:

      Esther /MyHeritage Team

  • Michael Homs

    March 14, 2019

    To further understand the surname rules you have explained, which surname would the children in your example use when they marry? That is, would they take the paternal surname of their father, Rodriguez, and the paternal surname of their mother, Diaz?

    Also, would you know anything about the surname of Homs. My great grandfather’s birth certificate says he was born in Barcelona.

  • Mouse Croghan

    April 26, 2019

    In the name Maria Gloria Gonzalo Fernandez Monte-Negro with the convention above where does the Monte-Negro come from?

  • Heather Elisabeth De Munn

    May 10, 2019

    Thank you! This was super helpful in editing a book of ESL student writings, alphabetizing authors. It cleared up doubts that I’ve had for years!

  • Donda

    June 14, 2019

    Oh Wow, That’s incredible!!!!!

  • yolanda pérez bernal

    November 9, 2019

    Michael Homs
    My mother’s second surname was Homs. Homs is more common in Girona and around the French border.
    It is the older version of the surname “Oms”, which means “elm”.

  • Laetitia Olivia Burdett-Coutts

    February 10, 2020

    Thank you

  • William Campbell

    March 11, 2020

    Thank you. This article is very helpful with its explanations of Spanish surnames.


    April 2, 2020

    This was helpful and confusing at the same time because the interesting comments provide even more variations based on country and era, for example. Moreover, “dropping the paternal surname is not unusual when it is a very common one,” “parents can actually chose the order…Zapatero was the one who approved this law,” and the current trend to hyphenate, also further add the variable of personal preference. I am still trying to figure out the best way to record this on the 2020 census response! My husband dropped his father’s surname because Gonzales is a very common one, kept his mother’s (paternal? maternal? — not sure because we’re americanized descended from Texas spaniards — both our birth certificates say “white”), and after marriage added my paternal surname to his because he liked that one better. We never belonged to England and we were Mexico for only 1821-1836, but we were New Spain for 300 years. Even monolinguals like us feel our identity and culture come more from Spain than England. Yet hispanic families who’ve been here for centuries often name differently from people who came from Mexico in the 20th century due to English language influence. How does one fit all this into those little boxes on the census form????!!!!


    April 2, 2020

    Husband just told me that Trevino is his mother’s maternal surname. So his mother used both but in the anglicized order, he dropped the second name but which was in his case dropping the paternal, he kept his mother’s maternal surname and added my paternal surname. So our “last name” is the same like English custom, but like Spanish custom I did not change my name upon marriage.

  • Christa

    September 10, 2020

    Why do Spanish speakers have two last names? What would your last names be if you were Spanish?

  • Thea faith Aguilar Gerson Mechavez Montesclaros Mag-usara

    March 23, 2021

    I would like to know what surname”Montesclaros”is came from

  • melissa Botteri

    March 24, 2021

    do Italians follow the same custom?