Naming customs of Hispanic America

Spanish naming customs

Naming customs of Hispanic America

  • Núñez (medieval form Nunes, derived from the name Nunnus + suffix -ici-).
  • Pérez (medieval form Peres, from the name Pero, derived of Petrus, + suffix -ici-).
  • Sánchez (medieval form Sanches, from the name Sancho, derived from Latin Sanctius + suffix -ici-).
  • Álvarez (from médieval Alvares, from the Germanic name Halvar(d), latinicised as Alvarus).


Naming Conventions: Surnames 


Basic Practice

In Spanish-speaking cultures, when a woman marries a man, she does not lose her maiden surname. Additionally, her family name is carried by her children just as her husband’s family name is carried forward.

According to Spanish custom, when a child is born, he/she receives the first surname from the father. The second surname is the first surname of the mother. (Portuguese speaking countries also use two family names, but for them the mother’s surname comes first.)

To illustrate, a father named Pablo Guerra Recio, married to Refugia Alfrido Garcia, may wish to name their son Pablo, after himself. Their son’s name will then be: Pablo Guerra Alfrido.

As you can see, “middle” names are not middle names as we know them in English-speaking cultures, but are, instead, a surname derived from the parents’ surnames. (In fact, the two surnames of the child are those of his paternal grandfather and his maternal grandfather, in that order.)

The first surname is primary, and the second sub-ordinate — exactly the reverse of the middle and last names of non-Spanish speaking cultures (non-Hispanics). To a Hispanic, therefore, “Ornelas, Miguel Ledesma,” would denote Miguel Ornelas Ledesma rather than, as a non-Hispanic would expect, Miguel Ledesma Ornelas.

The main thing to remember is the child takes as its first surname (primary) the first surname of the father, and as its second surname (secondary) the first surname of its mother.

You can readily see how this custom, once you become accustomed to the practice, can be extremely beneficial in identifying the parents and grandparents of ancestors. It is much more difficult to “lose” a female ancestor in the records of Spanish-speaking cultures than in English-speaking cultures.

Even though Maria Cantu Villarreal is married, her death certificate will list a her as Maria Cantu Villarreal, probably adding the comment that she was the wife of Andres Trevino Hinojosa. This custom eliminates the problem frequently encountered in American or British research of trying to find the mother’s maiden name.

Some irregularities require further explanation.

Compound Surnames

People sometimes merge their family names, creating compound names. You should be aware that documentation will probably not exist to track such changes as doing so is not prohibited by law in their culture nor does such a change require a special court order. The reasons for merging one’s surnames into a compound surname generally are personal:

  • They don’t want to lose the family name of the mother in the next generation;
  • they belong or pretend to belong to the aristocracy;
  • or they have family names that are very common (like LópezFernándezGarcía, …) and they want to distinguish themselves from the masses.

For example, Jose Maria Benavides Guzman marries Florentina Neria Alfrido Trevino. He is proud of his mother’s family name, so he decides to change his first family name to Benavides-Guzman so that his son is called Manuel Benavides-Guzman Alfrido. A daughter, named Refugia, likewise, would have been called Refugia Benavides-Guzman Alfrido.

Most often, a dash (-) was used to group the members of a compound surname, but by no means was the dash ALWAYS used, in which instance the string of surnames simply became longer. Manuel Benavides-Guzman Alfrido would in that case be recorded as Manuel Benavides Guzman Alfrido.

Had the mother also decided to compound her surname, the child’s name would then have been recorded as Manuel Benavides Guzman Alfrido Treviño or, using the hyphens, Manuel Benavides-Guzman Alfrido-Trevino.

Another source of multiple-word surnames is the use of prepositions and conjunctions. If a surname was the name of a common thing, the name of a place, a first name, or simply they were old fashioned, then they often added a de (of), which is similar to the German von or the Dutch van. The use of the preposition de required its article la or its conjunctive form, del, meaning of the, instead of the simple of.

For example, Bosque [forest] becomes del BosquePeña [rock] is de la PeñaViña [vine] is de la Viña.

In Spanish indexes of surnames, it is important to note that the prefixes in such names as de la Torre may be ignored in alphabetization. Be sure to search under both parts of a name. For example, for the name de la Torre search under d for de la Torre and under T for Torre, de la.

Until the 1960’s, the Spanish census and other official registers used the and conjunction (y) to separate the first and second surnames. This was useful when there were compound or multiple surnames, making it difficult to distinguish where the first surname (paternal line) left off and the second surname (maternal line) began. In the case above, Refugia Benavides-Guzman Alfrido, would be recorded as Refugia Benavides-Guzman y Alfrido.

Likewise, the following example has all the attributes described above:

Andrés Guerra de los Santos y de Hinojosa

The -ez Suffix

The ez suffix means “son of“, like the suffix -son and -sen in many German and Scandinavian languages. In Portuguese the -ez becomes an -es.

Fernández is the son of Fernando [Ferdinan]
Martínez is the son of Martín [Martin]
Rodríguez is the son of Rodrigo [Rodrico]

Someone called Pérez does not have to be the son of Pere [Pedro = Peter]. More likely, one of her/his ancestors, probably from the medieval era, was called Pedro.

The Use of Accents in Names

Almost all surnames that end in -ez have an accent (called tilde in Spanish). Unlike English, the stressed syllable in Spanish words is standardized, with the accent always occurring in the next to last syllable. The accent is written when a syllable other than the standard one should be stressed. Accents are rare, but compulsory in all words where the stressed syllable is other than the next to last in the word.

Accent marks occur only on vowels [ á, é, í, ó, and ú ], and do not affect alphabetical order.

Many Spanish descendants in the U.S. have dropped the accents on their surnames. This generally represents an attempt to Anglicize their surnames, or is because someone else, perhaps a census taker (or even a computer) has dropped the accent, until it has become common practice for a family to spell their name without it.

Abbreviated Names

In some records, your ancestor’s name may have been shortened by reducing the maternal surname to an initial, such as Jose Francisco Benavides de P. (abbreviated form of de Pena), or Maria Elena Guerra T. (which could be any number of names beginning with the letter T, e.g. Trevino, Tamayo, or Tejerino).

Occasionally married women’s names will include the abbreviation Vda., as in Matilde Castro Vda. de Cevallos. Vda. is the abbreviation for viuda, or widow. Matilde’s late husband was a Cevallos, and public records so indicate.

Naming Conventions: Given Names

Compound First Names (Saints Names)

Complicating the above conventions, is the practice of giving children several first (given) names, usually two or three, which was believed to ensure protection by the greatest number of Saints. Traditionally, one of the names had to be the Saint of the Birthday. Often they were named for the patron saints of various churches in Spain. Usually the second name is abstract, signifying the name of a Madonna, like Esperanza [hope], Concepción [conception], Dolores [pain], Encarnación [incarnation],

Among my ancestors, most women have the name María ~ named for the mother of Christ. Similarly, José (Joseph) is the most common Saint’s name for a son ~ named for the father of Christ. This name is found spelled Joseph almost as often as it is spelled José, even in Mexican Parish records as early as the 1600’s and 1500’s.

Such names as María del RefugioMaría de las MercedesMaría José, José Francisco, Carlos Alberto, Juan Pablo, etc. are very common.

When named for a saint, most use another given name or a nickname.

Mixed Gender First Names

To maximize the divine protection* some children were named for a male and a female saint. The first name will tell you the sex of the person.

José María is always a male, as indicated by the first name of Jose. He would never be called María because he is male. Likewise, only a daughter would be named María José, and she would never be called José as the name José, standing on its own, is gendered. In general, only the names of María and José are borrowed from the opposite sex.

In public records, the name María is commonly abbreviated as Ma., and the name José is commonly abbreviated as Jo.

Spanish names also may be gendered by way of spelling.

  • In general, only male names end with “o”: e.g., Francisco.
  • Only female names end with “a”: e.g., Francisca.

Consequently, the name Francisco María identifies your ancestor as a son, while the name María Francisca designates a girl.

* Today most parents do not chose the names of their children for divine protection, but for aesthetic reasons or to honor an ancestor. Still, the naming convention thrives.

Nicknames (sobrenombres): Using the Familiar

The Spanish language has very strict rules governing the usage of familiar terms. It is considered an impropriety for nicknames to be used by anyone other than family and very close friends. Therefore, it is uncommon to find these names recorded in official documents.

You may, however, find nicknames recorded in personal papers, letters, diaries, etc. Further, descendants may only know the familiar name of a grandparent, aunt or uncle. For this reason, it is important to recognize some of the more common nicknames.

Common Spanish Nicknames
MALE   Alberto o Roberto Beto  
Eduardo Lalo  
Enrique Quique  
Francisco Paco or Pancho  
Jesus Chucho  
José Pepe  
José María Chema  
José del Refugio Cuco  
Luis Lucho  
Manuel Manolo or Méme  
FEMALE   Antonia Toña  
María Concepción Concha  
María de los Dolores Lola  
María Encarnación Encarna  
María Isabel Maribel  
María Luisa Marisa  
María del Refugio Cuca  
María Teresa Marité  
Teresa Tere  

There is an interesting phenomenon in Spanish when it comes to addressing women and men in intimate relationships. The word mamita, mama, mamacita can be used to address -1- someone’s mother, (Mom); -2– a daughter, a baby (honey, baby, sweetheart), -3– a lover (my love), and -4- as a derivate of the previous meaning, may also refer to one’s wife.

The same goes for the familiar terms of endearment papa, papito, papacito. These are the masculine form of the above terms, thus translating roughly into Dad, son, lover, and husband.

When researching personal papers, letters, diaries and journals, it is extremely important to discern the full context of usage of these familiar terms if you are to ensure identification of the correct ancestor.

Naming Conventions: Examples 

In theory, it is possible for the number of surnames to augment exponentially with the number of generations that are considered. In practice, however, you will probably only see the first surnames of both parents assigned to their children.

Standard Practice

Carlos Leal González: Leal is the father’s first surname and González is the mother’s first surname. In everyday usage, this name will commonly be shortened to Carlos Leal, using only the father’s first surname. In official documents, you will most often find it recorded as Carlos Leal González, using both surnames.

Less commonly, you may find it recorded as Carlos González, in which case, the first assumption is the record was recorded by a non-Spanish speaking official, as in the colonial U.S. You may need to search under both surnames, depending on where your ancestor lived.

General Santa Anna’s full name was Antonio López de Santa Anna Perez de Lebron. The Lopez de Santa Anna was his primary surname, and designated his father’s family name (surnames). The Perez de Lebrón was his secondary last name, designating his mother’s surnames.

General Santa Anna was the son of Antonio López de Santa Anna and Manuela Pérez de Lebrón.

An Extreme Case

You probably will never find a case as the following, which is offered only by way of illustration.

Carlos María Eduardo García de la Cal Fernández Leal Luna Delgado Galván Sanz

who is just considering all the names up to the second generation:

Grandparents Parents Child
García Luna
Luis Eduardo
García Fernández Luna Galván
Carlos María Eduardo
García de la Cal
Fernández Leal Luna Delgado Galván Sanz
María Bernarda
Fernández Galván
Marco Antonio
de la Cal Delgado
de la Cal Leal Delgado Sanz
María de la Concepción
Leal Sanz

In practice, the child above probably would have been named Carlos María Eduardo García de la Cal. His father probably would have been recorded as Luis Eduardo García Fernández and his mother would have been known as Cecilia de la Cal Leal. In later records, he probably would be found recorded with the name Eduardo, and less frequently with the name Carlos.

Carlos Maria is his saint’s name. Eduardo is his given name. Garcia is his paternal surname, and de la Cal is his maternal surname.

His baptismal record will probably give his full name, his parents’ names, his maternal and paternal grandparents’ names, his godparents’ names, his date of birth and place of birth, status of legitimacy, and the residence and places of birth for his parents. If his family is among the upper echelons or propertied members of the community, his parents will be recorded with the titles Don and Doña, often abbreviated as D. and Da. If a child died within a few days of baptism, or if a child grew up and married, this information was sometimes added as a note. His baptismal record will be recorded in the church (ecclesiastical) records, and possibly in the public records of the parish (city or town) in which he was baptised.

By contrast, my name, Lotus Dale Cirilo, while offering me two given names, identifies only my paternal grandfather’s surname and gives no indication of my maternal line at all. Further, by following the English-speaking custom of changing my name upon marriage, all identification of my family heritage (ancestors) is lost.

Naming Conventions: Practical Considerations 

Impact on Research

The Spanish practice of assigning surnames from maternal and paternal lines can impact your genealogical search, as can the practice of mixed, compound and multiple first names. The initial difficulties are in understanding how names are assigned, and then in delineating where one name begins and another ends. Overall, I have found that their naming conventions give more opportunities for identifying and tracing ancestors.


  • Names may be confusing to people of non-Spanish speaking cultures.
  • Non-Spanish speaking officials may misrecord names in public indexes.
  • Researchers may have difficulty discerning which is the paternal (first) and which is the maternal (second) last name.
  • Genealogy software is not designed to support the practices of multiple surnames nor the recognition of secondary first names as given names. Maria Cristina Alfrido Trevino becomes indexed as Maria Trevino, instead of, more appropriately, Cristina Alfrido. Her sisters, Maria Florentina, Maria Librada, and Maria Francisca also are indexed as Maria Trevino, making it impossible to distinguish between them in the index. Likewise, all of her brothers are indexed with their saint’s name Jose, instead of the given names by which they were known.


  • Male ancestors
    • Distinction among generations. It is customary (though not obligatory) in Spanish cultures to name the first-born son after the father, but there is no need to use Jr., Sr., III (and so on) whenever the same given name (first name) is used by different generations of the same family. A son and father who share the name Pablo will have different second surnames, which they take from their mothers.
  • Women ancestors
    • Women retain the family names they are assigned at birth, even after marriage. Census records will record her with her own family names, even where she is the wife in her husband’s household.
    • Children carry her family name as well as their father’s, throughout their lives. (Unless they choose to compound their names, which, in practice, offers the advantage of identifying the grandparents’ generation even on their children’s records.)
  • Both lines
    • Maternal and paternal lines are identified at every generation by the two surnames of the children.
    • With compound surnames, identification of a third generation is made possible.

Naming Conventions: Contemporary Practices

The above conventions are those you will most likely encounter in the records of your ancestors. Regarding naming conventions in contemporary cultures, there is a major difference when it comes to marriage.

Greatly influenced by English-speaking cultures, Spanish women today often take on the family name of their husbands; however, unlike their English-speaking counterparts, they retain their paternal family name as well. Her husband’s name is distinguished by the use of the preposition de.

For example, if a man and a woman named Alejandro Romo Salas and Maria Michelena Noriega married, the wife would then become known as Maria Michelena de Romo. Notice that it is her second surname (maternal) which she has dropped. In previous generations she would have retained the two surnames assigned at birth throughout her lifetime. And, it would have been unnecessary for her to assume her husband’s name at all, with or without a preposition.

As in earlier generations, every child they bear, boy or girl will have the last name: Romo Michelena, where the father’s family name is listed before the mother’s.

As with earlier generations, in everyday usage, the Spanish often will refer to themselves by their inherited father’s family name only. In formal conventions such as passports and birth certificates is it still necessary to include both family names.

The thing to remember about modern Spanish naming conventions is: When a woman marries, she keeps her father’s name. In place of her mother’s name, however, she will usually use her husband’s name, prefaced with “de.” Margarita Penon de Arias, the wife of President Arias, was known until her marriage as Margarita Penon Gongora.

When searching for ancestors of Spanish (and other Hispanic) descent, it is important to keep in mind these basic facts regarding the Hispanic surname. (1) Most Hispanic women continue to use their given surname throughout life and therefore may not be listed under a husband’s name. (2) Many Hispanic people have a double surname, the first being the father’s and the second being the mother’s. (3) Many families that immigrated to the United States switched the two surnames upon arriving, thereby making the first surname the mother’s and the second surname the father’s. This can lead to difficulties in searching through family records. (4) When searching for family names with a double surname, always search under both parts of the surname.


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