The Spanish System of Surnames
By Jose Casas y Sanchez
Since time immemorial in Spain, the Catholic church and the civil government (since the middle of the 19th century) have been using the same system for registering and ordering the surnames of individuals. Itsuse was extended to the New World, starting in the Colonial Era.
The high number of surnames a person may use—four, eight or more—does not make that person an aristocrat or more elegant or a member ofthe nobility, it only shows that the ancestors are known to that family orthat individual in particular; it is basic genealogy. In the titled familiesthese records are very carefully kept, and most off the nobility know byheart the order or cadency of their ‘illustrious’ surnames.
As most of us in Latin America are Catholic, we have been baptized inour local parishes and have also been registered in the civil registryoffices of our towns or cities. The baptismal certificate and the civil birthcertificate both clearly state the two surnames of the person’s father andmother, and sometimes also the surnames of the four grandparents,especially if that particular parish priest or civil servant at the registryoffice was more or less educated and did not make a mistake during theregistry of the names. In the larger parishes of the cities, like cathedralsor basilicas, these errors were much less frequent than in the small townparishes, so if you are lucky, on your baptismal certificate you have yourfirst eight surnames. You only need to get the baptismal or civilcertificates of your four grandparents, and with luck, bingo! you haveyour 16 surnames.
This system is logical, practical, simple, and effective. It is harder to make mistakes when investigating the family history, doing genealogical research, and quartering the blazons in family heraldry. One of the most important aspects in the Spanish system of surnames is that the women never, ever lose their last names. They have exactly the same surnames as their brothers. When a woman marries she simply adds the last name or names of her husband.
This system allows the woman to keep forever her last names. It is hard for us to understand the American or British system that dictates that the woman loses her last name completely when she marries, and does not change, even if she becomes a widow. And all of this in a modern liberal women’s rights society!
Another important point is that, by law, we always have to use our first two surnames when legal documentation is involved, when signing legal papers, writing bank checks above a certain amount, etc.
Occasionally you will find the letter ‘y’ between the two surnames; this is done to separate the person’s father’s and mother’s surnames, not to confuse a double surname that is composed of two words. In English this is done using a hyphen. One thing to remember and to learn, is how to address a Hispanic person, in person or in writing. The rule is to always address the person by their first surname, never by the second. When in doubt, address the person by both names. This too, is the Spanish way of doing things.
(Ed. Note: JOSE CASAS was educated in Mexico, the USA, and the UK, before working as a textile engineer in the family business. From 1977 to 1981 he was the Administrator of the International Airport at Guadalajara. He spends his time in genealogical studies and is an active participant in heraldry and medieval societies, and writes on these subjects.)
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