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Why Do Spanish Ancestors Have so Many Last Names?

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Written by Nydia Hanna

The surnames in Spanish families are tied to traditions of land, wealth, social status and religion. For a Spanish person, their whole name, including two surnames, correctly identifies them and their parents. This identity is deeply rooted in the histories of their ancestors and the names they carried. Spaniards believe that the name you are born with is “who you are” and “where you come from.”  Spanish families prefer to continue the link to their past noble or royal lineages if they exist, whether male or female. The females or wives in Spanish families retain their status by keeping the surnames of their birth. A surname can infer wealth or social status, or alternatively identify a child born out of wedlock.

Typical Spanish surname custom:

A Spanish name is composed of four items:

  1. The first name given to the person- this may have many words- as in Maria or Maria del Carmen
  2. The father’s paternal surname
  3. The letter y– meaning and
  4. The mother’s paternal surname

Let’s use an example:

Juan Cruz y Gonzalez marries Maria Rodriguez y Morales

Already we know that Juan’s father has the surname Cruz and Juan’s mother has the surname Gonzalez. We also know that Maria’s father has the surname Rodriguez and Maria’s mother has the surname Morales. Maria does not change her name when she marries. Later, Juan and Maria have a son named José. Jose’s full name is

José Cruz y Rodriguez

His two surnames are the surnames carried down from the grandfathers. The grandmother’s surnames are not included. This was, of course, a very male dominated society in old Spain as women usually did not own land or have jobs.

Exceptions to the rule:

  1.  If an unmarried woman had a child, the Church would have required the baby to take the mother’s paternal surname, even if the biological father was known. The child would only have one surname. The biological father might recognize his child at a later date, but this was a legal or civil document. The Catholic Church would not recognize the unmarried father.

So in the example above – let’s say that Juan and Maria don’t marry, but have the child José out of wedlock.  José would then be baptized:

José Rodriguez.

  1. Sometimes, the father of the unmarried woman did not approve of his daughter having a child out of wedlock and he would not allow his surname to be given to his grandchild. In this case, the unmarried mother’s maternal surname was given to the baby.

Example: Juan and Maria are not married and Maria’s father is very upset when the baby José is born out of wedlock. José then becomes: José Morales

Confused yet??

  1. Now throw all of these naming customs out the window if the ancestor was born before the mid 18th century. Then it was common for people to take the surnames of either parent or even grandparent if they were influential, owned land, or held a title!

What do Spanish surnames represent?

Older Spanish surnames typically represented a location in Spain, as in de Avila (meaning of the town of Avila). Surnames may also indicate a specific lineage as opposed to a different branch, as in Ramirez de Arellano instead of Ramirez de Arias. As time progressed, the location/lineage designation was shortened and de Avila became Davila and Ramirez de Arellano became just Ramirez.

Tips for interpreting the census in Puerto Rico

This information about Spanish surname customs should help in reading and interpreting families in the Puerto Rican – US census of 1910, 1920, 1930 1935 and 1940. These are the only census available as a US census, since Puerto Rico became a territory of the US after the Spanish American war 1898.

Additionally, remember this:  A Spanish woman keeps her birth surnames, but may be identified as being married to a man by the addition of “de” and her husband’s surname. Example from Juan and Maria above if they are married – Maria might be designated as:

Maria Rodriguez y Morales de Cruz

Unfortunately, many people that transcribed the Puerto Rico census were not Spanish and did not understand these customs. Maria’s name is still Maria Rodriguez y Morales.  The de Cruz is not actually her surname. It is a designation that states that the husband is responsible for the wife. In more modern times, this dependent position of the wife is (thankfully) left off. 


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