All you wanted to know and never dared to ask about Spanish family names

Some Theory


You may wonder why people from Spanish speaking countries have such long names. This is because we have usually two family names (surnames), when not more.

Following an ancient tradition, when a child is born, he/she receives the first surname from the father and the second surname is the first surname of the mother. In Portuguese speaking countries also use two family names, but for them the mother's surname comes first. In my opinion this is better because you know for certain who the mother is, but in some cases one may not be so sure about the father.

e.g. Juan Martínez Escudero + Marta Villanueva Cortés => Juan Martínez Villanueva

This way when a woman marries a man, she never losses her maiden surname, and her family name is carried by her descendents (although just for one generation). As you see, Spain has always been regarded as a country ruled by machos, but we respect more the women's dignity in this sense.

You may think this was simple, ...

oCompound Surnames

Well, things can get more complicated. People sometimes merge their family names, creating compound names. This can be done for several reasons:

e.g. Francisco García Carrión marries Ana Martínez Botella and he is proud of her mother's family name, so he decides to change his first family name to García-Carrión so that his son is called Pedro García-Carrión Martínez

Another source of multiple-word surnames is the use of prepositions and conjunctions. If your surname is the name of a common thing, the name of a place, a first name, or simply you are old fashioned, then you add a de (of), which is similar to the German von or the Dutch van.

e.g. Bosque[forest] becomes del Bosque, Peña [rock] is de la Peña, Viña [vine] is de la Viña, ...

Until the 60'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 surnames and one can not tell where does the second surname begin. Nowadays a slash (-) is used to group the members of a compound surname.

e.g. this example has all the attributes described before.

AlejandroRodríguez de la Peña y de Ybarra

Do you think that this was simple?

oCompound First Names

Well, then you must consider that in most region, specially in Latin America, people like to give their children several first (Christian) names, usually two or three, so that they are protected by the greatest number of Saints*. Traditionally one of the names had to be the Saint of the Birthday.

This specially true for women. Up to my generation, most women have the name María. This is why most women use the other first name or a nickname. Usually the second name is abstract because it specifies the name of a Madonna, like Esperanza [hope], Concepción [conception], Dolores [pain], Encarnación [incarnation],

e.g. names like, María de las Mercedes, María José, Carlos Alberto, Juan Carlos, etc. are very common.

Do you still think that this is simple?

oMixed First Names

Well, in order to maximize the divine protection* some people have both a male and a female name. The first name will tell you the sex of the person.

So if you meet someone that is called José María, don't call him María because he is male. The same way, if you know someone called María José, don't call her José, because she will become angry with you. Usually only the names of María and José are borrowed from the opposite sex.

* Nowadays most people do not chose the names of their children because of this divine protection, but for aesthetic reasons or to honor an antecesor.

Was this all?


Well, as names are very long, people use nicknames (pretty much like Liz isto Elisabeth, Bob is to Robert or Bill is to William). This is only used by the family and friends, so don't use this if you are trying to make business with her/him or if he's the president of a State.

e.g. Some common nicknames are:

MALE Pepe -> José
Manolo -> Manuel
Paco -> Francisco
Chema -> José María
FEMALE Concha -> María Concepción
Maribel -> María Isabel
Marisa -> María Luisa
Lola -> María de los Dolores
Encarna -> María Encarnación

oAdvanced stuff

If your curiosity hasn't been satisfied yet, then read this section.

othe -ez suffix

It is suprising the number of Spanish surnames end in ez. This is because it means "son of", like the suffix -son and -sen in many German and Scandinavian languages. In Portuguese the -ez becomes a -es.

e.g. Fernández is the son of Fernando [Ferdinan]

Martínez is the son of Martín [Martin]

Rodríguez is the son of Rodrigo [Rodrico]

Notice that someone called Pérez does not have to be the son of Pere [Pedro = Peter], it only means that one of her/his antecesors happened to be called Pedro (who probably was a knight in the mediaval ages)


Suprisingly almost all surnames that end in -ez have an accent (called tilde in Spanish). This is because Spanish, unlike English completely specifies how a word should be pronounced. The accent is written when the a syllble other than the standard one should be stressed, so accents are rare but compulsory.

You may have seen that many Latinos/Chicanos in the USA don't write the accents on their surnames, this is because they have Anglicized their surnames, or someone has done it for you (perhaps a computer)

Some Examples

My Case

My complete name is Pablo Molinero Fernández, Molinero is my father's first surname and Fernández is my mother's first surname. If I want to use a shorter form I use Pablo Molinero. I only use Pablo Fernández when I want to fool the IRS (just kidding).

An Extreme Case

If you followed all the explainations until now you wouldn's be surprised that someone told you that his name was

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:

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

You can see that the number of surnames augments exponentially with the number of generations that are considered.

In any case you sould not worry of seeing a name as long as this, unless someone is trying to pull your leg (like me).




Page maintained by Pablo Molinero Fernández (only for humans)

Last modified: Sun Apr 21 16:39:24 1996