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Notes on Cuban Surnames



dingOrigin of Hispanic Surnames

For a more complete discussion of this topic (in Spanish) and a list of the meaning and origin of more than 8,000 Spanish surnames, we recommend you consult the following compact reference:

buy a book Diccionario de Apellidos Españoles, Roberto Faure, Maria Asuncion Ribes, Antonio Garcia - Editorial Espasa Calpe S.A., Madrid 2001 [ISBN 84-239-2289-8]. This book is also obtainable at the Ediciones Universal bookstore in Miami.

The above reference categorizes the origin of Spanish surnames into the following 6 categories:

  1. Name of the individual's father
  2. Name of the place of origin or residence of the individual
  3. Profession, occupation or title of the individual
  4. Nickname or other personal characteristic of the individual or anecdote related to the individual of family
  5. Surnames related to religious consagrations or blessings, or done relative to the newborn
  6. Name of uncertain or unknown origin

During the Middle Ages, prior to the Council of Trent, it was common in Visigothic Spain (as in other Germanic cultures), to form an individual's last name by adding one of the patronymic forms "ez" , "iz", or "az" (all meaning "son of"), to the father's first name. Thus we have "Fernández" - meaning "son of Fernando", "Nuñez" - meaning "son of Nuño", and so on.

Sometimes the place of origin was used or added as a second surname, preceded by the word "de" or "del" ("from" or "from the"). Thus we have surnames such as de León ("from Leon"), "del Valle" ("from the valley"), "del Monte" ("from the mountain"), and "Nuñez de Villavicencio" ("Nuñez from the town of Vicencio or Villavicencio"). Over time, the "de" may have been dropped from the surname.

Another group of surnames derived from the person's occupation. Thus we have "Herrero" ("ironsmith"), "Guerrero" ("warrior"), "Marino" ("sailor") and so forth.

We also have surnames derived from nicknames, physical characteristics, or a special event or anecdote in the life of the individual. Thus we have "Calvo" ("bald"), "Flaco" ("thin") and "Armenteros", a corruption of "Arma Entera" ("full armament"), which was awarded by Royal Decree to Don Rodrigo de Guzmán after this individual continued to battle the moors with a wooden log after losing his sword.

Finally we have surnames which take the name from the local Parish, the name of a local benefactor, the name of the Godfather or Godmother, and in the case of slaves, the surname of their masters. None of these group of surnames imply any blood relationship to the family of the surname in question.


ding Compound Surnames

Cuban surnames are patterned after the Spanish form and contain both the father's surname and the mother's surname in that order, sometimes separated by the word "y" ("and"). This is extremely valuable for genealogical research, since by knowing the full surname, you automatically get the surnames of both parents. Often, civil and church records will include both surnames of the grandparents, giving you the surnames of the great-grandparents as well.

Sometimes both surnames are carried to following generations as a compound surname. This is a common practice when a paternal surname is a common surname and/or when the corresponding maternal surname has some claim to fame. In this case, to prevent confusion, the word "y" is almost always used to separate the groups of surnames from the two parents.

As an example (see the diagram below), José López marries María Famosa. Their son is named Juan López Famosa. Juan, in turn marries Isabel Fernández García. The son of Juan and Isabel could be named Pedro López Fernández, Pedro López y Fernández, Pedro López Famosa y Fernández, or Pedro López Famosa y Fernández García - the last two forms preserving the "Famosa" surname for future generations.

Sometimes, but not always, dashes or the letter "y" are used to group the surnames, so the son could also be known as Pedro López-Fernández, Pedro López-Famosa y Fernández, or as Pedro López-Famosa y Fernández-García. In some confusing situations you may have to resort to the genealogical records of the parents or other siblings to clarify where one group of surnames ends and the other begins.

To perhaps make it a bit clearer, here is the above example in diagram form, where the paternal surnames are shown in bold type:


       José López --- María Famosa
            Juan López Famosa --- Isabel Fernández García
                       Pedro López Fernández
                      Pedro López y Fernández
                      Pedro López-Fernández
                   Pedro López Famosa y Fernández
                   Pedro López-Famosa y Fernández
               Pedro López Famosa y Fernández García
               Pedro López-Famosa y Fernández-García
               Pedro López Famosa Fernández García
      (this last version leading to general genealogical confusion)


ding Spouse Names

It is important to note that, in Hispanic cultures, wives retain their maiden names when they marry. They can legally add their husband's surname(s) after their own, preceded by the word "de" ("of", implying "spouse of"). Thus, in the preceding example, Isabel Fernández could sign her name as Isabel Fernández de López, or as Isabel Fernández García de López Famosa. If her husband has died, she can use the words "viuda de" (widow of), abbreviated "vda. de", instead of just "de".


ding Contemporary Usage

Note that it would be totally incorrect to address the last individual in the first example as "Mr. Fernández". He should be addressed as "Mr. López" or as "Mr. López Famosa". When people with Hispanic surnames emigrate to non-Hispanic cultures, such as the USA, they commonly drop the maternal surname to avoid such "surname confusion". Sometimes, however, they retain both surnames by adding a dash "-" between the two. Thus, the individual in question might choose to be known as "Mr. López-Fernández". In today's computer culture such long surnames run the risk of being truncated or distorted by data entry clerks almost beyond recognition.

In contemporary Hispanic cultures, particularly in Central and South America, business cards often list only the initial of the maternal surname. You might find the business card of the last individual in question introducing him as "Sr. Pedro López F.".


ding Name Changes

In Cuba, as in most Hispanic countries, it was illegal to change your name. It used to take an act of the legislature to change a surname, so this was a very rare occurrence. This applied to making a change to a different surname not entitled by blood relation, even a simple translation of the surname. It did not apply to the selection of which surnames to use as discussed above.



(this section was contributed by Roberto Balbis)

Hispanic cultures are fond of nicknames. These tend to stick to the individual until death and many can not remember the real names of their friends and even of their relatives. Some nicknames such as Chucho, Yeyo, Pipo, Cuca, Mami, etc. could have been given affectionately to someone regardless of their real name, making the historian's work more arduous. However, there are many standard nicknames (such as Hank which is always given to a Henry) that should be learned, since they refer to a single given name. Some of the most common nicknames associated with given names are listed below.


Given Name
Adelaida Lala
Antonio Ñico, Toño



Concepcion Concha
Consuelo Chelo, Cusa
Dolores Lolo, Lola
Enrique Quique
Federico Fico
Francisco Pancho, Paco, Curro
Gregorio Goyo
Isabel Chabela, Belica
Jose Pepe
Josefa Pepa, Fefa
Manuel Manolo
Pedro Perucho, Perico
Pelayo Payo
Pilar Pili
Rafael Felo
Ramon Mongo
Santiago Chago
Teresa Teté


The above nicknames are sometimes given a diminutive suffix (ito, illo, ìn, etc.) such as Pepillita or Joseito. Whereas most nicknames are diminutive forms of the real names and shorter, some are longer such as Perucho for Pedro. Finally, the nickname Pepe derives from the fact that early church records referred to Saint Joseph as the "Padre Putativo" or presumed father of Jesus; this was many times shortened to P. P., hence the nickname.


ding Importance of Middle Names

In the past, it was common for individuals to be baptized with a string of middle names, often honoring ancestors, godparents or benefactors. In religious families one of the middle names would often correspond to the name of the Saint in the Catholic Church's liturgy whose feast day corresponded to the individual's birthday. This may provide a clue to an individual's birthday by referring to a Church Calendar listing the Saint(s) corresponding to each day of the year.



The following table lists some frequently encountered honorifics, usually found preceding a person's name.


Honorific Meaning
Don, don, D. When the "d" is capitalized (other than at the beginning of a sentence) it indicates a title given to a member of the nobility (Hidalgos), equivalent to the English "Sir". When the "d" is in lower case it is merely a title of respect to a distinguished or older individual.
Doña, doña, Da. The feminine equivalents of "Don" and "don", when the "d" is capitalized it's the equivalent to the English "Lady".
de "from" or "belonging to". Can signify the place where an individual came from. Can also signify a married woman by indicating the husband's surname.
vda. De "Viuda de" ("Widow of")
S.M. "Su Majestad" ("His/Her Majesty")
S.A.R. "Su Alteza Real" ("His/Her Royal Highness")
Excmo. "Excelentísimo" ("His/Her Excellency")
Lcdo., Ldo. "Licenciado" ("Licensed" - Lawyer)
Rdo. "Reverendo" ("Reverendo" - Priest)
Pbro. "Presbítero" (Presbyter - Priest's helper)
Ing. "Ingeniero" ("Engineer" - an honorable profession in Latin cultures)


ding The Council of Trent

The requirement for surnames to be passed from father to son became religious law as a consequence of the Council of Trent, the ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church held at Trent in northern Italy between 1545 and 1563 as a response to the Protestant Reformation. The Council of Trent also mandated the recording in local parishes of all births, deaths, marriages and confirmations, as well as the specific format for such records. It also mandated the periodic inspection and certification of such records by representatives of the regional Bishop. The contemporary genealogist has much to be thankful for the meticulous recording of such events that resulted from these mandates.

In some regions of Spain, Parish Register books are found that predate the Council of Trent by almost a full century, and in many Parishes of Castille, books exist dating from the late 1400's as a result of a mandate on this subject issued by Cardinal Cisneros.


ding Civil Registers

Civil Registers ("Registro Civil") in Spain were instituted in 1870. These record all births, marriages and deaths. Originally, in the larger cities, there existed more than one Civil Register, while in the rest of the provinces until recently there was only a single regional Register. Currently there exists a central Register in each town or equivalent civil jurisdiction.

In 1884, the Spanish Civil Registration law was applied to Cuba and Puerto Rico. The civil registration of all marriages, whether religious or civil was imposed in 1900. After 1918, the performance of a civil marriage was made mandatory, whether accompanied by a religious ceremony or not.


dingThe Valdes Surname

In Cuba, the surname Valdes (without accent on the "e") has a special significance. For centuries the "Casa de Beneficencia" or "Casa-Cuna" (National Orphanage) gave this surname to all male children that it raised. This custom was in honor of the founder of this establishment, the Bishop of Cuba Gerónimo Valdés y Sierra.

According to the biography by Calcagno, Don Gerónimo Valdés y Sierra (1646-1729) was named Bishop of Puerto Rico in Madrid on 23 December 1705; but, before occupying the post, was named Bishop of Cuba, arriving 13 April 1706 in Baracoa, whose church became Cathedral and first temple of the Diocese. One month later he transferred to La Habana. In 1711, thanks to his charity , the Casa-Cuna was founded in the Monastery of Santa Teresa, at a cost of 16,000 pesos. This was later moved to San Lazaro street and renamed the Casa de Beneficencia y Maternidad.

n.b. The building of the Casa de Beneficencia briefly appears in the motion picture "Our Man in Havana" as the "school" attended by Alec Guiness' young lady friend.

The infant children were placed in a turnstile door (the "torno") and, after ringing the bell, the nuns would receive the child, take care of his (or her) needs and educate him until he became an adult.

One of our readers, a direct descendant of Bishop Valdés, describes the following details:

The Beneficencia (National Orphanage) was founded approximately between the end of the XVII century and the beginning of the XVIII century by the Bishop of the Cuban Catholic Church, D. Jerónimo Valdés y Sierra. Bishop Valdés is recognized in Cuban history as the founder of the Casa de Beneficencia, following the ideas of D. Diego Evelino Compostela, Bishop of Cuba, who died in 1704.

Bishop Valdés, who was born in 1646 and died in 1729, placed as a condition that the boys that were sheltered at the Casa de Beneficencia, would be given his surname, Valdes, but without the accent. The girls were given the surname Rodríguez after another benefactor and founder.

The reason that Bishop Valdés asked that the boys not use the accent in their surname was because one of the admitted orphans was a descendant of Bishop Valdés. He put as a condition that only his relative would carry the accent, that is he would be the only one known as Valdés; this, according to Bishop Valdés was so he could always identify the child.

The source of my information are the documents left by Bishop Valdés in his will and testament, where he left all his fortune to that relative, which is why he made sure that the child was given his exact surname and was the only one with an accent on the "e". My paternal grandfather was a direct descendant of that child related to and protected by Bishop Valdés. My grandfather was the lawful heir of the Bishop Valdés in direct lineage with the orphan boy.

n.b. Around the 1950's, according to what my grandmother used to tell me, the custom of using the last name Valdes was discontinued by the Beneficencia in favor of picking a surname at random from the telephone book.

In Veracruz, Mexico there is a web site dedicated to the Valdes surname. You can visit it by clicking here.


ding Medieval Naming "Law"

It was a strict custom in the Middle Ages (before the Council of Trent) to name the first son after his paternal grandfather, to name the second son after his maternal grandfather, the third son after his father, (if the father's name was different from the grandfather's), and the remaining sons after paternal or maternal uncles. The same principle applied to daughters (I have read, but have not located the reference, that the lineage was changed so that the first daughter was named after the maternal, rather than paternal grandfather). An exception to the rule was the case of votive names - names given because of a promise or special devotion to a saint, in which case the strict order previously mentioned was altered.

As an example of medieval naming, we display here a few generations of the Vela family line which was ancestor to the Ponce de León surname, from the genealogical work Una Familia de la Alta Edad Media: Los Velas y su Realidad Histórica by Jaime de Salazar Acha. This illustrates both the use of patronymics in creating the surnames and the carriage of the "Vermudo" given name from paternal grandfather to the grandson:


     Vermudo Vélaz m. Elvira Pinióliz
     Oveco Vermúdez m. Elvira Suárez
     Vermudo Ovéquiz m. Jimena Peláez
     Gutierre Vermúdez m. Toda Pérez de Traba
     Vela Gutiérrez m. Sancha Ponce de Cabrera
               Ponce Vélaz
     (progenitor of the Ponce de León line)

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Notes on Cuban Surnames - Updated 06-Jun-2007

Copyright © 2007-2013 - Ed Elizondo
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