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:
, 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:
- Name of the individual's father
- Name of the place of origin or residence of the individual
- Profession, occupation or title of the individual
- Nickname or other personal characteristic of the individual or anecdote
related to the individual of family
- Surnames related to religious consagrations or blessings, or done
relative to the newborn
- 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
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 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)
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".
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.".
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
||Pancho, Paco, Curro
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.
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.
|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
|Doña, doña, Da.
||The feminine equivalents of "Don" and "don", when
the "d" is capitalized it's the equivalent to the English "Lady".
||"from" or "belonging to". Can signify the place where an individual
came from. Can also signify a married woman by indicating the husband's
||"Viuda de" ("Widow of")
||"Su Majestad" ("His/Her Majesty")
||"Su Alteza Real" ("His/Her Royal Highness")
||"Excelentísimo" ("His/Her Excellency")
||"Licenciado" ("Licensed" - Lawyer)
||"Reverendo" ("Reverendo" - Priest)
||"Presbítero" (Presbyter - Priest's helper)
||"Ingeniero" ("Engineer" - an honorable profession in Latin cultures)
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.
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
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.
The 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
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
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.
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
(progenitor of the Ponce de León line)