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Understanding surnames and given names can help you find and identify your ancestors in the records.
Before record keeping began, most people had only one name, such as Juan. As the population increased, it became necessary to distinguish between individuals with the same name. The problem was usually solved by adding descriptive information. Until the 10th century, common people did not use a surname. The Council of Trent (1545 to 1563) made it mandatory to keep parish records that would list names of the child, parents, and godparents.
In 1568, Phillip II decreed that the Moors should abandon their names and adopt Spanish names. Thus, some Moorish names such as Ben-egas became Venegas. In France, placing de was a mark of nobility, but in Spain it was only a preposition of origin (of or from) used before a geographic name. From long usage, names such as Del Monte became Delmonte, and La Villa became Lavilla.
The four influences that played a part in the development of Spanish surnames were patronymical, occupational, descriptive or nickname, and geographical (estates, manors, and dominions) terms. Examples of these influences are:
- Patronymic. Based on a parent’s name, such as Juan Martínez (Juan son of Martín) and Juan Domínguez (Juan son of Domingo).
- Occupational. Based on the person’s trade, such as José Herrera (José the blacksmith) and Juan El Molinero (Juan the Miller).
- Descriptive or nickname. Based on a unique quality of the person, such as Domingo Calvo (Domingo bald headed) and Juan El Moreno (Juan the Dark).
- Toponymic. Based on a person’s residence, such as Domingo del Río (Domingo from near a river) and Juan de Córdova (Juan from Córdova).
At first, surnames applied only to one person and not to the whole family. After a few generations these names became hereditary and were used from father to son.
Surnames were first used by the nobility and wealthy landowners. Later the custom was followed by merchants and townspeople and eventually by the rural population. This process took two or three centuries. In Spain the name system was well established by the 1100s. The naming customs of Spain became the basis for other Spanish-speaking countries.
It is not possible to determine the exact year or even the century when a particular family name was taken. By the end of the 13th century many families determined to retain the patronymic with out continuing to change the name from generation to generation. Thus, the hereditary apellidos (surnames) were in use by the time of the discovery of the New World.
In Mexico many surnames of Spanish origin were given to the native Indians and African children when the priests baptized them. Others were simply baptized Juan, José, María, and so on, and later descendants obtained a surname.
Typical surnames from various parts of Spain include Castilian (Fernández, Morales), Basque (Ibáñez, Vásquez), Gallego (Brétema, Seoane), Portuguese (Coelho, Ferreira), and Catalán (Ventura, Gralla).
The following suffixes of surnames show that they had a patronymic origin: az, ez, iz, oz, and uz. However, the scribes and priest often spelled the patronymic surnames with s instead of the z, and they changed the plural surname ending in s to z. Therefore the plural forms of surnames may be confused with the patronymic surname. Examples of plural names include Torres and Flores.
Spanish priests would often assign Indian family names as surnames. Some Indian surnames have been translated, such as Dzul to Caballero (gentleman), and Dzib to Escribano (scribe).
Another distinctive practice of the Spanish naming system was the double and compound surnames; a person would be known by his paternal and maternal surnames. Compound surnames (apellidos compuestos) can be found with or without a y, a dash (-) or a preposition (de, del, de la). Examples are: María García Fernández de León and José Juan Ríos-Prado y Rodríguez. While most present-day names are taken from the parents’ surnames, historically the surnames might be those of the more prominent family and even those from grandparents.
Historically, before the last 150 years, women did not take their husbands’ surname. Now a woman who married a Martínez would attach the married surname (apellido de casada) de Martínez to her first single (paternal) surname (apellido de soltera). And when she was widowed she would become Viuda de Martínez (widow). The abbreviation for viuda is vda. Thus a complete name of a single woman named María Josefa Torres Sepúlveda would become María Josefa Torres de Martínez once she married.
In telephone directories an Alonso Manuel de la Vega Martínez may be listed as VEGA MARTINEZ, Alonso Manuel de la, and the same person on announcements or on business cards could be listed as Alonso Manuel de la Vega M. A widow Ofelia Castillo vda. de León could be listed as LEÓN, Ofelia Castillo vda.
The following books are helpful for understanding naming practices:
Enciclopedia de México (Encyclopedia of Mexico). México: Instituto Enciclopedia de México, 1966, 1:229–232. (FHL book 972 A5em.)
Gosnell, Charles F. Spanish Personal Names: Principles Governing their Formation and Use Which May Be Presented As a Help for Catalogers and Bibliographers.New York: The H.W. Wilson Co., 1971. (FHL book 980 D4go.)
Mugica, José A. Los Apellidos de Iberia: Su Origen y Evolución (The Surnames of Iberia: Their Origins and Evolution). Bilbao, Spain: Editorial EDILI, S.A., 1966.
There are a number of websites with information on Hispanic surnames. A sampling follows:
- The "Apellido" article in the Spanish-language Wikipedia.
- The "Spanish-speaking countries" sectionof the "Family name" article in the English-language Wikipedia
- The "Apellidos" search page on PergaminoVirtual, a Spanish-language website
- The "Queries, Message Boards & Surname Lists" section of the "Hispanic, Central & South America, & the West Indies" page within Cyndi's List
In Mexico many given names are usually derived from Biblical names such as José (Joseph, husband of Mary), saints such as Roque (Roch), or Old German given names such as Sigfrido. Some Spanish people used compound given names (nombres compuestos) such as María del Socorro.
When baptized, children were usually given one or more given names. One of these might have been the name of the saint of the day of baptism. The first name or baptismal name (nombre de pila) may not have been used in the child’s life. In Mexico the child was usually called by the second or third name given at baptism, especially if the first name was María or José.
Many books are available that discuss Spanish names and their meanings. Books that provide meanings for given names include:
Gorden, Raymond L. Spanish Personal Names. Yellow Springs, Ohio: Antioch College, 1968. (FHL book 980 D4g; film 0924066 item 1.)
Tibon, Gutierre. Diccionario Etimológico Compartado de Nombres Propios de Personas (Dictionary of Ethnological Comparison of Given Names). México: Union Tipografica Editorial Hispano-American, 1956. (FHL book 980 D4t)