In Spain, we all have two surnames, with the father’s surname listed first, followed by the mother’s surname, by the way, since the year 2000, you can register your kids two last names in the order you prefer. This naming convention is known as “apellido compuesto” or “doble apellido,” and it’s a legal requirement in Spain.
The tradition of using two surnames in Spain dates back to the fifteen hundreds, when Isabella and Ferdinand (the Catholic Kings) were ruling. It was stablished this way for a couple of reasons. It was intended to help identify family lineages and prevent inheritance disputes. By using two surnames, it’s easier to trace a person’s ancestry and establish their family connections. This was, let´s say, the official version of this law, but there was a darker truth to it.
The Catholic monarchs were obsessed with the purity of the Spanish race, and of course according to them, all “good Spanish people” should be Christian. This is why in 1492 Muslims and Jewish were either expelled from Spain or were forced to convert. As you can imagine, many of the converted just got baptized but secretly they professed their original faiths.
To identify the fake converted Muslims, a new way of cooking started in Spain. We know that Muslims do not eat pork, so we started adding pork to many of our meals. Since then, we add jamón (Spanish ham) to almost everything, artichokes, omelets we even added lard to many of our desserts.
To identify the fake Jews, the kings passed this double last name law. You might wonder why? Well, it is simple, here in Spain our Sephardic Jews transmitted their religious knowledge through the mother. So, we only need to know your mothers last name to identify a possible fake Christian.
Today, the use of two surnames is so deeply ingrained in our culture that it’s legally required. Children must be given both last names, the first one being the father’s and the second one the mother’s surnames. There is one exception to this rule, now that the Spanish government accepts kids with one single parent, you can register the baby with both last names from him/her, but always two of them.
A bit more about our surnames
In Spain, it’s common for many surnames to end in “ez,” such as Rodriguez, Martinez, and Hernandez. This suffix has its roots in the Latin suffix “-icius” or “-itius,” which was used to denote a “son of” or “descendant of“.
Over time, the suffix evolved into the “ez” ending that we see today in many of our surnames. This ending is particularly common in surnames from the northern and central regions of Spain, where it’s used to indicate a patronymic or matronymic origin.
For example, Rodriguez means “son of Rodrigo,” Martinez means “son of Martin,” and Hernandez means “son of Hernando.” The “ez” ending helps to identify the family lineage and can also indicate a person’s place of origin or occupation.
As this “ez” issue is such a Spanish thing, it makes sense that it’s also normal to find it in most of the Spanish-speaking countries such as Mexico, Argentina, or Chile.
One of the good things that comes out of our double surnames and the “ez” suffix is that they help if you are trying to trace your family lineage. Specially here in Navarra that we were an independent kingdom until the XVI century. I guess my ancestors were obsessed with recording everything, because we have records that date back to the XIV century. It is easy to find birth certificates, marriages, some deaths and even some important economical transactions. With all this info and your two last names, it is easy to trace back your family roots till those years.
On the other hand, one of the bad things regarding our double surnames, is that as this is by law, we all have them written in our ID cards and specially in our passports. The problem comes when you need to feel in any international form (call it a visa, or just to book an airplane ticket) Most of the Anglo-Saxon countries they ask you for your name, the initial of your middle name and then your surname. Guess what? Most people in Spain do not have a middle name, so the system understand that your first surname is your middle name, and your second surname is your real surname. That is chaos!
Thank you for that information, Francisco. After my grandparents came to California in 1910 from Spain, abuelo changed their names to only his surname so they would just have one last name and they would fit in. It was Perez and it has been tricky finding their ancestry. I wonder how many Spaniards did that back then. I appreciate all that you share!
Which names prevail for descendents? If Sra. Martinez-Villanueva has a child with Sr. Rodriguez-peña, what names will the child be registered under?
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So the legal name for that kid would be Rodriguez Martinez
When you go to a new country, you have to go with the rules of that country. So it is normal that he only used his first last name. Beside that, many times immigrants in order to fit in, they even didn’t speak with their original languages to their kids, so the children would have no accent.
As your family name is Perez, that is a very difficult surname to trace as it is one of the most popular last names here.