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Spanish surnames, like those of other European countries, started to appear on the 11th and 12th centuries. Their evolution and main characteristics are the same experienced in these other countries. But there are some peculiarities which should be further explained.
It frequently happens that Spaniards - or people from Spanish America whose countries follow the Spanish surname system - have problems abroad concerning their name(s) and family names. It is not always known that the surname is not just the LAST one of the list; that there is no "middle name"; that it doesn't exist nothing like a "maiden name" for married women...
MARRIED WOMEN.- In the Spanish system
-and this was so already in the Early Middle Age, almost thousand years ago- a woman,
married or not, NEVER CHANGES HER NAME AND ADOPTS HIS HUSBAND'S. Both men and women
maintain always their own family names.
Sometimes, just for social purposes and at a certain social level, you can find the name "de husband's-surname" (=of husband's surname). For example, a woman called Margarita LOPEZ ABREU, married to Fernando CABRERA PINTO, may use for some social life activities the name Margarita LOPEZ ABREU 'de CABRERA'. If her husband dies, she may appear socially as Margarita LOPEZ ABREU 'Viuda de CABRERA' (=Widow of CABRERA). However, these conventions are not frequently used, and even more important, they cannot appear on a legal or official document, census, certificate of a Registry office, genealogical tree, etc...
THE NAMES (GIVEN or FIRST NAMES).- Like
in all Western Culture systems, the first or given name is put before the surnames. A
'First name' ("nombre") can consist of one or several names. It doesn't exist
the Anglo-Saxon concept of "middle name". Traditionally, the name has been
formed by two or more given names (mine are "Julio Néstor Juan", although I am
called 'Julio' in my daily life). Members of the Royalty and aristocracy used to have (and
Royalty still has) several given names. Nowadays the law limits the number of given names
and it is more frequent to find people with a single given name (my son has 'Mayec' as
single given name).
The additions like "Junior", or the ordinals ("the 2nd", "IIIrd", etc...) are unknown in the Spanish name system, unless you are speaking of a ruling Monarch.
THE TWO SURNAMES (FAMILY NAMES).- Everybody
has two surnames or family names ("apellidos"): they usually are the first
father's surname, and the first mother's surname.
For example, if I am Julio 'RANCEL VILLAMANDOS' (' ' are my surnames) and my wife was Beatrix 'SERAL ARANDA' (' ' being her surnames), our son is Mayec 'RANCEL SERAL', 'Rancel Seral' being his surnames. Obviously, my surnames come from my father (Julio 'RANCEL MARTIN') and from my mother (Margarita 'VILLAMANDOS CABRERA-PINTO'). My wife's surnames came from her parents: Tomás 'SERAL CASAS', and Gloria 'ARANDA LAGUNA'.
Although the system could appear 'fussy' to somebody not used to it, it appears more complicate to Spaniards the fact that a married women has the same name as her husband -it sounds sometimes that a brother married his sister... Furthermore, this system is more suitable for genealogical purposes; it is easier to establish kinships, the married women never changing her names. It is easier also because of the existence of TWO family names. For example, my son is Mayec RANCEL SERAL. My brother-in-law (my wife's brother) Delfín SERAL ARANDA, married to Marina ARESPACOCHAGA MAROTO. Their children (Manuel, Tomás, José and Marina) have 'SERAL ARESPACOCHAGA' as surnames. My son, a 'RANCEL SERAL', shares with his cousins a common surname. In a single-surname system, my son would be just 'Mayec RANCEL', his cousins would be just 'SERAL', and it would be more difficult to establish a kinship, furthermore taking into account that his mother would have lost her names (SERAL...) for mine (RANCEL).
Some years ago, the law was modified in Spain, so that the order of surnames can be changed: first the mother's surname, and then the father's surname. This change can be done by mutual agreement of both parents, or by the choice of the concerned individual when he/she reaches the age of majority (18 years).
DOUBLE or COMPOSITE SURNAMES- Sometimes,
Spanish surnames are "double" or "composite". For example, in my
mother's family, "CABRERA-PINTO" are not two surnames, like they were one
century ago, but they have become a single one. There can be different reasons for a
-- The first name being very common, and the second less (for example, a man called X "López Abreu"). This leads in time to his children being called not "López + mother's surname", but "López-Abreu + mother's surname".
-- A person becoming famous in arts, politics, war, sport, etc..., his descendants will tend to maintain his two surnames united as a way to perpetuate his memory. This also happens frequently in upper-class families.
For the legal existence of composite surnames, it has to be prooved in a Court of Justice that the composite surname has been used as such for a long time in the daily social life and that this person is recognised in his/her community by the composite name as such. In this case, the judge will grant the official use -and the transmission to descendants- of the composite name as a single one.
The two-surnames system as it has been explained is compulsory and has been legally in force for over a century. Until the first half of the 19th century, the use and passing down of family names followed the same rules but many exceptions were allowed. This could mean an increased difficulty added to a genealogical research.
Until the 19th century it was possible that brothers and sisters, children of the same parents, may have in certain cases different surnames. It was customary in these families that each son or daughter 'choose' their family names (first, second, and even a third one!) among all the surnames borne by their parents and grandparents. It was possible that somebody could bear as first surname his grandmother's second surname, and as second surname his grandfather's second surname. They could be from the father's or from the mother's side. Reasons for this choice could be: to pay a tribute to a concrete ancestor; or the choosen surnames were considered by the bearer as more prestigious than the other ones; or in some cases it was a duty imposed by a will, a condition necessary to receive an inheritance from a grandfather or grandmother or other relatives.
In my family tree, for example, there are two brothers, born in 1698 and in 1715, children of the same parents. The first is called Tomás MENDEZ de ABREU, the other one Cayetano de ABREU CRESPO. There are even more extreme examples, where all surnames were different.
Under such conditions, how can a genealogical research previous to
the 1800 be done?
The answer is:
The most frequent cases -which are exclusive of the Spanish and
Portuguese genealogies- are the surnames which end with "EZ" ("ES",
for Portugal). This surname system comes from the Visigoths, the German people who settled
down in the Iberian Peninsula and founded here a Kingdom during the decline of the Roman
Empire. Anyway, the suffix "ez" comes from the Latin spoke by the Spanish-Roman
population ("-is", "-ius")."EZ" means "son of" and has the same meaning as the suffix
"-son" of some Germanic surnames (Anderson, Johnson); "-vitch" or
"-ievna" of the Russian patronymics (Nikolaievitch), etc...
The far origin of the surname "González" is in somebody who was called 'Son of Gonzalo' (Gonzál-ez); "Pérez" comes from 'Son of Pero' -that is Pedro =Peter-, (Pér-ez); etc... In this way, many common Spanish surnames come from the Middle Age and had their origin in the father's given name. These are some of the originating names:
- Alvarez: Son of Alvaro
- Díaz, Díez: Son of Diego
- González: Son of Gonzalo
- Gutiérrez: Son of Gutier (Wutier or Wotier)
- Fernández: Son of Fernando = Ferdinand
- Henríquez: Son of Enrique =Henry (it was written Henrique in medieval times)
- Hernández: Son of Hernando, which is the same as 'Fernando'. In old Castilian -Spanish language-, many of our actual 'H' were 'F'
- López: Son of Lope
- Márquez: Son of Marco (Mark)
- Martínez: Son of Martín
- Méndez: Son of Mendo
- Núñez: Son of Nuño
- Pérez: Son of Pero (Pedro =Peter)
- Rodríguez: Son of Rodrigo = Roderick
- Ruiz: Son of Ruy = Roy
- Sánchez: Son of Sancho
- Suárez: Son of Suero
In some cases, the father's given name became a surname as such, even without the suffix "EZ". This happens with surnames like García, Martín, Simón, etc...
These surnames have been borne since the Middle Age. Each of the many -and different- existing branches has a different origin. Usually, it can't be told with certitude the concrete "Gonzalo" from whom a González family descends, or who was the concrete "Pedro" who originated a certain Pérez kinship. The only few exceptions concern the direct descendants of some Kings or members of the High Nobility of the Kingdoms of Castille and Leon, Aragon or Navarra; some of these cases are the only well-documented ones.
This is a very frequent type of Spanish surname. Let's suppose that a man whose given name is Fernando, who lived in the Castilian town of Aranda, moved and settled down in the city of Valladolid. There were several 'Fernandos' among the members of his social circle, so he started to be called 'Fernando el de Aranda' (= Fernando, the one from Aranda). In a short time, 'Aranda' became a surname and was passed down to his descendants.
It has to be remembered that to create such a type of surname, the person who started it had to quit his place of origin and settle down somewhere else. If this Fernando of the above-mentioned example would have remain in Aranda, his neighbours wouldn't hardly have call him 'the one from Aranda'. A placename-surname means that the ancestor whith whom the family name originated came from -or had a strong relation to- the concrete place, but the family who beared the surname settled down somewhere else, close or far away from the original place.
Another way of medieval surnames originating in toponymics has been the ownership or lordship of a family over a place or a feud. For example, the members of a family owning the fort or manor of Frías (Burgos), were called "de Frías", sometimes as unique surname, sometimes as part of a composite family name (for example, González de Frías, Salazar de Frías).
It has been frequently said that Spanish surnames originated from cities-names and towns-names mean a Jewish origin. This cannot be taken as a general rule. It is true that many Jews converted to Christians adopted as surname the name of the city or town where they lived ('Toledo', 'Zamora', etc...). But many other branches were originated from the same cities or towns following the ways described above, which doesn't forcely imply an origin in the Spanish Jewish minority of the Middle Age.
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