Heritage starts with one’s name: Hispanic personal names

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Today is the start of Hispanic Heritage Month, during which we celebrate the histories, cultures, and contributions of Hispanic and Latino Americans. The first step in recognizing someone’s achievements is to know what to call him or her, and using someone’s name according to their preferred custom is a critical component of respect.

Personal name order and conventions in Hispanic cultures vary from those in English, as do those in Russian, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and many other cultures. As diverse as the U.S. is, we all need to know a little something about how our fellow citizens name themselves. We don’t have time here to go into detail about the fascinating traditions around personal names in the Hispanic world, but here’s a quick overview.

Family names
Surnames (appellidos in Spanish), in most Spanish-speaking countries are a composite of the father’s first surname (the one that came from his father) and the mother’s (the one that came from her father, her maiden name). The father’s surname generally comes first. For example, if Gabriel García Marquez had a child with Frida Kahlo y Calderón (her name before marrying Diego Rivera), the child’s surname would be García Kahlo. In the past, and still in some countries, y (“and”) is used to connect the two names, as in Ms. Kahlo’s name.

For alphabetization and when shortening the name, the first surname is used. Hence, “Ms. Kahlo,” not “Ms. Calderón.” Mr. García Marquez’s novels, as well as Federico García Lorca’s poetry and plays, are shelved under G. Both men are referred to as “Mr. García.” (Note that, in the English-speaking world, Señor García Lorca is often referred to as “Lorca,” presumably because English speakers are not familiar with the Spanish naming practice and/or because Lorca is a less common name than García.)

Surname order in Portugal and Brazil is reversed (maternal surname first and paternal surname second), but when alphabetizing or shortening the name, the paternal surname is used, as in Hispanic countries.

Just married
The custom for surnames for married women has changed over time, as it has in the U.S. In some Hispanic countries, women do not change their surnames at all and both surnames are part of their legal name with equal weight. In others, the woman’s second surname (the one from her mother) is dropped and replaced with the man’s first surname, preceded by de — for example, Frida took the name “Frida Kahlo de Rivera” when she married.

The more contemporary custom is for women not to change their name upon marriage, as many women do in the U.S. However, women do still add their husband’s surname or use it in favor of their first surname because they wish to emphasize association with him. For example, former Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, widow of president Néstor Kirchner, uses Cristina Kirchner as her professional name.

What about the children?
As noted above, the norm in Hispanic countries has mostly been for children to take the first surname of each parent, with the father’s first. But what surnames children are given, and in what order, is evolving throughout the Spanish-speaking world, as it is here.

Whither surname?
The global dominance of English in business, politics, and pop culture is affecting the customs of Hispanic surnames throughout the world and certainly in the U.S. Many well-known Latinos in this country have chosen to use (or are referred to in the media by) a single surname, at least professionally, such as Sonia Sotomayor, Cesar Chavez, Jennifer Lopez, Marco Rubio, Benicio del Toro, and Sammy Sosa. Whether such public figures would have chosen to use a composite surname if they lived in an Hispanic country or if the U.S. people were more familiar with composite surnames is anyone’s guess.

Personal names are, um, personal
Both in law and in common practice, individuals — rather than traditions — are now deciding whose family name(s) they wish to continue in the next generation. Family makeup is becoming more varied, attitudes about patriarchy and the significance of one’s surname are changing, and more people are marrying later in life, after they have built a career.

So how do you know what name to use when communicating with someone personally? The most respectful course is, as with everything else, to find out the individual’s wishes by asking.

Today is the start of Hispanic Heritage Month, during which we celebrate the histories, cultures, and contributions of Hispanic and Latino Americans. The first step in recognizing someone’s achievements is to know what to call him or her, and using someone’s name properly according to their preferred custom is a critical component of respect.

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