Spanish Names (Puerto-Rican Variant)

When people ask you for your last name ("apellido") for anything official, you need to be more careful than you realize, because they use a Spanish convention for surnames. You take both your father's and your mother's surname, and don't change your name upon marriage. The father's name is dominant, appears first, and is the one that appears in indices and such, and is used in everyday life. In formal use you generally use both, and for many business transactions. I counted 41 Josť Gonzales in the phone book for Arecibo (population less than 100 000), so the extra designation helps in some cases.

If your parents are Mr. Smith and Mrs. Jones, your name is John Smith Jones. You only pass the paternal one to your children, so the child of John Smith Jones and Mary Lewis Nolan is Ann Smith Lewis. You can have middle names too, sometimes several of them, so Ann Marie Smith Lewis.

Some important manifestations of this difference are:

When you're filling out a form, you will often be asked for your "other last name" if the person speaks English. In Spanish, they're "Apellido Paterno" and "Appellido Materno". If you want to, and are stubborn enough, one possibility is to insist repeatedly and patiently that you have no second last name. You're insulting yourself when you do that, because what you're implying is that your father's name is not known, and most Puerto Ricans are too friendly to want to let you do that, because lineage is important here. They won't ever understand, but will ususally give in eventually.

Whatever you choose to go by, try to stick to it. Once the department of motor vehicles has your name in it's database, I doubt that it can ever be changed.

To add to the confusion, some people (but not most) do add to (not change) their names upon marriage. In this case, Mary (above) would be Mary Lewis Nolan de Smith, and might go by almost any combination of the names (Mary Lewis, Mary Lewis Nolan, Mary Lewis de Smith, Mary de Smith, Mary Lewis Nolan de Smith). Occasionally, people end up with additional names tacked on with "y" or "de/del" for various reasons.

These rules are complicated enough that the locals get it mixed up too, particularly for women, since one official functionary might have them down one way when they normally use another.

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Mike Nolan
Last modified: Tue May 18 18:07:35 AST 2004

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