Names and Apellidos

Phone calls are rarely easy in a new language or culture. I remember calling a friend, Arnoldo, shortly after we’d moved here. The person who answered yelled out for “Lalo” to come to the phone! What’s up with that? “Lalo” is short for “Eduardo,” not “Arnoldo!” Had they misheard me? Was my pronunciation that bad? I didn’t want to speak with someone I didn’t know…

A few months later I received a call from a friend who told me she was “Bertalicia,” a rather long name with the emphasis on the “Alicia” ending. I couldn’t figure out who she was, even though she repeated herself several times. It was embarrassing. Eventually she had to explain to me who she was. Why? Because I knew her as “Bertha.”

Then, I’ve called a home to ask for someone, only to be asked “which one?” It is a very common practice to name daughters after their mothers, and sons after their fathers. So, they could be asking whether I want to speak to the parent or the child. But, at least in this part of México, it is also common for several (or all) children to share the same first name!!!! We know one family of girls named María Ana, María José, and María de la Luz, and María de Pilar. Through experiences like these I’ve come to learn that particularly “José” and “María” are more like placeholders or titles rather than names; the commonly used name would be the composite or, often, just the second name.

“María” and “José” are obviously very, very common names in Spanish. Want to complicate matters a bit more? A man can have the name “María,”as in “José María.” Likewise, a woman can have the name “José,” as in “María José.”

And, we all know that Mexicans LOVE apodos or nicknames! There are the “standard” versions for men and women, such as when Jesús become Chuy, Mercedes becomes Meche, or Francisco becomes Pancho or Paco. In the above case, Ms. María Jose might be called Pepa, Pepita, Josefa, or even José, so be careful about gendering! Likewise, “Lupe” or “Guadalupe” can be male or female. There are also the individual nicknames, most often referring to a physical feature (flaco, pelón, negro) or personal characteristic (loco).

The stereotype, of course, is that Spanish speakers all have llllloooooooonnnnngggg names. How many movies have we seen where, women particularly, spend several minutes rattling off their multiple names? But what I have found most surprising and confusing is that people are called differently by different people. What should I call people? Ok, my Dad was called “Charlie” by people who grew up with him, and “Chuck” by those who knew him as an adult. But names here are more complicated than that. We know one guy who told us his name was “Victor.” Most everyone else we know calls him “Lorenzo.” At work, however, he is called “Toby,” a nickname taken from a television show about a boys’ club. I hate to ask him what his family calls him.

Remember back in high school Spanish classes, when they taught us the “rules” around names in Spanish? Here’s what I remember learning way back then:

  • People have a first or given name (e.g., Ana or Juan).
  • Sometimes they also have a second name (e.g., María or Pedro). In this case, their given name is a composite: Ana María or Juan Pedro. They may be called by one or both names.
  • It is also rather frequent for people to use a confirmation name (e.g., Teresa or Antonio). These often are not used on a daily basis, but can form part of a person’s complete name.
  • These given names are followed by apellidos or family/surnames: their father’s family name first (e.g., Ana María Teresa Pérez, or Juan Pedro Antonio Lizárraga), followed
  • By their mother’s family name (e.g., Ana María Pérez Fernández, or Juan Pedro Antonio Lizárraga Castro).
  • When a woman marries (e.g., the two people named above), she maintains rather than changes her family name and, in some situations, adds “de” and the family name of her new spouse (spouse’s father’s name) (e.g., Ana María Pérez de Lizárraga or Ana María Pérez Fernández de Lizárraga).
  • Their children’s names would follow the same rules, so in the case above the children’s last names would be Lizárraga Pérez, with “Lizárraga” being the main apellido.

That’s all fine and good, but I’ve come to find out there are national, regional, ethnic, socio-economic and familial variations on naming, as well as LOADS of exceptions to these rules. I know one family, for example, where each son in the family fortunately uses only one given name, but they have THREE surnames: de Alba Rulfo de Jimenez. Huh? Two Moms? Children of divorce? What the heck??? No, I’ve come to find out that there are also composite last names! Such composite surnames may be connected by “de” or by a hyphen. Sometimes only one of these is used, though officially it should be both (or all). And we can all see what happens when someone with a composite surname marries another person with a composite surname! Bring on the funny movie clips!

And if you, like us, have “gringo” names or, worse yet, a spouse with ONLY ONE given name, Lord help you when people try to enter your name into a computerized form down here. Most programs seem to require a second surname, and many also request a second given name. Thus our son ends up having to use his middle name, which he very much dislikes.

As with English names (hyphenated family names, for example), there are modern-day variations on naming practices in Spanish. In Spain, for example, the traditional order of surnames can be reversed under current gender equity laws, so that children use the mother’s surname first, followed by the father’s. There also seem to increasingly be more women who do not use their husband’s names. Maybe they established themselves professionally before marriage, or they hold professional licenses in their maiden names.

One final confusion I’d note is that, in writing, people often abbreviate names, whether given names or surnames. Thus, “María” becomes “Ma” and “Agustín” become “Ag.” It might be worthwhile to familiarize yourself with a few of the more common abbreviations.

I eagerly look forward to your teaching me more, or correcting my errors!!!! Thanks!

Have fun!


Dianne, Diana, or Di

About Dianne Hofner Saphiere

There are loads of talented people in this gorgeous world of ours. We all have a unique contribution to make, and if we collaborate, I am confident we have all the pieces we need to solve any problem we face. I have been an intercultural organizational effectiveness consultant since 1979, working primarily with for-profit multinational corporations. I lived and worked in Japan in the late 70s through the 80s, and currently live in and work from México, where with a wonderful partner we've raised a bicultural, global-minded son. I have worked with organizations and people from over 100 nations in my career. What's your story?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s