Spain Sunday: Names

Ooh boy I’ve wanted to write about this for forever. Names are so intensely cultural it’s not even funny. In Korea we had students with names like Kim YuNi or KimSuBin and I could never tell boys and girls apart just by looking at the names. Every once and a while we’ll run into a name here that we have no idea if it’s a girl or a boy – Itziar was one that we had to google (its a girl).

But for the most part names are pretty recognizable here: Maria, Samuel. With some new ones like Nerea, Itraxia, Aitor.

Last names may look familiar to you: Sanchez, Ortega, Garcia, Lopez, Gonzales, and Castillos. Since where do you think Mexico got these last names?

In Korea I couldn’t tell boys from girls. Here I can tell not only if it’s a girl or boy but also what nationality the student is just by looking at the names. Of my 320 students I have 30 who are of Arabic decent (Moroccan or other), 2 who are Russian, 1 who is Chinese and 12 “other” (I’ve been told by students directly that they were from the Dominican Republic or Peru – so other Spanish speaking countries).

How can I tell all of this? Because all Spanish last names consist of 2 last names.

85% of my students have a name like:

  • Jose Ocaña Armenteros
  • Maria Carazo Chamorro
  • Cristian Vacas Arias
  • Aitor Pulido Serrano
  • Rocío Expósito Martínez

(I mixed all the names up to not put student’s full names out here).

So why do they have 2 last names? The first one is dad’s last name and the second one is mom’s last name.  Mom’s last name would be her first-last-name (as in her father’s) since her father’s last name goes first. Confused yet? You drop the matriarchal last name. It’s not needed. The 2 last names are the parent’s father’s last names.

So you can guess people don’t change their last names for marriage. You always have 2  last names and you give your children the first of the two. With dad’s first usually. What you don’t do is give your child compounding last names.

Dad is Pérez Aranda  Mom is Vasco Peña . You don’t have Baby Pérez Aranda Vasco Peña . You have Baby Pérez Vasco.  If you don’t know who Dad is, Baby takes both of mom’s names. So Baby Vasco Peña. It’s also somewhat common for a double-same last name like Laura Rodríguez Rodríguez. Where Mom and Dad both had a dad named Rodriguez.

You can change the order if you want but all your children have to have the same order.  Brother Vasco Pérez and Sister Vasco Pérez. Not Brother Vasco Pérez and Sister Pérez Vasco.

So it’s super easy for me to find siblings who are real siblings, not just another Gonzales by coincidence. If they have the same 2 last names there is a 99% chance they’re siblings. It would be crazy to meet someone with the same exact two last names in the same order as yours.

Just taking a look at last names I can confidently say 33% of my students have at least one other sibling in our school. 94 poor kids have at least one brother or sister in school while there’s only one set of 3 (I know these ones, a set of wily 2nd grade twin boys and their 6th grade brother).  US numbers are something alarming like 80% of people have siblings while we’re looking at 33% in my school. Yes it’s a much smaller sample size but the average woman in Spain has their first child at 30 while in the US the average age is 26. The birth rate is also 1.8 in USA while in Spain it’s 1.3 – so most people are not having two.

So back to names. The internet says the most common last name is Garcia. Looking at all my kid’s last names:

The most common last names are Fernandez (2nd most common) and Lopez (5th most common). Almost 6% of my kids have Fernandez as part of their last name.

On to first names.

Many countries have name laws. A name law means you have to submit the proposed name of your baby to the government and they can say yes or no to it. Usually they can’t have a number, be obscene, be cruel to the child and they should be gender specific (So Adolfa**33 is right out).

Spain had laws about baby names under the dictator (1939-1975) that required biblical names or typically Spanish names. This was a long-time requirement so many of my kids do have biblical names (I think out of habit or tradition). It’s more rare for me to have an Emma or Steven but common to have Jesus, Cristian, Maria or something more biblical like Genesis or Nazareth (yes I do have kids named Genesis and Nazareth). Spain generally doesn’t have any rules except to make it sex-specific.

I put my kid’s names in a word cloud -for some reason it didn’t include the very common name Alejandro. But you can see the other most common names here:

I have 20 Marias (or names including Maria – more on that later). So 6% of my students have Maria in their name.

  • 20 Marías
  • 16 Jesús’ (say Hay-seuss)
  • 15 Alejandros (say Al-eh-hand-ro)
  • 12 Manuels and Josés (say Man-well and Ho-say)
  • 9 Rocíos and Davids (say Ro-thee-oh and Dah-veed)
  • 7 Adriáns
  • 6 Daniels, Nereas and Lauras (say Neh-ray-uh and Lauw-ruh)
  • 5 Victorias, Cristians, Antonios, Isabels, Lucías, Paulas, Irenes,Martas and Ángels (say Lu-thee-uh and Pow-luh)
  • 4 Carmens, Ángelas, Miguels, Javiers, Samuels, Sergios, Andreas, Elenas, Hugos, Juans and Anass (say An-hell-la, Mee-gell, Hav-ee-er, Sam-well, Ser-Gee-Oh. Anass is a common Arabic name said Anass without emphasizing “ass” too much).

The rest are pretty unique. Perhaps too unique as you throw in some compound first names:

José Manuel, Juan Ramón, Juan Pedro, María Victoria, Pedro Manuel, Rocio Lopez, José María.

So when Spain says the name should be sex-specific you can still have a second name that is the opposite sex. For instance  Rocio Lopez is a girl because Rocio is a girl’s name. Her second name is a boy’s name and while you say the whole thing Ro-thee-oh-Lo-peth you know she’s not a boy because of the first part. José María is a boy and it’s not weird at all that Maria is part of his name (hence having so many students with the name Maria in their name).

So these kids with compound first names have long, long names. 2 first names and 2 last names: Jose Alejandro Fernández González has 12 syllables (my name only has 5, Chris has 7 which is pretty long by American standards).

But if you think 2 first names and 2 last names are bad try three first names:


María del Rocío,  María del Carmen, María del Mar, Dulcenombre de María (Sweet Name of Maria – I’m pretty sure this a boy).

For the Maria del Something it’s Maria of the Something. They’re all based on the virgin Mary. These names are not uncommon and it’s incredibly common to just abbreviate Maria to Ma (with a tiny A above the M)

According to wikipedia you often call these girl by the second part of the name. So Maria del Carmen you would call her “Carmen” but I’ve heard it go both ways.

At least there are nicknames where you just combine the name – Maria del Carmen becomes Maricarmen or even Mayca. And just slightly long names like Concepción  can be shortened – for example to Conchi which I thought was some kind of sea-shell name until only recently.

Regardless of nicknames the kids have to learn to write their full name:

A gift from 1st grade- Maria del Rocio – who’s full name consists of 14 syllables and 33 letters

2 is pretty long, 3 is crazy but we can even go for 4:

Ana de la Cabeza (Anna of the/from the head)

I do have a student by this name. With his last name he has a 12 syllable name or 32 letters over 5 words. I asked him to write his name on a paper and he just shook his head and said “my name … very long.”

Okay buddy.

So in conclusion religious names reign still but I’m seeing less long or uber religious names in the my younger years. I’m grateful I can tell the boys and girls apart now and think it’s pretty cool I can find siblings easily.

One thought on “Spain Sunday: Names

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 )

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.