How Spanish Surnames Are Created

Last names come from both the mother and father

Bridal couple near Tulum, Mexico on the beach with the sun and water in the background.

 Tim Kitchen/Getty Images

Last names, or surnames, in Spanish aren't treated the same way as they are in English. The differing practices can be confusing for someone unfamiliar with Spanish, but the Spanish way of doing things has been around for hundreds of years.

Traditionally, if John Smith and Nancy Jones (who live in an English-speaking country) get married and have a child, the child would end up with a name such as Paul Smith or Barbara Smith. But it's not the same in most areas where Spanish is spoken as the native language. If Juan López Marcos marries María Covas Callas, their child would end up with a name such as Mario López Covas or Katarina López Covas.

How Do Spanish Last Names Work?

Confused? There's a logic to it all, but the confusion comes mostly because the Spanish surname method is different than what you're used to. Although there are numerous variations of how names are handled, just as there can be in English, the basic rule of Spanish names is fairly simple: In general, a person born into a Spanish-speaking family is given a first name followed by two surnames, the first being the father's family name (or, more precisely, the surname he gained from his father) followed by the mother's family name (or, again more precisely, the surname she gained from her father). In a sense, then, native Spanish speakers are born with two last names.

Take as an example the name of Teresa García Ramírez. Teresa is the name given at birth, García is the family name from her father, and Ramírez is the family name from her mother.

If Teresa García Ramírez marries Elí Arroyo López, she doesn't change her name. But in popular usage, it would be extremely common for her to add "de Arroyo" (literally, "of Arroyo"), making her Teresa García Ramírez de Arroyo.

Sometimes, the two surnames can be separated by y (meaning "and"), although this is less common than it used to be. The name the husband uses would be Elí Arroyo y López.

You may see names that are even longer. Although it isn't done much, at least formally, it is possible also to include grandparents' names in the mix.

If the full name is shortened, usually the second surname name is dropped. For example, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is often referred to by his country's news media simply as Peña when he is mentioned a second time.

Things can get a bit complicated for Spanish-speaking people living in places such as the United States, where it is not the norm to use two family names. One choice many make is for all family members to use the father's paternal family name. Also quite common is to hyphenate the two names, e.g., Elí Arroyo-López and Teresa García-Ramírez. Couples who have been in the United States a long time, particularly if they speak English, are more likely to give their children the father's name, following the dominant U.S. pattern. But practices vary.

The practice of a person being given two family names became the custom in Spain largely because of Arabic influence. The custom spread to the Americas during the years of Spanish Conquest.

Spanish and Mexican Last Names With Celebrities

You can see how Spanish names are constructed by looking at the names of several famous people born in Spanish-speaking countries. Fathers' names are listed first:

  • The full name of singer Shakira is Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll. She is the daughter of William Mebarak Chadid and Nidia del Carmen Ripoll Torrado.
  • The full name of actress Salma Hayek is Salma Hayek Jiménez. She is the daughter of Sami Hayek Domínguez and Diana Jiménez Medina.
  • The full name of actress Penélope Cruz is Penélope Cruz Sánchez. She is the daughter of Eduardo Cruz and Encarnación Sánchez.
  • The full name of Cuban President Raúl Castro is Raúl Modesto Castro Ruz. He is the son of Ángel Castro Argiz and Lina Ruz González.
  • The full name of pop singer Enrique Iglesias is Enrique Iglesias Preysler. He is the son of Julio José Iglesias de la Cueva and María Isabel Preysler Arrastia.
  • The full name of Mexican-Puerto Rican singer Luis Miguel is Luis Miguel Gallego Basteri. He is the son of Luis Gallego Sanchez and Marcela Basteri.
  • The full name of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is Nicolás Maduro Moro. He is the son of Nicolás Maduro García and Teresa de Jesús Moro.
  • The full name of singer and actor Rubén Blades is Rubén Blades Bellido de Luna. He is the son of Rubén Darío Blades and Anoland Díaz Bellido de Luna. 
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Erichsen, Gerald. "How Spanish Surnames Are Created." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Erichsen, Gerald. (2023, April 5). How Spanish Surnames Are Created. Retrieved from Erichsen, Gerald. "How Spanish Surnames Are Created." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).