The Spanish System of Surnames


Jose Casas y Sanchez  

Since time immemorial in Spain, the Catholic church and the civil government (since the middle of the 19th century) have been using the same system for registering and ordering the surnames of individuals. Its use was extended to the New World, starting in the Colonial Era.

The high number of surnames a person may use —four, eight or more— does not make that person an aristocrat or more elegant or a member of the nobility, it only shows that the ancestors are known to that family or that individual in particular; it is basic genealogy. In the titled families these records are very carefully kept, and most off the nobility know by heart the order or cadency of their 'illustrious' surnames.

Dia cinch dd Mars de mil vuitcentscincuanta sis. En les fons baptismals de  la  iglesia  parroqial de S.Per apostol de  la Vila  de Reus, Arquebisbat de Tarragona, fou solemnement batejat per mi Joseph Juncosa Pbro vicari de dita  Iglesia: JOSEPH, CELESTINO, PRUDENCIO nat a les cuatre  del matí de avui, fill de  Joseph Casas, fabricant i  Frca. Domenech de  Valls: avis paterns joan Casas  i Fraca.Tarragó: avis materns Anton Domenech i Serafina Morera   tots de Valls: padrins Celestino Mora de Valls i Maria  Aulesti de  Reus, avisats de parentiu i doctrina .Joseph Juncosa Pro.Vicari. (Transcipció literal)[1]

This, transcription of Jose's paternal grandfather's baptismal certificate, written in Catalonian or Catalan, states that Joseph Casas Domenech Tarrago Morera was baptized on 5 March 1856. His given names are in all-caps text. There are four surnames listed; Casas, Domenech, Tarrago, and Morera. Jose says that certified copies of documents from the Church in Catalonia are typewritten, as the Catalans are very orderly.

As most of us in Latin America are Catholic, we have been baptized in our local parishes and have also been registered in the civil registry offices of our towns or cities. The baptismal certificate and the civil birth certificate both clearly state the two surnames of the person's father and mother, and sometimes also the surnames of the four grandparents, especially if that particular parish priest or civil servant at the registry office was more or less educated and did not make a mistake during the registry of the names. In the larger parishes of the cities, like cathedrals or basilicas, these errors were much less frequent than in the small town parishes, so if you are lucky, on your baptismal certificate you have your first eight surnames. You only need to get the baptismal or civil certificates of your four grandparents, and with luck, bingo! you have your 16 surnames.

The system is simplicity in itself. The best way to see it is through a living example, which will be easier to understand; I have 16 surnames; Casas Sanchez-Castanos - Loaeza- Domenech- Diaz-Echeverria- Escobedo- Tarrago- Gil Morera- Barreiro- Bazosabal- Caldelas- Yspizua- Ortiz.The cadency of the surnames goes by relationship:


1        Father                                                        Casas

2        Mother                                                      Sanchez

3        Paternal Grandmother                                Castaños

4        Maternal Grandmother                               Loaeza

5        Paternal Maternal Grandmother                  Domenech

6        Maternal Maternal Grandmother                Diaz


And so on.  An interesting point to notice is that of my 16 surnames, only the first, Casas, is obtained from the male line; the rest are from the female line. This denotes the importance of womens' surnames in this system.

How did I get my 16 surnames? Examining the baptism and the civil certificates of each and every one of my ancestors, that is, beginning with my father, then mother, and so on, I wrote down all of their surnames. Then, to follow the correct order or cadency of the surnames, one has to intercalate them, male-father, female-mother, male-grandfather, female-grandmother, etc. The certificates showed the following:

     J. Casas' father's eight surnames: Casas-Castanos-Domenech-Echeverria-Tarrago-Bazosabal-Morera-Yspizua.

     J. Casas' mother's eight surnames: Sanchez-Loaeza-Diaz-Escobedo-Gil-Caldelas-Barreiro-Ortiz


This system is logical, practical, simple, and effective. It is harder to make mistakes when investigating the family history, doing genealogical research, and quartering the blazons in family heraldry.

           A certified copy of the baptismal certificate for Francesch (Francis) Casas, baptized on 25 February 1663, son of another Francesh Casas, who was born in about 1630 or '33. From this Jose deduces that the Catalonians did not marry young (these days, he says, they do not marry at all), as they had to build up a certain amount of capital before committing themselves.

“El que suscribe Mn. Manuel Fuentes Gasó, Archivero del Arzobispado de Tarragona. CERTIFICA: que en el libro 5 de bautismos, folio 8 de la parroquia de San Juan de Valls, que se custodia en este Archivo, consta la siguiente partida:

“Als 25 de febrer de 1663, per mi Joseph Arguilaga Pbr. fou batejat Francesch, Magi, Matia, fill de Francesch Casas y de Rosa muller, foren padrins Magí Rosell, parayre y Catarina Casas, tots de Valls”. Los datos anteriores concuerdan fielmente con el original y para que conste, lo firmo y sello con el propio del Archivo.”[2]

Jose's maternal grandfather's baptismal certificate, showing four of his 16 surnames:  Sanchez, Diaz, Gil, and Barreiro. 

One of the most important aspects in the Spanish system of surnames is that the women never, ever lose their last names. They have exactly the same surnames as their brothers. When a woman marries she simply adds the last name or names of her husband.

For example, my wife's name is Ana East Sans; when she married me, she became Ana East Sans de Casas, (of), although for practical reasons she only uses Ana East de Casas. If she was a widow (not yet), she would be Ana East viuda de Casas, (widow of); if she was divorced (not yet), she would return to use her original name, Ana East Sans.

This system allows the woman to keep forever her last names. I think it is very fair and logical; it is hard for us to understand the American or British system that dictates that the woman loses her last name completely when she marries, and does not change, even if she becomes a widow. And all of this in a modern liberal womens' rights society!

Another important point is that, by law, we always have to use our first two surnames when legal documentation is involved, when signing legal papers, writing bank cheques above, a certain amount, etc.

The custom of always using our two first surnames is quite practical. This way we can differentiate between fathers and sons when the first or Christian names are the same, which is why we do not use 'Jr.' It is quite common for some people (man or woman) to use their second Christian name; on official documents it is obligatory to use it, if one has the names registered on the official birth certificate. Occasionally you will find the letter 'y' between the two surnames; this is done to separate the person's father's and mother's surnames, not to confuse a double surname that is composed of two words.

            In English this is done using a hyphen. One thing to remember and to learn, is how to address an Hispanic person, in person or in writing. The rule is to always address the person by their first surname, never by the second. When in doubt, address the person by both names. Lots of people, educated but ignorant of our system, address me as Mr. Sanchez, when I am Mr. Casas, or Mr. Casas y Sanchez. But, when I must correct a person who has made this involuntary error, I try do it in a diplomatic way in order not to hurt feelings. This too, is the Spanish way of doing things.

Jose Casas was educated in Mexico, the USA, and the UK, before working as a textile engineer in the family business. From 1977 to 1981 he was the Administrator of the International Airport at Guadalajara, then he worked in the food industry until retiring in 2002. He now lives in Chapala, Jalisco, and spends his time in genealogical studies. Jose is an active participant in heraldry and medieval societies, and writes on these subjects.

[1] Parroqia Prioral St. Pere_Apostol. 43204 Reus. Teléfon 34 16 35.  Libro 28.  Folio 274 v.  No. 205. 

[2] Arxiu Historic Arxidiocesa. Palau Arquebisbal. Tarragona. Tarragona, 12 de enero de dos mil uno.