The Correct Order for Spanish Surnames

By David A. Fryxell

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Surname practices in Spain, Mexico and other Hispanic countries can be confusing—but also often preserve the maiden names that genealogists researching other cultures must hunt for.  

How do Spanish last names work?

Historically, it is Spanish tradition for an individual to be known by both the paternal and maternal surnames in that order. (In Portugal or Brazil that order is reversed). When the parents also have compound names, the surname passed down to the children would be the first one, derived from the children’s grandfathers. These compound surnames often use a y, a dash (-) or a preposition (de, del, de la), as in your de la Vega Martínez ancestor or names such as Rosa María Muñoz y Rodríguez; Or even in multiple compounds such as Juan José Ríos-Prado y León.

Until the mid-1800s, women didn’t take their husbands’ surname upon marriage. More recently, a woman who married a Martínez would attach the married surname de Martínez to her first single (paternal) surname. So a woman born María Josefa Torres Sepúlveda would become María Josefa Torres de Martínez once she married.


What is the correct order for Spanish surnames (such as Alexandre Manuel de la Vega Martíne) in family trees?

What is the person’s “real” last name? In phone books, your ancestor would probably be listed as Vega Martínez, Alexandre Manuel de la. Using the first surname (Vega) is a good general rule. Don’t start with the prepositions, or most of your family tree will be alphabetized under d or y. Since genealogists care about maiden names, women should be entered under their first surname regardless of whether they changed their names upon marriage: Torres Sepúlveda, María Josefa

You may have to override your genealogy software to enter these names correctly, especially if it automatically supplies children’s surnames. If Alexandre Manuel and María Josefa in our examples had children, their last names would be Vega Torres—different from either parent’s compound surname.

A version of this article appears in the October/November 2016 issue of Family Tree Magazine.  


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