How to List Spanish Surnames in Family Trees

How to List Spanish Surnames in Family Trees

What is the proper way to list Spanish surnames (as in Alexandre Manuel de la Vega Martínez) in family trees?

Question: 

What is the proper way to list Spanish surnames (as in Alexandre Manuel de la Vega Martínez) in family trees?

Answer:

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.  

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 surname should you use 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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  1. While the response in this post reflects the tradition I was raised in where the paternal surname takes the first position, and the maternal name in the second, when listed alphabetically, the person is known first by the paternal last name. In the case above, MarĂ­a Josefa would be listed alphabetically under “T” for TORRES Sepulveda. And as children raised here in the US, we’d take TORRES and often drop the second maternal name Sepulveda as is the anglo-saxon tradition. However, if we enter our two surnames into FTM, the program automatically takes the last surname (Sepulveda) and alphabetizes all of my descendants per their maternal surnames. I don’t ever think of them that way. She would always be Torres Sepulveda, or Torres at a minimum…. but never under Sepulveda alone. Is there a setting to adjust display and sort dual surnames to account for this convention?