For new expats, understanding the naming convention used in Mexico is not tops on their list of things to know, but it’s important to understand how to decipher names in Mexico.
Before record keeping began, most people had only one name, such as Joseph, Mary and Jesus. If there were a lot of one-names in a story, geography helped differentiate Mary from Magdala, or Mary Magdalene. As the population increased, it became necessary to more clearly distinguish between individuals with the same name. The problem was usually solved by adding descriptive information.
The Council of Trent in 1545 made it mandatory to keep parish records that would list names of the child, parents and godparents. Thus, the notion of last names came to Mexico in the early years of the Conquistadors.
Mexicans are commonly given two surnames, one from each parent. The first surname traditionally comes from the father’s name, while the last, or second, surname, is the mother’s maiden name.
Compound surnames can be found with or without a y, a dash or a preposition (de, del, de la). While most present-day names are taken from the parents’ surnames, historically the surnames might be those of the more prominent family, even if going a bit farther back, ancestrally, from the parents. In San Miguel de Allende, that would be names like Canal and Alvarez, wealthy and influential land owners.
Prior to the last 150 years, women did not take their husbands’ surname. Now, a woman who married a Martínez may attach the married surname, Martínez, to her surname, or maybe not. Many married women never change their birth name despite multiple marriages.
To this day a child’s first name is normally Jose or Maria (or one of her alternatives like Maria de la Soledad, or Marisol). Many go by their middle name to avoid confusion. So, your pal, Noemi Rodriguez, may have her official name be Maria de las Angeles Noemi Rodriguez Lopez.
Frequently folks are named for the saint, or Virgin, celebrated on the date of their birth. For example, if you meet a Candleario you can be pretty sure he was born on February second, the feast day of the Virgin of Candlearia.
Many U.S. officials confused the first surname as a middle name. Consequently, it was common for those immigrating North to change their names to the more culturally accepted first, middle and last name.
For me, one of the most interesting local names is my pal’s, Lupita Reyes, named for the mother of Mexico and the three kings. Luipta Reyes is also the name for the Christmas season running between December twelfth, the day of Guadalupe, and January sixth, Three Kings’ day when the kings deliver gifts to our local children.
In San Miguel de Allende, last names fall into four influential categories:
Based on a parent’s name, such as Juan Martínez (Juan son of Martín), Jose Hernandez (Jose son of Fernando, the 15th most popular last name in the U.S. today) and Leon Alvarez (Leon, son of Alvaro).
Based on a person’s residence, such as Domingo del Río (Domingo from near a river), Juan de Aguilar (Juan from the land of eagles) or Lucas Iglesias (Lucas who lived near a church).
Based on the person’s trade, such as Javier Herrera (Javier the blacksmith), Juan el Molinero (Juan the Miller) and Carlos Zaptero (Carlos the shoemaker).
Based on a unique quality of the person, such as Domingo Barbosa (Domingo the foreigner, or barbarian), Juan Reyes (Juan the man who acted regally) and Ernesto Cortez (Ernesto, the courteous).
On a more personal level my father, a lad from New York City (Toone, Gaelic for town) met my mother, a lass from the valley (Glennon, Gaelic for glen) and then had a grandchild named Glennon Mary Toone.
When I first came to San Miguel de Allende and started taking classes I was registered as Joseph Toone Glennon and called out on roll sheets as “Glennon.” I constantly looked around the room expecting to see my then-in-college daughter surprising me with a visit only to realize the Glennon in question was me!