Why do people in Spain have two surnames?

Anyone who has spent time in Spain will know that the vast majority of Spaniards have two surnames. But why is that, how does it work, and does it mean anything?

Why do people in Spain have two surnames?
A Spanish mother holds her newborn son next on the Spanish Canary island of Tenerife on October 24, 2013. Photo: Desiree Martin/AFP

For people from English-speaking countries and many other countries around the world, it is conventional to have only one surname. This is almost always their father’s name, and traditionally women have been the ones expected to change their names when getting married, albeit many couples do things differently these days. But in Spain, things are different. 

Newborn babies in Spain almost always take on both the surnames of their mother and father. But unlike in other countries, the UK in particular, where double-barrelled names have historically been markers of social class and included for inheritance reasons, in Spain the double surname is not a hyphenated marker of status but an entirely normal thing to do.

How does it work?

It is often believed that Spanish surname traditions are more progressive and an affront to the patriarchal customs in other countries, but in reality even the Spanish tradition of taking from the mother and father is based on male-inheritance.

When a baby is born, it will take both its mother and father’s surname. However, as it’s very likely their parents are Spanish and therefore also have two surnames, the question arises as to which of their names the newborn should take.

Although Spanish babies do take a surname from their mother, it is almost always the ‘male’ surname – that is, the name of their father, so the newborn’s maternal grandfather – from both. That is to say, the surnames that are passed down are, albeit from both Mum and Dad, both from the male part of the name.

READ ALSO: These are Spain’s most popular baby names

What about the order?

In Spain it is convention that the father’s surname will go first. For example, say María José García Rodríguez and Carlos Fernández González had a baby called Carmen. Traditionally, her name would therefore be Carmen Fernández García. 

The patrilineal naming tradition was even law until 2000, and many still continue the tradition to this day. When children reach eighteen they can legally rearrange their names if they wish to but according to El Diario a whopping 99.53 percent of newborns follow convention and take Dad’s name first, Mum’s second.

Day to day life

Like many things in Spain, history and tradition are taken seriously but have little real impact on day to day living. When it comes to names, most Spaniards only go by one of their surnames – normally the first, so male surname – when it comes to introducing themselves or filling out paperwork.

In fact, Spain’s two surname tradition can sometimes lead to confusion for both Spaniards abroad and foreigners living in Spain. For Spaniards living in English speaking countries, many people simply assume that their second surname is their only surname, and this can present problems when alphabetising names in databases and so on.

Similarly, any foreigner with one surname who has lived in Spain will have surely had their middle name read out when waiting for an appointment at the doctor’s, doing paperwork in the foreigner’s office, or any other kind of administrative task.

Spaniards very rarely have middle names, so often assume the middle names of Brits, Americans or whoever else are their first surnames.

What about weddings?

Although in large parts of the world it is tradition for women to take their husband’s name, in Spain this is rarely the case. The only times it might happen are when brides add their husbands name to their own with the prefix ‘de’, but this is rare, and often associated with old nobility.

First names

You might have noticed that some Spaniards also have double-barrelled first names. This is very common, and if you’ve spent any time in Spain you’ll have no doubt met a Marí-Carmen or Juan-Miguel. But another interesting quirk of Spanish naming customs is that these double-barrelled first names do not follow gender norms, and can include both a traditionally male and female name.

It’s very common, for example, to meet women called María José or men called José María.

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Is this Spain’s most ‘grotesque’ bull festival?

Twisting and grunting, a terrified bull with burning balls of tar attached to its horns charges into the darkness in a small town in Spain. Organisers don't want the general public to see the footage as "they know it's not culture, it's animal abuse," say activists.

Is this Spain's most 'grotesque' bull festival?

Animal rights campaigners have called for a ban on a centuries-old festival in the medieval town of Medinaceli, calling it animal abuse.

The ironically named Toro de Júbilo – “Bull of Joy” – is an event which typically takes place on the second weekend in November.

Spanish anti-animal cruelty party PACMA has said it is mulling legal action against organisers of the event.

“This grotesque tradition continues to be celebrated even though we are no longer in the Stone Age,” it tweeted.

You can watch footage of the event in the YouTube video below. It is age-restricted given the graphic nature of the event.

Just before midnight on Saturday, a group of mostly men dressed in matching grey uniforms drag the bull into a makeshift bullring set up in the main square of the Castilla y León town.

They then tie the bull to a wooden post and attach balls of highly flammable tar to its horns as hundreds of people watch behind barriers. 

They cake mud to the animal’s back and face in an effort to protect it from the flames, before setting the tar balls alight.

Participants then release the bull into the square, covered in sand for the occasion, to cheers and applause from the crowd.

fire bull festival medinaceli

The bull is caged for several hours in a small box and covered in mud before the depraved spectacle begins. (Photo by CESAR MANSO / AFP)

The bull frantically shakes its head to try to rid itself of the burning balls of tar as it races around the square.

Revellers then jump into the ring and attempt to dodge the bull in a purported test of courage. Some dangle a cape in front of it.

This continues for about 20 minutes until the flammable balls on its horns go out and the bull collapses. It is then dragged out of the ring.

‘Simply animal abuse’

The bull’s life is traditionally spared at the end of the event.

But in the 2022 edition the animal died after another young, castrated bull – which organisers sent into the bullring to guide him out of the arena – rammed him in the head, the festival said.

Jaime Posada, of the Spanish branch of animal rights group Anima Naturalis, which is also calling for a ban, said the bull is kept in a tight pen for hours before it is dragged into the square.

“It can’t move, it can hardly sit down, so it is stressed simply from that,” he told AFP.

Participants attach flammable balls to the bull’s horns before releasing it. (Photo by CESAR MANSO / AFP)

Participants declined to be interviewed, and PACMA and other opponents of the fiesta said locals prevented them from filming the ritual.

“Why are they afraid? Basically because they know that this is not culture, it’s simply animal abuse and they enjoy doing it,” Posada said.

The festival, however, is one of the main events for Medinaceli, which is home to around 650 people.

The regional government of Castilla y León has even given the festival a special cultural status.

The Medinaceli town hall did not respond to a request to comment.

There is growing opposition among Spaniards to the hundreds of bull festivals which take place in Spain, but in rural communities in particular, many people still support these old traditions involving varying degrees of torture and distress for the bulls, and in many cases death.

Another controversial bull festival is El Toro de la Vega in Tordesillas near Valladolid, which sees one bull hunted to the death through the town’s streets by lancers on horseback and some on foot.