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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‘We’re strong enough’: Women bear weight of Easter ritual in changing Spain

While religious orders started allowing women to carry floats in Spain's famous Semana Santa processions 30 years ago, female "costaleros" - as float bearers are known - remain a minority who still face resistance.

'We're strong enough': Women bear weight of Easter ritual in changing Spain

On Holy Monday in the historic city of Granada in southern Spain, a team of 50 women rock rhythmically from foot to foot carrying a 1.5-tonne float topped with a statue of Jesus and Mary.

They support the weight on wooden ribs under the belly of the float as they inch forward through the city for ten hours.

A heavy velvet cloth draped over the float leaves only their white shoes visible to throngs of spectators lining the route.

The parades featuring dozens of people dressed in religious tunics and distinctive pointy hoods have returned this Holy Week after being cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic the past two years.

While religious orders started allowing women to carry floats in Spain’s famous Easter processions 30 years ago, female “costaleros” — as float bearers are known — remain a minority who still face resistance.

Women have traditionally formed the back line of the processions, playing the role of mourners dressed in stylish black dresses, embroidered veils and intricately designed hair combs.

Granada’s “Work and Light” brotherhood was among the first to allow women to carry the floats in the 1980s.

Granada’s “Work and Light” brotherhood was among the first to allow women to carry the floats in the 1980s. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

At first “it was not accepted, women were talked bad about,” said Pilar del Carpio, a 45-year-old cashier who has been a shrine bearer since she was 13 and is proud to be one of the “pioneers”.

Today only three or four of Granada’s 30 brotherhoods, which stage the processions, include women costaleras.

“Maybe there are people who think it is not normal,” said Maria Auxiliadora Canca, a 40-year driving instructor who directs a team of float bearers in Ronda, another Andalusia city in southern Spain.

“Since our bodies are capable of doing it, and we do it with conviction, I don’t see why there should be a difference.”


But in Seville, which holds Spain’s most spectacular Easter parades, there are no women float bearers even though the city’s archbishop in 2011 issued a decree to put an end to gender-based discrimination in the city’s religious orders.

Opponents claim the task is too physically demanding, “not suitable” for women.

“It’s a scandal,” said Maribel Tortosa, 23, who manages an Instagram account called “Costaleras por Sevilla” dedicated to women float bearers.

People say that it is “ugly” to see a woman wearing a “costal”, the traditional padded sack used by bearers as protective headgear, she said.

Two female float bearers “Costaleras” of the “Trabajo y Luz” (Work and Light) brotherhood hug each other after ten arduous hours of heavy lifting. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

“But under a float, you don’t see anything,” she added.

Still, the emergence of women float bearers reflects the growing push by women in Spain into traditionally male-dominated fields since the return of democracy in the 1970s.

Spain’s oldest police force, the Guardia Civil, has since 2020 been headed by a woman — a first in its 178-year history.

And since Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez came to power in 2018, women have taken up most cabinet posts for the first time in history.

‘Strong enough’

In Granada, locals are no longer surprised to see women training on the streets in the lead up to Holy Week by lifting and carrying a float loaded with bricks.

The load “weighs more every hour”, even though the shrine bearers are replaced every half hour during the “Work and Light” brotherhood’s procession, which began Monday at four pm and ended at around one am, said Rafael Perez, who heads the team of women shrine bearers.

Working with women “changes absolutely nothing. I just have to treat them with more tenderness,” said Perez.

Among the women of this religious order was Montse Ríos, 47, who has been a bearer since she was 19 and who still feels “strong enough to go under”.

Her eldest daughter joined her this week under the float, while her youngest is a “pipera”, giving water to the procession participants.

“And we don’t lack that,” she added.