Hispanic Last Names: Why Two of Them?

Manuel A. Pérez-Quiñones
7 min readJun 23, 2020

Originally written in August/1996, updated in March/2002, posted here in June/2020.

One of the most misunderstood characteristics of Hispanic culture is the use of our last names. In the last 20 years, more and more Hispanics are being mentioned in the mainstream of American society. Names like Gabriel García Marquez and Arancha Sanchez Vicario are two names that get lots of press. Their last names, two in each case, are every now and then confused.

In the very famous O.J. Simpson trial, his house help was accused of trying to hide her identity, because she appeared in different documents with different last names, a confusion cause not by her, but by the misunderstanding of her culture. This article hopes to explain this piece of Hispanic mystery.

Most Hispanic people use two last names? How can that be? How can you have two of the “last” thing? Well, in Spanish a last name is not called a last name (último nombre would be the literal translation of last name and it is meaningless in Spanish). In Spanish, the last name has a name of its own, it is called apellido. The proper translation to English is surname, a term that is seldom used in the U.S. Surname (or apellido) does not mean “last.” So, when you talk about someone’s last name you talk about their apellidos (surnames) since there are two of them. The two surnames are referred as the first apellido and the second apellido. Also, we refer to our first name by just name, and the middle name is referred as second name instead of middle. But I will focus on the last name issues.

My first surname, Pérez is the first surname of my father and my second surname, Quiñones, is the first surname of my mom (this one is usually called the mother’s maiden name in the U.S.). So, my apellidos are: Pérez Quiñones because…

My Dad: Pérez Rodríguez
My Mom: Quiñones Alamo
Yours truly: Pérez Quiñones

So, what happens when you get married? Nothing changes on the husband, and the wife usually changes her name as follows. Her first surname remains the same (her father’s first), but her second surname often changes to that of her husband. Sometimes the word ‘de’ is added between the two surnames to indicate that the second surname is her husband’s. To continue the example, my wife’s surnames before we got married:

Her Dad: Padilla Rivera
Her Mom: Falto Pérez (no, she is not related to my father)
My Wife: Padilla Falto

After marriage, my wife’s surnames would have changed to: Padilla de Pérez or just Padilla Pérez.

Me: Pérez Quiñones
My Wife: Padilla Pérez

In today’s world, many women do not change their name for professional or personal reasons. In the case of our family, my wife still goes by her original surnames, Padilla Falto. It is interesting to note that either way, the woman in the marriage never changes her first surname. My wife continues to be Mrs. Padilla whether she changed her second surname to mine (Padilla Pérez) or not (Padilla Falto). This is very different from the US, where if the change occurs at marriage, the woman assumes the husband’s last name.

This presents yet another source of confusion. Because my wife is Mrs. Padilla, I am often called Mr. Padilla, which often makes me turn around and look for my father in-law. However, it can be a source of fun at the expense of phone tele-marketers. When they call and ask for Mr. Padilla, I always tell them that he does not live at this address.

There is one more aspect to the surnames, namely what happens when we have children. Well, the whole circle of life begins again (literally). For example, our children’s apellidos are: Pérez Padilla. And, as you can tell, we are back to the beginning of the explanation.

Me: Pérez Quiñones
My Wife: Padilla Falto
Our children: Pérez Padilla

Now you know that Gabriel García Marquez is the son of Mr. García and Mrs. Marquez, or more formally the son of Mr. & Mrs. García Marquez. And if you send a letter to the family of Arancha Sanchez Vicario, you would address it to the Sanchez Vicario Family.

In general in the US, the family as a group is addressed by the last name of the husband. In Hispanic circles, the family is addressed by the combination of the first surname of each of the partners in the marriage, which is the same of the surnames of the children of the marriage. So, my family can be referred to as The Pérez Padilla’s. This makes it clear that it is the family formed by the union of a Pérez and a Padilla, and it also differentiates it from my parent’s household (The Pérez Quiñones) and my wife’s parents household (The Padilla Falto’s).

Another interesting effect of the two surnames is that in Hispanic cultures you do not see the “I” (first), “II” (second), etc. that you see appending to a child’s name. The child is automatically differentiated from the parent by the combination of father-mother surnames. So, my son, even if he was named Manuel, he would not have the same full name as me because it will include my wife’s surname.

Hyphenated Names

You might have noticed that in many cases, a hyphen is added to separate the two surnames. This is done artificially to satisfy the strict implementation of software systems that assume that a space is not a legal entry in the last name field. This ignores people that have a last name with two words -something typical in some cultures, and ignores cultures that use two surnames, as explained above. By the way, Hispanics are not the only culture that uses two surnames, there are other cultures that use a similar scheme. There are even other cultures that have other combinations of surnames.

So, to avoid confusion, a lot of Hispanics hyphenate their surnames, as I do with mine Pérez- Quiñones. But this is purely to avoid many hours of frustration dealing with office personnel that insist that we do not exist in their computer system. This has happened to me at all three of the four universities that I have been affiliated with, either as a student or as a professor (and the fourth one was in Puerto Rico, where it would not be an issue). It has also happened several times when dealing with local government offices. But the worst of all is the marketing junk mail. I appear in junk mailing lists many times. I appear as Pérez, as Quiñones (with Pérez as the middle name), as Pérez-Quiñones, and other truncated variations (e.g. Pérez-Quiñon) because the combination of the two surnames is often too long for their computer systems to store the full surnames.

Suggestions to organizations providing service to Hispanics

The problems that the two surnames present to organizations dealing with Hispanics often resides in the human and social side of the computer-human work allocation. Sure, the computer systems need to be updated to be able to handle the two surnames, but that is not a technical challenge. It is very easy to update the software needed to store and process the two surnames.

However, the human side of the equation needs to be addressed, and as we all know, it is easier to update a software program than to update a person’s misconceptions and understanding of the World’s cultures. To make this understanding a bit easier, I have included here a few suggestions that span both sides of the human-computer work allocation.

  • Listings ordered by surnames. Any time that name lists are printed, they need to be sorted by both surnames, not just one. Also, surnames should always be printed as Surnames, First Name (e.g. Pérez Quiñones, Manuel A.). That way it is obvious which are the surnames and which is the name and it avoids the continuing confusion of filling our materials under our second surname.
  • Sorting by international order. The Spanish language has accents (see the first é in my first surname) and ñ (as in my second surname). These need to be sorted properly when producing listings of names. Most computer software already handle sorting using “International character sets.” This would put my name properly in the Pe group. The effect of not using the international sort is that I would appear at the end of the P’s because the computer does not recognizes the é as a regular e, and sorts it after the z.
  • Second surname sometimes is optional. The second surname is often treated much like the middle name is treated in the U.S., that is it is formally part of your name but sometimes it is omitted. For example, if I walk up to a government office in Puerto Rico and say “My name is Manuel Pérez”, they would look me in the computer system and probably ask for my second surname just for confirmation purposes. Much like if a person here in the U.S. walks up to a teller and says “My name is John Smith” and the teller might reply “John A. Smith?” This means that office personnel needs to be aware of this and not interpret it as a customer not being cooperative. Also, computer systems should be able to find my name from just entering Pérez as a last name, even if my name is stored with both surnames.
  • Do not use the mother’s maiden name for security purposes. Many corporations use the mother’s maiden name as a security measure to confirm your identity. For Hispanics, this is not a secret. You know that my mother’s maiden name is Quiñones. Corporations need to use some other piece of information as an identifying characteristic, in particular one that is not publicly available.

In closing, Hispanics represent a large minority group in the U.S. By some estimates, Hispanics will become the largest minority group in the U.S. in the next 20 years. Furthermore, as a cultural group, Hispanics have been in the U.S. since before the times the Thirteen Colonies were formed. So, it is safe to say that the Hispanic influence in the U.S. is here to stay. I believe that is important that we try to understand some of the mysteries of Hispanic culture. It is only with this understanding that we will be able to create a healthier atmosphere for cultural diversity in U.S. organizations and society at large.

Originally published at https://webpages.uncc.edu/mperez19/twolastnames.html.
Manuel A. Pérez-Quiñones © 1996-today, All rights reserved



Manuel A. Pérez-Quiñones

Puerto Rican PhD in Computer Science, love salsa, sports, diversity, scifi, and comics. Opinions are mine & don’t reflect my employer.