Hispanic Last Names: Why Two of Them?

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.

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.

  • 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.



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Manuel A. Pérez-Quiñones

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.