This article is from the June 1996 and the April 2006 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Surnames and Nicknames in Mexico

By Robert Simmonds

One aspect of Hispanic culture that seems to provide no end of confusion for those dwelling in more northern locales is their system of naming themselves. What possesses the Mexicans, for example, to call the former president "Salinas" when his real name is Carlos Salinas de Gortari? Why not Gortari? Or de Gortari? And why is it "President Zedillo" when the given name of the current president is Emesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon? (We won't even try to guess what Ponce de Leon, an early Spanish discoverer, was all about! Why isn't it Ponce?)

The Spanish system of designating surnames reflects the importance of the family in Hispanic culture. The family is close, extended, supportive.. and a major source of one's social identity ("No, chica, you may not play with the Diaz girls...they are beneath us"). Because families tend to live in the same locations for generations, the family name comes over time to take on important social meaning with regard to status within any particular region. The name game becomes very significant.

And it really is not so confusing once one understands the logic of it all. put on your thinking caps.

All Mexicans have two last names. The first is the father's last name and the second is the mother's last name. So Pedro Gonzales Ulba, of course, has a father named Gonzales and a mother named Ulba. And he is Senor Gonzales, using the father's last name and not the mother's... just like in traditional anglo nomenclature (although we anglos in the age of gender equality are now moving to hyphenated last names, and we still don't quite know what to name the child of Peter Adams-Martin and Suzanne Porter-Smith. Would the child be named Johnny Adams-Martin-Porter-Smith? We dread to think what we might call the grandchildren!)

Upon marriage a woman drops her mother's last name and replaces it with her husband's last name, with a de (of) in front of it. Thus, Pedro Gonzales Ulba's sister, Carmen Gonzales Ulba, upon marrying Victor Mejia Rubio, becomes Carmen Gonzales de Mejia. (Hispanic culture is very male dominated by U.S. standards, so Carmen is now "of Mejia").

Simple as pie. And this is not such a gender-discriminatory system as one might imagine. After all, the woman still gets to keep her own identity (as in Carmen Gonzales) with the addendum "de Mejia" suggestive of something like "of the house of Mejia."

Now we go back to our protagonist again, Pedro Gonzales Ulba. Let's say that he marries Maria Vasquez Phelan. She now becomes Maria Vasquez de Gonzales. It is customary in Mexico to name the first-born son after the father, so the name of the first son of Pedro and Maria will be Pedro Gonzales Vasquez. This has the advantage of distinguishing between the two Pedros living in the household, Pedro Senior (Pedro Gonzales UIba) and Pedro Junior (Pedro Gonzales Vasquez) without having to resort to names like "Junior" or "Bubba." Their daughter Elena, of course, would be named Elena Gonzales Vasquez.

Consider now some possibilities for Maria Vasquez de Gonzales. Let's say that she and Pedro get divorced (which is still not all that likely given the strong community and religious sanctions against divorce which still prevail in Mexico, although the times are changing this tradition to a degree). Maria would now drop the "de Gonzales" part and, retaining her maiden name, would simply be known as Maria Vasquez. If she happened to be famous in her own right, like a famous actress or novelist, she may also choose to be known as Maria Vasquez without adding "de Gonzales" to her name, even though she may well be married (think of the late Lola Beltran). If Pedro were to die then Maria would probably decide to retain her name as Maria Vasquez de Gonzales.

Unless they have parents who may be opposed to the dominance of the Catholic Church and subscribe to a new trend in which babies are named for figures from indigenous traditions (such as Xochitl, for flower, or Cuauhtemoc, for the last Aztec emperor), most Mexicans have Christian names. Thus there is an abundance of Marias, Joses and Jesuses in Mexico (the English equivalent of these names, of course, being Mary, Joseph and Jesus). In fact, the pressure to name a child after religious figures is so great that many boys are named Jose Maria and many girls are named Maria Jose.. without regard for what the English speaker would regard as traditional gender designations. Mexicans would think nothing of meeting a man with Angel as part of his name, but the typical norteamericano would howl if she or he were to meet a boy named Sue. Likewise, Jesus is a very corunion name in Mexico, but most U.S. citizens would consider it blasphemy, and a sign of madness, to name a child Jesus ("Won't you kiss my little baby Jesus?").

While nicknames in the English-speaking world bear some resemblance to the formal names they replace (as in Bob for Robert, Bill for William, or Beth for Elizabeth), this is not always the case in c culture. Thus, Pancho (or Paco) stands for Francisco, Lola for Dolores, Pepe for Jose, Lalo for Eduardo, and Chucho for Jesus. What's more, everyone knows these equivalents and they don't have to be explained.

And here is a puzzler.. .how would most English speakers feel about being called by names which bring attention to some of their most unattractive physical features (like "fatty" or "chrome-dome")? The Mexicans think nothing of calling someone Gorda, or Gordita if the person is a young girl (this means fatty).. .or Flaco (skinny).. or Chato (pug-nose). Most Mexicans with these designated names wear them proudly and wouldn't think of protesting them, much less changing them. This simple cultural observation may lead one to conclude, in fact, that Mexicans tend to be much more accepting of the uniqueness of the individual than we are likely to see north of the Rio Grande. And this is just one more reason to love Mexico.