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Curiosities: Why are so many Hispanic names hyphenated?

August 23, 2010

The two surnames names are ancestral, with the father’s family name followed by the mother’s family name. In Colombia, for example, “Ernesto Escobar Vega” uses two surnames (“Escobar Vega ”) as his legal name, with “Escobar” coming from his father and “Vega” coming from his mother.

This naming convention is the rule in Spanish-speaking countries, says Jeff Kirsch, a faculty associate in the Division of Continuing Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, “but it’s subject to confusion when people come to the United States. Many Hispanics in the U.S. hyphenate ‘Escobar-Vega’ as their surname so that people know that ‘Escobar’ is not a middle name. The concept of a middle name is foreign to most Hispanic cultures.”

Given names can also cause confusion, Kirsch adds. “The given name of ‘Juan Carlos Vargas Blanco ’ is not ‘Juan,’ but ‘Juan Carlos.’” Some first names are simple, such as Ana, while others are compound, such as Ana Teresa, he adds.

What does this tradition say about culture in Spanish-speaking countries? “It recognizes the family heritage of the mother, gives her greater importance than in some other cultures,” says Kirsch.