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What’s In a Name?

by sanmigueltimes
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Before record keeping began, most people had only one name, such as JosephMary and Jesus. If there were a lot of one names in a story, geography helped differentiate such as Mary from Magdala, or Mary Magdalene.  As the population increased, it became necessary to more clearly distinguish between individuals with the same name. The problem was usually solved by adding descriptive information.

The Council of Trent in 1545 made it mandatory to keep parish records that would list names of the child, parents, and godparents.  Thus, the notion of last names came over in the early years of the Conquistadors in Mexico.

San Miguel de Allende’s last names fall into four influential categories:


Based on a parent’s name, such as Juan Martínez (Juan son of Martín), Jose Hernandez (Jose son of Fernando, the 15th most popular last name in the US today) and Leon Alvarez (Leon, son of Alvaro).


Based on a person’s residence, such as Domingo del Río (Domingo from near a river), Juan de Aguilar (Juan from the land of eagles) or Lucas Iglesias (Lucas who lived near a church).


Based on the person’s trade, such as Javier Herrera (Javier the blacksmith), Juan el Molinero (Juan the Miller) and Carlos Zaptero (Carlos the shoemaker).


Based on a unique quality of the person, such as Domingo Barbosa  (Domingo the foreigner, or barbarian, whose language sounded like “bar bar” and where the name Barbara comes from),  Juan Reyes  (Juan the man who acted regally) and Ernesto Cortez (Ernesto, the courteous).

Mexicans are commonly given two surnames, one from each parent. The first surname traditionally comes from the father’s name, while the last, or second, surname, is the mother’s maiden name.

Compound surnames can be found with or without a y, a dash or a preposition (de, del, de la). While most present-day names are taken from the parents’ surnames, historically the surnames might be those of the more prominent family, even if going a bit farther back, ancestrally, from the parents.  Here that would be names like Canal and Alvarez, wealthy and influential land owners.

Prior to the last 150 years, women did not take their husbands’ surname. Now a woman who married a Martínez may attach the married surname, Martínez, to her surname. Or maybe not.  Many married women never change their birth name despite multiple marriages, something unheard of by the multiple-marrying Elizabeth Taylors and Zsa Zsa Gabors in the North until recently.

To this day a child’s first name is normally Jose or Maria (or one of her alternatives like Maria de la Soledad, or Marisol).  Many go by their middle name to avoid confusion.  So your pal, Noemi Rodriguez, may have her official name be Maria de las Angeles Noemi Rodriguez Lopez.

Frequently folks are named for the saint, or Virgin, celebrated on the date of their birth.  For example, you meet a Candelario you can be pretty sure he was born on February second, the feast day of the Virgin of Candlearia.

Many US officials confused the first surname as a middle name.  Consequently it was common for those immigrating North to change their names to the more culturally accepted with a first, middle and only one last name.

For me, one of the most interesting local names is my pal’s, Lupita Reyes, named for the mother of Mexico and the three kings.  Luipta Reyes is also the name for the Christmas season running between December twelfth, the day of Guadalupe, and January sixth, three kings’ day when the kings deliver gifts to our local children.

On a more personal level my father, a boy from New York City (Toone, Gaelic for town) met my mother, a lass from the valley (Glennon, Gaelic for glen) and then had a grandchild named Glennon Mary Toone.

When I first came to San Miguel de Allende and started taking classes I was registered as Joseph Toone Glennon and called out on roll sheets as “Glennon”.  I constantly looked around the room expecting to see my then in-college daughter surprising me with a visit only to realize the Glennon in question was me!

by Joseph Toone

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