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Genealogy Research Tips – Using Spanish Surnames to Extend Ancestral Lines

One of the most difficult research tasks in genealogical research is ascertaining the surnames of the wives and mothers of our ancestors. This is particularly difficult among English speakers where the spouse generally takes the surname of the husband upon marriage. There are methods to obtain these surnames, but most of them are very time consuming; and in many cases, one ultimately finds the female surnames almost by accident.

However, for those who have ancestors among the Spanish speaking nationalities, the task is much easier. In the Spanish surname system, a child’s complete name carries both the surname of the father and of the mother. I am giving below some examples of why this is so and a brief example of my own research into my wife’s ancestry.

My wife had left Puerto Rico as a teenager and had very little contact with her extended relatives for decades. When someone is not around the family to hear the conversations about relatives or visit the parent’s distant relatives, they miss out on much of the family history. My wife did not even know the names of either set of her grandparents who had all died prior to her birth. Her father had also recently died. It became my task to find these relatives for her. I will do another article about the overall research project and how I did this, but in this one wish only to emphasize the importance of Spanish surnames in this search.

By knowing the complete name of a person in the Spanish naming system, one immediately knows the surnames of the father and the mother. Further, if you know the full name of the father and mother, then you also know both the paternal and maternal surnames of their parents. A Spanish full name includes their given name, paternal surname, and maternal surname. Here is an example:

Virginia Vega Maldonado = Virginia (Given Name) + Vega (Her father’s family surname) + Maldonado (Her mother’s family surname). So, instead of having one family name as in the English naming system, each person has two surnames. If only one surname is to be used in everyday contacts, the father’s family surname would be used. So Virginia Vega Maldonado in that case would be simply called Virginia Vega. But, if we know the full name and are doing family research, we now know that her father’s name would have the following format: Given Name + Vega (paternal surname) + (his maternal surname).

By using the small amount of information on family names that I was able to get from living family members and using information gathered from the 1910, 1920, & 1930 U.S. Censuses of Puerto Rico, I was able to trace my wife’s family back to her great grandparents or beyond. This would not have been as easily done had I not been able to use the ready-made tool of Spanish surnames.

All family historians probably wish they had more Spanish ancestors. If only everyone could be so lucky!

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