What’s in a Name?


When looking up your Hispanic ancestors’ names, you often have to be creative. Keep the following things in mind. 

Spelling Variations and Letter Substitution

Spelling Variations and Language Barriers

Spelling Variations and Handwriting Analysis

Spelling Variations and Abbreviations

First (Baptismal) Names

Looking for Your Male Ancestors

Looking for Your Female Ancestors

Using On-Line Databases

Spelling Variations - Letter substitution

Language is always evolving. If you find this concept hard to understand think of how strange the writing on the Declaration of Independence looks to us today. The Spanish used in the 1700’s is different from the Spanish used in the 1800’s and 1900’s. The language also varied from region to region. Chances are that your ancestors’ names will change depending on when and where you find them recorded.

One of the most common changes is the substitution of one letter for another. For example, the letters B and M were sometimes interchanged, so you may see the surname Baldonado also spelled as Maldonado. Below are other frequently seen letter substitutions.

Letter Substitution Examples

B and M

Baldonado vs. Maldonado

B and V

Baca vs. Vaca
Lobato vs. Lovato

C and S

Cena vs. Sena
Lucero vs. Lusero

H added or subtracted

Enrique vs. Henrique 
Herrera vs. Errera

I and Y

Ignacio vs. Ygnacio

J and X

Jaramillo vs. Xaramillo
Trujillo vs. Truxillo

Ll and Y

Montolla vs. Montoya

R and RR

Carillo vs. Carrillo

S and Z

Salasar, Salazar, Zalasar and Zalazar

Some of the books containing translated and transcribed Spanish language records standardize the spelling of the records using modern spellings. Others copy names exactly as they were written. Their indexes may refer you to alternate spellings or they may not. So if you don’t find your ancestors where you expect them to be, try some letter substitutions. Top of Page

Spelling Variations - Language Barriers, Part I

From about 1850 until 1900, most of the priests in New Mexico were French. They could speak and write in Spanish, but it was their third or fourth language (after French, Latin, and English). Sacramental (Catholic Church) records for events such as Baptisms, Marriages and Burials often contain misspellings due to human error and names that are a mix of French and Spanish. For example, the name Teresa may appear as Thereze, Tereze, or Theresa. If you find an ancestor’s name in a Sacramental record, don’t assume the spelling is correct. Use more than one source to verify names. Top of Page

Spelling Variations - Language Barriers, Part II

The United States government began enumerating the citizens of New Mexico in 1850. Often the census takers spoke only English and the people they were surveying were illiterate. As a result, you find some very creative spellings in the census reports. If you can’t find an ancestor where he or she should be in a U.S. Census record, try spelling the name phonetically in English. As examples, in the 1850 Census the name Márquez was sometimes written as Marcus, and the name Carrillo as Cario. 

Spelling Variations - Handwriting Analysis

Handwriting from the 1700’s and 1800’s looks very different from today’s script. Capital L and S look similar as do capital B and G. And lower case letters sometimes ran together so rr could look like m or ni. If you see a name that looks similar to an ancestor’s but is spelled all wrong, look it up anyway just in case it was transcribed incorrectly. Top of Page

 Spelling Variations - Abbreviations

Common first names, and some last names as well, were often abbreviated in official documents. The abbreviations usually consist of the first few letters of the followed by the last few letters written as an underlined superscript. For example, you frequently see Ma, with the letter "a" elevated, for María, and Franco for Francisco. Books of trancsribed records often have lists of the abbreviations found in the documents in their introductions. When you come across an abbreviated name, copy it down for your records exactly as you see it written and include the interpretation of the abbreviation in a side note. Top of Page

First (Baptismal) Names

To understand your ancestors’ given names, you need to know a few things about the Spanish language and the Catholic faith.

If a name ends in "o" (Timoteo) it is a boy’s name;

If it ends in "a" (Juana) it is a girl’s name;

If it ends in "e" it could be either (Jorge is a boy’s name, Guadalupe is usually used for girls, but can also be used for boys)

If it ends in a consonant it could be either (Juan is a boy’s name, Carmen is a girl’s name, Trinidad could be used for either)

 The endings "-ito" and "-ita" added to a name make it a diminutive. So Anita is "little Ana" or Annie in English. Diminutives aren’t usually found in Baptismal records but may show up in later documents.

María is sometimes used as a boy’s middle name, as in José María. This was to honor Mary, the mother of Jesus, a very important figure in Catholic tradition.

The name of Jesus is used as a given name in Hispanic cultures. Boys are called Jesús, and girls Jesusa.

When a child is baptized into the Catholic faith, parents choose names for the baby from among the ranks of the saints as well as from religious ideas and holy places. In your ancestors’ baptismal records you may see names such as Altagracia (high grace) and Carmel (after the biblical Mt. Carmel).  Top of Page

Looking For Your Male Ancestors

Men used to add their mother's maiden name to their father's surname with the word y, meaning "and" or de, meaning "of." For example, if someone were named José Chavez y Montoya that would mean his father's last name was Chavez and his mother's last name was Montoya. By the early 1800’s, this naming convention was rarely used.

When men’s compound surnames are indexed, they should be alphabetized by the first of the surnames (the paternal surname). Be aware that sometimes they are not; they may be listed by the second surname (the maternal name) with the first surname shown as a middle name. 
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Looking For Your Female Ancestors

Married women were usually listed by their maiden names in Hispanic sacramental records, right up until the early 1900’s. When searching for a married female, whether in church or civil records, look under the maiden surname first. Beginning in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s, both the maiden and married names were sometimes listed in official records. When this was done the maiden name came first, then the word de, meaning "of," and then the husband’s surname. In later years, the de was often dropped.

If your research takes you back as far as the early 1700’s, you may see your unmarried female ancestor with multiple surnames connected by the word y ("and") or de ("of"). This would be her father's surname. See LOOKING FOR YOUR MALE ANCESTORS above. Top of Page

If You’re Using On-Line Databases

In most Spanish words, the accent falls on the second to last syllable of the word. An exception to this rule is when two vowels come together at the end of a word. Accent marks are used when the accent of a word falls in an unusual place. They are always placed over the vowel of the stressed syllable. This presents a challenge when you search some on-line databases. Some databases read accented vowels as totally different letters from their unaccented counterparts. So if you run a search on "María Márquez" you’ll get one set of hits. Then if you search "Maria Marquez" you’ll get a different set. This is also important to remember when you submit a GEDCOM to an on-line database group. Your information may be more accurate with the accents, but your family tree may be missed by many on-line researchers. Top of Page

© Annette M. Wasno