Over a year ago when I first arrived in Barranquilla, I was at school setting up my Kindergarten classroom. I had to make name cards for my kids´ desks. One of my little girls was named Maria García Rojas, but her name was too long to fit on the card, so I just wrote Maria García, thinking it was no problem. I was wrong.
One of the other teachers saw that I had shortened the name and said, “No, no, no, you have to write her whole name.”
“But it doesn´t fit,” I replied.
“Then you just have to write it smaller,” she said.
I asked why, because I didn´t understand what the big deal was, and she explained that names are very important in Colombia. Everyone has two last names, one from their mother and one from their father, and it can offend some people if you leave off one of their names, so it was important that I write both García and Rojas. Colombia also has various indigenous groups with their own languages, and these groups may or may not have adopted the Spanish naming system.
The importance of names, last names (or apellidos) in particular, in Colombia is interesting to me because it´s so different from what I´m used to in the States. Usually when a man and a woman marry in the States, the woman takes the last name of the man and leaves off her maiden name. Not always, of course; this is certainly changing. Nowadays I think it is more common for people to hyphenate their last name or for the woman to keep her own name, but even still, the children will most likely only have the last name of their father.
While people here generally only have two official last names, they actually have a long list of family names. I was discussing how names work here with some friends the other night, and they were all able to list at least eight of their family names. So it goes: 1) father´s first last name, 2) mother´s first last name, 3) paternal grandmother´s first last name, 4) maternal grandmother’s first last name, 5) paternal great-grandmother, 6) maternal great-grandmother, 7) paternal great-great-grandfather, 8) maternal great-great-grandfather, and so on.
My friends were telling me that when they were little, it used to be like a contest between each other to see you could list the most family names. A common exchange: “I know eight names!” Followed by, “haha, I beat you, I know ten!”
When people ask me my name, they often ask, and your second last name? And I have to explain that I don´t have one, which they find very strange. Also, there is really no such thing as a middle name in Colombia. People have first and second first names and first and second last names, and since there are four, a middle can’t really exist. And, as in the States, not everyone has a middle/second first name.
When I was talking with my friends, they told me they think it’s very old-fashioned and out-dated for the woman to take the last name of her husband. There is no concept of a maiden name. With Spanish names, it used to be that the woman would keep her name and then add “de [husband's first last name],” meaning “of [first last name of her husband].”
For example, if a woman’s name is Diana Carolina Marquez Sierra and she marries José Eduardo Moreno Ospina, she would become Diana Carolina Marquez Sierra de Moreno. Nowadays, though, the woman keeps both of her last names and the man both of his; it is only if they have children that their names are put together to form the child’s last names. So in this example, the child’s last name would become Moreno Marquez. If the father of the child is unknown, then the child takes both last names of the mother.
The use of two or more surnames can make tracing one’s genealogy a lot easier because a few older generations are already known. Additionally, certain common Colombia surnames can sometimes indicate what region or city a person is from.
I like the idea of having a last name from your mother and a last name from your father, and so tried to figure out what my names would be if I do it the Spanish way. However, I don’t even know my paternal grandmother’s last name, so I got stuck right away. Perhaps I should Spanish-ify my name and tack on my mother’s maiden name, and then when people ask me, I will have two last names.