People always have two surnames and one or two names (two names are also called a composite name). The concept of middle name as known in English-speaking countries doesn’t exist. The surnames follow this system: the first one is inherited from the father’s first surname, the other from the mother’s first surname. This is the habitual and traditional order.
The paternal surname is known the apellido paterno and usually is the primer apellido (“first surname”) and the apellido materno (maternal surname) is usually the segundo apellido (second surname).
Thus, for instance, Federico García Lorca was Señor García (“Mr. García” in English), not Señor Lorca, and “García ” was not his middle name.
First names are chosen by the parents and, for those within the Catholic tradition, are given by a priest in the ceremony of baptism. It is common to choose a name to honour a living or dead relative. Another common source of names are the nomina of Catholic saints.
Regarding forenames, for religious (Catholicism) reasons in a custom that is in some decline but by no means a thing of the past, girls were commonly named after Mary, mother of Jesus (the Virgin Mary), with the addition of the name of one of her shrines, a geographical location where someone had a vision of her, or a religious concept.
Sometimes to avoid confusion, a woman omits the “Mary of the…” part of her name and uses only the last, except on official documents and very formal occasions. So, the real names of “Ángeles”, “Pilar” and “Luz” (literally “Angels”, “Pillar” and “Light”) are often “María de los Ángeles”, “María del Pilar” and “María de la Luz.” Each of these is considered a single (composite) name. A girl might be named simply “María”, however.
“María” can be part of a male name if prefixed by a masculine one: for example, José María Aznar. Conversely, a girl could be named “María José” or “Marijosé” (“José” referring to Saint Joseph, husband of the Virgin Mary).
In writing, the name “María” is commonly abbreviated “Mª” or “Ma”.
The particle “y”
Beginning in the 16th century, the Spanish custom of separating the two surnames with the copulative conjunction “y” (meaning “and”) arose. Examples of this custom include names such as Luis de Góngora y Argote (16th- and 17th-century Andalusian writer), Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (18th- and 19th-century Aragonese painter) and José Ortega y Gasset (Madrilenian philosopher and essayist of the 20th century). The convention was used by Latin American clergymen, for example, Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdamez in El Salvador. This use gained legal sanction with the Ley de Registro Civil in 1870, which required birth certificates to indicate the two surnames joined with the particle “y”. In this fashion, the birth certificates of Spanish politicians Felipe González Márquez and José María Aznar López appeared as “Felipe González y Márquez” and “José María Aznar y López”. However it is less frequent than its Catalan version.
The particle “y” is often found useful in avoiding confusion when the first (paternal) surname is of a type that could also be a forename. For example, if the physiologist Santiago Ramón y Cajal had not used it, it might have appeared that he had the double-barreled forename Santiago Ramón and that Cajal was the only surname he used. Other examples of this use include the jurist Francisco Tomás y Valiente and the churchman Vicente Enrique y Tarancón. Examples of confusion when “y” is not used in such a case are the football player Martín Vázquez, whose full name is Rafael Martín Vázquez but who is believed by many fans to have Martín as his forename, and the linguist Fernando Lázaro Carreter, who was sometimes addressed (to his annoyance) as Don Lázaro.
In the case that the second surname starts with I (or vowel Y or Hi), the particle becomes e, following Spanish rules of euphony, as in Eduardo Dato e Iradier.
‘Son of’ and ‘-ez’
Although the use of double surnames renders the matter far less common than in the English-speaking world, a man who has the identical name to his father may suffix his name with “(h)” (standing for “hijo”, meaning “son”), analogously to the English language “Jr.”.
In Spanish, most surnames ending in “-ez” originated as patronymics. Thus “López” originally meant “son of Lope”, “Fernández” meant “son of Fernando”, “Ramírez” meant “son of Ramiro”, “González” meant “son of Gonzalo”,”Núñez” meant “son of Nuño”, etc. Other common examples of this are “Hernández” (from Hernando, a variant of “Ferdinand” / “Fernando”), “Rodríguez” (from “Rodrigo”), “Sánchez” (from “Sancho”), “Martínez” (from “Martín”), and “Álvarez” (from “Álvaro”). Not all last names in -ez have this origin, however. Because the Spanish letter “z” is pronounced identically to the letter “s” in parts of Andalusia and in all of Spanish America (or about 90% of the Spanish-speaking world), one finds in Spanish America spellings such as “Chávez” (e.g. Hugo Chávez), and “Cortez” (e.g. Alberto Cortez), which are not patronymics and which traditionally were (and in Spain still are) always spelled “Chaves” (e.g. Manuel Chaves), and “Cortés” (e.g. “Hernán Cortés”). The new spellings were no doubt created by analogy with the large number of last names in -ez.
Foundlings presented a problem to registrars. Often they were named after the saint of the day they were found, the patron saint of the town or even the name of the town itself. For surnames, they received Expósito (“Foundling”), which marked them and their descendants as people without pedigree, or the more compassionate usage of choosing one among those most common among the population. In 1921, Spanish law allowed that the paperwork for changing the surname Expósito was cost-free.
Also, it was very common for foundlings to be named Iglesia(s) (“Church(es)”) or Cruz (Cross) due to fact that most of them were raised in orphanages run by the Catholic Church. Blanco (White, or blank) was quite usual as well, as they had unknown parents.
The particle “de”
In Latin American countries, when a woman marries, she may choose to drop her own maternal surname and adopt her husband’s paternal surname, with “de” (“of”) inserted between. Thus if Ángela López Sáenz marries Tomás Portillo Blanco, she may style herself Ángela López de Portillo. This convention, however, is more a social styling than an official renaming such as takes place in English-speaking countries: on official documents, she will still be identified by her two maiden surnames.