In the United States the naming convention for their children will follows this structure:
First Name + Middle Name + Surname (the father’s surname).
The Spanish system is different but before we jump on the description let’s talk a little bit about history. Before the XIX century the system was not firmly defined. In many cases we see daughters receiving the mother’s surname. Spanish nobility kept many of their ancestors’ surnames. Sometimes the maternal lineage was more prestigious that the paternal and they wanted to preserve it. As a result we see some names that result excessive on the interest to demonstrate their illustrious lineages. For examples we find names like Antonio Bernaldo de Quirós de las Alas Mariño de Lobera y Andrade Sotomayor, Viscount of Las Quintanas (1759-1798). On the contrary, peasants passed to the kids the fathers’ surname only.
Starting in the XIX century, and following the example of the nobility, it was regulated for all Spanish citizens the use of two surnames following this pattern:
First Name + Second Name (optional) + Father’s Paternal Surname + Mother’s Paternal Surname
For example Juan, son of Fernando Rodríguez Prado and Mariana Álvarez Cantero will be named Juan Rodríguez Álvarez. In Spain, but not in Latin America, is still common to link the two surnames with the Word “y” (and). Therefore Juan’s name would be Juan Rodríguez y Álvarez. The same rule is used in Catalonia, but between both surnames they put “i” instead of “y” between the two surnames.
For single mothers in some Latin American countries they used the mother’s first surname repeated two times. For example, Andrea Yáñez Rodríguez is a single mother and his son will be named Juan Yáñez Yáñez. In Spain, the practice for single mothers was to give the newborn the mother’s own two surnames, and she had the option to change their order. For example, Andrea Yáñez Rodríguez’s son will be named Juan Yáñez Rodríguez or Juan Rodríguez Yáñez. If she takes the second option nobody could know the kid’s father is unknown.
The Spanish system is beneficial for us interested in genealogy, as it provides hints on the different lineages and keeps record of the maternal side. In addition, I think it is more just on giving credit to the participation of the mother during the pregnancy and birth of the newborn.
Spanish System in USA
It is clear the Spanish system conflicts directly with the American naming conventions and this has lead to many errors. Many times the first surname was interpreted by the immigration officers as middle names, considering as surname only the second one (the maternal). That is how some families lost their paternal surname in their American documents. For example, Juan Velázquez Pastor descendants that belong to the Velázquez lineage would use in future generations use the Pastor surname.
To avoid these confusions some families decided to change the order of their surnames to adjust to the American conventions. Therefore Juan Velázquez Pastor would write his name as Juan Pastor Velázquez to ensure his paternal surname passed to future generations.
The most accepted convention nowadays is to consider the two Spanish surnames as one composed surname, therefore the person named Juan Benítez Bermúdez in Latin America will keep both surnames in USA but will use the two surnames hyphenated, therefore it will be Juan Benítez-Bermúdez. This ensures clarity for the American standards and keeps consistency with the original name given a Spanish speaking country following the traditional “two surname system”.
Note – In recent years the legislation in Spain has been changed and parents can decide the order of their children’s surnames. Most couples still keep the traditional order, with the father’s surname first and the mother’s surname last.