The names of our Mexican neighbors can be very confusing! We from north of the border are used to the first name, middle name (sometimes), last name format for identifying people. The last name is usually, but not always, the paternal family name, and is sometimes the only name used to identify someone, particularly in print. My first boyfriend was the first person I knew who had more than 3 names – his name was Stephen Francis Andrew Jackson Mercer Conners –but we knew that his first name was Stephen, his last was Conners, the family name– that of his father’s family – and the other 4 names were “middle” names. I learned from his mother that Francis was his “saint name,” given when he, Steve, not the saint, was baptized. Mercer was the family name of his mother. Andrew Jackson? An historical figure greatly admired by Steve’s grandfather, and a way of honoring that grandfather. The important thing was that Steve Conners was my boyfriend. Steve’s sister was Lisa Annette Conners.

Most of my Mexican friends have 2 last names, and now that I know how the Mexican names work, I love that they tell a bit of the story of the family. My friend Maria Luisa Lopez Villa de Gonzalez is the daughter of Jose Lopez and Elba Villa, and has married Ricardo Gonzalez Lopez. The “de Gonzalez,” indicating the husband’s proprietorship or that Maria has joined his family, is optional; some women choose to use it after marriage, and others do not. Maria Luisa is called “Luisa” by her family – there are several Marias in the family, and the “second first name” helps identify them. Luisa asked people to use her entire first name after her quinceniera– her friends do so, while her family still uses her childhood name. Ricardo Gonzalez Lopez, whose father is Jaime Gonzalez Portillo and mother is Guadalupe Lopez Villarruel, is Maria Luisa’s husband, and is known as Ricardo Gonzalez. No, Maria Luisa and Ricardo are not related; Lopez is similar to Smith or Jones in the USA – there are lots of unrelated families with those names.

They did not combine their names when they married, so my friends are known as Maria Luisa Lopez and Ricardo Gonzalez, and their legal names are Maria Luisa Lopez Villa and Ricardo Gonzalez Lopez. Maria and Ricardo have a daughter name Guadalupe Gonzalez Lopez and a son named (of course) Ricardo Gonzalez Lopez. The name Villa, Maria’s maternal name, has been lost. There is nothing keeping Mexicans from giving their children many “first” names, similar to the names of my first boyfriend, but the use of the father’s family name followed by the mother’s family name on the birth certificate are required. By knowing Maria Luisa and Ricardo’s complete names, you know the surnames of their parents as well, and by name is one way of many that Mexican culture keeps extended families connected.

When you receive a business card from contractor Marco Antonio Guzman Ibarra, you would address him as Senor Guzman (not Ibarra), because the paternal “first” last name is the name by which he is addressed. After his invitation, we may call him Marco, and if we are recommending him and he is not present, we would use his entire name. If we cannot remember the entire name, hopefully we can remember the first name and the first last name, and recommend Marco Guzman, which is how we would introduce him if he were present.

It’s a funny thing – I am not blessed with that enviable ability to reliably remember the name of every person I meet, but I have never forgotten that entire long name of my first boyfriend! I find Mexican names easy to remember as well; I wonder if it is because the names tell a brief history of the people who bear them.