Thursday, August 2, 2012

How many names can one rider have? The anatomy of names from Spanish-speaking countries explained.

After this year's Giro proved to be a success for several Spanish-speaking riders, an American friend sent me an email in which he jokingly said that perhaps I'd be faster on the bike if I only had more names. He was referring to riders like Miguel Ángel Rubiano Chávez, Rigoberto Urán Urán, and Sergio Luis Henao Montoya, and the fact that I simply go by a given name (first name) and a surname. I suppose that like many of you, he too was asking himself why some riders have these long, seemingly unending names?

In my reply, I explained that although I only go by a first name and surname now that I live in the United States, I too have multiple names, and used them fairly often when I lived in Colombia. But in reality, everyone has as many names as professional cyclists from Spanish-speaking countries. You included.

Why? The answer is simple, and perhaps far less interesting than why Brazilian footballers usually go by a single name. The small graphic below should explain most of it for you. Let's use Sky's Sergio Henao as an example. I'll use his full name, as it's sometimes used in races.

(I will use the term "last name" at times, since this is what a "surname" is usually called in the United States.)

Seems simple enough. As you can see, his second surname, Montoya, is simply his mother's original surname, her "maiden name", as it's often referred to in English. Thus, in Colombia, and other Latin American countries, your second last name is your "maternal last name". "Maternal last name", is a reminder of our link to Spain, since the concept of "maiden names" doesn't really exist there, since historically most women kept their name unchanged after marriage. In any case, the image above explains why you'll see riders with two surnames, not just one. It's because our naming convention allows us to have two surnames, one from our father, one from our mother. This also explains why perhaps the term "last name" is not ideal, since it's not really the last name at all. There can be others after it.

That explains the bulk of it. But there's a bit more going on here. So allow me to explain.

While your first surname is usually your father's, Spain now allows surname transposition due to gender equality laws. This means that the mother's first surname may come first. Notice my use of the phrase "first surname". This is because mothers also have two surnames of their own (one paternal, one maternal). This means that in official paperwork, those of us from Spanish-speaking countries actually have several more last names, which we inherit from our parents. Usually a total of four surnames. Let's use Sergio Henao's full name as an example once again. Since I don't know his third and fourth surnames, I will simply make some up for the sake of illustration.

I've simply used "Camacho" and "Gaviria" because they are common surnames in Colombia. In this example, "Camacho" would be Sergio's father's maternal surname (his father's second), while "Gaviria" would be his mother's maternal surname (her second).

If you're keeping up with all this, you've probably figured out by now that this string of surnames could keep going on and on forever, if you want it to. That's because your ancestors each had their own last names, and you can work your way back. In my family, we know of eight last names (maybe more, but I'm forgetting them now). Some families can do even more. But those lengthy runs of surnames are simply bits of information that families know about. They are not used on a daily basis. For official matters, two to four last names are what's needed. It should be noted that immigrants who move to most Spanish-speaking countries will have to assume a full name according to these conventions, if only for official/legal paperwork. So that upon taking up residency, their name will change to include at least their mother's maiden name.

Seeing double
Now that you know this, you've probably figured out that this means that Rigoberto Urán (whose full name is "Rigoberto Urán Urán") had two parents with the same surnames before marriege. Yes, that's exactly what happened, but no, his parents were not related. This ends up happening due to the relatively small amount of surnames in Colombia, when compared to a country like the United States, which has surnames from all over the world. This is something that my wife noticed when flipping through the pages of my yearbook from 8th grade. I lived in Miami, Florida, then. Almost 90% of my school was latino, and as a result, the surname "Garcia" alone took up nearly five pages of the yearbook. And you thought "Smith" was common...

Seeing double, quadruple and beyond
Having said all this, it would be odd of me not to mention the curious case of Lucho Herrera (full name: Luis Alberto Herrera Herrera). In his case, he had the same last name twice because his parents were actually first cousins. Not just first cousins, but something that in Spanish is called "primos hermanos". No term in English exists for this, so let me explain. A man and a woman get married. That man has a brother, and that woman has a sister. That brother and sister get married as well. This is slightly unusual, but not terribly so. But now picture each of these married couples has kids. Those kids are not just cousins, but actually "primos hermanos" which translates to "brother-cousins". It was this relationship to each other that Herrera's parents had. They were beyond first cousins (Update: reader Jonathan informs me that this is called "double first cousin" in English). Two such cousins marrying is not a common occurrence in Colombia (now or then) which perhaps explains why Herrera didn't willingly address the issue with the press. So why do I bring this up? Because it means that Herrera's endless string of last names repeats ad infinitum. Since I don't know his other last names, I'll simply make some up to illustrate how his name is structured as a result of this:

Luis Alberto Herrera Herrera Rodriguez Rodriguez Samper Samper
Garcia Garcia Diaz Diaz

So on and so forth.

First names (given names)
Another issue with the length of rider's names is that of given names. Sergio will usually go by "Sergio" alone, with "Luis" being used only from time to time. But in many cases, given names in Spanish speaking countries are compound names. That is, they are not meant to work individually. Women's names that begin with "Maria", such as Maria Paola, Maria Margarita and the like, are usually structured this way. Many male given names function in the same way. They appear to be two separate names that could be used individually, but are actually always meant to be used as one (which led to my mother's rage upon us moving to the United States, when she found out that Americans often have middle names they never use).

Improve your speed and power output
So what can you do with all this information? Well, if you feel that having a longer name will help your climbing abilities, if only through the power of placebo, go ahead and change your name. It's not just those of us who were born in Spanish speaking countries who have lots of last names. All of you do as well, you just need to take them down from the shelf, dust them off, and use them in your racing license. Once you do, just watch your power numbers and results improve.


A new episode of my brother's podcast is up, go listen to it.


  1. Klaus, you failed to mention "christian" or "saint" names that catholics in latin america often add to their kids, at birth, sometimes during their confirmation in their teens. that could add 2-4 MORE names.

    let me give you one of my favorite examples:

    Simon Bolivar was the general that led the independence troops in most of south america. he is the George Washington of Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia (named after Bolivar), if you will. anyway, his full catholic name:

    Simon Jose Antonio de la Santisima Trinidad Bolivar Palacio Ponte Blanco.

    yeah... awesome! and, no, i didn't have to look it up, i memorized it for a test in 3rd grade and still remember it.


  2. Jonathan WilliamsAugust 2, 2012 at 9:55 PM

    The English term for "primos hermanos" is "double first cousins," since you're cousins on both sides. My paternal grandfather had a double first cousin.

  3. Jonathan,
    You are completely correct! I just updated to reflect this, and credited you. I had no idea that such term existed.

  4. Interesting read. In Denmark the norm is slightly different. Traditionally the women will either append her husband last name to hers or replace it. Depending on how many surnames she's already got. Normally people in Denmark have a maximum of two surnames; One middle name and one last name.

    That means their kids will get two surnames as well. The middle name will be the mothers maiden name and the last name will be their fathers last name.

    If, when you get married, both parties have got two surnames (a middle name and last name), then the women will keep her maiden name, and replace her last name with her husbands. The husband will replace his middle name with his wife's maiden name keeping his last name. The couple will now have identical surnames which will be passed on to their kids.

    Now a days this tradition is not upheld as strickly as it was before, and people are increasingly chosing their own surnames. Many simply keeping their birth names even when they get married.

  5. skullkrusher, not just Latin American Catholic countries but all good Catholic counties (I think) like Ireland. I have Kieran Dominic Paul as my Cristian names. Paul was added at confirmation, my twin took John as his confirmation name, put together one gets John Paul, John Paul II was the Pope at the time! How pious were we!

  6. In The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Eli Wallach's character was named Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez, I believe. I'm not sure if that makes any sense to a native Spanish speaker (because of what seems like two baptismal names), but I thought I'd mention it.

  7. Also, my family names are German and British, so I think I'll start using four last names and school everyone in the local time trials. Unfortunately, I'll still be climbing like a lead weight.

  8. Very good explanation. When I came from Spain to the USA, I had to choose between my two last names. Since my fathers´surname is very common (García) I went with my mother´s which is very rare (Cintado).
    In school I had a classmate named Antonio Jesús de las tres caídas De la Banda Caballero, being Antonio his first name, Jesús de las tres caídas his middle name, De la Banda his father´s surname and Caballero his mother´s surname. We called him Banda. Only when his father would get mad at him, his full name came out.

  9. A Peruvian reading this entry... In Peru you only inherit two last names (paternal first last name and maternal first last name) -- never heard of 4 being inherited!

    Argentina does not follow this pattern. Argentinians only inherit the paternal last name.

  10. the 4 you inherit are really for legal purposes and the like, you know them (do you know yours?), but you don't use them on a daily basis at all. I think it's a nice way to keep track of your past though, which is why I wish countries like the US would do so.


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