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Today when I got back from work, I had an interesting conversation with my host mom about identity, specifically, last names.

As in much of Latin America, it is common for people to have two last names: their father’s and mother’s. The dad’s name goes before the mom’s name (which is unlike Portuguese surnames, where the mom’s last name goes first). I knew before this that when a woman gets married, her husband’s paternal name goes first. Her other surnames then shift over (with the omission of the mom’s last name). I asked my host mom how she felt about having her last name go after her husband’s. She told me that it never bothered her, as the dual nature of her apellido allows her to keep part of her identity from before she was married.

She also said that women have the option when marrying to change the order of their last names, so that the maiden name goes first, preceded by “de <husband’s surname>.” This seemed similar enough to the Portuguese method. When I asked my host mom why she didn’t choose that, she told me she finds it demeaning. In Spanish, the preposition “de” signifies possession. So while a woman’s maiden name goes first, her apellidos arrange in a way that insinuates she is property of her husband. And my host mom is not a fan; she told me that she doesn’t belong to anyone other than herself. However, while my host mom doesn’t like it, it exists. Occasionally I’ll see a patient file with a name like “Burgos de Cedeño,” except before I didn’t understand the different.

Even so, I know my host mom’s opinion doesn’t speak for all women in Latin America, or even in Ecuador. So while some women may agree with my host mom, others must disagree. Despite the inclusion of “de,” putting your surname in front of your husband’s must be empowering, or else it wouldn’t exist. There are benefits to both methods, though ultimately it’s up to the woman to decide.

I find it fascinating how swapping the order or names and adding one word vastly changes its interpretation. And names themselves are something to keep in mind. They’re an important part of our identity. They’re a part of who we are, and we as individuals make meaning out of the names we have. Apellidos also tell a family’s story. They track the progression of generations through the union of parental surnames. They are a part of what makes us us. 

When it comes to surnames, Latin America differs greatly from the US, where most women drop their maiden name entirely to be used as a security question for their children in the future. I can’t help but think it’s bittersweet. As a guy, I’ll likely never know what it’s like to drop a last name, but I like to think that today I came closer to understanding the significance behind them.

*Adapted from my journal on 6/22*