The last name issue in Chile: another dilemma

I think my fellow expat friend was on to something when she wrote her post about her struggle to figure out what to do with her name following her marriage to a Chilean this year. You see, as she explained quite eloquently in her post, Chileans have a certain way of viewing the last name game and it’s basically this: first name, middle name, father’s last name, mother’s last name. This is the case for every single person born in Chile and this is the case for men, women and children, alike. There are a few exceptions, such as, for example, when the father has completely disappeared and the mother chooses to give her child both her last names (which technically speaking would make Chileans think that the child was actually her mother’s sibling and of course, eyebrows would be raised.) Women don’t take their husband’s name after marriage and are forever known by the name they were born with, regardless of marital status. This is the antithesis of what we know in the States because many women choose to either keep their last names or adopt their husband’s last name once married and if you live abroad, this options somehow becomes obsolete. At least, this is what we’re faced with here in Chile.

My issue with the name dilemma here in Chile is not quite the same as my friend’s and it has more to do with Chilean society and their obsession with last names. Although perhaps outwardly Chileans will argue that classism and discrimination based on one’s last name no longer plays a major role in opportunities for advancement here in Chile, incognito, it really does. How do I know this? Besides the reliable source that is my husband and his experience with the matter, I have many other reliable sources who have given me their input based on experiences in college, experiences in the work force, their personal experiences as decisions makers within their companies, experiences in their social life and so on. As much as I wanted to believe that such a reality was no longer the case in this age of globalism AND considering that there are many expats who live in Chile, the reality is that sadly, last names matter. They matter just as much as where you live in Santiago and where you went to school (and I’m not talking school as in which you university you attended. Rather, I’m speaking of where you went to KINDERGARTEN. Believe it or not, these factors also still matter in Chile).

I’d like to take this opportunity to clarify that not all of these variables are important 100% of the time. For instance, there may very well be many examples of how someone who lives in Puente Alto (a lower to lower-middle class neighborhood in Santiago), went to a mediocre school, achieved the best grades possible, attended a prestigious university, such as Universidad de Chile, based on their own personal merit and consequently landed a great job where he/she moved up the ranks and is now a decision maker at a very good company. I totally believe that happens and I’m HAPPY it’s possible. On the flip side, just because the aforementioned is possible, is BY NO MEANS an indication that the opposite doesn’t happen. Meaning, without seeing a face, without knowing a background, without even bothering to type the word GOOGLE in the browser to find out more, someone may very well look at G’s last name, coupled with my last name and completely disregard our future children for a number of things (including entrance into a good school.) I totally believe that happens based on REAL examples and it’s worrisome.

I’m not gonna lie. G’s paternal last name and my paternal last name are bad. I say this not because the actual, physical spelling of either name is phonetically equivalent to the word shmagina (God forbid), but because they are so blah, so common, so ORDINARY, and so typical, I truly believe it will be a disadvantage to our future children (hey, I didn’t make the societal rules here in Chile, but I’m here and I need to plan for them). Seriously. You might call me crazy or think I’m exaggerating but what I’m telling you is based on the social sphere we find ourselves circulating in more and more and this stuff REALLY matters (in this circle)! So what am I going to do? Fight the power my entire life? With the last name equivalents of Smith and Jones, G and I are seriously considering putting our second last names as our children’s last names, IF ONLY, the proposed new law that is circulating in the congress-equivalent would JUST PASS. After all, if I have two last names that identify me as, well, ME, shouldn’t I have the option to give my future kids one of those two last names? Why does the government get to decide what I get to name my future kids? Truth be told, G’s second last name might secure our future kids a senate seat and why should we have to give up that option just because the government tells us that we HAVE to give each kid the grandfather’s last name? Needless to say (in case you can’t tell) I’m irate over the matter. If being born in Chile means you get two last names, my thought is that of those two last names, one should be able to choose which of the last names you give your children. Plain and simple. It’s not like I’m suggesting Chile adopt the practice of allowing anyone to give their kids ANY last name imaginable! (Imagine if that were the case, what roll call would be like at school: “Manchester United? Here! San Francisco Forty Niners? Here! Lan Chile? She’s absent. Ok, thanks.”) If given the option to choose one of your two last names to pass on, I totally agree that all the kids should share that same pattern of last names so that you don’t have a family of five, all with different last names. I get that consistency and the ability to trace your roots back to the time of the Spanish Inquisition makes sense to some.

In short, I hope this law finds its way to passage. I’d really, really like to give my kids last names other than the paternal ones G and I unfortunately have. Again, nothing is wrong with the names themselves, but everything is wrong with what Chilean society will do or not do, how it will react or not react, based solely on these last names as they are. I have two last names and I should have the right to pass on whichever one I choose. Why the h*ll does the government of Chile get to decide this? And why the h*ll do I have to give credit to and pass on ONLY the paternal one?

What century are we living in, Chilean government? Get with the program and lighten the h*ll up.

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21 thoughts on “The last name issue in Chile: another dilemma

  1. This was actually a very interesting post; I am actually Chilean by birth but have been living in the States since I was 7 years old. I got married last year and have already been going through the explanation game concerning why I am not changing my last name. Your post brought to my attention the other aspect- what last name should our children get when we have them. I don't know where their path in life will take them and I defenitely don't want to saddle them with names that may make them social pariahs. Having been living in the US for so long (going on 21 years), I was wondering what names are considered bad and which ones good? How would I know if my two last names are bad? I have entertained the idea of living in Chile again at some point in my life and want to be prepared as possible. By the way I love reading your posts, as they give me so much insight and even bring back some memories ­čÖé

  2. As sad as it sounds, it's SO true. In fact we are thinking the exact same thing.
    But let me tell you, it doesn't matter if that law passes or not, ypu can put you children any last name you want now! So you guys can plan to get pregnant as soon as you want, you don't need to wait for it!!!

  3. we're going to have to agree to disagree on this one. in terms of name discrimination i think that FIRST names are WAY more damning than last names in chile. moreover, both your last name AND g's last name are pretty much like smith and jones in Spain…not sure how someone could be prejudiced against someone whose last name is Smith, unless of course you only hob nob with people named Rockefellar – but neither of your 2nd names have the Carnegie/Vanderbilt conotation so i'm not sure why you'd be MUCH better off giving your kids those name.. Honestly i can't really think of any examples of last names in chile that would be considered LOW class – though i'm sure if someone had a mapuche-sounding last name people would judge. in terms of FIRST names, however, obviously if your name is Briaton Gonzalez or Elvis Fernandez you might have a hard time in Chilean high society. Also i'm not saying that people don't pay attention to last names, because they do, 100%. BUT i'd say that last names are more a sign of your uber-fanciness than of your ghettoness. Example: chileans would be last names of major presidents – Balmaceda comes to mind – or a Basque last name is also considered pretty fanc shmanc – anything ending in "gui" – or also most European-sounding last names can be viewed pituco. BUT i actually believe that THE MOST pituco last names in Chile – most famous presidents and political figures – are SPANISH last names (maybe Brit last names coming in at a close 2nd). the spanish settled the country, after all. so yea, i can see you and G wanting to avoid naming your daughter McDonalds Fernandez but i dont see any problems with your last names- like none at all. oh and R's best friend HAS G's last name – the guy's famly is among the oldest in Chile – his uncle is one of the very few billionaires in chile – R's friend always jokes that he's part of the "blue blood chileno" – and he is – they've got a PALACE in the high hills of las condes and they are land owning chileans with acres upon acres of farm land…in their mansion in santiago there are 3 live in nanas for his parents (no more kids there)…his dad's always in the newspaper as is his uncle…he went to colegio verbo divino, la catolica for undergrad and MA and is currently at harvard doing a PhD and marrying a gringa who went to princeton and works at goldman sachs. not sure how much more pituco you can get than that. and i'm pretty sure the name fernandez was not held against him. i seriously think you're over-thinking things with this last name bit. i'm also thinking of my old boss' wife – a Chilena socialite who's in just about every revista Caras that comes out – who used to work at hermes and ferragamo in santiago in their international marketing departments…she's got the most spanish sounding first AND last name (Castro). so yea, totally disagree with you on this one. can think of way too many counter-examples and almost no examples that i've EVER heard of where someone was discriminated against for having a Spanish last name – from Guerrero to Munzo

  4. KM, my little muffin pants, that just proves the point! Castro or Gomez or Perez or our last names are ONLY significant or ONLY irrelevant if there is land, history, money, "blue blood" what have you, behind it. Even G's cousin above totally agrees with me and she's a lawyer!! Yes, we need to agree to disagree with this because at least where we're from and where we're on the path to going, we need something else to offer our kids … why? They will be with the land-owning, Revista Cara appearing Gomez's or Perez's of the world and they don't come from that.
    G's other last name or my other last name won't necessarily mean a silver spoon stuck in their mouth but at least it won't bring in the tendency to overlook them as our first last names do … sad but true it REALLY IS a reality for some people here.

  5. Hi Katalina,
    Oh it's like we lived parallel lives! I moved to San Francisco when I was 3 and lived there 29 years before meeting my husband and moving back. I'm sure your last names are fine, most tend to be. It's just that my last name combined with my husband's last name is really, really a bad combination. You can email me at the email and we can discuss different opinions about it but I wouldn't worry too much. Your two last names are sure to be fine … unless you have my last name and G's … then I'd have to tell you to change them! :o) Thanks for reading my blog!

  6. Connie, Gonzalo seems to think there needs to be some law that needs to go into effect … is this true? In any case, if we can't change his last name, no big deal. But we'll definitely be changing mine!! The combo is UGLY!!! Abrazos a los 4! (Yes to Britney and Madonna too!)

  7. I'm with KM on this one. I agree that there are certain last names that give you that "wow factor" of automatically being seen as important, but I don't think that an average last name alone is enough to hold you back. Sure, if you're a "Smith" from a random colegio who lives in La Florida, you'll get passed over next to the Yarur/Undurraga/Matta who's got a fancy colegio and a sector nororiente address, and that's wrong. But if you've got all the other factors, Smith is perfectly fine unless again, you're up against a powerhouse name – but I see it happening that way, where it's not that having a "bad" last name hurts you but rather that a "good" one helps you. And that's not the same thing.

    Plus, the circles where people actually consider your names to be sub-par (because really, as the Smith and Jones of Chile, they're pretty basic and neither good nor bad to most people) are tiny. I realize they're powerful and also the circles you/your kids will run in, but it's not like success is impossible and life is over before it starts just because the top 2% of the country doesn't immediately recognize your last name as representative of your family's historic fortune and power.

  8. Gringa muffins, I get what you guys are saying but just stop and consider the COMBINATION of my last name with G's. If what you're saying were REALLY true, then why do most Chileans groan in pity when we point out that our kids would have those last names? Trust me, if anything, at least the combination is the epic fail here. Even if I were to agree with your views, if we can't pass on both maternal last names to our kids, we'll keep his paternal last name and give my maternal one. Plus I have absolutely no ties to my dad's side of the family (aside from my sister) so I'm pretty ok with not passing on my version of Jones.

  9. this is all so interesting to me. i've gotta say too that emily is right – i mean yes, sure, chile is backwards to some extent (though, ps, so is the US) with this stuff but i def don't feel like name alone will prevent you from getting somewhere – especially not your names and the fact that your kids are gonna be white (and attractive- SNAP!). i think that racism (i.e. you're too dark) and classism (i.e. you're from Lota – never heard of it? yea it's like one of the poorest towns in Chile) are gonna hit you way worse than a last name. as for hob-nobbing with chile's uber-elite i do think that your kids will have trouble with that – regardless with name. i think that among the super posh it's harder to gain an "in" in Chile than in the US – my old boss said that and he's a gringo married to a high society chilean…he doesn't feel that he fits in 100% or will ever be accepted 100% and it's solely because he's not from that world…regardless of the fact that being married to his wife got him and his kids a membership at los leones… and actually come to think of it i'm not sure that's even so diff in the US – i know fancy people, but that doesn't make me one of them. not REALLY one of them. though i do believe there's a bit + upward mobility here. i.e. if you become a successful trader and make billions, you're in. period. i'm not sure the same came be said about chile. but again, this is all hypothetical bc it's so not my, nor your nor most people we know's situation (yes i just used "people we know" as a 1 worded noun)don't fret muffin, i still think you're fancy. haha.

  10. "If what you're saying were REALLY true, then why do most Chileans groan in pity when we point out that our kids would have those last names?"

    Because the impression I get from previous posts/conversations is that the "most Chileans" you're mentioning this to are part of that small percentage where it matters, which is why I said in my comment that I understand that your circles and your future kids' circles are in fact the very circles where you may have reason to worry about this. That said, those circles are neither the majority nor the only path to success – even in Chile, where there aren't as many alternate routes as in some other societies.

    I'm not suggesting you go to the pobla and take a poll of what they think about your last name combo, but I do think that there are plenty of people just out of that upper rango (yet still successful, financially comfortable people who just don't have the society recognition or the La Dehesa mansion) who would take the view that while Smith Jones isn't anything special, it doesn't constitute an insurmountable obstacle for your kids' future success. I'm definitely not saying you shouldn't give them the name you want or that you shouldn't choose in your case based on your connection with your mom/lack of one with your dad, just that from my slightly different (lower) place in Chilean society, I really don't think it's that big a handicap.

  11. First, I am no fan of patriarchal traditions. Second, in theory, yes, you should be able to give your children which ever last name you'd like. Third, you are right that chilean society is very name-conscious.

    BUT… my first inclination is to say fight the classism! I don't think choosing the most pituco name possible for your kids is the right response to classist pressures. There are tons of Chileans who have been very successful, gotten graduate degrees abroad, and good jobs in Chile without those last names–TONS!

    I don't live there quite yet, but I have kids already, and I seriously don't care what last names they have or what Chileans think about names. I might be naive, my kids are still young, but the message I want to send to them, no matter the messages from society, is that they have to work hard regardless of any other factor in their favor or not.

    My kids are going to have tons of options, and so are yours, just by nature of being bi-national, bilingual. You can't limit them with a name.

    Plus, at some point, I have to believe that that aspect of Chile is going to change… but it definitely won't if people keep buying into it.

    I don't know how logical this analogy is, but it almost like opting NOT to have a girl, if that were even possible, just because this is a man's world, that is just how it is, and she'll have to fight harder just to be treated equal.

    oh, and I pity the poor fool that so much as raises an eye-brow at the last name combo of my kids-they would get the biggest verbal ass-kicking of their cuico little lives

    … just sayin'

  12. I should have added too, that I think the reason for preferring your mother's last name because you don't have much connection to your dad is super valid. And just to reiterate, I think you should be able to name them whatever you want, I just bristle at the classist arguments. I also have no idea what your last names are, perhaps they really are hideous, but if people really groan at the combo, well, that just pisses me off… ­čśë

  13. Hi Annje,
    I know and I do agree with you. But there are some things that I would totally fight and others that I think is so unfair to have my future kids fight. Chile is not going to change from one day to the next. If it were true that I could name my kid whatever I want, I'd be able to name a future girl Chloe because both G and I love that name. But we can't! Why? Because a name like Chloe and G's last name are considered a "flaite" combination. Unfortunately I moved to a country where ridiculous things like this matter and I can fight my own battles but feel awful inflicting battles on a kid who didn't ask to be born in this country.
    And yeah, it's annoying and upsetting when people groan or just utter "oh" when I tell them our last name combo … but again, I spend half my time already mad at this society and mad at their stupid rules. I need to pick my battles.

  14. As a Chilean, I can tell you, "te estás ahogando en un vaso de agua".
    There is a lot of really successful P├ęrez, Gonz├ílez, Fern├índez, Soto and many more people with common last names, in any company or job. The Undurragas, Arrigorriagas, or whatever are really few, and they are the only ones that care about those last names.
    I have (as usual)a personal theory about your Chilean friends that "groan in pity" about the last name combo; you┬┤re supposed to be a gringa, and therefore, you could have a uncommon last name in Chile, even Smith could be a singularity here (for some people).
    So maybe it┬┤s a surprise for them that instead of "Soto Johnson", for example, the last name combo will be "Soto Gonzalez", a very Chilean combination.
    Anyway, people who cares that much about that fact, are the real oddity, actually.

  15. The law that is trying to pass will give you the possibility to change your own last name, but right now you can give your children any name you want to (including last name)!
    May be in other parts of the world they don't need to think about this, but here it's just a matter of given your children more opportunities, and if I can do that using our mother's last names, that's what we'll do! As simple as that.

  16. I am really late to this conversation, but I completely understand what you are saying.

    However, in my area, it has more to do with the first name.

    A lot of black women have a difficult time when naming their children, because a name can mean the difference between a job and a rejection letter.

    Me and my siblings have incredibly uncommon first and second names that either my mother invented or took from names she mixed (my sister's name, supposedly, is a blend of my maternal and paternal grandmothers).

    Since our names are unusual, many people give us "the groan" as well, because sometimes (and it may not be pretty) you can tell the ethnic makeup of job applicants usually just by looking at the first and last name. It's illegal to ask for a picture on a job application in the US, so many racists use names to "weed out" non-whites.

    So, Gertrude McPherson, most likely white, will get the job. Tiana Jackson, most likely black, will not receive a callback.

    Unfortunately, a lot of my black friends' mothers tried to give them very "white" sounding names, so as not to harm them in the future. They feel bad because they know that many future employers in the United States will rate the name because they don't want to deal with black people…

    I am happy that my mother decided to "fight the power", but I really don't blame anyone who wants to go with what works.

    I don't think I have ever been turned down because of my name, but we also have very patrician sounding family names, which might give us a leg-up. We also have excellent qualifications, and not every employer is a racist ­čśë

    I know that I will continue the trend of giving my child an unusual name…but I don't judge you for trying to make the right decision for your child.

  17. Hi! I was born in Chile but my parents emigrated to Australia when I was 3 years old. I have always been really proud of my surnames and use them to this date. I am getting married in 9 months and will not be changing my names, despite tradition being different here. My surnames are “common” in Chile but not as common as “Perez” or “Gonzalez” by any means. I have lived in Chile as a teenager and I was very aware of the social class difference that comes with surnames over there. It didn’t affect me though, but that may be because I was “cool” because I came from Australia and spoke English. Who knows? Fortunately or unfortunately, my surnames are so ingrained in me and I am so proud of my parents, that I cannot imagine changing my names – Thankfully I have a very understanding fiance! When we have children, we will be following Chilean tradition so that they are connected to me through having my surname involved. It may mean they’ll have very long names, but I grew up that way and am very much used to it.

    I hope the laws you suggest eventually find their way into Chilean law, but with how the society is there, I doubt it will happen very soon.

    1. Paulina, thanks for your comments!
      Yes, laws here in Chile are quite square and I don’t see things changing any time soon. I don’t particularly like, or have any affinity to, my last name. Both because my father wasn’t present in my life and because the last name is just boring and utterly lackluster. No thank you!
      My poor kid unfortunately has to now carry on two completely generic last names but thankfully she’s a woman and in a few more generations both last names will be gone… sounds cold and calculating but when you aren’t defined by your last name, really, who cares? Just my own experience!

  18. I had read most of the comments and really !!!!

    You are thinking too much , way too much !

    I married in USA , kept my last names , ( I felt if I chanced my last name , will be like a lost of identity and myself ) kids have father last name and my last names , just the way I wanted . Since my kids were born in USA they wanted me to name them just with the father’s name , NO WAY ! …

    I lived in 4 different cultures , born myself in Chile , I had never had those problems . My husband has a very comun name in Chile , and he is a very successful professional men , he was never been discriminated because his name or last name .

    you have to be confident with in yourself , be who you are … is simple as that !

    I know some little evolve people care about those things , but the primordial point is , that you are free to think and do what you WANT and make a difference by how you do things in life .

    In some parts , in every culture , some people judge , discriminate and worry about non sense things … Here is when evolution take place and make the difference !

    Be you ! You do not have to name your kids the same way every one does , or name them to be accepted or successful . The kids is going to be successful , accepted and happy because you love them , and raise them well … That speak louder than a name !

    ( I am really sorry you are having a hard time adapting to my culture , I do feel you )

    Many blessing an the best to you .

  19. Hi, i’m Chilean-Palestinian born in the U.S., and I was just reading up on Chilean Surnames when I came upon this blog. So what exactly are the surnames that create such a horrible combination? Concha-Calvo ? Baca-De la Calle? Poto-Pichula? How bad can it be? Haha. I think you’re overreacting.

  20. Hi guys my name is Emmanuel and I am a citizen American. I have my new born daughter who was born in chile 2 months ago, but her is from Haiti. I was not there when the mother was giving birth to the baby, but I’ve been takin care of her and the baby since pregnancy till now. I wanted the baby just to have my last name only. Now she has the mother’s last name as well and they put the mother’s last name at last. In America your first name first, middle name second and family name at last. Now I don’t know if my last name is the baby’s last name, or if her mother’s last name is the last name, or if it’s both my last name and the mother’s last name is the baby’s last name. I am planning on going to chill to give the child US citizenship. There’s a form to file. When they ask me for the baby’s last name, I don’t know what to put as tge baby’s last name and i don’t want to make any mistakes in the process because I don’t want to travel all the way done chile and not to take care of this process for my daughter. Can you guys help me with some advices of what to do here?

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