Rocky in front of his namesake bar in Gijon, Spain

I don’t know if it is because I was raised on Cheers, the TV show that popularized the slogan, “Where everyone knows your name…” or the fact that I’ve been a yoga teacher for more than 3 decades, but names are important to me. While I expected many things to be different in Spain, I had no idea how unique their naming customs would be.

Over the years I’ve tried to get to know not only my student’s yoga needs, but their full names. Full disclosure: at times, when checking students in for a class, I couldn’t remember their name. Sadly, it’s true. Rather than hurt their feelings by admitting my momentary memory lapse, I would ask them their last name. No one expects you to memorize their last name, so I would use it to jiggle my memory. Often if I heard their last name, I could remember their first one! If all else failed, I’d quickly type their last name into the scheduling program, and up popped their full name. Whew!

People’s names are not the only names I collect. I could name almost every dog on the Tacoma waterfront before we moved to Spain. I didn’t always know their owner’s names but I was on a first name basis with the dogs. Lucky for me, dog walkers here in Gijon are also very friendly and usually let their pups stop and visit with our dog Wilma when we walk by. Always eager to get to know my neighbors (and their dogs!), I start by asking their dog’s name. So far, my new fur friends are called Bella, Pepe, Chico, Blanca, Benito and Gordo. Their owners struggle a little with Wilma’s name until I tell them it’s just like Vilma Picapiedra (Wilma Flinstones)! Then they are all smiles and say, “Vilma!” because Picapiedra, the Flinstones, was a popular cartoon here as well.

Rocky, who tends to stay quiet and just nod and smile during these exchanges, noticed that the dog owners always looked perplexed by my question at first. He suggested maybe it wasn’t the custom to share names here, even your dog’s name. Oh jeez. Had I breeched an unwritten social rule by getting too personal?

In both the Spanish classes and yoga classes I attend here, the teachers call us by our first name and other students call each other by name, as well. In fact, “Como se llama?” (What is your name?) is the first lesson I ever learned in my high school Spanish class a million years ago, so it must be important, right? Since arriving in Spain though, the only people who have asked us our names are teachers, police officers (don’t worry, we aren’t in trouble!), bankers and representatives from the mayor’s office, the utility companies and the medical facilities.

When we are asked our names, we are often met with confused looks because the naming protocols are very different from our own. In Spain it is customary for everyone to have two surnames or what we would think of as two last names like Alvarez Gonzalez. The first surname is traditionally their father’s surname (apellido paterno) and the second is their mother’s surname (apellido materno.) It’s also common for someone to go by their first name(s) and their father’s name so Juan Luis Alvarez Gonzalez might be known as Senor Alvarez or Juan Luis Alvarez. Of course there are exceptions to every rule! For example, in 2017 a law was passed in Spain that allows parents to choose which surname comes first, within the first three days of their child’s life, rather than always having the paternal surname first.

The Spanish do not have what we think of as a “middle name” but often have a two-part first name, like Juan Luis or Maria Jose. Although we think of Spain as being patriarchal, women do not take their husband’s name when they marry but instead keep their own parent’s names for life. Therefore, in a family with children, all of the siblings have both their father and mother’s surnames but the parents have their own parent’s surnames, different from their children.

My name is Jeni Lynn Martinez, because I took my husband’s surname when we got married 34 years ago. For this reason, I have been referred to as Senora Lynn or Jeni Lynn because they assume Lynn is my apellido paterno, rather than a middle name inspired by a country singer in Nashville, TN where I was born. If I had been born in Spain, I might have been called Jeni Lynn Dickinson Hildebrand, which would have given me a hand cramp after having to sign even a few documents.

My hubby who has always been known by his nickname, Rocky, because of a penchant for rocking back and forth in his crib as a baby, has repeatedly been told, “That’s my dog’s name!” or “That’s my horse’s name,” in the past. For that reason, he decided to use his given name Edwin Caine Martinez III when we moved to Spain. Seemed like a good idea but now we have to explain why he uses Martinez as his surname and not Caine. And what the heck is the Roman numeral III for?? They definitely do not have that custom here. I’ve found myself explaining multiple times that three generations of Martinez men have shared the exact same name. No, that’s not at all confusing. (Oh, and I still call him Rocky, of course.)

And while it hasn’t been asked, do they think we have the same mother because both of us have Martinez as our second surname? Oh, Dios mio! Likely, they assume Martinez is such a common Spanish surname that it is nothing more than a coincidence. This explains why the officials always ask if we are married, or just “parejas” (partners) even though we share the same last name, and address.

With super long four-part names being the norm, it’s not surprising that there is a huge nickname culture that has developed here instead. The two-part first names, like Jose Maria, are sometimes blended together to create a more unique nickname like “Chema.” Say Jose Maria three times very quickly and you might hear the sounds that inspired the nickname, Chema. Juan Carlos becomes Juanca and Juan Pablo becomes Juanpa or even Juanpi. Rosario is sometimes shortened to Chayo.

My veggie lady at the Mercado del Sur greets me every week with, “Hola Reina!” (Hello Queen!) I hear her call out with affection to other shoppers passing by, as well, “Guapa or Guapina” (Beautiful or Little Beauty), “Guapo” (handsome), “Maha” (Nice, Pretty.) Even the man who works in the fish market across from her, welcomes me with “Guapa, que quieres?” loosely translated as “What do you want, Beautiful.” I never got that kind of treatment at the Fred Meyer grocery store in Washington, and if I had, it would have seemed a little creepy, but not here!

These blanket nicknames feel more personal and affectionate to me than using my surname, even though they are commonly used and aren’t specific to anyone. I’d rather be called “Guapa” or “Reina” than Senora Lynn or even Senora Martinez, any day! As we continue to make friends here in Spain, maybe we will eventually earn a personal nickname. Edwin Caine could become Vinca and Jeni Lynn could be Cheli…or not. Hopefully our new amigos come up with something better than that!

Remember your mother calling you for dinner when you were playing outside as a kid? She probably used a nickname or a shortened version of your name or yelled, “Honey, it’s time for dinner!” If she used your full name, you assumed you were in trouble. Maybe it’s the same thing in Spain? The four-part legal names are just too formal and long for every day use. The upside of using nicknames is that you never have to be embarrassed that you’ve forgotten someone’s given name if you call them by a common nickname instead. If Cheers were to be revived and take place in a Spanish bar, the new slogan would be, “Where everyone knows my nickname…”

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