Wednesday, 17 October 2018 18:31

¿Como se Llama? The struggles of keeping Latino surnames Featured

Written by Maya White
Millie Pruitt, shown with her daughter Jenny and niece Amanda, learned to accept her American-style name. Millie Pruitt, shown with her daughter Jenny and niece Amanda, learned to accept her American-style name. Contributed

The United States is called the "land of the free." But some immigrants do not feel free to keep their surnames.

Born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Milagros “Millie” Cartagena-Ferrer Pruitt was accustomed to the Spanish language and traditions. On Oct. 9, 1961, that all changed when she moved to Alabama to join the Women’s Army Corps at Fort McClellan.

Within two months, Pruitt was asked to shorten her name and use only the English language. She went by Millie Ferrer to her U.S. friends and acquaintances until March 9, 1963, when she married Wayne Pruitt and took his name.

According to, Spanish surnames started being used during the medieval period because the population of Spain was growing. It was necessary to distinguish individuals when so many had the same given name.

Hispanics and Latinos invented a naming system around the 16th century, which became a tradition that most follow when it comes to their last names. It once was that sons would take the father’s surname and the daughters took the mother’s surname.

The naming system changed to a double-naming system in the 1800s. Following Spanish custom, a person was given the first of the father’s two surnames and the first of the mother’s two surnames to create their last name. 

For some Latinos, such as people from Brazil, this is the opposite. The mother's surname comes before the father's surname, and the mother's surname is dropped when the child marries. 

This tradition is hard to maintain in the United States, which has a single-naming system. Those who follow this naming system generally don’t have a middle name, according to Dr. Felipe Fiuza of East Tennessee State University’s Language and Culture Resource Center. This is what leads to difficulties in the States.

What are Hispanics and Latinos supposed to do on official forms? What are they supposed to write on the doctor’s forms? How do they teach others the pronunciation of their name?

“My culture is not within Mexico. My culture and traditions are within me.”

        – Adolfo Rodolfo-Martinez

These are all questions Pruitt, Ellie Warnick-Fife Durst and Adolfo Rodolfo-Martinez have all asked themselves.

All three say they wanted to keep the naming tradition in their families, and this was a way to hold on to their culture. There is no law against the double surname, but, as Pruitt said, “Americans make it hard to keep up this tradition.”durst

Durst, from Goiana Goias, Brazil, is one of these three who expressed difficulties with her name in America.

“When filling out a doctor’s form, I never could fit my last name in the last name box, but I can’t put my first surname in the middle name box because it’s not my middle name,” said Durst, 45, who now lives in Gray, Tennessee. “It was too difficult for me to also explain to whoever I would turn the form into, so that’s when I decided to just drop my names.”

Just like Durst, who has had difficulties with forms, Pruitt has also, mostly regarding her governmental forms.

“For the Army, they understood, but they are still American and live with the single-naming system,” said Pruitt. “All of the other forms for anything only give you a certain amount of space to write your last name in, and mine was just too long.”

Adolfo Rodolfo-Martinez, 53, from Mexico City, Mexico, has kept his names since moving back to Johnson City, Tennessee, after a period of time in Mexico taking care of his family.

When he first came to the U.S., Martinez would just go by Adolfo Martinez due to “documentation becoming too complicated.”

“It was easier to have only a first and last name applying for Visas and permits,” said Martinez.

Now that he has returned, he decided he wanted to keep up his culture instead of trying to leave it in the past, like he once had.

“My names make up who I am,” said Martinez. “My culture is not within Mexico. My culture and traditions are within me.”martinez

“People in America don’t understand the Hispanic life,” said Pruitt. “I quit using my names because I did not like people always asking what my name meant or how to pronounce it. Americans thought us to be so different, but once in America, I am an American.”

Pruitt’s daughter Jenny Pruitt Turner, born in Texas, explained that even though her mom is Puerto Rican and wanted to respect the Latino tradition, Pruitt did allow her to drop her names. She became Jenny Pruitt, which turned into Jenny Turner once she married.

Durst allowed her children, Patricia and Latasha, to drop all their names when they married, even their last name Durst. They took advantage of this permission from their mother.

“If my children ever make it to the States, I will allow them to drop theirs if they want, but I would not like them to. [As long as] they are in Mexico, they are sticking to tradition,” said Martinez.

Jazzy Jimenez, 22, never had any multiple surnames because her father was never given any, either.

“I was born in Los Angeles, and when my parents came to America from Mexico in the '50s, they dropped their names completely,” said Jimenez. “It was a tradition they took out of their lives. Once they stepped on American soil, they became American, and that’s how they thought.”

Pruitt, now 76, recently moved into an independent living facility, where she wanted to “start over.” She filled out her form as Milagros Cartagena-Ferrer Pruitt. She was then constantly asked how to pronounce her name, and all the difficulties started to flood back. Upset and frustrated, she went back to Millie Pruitt.


Above: Ellie Durst, shown with her husband Gerry Durst, has allowed her daughters to drop their surnames when they marry. Middle: Adolfo Rodolfo-Martinez didn't use his surnames when he first came to America, but now he does. Below: Millie Pruitt came to mainland U.S. to join the Army. She dropped her surnames after marrying Wayne Pruitt.

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