Uruguay made news recently when the lower house of its Congress passed a bill called the Marriage Equality Law. The legislation would allow same-sex marriages, and make all marriages equal under the law regardless of the gender of the two people involved.
The bill is expected to gain approval in Uruguay’s Senate as well, and President Jose Mujica says he’s planning to sign it into law. That would make Uruguay only the second Latin American country to officially make gay marriages legal under national law, after Argentina.
That’s a historic change in the making. But there’s another historic change included in that Uruguayan bill, one that hasn’t generated as much attention.
The proposed law would also alter the rules on how babies are named in Uruguay.
Currently, the law in Uruguay says a baby must have two last names, the first from the father’s side of the family and the second from the mother’s. Period, no room for discussion. It’s the way it’s done, by law, in much of Latin America.
The new rules in Uruguay still call for two last names, but would allow couples to change the order of the names. Mother’s could come first, followed by father’s. In the case of a same-sex couple, the partners can choose which last name to use first.
The change seems to be a very straightforward way to truly make all marriages equal, as the bill’s authors intended.
Things get less straightforward if the new parents disagree on the order. If a heterosexual couple can’t agree on which name to list first, it’s back to father’s followed by mother’s. If a gay couple can’t agree on the order, it’s literally down to the luck of the draw.
The proposed naming changes in Uruguay would, of course, only apply to Uruguay. But I have a feeling that they could also open the way for similar changes elsewhere in Latin America.
The “two last names” tradition comes from Spain, where it developed over centuries. The conquistadors spread it to Spain’s many far-flung colonies. And the tradition became law in Spain and other Spanish-speaking places in the 19th century.
But guess what? Spain changed its baby-naming laws back in 1999, allowing mother’s name to come first if both mother and father agree. Seems like lawmakers in Uruguay are just catching up with the old motherland!
Still, the “two last names” convention in Spanish-speaking Latin America is more than just law. It’s engrained in the region’s character. Always the two last names, and always father’s followed by mother’s. It gives each newborn baby a unique identity (most of the time, anyway) and it highlights both sides of the family tree for at least one generation.
The two last names thing is hard for outsiders to digest, though. To many non-Latino Americans, it can seem overly complicated. When they encounter a person with two last names, they never know which to use on second reference. And when should a double last name be hyphenated? Answer: it depends. But that’s for another blog post.
Also, some of Latin America’s children who, officially, have two last names don’t use them both in daily life. I’m one of them.
I was born in Mexico and my birth certificate lists my two last names, father’s followed by mother’s. But living and working in the English-speaking world, I only use my father’s last name. It’s simpler.
Although I did make an exception when I graduated from college. I had both last names put on my diploma as a tribute to my mother, who paid the tuition bills. Thanks Mom!