Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Different Countries, Different Names: Costa Rica

The Jiménez Coat of Arms. Jiménez is one of the most common last names
in Costa Rica, and it's one of my wife's two last names. Image: Wikimedia

I've been wanting to write a post about naming customs in different countries, since it's a common conversation topic with my students and also with my friends and family back in the U.S. I know that this sometimes depends on the individual person and/or family, but from what I've noticed, names in Costa Rica and in the U.S. follow patterns, but they're different in a few important ways. Today we'll look at Costa Rican naming patterns, and in a few days we'll look at patterns in the U.S. If you have any observations, comments, or corrections, or if you're Costa Rican and your name follows a different pattern, I'd love to hear from you!

Names In Costa Rica

Almost everyone in the country has four names. There is a national ID card called a cédula for people over 18 years old, and the cédula generally has a person's four names. In normal social interactions, though, people often introduce themselves with only one or two names, or even a nickname. Let's look at an example of a typical female name in Costa Rica:

María Andrea Rodríguez Campos

(By the way, I just invented that name, but I would bet money that there's at least one woman in Costa Rica with that exact name!) So, in our example, María Andrea is this woman's name/s (nombre/s in Spanish). Since María is one of the most common first names in Costa Rica, it's often not mentioned, and sometimes it's abbreviated "Ma." as in "Ma. Fernanda." There aren't many "rules" for the two names, and parents usually choose to name a child after a relative, or they just choose a name that they think sounds good (even if it often doesn't!). Occasionally parents even give their children a third name, often related to religion. Common examples are (name 1) + (name 2) + de Jesús / de la Trinidad / de los Ángeles / del Carmen / etc. Oh, and a quick note: "María José" is a girl's name, and "José María" is a boy's name. That always caused me problems at first! 

In this example, Rodríguez Campos is the woman's last name/s (called "apellidos" in Spanish). This is where it gets confusing if you're not used to these naming customs. The first last name, "Rodríguez" in this case, is from the father. The second last name, "Campos," is from the mother. If María Andrea gets married later in her life, she will almost certainly not change her last names. Occasionally, especially in the past, a woman might add her husband's last name at the end after "de"; For example, if María Andrea married John Schneider, she could call herself "María Andrea Rodríguez Campos de Schneider," but this custom is pretty rare these days, at least in Costa Rica. You may have noticed, however, that the Argentinean President, Christina Fernández de Kirchner, followed this practice, so it may be more common in other countries or in certain situations.

A note: there are some very common last names in Costa Rica, such as Rodríguez, González, Jiménez, Araya, or Hernández; these are the "Smiths" and "Johnsons" of Central America, apparently! In some cases, a person's mother and father may have the same first last name, even if they're definitely from different families. If that happens, say with two parents with the first last name "Rodríguez," then their kids would simply be named "(name) + (name) + Rodríguez Rodríguez." 

As a result of these naming practices, in a hypothetical nuclear family consisting of a mom, a dad, a daughter, and a son, there would be three different last name combinations. The father would have his two last names, the mother would have her two last names, and the kids would both have the father's first last name followed by the mother's first last name. Does that make sense, or are you as confused as I was when I arrived here?

So how do you address a Costa Rican person? Well, if you're asking for someone on the phone or in person, it's common to ask for him or her using one or both names and the first last name. In our example, you'd ask for "María Andrea Rodríguez" if you didn't know her personally. If you knew her personally and knew that she preferred to be called "Andrea," then you might also ask for "Andrea Rodríguez." If it were an informal situation and you knew her personally --and you knew that she didn't object to the title-- you might possibly ask for "Doña Andrea," but this can also lead to problems. Doña (Don for men) is a title of respect paired with a person's first name, but it often is used only for older and/or married men and women. My wife Angela, for example, hates to be called "Doña Angela." I personally wouldn't mind being called "Don Ryan," since it makes me think of The Godfather's "Don Corleone" or the legendary lover "Don Juan," but the connotations aren't as positive or interesting with Doña. So be careful with that one!

As always, there are probably numerous exceptions to these rules, but from what I've noticed, the broad majority of Costa Ricans' names follow these patterns. Like I mentioned before, no matter where you're from, I'd love to hear any comments you might have about this article.

Thanks for reading, and in a couple of days we'll look at naming customs in the U.S.A. 
Have a great day!

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-Ryan