The regulation of identity through names and naming in Twentieth Century Spain

By James Chetwood

Un estancia Español

I’m going to confess from the get-go that I’m not a historian of Francoist Spain. I’m not even a modernist. And I’m barely even a historian. I’m actually doing a PhD in medieval English naming patterns (yes, that’s a thing you can do). So why am I writing a blog about Spanish personal names in the twentieth century?

To be honest it’s a fairly unlikely and uninteresting chain of events that I won’t bore you with here. But, the main reason is that, in the period I’m studying, the personal naming system changed from one where very few people bore the same name, to one where a few, very popular names were borne by the majority of the population.

Some scholars have suggested that this was caused by downward pressure from an increasingly dominant and dominating aristocratic élite. I’m sceptical about just how much this could have been the case: medieval lords were powerful, but I doubt they cared a huge amount about what the peasants who worked their lands chose as names for their children. There was no legislation restricting the names people could choose – and there were no officials registering names who could enact such laws, had they existed at all.[1]

So, I started to think about where it might be possible to see if a concerted effort to regulate the names of a population had any discernible impact on naming patterns; which is how I ended up looking at twentieth century Spain.

 

Names and identity

While names are intrinsically linked to individual identity, they also play an important role in defining and creating group membership. Every group or society has its own set of names and naming customs. By adhering to these customs, and choosing a name that other members recognise and accept, parents demonstrate that their child is part of that group or society.

Conversely, choosing a name that doesn’t fit in with these norms can mark a child and a family out as being different. We see this in Spain at the turn of the twentieth century, when a number of radical and revolutionary groups gave their children names which highlighted their political beliefs.

Jaures
Source: Arquivo Nacional, Rio de Janeiro*

Socialist, communist and anarchist parents chose names that personified their own ideals and demonstrated their belonging to a political group, such as Germinal, Palmiro and Jaurés – and it doesn’t take much guessing to work out the political beliefs of the parents of Carlos Marx Longinos Alonso Rogdriguez.

 

However, following the Spanish Civil War, the Francoist regime was intent on creating a new and centralised Spanish identity, which placed God and Spain at the forefront. New-born children were to bear names taken only from the Calendar of Roman Catholic Saints, or traditional Spanish names.

These names were only to be registered in Castilian, excluding the other regional languages of Spain, as well as anyone who may have wanted to choose a non-Spanish name, whether that be for political reasons or personal ones. There would be no more Germinals, Palmiras and certainly no more Carlos Marxes.

 

Measuring the impact

But did this legislation, and the oppressive social environment, have an impact on wider naming patterns? In some ways, yes.[2] One clear change is the use of double names, which seems to coincide closely with the period of the Francoist dictatorship. These double names were absent from the top 10 lists in the 1930s, but dominated by the 1960s, and then had disappeared by the 1990s.

Another immediately noticeable about the majority of double names is their overwhelmingly religious nature. The continuous presence of certain names such as Maria, José, and Jesús in double names is overwhelming. For women, names dedicated to Marian shrines were the norm, such as Maria del Pilar and Maria de los Dolores. Mary, Joseph, Jesus and the saints, were, quite literally everywhere.

So, on the face of it, it seems like the measures taken by the Spanish state did succeed in its goal of homogenising the names of its citizens, and creating an exclusively Spanish, Christian national identity. These are, clearly, names dedicated very much to God and to Spain.

Yet there are some exceptions, which indicate that some aspects of regional identities persisted. In Bizkaia, both Begoña and Maria-Begoña were present in the top 10 girls’ names throughout the dictatorship. Begoña is the name of a region of Bilbão, in which the shrine of Our Lady of Begoña is situated. The name was clearly Christian, so allowed in the Civil Register. But by using it, people were able to assert a small part of their Basque identity.

The return to democracy in 1975 allowed people to assert these previously suppressed identities to a much greater extent. In Bizkaia, for example, the removal of restrictions enabled the expression of distinct, regional and linguistic identities through personal names. The 1970s saw an almost complete replacement of the top 10 male and female names – 18 out of 20 were completely new. Many were distinctly Basque, including Unai, Aitor and Iker for men, and Iratxe, Naiara and Ainhoa for women.

 

Effects on concentration

So did the imposition of strict rules on the choice of personal names cause an increase in naming homogeneity? The reduction in possible name choices, the frequent repetition of a small number of common Christian names, as well as the immediate outburst of naming creativity across Spain following the return to democracy, all seem to suggest so.

Yet, this isn’t the case. In fact, the proportion of men represented by the top 10 names dropped from around 40 percent in the 1930s to under 20 percent in the 1980s. Amongst women, this dropped from nearly 30 percent to around 15 percent. And, perhaps counterintuitively, from the 1970s, when restrictions were removed and people able to choose whatever names they wanted, naming concentration actually increased, both in Spain as a whole, and its individual regions.

Naming Concentration Spain
Statistics based on data from the Instituto Nacional de Estadística

 

So, top down pressure from the state in the Francoist period did not, ultimately, effect the downward trend in naming concentration, which was caused by wider systemic changes to Spanish society, instigated by the rapid industrialisation and modernisation that Spain underwent in the same period.

However, following 1975, the people of Spain seem to have, intentionally or otherwise, used names to reassert old, or perhaps assert completely new, community identities – identities to which they held greater attachment than the centralised, Catholic, Castilian identity that had been enforced for so long.

 

Notes:

[1] I think that the increase in naming concentration was caused by a change in how people lived and interacted, as they were brought together to live in the typical nuclear villages and small towns we associate with most of Europe from the late-medieval period through to modernity, and the intensely norm-enforcing social networks that went along with them. It’s not until the twentieth century, when the forces of industrialisation, urbanisation and modernisation again transformed communities and reshaped social networks, that we see this tendency towards high naming concentration reversed, and a trend towards greater individualisation of personal names.

[2] Statistics have been based on data from the Instituto Nacional de Estadística.

* Full image citation: “Brasil, Cartões de Imigração, 1900-1965,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1942-22434-7844-98?cc=1932363 : 10 November 2014), Group 8 > 004914239 > image 154 of 203; Arquivo Nacional, Rio de Janeiro (National Archives, Rio de Janeiro).

James Chetwood is a Wolfson Postgraduate Scholar in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. He is currently researching personal naming patterns in medieval England. You can find James on twitter @chegchenko.

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3 thoughts on “The regulation of identity through names and naming in Twentieth Century Spain

  1. Fascinating stuff! Just a quick question – intuitively I’d expect the effect of legislation like this not just to forcibly change the naming habits of those who didn’t previous conform the the Catholic-Castilian ideal, but also those that did, as the prior power of such names as social identifiers (as you discuss) would be considerably diluted – ie you could no longer assume that every Maria you met was a staunch conservative Catholic. Was this the case? Is it a factor in driving increased diversity, as these groups seek new ways to differentiate themselves?

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    1. Thanks for your comment! Yes, this may well be the case to some extent. I’d have to more research to find out, but there were probably ways of getting round this to some extent, like the use of Marian shrine names (like Begoña in the Basque Country or Montserrat in Catalonia) might allow you to choose names that were ok officially but still assert another type of identity. And of course, this study only looks at the top 10 names in Spain and a number of regions. I haven’t been able to look at the names that aren’t common – this may help answer the question somewhat. Thanks again.

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  2. I have to admit – my mouth dropped when I read you are pursuing a PhD in medieval English naming patterns. What did you study beforehand, and how did you come to be involved with onomastics?

    Really intriguing stuff here. Have you looked at naming patterns in other 20th-century regimes, by chance?

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