Friday, 11 September 2015

The Names of Spain

Manólo 'El señorito' (the lordling) wears his nickname with pride at the recent Dia Internacionál del Lomo en Manteca in Vejer. The festival celebrates the annual pig-killing and the creation of manteca, a speciality made of flavoured pork lard.

 Most people know about the Spanish system of nicknames in which first names are shortened, combined or adapted, so that Juan Pedro becomes ‘Juanpe’, Francisco is ‘Paco’ and José is ‘Pepe’, among a multitude of others. Nachos, Quiques, Chanos and Chemas abound throughout Spain and these shortened forms are recognised everywhere, but there’s another system of nicknames, local and personal, which you only understand when you know the people and live in the place.

Conil: on the extreme right, Juan Muñoz Leal 'Perragorda', literally 'fat bitch'.

   An early reader of this blog pointed out, quite correctly, that nicknames have existed and continue to exist in all human societies, and without wanting to write an essay on social anthropology, I should explain that I'm talking here about a phenomenon which ethnologists describe as a 'nickname system'. In other words, the use of nicknames has a distinct social function and follows certain rules, which have evolved over time. Nickname systems are typical of the kind of traditional society which has now almost died out in most of Western Europe, and it's interesting to find evidence that some of these customs persist in our part of Spain.

  One of the things which intrigued me when I lived in a Cornish seaside town was the rich fund of nicknames the local people used for their friends and family, which almost amounted to a parallel naming system. It’s often been argued that these local nicknames are given when many people share the same name. Naming traditions were often very conservative, with sons named after their fathers and daughters after their mothers, and so within a few generations, a new method of distinguishing different individuals was required. Nicknames were therefore used to differentiate different famiies with the same surname, so for example, if you belonged to one branch of the Stephens family, you were a ‘Cush’, if to another, you were a ‘Blue’.

 María, 'La Gavanilla' buys coal from Diego, the 'Carbonero', while María 'La Cara' passes by.

  This explanation is very appealing and undoubtedly explains in part the widespread use of nicknames which, as I soon discovered, is a feature of all societies, and not limited to Cornwall, or even to Europe. However, as nicknames are also used in communities where a wide range of surnames exists, it’s clear that they are also related to an older naming tradition than the one we use now. 
One of Juan 'Camacha's' remarkable photographs of 
Conil fishermen.

  Writing in 1892, John Hobson Matthews declared that ‘They (nicknames) are a relic of a primitive state of society, and flourish only where primitive ideas still prevail’, and though his dismissal of nicknames as ‘primitive’ is inaccurate, he is probably right to say that the roots of the custom lie deep in the past. 

   Just as in other countries, nobody in Spain chose to have an official family name or names. The necessity to find one was imposed by law at the end of the 16th century, when the population was growing fast and the Council of Trent judged it necessary to register every individual.

  Faced with this requirement, the Spanish people drew on a number of traditions to equip themselves with a legal identity. Many people had previously used the patronymic system, adding an ‘ez’ to their father’s name and writing it after their own. This tradition, which dates back to the Visigoths, meant that Gonzalo, son of Alvaro, would be Gonzalo Alvarez, and that his son, named after the grandfather, would be Alvaro González. After the law changed, Alvaro would also have had to give the name González to his own children.

   Other traditions included naming people after physical characteristics, (Calvo - bald headed), place of origin (de Córdoba) or occupation (Herrera - blacksmith). All these surnames persist today, among many others, and some were clearly based on nicknames which had been awarded to an individual, only to be passed on to his children when surnames became compulsory. And as Spanish naming customs require that every child is baptised with first its father's and then its mother's surname, and religious custom involved adding at baptism the name of the parish patron saint, official names were often lengthy and cumbersome, as in the case of the painter Pablo Picasso, who was baptised Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso. In cases like this. some kind of simplification is both desirable and inevitable.

  Nicknames arose from speech, not from legislators or bureaucrats, and so they form part of the oral tradition which is an essential part of every culture. Not surprisingly, once surnames became formalised, they lost their power to express close identity and personal knowledge, as well as their usefulness as a vehicle for wit and invention. In a culture which was already rich before writing and reading became universal pursuits, nicknames expressed both individuality and social cohesion. 

  I first became aware of the existence of local surnames in this part of the world when my friend Adrián, from nearby Conil, told me that his father, Sebastián Brenes, was known among his friends as ‘El Plancha’ (an iron, grill or metal plate). Intriguingly, the surname ‘Brenes’ is of Celtic origin, referring to a site where metal is worked. The British equivalent is ‘Baines’. Yes, Adrián confirmed, his grandfather had also been ‘El Plancha’. And while it’s a stretch to imagine a nickname enduring from as long ago as the Iron Age, the connection is intriguing.

Vejer: Antonia 'la Matea' Mateo

  I wanted to find out if local nicknames were as common here as they are in Cornwall, and I was lucky to find ‘Conil en la Memoria’, a collection of photographs taken in that town over the past 130 years. Early pictures revealed very little. Local nicknames are the speciality of the working classes, many of whom, in the early years of this century, still did not read or write. Only the wealthy could afford to have their photos taken, and the first images show well-dressed people, formally posed with both surnames, father’s and mother’s, respectfully attached. It isn’t until the nineteen sixties that a photographer called Juan ‘Capacha’ arrives on the scene to document the lives of working people.

 ‘Capacha’ doesn’t feature on any list of famous photographers, but he was clearly passionate about recording the day-to day life of Conil. For the first time, we see María, ‘la Cubana’, Ramón ‘Cacho’ Nuñez, the gardener, Juan ‘el Sillero’, Juan Alba, ‘el Chato’ and ‘el Guaqui’, the ice-cream maker. In a beautiful picture from the 1970s, Tomás Pareja ‘Boquerón’ and Antonia Caballero ‘La Matea' haul ropes during the Jábega fishing season.
'Boqueron' and 'La Matea', apparently an unusual example of a woman working in the fishing industry. As she's not really dressed for work, and 'Boqueron' is not working too hard either, the photo was probably posed.
Some of these nicknames simply describe occupations and are easy to understand. There’s no mystery about why Chana, who made churros, should be ‘la Churrera’, though why her husband, Sebastián, should be ‘el Chulo’ is less clear. The word means ‘cute’, or, nowadays, ‘cool’, though the noun form also means ‘pimp’. A ‘cacho’ is a little piece, and this is a common nickname in Spain, but ‘Guaqui' is not in the dictionary, unless it relates to the town of the same name in Bolivia, a distant, though not inconceivable possibility. Less exotically, it's probably a diminutive of the Christian name 'Joaquín'.

I half hoped that ‘La Matea' would mean ‘killer woman’, but it seems that this is a common nickname for women with the surname ‘Mateo’. ‘Chato’ means snub-nosed, or possibly short-sighted. In other words, a nickname can derive from almost anything that marks you out as an individual, for good or bad.

 After making these discoveries, I had no doubt that nicknames would be as prevalent in Vejer as in Conil, and so it proved to be. I quickly found the butcher Pepe ‘el Perlino’ (pearly) Tello, pictured at a social occasion, Alfonso ‘La Tila’ (‘lime blossom’, but possibly referring to a site in Vejer) Melero, still at school and Antonia ‘la Matea’ Mateo. There was Morillo ‘el Curricán’ (fishing line) Basallote, José 'el Burra' Domínguez, José el Mozo, (lad) Maria 'La Lobita' (presumably from nearby 'La Lopita', though 'loba' is also a slang term for a prostitute), the young footballer Manolito ‘el Mono’ (the monkey), Joselita 'el Penumbra' (the shadow)...'El Tumba' (the tomb). Interestingly, those who remembered María ‘la Gabanilla’ spelled her nickname in several different ways, a clear indication that these nicknames proceed from a spoken, rather than a written tradition.

Vejer 1973: Manólito 'El Mono' is on the bottom row, second from the right.
  The list could go on and on, and there is scope here for serious research. Some names are specific to one individual, but as John Hobson Matthews said, ‘some names cling to these families through generations’. The system of nicknames can involve the past history as well as the present situation of every individual. 

  Nickname systems have been described by ethnologists as a means of expressing relationships of power and trust; 'to place people but also to put them in their place'. Nicknames are rarely used by families or outsiders, and so provide a mechanism for establishing new social circles outside the family group. Where nicknames are predominantly used by men, the intention is usually to exert control through verbal aggression, and though in this area, they are generally used equally by both sexes, the existence of 'apodos' like 'perragorda' - fat bitch - suggests that not every nickname is awarded in a spirit of kindliness and social cohesion.

  It’s clear that the tradition of the local nickname plays an important part in marking different levels of intimacy in a community. A visitor may know your first name and even your surname, but only an insider knows your nickname. The tradition is under threat now, as universal literacy and movement of people from the pueblos to the cities undermines so many local customs, but with luck, the nickname tradition will survive for a long while yet.