Colombian Court Refuses To Put Paternal Surname First

BOGOTÁ (AP) – The tradition in Latin America and Spain is that people have two last names: that of their father first, followed by that of their mother. Now that practice is being questioned in court.

For 30 years, Colombian law has demanded that the father's last name go first, but the Constitutional Court of Colombia ruled on Tuesday that this tradition violates the principles of equality. The magistrates asked the legislature to write a new law that gives parents greater freedom in deciding the order of surnames.

"It's a big step," said Juan Pablo Pantoja, a commercial law attorney who presented the case in court as a citizen, for the conviction that the current law is discriminatory.


Colombia becomes the last Latin American nation to change the old practice, which has its roots in 18th-century Spain and guarantees the transcendence of the last names of the paternal line.

In recent years, Argentina and Uruguay have changed their laws to allow greater flexibility. Spain no longer requires that a newborn be registered with the father's last name first.

In his lawsuit, Pantoja argued that the tradition is 'a custom with medieval dyes' that violates laws that guarantee equal rights for women, among others.

"The surname of the male parent cannot prevail in the Colombian system, simply by perpetuating traditions contrary to contemporary values," he wrote.

The Interior Ministry and other government institutions argued in favor of maintaining the law that it does not give privilege to one of the parents, and that changing the rule would do nothing to guarantee equality between men and women.

Civil society groups and the Ombudsman's Office said that the tradition of last names helps keep patriarchal tendencies alive. Pan toja said that although it seems innocuous, the privileged status given to men's surnames is a type of "microchauvinism" that leads many families to believe they have to have a male child to pass the family name.

"It is a sexist attitude of a legal nature," he said.

Pantoja said he realized the matter when he worked for the Colombian consulate in Argentina, where he often helped families register their newborns. Although children were born in Argentina, where families can choose the order of children's surnames, they still had to adhere to the Colombian laws that govern surnames to be registered as Colombian citizens.

"The name is important because the name is part of the identity of the person," he said.

The issue also intersects with LGBT rights, with same-sex couples who want the same right to give both children their last names. A summary of the ruling of the Constitutional Court of Colombia does not specify how it would be applicable to these families.

Lawmakers in other countries have tried unsuccessfully to challenge tradition. Lawmaker Marisa Glave introduced a proposed law in Peru in 2017 to allow parents the right to choose the order of their children's last names, but it was rejected by opposition lawmakers.

Now, Colombian lawmakers have until June 2022 to draft a new bill that fits the decision of the Constitutional Court. If they fail to pass a new law by then, registry officials should begin to allow parents to decide the order of the child's surnames. If the couples disagree, a competent authority will randomly choose which last name goes first.

The ruling was praised by Janeth Santiago, 52, who followed the traditional requirements of naming her son but likes the idea that future generations will have more flexibility.

"There will no longer be so much machismo in a relationship," he said.