Colombia court upends old Latin America naming tradition

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Tradition has long had it that children born to families in Latin America receive two last names: That of their father, followed by that of their mother.

Now that practice is being challenged in court.

Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled Tuesday that the tradition violates principles of equality, overturning a law in place since 1989 and ordering congress to draft new legislation that gives parents greater freedom in deciding the order of their child’s last names.

“It’s a huge step,” said Juan Pablo Pantoja, a commercial law attorney who filed the court case on his own as a citizen in belief the current law was discriminatory.

Colombia becomes the latest Latin American nation to upend the age-old practice, which has its roots in 18th century Spain and ensures the transcendence of patrilineal surnames.

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

In his complaint, Pantoja argued that the tradition is “a custom with medieval overtones” that violates laws guaranteeing women equal rights, among others.

“The male surname cannot be privileged simply to perpetuate traditions that run counter to modern values,” he wrote.

Government institutions including the Ministry of Interior argued in favor of upholding the law, contending that it does not privilege one parent over the other, and that changing the norm would not do anything to ensure equality between men and women.

Civil society groups and the Ombudsman’s Office of Colombia claimed otherwise, saying the naming tradition contributes to keeping patriarchal tendencies alive. Pantoja said that while seemingly harmless, the privileged status given to male last names is a sort of “micro-chauvinism” leading many families to believe they need a son in order to pass down the family surname.

“It’s a chauvinistic attitude of legal character,” he said.

Pantoja said he became aware of the issue while working for the Colombian consulate in Argentina, where he often helped families register their newborns. Even though the children were born in Argentina, where families could choose the order of their infant’s last names, they still had to follow Colombian naming traditions written into law to register as Colombian citizens.

“A name is important because it becomes part of your identity,” he said.

The issue also intersects with LGBT rights, with same-sex couples wanting to enjoy the same privilege to pass down both family names to their children. A summary of the Colombian Constitutional Court’s decision did not specify how it might apply to those families.

Lawmakers in other nations have tried to challenge the tradition without success. Lawmaker Marisa Glave introduced legislation in Peru in 2017 allowing parents the right to choose the order of their child’s last names only to see it quashed by opposition lawmakers.

Colombian lawmakers are being given until June 2022 to draft new legislation in line with the Constitutional Court’s decision. If they are unable to pass a new law by that time, registrars should begin letting parents decide the order of their child’s last name. If couples aren’t able to agree, a “competent authority” will randomly choose which parent surname goes first.

The decision was welcome news for Janeth Santiago, 52, who followed traditional requirements in naming her child but likes the thought of future generations being given more flexibility.

“There won’t be as much chauvinism in relationships,” she said.