by Jorge Todeschini and Claudia Brandão
If you ask any Brazilian what the most common last name in Brazil is, for sure the answer will be “Silva.”
Silva, which in Latin means “forest” or “jungle,” was brought by the Portuguese during the colonization of Brazil. The name was often given to those who did not have a family name or those who were not sure which city or region they came from. Thus, Silva spread rapidly throughout Brazil. The oldest record of this surname in Brazil is that of a tailor, Pedro da Silva, from 1612.
Many slaves after the Lei Áurea (Golden Law) also adopted the surname Silva to begin their lives as freedmen.
As we will see in this article, other Portuguese surnames have also become quite popular in Brazil. Did you know that the vast majority of the Brazilian population has an Iberian surname?
Surnames in Brazil
In Brazil’s early years, the Catholic Church consistently kept birth records, and in them, the baptized child received only a given name without a surname (last name). It was only in the 19th century that civilian records (government records) became standard in Brazil and included surnames on the birth certificates.
At the time of the abolition of slavery in 1888, slaves also had no surnames.
Origin of Brazilian Surnames
Due to colonization, a large number of the families in Brazil have a surname with a Portuguese origin. Just as in some other countries, these last names came from various sources.
Patronymic and Matronymic
In older times, it was a common practice for daughters to receive their mother’s last name and men to receive their father’s last name. In rare cases, boys could receive their mother’s last name, for example, if they had no father, or girls could receive their father’s last name if their father’s family was more prominent than their mother’s.
In Portuguese, surnames such as Antunes (son of Antonio), Alves (son of Álvaro), Fernandes (son of Fernando), Gonçalves (son of Gonçalo), Nunes (son of Nuno), Pires (son of Pedro), and Rodrigues (son of Rodrigo) are patronymics, with the ending -es meaning “son of.”
A patronymic surname could also be formed using the father’s first name, as in Pedro João, meaning Pedro, son of João.
As an example of matronymic surnames, we could have Antonio Mariano (Antonio, son of Maria), or, in the case of daughters, Maria Isabel, meaning Maria, daughter of Isabel.
Some Brazilian surnames (including Portuguese surnames) refer to a place where the person was born or lived or to geographic features near where they lived.
Examples of these surnames are Almeida, Azevedo, Braga, Barros, Brazil, Bahiense, Campos, Cardoso, Correia, Castro (old castle), Costa, Fontes, Guimarães, Magalhães, Macedo, Matos, Pedreira, Queirós, Ribeiro, Rocha, Siqueira or Sequeira (dry place), Serra, Souza, Teixeira, and Valle.
Some toponymic names are of indigenous origin, such as Jatobá, Parahyba, Palmeira, Pitanga, Pitangui, and Suassuna.
In Brazil, surnames with religious significance are very common. These surnames arose mainly because of the abandonment of children in orphanages and religious institutions during the colonial period. These children were usually baptized with the name of a saint that was associated with the day on which they were found or baptized. It was also a common practice for a person converting to Catholicism to change his last name as a way of demonstrating his new faith.
In the case of baby girls, “Maria” was usually the given name that was the first choice, followed by one of the Virgin Mary’s honorific denominations, for example, Maria da Anunciação, Maria da Consolação, Maria da Graça, Maria Imaculada, Maria do Céu, and so on.
Non-Portuguese Last Names in Brazil
With the immigration of people from other countries (Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Poland, Lebanon, China, Japan, and others), the diversity of surnames in Brazil has increased.
Some foreign surnames have changed their spelling for many generations and today cannot be recognized in their home countries, such as the surname Collor (from the German name Koeller).
First Names as Last Names
Among first names used as surnames, we can note religious names such as Maria da Conceição and Maria de Jesus, where Conceição and Jesus, although used commonly as given names, were given as surnames in some cases where children did not have a family name.
Also in Brazil, descendants of famous people sometimes use the name and surname of an ancestor as a compound surname, enabling them to be easily identified as descendants of the famous ancestor. These last names include Ruy Barbosa, Vital Brasil, and Miguel Pereira.
You can also learn more about your family’s last name as you look at patterns in your family tree. Don’t have a family tree yet? Sign up for free on FamilySearch to see if your ancestors are in the shared family tree. If not, you can add them!