Louisiana law allows the Hispanic surname tradition to flourish again

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) — About a decade ago, Cuban-born Fidel Casanova-Casasus met his future wife, Honduran-born Sayra Hernandez-Rapalo, at a mutual friend’s party.

The two quickly fell in love and sought out the typical American working-class lifestyle with a home, steady jobs and children: 5-year-old Milan and 7-month-old Benjamin. The Metairie family of four are close and proudly flaunt their mixed Cuban-Honduran heritage.

But a Louisiana law prevented her from passing that legacy equally to her two sons. A quick look at their birth certificates reveals that the brothers each have different last names, a reminder of an emotional decision their parents had to make.

“My oldest, Milan, has the last name Casanova-Hernandez and my youngest, Benjamin, has the last name Casanova-Casasus,” Hernandez said.

Hispanic families often practice a surname tradition that takes the father’s first surname and the mother’s first surname and combines them for their children. It is meant to symbolize a fusion of each family and provide a way of continuing family names for generations to come.

In Louisiana, this tradition was essentially wiped out after 2016 when Act 434 became law. It allowed newborns to use only the father’s full surname, the mother’s full surname, or a combination of both names. It did not allow spilling surnames on birth certificates.

Hernandez says Tulane Lakeside allowed Milan to have the correct last name, but Benjamin got stuck on his father’s last name. She says the law essentially barred her family from continuing the tradition of their culture.

“It’s something ridiculous. Because we weren’t given any options in the hospital (with Benjamin),” she said. “We’re supposed to have the father’s last name and connect it to the mother’s last name. That’s normal for us.”

Law 434 forced Hispanic families nationwide to make the decision as to what last names their children should be given or whether the newborns should only have a long last name.

“It said you couldn’t separate the parents’ last names when naming the babies. That would result in the babies having four last names when they leave the hospital,” said Celimar Ruede, associate vice president of enterprise risk management at Ochsner Health. “It was something that culturally isn’t what we name our kids.”

State Representative Joseph Marino said he received a constitutional complaint from a health-care worker concerned about how the law will affect Hispanic families when they try to name their newborns. From then on, it prompted him to take action.

“What are you going to write on an ID, application, or driver’s license with this birth certificate?” said Marino.

Marino acted quickly, working with the Louisiana Department of Health, the Office of Vital Records and Ochsner Medical Experts to create House Bill 507.

“Basically, the short version is that the parents can decide what surname the child is allowed to have,” he said. “We wanted to clarify that and give parents the choice of what they want to name their child. If they even want their name hyphenated or if they want to condense it into one name.”

The bill became law in August 2022 with bipartisan support, and provides relief for prospective Hispanic parents who wish to follow the surname tradition, or other families who wish to participate in their own customs.

“I think when the announcement came and people realized that she had changed, that was pure joy,” said Inez Jordan, associate vice president of diversity and inclusion at Ochsner Health. “Because there’s a sense of dread of having to tell a family they can’t do something, of having to be a part of that pain.”

In a statement, Kevin Litten, interim press secretary for the Louisiana Department of Health, said the new law “reflects Louisiana’s diverse population.” However, he says there is no way to know exactly how many newborns were affected in the six years following the previous law.

We do not have data on the number of people who have made use of it, as current law already allows split/combined surnames. The law change now allows for certain surname permutations that are more common among families from diverse cultural backgrounds, reflecting Louisiana’s diverse population. Now, Louisiana families have greater choices over how a child’s last name is ordered or combined. Therefore, it is impossible to determine whether existing records contain the surnames registered under the previous legislation or the new revised legislation, and we cannot distinguish what was done earlier from what was done after the effective date of August 1, 2022.

Now attorneys across Louisiana want to advocate for the children with surnames their parents didn’t originally want.

“This is your child, you know. This is your child. It should be how you want it, how it needs to be. It’s in so many different documents,” said Laura Betancourth.

Betancourth is a registered diagnostic medical sonographer in Prairieville. She says she is targeting a large Hispanic population and is open about her own surname challenges after she and her Honduran husband struggled to get their children’s surnames approved by the Office of Vital Records.

“In her culture, it basically looked like my daughter was my husband’s sister and not his daughter,” she said. “Also, my children had different last names and the same father. It’s just really weird for them to go to school and have different last names. There are many cultural implications associated with this.”

Like many others, Betancourth worries that some factors could discourage families from correcting their child’s surname.

“You have to go to court and apply for a name change, and that has a high cost,” Ruede said. “That’s something that’s really annoying.”

It’s a complicated court process that Hernandez sadly believes she doesn’t want to go through to ensure her second son’s last name matches her first.

“I just think it’s way too much money. And it’s not about whether you can afford it or not, just the fact that it’s come to this is crazy,” she said.

It’s a problem that advocates like those at Ochsner Health are aware of and want to help fix.

“I think in change there is always the next step. While I don’t know what that is, I do know that the Ochsner resource groups at Ochsner are committed to finding out,” Jordan said.

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