Louisiana law allows Hispanic surname tradition to thrive again

Louisiana Surname Law Change
Louisiana Surname Law Change(WVUE)
Published: Nov. 18, 2022 at 10:03 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - About a decade ago, Cuban-born Fidel Casanova-Casasus met what would eventually be his 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, stable jobs and children: 5-year-old Milan and 7-month-old Benjamin. The Metairie family of four is close, proudly flaunting their blended Cuban-Honduran heritage.

But a Louisiana law kept them from passing down that heritage equally to both of their sons. A quick look at their birth certificates show the brothers each have different last names, a reminder of an emotional choice their parents had to make.

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

Hispanic families often practice a surname tradition that would take the father’s first surname and the mother’s first surname and combine them for their children. It’s meant to symbolize a blending of each family and a way to continue family names for generations to come.

In Louisiana, that tradition was essentially erased after 2016 when Act 434 became law. It only allowed newborns to have the full last name of the father, the full last name of the mother or a combination of both names. It did not allow surnames to be spilt for birth certificates.

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

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

Act 434 forced Hispanic families statewide to make the decision of which surnames should be given to their children or if the newborns should just have a lengthy last name.

“It said that you could not separate the surnames of the parents when they named the babies. So that would make the babies have four last names when they left the hospital,” Celimar Ruede, Assistant Vice President of Enterprise Risk Management for Ochsner Health, said. “That was something that culturally is not the way we name our children.”

State Representative Joseph Marino said he received a constituent complaint from a healthcare worker who was concerned about how the law was affecting Hispanic families when they try and name their newborns. From there, it led him to take action.

“Using that birth certificate record, what are you going to put on an ID, or an application or a driver’s license?” Marino said.

Marino acted fast and worked with the Louisiana Department of Health, the Office of Vital Records and Ochsner Medical Experts to craft House Bill 507.

“Basically, the short version is, the parents can decide what last name that child can have,” he said. “We wanted to clear that up and give the parents the options as well as to how they want to name their child. If they even want to have their hyphenated name or if they want to condense it into one name.”

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

“I think when the announcement came and people realized that it changed, it was pure joy,” Inez Jordan, Assistant Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion for Ochsner Health, said. “Because there is a sense of dread of having to tell a family that they can’t do something, to have to be a part of that pain.”

In a statement, Kevin Litten, the interim press secretary for the Louisiana Department of Health, said the new law “mirrors Louisiana’s diverse population.” However, he says there isn’t a way to know just how many newborns were affected by the six years under the previous law.

We do not have data on the number of individuals that have taken advantage of this since the law in effect already allowed for hyphenated/combination surnames. The legislative change now allows for certain permutations of surnames which are more common among families from a range of cultural backgrounds, which mirrors Louisiana’s diverse population. Now, Louisiana families have greater options for how a child’s surname is ordered or combined. As such it’s impossible to identify whether existing records contain the surnames registered under the prior legislation or the new revised legislation and we are unable to differentiate between what was previously done, versus what was done subsequent to the August 1, 2022, effective date.

Now, advocates across Louisiana want to speak up for the children with surnames their parents didn’t initially want.

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

Betancourth is a registered diagnostic medical sonographer in Prairieville. She says she caters to a large Hispanic population and is open about her own surname challenges after she and her Honduran husband had difficulty getting her children’s last names approved by the Office of Vital Records.

“In their 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 dad. It’s just really weird for them to go to school and having different last names. There are a lot of cultural implications that come with that.”

Betancourth, like many others, worries a few factors could deter families from making the corrections to their child’s surname.

“You have to go to the court and get a request to change the name and it’s at a high cost,” Ruede said. “That’s something that is really upsetting.”

It’s an involved legal process that Hernandez sadly thinks she doesn’t want to go through to make sure her second son’s last name is the same as 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 an issue that advocates like those at Ochsner Health are aware of and want to help fix.

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

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