Understanding Spanish Birth Certificates

One of biggest challenges we face when researching our ancestry or anybody else’s is the language barrier. There are many online tools that help overcome these barriers – from online translation tools to common phrases which are used in such documents.

Certificate of Birth, as mentioned on a Spanish specimen.

Certificate of Birth, as mentioned on a Spanish specimen.

The purpose of today’s article is to show you an example of a Spanish birth certificate and what aspects you will certainly come across when ordering one, and what peculiarities you might also expect to encounter.

To begin with, you should know that birth (and marriage and death) certificates in Spain, collectively known as Civil Registration, started to be recorded in the year 1871*. Before that year, vital records were kept almost exclusively by the Church in local parishes. Today the latter are usually kept in centralised archives per bishopric, although sadly have been lost over the years due to the effects of time and, not least, due to anticlericalist actions and wars that have shaped Spain’s tumultuous past.

Each municipality in Spain has its own registry office (Registro Civil), and each one maintains it and controls access to its records. Whenever requesting a certificate, therefore, you will need to know in which municipality the birth took place. This can be very difficult to ascertain, particularly as some municipality borders have changed over the years and, more commonly, some municipalities share their name with the province where they are located. In fact, almost all of Spain’s 50 provinces share their name with their respective capital city. For instance, if your ancestor was born in Seville, you will have to make sure that the record you are looking indeed relates to the city of Seville, and not to any other location within the province of Seville, such as Constantina, Dos Hermanas, Écija or Utrera, to name only a few examples. Unfortunately no centralised registry for all births, marriages and deaths exists (not even an index), like in the United Kingdom.

A basic map of the province of Seville showing its capital (the city of Seville) and a fe other municipalities within the region, each with its own civil registry office.

A basic map of the province of Seville showing its capital (the city of Seville) and a fe other municipalities within the region, each with its own civil registry office.

Civil Registration records are kept in chronological order and separated in books according to births, marriages and deaths. Knowing the exact date (or a very good approximation) is essential for which you can use external sources like newspaper announcements or baptism records to work your way back in time. Also important to bear in mind is the fact that, while in some locations are so small that finding a person’s birth certificate will be easy -particularly if the surname is not common-, in larger communities it would be like finding a needle in a haystack, and very often without an exact date the registrar will not even look for the certificate you are requesting.

Ordering a birth certificate is free of charge and can be made online via the website of the Spanish Ministry of Justice (I suggest you contact me or get someone acquainted with the website to help you out with the procedure, as there are a few intermediate steps you will have to overcome). Overall you will need to supply the registrar with basic information, such as the province and the municipality where the birth took place, the person’s name and two surnames (yes, Spaniards have two surnames: that of the father and that of the mother, who incidentally does not become a Mrs X upon marriage), the parents’ first names and the date of the birth. There is an additional, non-obligatory field you can always use to your advantage (for instance, I usually state if the date is actually an approximation, so the registrar can -if they’re feeling generous- look up the birth a few months either side of the given date).

Birth certificate forms have changed considerably since they were first introduced. While some communities almost immediately started using printed forms that were later filled in by hand, many registry offices wrote each entry by hand in full. I can imagine that must have been quite a tedious job.

Front page of a Spanish birth certificate dated 1900.

Front page of a Spanish birth certificate dated 1900.

The example I have chosen for you is a printed form which dates back to the year 1900 and, like most birth certificates, will mention a series of fiels that I have listed below, with some comments:

  • The name of the village, town or city where the birth took place: “En la villa de Mancha Real”;
  • The time the birth was recorded: “a las ocho de la mañana”;
  • The date when the birth was recorded: “del día veinte y dos de febrero de mil nuevecientos”;
  • The name of the local magistrate who was head of the registry office at the time: “ante D. José Cobo Silos, Juez Municipal”;
  • The name of the local registrar: “y D. Antonio Porras Guerrero, Secretario,”;
  • The name and origin of the person who registered the birth (note this detail is very helpful, as this was commonly the father, but occasionally it was a grandparent,a  neighbour or a close relation): “compareció María Delgado Guzmán, natural de esta villa, provincia de Jaén”;
  • The age of the person who registered the birth: “de 47 años de edad”;
  • The person’s marital status: “de estado casada”
  • The profession of the person who registered the birth (note that, in the case of women, very often you will find politically incorrect expressions which are fortunately no longer in use, denoting their status as ordinary housewives): “su ejercicio el de su sexo”;
  • The address of the person who declared the birth: “domiciliado en esta población, calle de la Cruz número 56”;

propias de su sexo

  • The relationship of the person to the child (in this case, the term used is partera, or midwife): “solicitando que se inscriba en el Registro Civil, una niña, y al efecto como partera de la misma, declaró”;
  • When and where the child was born: “Que dicha niña nació en la casa de sus padres el dia veinte del actual á las nueve de la mañana”;
  • The child’s father’s name, origin, age and profession: “Que es hijo legítimo de Sebastián Moya Moreno, natural de esta villa, provincia de Jaén, de edad de veinte y siete años años, de oficio del campo”
  • The child’s mother’s name, origin, age and profession: “y de María Gómez Barrio natural de esta villa, provincia de Jaén, de edad 24 años, dedicada á las ocupaciones propias de su sexo y domiciliada en el de su marido.”
  • The paternal grandfather’s name, origin, age and profession: “Que es nieta por línea paterna de Juan Moya Morillas natural de esta villa, de 65 años de edad, de oficio del campo,”;
  • The paternal grandmother’s name, origin, age and profession (if, like in this example, the person was no longer alive, only the name and the word deceased (difunto/a) would be included, and occasionally the place of origin): “y de Florentina Moreno Morales, natural de esta villa, difunta,”
  • The maternal grandfather’s name, origin, age and profession: “y por línea materna de Ildefonso Gómez Casas natural de esta villa difunto”;
  • The maternal grandmother’s name, origin, age and profession: “y de Úrsula Barrio Casas, natural de esta villa, de 47 años, de edad, de ejercicio de su sexo”;
  • Finally, the chosen name (or names, like in this example) for the child: “Y que la expresada niña se le pondrán los nombres de Úrsula Eleuteria del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús.”
  • And a final, official note that lists the witnesses to the registration of the birth, an honour which usually and consistently befell the workers at the archive, who then went on to sign the document along with the person who had registered the birth, if he or she was literate.
Back of a Spanish birth certificate.

Back of a Spanish birth certificate.

As a last note, you may also notice that on some birth certificates there are marginal notes made by the registrar and dated when the note was made. Such notes are made only on a handful of occasions as communications between civil registry offices was not consistent, but may often include a mention of the person’s marriage, death, and even such wonderful details as the date of the person’s divorce, if he or she was legally declared incapacitated, or when their first national identity card was issued. The present example notes the person’s date of death and where the event took place., which of course will make tracing a death certificate a million times easier.

Do you still have questions about birth certificates in Spain? Having trouble finding an ancestor? Drop me a line and/or follow me on Twitter!

*There was a first attempt to initiate Civil Registration once before in the early 19th century. These records are kept by different local authorities throughout Spain, so you are probably more likely to find your ancestors’ information via church records.

This entry was posted in Andalucía, Birth, Civil Registration, Death, Genealogy, Jaén, Marriage, Spain, Women. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Understanding Spanish Birth Certificates

  1. Alan says:

    Thank you for your article, I would like some assistance with the procedures and ‘intermediate steps’ you mentioned if it is at all possible.

    • Dawsr says:

      Fire away Alan! What can I do for you?

      • Alan says:

        My spanish is a little rusty, but I tried to get a copy of my grandfather’s birth certificate as a start. I thought I got pretty far using the internet option, but it then asked me for a volume no’s, etc. Also, is there a way of getting an electronic copy instead of one in the mail?

  2. Alan says:

    I also only have my grandfather’s year of birth. I have his mother and father’s name, both surnames, and all the town of birth details. What I was also unsure of was the ID number I need to provide. I doubt an Australian drivers licence number would suffice?

  3. Kiley Schlader says:

    I need major help! The Spanish of Ministry of Justice website confuses me to know end. I am looking for a birth record for
    Carmen Gonzalez
    Born 17 Feb 1914 El Cerro de Andevalo, Huelva, Andalusia
    Father Pedro Gonzaelz
    Mother Maria de Ruel or De Villa Ruel (not quite sure)
    I would appreciate any help. Thanks!

    • Dawsr says:

      Hi Kiley,
      Following the link on my post on ordering Spanish birth certificates should lead you down the right path. However, El Cerro de Andevalo is probably a small community and its Civil Registry may not (yet) offer services for online requests, in which case a phone call may be needed. I do hope you can find your war around! Best wishes.

  4. mme3 says:

    Hi Daniel, I don’t think I have any hope of tracing my great great grandmother’s birth record. All i know is that her name was Inez Seville Fitzgerald and she was born around 1815 and her father was an English military officer and her mother’s name was Isobel Seville. Inez came to Australia and married here and i have her marriage certificate. Any hints as to where I can start? from Moira McAlister

  5. Tina Griffiths says:

    Hi my daughter and her boyfriend just collected their newborns birth certificate which was done at the police station, they had written on the form that he would have both parents names on but they have omitted to put hers saying they couldn’t, is this normal in Spain and can it be corrected

    Tina Griffiths

  6. Corinne says:

    Hello, Why does my great grandfathers birth certificate from Spain (1844) only name his mother and maternal grandparents? Could it be because they were cousins?

    • Hello Corinne. The fact that your ancestor’s birth certificate only mentions his mother and maternal grandparents strongly suggests he was illegitimate, which would explain the absence of the father and paternal grandparents’ names. In such cases you may notice the reference to words like “ilegítimo” or “hijo natural” on the certificate.

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