Spanish Names, American Cities

Spanish Names, American Cities

If you drive through California you will quickly notice places with Spanish sounding names such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Sacramento and many many more. A first-time visitor would be forgiven for thinking California is an officially Spanish speaking state. However, such as in many areas throughout the United States, California has numerous places with Spanish language names, but that are actually not primarily inhabited by Spanish speakers.

California’s official name, California, even has a Spanish origin, and it was named after a fictional island in a 16th century Spanish novel. California is one of five states with Spanish language translations. The other five states are, Montana; Nevada, meaning “snow-covered”, for the Sierra Nevada (which translates to snow-covered Mountains in English); Arizona and Colorado, meaning “reddish”, named for the appearance of the Colorado River. Additionally, the Spanish speaking territory of Puerto Rico comes from the Spanish language translation of “rich port”.

Many cities, towns, counties, and neighborhoods also have Spanish names. El Paso, Texas, translates to “the passage”. It is named such because the city lies in a passage between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra de Juarez. Fresno, California, means “ash tree” in English and is named after the plentiful ash trees in that city.  Las Cruces, New Mexico, comes from the Spanish word for “crosses”.

Many famous natural sites also have Spanish names. For example, the Sacramento Mountains in New Mexico are named for the Catholic “sacrament”. El Capitan translating to “the captain” is the name of a peak in Texas and a rock formation in California. The famous island prison Alcatraz translates in Spanish to “pelican” because the island was once solely inhabited by pelicans.

Why do so many places in the United States have Spanish language names? As we will discuss in this article, Spanish place names came to be under a variety of circumstances:

  • Spanish Place Names with Spanish Colonial History
  • Spanish Place Names with a Post-Colonial Spanish History
  • Spanish Sounding Place Names Falsely Attributed to the Spanish Language

Spanish Place Names with Spanish Colonial History

 Spanish conquistadors first settled areas that are now the United States, along with much of South and Central America, in the 1500s. Most areas with Spanish names received them from Spanish speaking settlers who colonized the areas hundreds of years ago. You can still see these settlements today in towns such as St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest continually settled town in the United States; Ysleta, Texas, the oldest European settlement in Texas; or Santa Fe, New Mexico, which translates to “holy faith”.

Many areas of the modern day United States were owned by Spain before being transferred or annexed by the United States. The state of Florida was sold to the USA by Spain in 1819. You can still see the Spanish colonial history in cities with Spanish names such as Boca Raton, meaning Thieves Village, Cape Canaveral, translating to Cape of Canes, and Miramar meaning Sea View.

Texas was also once colonized by Spain and became part of Mexico in the Mexican War of Independence. Shortly after, Texas fought their own war to become an independent country, the República de Texas (Texas Republic) and later joined the United States.

We can still see the colonial history in names of cities such as San Antonio, named for the feast of St Anthony of Padua (San Antonio in Spanish) which fell on the day settlers camped near the San Antonio River, and later gave its name to the city. Another feast was responsible for the naming of the town Corpus Christi. The town Amarillo gets its name, meaning “yellow”, from the yellow wildflowers and yellow soil in the area.

In the Mexican-American war, a large part of the Mexican territory was annexed by the United States. This included parts of modern day Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, California, Nevada, and Utah. As we mentioned earlier, some of these states have names with Spanish origins. They are also home to many cities and towns with Spanish names. Los Alamos, New Mexico is named for the poplar trees that grow in the area. La Paz County, Arizona, meaning “the peace” and La Plata County in Colorado meaning “silver”, to mention just a few.

Spanish Place Names with a Post-Colonial Spanish History

Many cities, landmarks and other places have been named in post-colonial times due to the influx and influence of Spanish speaking immigrants. Lake Buena Vista, Florida was named in 1969 after a place in California. A neighborhood in Queens, New York is called Corona, meaning it is the “crown” of Queens County. Cesar Chavez Park in Berkeley, California is named after Hispanic-American activist Cesar Chavez. The community of Estrella, Arizona meaning “star”, and it’s neighboring community Montecito, meaning “little mountain” show the continued influence of the Spanish language on developments throughout the United States.

 Spanish Sounding Place Names Falsely Attributed to the Spanish Language

Some place names simply sound Spanish, but have no Spanish origin. Eldorado, Illinois, for example would translate to “The Golden” but the town name actually came from two English surnames Elder and Read being put together to form “Elder-Reado” and eventually “Eldorado”.

Some cities were given Spanish language names simply because the inhabitants wanted to translate the words into Spanish. Using direct translation Sierra Vista, Arizona means “mountain view”, but this is not proper form in Spanish. A better translation, if done by a professional, would be Miramonte or Mirasierra. The Texan town San Angelo was named after the town founder’s wife, Caroline Angela and originally called Santa Angela then later San Angela, an ungrammatical construction in the Spanish language. The town name eventually changed to the grammatically correct, but masculine, San Angelo.

As you can see, even official names can have errors in translation. This only emphasizes the need to leave translation projects up to the Spanish language experts. Professional translation services such as Spanish with Style guarantee the accuracy of translations, avoiding possible embarrassment or confusion due to miss-translated messages. Without a professional Spanish language translator it can be incredibly easy to make a mistake, particularly by attempting to translate a phrase directly, ignoring the nuanced differences between the languages and arriving at a result that does not make sense to a native speaker.