By: Christina E. Rodriguez
Melanie Maldonado, a doctoral student at Northwestern University, found herself digging up her ancestral lines to fulfill her great-grandmother’s dying wish of finding her long lost brother. She interviewed family members, like aunts and uncles, to ask them about their memories in Puerto Rico and sifted through documents she had collected.
“[My great-grandmother] met her brother once and all her life she kept looking for him,” she said. Finally, Maldonado found him.
She didn’t stop there, though. Maldonado continued to interview her family members and ask about others that they remembered. She ended up tracing her family back to Northern Spain during the late 1700s.
The trek to finding family blood lines might seem out of this world to some, but many Latinos want to dig and find out where it is they really come from, why they look the way they do and if by chance they have a certain blood line they always claimed to have, like the uncle that says, “We’re tall because we have German blood!” This just leads to the real question: Where do your raíces actually lie?
Dr. Carolyn Ybarra, Ph.D., a California-based genealogist specializing in Latino ancestral lines, said that interviewing older family members is exactly where someone would want to start, for either branching out in a family tree or searching for genealogical roots. “This gives you the basic information on names and places where you need to locate records,” she said. Ybarra holds a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Stanford University and teaches genealogy.
Carlos N. Olvera, professional genealogist and president of the Dana Point Historical Society in Dana Point, Calif., says that in order to uncover useful information you should start by tracing your family tree back three generations. However, he warns that researching public records from the last 70 years may be challenging because personal information is not available past 1930 due to privacy laws and regulations.
In order to find your family members in a genealogical search, it is important to know as many specific details as possible. For example, Maldonado said that while looking for her own family ties, as well as those of other friends, she asked about births, deaths, marriages, ethnic strains, jobs and military history. When it comes to searching for family members, names, dates, gender and location are most important. Although dates and location may be approximate, all those categories help when doing an Internet search.
“The key is to obtain enough information on the person so that you can be sure you are locating the correct person in the records,” said Ybarra. “It’s important not to assume you have the right person just because the name matches.”
A lot of times, baptismal certificates, especially for Catholic Latinos, are more reliable than birth certificates. For practical reasons, families found it easier to baptize a child at their local church than to get them to the city hall and register their births. Additionally, baptismal certificates are typically more readily available.
According to Olvera, the documentation also serves as clues for your next step. “What is unique to Catholic Church records, like for a baptism or marriage, is that the individual is named, as well as the parents and grandparents,” he said. “As you go back each subsequent generation, you always have two names to compare and to ensure you haven’t started tracing a wrong family. Also, in these records, if an individual is from outside the parish area, it is usually annotated where they are from, which is a very good clue for where to look next.”
At times, the path to find a Latino surname may look formidable particularly when that surname is common. But there are still ways to overcome this challenge especially if you find out what your historical blood lines are. When European explorers came to the New World, said Olvera, they intermarried citizens of the new land and the same thing happened with the settlers that followed. Furthermore, on their way to the continent many Europeans stopped at the Caribbean islands, where they first spread their name around.
“In Mexico,” says Olvera, ”the people were always recognized in a caste system, showing their blood line. So [for Spaniards, the Native population and people of African descent], there was a specific word for each percentage of blood mix. This continued until the late 1800s when Mexico separated itself from the Church.” Terms like castizo, criollo, mestizo were all bloodline classifications.
When searching, keep in mind that the people who wrote names down, i.e. census takers, might have done it phonetically. Instead of Olbera, they may have written Olvera or instead of Rodriguez, they may have spelled it as Rodriques. So, the farther back the search goes, the more spelling differences there may be.
With time and effort, it is possible to trace back several generations. To ease the strain of keeping all your collected material organized, it might be easier to pick a starting point or an end point. Above all else, when drawing out your family tree, especially in fairly large families, this same little trick can prevent the headache of keeping your ancestors in order.