How do we find information on our Hispanic families?
I’m not a skilled Genealogist like Moises Garza – you might look him up at We are Cousins or Mimi Lozano out in California at Todos Somos Primos. But Gilbert Villareal asked if I would contribute some experiences as a researcher at the various archives in which I have researched over the years. My interest was purely historical, not genealogical, but here are some tidbits.
While I was researching on the De León family (No, I’m not directly related, but then again, in South Texas, Todos Somos Primos, we’re all cousins) for my book, De León: A Tejano Family History, (see it in my Shop De Leon ), I visited a number of fascinating archives. Some were better than others. But here are some stories.
For Genealogists, the best records are the Church records. The Mormons (Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints), blessings on them, have spent years collecting copies of church records for births, marriages and deaths. They are, today, easily accessible at https://www.mormon.org/values/family-history or https://familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/LDS_Church_Records or the Genealogy services (paid) at Family Search or Ancestry.com.
When I began my research, these services were not available. Back several years ago, I was in Zacatecas at the beautiful cathedral there, sitting in the pews waiting for the service to be over so I could ask permission to use the archives from the priest. Obviously a blonde-haired Gringa, I didn’t really fit in with the hundreds of dark-haired Zacatecans in the audience.
A very pleasant lady came up and asked if I could read. I assumed she meant could I read Spanish so I nodded and said ‘yes.’ Halfway through the service, she slipped up the aisle and whispered to me, “It’s your turn.” Heart in my throat, for the next terrifying ten minutes, I stood in front of a congregation of hundreds and read what she handed me. I didn’t realize it was a responsive reading until the thunderous sounds came swelling back at me after the first sentence. So, be careful what you say “yes” to!
The archives, when I finally reached them, were a small series of stone cells behind the church. Run by three nuns, they were not set up for researchers. There was, however, an ancient wood table and square wooden chairs with leather seats that looked like they went back to the Spanish. They brought me the massive books and set them out.
The first one I opened was in tatters, literally. The acid from the ink used by the ancient scribe had cut the paper into strips everywhere he had drawn a line across the page. And for the census records, he had drawn a line under each family. I nearly cried. Putting those pages back together would be like pasting together documents from a shredder. Impossible. So sad!
Other records were, thank goodness, in better shape. The Catholic Church, and blessings on them, too, keeps meticulous records of the families in each diocese. Still it takes hours of running your finger down lists of names, usually divided up by where they lived in the town or out on the ranches.
Once you find the names (usually, the scribes have excellent handwriting, but not always, you do get used to reading their writing after a while), they provide all sorts of fascinating information on the parents, and especially the godparents. Those will usually give family connections and the position of the family in the community.
Since I can’t fit all the funny and frustrating stories in here, there is material for many more blogs in the future. Look for them!