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Know Your Roots

Submitted by on June 2, 2011 – 1:00 am13 Comments

My grandmother, left, with my grandfather, and her sister. Banes, Cuba.

A version of this essay was originally published April 2, 2010

Researching Family Ancestry

A second cousin has been researching the ancestry of my maternal grandfather — good looking guy pictured above — for more than two decades. That’s before the internet, gente. He wrote letters to military, government and church offices in Spain and the Philippines. He got photocopies back of very old records.

Several years ago, he showed me the thick binder where he keeps meticulous records on our family, marking each of this generation’s marriages, births and deaths, along with the stories of those who came before us. He has letters and records as old as 125 years.

If my family tree had to be described, it would be a banyan tree — tall, strong and twisted around with roots going in every which way. Thanks to the colorful storytellers and tireless researchers on my mom’s side, I know a lot about the relatives who came before me.

Rare is the week that my Tia Mirtha, who comments on the Tiki Tiki a lot, doesn’t send some new picture she has unearthed, or a new document she found in an archive. The latest document: A letter that same great-grandfather Raul wrote to Fulgencio Batista. She found it in the Cuban Heritage Collection of the University of Miami.

So, I asked Tia to help me write a “How to Research Your Latino Family Tree.”

Her tips:

  • They need to talk to their grandparents, parents and gather as much information as possible.
  • If they have old family pictures, ask for the name of the people in the picture, now that they
  • that their minds are clear and they can give you valuable information.
  • In searching family roots you need to go backwards in your search, meaning: Father/Mother; Grandparents; Great-grandparents; Great-Great-grandparents.
  • Then, you start looking for historical records such as birth certificates, baptism certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates, social security records. and more.
  • There are a lot of websites for uncovering ancestors such as the Cuban Genealogy Center, the Anillo de Genealogia Hispana, the USGenWeb Project and The Center for Family History and Genealogy.
  • You can buy a “Family Tree” program and start entering all the information you have and up-date as you gather more data. (My aunt uses MyHeritage.com and we get regular notices about birthdays and anniversaries in the family.)

More Hispanic Ancestry Research Resources

If my family is any example of the notoriously good record-keeping by the Spanish, researching Latino and Hispanic roots can be pretty fruitful, compared to those with roots in other parts of the world. The Spanish — and the Mexicans and other Latin Americans — liked their records thorough. And, unless there has been fire or destruction, those records likely are available and waiting for you to dust them off and find your ancestry.

  • Experts say data going back to at least 1500 is available. My family has found records through both governmental and church sources — everything from deeds to ship logs to birth records. Church records — especially the Catholic Church — can provide information on baptisms, marriage, death and more.
  • If your family is of Spanish and Latin America ancestry, look for national identity records, which were required for citizens to carry. And, of course, don’t forget that Latinos have roots belonging to native people, plus countries like the Philippines, Ireland, England, France, Germany, Portugal, China and dozens of other lands.
  • The Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or Mormon Church, is an excellent starting place. The library has more than 3 million records from 11o countries, according a page on About.com. It also has several branches across the United States and the church has a free ancestry search site called Family Search, with a page specific to Hispanic research.
  • The book, Finding Your Hispanic Roots by George R. Ryskamp, a Brigham Young University professor, is often cited. Here’s a link to a great talk he gave in Texas. He has written several other books, including Finding Your Mexican Ancestors.
  • A great place for background reading, tips and links is the genealogy page at About.com.
  • MyHeritage.com, where you can create an online family tree, get matched with others who add the same ancestor and participate in forums.
  • Ancestry.com offers a variety of services, including beginner guides and searches for census, military, birth and immigration records.
  • Association of Hispanic Genealogy, Hispagen, a Spain-based site for family search.
  • University of Miami Cuban Heritage Collection.
  • Cuban Genealogy Center
  • Hispanic Genealogical Research Center of New Mexico, with links to other sources.
  • The San Antonio Public Library has a Hispanic Genealogical Research Guide with tips and links for getting started.
  • A thorough post with links to resources at Genealogy and Family History.
  • U.S. Census Bureau offers records.

Y tu?

Where are your roots? Have you researched your ancestry? Do you want to?

Share, por favor!


  • Alexandra says:

    This is so wonderfully useful.

    When you are first generation, tracing ancestory is so difficult.

    All records are in another country, and they are usually hand written, and kept in a church.

    It has caused me much sadness to not know more about my family.

    My family left at the start of the civil war in Colombia, in 1959, and were only allowed two suitcases.

    Two suitcases: to contain all you’d need in a new country.

    Incredible thought, isn’t it?
    Alexandra´s last [fabulousness] ..Sunday Best – Love in the Chaos

  • Love this article. Having parents who both were not in touch with one side of the fanily due to one parent dying young..I at first found it hard. And I’m not sure if it is like this in all Latino America, but in El Salvador and Mexico, birth certificated are a fountain of information, they go back two generation, listing grandparents of the newly born and the area they came from, Wealth I tell you, Wealth!

  • Jasmin Kelly says:

    I think I would do well with my mother’s side however, my dad died and I don’t know anyone in his family. I definitely want to trace back my roots. Thanks for the education on this.

  • Mercy Arrate says:

    I’ve been doing genealogical research this year. If you are Cuban, it gets a little frustrating that there is no access to Cuban records. One of my grandmothers was born in Spain, (raised in Cuba) so I was able to trace her family back to the 1700′s, and the other was a Key West Cuban that went back to Cuba as a teenager. It turns out that both my paternal grandmother, and HER mother were both born in Key West. Que cool is that? The trail dies because my great-great grandmother, who emigrated to Key West as a girl was born in Cuba, so I can’t access her records.

    My parents’ Cuban birth certificates list their parents, and where they are from, and both sets of grandparents, and where they are from, so every time you get your hands on one of these birth certificates, you get info going back an extra two generations. I don’t want my grandchildren to wonder who their people were. It’s kind of ironic that it’s me, a 1st generation US born Cuban that is interested in the family story.

    Also – through Ancestry.com, I was connected to a Tampa Cuban with whom I share a great great grandmother (their branch did not return to Cuba, but stayed in Key West/Tampa). Through him, I was provided with pictures of my great grandfather, as well as of my great great grandmother. This was such a monumental event for me. My family’s stuff, if it even still exists, never left Cuba – so imajinate.

    Thanks for listening (reading).


  • Carrie says:

    Mercy, wow. What a history! You are total Americana! LOL

    If you know anyone traveling to Cuba, maybe they can get records for you? Or find someone via a Cuban blog?

    I looked for records at a cemetery in Havana and they told me they had books in a back room going back decades! Amazing.


  • Yoly says:

    I have been looking since my daughter was born, and she’ll be 11 in 2 days. What is heartbreaking is that I might never know my Paternal grandmother’s roots. While I don’t know if she was a slave, I can imagine her family was, because she/they were black. Both my Paternal Grandfather were from Spain as well as my Maternal Grandmother. All I have is my father’s birth certificate from 1932. It’s been very frustrating. I end up hitting a dead end for BOTH sides of my family.

  • [...] Tiki Tiki lists some ways to research your Hispanic and Latino ancestry. [...]

  • [...] You can find a post we did with a bunch of links to finding your Hispanic and Latin Ancestry here. [...]

  • [...] I know a lot about my Hispanic roots, thanks to relatives who have done research, I so loved learning more about these Hispanic families whose ancestors were here on this soil a [...]

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