Southern California Genealogical Society
SCGS RESEARCH ASSISTANCE - Articles

Mexican-American Genealogy: The Records Are Extensive
By Beverly Mateer Taylor

One of my first discoveries when I began to look into Mexican-American genealogy and the sources available to the family historian was that Hispanic records exceed those of most other ethnic groups in quality, quantity, and availability. Spain's parish records go back to the 1560s. When Spain colonized the Americas, the same meticulous recordkeeping came along.

Although many Catholic records have been destroyed in disasters natural and man-made, the tendency to keep informative records extended into the civil arena. According to George Ryskamp, in "Finding Your Hispanic Roots," the naming pattern in Hispanic families (using both father's surname and mother's surname) and the geographical stability of many people also make locating one's family easier. The geographical connection is still important, even though people tend to be considerably more mobile in the New World.

When I spoke with John Schmal, a local specialist in Mexican-American genealogy, he told me the most important thing to know when beginning research in Mexican records is where your ancestors originated in Mexico. The more specific your information, the easier the search will be. Unless you have at least the state name, a search will be nearly impossible.

Once you know a specific place, he advises starting with baptism records. In some Mexican states and Puerto Rico, the baptism records list grandparents as well as parents, and often include the birthplace of all of them. Some will have as much as half a page of details about the family. From the 1850s back to the 1750s, Mexican records tend to be more detailed, as well as more plentiful, than those in the United States. Important civil records in the U. S. and Mexico include Spanish military records; border-crossing records, which became more detailed after 1906 as well as more reliable; and naturalization records. Mr. Schmal also told me that the International Genealogical Index (IGI) is very useful, with 27 to 28 million extracts for Mexico alone. In addition, Spain kept a list of travelers to the new world between 1509 and 1599 called "Pasajeros a indies."

For Mexican-Americans who do not know where their ancestors came from in Mexico, Mr. Schmal had several suggestions. In addition to border-crossing and naturalization records, he suggests making use of the U.S. census records and alien registration records of 1940 to 1944 to learn where people were born. Information can also be obtained from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, if one has adequate information to locate a specific record. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) website also has records, along with information about how to obtain them. Now that the good news about tracing Hispanic heritage has been discussed, it becomes necessary to present the bad news. Tracing Indian heritage is much more difficult, but once the Spanish began converting the Indios, they, too, were recorded in parish records. Prior to Mexican independence in 1821, people were classified by one of 27 racial classifications; however, the usefulness of this information is considerably diluted, since it was usually based on the priests' perception. In the pre-Columbian era, only Indian royalty can be traced.

The approaches to searching for one's family information are much the same for Mexican-Americans as for anyone else-learn all you can from living relatives, ask them for any legal documents, letter, photos, etc., try to find out as much as possible where people were at various times in their lives. With some specific information in hand, successful research is a good possibility.

The next step is to find where the information you want is hiding.

I began my search for materials through the public library catalogs and the Internet. I also spoke with librarian Rik Gutierrez at the East Los Angeles Library Chicano Resource Center. Among other useful bits of information he gave me was an introduction to John Schmal's work in the field.

The following is a description of the best of my discoveries: four books with information on different aspects of researching Mexican-American heritage; an organization and its online periodical for keeping up-to-date and sharing information; libraries for reference books; and on-line resources.

A GOOD STARTING POINT for the beginner is "Finding your Hispanic Roots," by George Ryskamp (Genealogical Publishing Co., ca. 1997, 290p.). The coverage of the book extends beyond Mexico to the entire Hispanic world. It assumes the reader has an interest in, but no knowledge of, genealogical research.

After an introduction directed specifically to Hispanics, he discusses the entire research process and how to organize and evaluate information, then goes on to the specifics of Hispanic Research in an LDS Family History Center; tracing the immigrant in United States records; specialized aspects of Spanish research techniques, including language, handwriting, abbreviations, naming systems, etc.; civil and Catholic church records; census and Spanish military records; and notarial records. He concludes with a glossary, a list of Hispanic genealogical societies in the United States, and a comprehensive index.

SCGS member Nancy Ellen Carlberg has a book titled "Beginning Mexican Research" (Carlberg Press, 1999, 250 p.), which direct: the user to genealogy collections available in the United States in Family History Libraries and public libraries. It also gives research advice for the non-Spanish speaker.

John Schmal's most recent book, co-authored with Donna Morales, is "Mexican-American Genealogical Research: Following the Paper Trail to Mexico" (Heritage Books, Inc, 2002, 148p.). He discusses at some length the number of records of Colonial Mexico and the Republic of Mexico and debunks the myth of "destroyed records," which he has found pervasive in the Mexican-American community. Chapters include finding vital records, naturalization records, alien registration records, border crossing records, passengers to the Indies, Indians of Mexico, and more. The book includes 62 documents that illustrate the resources available.

A recently published book, "Hispanic Surnames and Family History;" by Lyman D. Platt, (Genealogical Pub. Co., 2001) is described as a comprehensive analytical work on Hispanic surnames, and their dispersion throughout the Americas, and it contains an extensive bibliography of Hispanic family histories.

The Society of Hispanic Historical and Ancestral Research (SHHAR-pronounced "share") is a non-profit, all-volunteer organization with the goal of helping Hispanics (Spanish-language heritage) research their family history. Its Members Online is available to everyone. SHHAR's homepage, at http://members.aol.com/shhar, lists a variety of resources, including a networking database, calendar of events, meetings and workshops.

SHHAR has published "Somos Primos" since the early 1990s. Formerly a paper quarterly, beginning in 2000 it has been published monthly online and is available free at http://www.somosprimos.com. The site is packed with useful information in an easy-to-read format relating to all aspects of Mexican-American heritage. There are state censuses, articles about individual families, book reviews, how-to information, references to websites and to reference books, etc. Each issue seems to be book length! Fortunately an annual index is available for all online issues. If you would like to be notified when the latest issues are uploaded, e-mail a request to: mimilozano@aol.com

A search of the L.A. Public Library online catalog produced a lengthy list of reference books and a few current books of advice, along with a flock of older how-to titles. Most of the county public library's resources are in the Chicano Resource Center (CRC) at the East Los Angeles Library. The Family History Library's website is most valuable for access to print resources and the IGI. Cyndislist.com and RootsWeb.com are also very helpful, as always.


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