Hispanic Family History: Research in the Best Records in the World

Author: George Ryskamp

The records of Hispanic countries are unmatched anywhere in their quality, quantity, and availability. In most cultures, church records are the beginning point of research for the genealogist, but this is especially true of the Hispanic culture, for the parish records of Spain, Mexico, and Peru are the oldest and most complete of any in the world.

A brief survey of the Guía de la Iglesia en España (Oficina de Estadística: Madrid, 1954), which lists more than 90 percent of the parishes of Spain, offers proof of the antiquity of record keeping in the Spanish parish. The oldest known parish records are found in Solsona, Spain and date from the year 1394. At least 37 parishes have records before 1500. Nearly one-third antedate the year 1600, and nearly one-half antedate the year 1650. As early as the end of the 15th century, Cardinal Cisneros, in the first synod of Alcala, ordered that records of baptisms, marriages, and deaths be kept throughout Castile. Latin American parish records (at least of baptisms and marriages) were kept with equal faithfulness. When the Americas were colonized, Spanish record systems were immediately transferred to the New World, where the earliest records in Lima, Peru begin in the year 1537.

Hispanic parishes were not only the principal units of ecclesiastical organization, but also the main social unit for much of the rural life in Hispanic countries. Because of the intimate daily role the parish then played (and in many areas still plays), its registers usually provide the most extensive and accurate glimpse into the lives of one's ancestors. For centuries, the registers of Hispanic parishes have reflected the lives of even the poorest laborers in tiny villages throughout Spain and Latin America. Baptisms soon after birth, marriages, deaths, local occurrences, and national events are all found in these registers.

Spanish records are not only the oldest records, but they are also the best in terms of quality. While in most countries baptismal records give only the name of the child baptized and the name of one or both parents, generally after 1790 (and in many cases before), Hispanic baptismal certificates give the name of the child, both parents, and all four grandparents--and they may even state the locality where all were born. Although they generally only begin in the late 1800s, the civil registers of most Hispanic countries are even more detailed. Those of Spain have been described by Gerald Hamilton-Edwards as "the fullest in Europe or of any country in the world."

¡Sí, se puede!
For those doing Hispanic family history research, the chances for success are better in Spain and her former colonies than anywhere else in the world. Saul Vela, chairman of the 15th Annual Texas Hispanic Genealogical Association Conference in 1994, adopted the motto "Si, se puede," in doing Hispanic family history research. In Hispanic countries, most families can trace their ancestry into the 17th century; in Spain, many can find lines back to the 16th century and even earlier. In fact, I have personally traced several lines of common laborers from Spain and Mexico into the early fifteen hundreds.

The availability of Hispanic parish records is often lessened by two historical circumstances: many Latin countries have passed through a large number of wars, and the Catholic Church has frequently been the target of passionate outbursts of destruction. Fortunately, even where records have been destroyed, gaps can usually be bridged by using other records, such as civil registers, notarial records, military records, tax lists, and censuses. Nearly every family can achieve some success, even in areas where records have been heavily devastated by wars and revolutions.

Spanish surnames systems also favor successful family history research. Fortunately, surnames were regularly used in Spain for centuries before the colonial period, even before the advent of parish records; naturally, this facilitates the tracing of a family. By the end of the 19th century, Spain and most Hispanic countries had adopted a unique system wherein every person has two surnames. Both are used on all official documents, as well as in referring to oneself and being referred to by others. The first surname is the paternal. The second is the maternal surname. Therefore, if Juan Gomez Jimenez and Maria Vega Fernandez marry and have a son, Jose, he would be named Jose Gomez Vega.

Of equal importance to the Hispanic family researcher is the fact that an Hispanic woman never changes her name. Even though Maria Vega Fernandez is married, her death certificate will list her as Maria Vega Fernandez, probably adding the comment that she was the wife of Juan Gomez Jimenez. This custom eliminates the problem frequently encountered in American or British research of trying to find the mother's maiden name.

Notarial Records: Key to Enriching the Family History
Hispanic parish records are so exceptional, and the government records so complete, that many family historians tend to overlook another even richer source: notarial records. Unlike most other record sources, which are limited in scope, notary records cover the full breadth and depth of life. A mere summary of the kinds of documents that appear in notarial archives includes: wills, adoptions, emancipations, sales of rural and urban land, construction of buildings, proof of purity of blood, nobility records, transfers of titles, dowries, rescue of captives, sale of slaves, marriage contracts, sale of cloth, sale of horses, printing of books, commissioning of famous works of art, apprenticeship papers, proofs of origin for emigrants, and contracts with teachers. Significant family history is to be found in the records of the notary "because it would be difficult to find any human act in private or public life in which the pen of the notary did not intervene to give faith and testimony [to that act]."

Unfortunately, some people did not make use of the notary to provide legal validation of transactions, but for the many whose ancestors had sufficient social or financial status to use notarial services (often only having a small farm was enough), these records will provide a great amount of human interest and daily life information about ancestors. Certainly, as Gonzalez de Anezua, a noted Spanish historian, has said:

"[Looking] in a notarial register is like observing from a high hill . . . the panorama of Spanish life and [coming away with] its people, famous and humble, who, confiding in professional secrecy, laid before us their weaknesses and . . . their beautiful virtues."

The Diversity That Is Hispanic Research
A dictionary definition of the word Hispanic—such as "Of or relating to the people, speech, or culture of Spain, Portugal, or Latin America"4—cannot express the extension or diversity of the Hispanic peoples, indigenous in areas from the southwestern United States to the southern tip of South America and from Spain to the Philippines. Through a colonial experience that began a century before the earliest Anglo-American colonies were established and that lasted 50 to 100 years longer, Spanish characteristics, language, and institutions interacted—sometimes peacefully, sometimes violently—with indigenous peoples to form new nations and cultures. Wherever early Spanish colonizers traveled, they brought with them the language, culture, institutions, and record systems of their homeland. Contemporary Mexicans, Guatemalans, and other Latin Americans, although Hispanic, are not Spanish. They have combined not only culturally, but also through blood lines the languages, people, and culture of Spain with indigenous cultures, words, and peoples to form dynamic new races and cultures.

Most Hispanics will also find that their ancestry has more than just Spanish and Native American lines, and that it could include French, German, Eastern European, Italian, African, or Portuguese lines as well. The countries of Central and South America have been a melting pot of many cultures.

The statistics of immigration to Latin America show the diversity of that heritage. Before the end of the colonial period around 1820, an estimated 12 million Spaniards had emigrated, primarily to Mexico, Central, and South America. The immigration that followed in the next century, however, was considerably greater. Out of a total of 54 million people coming from Europe to the American continents between 1820 and 1920, 20 million went to Latin America, primarily to Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, and Uruguay.5 Large numbers of those came from Italy, Spain, and Portugal. However, English, Irish, French, and German surnames are also found in Central and South America. Among this diversity of heritage, both immigrant and indigenous, an individual Hispanic can effectively search for the most personal of unique heritages—one's ancestral families.

Where To Go Now
Those fortunate enough to have Hispanic ancestry can start their search for ancestors by reading Finding Your Hispanic Roots by George Ryskamp. With that foundation, there are many other books that will prove helpful. Most can be found locally in larger libraries, through interlibrary loan, or on microfiche through LDS Family History Centers.

George R. Ryskamp is an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah and an Accredited Genealogist specializing in Spanish language research and United States probate and legal systems.

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