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Tracking Hispanic Family History

Author: George Ryskamp

Editor's Note: The following has been excerpted from The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, edited by Loretto D. Szucs and Sandra H. Luebking, Chapter 16, "Tracking Hispanic Family History," by George Ryskamp.

Hispanic immigration to the United States has been much more extensive than is generally recognized. Spaniards settled the Caribbean islands and Mexico more than a century before the English settled Jamestown in 1607. The earliest Hispanic settlers within the area of the United States were those who settled Saint Augustine, Florida, on the eastern end of the continent in 1565 and New Mexico, on the western end, in 1598. The Spanish colonial period represents only the beginning.

Immigration continues to this day as hundreds of thousands of Mexicans, Central Americans, and South Americans, as well as Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and others from the Caribbean islands continue to come to the United States. Many of them could ultimately trace their roots through those American countries to Spain. Others would find that their roots beyond those countries are not Spanish but Native American, French, German, Eastern European, Italian, African, and Portuguese. For just as the United States has been a melting pot, so have been the countries of Central and South America.

Before the end of the colonial period (around 1820), an estimated 12 million Spaniards emigrated, primarily to Mexico and Central and South America. The immigration that followed in the next century, however, was considerably greater. Of a total of 54 million people who emigrated from Europe to the American continents between 1820 and 1920, 20 million went to Latin America-primarily to Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, and Uruguay. Large numbers of them came from Italy, Spain, and Portugal. The flow of immigration did not stop with the Great Depression. From 1946 to 1957, 1.75 million immigrants traveled to Latin America, primarily from Italy and Spain. Spanish immigration was not, of course, entirely to Latin America. Many Spanish, among them large numbers of Galicians, Basques, and Andalucians, went directly to the United States. Still others never reached the Americas and found themselves settling in Australia.

These immigration patterns are particularly interesting because immigration from South America to the United States continues to this day. From 1820 to 1906, approximately 20,000 legal immigrants arrived from South America, and from 1907 to 1926, 77,000 more arrived. It is estimated that from 1951 to 1975, 421,000 South Americans went to the United States. These numbers do not include the extensive immigration from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Central America. Mexico alone is estimated to have contributed, between 1900 and 1930, 2 to 3 million immigrants, half of whom entered the United States without documents. In the 1980s, Cubans, Salvadorans, and others fleeing from political oppression and civil war streamed across the border with the larger flow of others who came for economic reasons.

Often, a search for Hispanic ancestry leads ultimately to Spain, but it is equally likely that one, two, or more generations settled in the countries of Central America, South America, or the Caribbean. Some authorities include Portuguese within the Hispanic population. There have been extensive migrations from Portugal to Brazil and the Azores as well as to the United States.

Unless his or her Hispanic immigrant ancestors came within living memory, the greatest challenge to the family historian often is identifying the place of origin in the mother country. Fortunately, there are many good records available to Hispanics that can reveal such a place. Nothing is more exciting than a discovery that ancestry leads to Mexico or bridges the ocean back to Spain. Whether the mother country is Argentina, Cuba, Mexico, Spain, or another Latin American or European country, the types of records to be searched and the process of searching those records remain basically the same.

George R. Ryskamp, J.D., AG is associate professor of history at Brigham Young University, member of the Academia Americana de Genealogía, author of numerous books and articles, and international lecturer.

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