Find Your Hispanic Roots
9/28/2009
If Latin America is in your ancestral past, you'll find it's easier than you think to track your heritage.

If Latin America is in your ancestral past, you'll find it's easier than you think to track your heritage. Here's how to get started finding your Hispanic roots.

Before you can tap the riches of parish records you need to locate ancestral birthplaces. All parish records are identified geographically, and the birthplace is your starting point. Family History Centers maintain extensive map collections; a good atlas or the map collection at your local library will also be helpful. But you shouldn't go straight to a map and start looking for the name of your ancestral hometown—many towns in Latin American countries share the same name. For example, Mexico has at least 10 towns named Santa Cruz. Make sure you get the right one!

Another complicating factor can be the changes in a country's borders. Many Hispanic families have lived in what's now the US Southwest since that territory belonged to Mexico, and before that, Spain.

Those shifting Southwestern borders might complicate your quest, but Michael Salinas, president of the Galvez Society for Hispanic Genealogy in New York, discovered that persistence can really pay off. "I first got into genealogy because I was helping my grandfather obtain a copy of his birth certificate," says Salinas. "He didn't have a copy and needed it for his pension. We didn't have any paperwork for my grandfather's side of the family and finally, we realized the reason why is because they'd been living [in the Southwest] for such an extended period of time." Salinas gave up on the search for naturalization paperwork, and eventually found the birth certificate at a small parish outside of New Orleans. Salinas has now traced his family back to 1598 through Spanish land grants, all within the current borders of the United States.

To get the right place of origin, you can use geographic dictionaries called gazetteers. They'll help you locate ancestral parish records as well. Gazetteers list localities and describe them in relation to their larger governing bodies. If you know your grandfather was born in Santo Domingo, but Santo Domingo has no parish records, a gazetteer will help you find the larger town nearby where those records may be kept. Gazetteers also provide information about local industry and population, which can further fill in the picture of your past.

Cincinnati freelance writer Dawn Ramirez says she thinks of her family as a mini-melting pot. "I have German, Dutch, English and Native American on my side. My husband has Serbian, Spanish and Irish on his. Our children have the whole world in their genes."

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