Though some Mexicanos are new to the United States, the history of Mexicans in America predates even the Mayflower. Especially in the Southwest, some Mexican-Americans can trace their ancestry back to Spanish colonial days, when Santa Fe was founded in 1610.
As the largest segment of the United States’ fastest-growing ethnic group, Mexican-Americans of recent and ancient lineage are increasingly taking pride in their heritage. When it comes to tracing your Mexican roots, though, you might be intimidated by the language barrier or boundless bureaucracy.
But professional genealogist Jonathan Walker, who specializes in research south of the border, says Mexico is actually one of the best places to do genealogy. The Spanish colonial government and the Catholic Church were adamant about record-keeping, to the extent that the abundance of records can be overwhelming. For other ancestries, one roll of microfilm at the Family History Library (FHL)
in Salt Lake City might cover several years. But with Mexican records, Walker says, one roll might hold only six months’ worth of records.
Through your local Family History Center, you can dive into a wealth of microfilmed Mexican resources—most notably church and civil registration records. You might even find it’s easier to research your Mexican roots from the United States than it is to research in Mexico. Despite Mexico’s proximity, research trips there can prove fruitless and frustrating, and writing to repositories in Mexico seldom pays off, Walker says.
So arm yourself with microfilm, and be prepared to do some squinting and cranking. With our comprehensive guide to tracking down your Mexican ancestors, finding your familia will be a lot easier than you expected.
Before you can dive into records, of course, you need to know what names to look for. If you’re not familiar with the multiple parts of Mexican names, they might seem like a jumble of suffixes and prepositions. But some of these naming practices make life easier for genealogists. Surnames tend to follow Spanish patterns, typically deriving from a parent’s name (adding -az, -ez, -iz, -oz or -uz—such as Martínez, son of Martín), an occupation (Herrera, a word for blacksmith), a description or nickname (Calvo, meaning bald), or from a place (de Córdova or del Río).
Also as in Spain, people might use compound names, combining paternal and maternal surnames. These often are indicated by y (and), a dash or a preposition (de, del, de la). When searching for surnames that include a preposition, be sure to check under both alphabetizing possibilities: Vega, de la as well as de la Vega.
Historically, wives kept their maiden names and simply tacked their husbands’ surnames on the end. So Rosa Hernandez became Rosa Hernandez de Martínez when she married Raul Martínez. A widow would be noted by adding viuda or the abbreviation vda, such as “Rosa Hernandez viuda de Martínez.” Into the 20th century, Mexican women were typically recorded under their maiden name when they came to the United States.
Given names can similarly pile up. At baptism, a child might receive one or two extra names, such as the name of the saint associated with the baptismal day—that child might never in his or her life be called by the baptismal name (nombre de pila). In church records, you might also find the parish priest added a superfluous José or María to the child’s name.
You’ve probably already noticed the proliferation of diacriticals in Mexican names. Accent marks don’t affect alphabetical order in Spanish, but the language does have three letters English doesn’t: ch
(both treated as single characters) and ñ
. The Spanish Genealogical Word List
can help you get started in Spanish.
Parish records piñata
Once you’ve grasped your ancestors’ nombres, you can begin your journey into Mexican records. Until 1859, Roman Catholicism was Mexico’s only recognized religion, and it continues to dominate today. Before the advent of civil registration—government vital records—in 1859, the church was also the only authority recording life’s major events. Even for ancestral events after 1859, be sure to check church records as well as civil registrations.
Parish registers—known as registros parroquiales—include baptisms (bautismos), marriages (matrimonios), deaths (defunciones) and burials (entierros). The FHL has microfilmed most pre-1930 Mexican church records, which often include two or three generations of the familia.
To start searching church records, you need to know your family’s town and parish. Larger cities encompass multiple parishes, and sometimes records show up in adjoining parishes. You might even find your ancestors in the civil registration records of one town and in the church records of another. Be aware that administrative boundaries shifted frequently in Mexico—see an animated map of the evolution of its territory at <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/mexico>.
You can find clues to your ancestors’ parish in old family letters and papers. US records such as naturalization documents and border-crossing records—available on FHL microfilm, Ancestry.com
($155.40 per year) and Footnote
($79.95 per year)—can help you determine your ancestral city or town. They also might contain the name and address of the nearest relative back in Mexico.
Having an idea of where your ancestor came from and a range of dates will help you search in FamilySearch’s Record Search
. The collection includes baptisms, marriages and burials transcribed from Mexican parish records covering 1659 to 1905. Baptism records include name, birth date and place, plus both parents’ names. Marriage records have the groom’s name, age and parents, and the same information for the bride, as well as the marriage location and the couple’s residence. Burial records provide the name of the deceased, death date and place, and often information on spouse, parents and children of the deceased.
But don’t stop there: Check the FHL’s microfilmed church records to verify the extracted information and look for more genealogical gold. (If you don’t find an ancestor online, don’t give up on finding answers in parish records, either; you may just have to do some scrolling. Identify the microfilm you need by doing a Place search in the FHL catalog
The record entries on FamilySearch’s Record Search contain an FHL microfilm number as well as a batch number. The film number lets you order the correct roll through your local Family History Center. Use that batch number to find other family members and to navigate the huge pile of parish records. Knowing the batch numbers for your ancestor’s town in Mexico can take you to the right records even before you’ve found any individual ancestors. Find batch numbers using Family-Search’s Vital Records Index for Mexico and International Genealogical Index (IGI) too. It’s worth checking all three, as each one gives you different results.
Besides double-checking original documents, seek out the premarital documents called información matrimonial (marriage information). These documents may go on for three or four microfilmed pages, including statements from the couple’s witnesses. If the bride and groom were related, you may find evidence for a dispensation (special permission), such as genealogical charts and data going back several generations.
Other church records worth seeking: confirmation registers (confirmaciones), ecclesiastical censuses, wills and testaments, and records of the Inquisition. Trial proceedings of the Inquisition can contain detailed genealogical information the accused provided to prove their pure Hispanic-Catholic origins. Try an FHL catalog keyword or place search to identify available microfilms.
The other genealogical goldmine for Mexican researchers is civil registrations of births, marriages and deaths. President Benito Juárez established the Civil Registration Office (Registro Civil) July 28, 1859, as part of his sweeping governmental reforms. Because Mexicans were accustomed to parish records, however, compliance was slow, and civil registration wasn’t widely enforced until the restoration of the Mexican Republic in 1867.
The FHL has microfilmed civil registration records from thousands of local offices (municipios
) across Mexico. Each municipio
could encompass several towns; you may need to consult a gazetteer to find your ancestor’s municipio
, then search the FHL catalog by place. Walker suggests using the 2000 Mexican census like a gazetteer, since the downloadable file (in Spanish at <www.inegi.gob.mx/est/contenidos/espanol/sistemas/conteo2005/localidad/iter
>) indexes which towns are within each municipio
The FHL’s coverage of civil registration records has a few gaps: The states of Baja California, Nayarit, Quintana Roo, Sinaloa and Tabasco haven’t been filmed; some Morelos records are missing; Campeche records were mostly destroyed; and most Tabasco records were burned. You may need to seek your Quintana Roo ancestors in the microfilm for Yucatán. Note, too, that the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca archived their records at the district level rather than the municipio level; the FHL’s research outline for Mexico has details on locating these records.
As with parish records, the information recorded in civil registrations can be quite extensive. In addition to the basics about the date, place, child and parents, birth records may include the parents’ ages and birthplaces, and even facts about the grandparents. Especially in later records, marriage entries might contain the couple’s ages and birthplaces, occupations, and parents’ and grandparents’ names. Death records may list the spouse and parents of the deceased. Even if your ancestor was born before civil registration started, you might find key genealogical facts about him or her in death records.
The whole enchilada
The usefulness and availability of other Mexican records pale in comparison to parish records and civil registrations. But if you come up against roadblocks, investigate these resources:
• Cemetery records: Few cemetery records have been transcribed or microfilmed, so you’ll need to try municipio archives, local parishes and historical societies or libraries. The FHL has records for some cemeteries in the Distrito Federal (Mexico City, the Federal District).
Except for 1930, Mexico lacks access to comprehensive national censuses of the sort US researchers are used to. That 1930 enumeration—the only post-independence census whose records are open to the public—is on FHL microfilm and the FamilySearch Record Search Pilot
. (A massive FamilySearch project aims to index the 1930 census.) For Mexico’s colonial period, you can consult special censuses, such as that of Spaniards living in Mexico City in 1689, or the various padrones
(censuses) taken since 1752. Padrones
were often for special groups, such as men eligible for military service, and continued into the early years of Mexico’s independence. The FHL has 110 volumes of these censuses, from 1752 to 1865, on 41 microfilms grouped by district.
• Divorce records: Don’t bother looking for divorce records prior to 1917, when divorce was first legalized in Mexico. Whereas marriages appear in civil registrations, divorces get recorded in municipio courts. Contact the clerk of the town or municipio where the divorce took place to find them.
The FHL has passenger lists of early Spanish colonists in Mexico as well as some passport records of immigrants arriving between 1821 and 1873. Records of Mexicans leaving for the United States didn’t begin until the early 1900s, when the first immigration services were set up in border towns. The National Archives and Records Administration
keeps these records; some are onAncestry.com
• Local histories: Local chronologists kept histories of most towns dating back to colonial days. You can find some of these at the FHL and at major libraries.
• Land records:
The FHL has some microfilmed land records, the originals of which are mostly at the national archives in Mexico City. The Texas General Land Office
in Austin houses original 1720-to-1836 land titles for what’s now Texas. Check the New Mexico state archives
for 1693-to-1821 Spanish land records and 1821-to-1845 Mexican records for present-day New Mexico.
• Military records:
Records of Mexico’s long military history aren’t easily accessible. Some early Spanish military records are available in archives across the Atlantic; the FHL’s research outline for Mexico
has a list of resources.
• Notarial records: As in most Latin American nations, Mexican notaries (notarios) kept records such as wills, dowries, guardianships and mortgages. Notarial records are tough to use and find—few are on microfilm; look for them in local and state archives.
• Probate records: Another research challenge, probate records reside in notarial files, parish records and municipio court records. Few have been microfilmed, with the exception of vínculos (entailed estates) from 1700 to 1800.
With the wealth of historical and genealogical resources available to Mexican-Americans, you’re sure to find your familia regardless of when your ancestors arrived in the United States. And when you make that fabulous find, take a cue from your ancestors and shout “hooray” as they would: ¡Viva!
Mexican History Timeline
1519 Hernán Cortés begins Spanish conquest of Mexico
1522 Inquisition arrives in Mexico
1527 Catholic Church creates Bishopric of Mexico
1535 Charles V establishes viceroyalty of New Spain
1598 Juan de Oñate colonizes New Mexico
1691 Spain annexes present-day Texas
1810 Mexicans begin fight for independence
1813 First Mexican Congress convenes in Chilpancingo
1821 Mexico gains independence
1824 The republic adopts a constitution
1836 Mexico loses the Texas Revolution
1845 United States annexes Texas
1846 Mexican-American War begins
1848 Mexico cedes most of its now-US territory under Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
1853 United States adds southern Arizona and New Mexico in Gadsden Purchase
1859 Benito Juárez starts civil registration
1864 Maximilian becomes emperor of Mexico
1867 French troops withdraw
1877 Porfirio Díaz era begins
1910 Decade-long Mexican Revolution commences; US sets up border patrols
1916 Pancho Villa raids Columbus, NM
1968 Mexico City hosts the XIX Summer Olympic Games
1992 North American Free Trade Agreement is signed
From the January 2009 Family Tree Magazine