It’s a paradox: Although Hispanics have become the largest ethnic group in the United States, the US Census Bureau doesn’t even count the number of people who trace their ancestry back to Spain. Many Hispanic Americans, of course, combine a variety of native heritages with Spanish, and their roots wind through the many Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America. Indeed, their only connection with Spain may be the Spanish language. But once you’ve researched your family tree in the Americas, you may find a branch that crosses the Atlantic, all the way back to Spain. Instead of coming through Ellis Island, however, your Spanish ancestors probably arrived at a port somewhere south of the border.
Remember, too, that the first settlements in the New World were not the English towns of Jamestown and Plymouth, but rather outposts of the Spanish empire. The oldest city in the United States, St. Augustine, Fla., was founded by the Spanish in 1565—years before the British settled at Jamestown. The Spanish founded Santa Fe, NM, in 1610, were settling in Texas by 1682 (near El Paso) and began establishing missions in California in 1769. So the Spanish roots here also run deep.
Portuguese-Americans often have a more direct ancestral link to the old country than those from neighboring Spain. They celebrate their heritage in Portuguese enclaves ranging from Fall River and New Bedford, Mass., to California, where the Portuguese Historical Museum in San Jose preserves their past, and all the way to Hawaii. Besides Portugal itself, a significant strand of immigration also came from the country’s Azores islands, located 972 miles off Portugal’s Atlantic coast. Overall, the Census Bureau estimates that some 1.3 million Americans have Portuguese ancestry. In addition to those whose ancestors emigrated directly from Portugal, of course, people with ties to Brazil, South America’s largest country, also share a Portuguese heritage and language.
Other ethnic groups have found their way from the Iberian peninsula to the United States—notably the Basques, who originate from a Rhode Island-sized area that straddles the French-Spanish border in the Pyrenees. Linguists say their language, Euskara, is unrelated to any other. Though only about 70,000 Americans claim Basque ancestry, their influence belies their population, especially in the Western states. The Basque Museum and Cultural Center in Boise, Idaho, and the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada-Reno help preserve this rich heritage.
You can discover and preserve your own family’s Iberian heritage by following the steps in our Spanish and Portuguese Heritage Research Guide.