If you’ve ever traveled out of the country, chances are you talked with friends about where to go and what to see. You scoured the internet for information about your dream destination. You perused travel guides and maps. Your Latin American and Caribbean genealogy research should begin in exactly the same way: Start at home, gather information and get ready for a wonderful journey.
As much as you’d like to, you might not be able to actually go to Mexico, Belize, Grenada or another locale, but you’ll still need to know how to get around, where records are and how to get to them. And to get the most understanding out of the records you find, you’ll want to brush up on the geography, history, culture and language of your ancestors.
This guide will help you overcome many of these challenges by recommending places where you can stop and ask directions along your genealogical journey. With more and more indexes and original documents appearing online, you might be lucky enough to locate an ancestor’s birth or marriage record at one of these waystops. But even if that elusive ancestor isn’t somewhere online, the resources listed on these pages will point you to the most likely libraries, archives and repositories where he can be found.
Most of the resources in our listing are in English, but a few are in Spanish or link you to Spanish-language pages. Fortunately, translating web pages is free and easy: Just type the site’s URL or paste a block of text into Google’s translator
. If you use Google’s free Chrome web browser
, is has a translator built right in. Latin American and Caribbean research might require a little more effort than researching in the States, but making that connection to the time and place of your ancestors is ample reward. ¿Está listos? ¡Vámanos!
1. One-stop shop
It’s probably no surprise that FamilySearch, the organization with the world’s largest collection of genealogical material, kicks off our list. It actually offers three resources rolled into one: the Family-Search wiki, FamilySearch.org online record collection, and the Family History Library (FHL) online catalog.
The sometimes-overlooked FamilySearch wiki is a great starting point when research takes you to an unfamiliar place. How-to information here is primarily user-submitted, so the content on its pages varies. From the wiki homepage, type a country into the search box, or select List All Countries to see an alphabetical list. Country pages may contain historical background, information about administrative divisions and important record groups, details about related records on microfilm at the FHL in Salt Lake City and digitized at FamilySearch.org, and links to other websites and databases. The wiki’s Mexico page boasts a particularly exceptional research guide (look under the Research Tools subhead).
The superstar of FamilySearch is its online historical records collection. It includes digitized records for 14 Latin American and Caribbean countries: Bahamas, Barbados, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. New records are added almost daily. From the FamilySearch.org home page, scroll down and click on the Caribbean, Central and South America link to see an alphabetical list of available records from this region.
The best-represented Latin American country is Mexico, with civil registration (birth, marriage and death) and church records for most Mexican states, as well as the 1930 Mexican census. Records for other countries vary in content and completeness, but include primarily civil registrations and church records. Many of the collections are indexed and searchable by name (you can browse unindexed collections by date, state, parish or other subdivision, depending how the records are organized).
Remember when conducting your search that most records are in Spanish, so try spelling variations if you can’t find a record you think should be there. Also keep in mind that Spanish double-surnames may be indexed in a way you wouldn’t expect, so try different combinations in the First Names and Last Names boxes (see the tip box on the next page for an example).
What if the records you want aren’t digitized or indexed online? The FHL has thousands of rolls of microfilm that you can order online and have sent to your local FamilySearch Center for viewing. To see what’s available, click the Catalog link from the Family-Search.org home page. Then type in the name of the country you’re looking for and the state, region or other place you need. FamilySearch will offer you options for the names of matching places; once you see the place you need pop up, select it and then click Search to bring up the records microfilmed for that area. Click the headings to see a list of related films; click a film title for details about the records. If you find one of interest, click on the film number and follow the instructions to place an order. Not sure where a nearby FamilySearch Center might be? Click FamilySearch Centers on the FamilySearch.org home page to search for one in your area. You’ll pay a small rental fee per film.
Whether you are looking at online records or microfilm, FamilySearch can be a great way to “travel” out of the country without leaving your hometown.
2. Can-do website
If you’re looking for Caribbean resources in one spot, Candoo.com is probably the most comprehensive site. It has links to resources for all the islands, whether they are or were territories of Spain, the United States, England, France or the Netherlands. Navigate the site from the links at the top of the page, or by scrolling down to the topic you’re looking for. In the section for each country, you’ll find resources such as contact information for major archives and libraries, and links to WorldGenWeb pages. Some countries’ listings include links to genealogy societies and local researchers for when you need someone “on the ground.” If you find the FHL catalog difficult to navigate, try this site’s LDS Microfilm Indexes link at the top of the page, which lists FHL films for many of the islands.
Another feature here is the Caribbean Surname Index, a message board you can access from a link at the top of the home page, as well as within individual country sections. Read the instructions, click the link for the index, then scroll to the bottom of the main page to choose a surname forum (organized by first letter of the name). You’ll need to register before you post or contact another forum member. Don’t let the text-only appearance of this site fool you into thinking it’s outdated. If you’re looking for good Caribbean resources, Candoo … well, can do!
3. Texas treasure
The Nettie Lee Benson Collection at the University of Texas in Austin specializes in Latin American materials, largely relating to Mexico and Central America but also from the Caribbean. The collection includes more than 970,000 books, periodicals, pamphlets and microforms, and 4,000 linear feet of manuscripts. If you’re handy to the big state of Texas, you’ll want to plan a visit here. The Benson Library is home to the Bexar Archives, which the Texas State Historical Association calls “the single most important source for the history of Hispanic Texas up to 1836.” Held at the connected Briscoe Center for American History, the Bexar Archives documents early life in Texas, dating to the founding of the presidio of San Antonio de Béxar in 1718. Part of the collection is online (with English translations) at www.cah.utexas.edu/projects/bexar.
Other noteworthy Benson collections documenting Texas families with Hispanic heritage include the “Marriage, death and burial registers of San Fernando Parish Church, 1703-1860,” and the Nacogdoches Archives.
Even if you can’t go in person, there’s plenty else to explore online. First click on Rare Books and Archives, where you’ll find links to the online catalog and finding aids for the manuscript collection. For a gateway to the wealth of materials on history, genealogy and more, click on Latin American Studies on the Benson collection home page (or go to www.lib.utexas.edu/benson/latamstudies.html
). In the History section, check out finding aids for the library’s Latin American, Mexican and Mexican/Latino-American manuscripts, as well as a general guide to major microform collections. If you have ancestors in early Texas (1528-1821), the link to the Neuva España website (also accessible via www.tamu.edu/faculty/ccbn/dewitt/Spaincon.htm
) is a must-click. Under Biography and Genealogy, you’ll find a listing of biography collections.
Even better in this section is the unassuming link to the Latin American Network Information Center (or visit lanic.utexas.edu
), aka LANIC, one of the largest gateways to just about everything Latin American. Click Libraries & Reference for links to libraries, archives, maps and museums. The subtopics will take you to resource lists organized regionally and then by country. While some of the resources listed can be found elsewhere, many are unique. Take a stroll through to see what you find.
Although not an extensive listing, LANIC’s genealogy resources are in the Society and Culture section. They’re organized by regions and countries, and also include general resources such as Cyndi’s List
. If you have Dominican Republic ancestors, investigate the El Instituto Dominico de Genealogía (Dominican Institute of Genealogy) and Datos y Fuentes de la Genealogía Dominicana (Genealogy Data and Sources of the Dominican Republic).
4. Directory assistance
We’ve grouped two similar portal websites, though each has unique strengths. A new kid on the internet block, La Guía de Información Genealógica (Genealogical Information Guide) is a Spanish-language site, so you’ll need your translation tools if you don’t read Spanish. Primarily focused on Central and South America, la Guía contains particularly useful links for genealogists interested in Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti and Puerto Rico. It also offers one of the more complete resource lists for Panama. Bonus: Because it’s a new site, most of the links to other sites are functional.
For the above-named countries, you’ll find information on major government record centers and libraries, plus links to research guides, easy-to-digest history, and genealogy societies. The Pandora’s Box section has excellent articles dealing with Catholic church records and the canonical laws that governed them. Need a well-organized history of Spanish possession and Latin American independence? Visit the Portal del Bicentenario de las Independencias Iberoamericanas in la Guía’s Miscellaneous section of the site.
Directorio de Genealogía Hispana (Directory of Hispanic Genealogy
) is similar to la Guía and also arranges resources by location and topic. While some of the two websites’ resources overlap, this site’s strength is its links to family pages and blogs. The Family Pages link (Páginas Familiares) leads you to five pages of family websites, and the Genealogy Blogs link (Blogs Genealógicos) gets you a long list of blogs. You can also search the site by surname at the top of the main page to pull up related resources. Directorio de Genealogía Hispana offers an English option in the top left corner, although it doesn’t always work.
5. Making history
The mission statement at Somos Primos is clear: “To help family historians in their task of gathering vital data, and to provide evidence revealing the current effects of historical events on the Hispanic community in the United States.” And beneath the deceptively simple front page lies a wealth of information. The site’s monthly online newsletters since January 2000 are free here—just scroll to the bottom of the front page to select individual issues by clicking on the year and month. Each issue is organized geographically and topically, so you can quickly find articles relating to the Southwest, Mexico, Cuba, surnames, history, and many more. To search all 12 years at once, click on Search all Somos Primos Issues and enter the person, place or thing you want to find. The results come from the newsletters as well as other resources on the site.
Speaking of those other resources, make sure you check the Spanish Terms in the list of links on the right side of the home page. Here you can access the Compilation of Colonial Spanish Terms and Document-Related Phrases, one of the largest and most complete dictionaries you’ll find of Spanish genealogical words and phrases. Other resources include Celebrating Hispanic Heritage, which contains historical essays. And the John P. Schmal Indigenous Mexico link leads to this author’s excellent information on researching indigenous peoples.
6. On the map
One obstacle you may encounter as you venture into new research places is not knowing the geography. Every smart traveler carries a good map. Let OldMapsOnline find the map you need for your virtual genealogical travels. This UK-based site pulls old maps from sites around the internet, including the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, the Perry-Castañeda library and elsewhere, and makes them searchable in one place.
Search geographically by clicking on a map, or type a place name in the search box. For either search method, you can use an adjustable timeline to limit your results by date. Looking for a map of Mexico between 1690 and 1715? Not a problem: Just drag the start and end years on the timeline, type Mexico into the search box, and you’ll discover a number of maps to choose from. Click the link to the map you’d like to see, and you’ll go directly to the map on the site that hosts it.
7. State’s evidence
As you might imagine, the state archives and libraries of many Southwestern states and Florida contain extensive holdings of interest to Latino and Caribbean researchers, including early Spanish land grants, colonial censuses, mission records and more. Be sure to investigate the state archives and libraries for the places your Hispanic and Latino ancestors lived. It may or may not take a lot of browsing to learn what materials might help with your search. In addition to searching the holdings catalog, look for a genealogy link and resource guides to early or Hispanic residents. For example, the California State Library’s PDF guide Genealogy Resources by Date <dlis.dos.state.fl.us/index_Researchers.cfm> lists the book Spanish-Mexican Families of Early California, 1769-1850 by Marie E. Northrup. The Online Archive of California <www.oac.cdlib.org> catalogs manuscript collections, such as the one titled Spanish and Mexican Materials, 1781-1882, that are housed at the state library and other institutions. Even if you can’t pay a visit, you might be able to borrow materials through interlibrary loan, request a photocopy or pay for a staff or local researcher to find the records you need.
8. Old college try
We’ve already mentioned the University of Texas Libraries specifically, but many colleges and universities have notable special collections with Hispanic and Latino genealogical materials. Below are some of the largest collections, but this isn’t an all-inclusive list:
Every journey starts at home. Knowing your ancestor’s place of origin as specifically as possible is the biggest key to researching Latino and Caribbean roots. Talk to relatives. Inquire about family papers and artifacts—anything that might help pinpoint a location. The next step is an exhaustive search of US records. Look for death certificates, naturalization s, passport applications, newspapers, marriage certificates and any other source that might reveal details on your ancestor’s life in the “old country.” Once you have an idea where you need to go, the records, resources, and gateways we’ve listed will open the doors and start you on your journey of Latino or Caribbean discovery. ¡Buen viaje!
Despite five years plus one semester of Spanish classes, Ohio genealogist Chris Staats still can’t speak in the past tense. You can follow his current genealogical adventures (in English) at his website.
From the October/November 2012 issue of Family Tree Magazine.