The 60 million Americans who self-report Hispanic or Latino ancestry comprise a diverse group. But, defining who is Hispanic or Latino can be challenging.
One issue is that surveys often rely on respondents to check a box, which may exclude non-Hispanic or Latino people. Using more objective indicators can help provide a better picture of this population over time.
Look For Your Ancestors’ Names
Finding your Hispanic ancestry is a rewarding experience, but it can also be challenging. As you unravel your family tree, you’ll likely find yourself at a dead end—you can’t seem to find any information on an ancestor’s parents. This is a common challenge and one that you can overcome.
You can start by looking at what you do know. Obtain a copy of your birth certificate, then turn your attention to your parents. Find out all you can about their full names, birth and death dates, and where they were born. Obtain copies of any marriage or divorce certificates and, if possible, birth certificates for their children.
Once you’ve gathered what you can from your personal and family history, it’s time to begin your search for your Mexican roots. As a starting point, try using U.S. records, such as birth and death records, censuses, naturalization records, immigration records, and newspaper clippings. You can also search for your ancestors in Mexico through Catholic sacramental and civil registration records and digitized city directories.
Remember that Hispanics often hail from diverse countries, including Central and South America and the Caribbean. For this reason, it’s important to narrow your focus to the specific area from which your ancestors came. This will help you avoid getting stuck in a particular region and can open up broader avenues for research.
Look For Your Ancestors’ Places of Origin
Once you know the names of your ancestors, it is important to find out where they came from. This can help you track down their families and villages in Mexico and give you clues about the history of their lives and immigration to the United States.
You can search a variety of sources for this information. Start with census records, then move on to immigration and naturalization records. You can also use other resources, such as church and family records, obituaries, and old newspaper articles with human interest stories. Many immigrants recorded their country of origin in these kinds of records. Still, it is helpful to pinpoint the exact town they came from because this will allow you to research generations before them in their home country.
You can also look for civil registration records, such as births (nacimientos), marriages (matrimonios), and deaths (defunciones). If your ancestors were Catholic, you may be able to find information in church records as well. It’s worth noting that some countries and periods didn’t record these events regularly, so you may need to keep searching.
Look For Your Ancestors’ Stories
While names and dates are important, so is learning about the world in which your ancestors lived. Newspapers are great resources for this type of social history research. Look for information about your ancestor’s hometown and state and articles that describe what life was like in that area at the time of their arrival in the U.S. You may even find a photo of your ancestor or their home. Be sure to read the fine print about using or citing that image.
For ancestors who came to the United States through a legal port of entry, you can often find their U.S. records in civil registration and census documents. However, if they came to the United States illegally, you must bypass U.S. records and seek out Mexican sources.
In addition to locating records that detail your ancestors’ lives in Mexico, you’ll want to understand how the Spanish and Mexican naming system works. Children are typically given two surnames – the first is their father’s name, and the second is their mother’s maiden name. This can make it difficult to track a family.
Look For Your Ancestors’ Photos
When researching any family tree, starting with what you already know is always a good idea. Before starting a new research project, review any available personal correspondence or documents in your home and ask relatives for photos they may have. Also, don’t forget to consider possible copyright or fair use restrictions when searching for images online. Works published before 1925 are now in the public domain in the United States, but you should still check to see whether the institution that put the image online owns the rights.
Especially for those with Mexican ancestry, it’s essential to understand the importance of Catholic church records.
Another great resource to use for Hispanic genealogy is newspapers. Not only can they provide clues about your ancestors’ lives, but they can also help situate them within a cultural or historical context. For example, suppose your family members were railroad workers. In that case, you can look for their names in the Railroad Worker’s Index or search for obituaries and other news articles to discover more about them. Our newspaper collection includes a variety of Spanish-language publications from all over the United States.