If your Puerto Rican ancestor is on this list, then we’re related!
Since the mid-2000s, my digital family is expanding, and I’m enjoying some new connections. I tested my autosomal DNA on 23&Me, Ancestry and FamilyTree DNA, uploaded to MyHeritage, DNA.Land and am faced with hundreds, well, since the original blogpost, it’s now thousands of matches. I’m finding that some of the people i’ve known via social media are also distant relatives. I think back on when I lived in NYC as a child and how many times family have told me, wow, I used to live up there (Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan) too, and I wonder how many of those folks who passed me on the street were tied by blood.
Thanks to my prima Teresa Vega, who has the Radiant Roots, Boricua Branchesblog, I’ve been introduced to DNA, FB groups and i’ve been getting to know a lot of family and potential family. Our connection is through Rosa Maria Caban Mendez (2C4R), great granddaughter of my 5th GGP, Juan Cabal and Margarita Ruiz born sometime in the 1730s- 1740s in Aguada, Puerto Rico. Through Sociedad Ancestros Mocanos, we’ve found that quite a few people in our group have discovered DNA connections beyond the documents. And let me tell you, the level of endogamy on some of these lines ‘te da mareo’! (just makes you dizzy)
TL Dixon, of the FB group Native American Ancestry Explorer and Roots & Recombinant DNAblog graciously reviewed my atDNA GEDmatch results and noted the distribution across several different populations from several continents. There weren’t really surprises in there, as a lot matched what I was able to track via documents, contextual history and etymology of the Babilonia surname.
More recently, I’ve had the good fortune to have Fonte Felipe who has the wonderful blog, Tracing African Roots: Exploring the Ethnic Origins of the Afro-Diaspora look at my African results on Ancestry.com and see what matches come up. I’ll write more about discovering these ancestral roots in future posts, as I slowly learn to bring together local history, documents, trees and now, chromosome mapping and triangulation. However, knowing surnames can help point you in the right direction as to where that 3rd or 4th cousin might link up to you.
The Gift of Knowledge
Look, i’m related to two people on the panel on Black ProGen LIve, connections that we discovered much later. Perhaps some of you wonder why i’m on Black ProGen? It’s because one needs a space to speak to the realities of being POC and how one identifies, knowing what techniques and readings are helpful when nobody in your immediate family really has roots in New England, England or Ireland. There is definitely some up there in the mix, but it’s negligible, and my DNA looks like it went through a fan- ethnicities tossed in with no immediate connections to Europe outside of my dad’s grandfather. This is the face of the slave trade & mass migrations in your genes.
And this process never, ever stops. It doesn’t necessarily include the life sustaining ties of kin, people who are the family you make. Remember that there are ties that go beyond blood, or close ties, that make it possible for you to be here. This floating community of family changes over the course of our lives, and I am proud to say that despite the challenges of time and space I have relationships that sustain and heal– yet my tree may not show it. This too is in part, a legacy of slavery.
So, if your Puerto Rican ancestor is on this list, then we’re related!
Family Lines: Those starred on the list below are tied to Haplogroup C1b2 on the maternal line, and C1b4 on the paternal line, which is the Taino DNA that is on both my X chromosomes. More than half of the people here are on my maternal line in the NW, Aguada-Moca-Aguadilla. On the paternal line in the NE, San Juan-Santurce-Rio Grande, there is Haplogroup C1b4 via my paternal grandmother, Angelina Calo Vazquez. Y Haplogroup is European, R-L51, via my paternal grandfather, Ramon Fernandez Matos. On my maternal line, my grandmother, Felicita Rodriguez Vale is the source of my C1b2, which I could fortunately trace back to Tomasa Mendez, born about 1740.
These results fit with the resulting map of 1st to 3rd cousins on Puerto Rico as generated by 23&Me. While locations are self-reported, the results are consistent with family on both sides of my tree, and later generations may have moved south, as I don’t necessarily have specific ancestors in Yauco or Ponce areas. Eventually some arrived in New York City among the thousands who came in the early decades of the 20th Century, many escaping conditions that stemmed from the hurricanes of 1899 and 1928 that mangled Puerto Rico.
There’s always so much more to learn!
The List of my known Great Grandparents:
ps. those born outside of Puerto Rico are noted.
GG Grandfathers –
BABILONIA ACEVEDO, Manuel Miguel Narciso (ca 1804- >1868) Moca
LOPEZ DE SEGURA Y DE SOSA, Buonaventura (ca1825 – <1895)
Context of a transcription: African Ancestors in the first book of deaths
Back in 2006, I was researching mundillo (lacemaking) in Moca, and at the same time, learning more about a shared family history that ultimately led me to explore enslaved ancestors, African and Indigenous ancestors. Their strength and perseverance in the face of difficult situations inspires. We can recognize as Daina Ramey Berry so eloquently writes in The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave in the Building of a Nation (Beacon Press, 2017), their soul value, that goes beyond the missing surnames and identities that enslavement sought to steal away.
That September, I was able to transcribe some church entries for a small group of cousins and myself which coalesced into Sociedad Ancestros Mocanos. Sociedad Ancestros Mocanos, which I established on Yahoo! Groups, was where we asked each other questions and shared research findings and transcriptions. This process goes much faster today.
Initially, the census records and civil registration on microfilm were available at the local Family History Center, and we began to piece together trees that overlapped, merged and diverged across NW Puerto Rico and beyond. However, records from Moca such as the Libros de Bautismos, Defunciones y Matrimonios, like some parishes on the island, were not part of the LDS’ microfilm project of the 1980s-1990s. Because of that, any transcriptions obtained during trips were particularly of interest, and often held clues for moving another generation back in time. One of the things that we began to notice were the interconnections our families had, the oral histories, the fact of how an economy based on sugar also tied us to Africa, to the earlier history of colonization and Indian slavery, interrupted by myriad degrees of freedom both before and after slavery ended.
In Moca, I was fortunate to stay within the Pueblo, just blocks away from the building that dominates the center of town, Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Monserrate, built in 1853. The church had volumes of parish records in a small office building at the rear of the church, built atop a hillock at the center of Barrio Pueblo, occupying one side of the rectangular plaza.
Between 1 and 4 in the afternoon the office was open, and I brought my letter of approval from the Arzobispado de Mayaguez granting me permission to consult the volumes for genealogical research. I requested the first volume of Defunciones that begins in November 1852 and took the oversized book to a pupils seat, balanced it on the tiny desk and began to copy.
Time was short, and I rapidly transcribed entries from surnames familiar from my research and shared with members of SAMocanos. I also noticed names of the enslaved among my entries and included them on my list, hoping to find connections later on. Now with DNA there is more chance to link to these ancestors, and hopefully, break down some brick walls.
A brief list of deaths, 1852-1859: Say Their Names
What follows are records for twelve people who were enslaved and who died between 1852-1859. Also listed are the names of an additional six persons who were their parents, along with several slaveholders. These bits of secondary evidence, based on original records remain precious over time, as they both tie us to the place and to the ancestors in them. In some cases they are the only record available, some not digitized even into the present, so that the reliance on a transcription becomes almost a point of faith, yet can contain errors. In some cases, a transcription is often all that remains, and questions about who and what was in the original record are moot when these are no longer extant.
Among the names are Maria de las Nieves and Juana, who both survived the Middle Passage only to die age 48 and 53 during years of epidemics that took many lives. However, the parish record does not say why they passed. There may be accounts elsewhere listing those taken by epidemics. Also in the records is Juana Cristiana, a two year old child who was enslaved, as was her mother, and parish records reveal her parents married in the Catholic church. This did not change the fact they were in bondage, subject to sale or if they were able, to self purchase and thereby gain freedom before 1873. A very real fear was being sold or taken to another plantation in Cuba, where the scale of enslavement and sugar processing was ten times that of Puerto Rico, and slavery did not end until 1886.
Beyond those named, i’ve compiled a list of the parents mentioned largely mothers, whose names may appear in other additional documentary sources, such as notarial documents or for instance, be mentioned in the 1849 Censo de Altas y Bajas for Moca (in Hereditas and on the PReb.com site), or perhaps in other SPG publications, the 1830 Censo de Isabela or 1874 Censo de Lares among others. Another short list below is for the slaveholders, under whose names the information on those listed, was entered into parish and municipal documents.
After freedom, surnames can follow those of the initial slaveholder, or take on different surnames as relationships change or are revealed upon death or marriage. Please feel free to contact me should you find a connection.
The List of Ancestors
Parents listed in Acta:
Eustaquio Arze y de Ma. Ynocencia
D. Cristobal Benejan
D. Francisco Cirilo de Acevedo
Jose Ramon Acevedo
D. Marcellino Lasalle
D. Juan Pellot
D. Esteban Soto Nieves
These are my extractions from Libro 1 & 2 Defunciones, translated, formatted with estimated year of birth added.
f.1v Antonio E. , 35, 16 Nov 1852; single
Slaveholder: D. Cristobal Benejan
f.1v Antonio E. 35, 16 Nov 1852; soltero; esclavo de D. Cristobal Benellan.
f.3 Benito, 70, 26 Nov 1852; born in Africa ca 1782
Slaveholder: Maria Lopez
f.3 Benito, 70, 26 Nov 1852; esclavo de d. Maria Lopez; natural de Africa.
f.17v Maria de las Nieves, 53, 18 Jan 1853; born in Africa, ca 1800
Slaveholder: D. Francisco Cirilo de Acevedo
f.17v Maria de las Nieves, 53, 18 Jan 1853; Natural de Africa, esclava de D. Francisco Cirilo de Acevedo.
f. 53. Juan de los Santos, 18, 29 May 1854; son of Luisa, ca 1836
Slaveholder:D. Marcellino Lasalle
f. 53. Juan de los Santos, 18, 29 May 1854; h natural de Luisa esclava de D. Marcellino Lasalle.
f.54 Justa, 16 Aug 1854; natural child of Justa
Slaveholder: D. Juan Pellot
f.54 Justa, 16 Aug 1854; h natural de Justa, esclava de D. Juan Pello.
f.124-124v “To be given a pair of oxen and a divided area for cultivation for his slaves Gabriel and Juana leaving
Gabriel, Juana, Juana, Maria; Juana and Maria to be freed upon his death.”
Slaveholder: D. Esteban Soto Nieves, 70, 7 Jan 1857; hl Pedro & D. Cecilia Nieves, casada con Juana Velasquez.
“una junta de bueyes una vaca y uno potro cuadrado por [cultivación por] sus esclavos Gabriel & Juana, dejando a Juana y Maria tambien sus esclavos libres a su fallecimiento” Testamento judicial ante Ma. D. Seledonia Torres 5 Jul 1855;
f.241 Angela, 20, 12 Sept. 1858, single, daughter of Rufina; ca 1838
Slaveholder: D. Juan Pellot
f.241 Angela, 20, 12 Sept. 1858; esclava, soltera, hija natural de Rufina esclava de D. Juan Pellot.
f. 244 Juana Cristina 9 Oct 1858, 2 years old; legitimate daughter of Eustaquio Arze & Ma. Ynocencia
Slaveholder: Jose Ramon Acevedo
f. 244 Juana Cristina 9 Oct 1858 parbula, 2 anos; hl de Eustaquio Arze y de Ma. Ynocencia esclavos de Jose Ramon Acevedo
f.259v Juana, 48, 21 Mar 1859; born in Africa, lived in this parish, parents unknown
Slaveholder: D. Juan Pellot
f.259v Juana adulta esclava, 48, 21 Mar 1859; natural de Africa y vecina de esta parroquia y cuyos padres se ignoran, esclava de D. Juan Pellot.
f.263v Juana Prudencia, 9 days old, 8 May 1859; natural daughter of Agustina…of this town.
Slaveholder: D. Juan Pellot
f.263v Juana Prudencia, 9 dias, 8 May 1859; h natural de Agustina, esclava de D. Juan Pellot de este vecindario.
f.263v Juana Tomasa, 11 days old, brown infant, 1 May 1859; child of Pedro Cordero and Marcela David.
f.263v Juana Tomasa, parvula parda, once dias, 1 Mayo 1859; hl Pedro Cordero & Marcela David.
I recently discovered the podcast Uncivil (Gimlet Media) in searching for significant events for discussion on the upcoming episode of Black ProGen Live. Right now, Uncivil consists of 10 episodes so far, spanning different episodes in nineteenth century US Civil War history The latest show ( Ep. 10 podcast, released 27 December 2017) dealt with the myth of the Black Confederate soldier.
Uncivil is hosted by Chenjerai Kumanyika, author, journalist, and professor of journalism and communications at Rutgers University, and Jack Hitt, a Peabody Award-winning journalist, author and radio producer. The programs intend to bring “stories that were left out of the official history of the Civil War, ransacks America’s past and takes on the history you grew up with.” Indeed, we need these reexaminations, and it’s great to have this material available to think with.
The trajectory of this particular story followed an arc that began with unpacking of historical knowledge via a young caller to the show, and culminates with the descendants of Silas Chandler (1 Jan 1837-Sept 1919). They discovered their ancestor being discussed in a photograph brought to Antiques Roadshow in 2009. During the program, the moment to explain enslavement was lost, the myth took over, leading to a division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans placing a metal cross on his grave in Mississippi, and stealing Silas Chandler’s image by reproducing it on various surfaces from t-shirts to films, prints and photos all proclaiming this evidence of participation.
The Weight of Images & Problematic Histories
The photograph is a tintype, and close up, its surface reveals a cracked emulsion with an ornate copper colored metal edge. Notable details are the position of the two men, side by side, visually composed to emphasize their inequality. The younger Andrew Chandler’s hips were elevated to lend height well above Silas, whose seat is tilted back at the hips to make him seem shorter than his slave owner’s. To read Silas’ smile is to read a face weary of waiting for a moment, if not the war and slavery itself, to be over.
Sites that proclaim that they have ‘evidence’ of Black Confederate soldiers, and one features a painting of a Civil War battlefield, no location just a battle scene. Just off center, is a kneeling black man holding the head of a white man wearing the gray uniform of the South. The military serviceman is injured and bleeding into a large handkerchief. It’s white surface creates an area that visually marks and makes central for the viewer, the tableau with a enslaved adult man at the center. He has no arms no gun, no rifle, he simply serves and tends to the white master, an ideological composition that seeks to deny historical reality by providing a romanticized tableau. This same idea was extended to the photograph, a plain effort to define Silas Chandler as a soldier. He was not.
As Myra Chandler Sampson (Silas Chandler’s great-granddaughter) and Kevin M Levin note, “Interest in Silas’ military career has been fueled by a desire to affirm that Southern blacks were just as eager as whites to fight back against the invaders— an attempt to validate the belief that the war did not ignite over slavery but over predatory Northern acts.” They go on to ask: So what role did Silas really play in the war, and why did he choose to fight for the South—if he actually did? One thing is clear: Ever since the SCV posthumously ‘honored’ Silas, an enslaved body servant who accompanied his white master into service, accounts of black Confederate troops have surged in popularity, with some now claiming that upwards of 100,000 blacks fought willingly in Southern ranks.
While there were a small number of enslaved black men who served in the Confederacy, but they comprised less than 1% of those who served. A 2015 article in The Root, goes into further details about this controversy. In a nutshell: “How many supported it? No one knows precisely. But by drawing on these scholars and focusing on sources written or published during the war, I estimate that between 3,000 and 6,000 served as Confederate soldiers. Another 100,000 or so blacks, mostly slaves, supported the Confederacy as laborers, servants and teamsters. They built roads, batteries and fortifications; manned munitions factories—essentially did the Confederacy’s dirty work.” Note that African Americans were unable to enlist in the Confederacy until an order was issued in March 1865, the last month of the war. In contrast, almost 187,000 African Americans joined the Union Army over the course of the war, with numbers rising for the last two years.
Details That Matter: The move towards freedom
Why does the story matter? Because this was a myth fed to fourth grade children in social studies texts and museum exhibits organized by descendants of the confederacy. There’s potential for these scenarios to be incorporated and disseminated into some family histories and genealogies, effectively casting the shadow of confederate myth over a lineage while declaring a white nationalist identity.
Silas was born into slavery on 1 January 1837 in Virginia and two years later, his slaveholder, Roy Chandler moved him and 39 other enslaved people along with the Chandler family to Palo Alto in Clay County, Mississippi. As an adult, once freed, Silas kept his owner’s surname.
Roy Chandler claimed a land grant after an 1831 treaty that displaced thousands of American Indian peoples in the area, and gave white settlers some 11 million acres of state land. Silas became the body servant to Roy Chandler’s son, Andrew born in 1844. Silas sits alongside Sergeant Andrew Chandler, the white man in uniform in the photograph. Yet the fear of armed black men ran rife through the Confederacy, and they supplied no guns, nor permitted combat roles for African Americans until the final weeks of the war; add the fact that thousands of African Americans were supportive of the North, to the point of escaping to Federal lines, and the desperation to legitimize the myth of participation becomes evident.
Silas weighed his situation, and “likely gained even more freedom of movement when Andrew was wounded and captured at Shiloh in April 1862 and imprisoned… Deemed human property he was legally bound to Andrew.” Although Silas returned and helped his master return home after injuries at the Battle of Chickamauga. Extant correspondence shows Silas’ return would be to his wife and newborn child. Silas served again in 1864, going with Andrew’s younger brother Benjamin, who served in the 9th Mississippi Calvary.
Why Silas Chandler’s Story Matters
Silas Chandler was a carpenter and helped found the first black church, Mount Hermon Baptist Church in West Point, Mississippi. He married Lucy Garvin about 1860, “daughter of a house slave named Polly and an unnamed plantation owner.” They had 12 children, 5 who survived to adulthood, and one son was the great-grandfather of Myra Chandler Sampson. Silas lived to appear in the 1910 US Federal Census, where a glimpse of the life he built with his wife Lucy can be seen, some nine years before he died. In contrast, Palo Alto, MI, where he first lived in bondage, became a ghost town. It’s worth noting that the Wikipedia article on Palo Alto mentions that “In 1876, Palo Alto was the site of an incident in which a group of heavily armed white men brought a piece of field artillery and broke up a meeting of the Republican Club in order to suppress black voters.” This is just one of myriad examples of retaliation committed against people of African descent that numerous whites committed after Reconstruction and the passage of ‘black codes’ in 1865 and 1866. Despite their efforts, Silas Chandler raised his family and contributed to his community.
What I appreciate about the Uncivil podcast is the content, and the website’s clear layout and availability of transcripts, allowing one to easily search for subjects. As an adjunct to genealogical study, it helps bring to the table some of the issues that POC genealogists and their families face when working on family lines that head straight into terrain already complicated by locating material. Understanding documentary context helps with document analysis, and depending on one’s location, its easy to see how details can be used and misused to serve very different needs. Hearing voices waver, be insistent, vulnerable or firm, reminds one that this history still matters enormously. The events in Charlottesville last summer speaks to the urgency of projects that seek to unpack the historical pain and experience of those populations born or taken into slavery who made this country possible from its inception, and this foundational fact can no longer be ignored. We are still navigating this past.
In this case, the attempt to hijack family history for an ideological purpose was foiled, precisely because these descendants pressed on to tell their stories, writing, broadcasting and, Myra Chandler Sampson continues to speak truth to power. May we all find the strength to bring our ancestors into the light.
Roots like yams, yuca, yautia, malanga known by different names on different islands and continents are central to Puerto Rican foodways and are also tied to a larger history of the slave trade over several centuries. Come with me as I trace yams from the cooking pot out to the hills of Moca and across the oceans to Africa and from Puerto Rico to Cuba.
In March 2007, Lele set up a stand outside his grocery store in Barrio Pueblo, Moca, so that a group of friends could share in cooking and eating the delicious root they dug up in the hills the previous day. ñame (NyAH-meh), a variety of yam, grows to various sizes and has pale yellow or white flesh, or pith. Here Lele made a sancocho, adding oxtail for the broth the ñame cooks in, filled with other roots, herbs and boiled green bananas.
There are several varieties of yam some, like ñame blanco, Dioscorea rotundata is originally from West Africa; other kinds come from tropical Asia, Brazil and other areas of South America. Dioscorea and its varieties is a plant that’s been cultivated for over 5,000 years around the world.
The centrality of yams to the diet in West Africa is reflected in the number of names each one has that gives technical and historical information- in the Cote d’Ivoire, this tuber has 166 names, and in Benin, it has 311. This is a large vine that can reach a height of and takes 6-8 months vegetative cycle with 3-5 months dormancy for the tubers to grow. 
Another key root is yuca, known as cassava. It’s one of the oldest crops on the island, grown in piles of earth called conucos. Grated, used to make cassava bread, flat and baked on hot stones, or, given it’s mild flavor, prepared with other ingredients, be used in stews, roasted or fried.
Ultimately, what’s in a meal made with yams, cassava, green bananas and plantains is a blend of ingredients and cultures brought to the Caribbean over thousands of years and hundreds of miles by different groups of people in systems of intercolonial trade.
Digging the Roots in Moca
I was able to go ñame hunting with my cousin Enrique Rivera in the hills of a farm that his friend owned in the hills of Barrio Cruz. We went down a steep edge, looking for potential spots where vegetation was already cleared. One person searched through brush for the right leaves, and with knives and machetes, we began to carve out the soil to yield the root. Large and heavy with moisture, these roots can easily weigh several pounds.
Peeled, grated, then fried, people make bunuelos de ñame, or have them along with other roots, as in the dish verduras con bacalao, which can include a selection of yuca, batata, malanga, yautia and guineos verdes (green bananas), simply boiled with prepared bacalao (dried cod fish) in or on the side, drizzled with olive oil.
Mash it, bake it, boil it or, sauteed, roots can provide a filling, tasty meal. Know that most of the corn, green bananas and plantain during the 18th & 19th centuries made up a large portion of the diet of our enslaved and impoverished ancestors in the Caribbean.
Wild Yams & Other Naming Practices
Here’s a photo taken in the 1950s of a man coming out of a jungle carrying a large wild yam on his shoulder from the Library of Congress website. (This yam was not eaten, but used as a source for hormones.) Still, it gives an idea of the size these roots can often grow to- and they can reach 130 pounds. In this case, the local name of the yam, ‘cabezo de negro’ demonstrates how ideas around race and labor are linked to food, yet the location where the photo was taken, and the name of the person who appears in the photograph are not mentioned. Names can reflect the inequalities of power, just as the photograph hides the person taking the image and the organization that makes the image possible.
What’s in a name?
However, the terms cabezo, cabezon, can invoke images of retaliation by planters and resistance by the enslaved. In Guillermo A. Baralt’s Slave Revolts in Puerto Rico, African-born enslaved laborers called bozales, were those who “more than the other slaves, resisted the work regime to which they were subjected when they arrived on the island.  Those who rebelled in Bayamon in 1822 and in Ponce in 1826 had arrived only a few months before the conspiracy. The ones who fought most resolutely against their owners for over half a century were the “negros cabezones” [pigheaded blacks]. They included the leaders of the Ponce conspiracy of 1841 and enslaved Longoba nation members in Toa Baja in 1843, along with those in Vega Baja in 1840.”
A bitter reality: sugar production & slavery
This portion of the 1886 Colton & Co. topographic map of Puerto Rico gives a sense of how the proximity of waterways and the free town of Cangrejos to the east likely served as inspiration for those enslaved across Bayamon and beyond who sought self liberation before 1873. The names of wards that dot the map are also those of sugar mills (Ingenios), such as Media Luna in Toa Baja and El Plantaje in Palo Seco.
Sugar dominated the landscape outside of San Juan, a region that extended from Toa Baja and Palo Seco on the west and Loiza, Carolina and Trujillo Bajo in the east. This was the earliest monoculture region on the island, and as such confronted the problems of slave rebellions. 
As Guillermo Baralt notes, “From the time of the first sugar mills were established in Toa Baja, including that of the heirs of Juan Ponce de Leon, the sugar industry had been closely linked to black Africans and their American descendants. As this industry began to develop on a large scale at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, the number of slaves almost doubled, from 208 in 1776 to 410 in 1827.” [5 ]
The increased numbers of enslaved Africans in the hatos of the surrounding area were in part due to Toa Baja’s open involvement in an illegal slave trade during the early 19th century. I delve into details in this blog because one may find their line leads to this region, yet a specific ancestor is not found. As my cousin, genealogist Teresa Vega notes, that today our DNA tests may show connections, yet those direct ties may be to an ancestor we may never know because of the social conditions of slavery. This cultural and economic arrangement aimed to define people as less than, just as in the American South and countries where slavery was legal. Still, small numbers of the enslaved managed to have their relationships and children recognized, and were able to buy their freedom (coartacion). As a result, they stand to appear in more documentation as once owned, as free, and as owners of property.
Spain ended slavery within its own country in 1836, while in the Caribbean, despite signing treaties with England, Spanish ships were liable to be seized and its human cargo confiscated by British patrols if they were determined to be slavers. Yet there were citizens who requested and recieved special licenses to import dozens, or hundreds of enslaved people at a time.
One was the planter and slave trader in Toa Baja, Francisco Soler, owner of Hacienda San Pedro and also Regidor (city councilman) of the Ayuntamiento (municipal government) of Toa Baja. In 1824, Soler had licenses to import 300 slaves and between 1830-1840, he was granted licenses for bringing slaves into Puerto Rico. The argument offered for importing enslaved people for the market was “because one could not depend on the free workers as they abandoned the preparatory tasks for the harvests..”  The lack of confidence in free labor was the explanation offered for why in Puerto Rico, the purchasing of slaves continued right up to the moment of abolition in 1873. [7,8]
As freedom in Cuba was a late arrival in 1886, I expect there were planters in Puerto Rico who took advantage of this situation to transfer their enslaved labor to plantations in Cuba via a network of family connections. As I review the documents tied to various ingenios (sugar mills) in the region, I also see surnames tied to my extended family in the north west- Salas, Quinones, among others.
The trade continued, with the origin of enslaved Africans hidden on documents. This official anti-slaving activity had only a partial effect on reducing the numbers of people transported during the Middle Passage. Afterwards, as availability of enslaved African laborers waned, the price of bozales increased considerably as a result. At the same time, sugar slid in value, and the process was only partially mechanized. To make matters even more pressing, different and more refined sugars entered the market, diminishing the value of Puerto Rican muscovado sugar. 
Similar machines, literally ‘blood mills’ based on older technologies caused workers serious injuries. Notice the woman, who represents the fact that many enslaved workers male and female worked crops from planting to harvest.
A focus on the economy only serves to hide human suffering involved in the production of materials for mass consumption. There’s a shift happening where la otra cara de la historia (the ‘other face of history’) is taking center stage in research and family histories of POC. The panelists on Black ProGen LIVE are part of this shift.
Y como me gusta mi historia negra, asi guanta la azucar.
And as I also like my history black, hold the sugar.*
Resistance and Retaliation: Toa Baja, 1843
The reduced availability of Africans, and the ensuing rise in the price of the enslaved did not mean slavery in Puerto Rico was benign, just as in other places, violence was seen as a means to gain profit. Work regimes were brutal with the rise in sugar, and many situations only became even more desperate. Toa Baja’s open investment in the illegal slave trade, the changes in its boundaries with the formation of the municipalities of Palo Seco on the east and Dorado on the west meant the ensuing loss of wealth was paired with the increased production of sugar with a price in free fall. The situation of the enslaved worsened. Revolt and resistance became a constant.
Historian Andres Ramos Mattei described the conditions the enslaved labored under at an Ingenio (sugar mill):
… and after the labor of cutting cane ended, they were sent to the factory where they were obligated to stay until almost midnight. The freed worked at night and less in the factory because, among other things, the infernal noise and intolerable heat of the same. The inhuman work conditions, the bad quality of life, the lack of infrastructure and the little security before accidents that occur while operating equipment and machinery, that made accidents possible and the deaths of sugar workers. 
During the harvest break, a group of enslaved Longoba men gathered to play nine pins at a farm in barrio Mameyal for their holiday. There, at the Cantero hacienda, an absentee owner, they quickly planned and executed their takeover of the town of Toa Baja. The group was led by Cornelio, alias Bembe, who complained of ill treatment and lack of food at his master’s hacienda, that of the widow Dona Maria de la Concepcion ‘Concha’ Pasalagua.
What ultimately ensued was the only slave uprising to succeed in its initial moments, yet ended with substantial difficulty by nearly a thousand people including several troops of militias. 
The death penalty in Puerto Rico, 1843
More on the consequences of these acts are discussed in Jalil Sued-Badillo’s La Pena de Muerte en Puerto Rico (2000). All cases of slave conspiracies were handled by military tribunals that condemned and executed those found guilty. In 1826, regulations were passed by Governor de la Torre and ratified in 1829. Punishments ranged from hanging and quartering from 1700s to the 1830s, then by firing squad, garrote and quartering or decapitation; or simply by decapitation, the sentence for three enslaved persons in Fajardo in 1843. 
Those involved with the uprising in Toa Baja came from dona Pasalagua’s hacienda, situated west of the town, a property managed by Pascasio Charbonieu, who married Maria de la Concepcion Pasalagua’s sister, Maria Belen Pasalagua Cordova. 
They were sentenced on the 18 May 1843.
Among the Longoba were:
Bembe (baptized Cornelio)
and others from the hacienda owned by Francisco Cantero.
Five soldiers and Bembe were killed in the fighting. and soldiers were decorated, relatives of those who died received decorations from the government and for a few, even pensions. Below is a chart based on the list of the condemned in Sued Badillo’s La Pena de Muerte.
This portion of the official report, Sintomas de sedicion de esclavos en un ingenio de Toa Baja – (Symptom of a sedition of slaves at a mill in Toa Baja) refers to the extensive networks among enslaved laborers:
…Este Negro ha declarado estar en la conspiración varios Capatares de diferentes Haciendas de Naguabo, Caguas, Mayag.s, S.n German, Penuelas y Loiza, cuyos Priciones he mandado ejecutar por Comisionados especiales q.e les resiban acta continuo sus declaraciones inquisitiva…
..This Black has declared being in conspiracies versus various Overseers of different Haciendas in Naguabo, Caguas, Mayaguez, San German, Penuelas and Loiza, in shackles he sent orders by special Commissioners who received the acts continue their investigative questioning…
I expected to see extensive coverage of the insurrection given the number of persons involved. Yet this is the only notice in La Gazeta de Puerto Rico, the official newspaper of the Spanish government, tied to the uprising of 1843. It is short and simple, a request for bids for the repair of the Casa del Rey in the pueblo– the same building initially taken over by the enslaved laborers just days earlier.
Regardless of the state’s warnings and the penalty of death, resistance to enslavement continued. Executions were completed in public places or at the same haciendas, with enslaved brought from the surrounding area to witness the delivery of a tableau intended as a warning. As the price of sugar dropped, the added pressure placed by rebellion and escape by the enslaved did not end until the legal abolition of slavery in 1873.
The family who owned Longoba people
Persons owned by the viuda Pasalagua and her husband are listed in the Sociedad Puertorriqueña de Genealogia’s Collecion de Genealogia e Historia, Tomo III: Aportaciones de los naciones africanas a la familia puertorriqueña. They were divided by owner, with several enslaved people owned by the widow Pasalagua and the other those who stood to inherit from her deceased husband via the, ‘sucesión de la familia Hernandez.’
Merging of powers
On the first of January 1833, dona Maria de la Concepcion Pasalagua and don Juan Zoilo Hernandez were married in the Iglesia de San Pedro Apostle de Toa Baja. The first of January was a time of celebration, a break between the end of harvest and the start of planting.
The Hernandez family had a tradition of producing sugar in Toa Baja and were connected to the Pasalagua Cordova bride by family, having a dispensation for “3er con 3er con 4to grado de consangunidad”, indicating the pair were second and third cousins with at least one great grandparent in common. 
The parents of the bride, Capitan Infanteria d. Gil Pasalagua and da. Rosa de Cordova and those of the groom d. Francisco Antonio Hernandez and da. Maria de los Angeles Marrero was a union of power and commerce, representative of the island’s shift from military outpost to sugar based economy built on unsteady ground.
Even the notations on the marriage certificate point to uncertainty, observing that the marriage certificate of ‘one Jose Miguel Pasalagua and Regina Pinero were mistakenly entered in the Libro de pardos, and folio 10 corresponds to the present Libro de blancos.” (See below) [12 ] There is no date listed, and the entry bears the signature ‘Marrero’.
The text of the edge note says:
Que la partida de Matrimonio de Jose Miguel Pasalagua y Ma. Regina Pinero queda equivocada ante halla en el libro de pardos el folio 10 corresponde al presente libro de blancos Anotado y debido ante [illeg.]
The volumes for the Iglesia San Pedro de Apostol are not indexed. To be entered in the Libro de pardos (literally The book of browns) was to be officially marked as a person of color in society, so whether this was administrative error, or a corrective to a known situation isn’t clear. Perhaps other documents will shed more light on the situation.
As historians of slavery show, endogamy shaped the lives of the people held in slavery, particularly when small slaveholding is involved. Through marriage and inheritance, the enslaved and their communities faced any number of situations from transfer of household to outright sale and the sometimes lengthy process of potentially purchasing their freedom through coartación (self purchase).
Additional connections to the family were also created through coercion or consent. Either way, relationships were subject to an imbalance of power and the wishes of the slaveholder. More may be revealed through a combination of DNA and documentation, both oral and historical.
Ultimately, the marriage between dona Pasalagua and her husband did not last long. Don Juan Zoilo Hernandez Marrero died in March 1839, leaving her in charge of running the property on behalf of the estate. She was a proprietor with links to family also invested in the production of sugar, and was one of numerous female slaveowners in 19th century Puerto Rico.
One of the interesting, yet at first puzzling detail is the activity of baptizing the enslaved in groups. The list of people referenced earlier in the SPG’s Tomo III: Aportaciones de los naciones africanas a la familia puertorriqueña show two clusters of people being baptized– one group that belonged to Juan Zoilo Hernandez and the other to his wife Maria Pasalagua.
Here are the baptisms of Antonio, Gabino and Loreto that took place 18 May 1842. The enslaved that belonged to the Pasalagua and Hernandez families appear in the pages of the Libro de Bautismos of San Pedro de Apostol, Toa Baja. They were baptized in groups, and are listed in Libros 8 & 9 of Bautismos; the enslaved were born in Africa, and ranged in age from 10 to 40.
Why baptize adults? A page from Agustin Booth Corbin’s 1844 Book Second: The Spanish Colonies lays out the reasons for religious education and incorporation into Catholicism:
Limiting instruction, also meant to give teachings designed “to strengthen the authority of the masters by accommodating the slaves to submission and teaching them to endure the privations of their transient condition with the resignation that religion alone can inspire…. to encourage the religion which accustoms to submission…”
The 1826 slave code, passed in 1829, was instituted after a thousand people participated in uprisings in 1821 and more after. Article 2 of the 1826 Reglamento sobre la education, trato y ocupaciones que deben dar a sus esclavos los duenos y mayordomos en esta Isla states that the enslaved must be baptized within a year of residence or at most by two years of arrival.
This gives us a window for the purchase of the enslaved owned by the family of Juan Zoilo Hernandez and Maria Concepcion Passalagua.
Hardened beliefs versus flexible realities, denial versus possibility
However, looking back to 1806, self liberation was already a tradition of sorts, that emphasized survival and self preservation were fundamental values, and is part of the larger history of Marronage. Marronage existed in various forms in every slaveholding society in the western hemisphere, with Indian peoples forming the earliest Maroon communities in the Caribbean. As twenty to twenty-five people could run away in a single night, planter families argued they were being ruined by the loss of their human property. 
Document XIII.3 shows a list of 18 individuals who ran away one night in June 1806 from the haciendas of Santiago Rios and the heirs of the Irishman David Quinlan. Among them were men women and children, and they took a piragua or small canoe from Rios’ plantation and made it out by the Boca havana (Mouth of Havana), with machetes and two shotguns. Two had different origins as suggested by their surnames, Manuel Congo and Miguel Franses. 
From Rios Plantation:
Vicente, his partner and Francisco Roman and his partner Manuel Congo, his partner and two children Zeferino Miguel Franses Ignacio Atanacio Juan de la Cruz Juan Pedro
From Quinlan’s Plantation Francisco Juaquin Francisco
By 1812, Santiago Rios was first among the main producers of sugar, together with Juan Ramos, Pablo and Santiago Cordova, Francisco Nevarez, Fernando Davila, Silvestre Roman, Francisco Antonio Hernandez, Jose Rodriguez, Francisco Salas and Jose Garcia. All were prominent political citizens who held posts in Toa Baja’s Junta de Visita, and in 1813, the Town Council comprised Francisco Hernandez as Alcalde (Mayor), Santiago de Cordova, Jose Narcisco Salgado and Francisco Marrero were Regidores; Francisco Salas as Sindico Procurador and Jose Maria Ramirez as Caballero Regidor. They were also important hacendados, (plantation owners). 
One can see that the Hernandez-Passalagua marriage involved Francisco Antonio Hernandez, as father of the groom, and Santiago Cordova, who is likely related to the bride via her mother; Francisco Marrero may have still been Regidor of Toa Baja in 1833.
This union translated into a level of power over those who toiled the land. Despite the interwoven nature of power and sugar production over the lives of the enslaved, they continued to resist.
Calling their names- Restoring the visibility of resistance
Earlier histories of Puerto Rico do not mention the 1843 uprising. Loida Figueroa’s History of Puerto Rico  made an effort to acknowledge the African presence in PR history by designating a separate chapter to cover the history of resistance and racial categorizations, along with the legal structure of the Slave Trade. She provides one of the earliest challenges to the nascent historiography of slavery prior to the work of historians during the 1980s, when the first studies began putting slavery at the center of research.
Yet here, the slave revolt of Toa Baja receives a few sentences noting that “the necessary solidarity did not exist among them all.” Figueroa Mercado adds the observation by historian Luis Diaz Soler, author of Historia de esclavitud en Puerto Rico, who made the remarkable claim that “no racial hatred existed on Puerto Rico.” She strove to point to the paternalistic view that colored some of Diaz Soler’s Historia, which for over 40 years was the only extended work on the history of slavery in Puerto Rico.
Silence on the continuous history of slave resistance in Puerto Rican historiography began to change after the 1960s, in part of public calls for recognition through civil and human rights movements that emerged in the wake of world wars, Jim Crow and mass industrialization. These connections are is what we in BlackProGen are actively working through in our respective blogs.
They Are We: Sierra Leone – Cuba … and Puerto Rico ?
The descendants of the Ganga-Longoba in Cuba kept their traditions alive. Australian historian Emma Christopher filmed the celebration held by descendants whose enslaved ancestors labored at the Santa Elena plantation in Perico. She then screened the footage in various sites in Africa, trying to determine the origin of the traditions, sung in Banta, a language almost extinct nearly two centuries later.
This led Christopher to film the documentary They Are We — the title based the words uttered by the villagers in Sierra Leone upon seeing the film of Afro-Cuban community members and their traditions. Eventually, a small group of descendants was able to travel to Mokpangumba, Sierra Leone to confirm family ties and celebrate their return home some 170 years later.
The ancestor who carried the tradition to Cuba was stolen from a village in Sierra Leone and arrived in the 1820s. Josefa Ganga lived to see the abolition of slavery in Cuba in 1886. She brought with her songs and dances in Banta, traditions for a secret society devoted to healing, on to her daughter and granddaughter. The centrality of music, oral poetry, literal and oral history in maintaining memory exists across the Caribbean, with opportunities to reconnect these ties. As with other communities in the New World, African and Indigenous women transmit values through story-telling, poetry, song and dance.  For Josefa Ganga, formerly enslaved on a sugar plantation early in the nineteenth century, cultural practices offered the gift of resilience. The site these ancestors worked was known as the Ingeniero Santa Elena.
Could this community in Perico, Cuba have connections to the Longoba nation members who were bought and sold to planters in Toa Baja? While the Longoba in Puerto Rico are mentioned in the historical record, their place of origin is not named. As I noted earlier in the article, ‘Longoba’ is used as a descriptor and for one man involved in the uprising, as a surname, Enrique Longoba.
Also in Toa Baja is the Ingeniero Santa Elena, which operated from 1790. Made of pink brick, the buildings are part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, as the only surviving 18th century sugar mill on the island.
This description from 1902 provides insight into the workings of the mill. Perhaps the map of the property lends an idea of how overwhelming the site was, and the ease with which those who wished to steal themselves could plan their escape by reaching the waterways. And they did.
Given the proximity between Cuba and Puerto Rico, and Toa Baja’s open involvement in the illegal slave trade, it’s likely they shared the families and traditions ripped from Upper Banta Chiefdom of Mokpangumba, Sierra Leone over 170 years ago.
Worlds in a bodega
Many in Moca know how to differentiate the leaves of different varieties of plants and roots and where they grow. As a small child in the South Bronx, I learned the varieties from the refrigerated bins in bodegas, with my mother teaching me which root was which from the different shapes and skins. We bought cilantro, recao and tiny sweet red bonnet peppers, all packed in tiny brown paper bags to carry home for her sofrito for our next meal.
Embedded within the foodways that cross our paths are stories of healing and survival, carried by voices over time. 
* “I like my history black… hold the sugar” A shout out to Joseph McGill, of The Slave Dwelling Project whose organization works to preserve slave dwellings across the US. Part of this work takes a simple visceral act of sleeping in extant slave dwellings with a group of people to connect with this fundamental and foundational history.
 Jalil Sued-Badillo, La Pena de Muerte en Puerto Rico: Retrospectiva histórica para una reflexión contemporánea. Puerto Rico: Editorial Centenario SA, 2000, 46-47
 Fernando Pico, Al filo del poder: Subalternos y dominantes en Puerto Rico, 1739-1910. Puerto Rico: Editorial UPR
 Francisco Scarano, “En peligro la libertad de todos.” Puerto Rico: Cinco Siglos de Historia, 414.
 Baralt, Slave Revolts in Puerto Rico 60
 Scarano, “En peligro la libertad de todos.” 414; Baralt, Slave Revolts in Puerto Rico.
 Scarano, “En peligro la libertad de todos.” 414.
 Quote from Andres Ramos Mattei Ramos,
“…y después que terminaba el corte diario de caña, se dirigían a la fábrica en donde los obligaban a permanecer hasta casi la medianoche. Los libres rehusaban trabajos de noche y menos en las fábricas debido a, entre otras cosas, el ruido infernal y el calor insoportable en las mismas. El trabajo inhumano, la mala calidad de vida, la poca infraestructura y la poca seguridad ante los accidentes en el manejo de los equipos y la maquinaria, hacia posible los accidentes y las muertes de los trabajadores del azúcar.”
Andres Ramos Mattei, La hacienda azucarera: su crecimiento y crisis en Puerto Rico (Siglo XIX), San Juan: CEREP, 1981. Quoted in German Diaz Maldonado, “Rebeliones de negros esclavos en Puerto Rico durante el primer tercio del siglo XIX: ensayo historiográfico.” 20 May 2016. Academia.edu.
 Scarano, “En peligro la libertad de todos.” 414
 APISPA, Toa Baja. Libro de Matrimonios, F57
[12 ] APISPA, Toa Baja. Libro de Matrimonios, F57
 APISPA, Toa Baja. Libro de Bautismos, 8B (1835-1843) 251v
 “10 Julio 1806, Noticia de esclavos profugos.” (10 July 1806, Notice of Runaway slaves), Document XIII.3, Benjamin Nistal-Moret, Esclavos profugos y cimarrones: Puerto Rico, 1770-1870. Editorial UPR, 1984, 242-243.
 Baralt, 90
 Loida Figueroa Mercado, “Chapter XII 1. The negro element in the formation of the Puerto Rican nation.” History of Puerto Rico: From the beginning to the 1892. NY: L.A. Publishing Company, Inc. 1977, 247-275.
 Sociedad Puertorriqueña de Genealogia’s Catalogó de Africanos
 Mary E. Modupe Kolawole, “An African View of Transatlantic Slavery and the Role of Oral Testimony in Creating a New Legacy.” Anthony Tibbles, ed. Transatlantic Slavery: Against Human Dignity. National Museums and Galleries of Derbyside, 1994, 105-110.
Note: This is an updated version of an earlier blog post on El Orgullo de ser Mocano.
Following up on BlackProGen LIVE’s Episode #31: People of Color in the Northeast and New Jersey, I offer a brief compilation of archival websites that can be helpful for locating additional details for genealogy and family history of Latinx & Caribbean POC in New York and New Jersey.
First, a little background….
Over time, as archives develop along with the growth of communities, a variety of materials can be located within state and city library systems, universities and institutions. New York and New Jersey have a number of significant archival repositories, of which some collections can be searched on line, and to gain the most, arrange for an in-person visit. Plan to check them out after exhausting initial sources such as census and vital records.
Why this matters for your family history…
Migration occurs in waves: interviewing elders and others within your family network may ease the process of where to look for records, and determining when ancestors turn up in a given location. During the nineteenth and early-mid twentieth centuries, voluntary migration began, and metropolitan areas offered opportunities for work, housing and education that many moved to, in hope of bettering their family’s situation, if not simply to resolve issues of flat out survival. This cycle was driven by the needs of labor and industry, and people clustered in small overlapping ethnic communities. Upheaval of a system, whether due to war, political instability or economic collapse can be part of the larger context of why ancestors moved to New York, New Jersey and other locations.
Understanding this larger context will help you as you write your family history.
As Jie Zong and Jeanne Batalova note in their article on “Caribbean Immigrants in the United States”: “In 2014, approximately 4 million immigrants from the Caribbean resided in the United States, accounting for 9 percent of the nation’s 42.4 million immigrants. More than 90 percent of Caribbean immigrants came from five countries: Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Haiti, and Trinidad and Tobago”[1.] Some movement to the states was due to restrictions on immigration instituted by British government on former colonies. The Haitian diaspora began in the 1920s-1930s, and New York City has the largest and oldest concentration of Haitians in the US. 
Each country’s history varies in terms of who and why different groups of people arrived and departed its shores. The reasons why can give additional clues for tracing your family’s movement across the globe.
Note that diasporic movement of populations means potential family connections can extend worldwide. Take a look at the interactive map on Migration Information – it provides information on contemporary migrations by country, depicted on maps, along with reports on different populations.
A Preliminary Guide for Historical Records Sources on Latinos in NY State (2002)
Although dated, this 112 page guide provides details on archival holdings around the state. Also has appendices organized by topic, includes correctional facilities, various institutions. Check against more recent listings as a number of collections were augmented since it was compiled, and may also have websites.
As discussed on the program, if there are activists among your ancestors, then it’s likely that there are records from government agencies such as the FBI.
Also at Centro: FBI and Puerto Rico
Ramon Bosque Perez’ testimony before Congressional Briefing gives an overview of the archival material held at Centro, which covers four decades. (The URL is long, so you may have to cut and paste into your browser.)
NYPL- Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture,
Manuscripts, Archives Rare Books Division
515 Malcolm X Boulevard (135th St and Malcolm X Blvd) New York, NY, 10037
“The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of The New York Public Library is generally recognized as the world’s leading research library devoted exclusively to documenting the history and cultural development of people of African descent worldwide.”
Toll-free: 1-866-840-1752 or 212-401-1620Has historically relevant archives for federal agencies and courts of New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands dating from 1685 to the present.
Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, Bahamas, Barbados, Cayman Islands, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, Montserrat, Netherlands Antilles, Puerto Rico, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands, Virgin Islands
While reading one of Lyman D. Platt’s research pamphlets on Puerto Rico, I came across his list for documenting family sources. Published in the pre-internet days of 1990, it’s still a great reminder of the variety of information one can use to reconstruct family relationships and fill in timelines with helpful detail.
I clustered the documentary items below according to their utility. Some sources may tell you more about a person or family than others, which can lend insight into the context of a particular time or place. Photographs are incredible resources, if the individuals depicted can be identified; at the very least, one can determine a time and place, often within a decade.
I clustered the documentary items according to their utility. Some sources can offer more about a person or family than others, which can lend insight into the context of a particular time or place. Photographs are incredible resources, if the individuals depicted can be identified– at the very least a time frame can be established for the image. There are increasingly more collections on line, which I’ll write more about in future.
Thanks to migration and time, you may be left with vital records and the possibility of discovering these items at the homes of elders, relatives and friends of the family, via FB groups.. or even eBay.
Periodically revisiting your collection of family documents is a good idea– some details may have escaped notice the first time around. For instance, i’ve gleaned information from my grandfather’s passport several times, realizing more detail was applicable than I initially thought regarding his first marriage. It’s also an incredibly rare image of them at a crucial moment as they voyaged to South America.
So, think of these general categories as applicable for different countries– not just Puerto Rico.
Some resources are available in special collections at universities and other institutions.
Don’t forget to look at Hunter College’s Centro for Puerto Rican Studies, the NYPL’s fabulous Schomburg Collection and there are additional repositories listed in my post on NY-NJ Archives: Notable Latinx & Caribbean Resources.
Suerte en su busqueda! Good luck with your search!
Much has happened since this blog post was written in 2012– the Cementerio Antiguo de San Sebastian in NW Puerto Rico was placed on the Historic Register (Ley Numero 158 of 9 Aug 2016), and it was the subject of several articles, in the Sociedad Puertorriquena de Genealogia‘s Hereditas , as a featured virtual site on KooltourActiva.com with lots of historical detail, and in the local press. In November 2016, Lester Jimenez reported in Primero Hora that conditions at the Cementerio had totally deteriorated, despite years of effort by a dedicated committee, led by Lic. Gladys Gonzalez Colon, the Sociedad Protectora Antiguo Cementerio Municipal del Pepino to gain support for its preservation.
As of September 2017, with the arrival and destruction of Hurricanes Irma & Maria, the question of preservation remains moot. Like many communities in the Caribbean Basin, reconstruction continues and life itself on the islands is a daily struggle for water, food and electricity.
We must not forget that we are all connected, despite the messages sent by some in power.
From August 2012
The excitement one feels when the past feels tangible through the records of ancestors and discovering the places they lived or were buried is profound.
Imagine then, what happens when one visits a site expecting to find a legible trace, and instead, discovers a 14 acre cemetery that is under active desecration. This was not simply finding broken tombstones, but instead, an overgrown place where coffins have been disinterred, bodies exhumed, bones stolen; where drug paraphernalia, beer bottles, animal and human feces along with clothing and underwear are strewn on the ground and within graves, where rituals are held and possibly, where bodies are now dumped. Broken coffins and bones are strewn all over; the tropical heat makes for an incredible stench. Most identifying information has disappeared from the gravesites, and I don’t know whether the cemetery exists in archival form. This is what’s left of one of the oldest cemeteries in NW Puerto Rico. It is enough to make one cry.
The Cementerio Viejo de San Sebastian is an open secret of sorts. One goes to the Mayor’s Office and asks to visit, and one is taken by a caretaker, who warns of the problems, opens the gate and then departs. Left alone, one is left shaken by the experience– things are indeed bad on the island, but frankly, one is unprepared for this. The main gate is locked, and in another area behind another locked gate with a bar is a spot where the living go to urinate. There’s plenty of places where people climb in, and go to take pieces of bodies, as if that will build their power. It is not a place to contemplate death, but to consider how it’s perpetrated on the living. This is the first time i’ve heard just how destroyed the site is. It leaves one with jaw agape. Te deja con boca abierta.
The original intent in visiting the Cementerio, first built in 1826, and re-established in 1863 was to find traces of a connection to the past, to see the names of ancestors, and it makes most cemeteries stateside seem downright bucolic in comparison. What of this cemetery as cultural resource and as a historical site? Is it a problem or a reflection of how violent life has become on an island that the US has squeezed for human capital and corporate benefit since 1898? What of this new traffic in bones?
Can anything be done? Although life is for the living, this is a situation that highlights the island’s historic lack of infrastructure, and sadly, the closeted nature of what can lurk under the label ‘bad condition’. A search quickly reveals that similar situations exist in other countries in Latin America and Europe, complaints that echo those made by a doctor in Spain in the medical journal Pabellón médicoback in 1863. There was no germ theory then, just the belief that illness was carried in bad smells.
Perhaps whatever records remain is all there is of the Cementerio Antiguo after all.
Genealogy, as a friend noted, can break your heart.
Have you had a similar experience? Please feel free to comment.
PS: Grave robbing was still happening as of a couple of weeks ago.