On the trail of compassion and wonder: a meditation
Lately, I’ve been pondering how a broader historical framework for the genealogies and family histories can make displacement visible, particularly for identities shaped by the experiences of diaspora and migration.
Shouldn’t we ask questions about how beginnings are constructed? What’s the significance of an origin story? Who gets to tell about the dawning of a deeper historical consciousness among people? For whom does this story matter? Stories are containers for memory, with purpose.
I want to speak to the depth of this experience not because this perspective grants a sense of ‘survival beyond the odds’, but because when one listens to the bits of histories encoded in our stories and in the genes of our ancestors, these experiences can instill both compassion and wonder.
In turn, compassion and wonder feeds the hope of survival, can enable sympathy, free suppressed identities, and through this recognition, foster social change. Our family histories contain worlds within them and perhaps answers that can help us heal in the present.
2. So, how best to convey and define this complexity? There are so many questions to consider when pondering how to proceed. How can we locate and embrace the foundations created by Indigenous ancestors who kept a particular world view embedded in how they lived? Who can guide us on this journey? How do we come to terms when we discover our enslaved ancestors? Of those who were enslavers? Our task is to quilt together the narratives of survival and remember those that came before us.
These ancestries, family histories and narratives are more visible today thanks to technologies of social media and the regeneration of concepts out of these deeper pasts. But more needs to be done to unfold the hidden margins of these narratives and reveal nodes of connections- location, place, time so that you becomes we. We are a constellation of microhistories.
3. For many Puerto Ricans / Borincanos / Tainos who identify as the descendants of pre-European Boriken, already a blend of Native and African peoples, there is a growing recognition of self and community that stands in relief to a backdrop of colonization. Indigenous identity is long denied because many grew up hearing the stories of extinction, then some deemed it an impossibility because it was not 100%. What happened however is Taino people were not gone, not frozen in time and continue to incorporate change in the present. There’s a culture and the question of language, which doesn’t negate a continued presence. This identity undergoes acknowledgement and recognition both on and off the island with the situation exacerbated by the pandemic. There’s a level of acknowledgment rather than a challenge, and communities that confirm continuity, a slow shift over the decades. Growth and regeneration continues.
4. There’s extraction as a process constantly mobilized by different interests across time. Key to destroying the landscape is forgetting our fundamental interconnectedness from the seemingly inert to overtly active lifeforms. One prays for a respite from the machine of capital, from the desire for gold that threatens El Yunque, a tropical rainforest and sacred space for the Taino people. The land everywhere needs to heal and needs its stewards. Historically, assimilation was the order of the day in policy imposed on Puerto Rico, an echo of how the U.S. dealt with the nations contained within its own borders. Assimilation is an old multifaceted story whose journeys can cost us the past, its details trapped in bits of oral history. What are we remembering? What do our ancestors tell us today?
5. The backdrop of change is a constant. It goes from enslavement to industrialization to a globalization that traps and impoverishes many. Today one can begin to lay claim to this heritage while gaining visibility with less certainty of disenfranchisement. And because of technology, we can make connections with others that increases our chances of survival through the progressively larger gatherings that take place across the country. This connection can be an antidote for the historical amnesia that fades with accountability and the remembrance of survival. Can knowledge stop trafficking? Can memory heal? To receive and share their stories, heal and connect is a blessing. What lessons come from the worlds our ancestors inhabited? How are you we?
Abstract: The only slave narrative from Puerto Rico is included in Luis Diaz Soler’s Historia de laesclavitud negra en Puerto Rico (1953; 2002). This article considers this embedded account as part of the literature of slave narratives to address a gap in the literature; this is perhaps due to the account’s singularity and brevity. Beyond this, the other source for understanding the experience of enslaved women in Puerto Rico is through legal and parish documents, generated by a colonial government and church supportive of slavery. As a result, lives under enslavement are quantified statistically, and the lack of oral history or personal accounts hampers understanding of the effects of enslavement from an individual perspective. Documenting such a life comes with its own set of issues, as shown here by demonstrating the limits of various archival resources. There is no one methodology to follow to reconstruct lives and family histories under slavery, an institution designed to prevent the formation of a historical sense of self and agency. Factoring in familial connections makes my own location as a researcher visible, as knowledge is not neutral. Despite its brevity, considering Leoncia Lasalle’s account, and that of her daughter, Juana Rodriguez Lasalle, in terms of its multiple contexts—microhistory, similarities with U.S. and Cuban slave narratives, family histories, and the archive—reveals the constructed nature of the idea of historical knowledge, which also has implications for genealogical practice involved with slavery and life post-emancipation.
Wednesday April 28, 2021 from 7-8PM– Register via the link below
Independent scholar and genealogist Ellen Fernandez-Sacco will discuss Spain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade. She will talk about its connection to her research and how it shapes her family history in Puerto Rico.
The search for my great great grandfather Telesforo Carrillo began with a fiction of sorts, created by his death certificate of 1920. Here the gap between who he was when he started and who he was at the end of his life widens.
In his death certificate, both a baker and a plumber witnessed the testimony of the informant, his son in law, my great grandfather Juan Fernandez Quinta.
He gave details that led nowhere unless one followed the women. I suspected my great grandfather Telesforo might be an hijo natural, a birth deemed illegitimate by law. With his mother listed as Maria Carrillo, the name Maria yielded nothing, so I set it aside until I could find records that encompassed their lives. A century later, this mosaic of relationships becomes a little clearer.
Telesforo Matos Ramos F75 #206 im 742 25 Marzo 1920 Declarante: Juan Fernandez Quinta, casado, proprietario, natural de Espana, casa Num pda 44 de la calle Loiza, Santurce, yerno natural de Rio Grande, vecino de Santurce 85, blanco, industrial, viudo de Andrea Maldonado, natural de Trujillo Alto, ya difunta avecinado pda 225 Calle La Calma causa: senilidad, 10PM 23 Mar 1920, hl Jose Matos & Maria Carrillo difuntos que el declarante ignora los nombres de los abuelos del difunto Testigos: JP Medina, plomero, nat Fajardo & Catalino Gutiérrez, panadero, San Juan Encargado RC: Juan Requena
The search that never ended
Why was he listed as Matos Ramos? Did my great grandfather misstate his father in law’s name, or did the secretary manage to be distracted and simply entered ‘Ramos’ on the margin? At the end of Telesforo’s life, his parents appear as Jose Matos and Maria Carrillo, both long gone, and that he was their legitimate child. What I eventually learned was much more complicated. With all of the name changes over the decades for his daughter Catalina, my grandfather’s mother.
For a very long time I turned nothing up on Telesforo, so instead I searched records up his grandson, my grandfather, Ramon Fernandez Matos, born in 1900. When I was little, his birthday was celebrated at the end of August, or rather, he celebrated it with his friends. That date didn’t come up in the Registro Civil, and neither did the name.
Just a month ago, I decided i’d try searching with the Carrillo name, and, lo and behold!! He turned up as Ramon Fernandez Carrillo, and the birth certificate that eluded me for so long finally came up, along with that of another sibling. Oddly enough, Telesforo and Catalina’s previous son, Andres, appears as Andrea Fernandez Matos, with his maternal grandparents listed as “Telesforo Matos y Andrea Maldonado de San Juan.”
As an adult, my grandfather Ramon used Matos as his maternal surname. I had never heard of Carrillo until I started tracing his mother, my great grandmother, Catalina (1862-1966). She too had several surnames at different times in her life, and it’s still unclear if the additional uses provided some kind of protection or cover for her.
She appears as an hija natural of Andrea Maldonado in the baptismal record of May 1862 from Nuestra Señora del Carmen, Rio Grande1. She was the first of Telesforo and Andrea’s 13 children, once a costurera, a dress maker who actually cut and made men’s suits in San Juan. She grew up in an area of Santurce that was full of skilled artisans and workers, Barrio Obrero. Telesforo Carrillo was a carpintero, a carpenter and laborer still working the year before he died in 1920 at 75 years of age.
A Glimpse of Youth
Recently my cousin, genealogist Maria Kreider sent me a link to an early record for Telesforo, who turned up in the 1850 Padron de habitantes for Rio Grande. Filmed by the LDS in 1987, this census record comes out of the AGPR’s (Archivo General de Puerto Rico) collection of municipal documents, here the Alcaldia Municipal for Rio Grande. The files consist of two Cajas, A and B; Caja A holds Cédulas de vecindad y padrones Caja A 1860, 1871, 1875, 1880, 1882, 1888, 1898 Caja B 1860-1870. In 1850 Rio Grande was a recent municipality founded in 1840, when it split from Loiza. It was named after the river that joins the Rio Espiritu Santo in North East Puerto Rico, perched between the northeastern coast and the Sierra Luquillo mountains1.
In 1858, he lived in Barrio San Francisco, which was a portion of the town that has since been renamed. In December 1860, he was living with his grandmother, Agustina Carrillo Santiago, 78 years old as head of household, and he appears as Telesforo Carrillo, 18 years old, working as a laborer. The other person living with them was Estevan Pinto y Estrada, a 75 year old widower. None were literate.
The next page is even more illuminating.
This was a household of Free People of Color, two of them widowed, all born on the island. What I learned about Augustina is that at an advanced age, she took care of her grandson, Telesforo, not yet the legal age of adulthood. His youth meant that her daughter, Maria Ysabel Carrillo, had already died- she does not turn up in this series of documents. So far, the man listed as Teleforo’s father, Jose Matos, only appears on his death record. Agustina Carrillo Santiago (1765-1865) herself was unmarried. This is two generations of a female headed household. Besides Maria Ysabel, she had Julian Carrillo b. 1840 in Rio Grande, who later married Petronila Caraballo Hernandez bca. 1845.
Estevan Pinto Estrada was the widow of Toribia Perez, who died before 1860; his relatives also married Carrillos. Whether he was a partner to Agustina or a boarder in the home are questions that may never be answered. As Free People of Color they would have had access to the courts and to town councils, but still carried a liability as ultimately one could not transcend their class or condition. [Kinsbruner 38; 43-44] What more could I learn of their origins?
Losing Elders, Losing Family
The incredibly fragile pages from la Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Carmen, Rio Grande of 15 May 1865 holds three deaths tied by blood and location. On the upper left is the record for Augustina Carrillo Santiago, and on the facing page, is that of Estevan Pinto Estrada. Below him is the record for Gregorio Carrillo, Agustina’s grandson, the child of Julian Carrillo and Petronila Caraballo. None were able to accept the sacraments before dying, indicating a sudden death. There are more Carrillos and Pintos in adjacent pages listed in this volume of Entierros (Burials).
So far I have found no additional information on what took place whether a fire or epidemic took their lives. They are among my Afro-Indigenous ancestors, part of an ongoing ethnocide as the government ended the use of the term’Indio‘ and instead reduced them to colors, uncoupling any political recognition of the local from a longer, deeper history of living on Boriken.
I found Agustina in an 1827 baptism for Maria Nonanta Bartolome Robles at the Parroquia del Espiritu Santo y San Patricio of Loiza, Puerto Rico. On that date, both Agustina and her brother Pablo Carrillo served as godparents, and were identified as ‘Morenos libres” or ‘Free Coloreds’.
Maria Kreider’s gift of sending me the 1860 Padron that listed Agustina and my second great grandfather Telesforo led me to my fifth great grandparents, Simon Carrillo and Josefa Santiago. who were probably born in the 1760s, in Loiza. From what I have seen, there are three clusters of families with the Carrillo surname in the early nineteenth century: Spanish emigres, Afro Indigenous creoles and African descended free and enslaved.
Among the oral history I heard, Catalina Carrillo, great granddaughter of Simon and Josefa maintained an altar, and included among the statues was the figure of an American Indian. However manifested, the woven syncretism of her belief system remembered Native ancestors, never forgotten as part of a local, spiritual sustenance. All of these layers are hidden behind the multiple descriptions and names of Telesforo Carrillo over the arc of his life.
“Puerto Rico, registros parroquiales, 1645-1969”, database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:WG7D-392M : 9 April 2020), Esteban Pinto, 1865.
“Puerto Rico, registros parroquiales, 1645-1969”, database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:W649-8WPZ : 14 November 2019), Josefa Santiago in entry for Agustina Carrillo, 1865.
Jay Kinsbruner, Not of Pure Blood: The Free People of Color and Racial Prejudice in Nineteenth Century Puerto Rico. Duke University Press, 1996.
Oh, America. The labor, sweat and blood that went into the infrastructure of this country, into its buildings and roads is a history, that for 400 years was presented as someone else’s. All of this effort, excellence, and memory can’t be crammed into the shortest month of the year– nor can it be recounted on one day.
Regardless, we need to honor those that came before us, and one way I can think of is to find those ancestors embedded in the shadows of a suppressed history. It takes time and work to find the details , but it’s so worth it.
As I write this on Juneteenth, I see it as a very different day this year because so many decided to stand over the last month, right after the lynching of George Floyd. His death was a catalyst, a wake up call for the complacency with an investment in death. On Black ProGen, we have talked about the crushing effects of structural racism on BIPOC families, which in turns shapes the documentation that we can access to research the lives of our ancestors.
I was honored to speak the names of Leoncia Lasalle, Dionicia Rodriguez Lasalle, Juan Tomas Gandulla and Tomas Gandulla yesterday on the Juneteenth Celebration held by Black ProGen Live with host Nicka Smith, True A. Lewis, Shelley Murphy, Andre Ferrell and James Morgan III, all bringing knowledge to a lively discussion on different dimensions of what gets folded into Juneteenth, the effort, the freedom and the struggle. It makes one pause how much sitting on knowledge played into this all, how much hiding of violence, how much denial, how much disregard was surmounted in pressing for equality.
It seems almost weekly, we see articles describing tone deaf and racist approaches to the teaching of slavery, on which the foundation of this country rests, and maintains today. Part of the problems rests on the disconnect between this history and how and what we learn, together with where and who delivers a particular narrative about the past. The Southern Poverty Law Center, in response to the recent spate of incidences in schools across the country, issued a report with seven common problems in teaching about slavery, which I rewrote here to apply to genealogy.
1. We understand that slavery is not a universal experience for POC, but it is the fact of how this nation was founded. We seek to research, learn and understand the roles and experiences of families and communities within these systems.
2. We acknowledge that flaws are embedded in particular understandings of American history, and that by understanding their role in impacting family history, we can also work towards change.
3. Enslavement is an American institution that crosses time and place. It existed in all colonies and states at the time of the signing of Declaration of Independence, and its principles continue to be bound with the economic fate of the nation today.
4. We speak to the ideology of white supremacy, and point to its outline and role of eugenics within the formation of genealogical practice. We also consider the perpetuation of slavery within forms of structural racism today, that connects past and present.
5. We deal with traumatic experiences as part of our history; the focus within our approach is on resilience and survival.
6. Genealogy and family history are contextual practices- we seek to incorporate the scope of POC experience by not divorcing it from the cultural currents and practices of the time.
7. Our focus on the lives of POC decenters white experience, and instead references a framework of relevant political and economic impacts in the time leading up to and beyond the Civil War. African American institutions provided structure and opportunity, thereby affording a way out of no way.
These two quotes, from a speech made by James Baldwin in 1980 still resonate today when thinking about family histories, genealogy and their use in interpreting the larger context of living and understanding the past:
“I want to suggest that history is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”
“You got to find out the reality which surrounds you. You got to be able to describe it. You got to be able to describe your mother and your father and your uncles and your junkie cousin. If you aren’t able to describe it, you will not be able to survive it.” “Black English: A Dishonest Argument.” Randall Kenan, ed. James Baldwin, The Cross of Redemption, Uncollected Writings. 2010.
How many Jose, Maria and Juans have you come across in your tree? Frequently repeated first names can reflect religious preferences, as in Saints Day names or Marian names. The repetition of names can also be a simple preference due to precedents within families or by popularity. Sorting out whether a name that keeps cropping up are made up of one or multiple first and last names requires caution as one seeks the supplemental evidence that adds weight to a proof. Even better is locating a document where the informant knew quite a bit about the deceased, to the point of citing several marriages, parents, children or grandparents. There are documents that just begin to knock some brick walls down– and this 1904 document provides just such a moment.
The son who remembered
When Jose Antonio Caban Nieves died in 1904, his son, Lorenzo Caban Babilonia was able to recite the names of all the women in his father’s five marriages. Now both of Lorenzo’s parents were gone, as his father contracted a severe intestinal illness, that resulted in his rapid demise. How long Jose Antonio’s condition lasted went unmentioned in his death certificate. Such details are included in more recent certificates, after 1935.
Wives, children and memory
Jose Antonio Caban Nieves lived long enough to be a 70 year old man who had 16 children, most of whom survived to adulthood. His marriage with Pascasia Babilonia, was likely the longest of all. Remarkably, his son Lorenzo Caban Babilonia (1866-1946) listed the names of the children from each marriage. This also reflects an oral practice of transmitting names and committing them (successfully) to memory, so Lorenzo’s feat was part of learning one’s own family history. We know it’s oral, because at the end of the document, is stated “..firma el Comisonado y los testigos por el declarante no saber firmar, le hace a su ruego..” the Commissioner and witnesses signed on his behalf, because the informant does not know how to write. His father left a will, so there’s additional documentation in the Protocolos Notariales at the Archivo General de Puerto Rico. As it turns out, NONE of the additional 14 people linked to Jose were indexed in FamilySearch— another reason why it’s worth checking the original document.
Parents: Marcelo Caban & Ynes Nieves
First Marriage: Pascasia Babilonia [Quinones]
10 children, only 8 mentioned: Lorenzo, Juana, Bibiana, Calista, Ricarda, Anastasio, Juan y Segundino Caban Babilonia.
Fourth Marriage: Evangelista Ortiz [Perez] No children
Fifth Marriage: Sinforosa Soto [Hernandez]
2 children: Luis y Marian Caban Soto
What this also tells us is that childbearing proved deadly for some partners. With so many little ones, a widower’s impulse to find another wife was imperative. Here potential mates seem to be in the area of Barrio Naranjo, where farms and plantations of relatives and associates were nearby. Most people were born at home, and infant mortality was high. These births were not for the most part, attended by doctors but comadronas or midwives, used their knowledge to bring the next generation into the world. By the 1930s, comadronas (midwives) had formal training, although the knowledge of delivering babies was known among women long before. The difference was a decline in the number of mothers lost to infeccion puerperal – puerperal fever.
For his first marriage to Petronila Pascasia Babilonia Quinones (1846-bef 1886), my research revealed there was at least one additional child. Petronila, as she mostly appears in documents, was the daughter of Francisco Babilonia Acevedo & Maria Bibiana Quinones Vives, owners of Sitio de la Ranchera during the time of her birth.
Multiple connections emerge from these marriages and children. His siblings also tended to have large families, without additional marriages. HIs older sister, Evangelista Caban Nieves (1818-1916), who married Jose Soto (ca 1813-1906) and had 15 children with him. His brothers Marcelino (1833-1914) and Manuel de Jesus Caban Nieves (1846-1886) married two sisters, the daughters of d. Antonio Perez Gerena and da. Manuela Babilonia Lorenzo de Acevedo. Marcelino married Cirila Isidra Babilonia Perez ( 1834-1911) with whom he had 11 children. Manuel de Jesus married Damiana Babilonia Perez (ca 1835-1888) they had 6 known children.
If you’re related to them, you’re related to me via Manuela Babilonia Acevedo, my GGG aunt and her parents. There are probably additional links via the Caban and the Nieves lines, as well, however that connection remains to be determined, partially caught in gap of missing records for first decade of the early nineteenth century. Going beyond the transcriptions in search results can definitely offer a researcher advantages.
“Puerto Rico, Registro Civil, 1805-2001,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QVJD-F8D7 : 17 July 2017), Pascasia Babilonia in entry for José Antonio Caban Y Nieves, 27 Jan 1904; citing Moca, Puerto Rico, oficinas del ciudad, Puerto Rico (city offices, Puerto Rico).
Ellen Fernandez-Sacco, “Don Miguel Babilonia (1743-1823) and his Descendants: From Mallorca, Spain to Moca, Puerto Rico.” Hereditas, 16:1, 2015, 6-47; 35-36. https://bit.ly/2Y31yiT
My latest blog post, is a Guest Post: A Bonilla Family Tree, is about the reading the larger context of Juan Eusebio Bonilla Salcedo’s life and family. This is one of my prima Teresa Vega’s ancestors, who was lynched in Yauco in 1890. Radiant Roots Boricua Branches is her blog. Appreciate this opportunity to delve into her Boricua branches!
While in Puerto Rico over a decade ago, I bought copies of old photographs at Tienda Cesto in Aguadilla. Part of the store was given over to tables with sets of binders, each containing photographs from different municipalities. There were a small number of images of Moca that I bought. Looking for items for the next Black ProGen Live (Ep.72 – join us!), I pulled my small binder of photographs as I remembered an image with a coffin. As I’d soon learn, my connections were closer than I could’ve imagined.
Near the end of September 1929, a group of men and children stood in the midday sun before a coffin for a photographer, in Moca. According to the notation on the photograph, it was Balbino Gonzalez’ father and the location was in Barrio Plata, a rural location some 5 miles away from the center of town.. Recently finished, the shiny coffin, painted a dark enamel color and embellished with stamped metal decorations sat on a frame that was to shortly transport Gonzalez to his final resting place in the Viejo Cementerio Municipal de Moca in what was popularly known as Calle Salsipuedes . Given that the son’s name appeared with a date, I used that as a guideline to find Balbino Gonzalez’s father in the Registro Civil. The death actually occurred ten days later.
Acta de defuncion: 29 September 1929
Balbino Gonzalez Jimenez was one of five children of Jose Manuel Gonzalez Perez (1863-1929) and Juana Bautista Jimenez Soto (1868-1926). He is the young man in the suit at the center of the photograph. He was single at the time of his father’s death on 27 September 1929. He came from Santurce where he was a teacher, to report his father’s death to the Registro Demográfico. His suit, tie and hair speak to fashion in the metropolis of the San Juan metropolitan area, a self awareness already honed by his profession. The other men in the photo wear looser fitting shirts, and the straw boatera hat is a respectful nod to artesanos and locals that decades later became part of the dress of Los Enchaquetaos, a fraternal group founded by Pedro Mendez Valentin. Here the stiff hat functions much like the formal top hats used by funeral staff.
Jose Manuel Gonzalez Perez, was an 82 year old widower, who worked as a professor. He lived on Calle Nemesio Gonzalez, and died the morning of 27 September 1929 of cardiac insufficiency. It’s likely that as his condition worsened, family was contacted as his time neared. His son Balbino Gonzalez Jimenez was summoned home, and he was the informant for his father’s death record above. While he was unable to report the names of his father’s paternal and maternal grandparents, he gave the names of Jose Manuel’s parents: Jose M. Gonzalez (ca 1814-bef 1899) and Juana Perez Guevara (1819-1899)  Jose Manuel was one of three siblings from Barrio Plata, a long narrow municipality that borders San Sebastián on its eastern border.
La ultima parada: from workshop to cemetery
A 1947 map of Moca shows the former location of the cemetery at the end of the street that leads from the Plaza in front of the church to the Cementerio Municipal.
Among the group standing in the photograph on the right, is a tall pale man, who may in fact be Alicides Babilonia Talavera, my great grandfather. Later, his son, Alcides Babilonia López also made coffins in a nearby workshop.
Calle Nemesio González in Moca ran through Barrio Pueblo, and this is the street that Jose Manuel Gonzalez Perez lived on; my great-grandfather Alcides Babilonia Talavera and grandfather Alcides ‘Alcidito’ Babilonia Lopez lived in homes next door to each other on Calle Juan B. Huyke. This is the backdrop of the 1929 photograph. As this was before the establishment of a funeral home, many people had a wake at home, and the Gonzalez family probably did the same. Given the heat, it lasted a day, with ice piled beneath the coffin and a plate piled with salt placed on the chest of the deceased. The lid may or may not have a glass window, so that the case can stay closed and the deceased could still be seen.
The man on the far right
Among the group standing in the photograph there on the right, is a tall pale man, who may in fact be Alicides Babilonia Talavera, my great grandfather. Later, his son, Alcides Babilonia López also made coffins in a nearby workshop.
According to my cousin Diany, Alcides was known for his coffins. When he was younger, he had a room with samples where people could choose fabrics for the inside of their coffins. There were always stories with a touch of the supernatural about them. He had an order from a man who needed a coffin, and worked on making it with a hammer. after midnight, he couldn’t find the coffin. Another coffin was tossed through the window, so he picked it up and finished the job.
Finish & detail: 1929
The details in the photo give an idea of decorative funerary practices in rural areas, which ran from the simplest unadorned box to a highly finished coffin with stamped metal cherubs holding a garland inscribed with ‘Que en paz descanse’. Clearly then, this was top of the line and the maker stands at the head, arms folded behind him, separating him from the family next to him.
Center Left: identifying Lorenzo Caban Lopez, Sepulturero de Moca
The identity of the man in the flat top hat is Lorenzo Caban Lopez, who was married to Lucia Alonso Font (1874-1956).  In 1901 he was appointed by the municipal government as a Sepulturero y conservador (Gravedigger and caretaker) and as a Celador (Maker of grave markers and crypts) for the old Cementerio Municipal, which he did for 23 years until August 1936. after his death, his son Feliciano ‘Chano’ Caban, who stands to the left, became Sepulturero.  He and his family lived on the edge of Barrio Pueblo, on Calle de la habana. As it happens, I share many connections with this Caban line.
Lorenzo was the father of Domitila Caban Lopez (1902-1982), my grandfather’s last partner before his death in 1948. She was a tejedora, a lacemaker and I exhibited some of her lace work at UPR Mayaguez along with that by other tejedoras, some who are no longer with us. Like lace, weaving these details together give us a recognizable pattern as we work through the questions.
By the 1940s
In the 1940 census, Alcides Babilonia Talavera was a divorced widower, and it is not until then that his occupation is listed as a maker of coffins. in the 1910-1930 census his occupation is Agricultor- finca de cafe (Farmer- coffee farm). By 1920, his ex-wife, Concepcion Lopez Ramirez (1863-1925) lived next door to him and had a business as a ‘modista’ a dressmaker, living with several of her children while Alicides lived next door with children as well. In January 1925, Concepcion died suddenly. His reaction was to call a photographer for one last image, altered to evoke the life of a portrait. It merely succeeded at lending an uncanny gaze emanating from her painted in eyes. I am not sure how much this experience shaped his funeral avocation, but he was likely well acquainted with the steps of caring for the dead, as people still arrived and departed from their homes.
My grandfather, also named Alcides, made coffins, and in 1940 appears as a “ carpintero – propio taller” a carpenter with his own workshop. It was the year he married my grandmother Felicita, who later died that year of tuberculosis, which took many family members. By 1948, knowing he was going to die, he made a simple pine box for himself, but that’s another story. He worked making coffins with his friend Rito Vargas, husband of Maria Lassalle, the lacemaker of Moca. Out of death comes a refashioning of self, family and the ways we decide (and are able to) to honor their lives.
Unexpectedly, a photograph brings me closer to the past and to even more relatives, as I learn more about the work of Lorenzo Caban Lopez and Alcides Babilonia Talavera. QEPD.
Acta Defunción, “Puerto Rico, Registro Civil, 1805-2001,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QVJD-J3PV : 17 July 2017), Jose Manuel Gonzalez Y Pérez, 26 Sep 1929; citing Moca, Puerto Rico, oficinas del ciudad, Puerto Rico (city offices, Puerto Rico).
 Acta Defunción, “Puerto Rico, Registro Civil, 1805-2001,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QVJD-FTL3 : 17 July 2017), Juana Perez Guebara, 17 Oct 1899; citing Moca, Puerto Rico, oficinas del ciudad, Puerto Rico (city offices, Puerto Rico).
 Lorenzo Caban Lopez’ death certificate lists his occupation: Celador- cementerio, Gob Municipal hasta Ago 1936, 23 anos; Acta Defunción “Puerto Rico, Registro Civil, 1805-2001,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QVJD-NJMT : 17 July 2017), Lorenzo Caban Lopez, 14 Nov 1936; citing Moca, Puerto Rico, oficinas del ciudad, Puerto Rico (city offices, Puerto Rico).
 Antonio Nieves Mendez, Historia de un pueblo: Moca . Lulu.com 2008, 49.
 Victor Gonzalez, “Los Cuentos de Chano Caban” Mi niñez Mocana y algo más…. Segundo edición, Impresos Ideales, 1990, 19-21.
As three historians of Cuban slavery recently wrote,”Los notarios eran parte de este sistema de “escribir la esclavitud.” — Notaries were part of this system of “writing enslavement”, literally creating the legal structures through documents that recorded and controlled the lives and movements of over 51,000 enslaved POC by 1846. In this way, the documents further defined citizenship within a slave holding society. What I thread together here is the history of several people held in bondage, the predicament of pursuing freedom, its purchase and my own project of transcribing parts of a missing volume these certificates were entered into. At the end of this article is a translated list of names of those enslaved ancestors who gained freedom from one transcribed box of notarial documents.
The run of notarial documents in Caja 1444 show that between January 1848 and the end of January 1852, the elites of Moca freed, sold and bought enslaved people. Some distinctions made between those who were servants versus those who were laborers, but when a Carta de emancipación (Letter of Freedom) was issued, the bearer had proof of freedom that hopefully, led to self determination.
Several things become clear in this particular collection of notary documents, only 19 slaveholders liberated their human property, while 61 slave holding inhabitants continued to participate in selling them. Despite any bonds of blood or call to family that might exist, the exchange of money was paramount. The odds of gaining freedom in mid-nineteenth century Puerto Rico were indeed challenging.
The plaza at the center of Barrio Pueblo was used for drying coffee, and this 1914 image is telling of Moca’s deeply agricultural context. This town center was the neighborhood where many who gained their freedom moved to in search of employment. At this time, just 41 years after the end of slavery in Puerto Rico in 1871, a significant number of people from elders to adults had some experience with enslavement. I met their descendants in 2000s, and if we speak of context, there is not a single family member untouched by slavery.
Those Who Were Freed
Eight of those freed were male and eleven were female, the youngest being Ramona, 7 months old, and the oldest, Marcos, 70, born in Santo Domingo about 1781. He may have witnessed the events of the Haitian Revolution prior to reaching Puerto Rico; Ramona, if she survived, may have witnessed the string of uprisings that went across Northwest Puerto Rico with the Grito de Lares in 1868, and perhaps actively participated in the struggle for equality that continued for decades.
Some may still carry their memories, so there may be oral histories that tell of their lives. At the very least, their traces in the historical record speak to the constraints they had to live under, and hope for a better life after emancipation despite a spectrum of challenges.
The Emancipation of Mauricio and Ramona
Among those who gained their freedom were children, among them Mauricio 1 1/2 whose mother Monserrate paid for his letter of emancipation; 7 month old Ramona was purchased by Maria Encarnacion from d. Alberto Soto. In 1848, Maria Candelaria paid her slaveowner d. Cristobal Benejan for her own freedom, and in 1850, was able to buy that of her two-year-old daughter Maria, who was born on Benejan’s property and was raised by Paula, another enslaved woman who worked there. As of 1849, “…colonial authorities permitted interested parties to purchase the freedom of infant slaves at the time of baptism, for the sum of twenty-five pesos. The infant however, remained with the master who owned his/her mother until he/she reached adulthood.”  So far, there is no indication that freedom was Benejan’s intention.
One wonders what might have transpired within those two years, and how these free women worked to support their families. They became part of the free community that moved away from the rural agricultural areas to Barrio Pueblo. Here they worked providing services such as cooking, laundering, childcare, dressmaking and lacemaking among others, that continues into the present. Benejan descendants still live near the Plaza in Barrio Pueblo, Moca today.
In a transcription project on the 1870 Registro de Esclavos I’m working on, Cristobal Benejan y Suria was among the largest slave holders in Moca, with 54 persons. At this point in 1870, another three years of labor was required prior to emancipation.
Note this was 36 months of uncompensated labor, caught up in expectations of gratitude toward former owners on the part of the freed. Historian lleana Rodriguez-Silva wrote that “Political practices such as gratitude highlight the liberal features of benevolence and paternalism and undermine efforts to critique the structures of power, especially through critiques of racialized domination.”  So, the histories of abolition in the Caribbean were revised and rewritten to celebrate rather than expose how power functioned in the lives of POC.
Among the certificates of those owned by Benejan in the Registro, Paula’s name appears as the mother of Loreto, 11 (b.1859), and Calista, 1 (b.1869). There is a certificate for Paula, 29 (b. 1849) daughter of Juana, born the same year Maria Candelaria gained her freedom. What happened to the Paula that cared for Maria Candelaria’s daughter Maria? Was Paula freed in the two decades after she was entrusted with the care of Maria? Did she pass away before 1870? I’m left with more questions than I can answer.
Looking at my own tree, I have distant connections to the Benejam via marriage to another slaveholding family, the Lorenzo de Acevedo. Even one of my recent atDNA matches points to this connection on FTDNA, and there are likely more 4-5th cousins out there, like myself, with genetic ties to both slaveowner and those they enslaved.
The Benejam originate in Menorca, among the smaller of the Baleáricos Islands. They arrived in Puerto Rico during the 18th century, and became an important family in Moca, owning land and people that they freed after 1870. Cristobal Benejam purchased Juan from the parish priest Pbo.Jose Balbino David, who functioned as a local small slave dealer during the 1850s, buying and selling people to various individuals.
Living Transactions: currency & human devaluation
During the nineteenth century, the Puerto Rican economy struggled with a mistrust of paper currency, rudimentary banking practices and a lack of coinage. What was used were pesos macuquinos (‘Cob coin’), a silver coinage removed from circulation in Venezuela, and instead, was in circulation on the island for nearly a half century, without a real banking system. This meant real money was scarce.  Within this plantation economy, enslaved people were sold and the income from their sale was used by slaveholders to pay their own taxes and bills. The scant availability of cash on the island suggests the enormous difficulty of the situation that the enslaved faced in raising funds to purchase their own freedom, and the deep anxiety over maintaining family with the threat of sale and displacement constantly looming. Regardless, many continued their attempts and strategies to push for freedom.
Among the slave owners were Gonzalez, Perez del Rio, Benejan, Soto, Lopez, Vasquez, Salas, Suarez Otero, and de la Cruz; some entries give information on previous owners, and together with other notarial entries, one can glean details on the places those held in slavery by them lived and worked. The location of origin for most of the persons listed below was Puerto Rico, although some came from Costa Firme, Venezuela, the Dutch Caribbean islands, and Santo Domingo. The official inscribing the documents into the books was the mayor or Alcalde ordinario d.Casimiro Gutierrez de Canedo, as there was no official royal notary in Moca to record these acts between 1848 and 1852.
Almost all the persons listed paid for their freedom, with five cases granting unconditional freedom with no money involved. Aside from these cases, 32 pesos was the lowest price and 300 pesos the highest. The total amount spent by the enslaved for their freedom was 1,947 pesos macuquinos. Depending on the calculation, this may be equivalent to just over $10,600 US according to the Consumer Price index or $10,900 US in relative wages in today’s money. 
Given the scarcity of cash at the time, it is an astounding figure that illustrates the extractive nature of slavery that POC were forced to navigate in mid-nineenth century NW Puerto Rico.
Letters of Freedom, Moca, Puerto Rico, 1848-1852
20 Jan 1848: Pedro Gonzalez, 28, criollo (born in Puerto Rico), single, bought his freedom for 32 pesos from d. Faustino Perez del Rio. F1
24 Jan 1848: Eugenio, 26, criollo (born in Puerto Rico), single, bought his freedom for 250 pesos silver from d. Maximo Gonzalez. F2
8 Feb 1848: Mauricio, 1 1/2, freedom bought by his mother Monserrate for 25 pesos from d. Juan Jimenez. F5v
8 Jun 1848: Candelaria, bought her freedom for 68 pesos from d. Cristobal Benejans. F17v-18
24 Jul 1848: Ramona, 7 mo., mother Maria Encarnacion bought her freedom for 37 pesos from d. Alberto de Soto. F48v
24 Jul 1848: Tomasa, 35, criolla (born in Puerto Rico), mulata, servant her freedom purchased for 300 pesos from d. Felix Lopez and his wife Petrona Vega. Tomasa was “born in the home of another of their slaves named Paula.” F23-23v
24 Jan 1850: Maria Ylaria o Isidora 2, born on his property, mother Maria Candelaria bought freedom for 70 pesos from d. Cristobal Benejam. F25v-26.
8 May 1850: Felix, 60, ‘natural de la isla’ (born in Puerto Rico) light mulato, for good services, granted freedom from d. Manuel Salas’ (-1850) will. F48v
8 Aug 1850: Lorenzo, who resides in Moca bought freedom for 300 silver pesos from Jose de la Cruz of Lares, who bought him from Juan, Antonio y Francisco de la Cruz. F100-100v
15 Oct 1850: Maria de los Angeles, 26, servant, bought her freedom for 300 pesos from d. Maximo Gonzalez. F128-129
22 Nov 1850: Maria de la Encarnacion, servant, bought her freedom for 100 pesos maququinos from d. Alberto de Soto. F151
9 Apr 1851: Marcos, 70, born Santo Domingo, dark skinned, bought his freedom for 60 pesos from d. Francisco Roman. F52v-53
16 Aug 1851: Matias, 60, Dutch, tall, chocolate color, graying hair, regular front with honey colored eyes, thick nose, large mouth, bushy eyebrows, to be granted freedom for his service, obedience, respect and honor upon the death of da. Rosalia Perez. F170v-171
16 Aug 1851: Prudencio, 8, reddish color, passing hair, regular appearance, honey colored eyes, wide nose, small mouth to be granted freedom upon of da. Rosalia Perez. F171-171v
16 Aug 1851: Catalina, 40, single, reddish black color, passing hair, sad eyes, thick, wide nose wide mouth and bushy eyebrows, for good conduct from the first day, with honesty and activity proper to a slave to her masters to be freed upon the death of da. Rosalia Perez. F171v-172
29 Aug 1851: Teresa, 56, single, mulato, to compensate for her distinguished services with real love and constancy to be granted her freedom by d. Manuel Morales. His son d. Enrique Morales signed as his father did not know how to write. F176v-177
27 Oct 1851: Pedro Pablo, 30, born in Puerto Rico, single, mulato, reddish hair, regular appearance, regular nose, brown eyes, regular mouth and scant beard, purchases his freedom for 200 pesos maququinos from from d. Pedro Vargas. F227-227v
23 Dec 1851: Encarnacion, 40, born Costa Firme, Venezuela, given freedom for her good service via the will of d. Vasquez, via son d. Leonardo Vasquez. F304v
24 Jan 1852: Maria de la Cruz, 14 criolla (born in Puerto Rico), single, light mulato, household servant, straight hair, small round face , black eyes, properly placed nose, regular mouth, freedom purchased by her father Pedro Cordero for 205 pesos maququinos from d. Jose Suarez Otero, deceased, via da. Teresa Cordero, his widow. F20-20v
 Michael Zeuske with Orlando García Martínez & Rebecca J. Scott. “Estado, notarios y esclavos en Cuba. Aspectos de una genealogía legal de la ciudadania en sociedades esclavistas.” Cuba. De esclavos, ex-esclavas, cimarrones, mambises y negreros. 102-165; Table 7.2 Population Increases by Race, in Olga Wagenheim’s Puerto Rico: An Interpretive History, p. 151 for 1846 lists a total population of 443,139; 216,083 White; 175,791 Free People of Color, and Slave at 51,265. By 1869, this number drops by -12,196 to 39,069 persons. Olga Jimenez de Wagenheim, Puerto Rico: An Interpretive History, from Pre-Columbian Times to 1900. NY: Marcus Weiner Publishers, 1998.
 Cartas de emancipación de esclavos compiled from Carlos Encarnacion Navarro, Transcription, Caja 1444, Serie Aguadilla, Pueblo Moca, 20 Jan 1848-31 Jan 1852, Fondo de Protocolos Notariales, Archivo General de Puerto Rico. Translations and extracts are my own.
 Antonio Nieves Mendez, Historia de un pueblo Moca, 1772-2000. Lulu.com 2008, p.146. Ref. Caja 1444, f4.
 “The politics of gratitude refers to the dynamics through which many came to see abolition as an effort to modernize the island, an endeavor for which everyone should be morally indebted to abolitionists and their successors. The politics of gratitude thus provided the structures through which liberal reformists could preserve a racialized and patriarchal social order in the absence of slavery. In the process, liberals also constituted themselves as the only inter- mediaries between popular subjects and the imperial state.” lleana M. Rodriguez-Silva, “Abolition, Race, and the Politics of Gratitude in Late Nineteenth-Century Puerto Rico.” Hispanic American Historical Review 93:4 621-657. doi 10.1215/00182168-2351656
 “3556. Paula, 29, hija de Juana.” 1 Mar 1870. Registro de Esclavos, Moca, Dist. Aguadilla, Caja 4, FHC Film 1511797.