This has turned out to be a busy month! I finished my last article for the series on “Reconstructing Missing Volume of the Registro Central de Esclavos, pt 4” for the forthcoming volume 24 of Hereditas: Revista de la Sociedad Puertorriquena de Genealogia. I hope to submit “Looking for Lorenzo Ubiles, Alcalde de barrio Humacao 1873.” for the AAHGS Journal shortly.
I’m happy to announce that on Thursday October 19, 1:30 PM-2:30 EST, I’ll be presenting “El Registro de Esclavos: An archive you need to know”, at “Hidden in Plain Sight: Recovering the erased stories of our ancestors in the United States and the Caribbean”, the 44th Annual 2023 AAHGS Virtual Conference. Excited to be among so many great presentations & presenters that includes friends & family from Black ProGen Live! Sessions will be available until Dec 31.
Here’s the description: The process of emancipation in Puerto Rico formally began in 1868, with the registration of over 30,000 enslaved persons using cedulas, small registration forms 6 x 8” in size. The information on these forms were copied to create the volumes of the Registro de Esclavos, issued in 1872. FamilySearch microfilmed two series of these documents from the enormous collection of Gobiernos Españoles collection. These are now searchable on the FamilySearch site as “Puerto Rico Slave Registers, 1863-1879”. These entries shed light on the identities of people as they transitioned to freedom just fifteen years before the establishment of the Registro Civil (Civil Registration) in 1885 and the formal end of slavery in 1886. The information covers name, origin, parents, partner, children, enslaver, physical details and issues around the purchase of freedom, manumission, or even the death of the person listed. The ages range from days old to persons in their 80s. These documents are useful for identifying family members and confirming their identities and locations pre-1885, and who may not appear in the 1910 census. Recently digitized archives on the Archivo Digital Nacional de Puerto Rico (ADNPR.net) that overlap with the information in the Registro de Esclavos will be covered. This work is a contribution to the ancestors, to help bridge them with their descendants.
I was blessed to meet an elder generation of lacemakers—tejedoras or mundillistas–, before they passed on. I met many amazing people when I was involved with field research for my project, thanks to happening upon Ada Hernandez Vale in Jaime Babilonia’s Farmacia in the Plaza, the heart of Barrio Pueblo, Moca.
Ada was carrying her chihuahua, Trompito, and in Spanish asked me if I was looking for mundillo, which is handmade Puerto Rican bobbin lace. Actually, I was there following a burning genealogical mystery about some of the Babilonias in Barrio Pueblo, but her question stunned me. No, I answered, and added, I didn’t know what it was. She shot back, “how can you not know about mundillo if you’re from here? Come to my house, I’ll show you.”
My husband Tom and I walked a couple of blocks to her home just off the plaza. Over the next three hours, Ada proceeded to haul out work that i’ve never seen before. “This is mundillo, and my brother Mokay is opening a museum. I want you to meet him.” As with other families in Moca, members of the Hernandez Vale family were long involved in mundillo thanks to their mother, Julia Vale Mendez (1906-1991), as makers of telars, as lacemakers and brokers of encaje puertorriqueno. This led to Mokay (Benito) Hernandez Vale’s establishing el Museo del Mundillo on Calle Barbosa thanks to the support and efforts of a group of lacemakers who shared this vision.
Researching in Moca
This is how my research began, a series of projects that tie together origins, trade networks, slavery and family histories. While this research culminated in a book chapter, “Mundillo and Identity” in Women and the Material Culture of Needlework and Textiles (2009), there’s more left to do.
Mundillo is important, as the women who worked in the pueblo had a network of production and community that maintained relationships within and without the island. They produced lace that connected the sacred to the secular, that marked rites of passage through delicate edging and decoration that spanned generations.
Ser tejedora – to be a lacemaker was a skill set that held so many social and historical connections. The activity is visible in the 1910 Federal census and then spreads by subsequent census as young women learn the skill in school and from each other as the Industria de la Aguja begins to swell. Puerto Rico was the first maquiladora, and the history of mundillo falls on the edge of that history.
Literature on mundillo
The first book on the history of mundillo is by Augusto Hernandez Mendez (QEPD), Historia y desarrollo del mundillo mocano. (Moca, 1993). He was an educator and administrator involved with literacy, and cultural celebrations, amplifying the efforts of many. What’s great about his book are Capitulo VI and VII, which covers the artisans who serve as ambassadors of the craft, and the artisans involved with producing the tools, patterns and lace in Moca. The mini-biography of each person is accompanied by a photograph.
The second book is Antonio Nieves Mendez, ed. La industria del mundillo en la zona urbana de Moca: Reconocimiento general de las propiedades de la zona urbana de Moca asociada con el produccion del mundillo. (2011, Lulu.com) The study maps out the dissemination of mundillo within the town from 1885-1930. These books are incredible genealogical resources if you happen to have family from Moca, because of the focus on women artisans and teachers.
My contribution to this literature is “Mundillo and Identity: The Revival and Transformation of Handmade Lace in Puerto Rico” in Maureen Daly Goggin and Beth Fowkes Tobin’s Women and the Material Culture of Needlework. (Ashgate 2009) This chapter on the development of mundillo provides a larger historical perspective. By tracing the practice as global one, it shows mundillo’s spread on the island was tied to school training in the 1930s. This left mundillo as an adjunct to the activity of the Industria de la aguja, the Garment Industry, which provided piecework to thousands of women across the island.
Las Tejedoras: Algunas artesanas de Moca
Olga Hernandez Rivera stands among the expert tejedoras of Moca. Her husband is a artisan in wood, who makes a range of elegant telars, the base for working lace with bollillos. With roots in barrios Cerro Gordo and Centro, Olga has lived in Barrio Cuchillas for decades with her family. When I visited Moca some years ago, Olga introduced me to other mundillistas and showed examples of her work. She told me about one of her teachers, Andrea Lopez Rivera (1928-2003), who did much to teach mundillo to women in Moca through the Servicio Extension Agricola.
The death of Virginia Rodriguez Arocho brought the tejedoras in the community connected to el Museo de Mundillo out in remembrance of her at her wake. Nelly Vera Sanchez is among the lacemakers recognized by major cultural organizations and was named a National Heritage Fellow by the Endowment for the Humanities in 2021. Yolanda Romero Aviles is an accomplished tejedora, Among the items that she creates are lace covers that edge the lower sleeves of judicial robes. These areas of mundillo add contrast and do not detract from the robe as a symbol of the court. By wearing mundillo, one communicates knowledge of local tradition and cultural pride. Romero Aviles’ sleeve covers are extensive– about 6″ in width. Her works feature advanced techniques in bobbin lace to create a ground interspersed with floral and abstract motifs.
Magda Rivera kindly showed me her shop, which features a memorial to her mother, the tejedora Julia Bosques Torres (1911-1992), who learned to make lace at age 8. In 1940, she established a shop in her home for buying and selling lace and other items that she ran until her death. (Hernandez Mendez, p108)
Maria C. Guadalupe made lengths of lace along with a range of amazing small gifts to children and adult’s clothing. These works are embellished with edgings and panels of mundillo and delicate embroidery, as in this dress below:
Although there were a number of women who practiced mundillo in Moca, a smaller number achieved fame for their work and their shops, as did Dona Maria Lasalle (1914-1913). The mundillo she is working on is an old model that predates foam– that narrowing of the center of the upper armature happens with the banana leaf stuffing of earlier years. Still it holds its complex pattern using dozens of bollilos (bobbins).
She was married to Rito Vargas Gonzalez, a carpenter, furniture maker and friend to my grandfather, Alcides Babilonia Lopez, together they kept the tradition of el Velorio de los Reyes celebrated in Barrio Pueblo still held today. Their son Rito Vargas Lasalle continues to promote their memory.
There’s much to the history of mundillo, and I am fascinated by how it interconnects its practitioners, its exhibitors and its wearers. Looking forward to sharing more about people connected to mundillo.
Two decades ago, I was in the Special Collections of U InterAmericana looking at their Herman Reichard Collection, where I photographed historian Eduardo Neumann Gandia’sResena historica sobre la fundacion y crecimiento del municipio de Moca of 1910. Despite the homemade cover, this was one publication of at least two tracts by Neumann Gandia that served to circulate a brief history of a municipality.
Eduardo Neumann Gandia (1852-1913)
It’s a brief 11 pages, taken from a larger work as can be seen from the numbered pages 79-90. There’s no mention of what the original text was. Nor do can we tell the entire volume was by a single author, or if it was a collection that includes multiple municipalities. He published his two volumes of Benefactores y hombres notables de Puerto-Rico: bocetos biográficos-críticos con un estudio sobre nuestros gobernadores generales, in 1896 and 1899, which contained mini-biographies of figures in government and business.
Herman Reichard Esteves (1910-2005), who preserved this pamphlet and other archival materials, was a librarian and professor based in Aguadilla. He was an avid genealogist whose work continues to inform many today, and which Dra. Haydee Reichard is making available through the Archivo Digital Nacional de Puerto Rico ADNPR.net. I made photographs of Neumann Gandia’s work, and (over 110 years later) ran it through an OCR program to make a PDF from the images.
You can download the pamphlet from the link at the bottom of the page.
1972: Historia de Moca 1772-1972
This text was the basis for the 1972 bicentennial publication, Historia de Moca 1772-1972, produced by Sociedad Civico-Cultural Pro-Conmemoracion del Bicentenario de Moca, Inc. Published by the Dept de Instruccion Publica, Estado Libre Associado de Puerto Rico, both organizations spoke to a particular moment of identification on local and state level, and a recognition of a shared history that extends to the eighteenth century.
There is no mention of the fact that Moca is an indigenous name, nor of any survival in these pages. Additional information builds out Neumann Gandia’s brief history and benefits from photographs of the location and personages, as for the biography of the educator Adolfo Emeterio Babilonia Quinones (1841-1884). He married into the Yturrino family, whom i’ve written of in a previous post.
Cover, Historia de Moca 1772-1972. Edición bicentenario. Collection of the author.
Cultural Memory, ancestors & what gets overlooked…
The purpose of Neumann Gandia’s text and its later iterations was on the importance of a cultural memory. These local histories can be crucial for creating the microhistories of our ancestors on different parts of the island. This is not the same as a building a romanticized story of the past. Instead the intent is to write to reflect the struggle to live, have families or not, to stay or to go, to become part of groups that yielded forms of support, or produced a variety of creative expressions.
The 1972 book devoted two pages to mentions of enslavement: La Esclavitud Negra:(breves anotaciones) en Moca. There are a couple of paragraphs detailing the presence of enslaved people in Moca since its founding. Quoted is the 1945 interview by Luis M. Diaz Soler in Historia de la esclavitud negra en Puerto Rico. This excerpt acknowledges the experiences of Leoncia Lasalle and her daughter Juana Rodriguez Lasalle under bondage. Looking back at Resena, for early Puerto Rico, Neumann Gandia simply elides the topic (save for the statistics) yet the system of enslavement permeates the economic activity of the era he describes, the 1840s on.
Neumann Gandia, Resena historica de sobre la fundacion y crecimiento del municipio de Moca Page 82
Neumann Gandia’s Moca of the 1840s, p.82
“…Así se vivía en aquella época patriarcal y primitiva desprovista de ideales, aspiraciones y huérfana de comodidades, donde no habia a sola escuela en todo el partido. Pocos sabían leer y menos escribir, pero había suma honradez en las compra-ventas y contratos. Se vivía como en familia y las viandas que faltaban en una casa se suministraban por los vecinos reciprocamente. Los compadres se estimaban como si fuesen hermanos, y todos los habitantes del partido se estimaban entre si con gran afecto y consideraciones. No existían escrituras públicas y según cuenta la tradición oral que se ha trasmitido hasta nuestros días, de padres á hijos al finalizar los contratos bervales, se arrancaban mútuamente un cabello de la cabeza, en señal de su cumplimiento, y rara vez, ó casi nunca, dejaban de llevarse á cabo sus pactos los cuales cumplían con religiosidad. Pocas demandas ó ningunas se interponían y eran raros los asesinatos y desconocidos por completo el robo y el pillaje en esta comarca, así como en toda la isla. Eran estos vecinos muy católicos y a veces muy superticiosos. A la entrada de sus casas ó en los bateyes de las mismas, levantaban el signo de redención, ó sea cruces de madera, y rezaban diariamente el rosario, como su oración favorita. vestían con camisa de listado, pantalón de coleta y sombrero de paja, é iban enteramente descalzos. Sobre todo, sentían gran placer por los bailes fandan-gos, celebrando muchas fiestas por Navidad, Año Nuevo y Reyes, que duraban semanas enteras y distribuían pasteles, almojábanas, alfajores, majarete, manjar blanco, mundo nuevo y otros dulces criollos, así como licores y refrescos á la gente que á ellas concurrian. El carácter alegre y jovial de los pobladores, originarios, los más, del medio día de España, prevalecía entre estos vecinos.“
“That is how life was in that patriarchal and primitive time devoid of ideals, aspirations and orphaned of accommodation, where there was not a single school in the entire region Few knew how to read and even less how to write, but there was honesty in sales and contracts. One lived as family and the vegetables that one household lacked was taken care of by the locals reciprocity. Godfathers treated each other as if they were brothers, and all the inhabitants of the area regarded each other with great affection and considerations. There were no public documents and after oral tradition that has been transmitted to the present, of fathers and sons finalizing their verbal contracts, each would pull a hair from the other’s head as a sign of fulfillment, and rarely, or almost never, left from taking to completion their pacts, which they accomplished religiously. Few demands or none were and rarely were there murders or unknowns who robbed and pillaged in this county as in the rest of the island. These inhabitants were very Catholic and very superstitious. At the entry of their homes or in the bateyes of the same, they raised the sign of redemption, that is to say, wooden crosses and daily recited the rosary as their favorite prayer. They dressed with striped shirts, canvas pants , a straw hat and went entirely barefoot. Above all they were greatly pleased by the fandango dances, celebrated many parties through Christmas, New Years and All Kings Day, that lasted entire weeks, and distributed pasteles, “almojábanas, alfajores, majarete, manjar blanco, mundo nuevo” and other local sweets, along with liquor and refreshments to those to whom they agreed with. The happy and jovial character of the original founders, more from the middle age of Spain prevails among these locals…”
Neumann Gandia lays out a different world for the early nineteenth century. His was not an inclusive history, and the only cultural source recognized is European. AfroIndigenous or African cultural survivals or influences are not mentioned. This was instead a peasant society composed of a superstitious and illiterate populace prone to violence, whose ‘happy character’ is simply an expression of early Spanish culture. Look at those numbers though on p.82. Taking the categories of free and unfree together, the 2,299 BIPOC population is significant yet has no role in the historical scenario he sketched above.
The fact is that the island was a process of settler colonial society, with a system that required violence and the use of force to control the enslaved and sharecroppers ‘of various colors’ within a stratified society. Born in 1852, slavery shaped Neumann Gandia’s world. Freedpeople were very much around in 1910, and the process of emancipation terminated in 1886. Also interesting is that Neumann Gandia’s collection of Taino bird effigy bowls was purchased by Jesse Walter Fewkes. This remains for us to discuss in understanding our ancestors lives today and their world.
The best history of Moca is Antonio Nieves Morales’ Moca 1772-2000: Historia de un pueblo (Lulu.com, 2008). Nieves Mendez’ work is groundbreaking as a full history, one that includes tables listing enslavers and the enslaved, and his own connection to this past, via his family history.
Miguel A. Babilonia Talavera, Alcalde de Moca
Lost is the original cover and the introduction to the section on Moca, a message by the mayor, Miguel A. Babilonia Talavera (1867-1947) who became Alcalde in 1899, and again from 1905-1910. He is my great uncle, brother to my great grandfather Ambrosio Alcides Babilonia Talavera (1860-1951), who I knew from my mother’s recollections of her childhood there.
He served as mayor after the annexation of Moca from Aguadilla took place in 1905. On pages 50-51, the 1972 Historia de Moca volume reproduces part of page 79 from the Neumann Gandia pamphlet as “Don Miguel A. Babilonia se despide de sus conciudadanos” written in December 1910.
I want to express my deep thanks to all the members of the Babilonia family and their descendants, and members of SAMocanos for sharing their information and photographs with me over the years. I especially want to thank my cousin Gaspar Babilonia, for sharing his collection of his grandfather’s photographs.
Now digitized images of ancestors and their communities populate a variety of places on social media, another way that descendants can connect to their past. Neumann Gandia’s work is but one expression of this from over a century ago.
Finding additional details can make working with documents fascinating. Often it can help us understand relationships that structured the lives of persons further back in time.
Some collateral lines have ancestors who came from sites in Spain, details that are often reduced to “Espana”. The Yturrinos (or Iturrinos) offer another connection to Basque country, and this family is from an old coastal port town, today called Mutriku (Motrico) in Guipuzcoa founded in 1209. Why come so far?
Of Whales, Fish & Indigenous People, De Balenas, Pescados y Gente Indigena
People have sailed out of Mutriku for centuries. Historian Birgit Sonneson writes that since the Middle Ages in Basque country ports, the activities of fishing and maritime traffic were the economic base for the region. In fact, Basque whalers and fishermen went to Canada yearly to fish whale and cod, an interaction that had the fishermen learning Indigenous words from the local groups.
Champlain’s journals contain Basque words. There were no permanent Basque settlements, but camps along the coast were occupied by the fishermen from April to September when they departed for home.  By 1541, several Iroquoian groups already had Basque names by the time the French arrived in Labrador. The industry lasted until 1579 when the English attacked Basque whalers. This created a crisis that ended their whaling in the Strait of Belle Isle . 
That may have ended whaling as an industry, but the Basque regrouped and focused on fishing, sealed and traded with Indigenous peoples and sedentary fishing communities. They laid claim to more than 100 ports throughout western and southern Newfoundland, Cape Breton Island, Chaleur Bay, and the St. Lawrence Estuary. Historian Brad Lowen writes: “An indirect indicator of these partnerships is the historical incidence of Basque names among Inuit, Mi’kmaw, and Métis families in southern Labrador, Cape Breton Island, and parts of Gaspésie. ” Basques also forged ties with the Inuit around the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.  I imagine there are blended ancestries reflected in DNA, another set of unexpected connections facilitated by colonialism.
When John Cabot rediscovered Newfoundland in 1497, he saw the profit to be made from the fish in these cold Atlantic waters. Slices of cod were packed between layers of salt, and the water content dropped to 60%; with further drying, it went down to 40%. Now, this was a product that could last over the course of a long voyage, and without refrigeration. Demand on the Iberian peninsula and in European markets was high. By 1660, production increased, but what really drove demand in the late 17th century was the rise of sugar.
The increase in enslaved West Africans as labor for the production of sugar cane in the Caribbean made bacalao attractive to plantation owners that relied on cost-cutting solutions to make their profit. They bought cheap salt cod rather than devote large portions of land for growing crops or raising animals to feed the enslaved. Those who prepared the small salt cod sold in the Caribbean were caught in a cycle of debt and credit. “El negocio del azucar es para Puerto Rico, lo que el bacalao es para Terranova.” [ 5]
I delved into this history of commerce in an attempt to get some clarity on what kind of ‘Comerciante‘ this Basque family member was part of. There were limits – as Mutriku is a port city, agriculture wasn’t an option to enter into, so it was either trade or fishing. With inheritance, only one son could inherit an estate, leaving the rest to fend for themselves. As I have no correspondence or documentation on the first Yturrino to reach Puerto Rico beyond marriage and children, it’s difficult to say what precipitated the move across the Atlantic to the Caribbean. But as an island whose economy was then based on slavery, there are ties to this in some way.
The earliest known Yturrino in Puerto Rico is Juan Antonio Yturrino born in 1751 in Mutriku, Guipuzcoa. He is definitely on the island by 1780, when his son Pedro Joseph Yturrino Velez was born. Juan Antonio Yturrino married Rosalia Beles [Velez] Camacho, and she dies a widow by the time of her death on 13 Nov 1804, in Mayaguez. They had five children, two of which have known descendants, Pedro Joseph born 28 Jun 1780 and Benito Iturrino Velez, born about 1792.
Pedro Joseph Iturrino Velez married Ysidra Arzua Crespo of Bayamon. As far as is known they had one son, Felipe Iturrino Arzua. His brother, Benito Iturrino Velez was married twice, to Ysidra Morales Crespo on January 1814 in Anasco, and after her death, he married Catalina Martinez. 
Felipe Iturrino Arzua
On the morning of 16 March 1894, Felipe Yturrino Arzua died of fever at the age of 83. [10 ] His death record reveals a long life, with three marriages and children from each relationship, and substantial land purchases in Moca and San Sebastian. Born in Bayamon, he died in Barrio Corcobada, Anasco, and his family tree branches into several municipalities. Where it connects to my tree is through the Babilonia. Both his generation and those of the Babilonia Quinones were the grandchildren of at least one grandparent born in Spain, most often a grandfather.
These were marriages of equal social stature, that rested on an economy based on slavery, dependent on the labor of a highly admixed, African descended and Afro-Indigenous enslaved population. By the 1870s, this population transitioned to freedom about the time Felipe Iturrino began to have children. The plantations eventually became farms and after the Spanish American War were mostly dedicated to corporate sugar cultivation.
Land acquisition in Moca, 1864
In the 1860s, Felipe began purchasing land in Moca. In March 1864, he purchased over 23 acres of land that included coffee and coconut palm farms in Barrio Plata Moca from Jose Dolores Nunez. He received 386 pesos for it at the 1864 sale. This lot bordered property owned by Ramon Rivera on the south, Antonio Ramos on the east, and Flora Arocho on the north side. On the west side, his border was land embargoed by Nunez in lieu of payment. Nunez purchased the land over twenty years earlier from Cristobal Soto. 
Next, in August 1864, widow Florencia Acevedo of Moca went before the notary Eusebio de Arze in Aguadilla to register the sale of another adjoining piece of property in Barrio Plata to Felipe Yturrino. This property comprised over 21 acres in two lots, including pasture and brush (pasto y maleza) that bordered the previous purchase on the east side, and the embargoed land from Jose Dolores Nunez on the south. The smaller seven-acre lot ran along the land of Ramon de Rivera on the east, Manuel [illegible] on the west, and Manuel Hernandez to the south.
The plat’s borders were living– borders that extended from a variety of flowering trees and plants— guava, maguey, jobo, mamey, and moca, along with fresh water springs at different points. Florencia Acevedo Perez inherited this land from her parents Chrisosomos Acevedo and Antonia Perez, and sold it for 184 pesos. 
What kind of person was he? Felipe Yturrino didn’t take insults lightly, as this list of fines from January 1842 from La Gaceta shows. “D. Juan Eduardo Langevin for having loudly insulted with imputations and denigrating words to Felipe Iturrino, without him having lacked in anything or answering such grievances, was condemned in an oral hearing for a fine of 6 pesos .” 
The Marriages of Felipe Iturrino
Felipe Iturrino married three times and had children from each marriage. His first marriage was to Teresa de Jesus Salome de Rivera Ortiz, daughter of Felipe Rivera and Juana Bautista Ortiz on 22 January 1844 in Anasco. With her, he had three children, Juan Dionisio, Lucidaria, and Eulogia Yturrino Rivera.  As adults, Juan Dionisio was a medical doctor, and Eulogia was a teacher appointed by Spain in Quebradillas.
His second marriage was to Teresa’s sister, Maria Gregoria de Rivera Ortiz on 27 June 1859 in Anasco. On PARES, there are documents for an 1859 dispensation from Spain that was granted in order for the couple to marry despite the ‘primer grado de afinidad‘ (first degree of affinity) that indicates a sibling is involved. The process took about a year. 
What is remarkable is the number of people who had to sign off on the permission, with each stage likely having fees well beyond those for consanguinity on the island. Felipe and Maria Gregoria also had three children, Carmen, Adolfo Sinforiano and Julian Aristides Yturrino Rivera. His last marriage was also in Anasco.
On 12 May 1892 Felipe married for the third and last time, to Francisca Vazquez Ayala.  He had nine children with her: Carlota, Ysabel, Rogelio, Jose Roque, Jesus Maria, Elisa, Maria Carlota, Catalina and Mariana Yturrino Vazquez, born in Barrio Corcobada Rural, Anasco.
Lucidaria Iturrino Rivera married Adolfo Emeterio Babilonia Quinones (1841-1884) about 1868. An educator, agriculturalist, and musician, he was nominated to the post of Inspector General of Public Education for Puerto Rico by Governor La Torre in 1872, a post later given to a Peninsular with the political changes brought by Governor Primo de Rivera. Because of that he fled to the Dominican Republic for a short time and then returned to teaching in San Sebastian and Aguadilla. He died shortly after being notified by the new Governor Marquez de la Vega that he was given the post of Inspector General of Public Education in 1884. 
Adolfo Babilonia and Lucidaria Iturrino had 12 children: Adolfo Melquiades, Enriqueta, Olivia, Urania, Lavinia, Osvaldo, Alfonso, Amelia, Jorge, Viola, Arturo Carmelo and Simon Fidel Babilonia Iturrino. Here are photographs of five of them, taken in the early 20th century. They lived in Anasco, Moca, Isabela, San Sebastian, Arecibo and New York.
As a child, my mother remembered seeing Adolfo Melquiades Babilonia Iturrino astride a white horse, wearing a white linen suit and pith helmet as he went from location to location as Colector de Rentas Internas (Collector of Internal Revenue). Adolfo owned a coffee farm in barrio Cruz, Hacienda Laura, where his grandson, Gaspar Matias Babilonia spent part of his childhood. Osvaldo Babilonia Iturrino became Jefe del Policia Insular, Head of Insular Police; given his uniform, his brother Arturo also served in the Insular Police.
Threading these fragments of details back in time offers some sense of how one Basque emigre came to Puerto Rico, and left generations of descendants. Perhaps more details about them in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries will soon come to light. The larger context of this history still has much to provide about the connections to enslavement, politics and education of that era.
 Miren Egana Goya, Presencia de los pescadores vascos en Canada s. XVII. Testimonio de las obras de Samuel de Champlain (1603-1633).
 Brad Lowen, Intertwined Enigmas: Basques and St Lawrence Iroquoians in the Sixteenth Century. C3, 57-75.
 Brad Lowen,”Introduction to the Basque Papers.” Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, 33:1, 2018, 1719-1726, 7-19, 7, 14.
 Manuel Valdes Pizzini, La imperiosa necesidad del bacalao: Puerto Rico y Terranova en la Ecología-Mundo. Relaciones Internacionales, No. 47, Jun-Sep 2021, 163- 179; 171.
 Birgit Sonneson, Vascos en la diaspora: La emigration de La Guaira a Puerto Rico, 1799-1830. Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Sevilla, 2008.
 Acta defuncion, Rosalia Beles Camacho, 13 Nov 1804, San Jose de Mayaguez, Libro 2 Defunciones, Folio 136. Rosalía Vélez Camacho, administradora, viuda de Don Antonio Yturrini. Dejó por hijos a Juan, Bentura, José, Antonio, Candelaria y Benita. Oficios de entierro doble en tramo de 8 reales. Email, Iris Santiago, 17 Dec 2007.
 Acta nacimiento, Pedro Juan Yturrino Velez, 17 Jul 1780 [22 Jun 1780] San Jose de Mayaguez, Libro 3 Bautismos, Folio 22v. Email, Iris Santiago, 23 March 2008. “L3B F 22vuelto 17 jul 1780 Pedro Joseph, de 19 días, h.l. Don Antonio Iturrino y Da. Rosalía Vélez. Padrinos: Don Agustín Fernandino y Da. María Felicia de Mathos. “
 Benito Iturrino Velez + Ysidra Morales Crespo, 16 Jan 1814 Anasco. His daughter Eleuteria Iturrino Morales lived to age 103. She died in Barrio Zanja, Camuy in 1928.
 Acta defuncion, Felipe Yturrino Arzua, Registro Civil, Anasco, 17 Marzo 1894. F72-73 #75 Image # 7-8, Historical Records Collection, Puerto Rico, FamilySearch.org
 Carlos Encarnacion Navarro, AGPR, Fondo de Protocolos Notariales, Serie Aguadilla, Pueblo Aguadilla, Caja 1434, Escribanos otros funcionarios, 1852-1878, 10 Mar 1864 (Folio no numerado), p.67. The identity of Cristobal Soto in Barrio Plata, Moca remains to be established.
 Carlos Encarnacion Navarro, AGPR, Fondo de Protocolos Notariales, Serie Aguadilla, Pueblo Aguadilla, Caja 1434, Escribanos otros funcionarios, 1852-1878, 4 Ago 1864 (Folio no numerado), p. 71.
 “Anasco. Relaciones de las multas que ha impuesto varios Alcaldes en el mes de Noviembre proximo pasado por las causas que a continuacion se expresan.” Gazeta de Puerto-Rico. [volume] ([San Juan, P.R.), 11 Jan. 1842. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/2013201074/1842-01-11/ed-1/seq-4/>
 Acta de matrimonio, Felipe Yturrino Crespo + Teresa de Jesus Salo Rivera, 22 Jan 1844, Libro 12, Folio 139, Anasco. Email, Wilfredo Quintana, 2008. His mother’s maternal surname appears instead of Arzua.
 Sobre dispensa matrimonial de Sr. Iturrino y Srta. Rivera. 1858-1859. PARES | Spanish Archives ES.28079. AHN/16//ULTRAMAR,2049,Exp.6, September 1858. PARES.mcu.org
 Acta de matrimonio, Felipe Yturrino Crespo + Maria Gregoria Rivera, Libro 12 Folio 217v, Anasco. Email, Wilfredo Quintana, 2008.
 Angel M. San Antonio, Hojas Historicas de Moca. Moca: Emprearte EB, 2004, 160-161.
ANUNCIÓS. El alcalde de la Moca ha participado al Excmo. Sr. Gobernador y Capitán General en oficio de 6 del corriente, que en la hacienda de Luis Masconabe, vecino de aquel partido; se ha aparecido un negro natural de Africa, de estatura baja, los dientes de la mandíbula superior apartados y altos podridos, en la inferior uno menos, varias rayas floreadas en el pecho, algunas cicatrices en el cuerpo y la espaldas, dice llamarse Basilio, que es lo único que sabe expresar en castellano, la nariz muy chata, boca y pies chicos, tiene al pie del labio inferior una cicatriz, casi imperceptible y de 20 a 25 años de edad. 
In November 1839 Basilio, a young African man, attempted to gain his freedom. Instead, he was imprisoned at a nearby hacienda in Moca until he was recovered by his enslaver. This announcement for Basilio ran over three days — November 26, 28 and 30 — in the pages of the official government newspaper, La Gazeta de Puerto Rico. The ad describes aspects of his physical appearance, intended to make it impossible for him to escape notice.
According to the notice, a combination of forces were informed about Basilio . The search was authorized by highest ranks of local government, the Mayor, the Governor and Captain General. Why such a representative show of state power? Because he was one of many who decided to escape bondage in Puerto Rico during the 1830s.
Leaving the plantations
On 26 Jun 1838, Ramon Mendez de Arcaya wrote to the Third General Command (Comandancia General de 3er, Departamento Militar de la Isla) to inform them of the recent escapes of groups of five, six and seven enslaved men. They escaped by sea, from the beach Playa de Espinal on the coast of Aguada. Some lived in town without authorization, their enslavers unaware of their location. Mendez was sure they hadn’t punished them for this. 
Moving late at night, they took some of the small boats and canoes to make their way for Santo Domingo, stopping at the small island of Desecheo off the coast of Mayaguez. One group’s canoe failed, and they were picked up by a passing ship. This group he explained, went a distance to escape, as one was from much further away in Moca, and the others from Aguadilla. He suggested he would beef up his night patrols.
By 23 August a several page long notice, listing 12 heads of various military posts in the NW, outlined curfews, necessary permissions for those fishing by boat off the coast, and specified that no enslaved person would be permitted access to a ship or a town after 8PM. The penalty was a fine that doubled with each infraction. [ 3]
Trafficking & stealing freedom
On 26 November 1839, Luis Maisonave Duprey’s Anuncio sat at the top of the notices. The second time it ran, it was preceded by notice of an African man, Silvestre, who escaped from the hacienda of D. Joaquin de Neyra in Loiza. Neyra promised that whoever captured Silvestre would be appropriately compensated. 
An announcement followed for an unnamed Black African man, 40 years old, apprehended in the mountains of Barrio Almirante, Vega Baja. He was sent to the prison in the presidio in San Juan until his enslaver could retrieve him.
Next, is a notice for don Julian Garcia’s desire to purchase an enslaved Black or mulatto child, alive and without defects. After the lost horse and the offer of all kinds of black silk by hat maker Nicolas Martin, comes a notice about an enslaved man imprisoned since the end of July. Juan Jose Alvarez, 34, an enslaved mulatto man from Fajardo, was also sent to the prison in the presidio in San Juan. As with Basilio and Silvestre, the power of the Governor, Captain General and the Mayor were disposed to this arrangement, and note that “the announcement in the Gazette about their capture was so the news reached the owner and he could formally obtain them.”
Above Maisonave’s Anuncio for 28 November, was a reissued public notice from the War Court on the upcoming sale of the enslaved man Francisco on the morning of 2 December, at the doors of the Auditor General’s office in San Juan. Beneath the remainder of the Anuncio, there’s a request for teachers for an elementary school in Guayama for both boys and girls.
After the appeal for teachers, interested parties should ask the female enslaver about the sale of a Black boy 8-9 years old and a Black girl 14-15 years old, via the Gazeta’s office. An estancia for sale in Bayamon and finally, offered for sale is a young Black woman with her newborn. The ad notes her milk is good and abundant, and with her knowledge of cooking, washing and ironing her price is 400 pesos. No names are given, just an address, Calle de los Cuarteles 32, the barracks just beyond the Presidio, an older building that precedes the massive structure built in 1854 that still stands today. These are such brief glimpses of lives processed by a range of institutions that happen to ignore an essential humanity when money is at stake. 
Who was Basilio?
Born in Africa between 1814-1819 as he was 20-25 years of age, Basilio was short man. He is described as having a small mouth, small feet and a very flat nose. Given his age he may have worked some of the most labor intensive aspects of the plantation he escaped from. Conditions were enough for him to decide to chance his freedom.
While the skin of his trunk and shoulders were covered with scars, his chest bore ‘varias rayas floreadas’ a pattern of stripes. This was the result of a coming of age ceremony somewhere in West or Sub-Saharan Africa before his capture. His ‘rayas floreadas’ literally ‘flowering stripes’ were an elaborate pattern that may have combined lines with raised scars to create an effect of rows ready to blossom across his chest, rather than a geometric pattern. These country marks were a feature that would enable a group to read and recognize their relationship. The use of ritual scarification increased as a result of raiding peoples for the slave trade. 
The description of his scars may outline a hierarchy of control, with the scars on his trunk and shoulders likely scarred by inflicted violence. These scars come after mention of those marks that visually identified Basilio as part of a community, perhaps recognizable to other African-born people enslaved on the hacienda. Some probably helped him make his way towards Playa del Espinal in Aguada, to find a way out of his situation before he was caught in Moca.
The announcement mentioned that his lower lip bore a smaller scar, almost faint, and difficult to see unless he was examined closely. The notice is an invitation to go beyond the clothes and orifices to compare the details. Was this scar the trace of an injury? Is this something his enslaver would recall? His teeth were broken, some were missing and others went bad, all testament to his treatment as he came to adulthood. Was he smuggled into Puerto Rico? And for language, the only word of Castillian that Basilio knew was his name, Basilio.
Where was he from? What was his fate that December 1839?
 “III.1 Ramon Mendez, Comandancia General del 3er, Departamento Militar de la Isla, 26 Jul 1848.” Benjamin Nistal Moret, Esclavos Profugos y Cimarrones, Puerto Rico, 1770-1870. Editorial UPR, 1984, 233-234.
”Excelentismo Senor Don Miguel Lopez de Banos, Gobernador y Captian General de esta Isla, 23 Aug 1838.” Benjamin Nistal Moret, Esclavos Profugos y Cimarrones, Puerto Rico, 1770-1870. Editorial UPR, 1984, AGPR, RSGPR, E.23, B.64 (editado), 234-238.
Part 3: Gathering Information & Pulling it all together
Gathering Data: What the Acta de Defuncion tells us
Four key facts can be gleaned from Juana Nepomucena Caban’s 1888 death certificate:
Juana Nepomucena Caban was of advanced age
Juana was widowed
she had 14 children with Carlos Mendez… and,
Carlos’ death preceded hers.
As Carlos Mendez is not in the Libro de defunciones, Registro Civil (Book of Deaths, Civil Register) for Moca or nearby municipalities, he probably died before 1885, the year this record set begins.
However, Carlos Mendez appears in land rentals and deeds for 1851 in notary documents. In Caja 1444 for Moca, he is mentioned as a neighbor in Barrio Cruz in two documents. Still, this bit of information helps place the family in a specific barrio (ward), adds a date, and can help in finding additional documents.
First, review the document in question– what information is there?
What questions do you seek to answer? What’s your research question?
Create a detailed extract, so you can focus in on the relevant details.
Make Your Own Extracts & Transcriptions
Given the handwriting across the documents in the Civil Registers, it’s often easier to refer to an extract than reread a document with difficult handwriting, so…
A good extract contains more than just a name and a date.
The informant (Declarante or Informante) is identified. This could be anyone from a relative, neighbor, doctor or local official, etc. depending on the circumstances.
Witnesses (Testigos) may or may not be relatives. Sometimes they were locals entrusted with signing off on documents and not related to the persons listed.
The informant’s identity can be a clue as to how reliable the information in the certificate is. Depending on the years, a birth, marriage or death record can provide the names of additional family members, neighbors or officials involved in the reporting of the event.
Officials- Before 1910, Juez de Paz (Justice of the Peace) Secretario or Encargados del Registro Civil (Secretary or Clerk of the Civil Register) appear at the start and end of documents.
Knowing who was the official can provide context. This might be connected to the family in some way, particularly if we are studying rural areas. The further back in time, the more likely this is the situation.
Note any discrepancy between the date of the document registration and the date of the event. This can make quite a bit of difference in birth registrations- some people finally had their birth registered as adults. In terms of death records, the deceased is often buried the following day. It is unusual for the remains to be kept beyond 2-3 days prior to interment.
In early church records, the cemetery surrounded the church building, and municipal cemeteries come later. Later in the nineteenth century, cemeteries were moved out of the town centers, and established further away as a better understanding of illness and germs take hold and public health becomes a field of study. For Moca, the church was built in 1853, and the cemetery located a few blocks away. The old cemetery was moved about 1953.
Source the document, so you can locate the original (or its duplicate) in future. If it’s on FamilySearch, copy the Citation and paste it into your notes or genealogy program.
Reexamine the original document periodically– errors can enter when transcribing. You may find there’s a significant detail missed on the initial reading.
If you have access to original documents, learn to do your own transcribing and tackle that document. Just because a person is on someone’s tree, or it’s a database search result doesn’t mean it’s correct. Age, gender even surnames may be incorrectly noted.
Cause of death may point to health issues that run in a family, or mention of accidents, instances of deliberate harm, etc.
Older documents may list paternal and maternal grandparents in series of birth and death registrations.
Here’s my extract, in Spanish.
This level of detail is helpful when you’re researching a brick wall, and notice most of this information doesn’t come up at all on the FS transcription, so definitely check out the document whenever possible.
Juana Nepomucena Caban [Nieves’] death certificate is available on FamilySearch ( & on Ancestry):
Information is knowledge: Reviewing what you’ve got
So, here is someone born near the start of the 1800s, a widow, identified as ‘white’, who had 14 children, ten of whom were still alive in 1888. We also have the name of her husband and the ward she died in.
Her son Jose Sertoris Mendez was the informant, and she was a widow. Note whether there is mention of a will— here, it’s not even mentioned.
Note that in this case, her son Jose Sertoris Mendez, like the majority of people who lived before 1900 in Puerto Rico, did not know how to write, and so, don Alvaro Lopez, signed on his behalf. This too has implications for records.
Who are Juana Nepomucena Caban’s Parents?
Yet, there’s an issue here— Juana Nepomucena Caban’s parents do not appear on the death certificate, which helps to confirm whether she actually is a Caban Nieves. Since she died a widow in 1888, both her death and that of her husband Carlos Mendez predates the first US Federal Census of 1910. As a search of the Civil Registration and the Index up to 1888 didn’t yield her husband, so he probably died before 1885.
What kind of documents are available? There are parish records, municipal documents and newspapers. If possible, secure a parish record from the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Monserrate in Moca. Check other trees, as there’s a chance another descendant may have already obtained one (hopefully with citations).
In this case, my cousin, Rosalma Mendez shared a set of extracts from the baptismal records that helped to fill in details that I’ve kept together with other early records. Working collaboratively, she is also a member of Sociedad Ancestros Mocanos. Before 2008, members of the group made transcriptions during appointments at the office of La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Monserrate that we shared with each other. These lists can still contain surprises years later.
Together with the birth year of the youngest child, a date range for Carlos’ death record can be figured out, and also a range for Juana’s childbearing years. Death records in Puerto Rico often have ages that are rounded up, and a largely rural existence paired with high rates of illiteracy meant many literally did not know when they were born.
Remember, since the person reporting is not the person named in the document (it’s a death certificate, right?), there can be errors in the information provided.
Ok, so let’s see what we can find out from records for her immediate family.
According to this Acta de Defuncion, Juana Nepomucena Caban and Don Carlos Mendez’ 14 children in the death record were:
Rita, Felix, Zenaida, Manuel deceased; Carlos, Sertoris, Marcelino, Nepomuceno, Margaro, Asenciano, Adelaida, Dolores, Ysabel y Nemesi[a] Mendez Caban.
Thanks to two additional records for Gregorio and Ermenegilda Mendez Caban, the couple’s total so far is actually 16 children. If a child died young, they may not be included among those listed in the parent’s death record, their Actas de Defuncion.
I used FamilySearch.org to locate a number of the records for the children, as these results can be more easily searched than in Ancestry.com‘s Puerto Rico Civil Registration record searches. On the other hand, both sites have family trees, and the large database that Ancestry has may turn something up, so it’s worth checking whether there are sources on the tree.
More questions… questioning death records
When I added the children’s information, I found was that their actual dates are much later than anticipated. This puts in question the 1808 year of birth from Juana Nepomucena’s age on the death certificate as eighty.
According to records, her births happened between 1832-1865. Children who died at young age are often left off the death certificates of their parents decades later, so it’s good to search the surname to find anyone else. Transcriptions for her children’s baptisms added very helpful details.
Ultimately, it turns out Juana’s age in the death record is incorrect, as her last child, (unmentioned among the children in her death record), is Ermenegilda Mendez Caban, born about 1865. Given Ermenegilda’s year of birth, if we use Juana Nepomucena Caban’s 1808 date means Juana was about 57, which is a little beyond childbearing years. The children’s years of birth range from 1832-1865, with a young mother born at ca. 1815- 1820.
How does that extra aging happen? Ages in death certificates are often rounded up, so a person can have an additional 5 to 10 years or more added on to get closer to 80, 90 or 100 years of age. Add the notation that records someone signed on behalf of the informant, is another clue that age can be a relative thing in these documents. The focus in daily life then was not so much on holding written documentation, but was dominated by the rhythm of the agricultural cycle. Much of the population during the nineteenth century was illiterate. Also, there were centenarians— but their records have more consistency in terms of age across time.
A maternal surname still missing…
We still need a record that will estabish Juana’s maternal surname, a big help when one is dealing with multiple families that share the same surname and a popular first name. Unfortunately, the records in the Civil Registers can fail to mention a maternal surname, or lack the name of a spouse or of parents. Depending on the time period, they can provide the names of parents and even grandparents. Having a single surname can be a clue to ethnicity and social status— POC in the earlier run of the Civil Register often appear with a single surname, for different reasons, because of former enslavement or birth to a single mother, or even father.
Thanks to Rosalma, the cousin who shared those transcriptions of baptism records for two of Juana and Carlos’s children- Gregorio and Maria Cenaida (Zenaida) Mendez Caban — we now see conflicting surnames for their maternal grandparents. For Gregorio, the maternal grandparents are Juan Caban and Juana Hernandez, and for Maria Cenaida, they are Juan Caban and Juana Lopez.
Whenever possible, check the original and cross reference to determine whether the error was made in transcription or by the recording secretary or, the informant.
As there are no documents for Gregorio Mendez Caban in the Civil Registration, he probably died at a tender age, and the baptismal record is likely all that’s available on him.
It’s also possible that Juana Nepomucena’s potential mother, Juana Hernandez, has both surnames in question as Juana Hernandez Lopez. Women in records prior to the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century— could appear under either their mother’s or father’s surname, emphasizing the maternal line, or out of paternal recognition later on.
Still, even with the conflicting information, we have the names of Juana Nepomucena Caban’s father and her mother’s first name: Juan Caban and Juana —. As of yet, there is no further information regarding a possible second marriage for Juana’s husband Carlos Mendez.
And here we are…
So, based on two baptismal records, Juana Nepomucena was not a Caban Nieves after all. There is a discrepancy, and whether she was a Caban Hernandez or a Caban Lopez still remains to be resolved. That’s ok.
And often, it can’t be done alone, and best done in community to share the bits that may hold the answer to the mystery. You don’t have to go it alone, so look for groups sharing information about a given geographic area or for Puerto Rican genealogy overall. Ask. Between the years 1850 and 1888, details can certainly change across documents, and that’s why we need to do exhaustive searches.
If you’re related, or have info on Carlos Mendez or Juana Nepomucena Caban, please share!
 APNSMM Bautismos, Libro 15 21/MAR/52 nació: 6/p pg. 15 v; Maria Cenaira HL Carlos Méndez y Juana Caban; Abuelos paternos: Federico [Francisco] Méndez y Rosa Hernández; Abuelos maternos: Juan y Juana López; Padrinos: Silverio Aviles y Maria Adelaida Méndez;
22/MAY/1859 nació 9/MAY días pg. 49v Gregorio HL: Carlos Méndez y Nepoconucema Caban. Abuelos Paternos: Francisco Méndez y Rosa Hernández; Abuelos Maternos: Juan Caban y Juana Hernandez Padrinos: Juan de la Cruz Hidalgo y Maria Adelaida Mendez Transcriptions courtesy of Rosalma Mendez, 2006.
This blog post is the first of a 3 part case study that shows a process of resolving name discrepancies. The sections offer Part 1: An overview , Part 2: Dealing with data and then Part 3: Making sense of the bits — gleaning details and pulling it together.
Part One: An Overview
Today, searching for ancestor matches with DNA cousins involves a more intensive use of records that predate 1885. That’s before the 1910 census and the Civil Registration, which began in Puerto Rico in 1885. Various documents cover births, marriages and deaths, three major life events marked by ritual and documents.
Categories, gender, vital documents
First, think about the ways that gender roles and social expectations can shape the information in these documents. 19th-20th C PR society was stratified, meaning that privilege came with white male property holder status at the top. This wasn’t guaranteed. Status could shift over time, often in response to changes in law and downturns in the economy. And it wasn’t just men. Note that women could own and inherit land and run businesses, so they too may appear in more documents.
Life changed in significant ways in the hundred years between 1800-1900. With enough information we may learn why a family’s fortune rose and fell over time. Some recently freed were able to purchase land and property. Yet laws that limited the ability of people to purchase property increased later in the century. This wasn’t necessarily linked to illiteracy, for in Moca, POC had higher rates of literacy in a largely illiterate society. When tracing formerly enslaved ancestors one needs to review many kinds of documents to see where they may be mentioned.
Ultimately, many different ancestries blended on the island. Still, there can be problems in tracing descent along maternal lines, particularly if one is just focusing on male heads of household. There were many female headed households among African or Afro-Indigenous descended families. Laws enforced the use of single surnames and descriptive terms of color to distinguish free and unfree people from those in power.
Names can change over time. Among the reasons people changed surnames was as a result of parents remarrying, or to recognize paternity by using their father’s surname as a maternal surname. Some simply used a maternal surname to have another identity. You maybe able to find out why and add that story to your family history.
Knowing Where to Go Next
To all of these reasons for potential variations in sources, add the gaps in record sets. A range of techniques is needed to solve these riddles of identity and complete a reasonably exhaustive search.
One helpful book for determining the range of extant records for parishes across the island is Rodriguez-Leon OP’s La Microdemografica Parroquial de Puerto Rico.  Access to these records can vary. Some are microfilmed and while some parishes have refused the filming of their records, there is an effort underway to digitize and centralize records through the Archivo Diocesano in San Juan, and the SPG (Sociedad Puertorriquena de Genealogia) has transcriptions and books available for members (and some transcriptions for non-members).
Four parishes did not film their archives in the late 1980- early 1990s project by the LDS, yet several related sets of parish and municipal were uploaded to the FamilySearch.org site. They’ve reorganized the search page. Scroll down. Note how the database now clusters related resources beneath the search panel. Look at surrounding municipalities as they may have relatives there as well.
Protestant records begin after the Spanish American War. As I’m going to discuss the early to late nineteenth centuries, parish records will be for the Catholic Church, supplemented by available notarial documents. Next, to consider an 1888 death record for Juana Nepomucena Caban who died age 80 in Moca.
 Mario A. Rodriguez-Leon OP’s Los Registros Parroquiales y La Microdemografica Parroquial de Puerto Rico. Centro de Estudios Avanzados, San Juan, PR 1986.
 Antonio Nieves Mendez, Historia de un pueblo: Moca 1772 al 2000. 2008, Lulu.com
I’ve finally submitted the materials, tables and text to accompany Part 3 of the Missing Registro Central de Esclavo volume for Northwest Puerto Rico to Hereditas. This set of transcriptions of cedulas are from Caja 2 (item 2) of 1870. The essay focuses on facets of the lives of 55 enslaved people held by Cristobal Benejam Suria or Serra in 1870, a Menorcan who arrived in Puerto Rico about 1817. Other family members were also enslavers. Several Benejam family clusters are traced from the cedula through the Registro Civil and census records, to reconstruct some of their history.
As it turns out, when I mentioned my project to my cousin, Julio Enrique Rivera, he mentioned that his dad, Julio Ester Rivera (looking very dapper in the photo above) was a Benejan. His great grandfather was Ricardo Benejam Vargas (1848-1924) born into slavery, the child of Maria Antonia Vargas and Pedro Benejam. This is Ricardo’s cedula of 1870.
I am struck by how fragmented some of the resources available are.
Some of the documents i’m looking at:
Municipal Document series – Censo y riqueza de Moca 1850
Cedulas, Registro Central de Esclavos
What I wish there were more of for NWPR: census, contracts, notary documents; basically a database that can help descendants pull these fragments together.
As for books & articles, am rereading Benjamin Nistal-Moret’s “The Social Structure of Slavery in Puerto Rico” (1985). I’d like to use the tables as a model for what I am working on, which is information missing from the numbers he is using. This was “the first time in Puerto Rican historiography, an analysis of this magnitude has been completed with a computer.” He tells an interesting story about locating a missing 1872 Registro Central de Esclavos volume at the Library of Congress, microfilming it and returning it during the summer of 1975. As he did his work in the 1980s, his statistical work was entered onto punch cards of a computer program used in sociology. Which volume it was, Nistal-Moret doesn’t say.
I wonder how much archival material was lost, for instance, after the US returned the series of documents of the Gobernadores Espanoles – T1121 Record Group 186- Records of the Spanish Governors of Puerto Rico (impounded on the terms of the Treaty of Paris in 1898) were transferred to the National Archives in 1943 and returned to Puerto Rico by joint resolution in 1957. The microfilm of the Registro de Esclavos and the Registro Central de Esclavos are part of that huge series, and NARA has a free version at the link above.
What I try to do in this series of articles are mini-histories of persons that appear on the 6 x8″ cedulas. Connecting someone in 1870 to their appearance in the Registro Civil that begins in 1885. The process takes time, as there is no mention of enslavement, save in the surname ‘Liberto.’ Some take different surnames, while many kept their enslaver’s name, or took that of a different owner when sold before 1870.
Some of the descendants of Luisa Benejan born about 1819 appear among the cedulas of Caja 4 of the Registro de Esclavos, while three appear in the Registro Civil. She doesn’t turn up on the Registro Civil. Still, the documents together reconstruct her family.
Also reconstructed are early family trees for Pedro Benejam of Moca, born about 1817 in Moca, and who partnered with Maria Antonia Vargas, who lived until 1902 and lived in Bo. Pueblo, Moca. Among their descendants is where my cousin Julio Enrique Rivera’s line connects. The families created after emancipation were often female headed households, with daughters that worked in the local service economy, and sons in agricultural labor.
We must continue to say their names.
Ricardo, 22, 3531. Caja 4, Registro de Esclavos, 1867-1876. “Puerto Rico Slave Registers, 1863-1879”, database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-CSK3-Z3WY-S?cc=3755445 : 21 October 2021), > image 1 of 1.
Benjamin Nistal Moret, “Problems in the Social Structure of Slavery in Puerto Rico During the Process of Abolition, 1872”. Manuel Moreno Fraginals, Frank Moya Pons & Stanley L. Engerman, eds.Between Slavery and Free Labor: The Spanish Speaking Caribbean in the Nineteenth Century, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1985, 141- 57.
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?
Yesterday was the fourth anniversary of Pop’s passing, which took place on 7 July 2017. When our loved ones transition and become ancestors, there is the gift of memory, of a world now truly gone.
Three days ago, Maria de los Angeles Caban Lopez died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 80, surrounded by her family. Known simply as Maria or ‘Mery la de Guchi’, she , her husband Rafael ‘Guchi’ Cordero Rodriguez (1931-2017) and their children were part of my childhood and adulthood.
Daughter of Guillermina ‘Conchita’ Lopez Babilonia and Daniel Caban Mendez, Maria was born in Barrio Pueblo, Moca in June 1941. Her mother was an accomplished tejedora de mundillo, a lacemaker capable of turning out stylish items using a traditional technique. Maria was also skilled, using her talents to sew elaborate decorative pillows and crochet for various items.
I was sorry that my parents wound up abandoning their relationship when they moved to Florida, a painful process of displacement and emergency movement that left them too embarrassed to reach out and reestablish the connection. I felt fortunate that I was able at least to visit with Guchi’s family in Palmar in the early 2000s, and experience a little of these interlaced relationships. Her sister Consuelo also visited her in Queens just as Maria and her family visited them in Moca and Aguadilla over the years . My godfather was married to a sister of Guchi’s brother Angel, and the Cordero brothers lived in houses next door to each other along the Rta 111 ,in Palmar, just outside of Moca. There was lots of laughter and Guchi brought that sense of humor to his 60 year marriage with Maria.
What always stood out to me was her presence as a mother, always surrounded by her children, then great grandchildren and great great grandchildren as the years passed. She was the glue that kept them together.
My condolences to the family, to my cousins now left bereft without her. QEPD
Her Wake will be held at:
Fredericks Funeral Home 192-15 Northern Blvd. (off the corner of 192nd St.) Flushing, NY 11358
Viewing on Sunday, 7/11/21 From 3pm to 8pm
Funeral Mass: Monday, 7/12/21, Queen of Peace RC Church @ 10AM