In my recent blog post Yturrino: Looking at a collateral line, I had questions about what kind of business Felipe Iturrino Arzua (1811 -1894) of Anasco was in. While I was able to follow some notary documents that described a string of land purchases in different municipalities, it really wasn’t clear what he had invested in.
These land purchases now make more sense after finding him listed in the 1872 Registro de Esclavos. Yvonne Santana Rios’ transcription of Anasco and Cabo Rojo portions of the 1872 volume led me back to searching the FamilySearch database ‘Slave Registers, Puerto Rico, 1863 – 1879 ‘. I still have no name for the hacienda that these individuals worked, and know more or less where it was located, in barrio Cerro Gordo, Anasco. Yturrino and his family lived in barrio Corcobada to the east of Cerro Gordo, and later in a house in barrio Pueblo.
In barrio Cerro Gordo, Anasco, Yturrino enslaved over 20 people, whose cedulas are receipts for the transfer of ownership from the individual slave holders to the colonial government, and they received 120 pesetas per document. The status change to libertos (freedmen or freedwomen) meant rights were established over time.
According to the terms of the Moret Law, these men, women and children entered a contract to work for their former enslavers or for a different plantation owner. They received no pay, but their freedom at the end of three years. For the youngest, this process of manumission lasted until 1886.
Labor: de Esclava/o a Liberta/o
There were a range of tasks, however few were dependent on women becoming domestics in elite households, or took in laundry, or were dress makers. The majority of enslaved women worked as Labradoras, field laborers alongside men. This ran contrary to the ideal of an enslaved person that circulated in prints and paintings, often depicted as male. Men worked as cooks, carpenters and mostly as field laborers in the sugar centrales that grew after the Spanish American war, and women’s labor shifted to the domestic.
While the categories for labor in the documents for the Registro de Esclavos are few, these do not give a precise idea of the range of tasks that a person had, nor how expert they had become. Cerro Gordo was elevated land, better suited for coffee cultivation, and this is likely the crop that Yturrino’s enslaved workers were raising. Given the patterns of inheritance, there is a high probability that the Hacienda de Iturrino in the 1893 Military Map for Anasco to San Sebastian is the same location as in 1870, situated near the streams in the hills that ran between Anasco and Moca.
Say Their Names: Enslaved families, children, locations
Below is a list of 20 persons listed on cedulas from 1868 on which D. Felipe Yturrino y Arzua appears as dueno (owner). The oldest was Agustin an 80 year old man born in Africa; the youngest was 2 year old Josefa, born in Cerro Gordo, one of the children of Evangelista and Vicenta. Nearly half of those enslaved were children.
The few families I could trace to the Registro Civil opted to take a different surname; not one kept Iturrino as a surname. Some moved to Mayaguez in the years that followed. With the collapse of coffee prices after the 1870s, sugar plantations soon dominated the landscape.
Should these names be familiar to you, please feel free to reach out.
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.
Dr. Ellen Fernandez-Sacco’s introduction to Puerto Rican genealogy includes an overview of the challenges & opportunities researching ancestors enslaved and free.
Join us for this virtual program.
Y tu abuela, donde esta?: An Introduction to Puerto Rican Genealogy
Dr. Ellen Fernandez-Sacco’s introduction to Puerto Rican genealogy includes an overview of the challenges & opportunities researching ancestors enslaved and free, available resources and strategies for getting started. Bring your questions! Handout available.
Ellen Fernandez-Sacco works to connect people to their ancestors. One of her book projects highlights the connections between slavery, genealogy and family histories in nineteenth century Puerto Rico. She has published articles on American museums, genealogy, eugenics, and the history of mundillo— traditional Puerto Rican lace making. Past President of the California Genealogical Society, she received her doctorate in Art History from UCLA. Her most recent article is “Reconstructing the missing Registro Central de Esclavos for NW PR.” Hereditas (2021).
In this post, I’ll provide the context of a death record for Juana Nepomucena Caban as we start to unpack what appears in this 1888 Acta de Defuncion. Ultimately whatever information is collected, consider it together with any available documentation as you work your way to earlier generations.
Since one document leads to another, the civil registration can be tied to parish records, municipal documents, census, passports, etc. The information these contain, taken together can demonstrate some of the principles of the Genealogical Proof Standard, by examples in the next post. What details can a document provide to help understand an ancestor’s past?
We’ll start with the death certificate, an Acta de Defuncion created just three years after the Registro Civil begins. Will that document establish who are the parents of Juana Nepomuceno Caban of Moca, Puerto Rico?
Context: The Who & Where of Juana Nepomucena Caban’s Death
Early in the morning of 3 May 1888, Jose Sertoris Mendez Caban, a married farmer born in Moca, left Barrio Voladoras and went to the pueblo to report the death of his eighty year old mother, Juana Nepomucena Caban. At 8AM, before the municipal judge Leon Lopez Diaz, and Juan Nepomuceno Miranda and Jose Maria Euche, the judge’s two agents, or actuarios, Jose Sertoris Mendez gave the committee her cause of death, the names of his father and 13 siblings. Locals Avelino Miranda and Jose Cosme Lopez, ‘cigarrero y el segundo panadero’ (‘cigarette maker and the second, bread maker’) served as witnesses along with Jose Quinones, panadero, and Jose F Maldonado, comerciante (businessman).
This offers a glimpse of the local community in Barrio Pueblo at the time. Often, many of the people mentioned are related, with ties to land, local production or commerce, revealed with further research. In the late 18th-early 20th centuries, Barrio Voladoras was a rural area with farms and plantations that provided subsistence crops in addition to luxury crops such as coffee and sugar.
Juana Nepomucena Caban’s parents aren’t mentioned. The details in this document help outline her family, and leave significant questions about her parents. Even the inked over surname seems to suggest doubt. Why didn’t Jose Sertoris mention his grandparents?
This is information that can change the ancestors that connect, and provide previously unknown branches as many learn via DNA cousin matches. With Puerto Rico’s high degree of endogamy, documents can offer clues to chart the connection, and if available, oral history may help to confirm details. Regardless, missing documents can leave one grateful that an ancestor made it into the Registro Civil, which starts in 1885.
If a family had resources, there’s a higher likelihood of locating them in notarial documents (wills, rental arrangements, land sales, enslavement, etc) newspapers (Library of Congress) or dispensations (dispensas) at the Archivo Diocesano in San Juan. Some digitized series and transcriptions are available. These ancestors may be mentioned even if they were not the parties who filed for the documents with the local notary.
When working with record sets and transcriptions, one wants to have access to original records, but the next best thing is microfilm. Currently, the largest collection of documents on microfilm is on FamilySearch.
There are some problems seeing original primary documents in Puerto Rico: many parish records aren’t readily accessible, trying to make appointments at the Archivo General de Puerto Rico or Special Collections at UPR or InterAmericana in a pandemic for starters., Next are the significant gaps for some early nineteenth century records.
There’s a heavy reliance on transcriptions because of restrictions on other record sets such as notarial records. Unlike other countries, notarial documents have no expiration date in Puerto Rico. As the original documents disappear, transcriptions then become primary sources. That digitized microfilm may be the only copy of records that survived fire, weather, insects and heat over the centuries. It’s still better than having no sources at all.
You’ll want to keep track of your sources so any conflicting information can be traced back, and know its source to avoid repeating an error in the future.
Basically, researching involves cross referencing the information in records, tracking children and tracing collateral lines. Broadening the family tree has the potential to yield some answers, especially when there are several lines with the same surname in an area. In this case, Caban is a surname in NW Puerto Rico that has clusters in Aguada, Moca, Aguadilla and Isabela, made up of different families.
Identity, Names, Surnames
Born in Moca, a municipality in northwest Puerto Rico sometime during the early 1800s, Juana Nepomucena Caban lived through the island’s social and economic shifts. Over the eight decades of her long life, the farms that produced for subsistence and some luxury crops for export, shifted to the rise of coffee and larger sugar plantations . We can glean several facts from her death record of 1888, which i’ll list in the next post.
In the pages of the Registro Civil for Moca, Juana Nepomucena Caban appears as Caban Nieves in her death certificate– but is her maternal surname correct?
Given that there are several Caban lines across the northwest that can differ in terms of ethnicity, endogamy and/or origin, confirm identity with as many sources as possible. As errors do appear in official documents, earlier records may confirm her maternal line. Closer relatives can provide more details than say, a neighbor sent to register a birth or death. Sometimes the relationship is not mentioned, but becomes apparent as you build your tree.
Secondary sources: sometimes it’s the only resource
In this document, the 1888 information can be compared with a transcribed 1859 baptismal record for her son, Gregorio Mendez Caban. In it, Gregorio’s maternal grandmother, (Juana Nepomucena’s mother), is simply identified as Juana Hernandez, wife of Juan Caban— not Juana Nieves.
In fact, thanks to transcriptions by a Sociedad Ancestro Mocanos member Rosalma Mendez, information on another daughter, Zenaida, also lists a variation in an early baptism record. Since this is a transcription of an earlier document, it’s a reason to keep searching and find additional records to confirm her parents identities. More on this in the next post.
Naming patterns: clues in variations
What about Juana Nepomucena Caban’s given name? She can appear in records as Juana, Juana Nepomucena, or simply as Nepomucena, the female version of the name for Saint Juan Nepomuceno. Tracking name variations is helpful for searching. These can include middle names or even apodos, the nicknames used on a daily basis. At times a nickname appears in a record or oral history. First names can repeat in family naming patterns and offer another clue to follow.
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
Recently, my cousin Maara asked me to explore her great grandmother’s line, Maria Monserrate Malave Ayala, and that of her first cousin, Maria Angela Malave Vazquez and her husband, based in Barrio Rosario, San German. Among them is an African ancestor, Juan Tomas Gandulla, who lived nearly 90 years and built a foundation for his family. My hope is that further information will come to light concerning his African origins whether through documents, or via the DNA of his descendants- please feel free to reach out.
Most of Tomas Gandulla’s life took place within the boundaries of the municipality of San German, in the southwest of Puerto Rico.
The Landscape of San German
In the nineteenth-early twentieth century, some Gandulla families lived in San German; that of Juan Tomas Gandulla lived in Barrio Rosario Penon, on a peak north of the Pueblo close to the southern wards. Thanks to its elevation, coffee was the crop that dominated the plantations in the area of the time.
Separated by two peaks, and further defined by rivers, both the church and the municipality attempted to provide a separate set of services to those in Rosario Penon, in order to bridge the distance.
This 1888 map from the Archivo Digital Nacional de Puerto Rico, created by the Spanish military, illustrates the difficulties of traveling between the barrios of El Rosario on the left and Pueblo de San German on the right. The distance from the town center meant additional services needed to be provided. For convenience, i rotated the map’s orientation almost 90 degrees (E-W than N-S) to make it easier to read. One can note the roads and rivers that cross its areas, and Rosario Bajo on the northwest corner of San German.
Unlike the previous map of San German’s wards, this military map provides a sense of the distances involved and the difficulties of getting through the region quickly before the arrival of the automobile decades later. In this sense the map is also political, given its creation in a period after the Grito de Lares and the Spanish American War, a promise of how far government intervention can reach after the repression ofEl Componte. The costs were high, and my cousin Teresa Vega has written about the death of her grandfather by lynching during the 1880s.
The ward is adjacent to Mayaguez’s barrios of Limón and Montoso, both areas where descendants of collateral family eventually lived. Below, the Google satellite map of the ward gives an idea of the hills that cross through the landscape
As the local population needed a place to worship, the church of Nuestra Señora del Rosario was established along with a Chapel near the center of the ward, with services scheduled to a designated priest’s travel there.. After 1885, once the Registro Civil began, the municipal administration used designated persons to bring the information for vital records from barrio El Rosario to barrio Pueblo to the south of San German.
Tomas Gandulla (1809-1887), natural de Africa
“Tomas Liberto de Gandulla, natural de Africa, de ochenta anos de edad, agricultor, domiciliado en dicho Barrio, falleció a las tres de la manana, del día de ayer en su domicilio a consecuencia de “vejez”.”
Juan Tomas or more frequently, Tomas Gandulla, was born in Africa about 1809, taken in slavery and brought to Puerto Rico sometime in the first few decades of the nineteenth century. His status as a freedman was writ large on the title of his death certificate as “Tomas Liberto de Gandulla” on the upper left of the document.
Note that the Secretario’s name 4 lines above is Don Juan Antonio Gandulla, which may account for why Tomas’ name appears as Liberto de Gandulla. His surname points to a Gandulla owner sometime before the 1870s.
His son Basilio Antonio Gandulla served as the informant. Now married, Basilio was a farmer living in Barrio Rosario, and stated his father’s parentage and situation: “Ignorando sus padres. Que no otorgo una memoria extrajudicial, a los mismo declaro manifestando no saber firmar.” “Parents unknown. Declared that he did not execute a will, and that he did not know how to sign his name.” Regardless of this status, it did not stop Tomas Gandulla from being involved with farming on his own account and having a family.  Neither Tomas, his sons or his first wife appear in the Registro de Esclavos de 1872, so that any record of their freedom predates these forms. An additional search of parish records may yield such information as the Tomas Gandulla’s age at baptism and perhaps additional details regarding his origin. As a farmer or laborer before 1887, he may have owned or rented his land, so there may be deeds or contracts mentioning him in municipal records or within the series of notarial documents at the Archivo General de Puerto Rico.
Maria Josefa Rivera: first wife
“During the nineteenth century, the genealogy of people of color often comprises a lineage from single mothers, free and unfree.”
Tomas Gandulla was married twice, first to Maria Josefa Rivera and then to Maria Angela Malave Vazquez. With Maria Josefa, he had two sons, Basilio Antonio Gandulla Rivera (b. 1853), who married Mercedes Velez Candelario and Jose Cecilio Gandulla Rivera (b. 1854) who married Juana Maria Candelaria. Both couples had large families, Basilio and Mercedes had at least 7 children, while his brother Jose Cecilio with his wife Juana Maria Candelaria had some 10 children between the 1870s-1900s. Although Tomas and Maria Josefa did not live to see their 17 grandchildren, most of them survived to adulthood.
So far, no additional information on Maria Josefa Rivera was found; she was probably born in the 1830s. Given the mention of ‘Liberto‘ on one of Basilio Gandulla Rivera’s documents, indicates he was born into slavery, which means that at birth according to law, his status followed that of his mother, Maria Josefa Rivera. She too was enslaved. Yet both sons and their families are listed as ‘Mu’ (Mulato) in the 1910 census. She could be of African or Afro-Indigenous or of other admixture descent, born on the island or brought there for sale. Perhaps parish documents hold some clues, if not answers.
Maria Angela Malave Vazquez: 2nd wife, May-December marriage
Maria Angela Malave Vazquez (bca 1862) became Tomas Gandulla’s partner sometime mid-decade in Barrio Rosario Bajo and likely, lived in Barrio Rosario Penon, San German in the early 1880s. This was a December-May relationship, as Tomas was 40 years older than Maria Angela. Given that this marriage took place sometime in the 1880s, opens the possibility of yet another wife, given that Tomas’ previous marriage was two decades earlier. Tomas Gandulla and Maria Angela Malave had two children, Juan Tomas Gandulla Malave (b. 1887) and Maria Monserrate Gandulla Malave (b. 1889) who lived to age 44 and died of tuberculosis in August 1933. She was married to Juan Alicea.
Maria Angela Malave died of Cloro-anemia, a form of iron deficiency anemia in 1902 at the age of 40, some three years after the death of her husband Tomas Gandulla in 1889.
La Mancha del Platano: regard & disregard
Questions remain about the relationship between Tomas Gandulla and Maria Josefa Rivera, how they met and what their lives were like building a family during a time of great transition for POC in Puerto Rico. Despite their freedom, traces of resistant attitudes to emancipation can be found within documents.
The birth certificate for Tomas and Josefa’s granddaughter Maria del Carmen Gandulla Velez contains small details that may reflect the microaggressions endured in daily life by the Gandullas because of their ancestry and class. Does even the documentation bear this kind of disregard? Torn and water stained pages full of insect holes pit the tropical environment against paper, weighted by records for a diverse rural population. Advancing the frames of the microfilm shows that the form beneath this page was not filmed, and the start of the document is covered by the stitched slip, “Nacimientos de 1890, Leg. 31 Exp. 81e” from the Archivo Municipal de San German. it is still remarkable that it survived all this time.
For Basilio and Mercedes’ daughter, Maria del Carmen Gandulla Velez, their child’s name may simply appear as Carmen on the left hand margin, despite her full name appearing in the document, a level of care more often taken with people considered blancos of higher status. In his post for the municipality of San German, Juan Antonio Gandulla— “D. Juan A. Gandulla, Secretario”, was tied to the family who once owned Basilio’s father, and insured that there was no mistake between their lines, so that some social divisions continued. Yet additional documentation may reveal the complexity of relationships and networks that sustained families in Barrio Penon and beyond.
The statement that D. JA Gandulla, recording the birth wrote near the bottom, highlighted in a detail from the birth certificate below was: “Que es prieta por linea paterna de Tomas Liberto de Gandulla y Ma. Jose Rivera.“ “She is black via the paternal line of Tomas Gandulla’s Freedman and Maria Jose Rivera” As secretary, D. Juan A. Gandulla made sure to record the girl’s paternal lineage as black. Yet this identity was far more flexible than the secretary could have imagined, for in the coming decades, the racial identity of the Gandulla grandchildren is recorded as white.
Maria del Carmen Gandulla Candelario
Tomas Gandulla’s son,, Jose Cecilio Gandulla Rivera and his wife Juana Ramona Candelario also had a daughter, Maria del Carmen Gandulla Candelario, born in February 1890. In this record, Jose Cecilio appears as Jose Cecilio Liberto de Gandulla, and he reported both the birth and the death of his daughter, who only lived for one day.
Again the same Secretario, Juan A. Gandulla inscribed the information for the municipal series Nacimientos de Barrio Rosario de Penon that year. As Jose Cecilio Gandulla and Juana Ramona Candelario were not yet married, the secretary notes the details of their single status. During the nineteenth century, the genealogy of people of color often comprises a lineage from single mothers, free and unfree:
..comparecio Jose Cecilio Liberto de Gandulla, natural de este poblado, mayor de edad, soltero, labrador y vecino de Barrio Ros.o de Penon de S. German, presentando con objeto como padre ilegitimo declaro que se inscriba que era hija natural de Juana Ramona Candelario, natural de San German de 22 anos de edad, soltera, domestica y avecinada en dicho barrio. Que era nieta por linea materna de Ma de la Cruz, natural de San German ya difunta. y a dicha niña ha puesto el nombre de Ma del Carmen…
So, despite Juan Cecilio’s accounting for his identity as father of Maria del Carmen in person, her surname is listed as Candelario, not Gandulla. By 1909 the law was changed to include details concerning paternity, and many women took advantage of this opportunity to amend the birth records to identify the father of a child born out of wedlock. Still, in other municipalities, a father’s willingness to identify his paternity could be followed by the use of his surname for births out of wedlock.
These details suggests that Maria Josefa/Jose Rivera married her husband while they were both enslaved, because their son, Jose Cecilio Gandulla Rivera appears as ‘Liberto’ — freedman— in the 1890 record for their granddaughter, Maria del Carmen Candelario. As this happens in 1890, not 1870, why was it necessary to continue mentioning the status? Was there a Jose Cecilio Gandulla blanco? or was it simply pulling rank in the rural society of San German?
While no additional information has turned up on his first marriage to Maria Rivera, it is possible that despite enslavement, they married and had a family before 1873-1876. Maria Rivera was alive at least until 1854, when her second son, Jose Cecilio was born.
In the 1910 census, both Jose Cecilio and his brother Basilio Gandulla’s families were working on a coffee plantation, in Barrio Rosario Penon, on the “Camino de San German a Rosario, sendero del Penon, Rio Abajo” (Road from San German to Rosario, path of Penon, Lower River). Their sons are listed as laborers. Jose Cecilio Gandulla’s death certificate of 1926 lists his occupation as “Agricultor— finca de su padre”, which tells us he worked his father’s farm as a farmer, and likely inherited the farm. Over the course of his lifetime across various census records makes visible the change in economies a decade after the Spanish American War.
By 1930, only Basilio Antonio Gandulla remained, and labor there was now devoted to a different crop, sugar.
During the mid-nineteenth century, the area of San German had the major plantation crops of coffee, sugar along with minor crops that fed the population. Without additional documentation, it is difficult to say what other crops the Gandulla grew besides coffee, or what kinds of situations and arrangements they navigated. By the early twentieth century, social conditions and status changed, and these branches of the Gandulla family continued to grow.
Whether family members worked in the fields, or in the home that served as its administrative center, or labored as service people within the town, the cycles of sowing, tending and harvesting, overlaid by the Catholic calendar structured their lives . As the details across documents show, family histories were determined by shifting conditions of freedom, enslavement and class. In 1910, six grandsons of Tomas Gandulla worked as farm laborers, four granddaughters as domestics, a generation born on the cusp of emancipation.
Writing Juan Tomas Gandulla back into history was part of a larger research project for Maara Vazquez., “Finding Maria Monserrate Malave.” March 2018.
A great place to begin understanding what’s at stake with writing the Gandulla back into history is Milagros Denis, review article, “The Problem of Slavery in the Puerto Rican Societ: , Reseña de “Sugar, Slavery, and Freedom in Nineteenth Century Puerto Rico” de Luis Figueroa, “La esclavitud menor: la esclavitud en los municipios del interior de Puerto Rico en el siglo XIX” de Mariano Negrón Portillo and Raúl Mayo Santana y “Slave Revolts in Puerto Rico” de Guillermo Baralt. Centro Journal [en linea] 2009, XXI (Sin mes) : [Fecha de consulta: 2 de abril de 2019] Disponible en:<http://www.redalyc.org/articulo.oa?id=37721248012> ISSN 1538-6279
“Puerto Rico, Registro Civil, 1805-2001,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QVJ7-VWTG : 17 July 2017), Juan Tomás Gandulla in entry for Juan Tomás Gandulla, 20 Dec 1887; citing San Germán, Puerto Rico, oficinas del ciudad, Puerto Rico (city offices, Puerto Rico).
“Puerto Rico, Registro Civil, 1805-2001,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QV1Y-RP5L : 17 July 2017), José Cecilio Liberto Gandulla in entry for María del Carmen Candelario, ; citing San Germán, Puerto Rico, oficinas del ciudad, Puerto Rico (city offices, Puerto Rico).
“Puerto Rico, Registro Civil, 1805-2001,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QVJZ-PMJ6 : 17 July 2017), Maria del Rosario Varquez Y Acosta in entry for Maria Malavé Y Varquez, 19 May 1902; citing San Germán, Puerto Rico, oficinas del ciudad, Puerto Rico (city offices, Puerto Rico).
“Puerto Rico, Registro Civil, 1805-2001,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QVJ7-V8M3 : 17 July 2017), María Malavé in entry for María Monserrate Gandulla Y Malavé, 19 Jan 1889; citing San Germán, Puerto Rico, oficinas del ciudad, Puerto Rico (city offices, Puerto Rico).
“Puerto Rico, Registro Civil, 1805-2001,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QVJX-82XH : 16 July 2017), Jose Cecilio Gandulla Rivera, 25 Nov 1926; citing San Germán, Puerto Rico, oficinas del ciudad, Puerto Rico (city offices, Puerto Rico).
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.
If you’re doing Latinx genealogy tied to the Spanish empire, you’ll eventually hit a version of the Registro Civil, the Civil Register for births, deaths and marriages that keep track of the population. Depending on the country, these volumes of vital records begin in different years, and are incredible sources of information… depending on how well the person reporting the death knew the family.
Once you become more familiar with these volumes, you’ll notice shifts in the formatting as it goes from completely handwritten (for better or for worse) to progressively printed forms for entry. The forms evolve as the legal system evolves, with different requirements specified and vetted over time. Ok so stay with me– while this is an example from Puerto Rico, there’s a bigger lesson about details here for you to think about.
Variations, Forms, Changes…
Recently, someone asked me about an ancestor tied to the Muniz line, and if you do genealogy, you know one person is never enough. So here’s an example of two 1917 death certificates, with significant differences in the information given by the Declarante (Informant). It’s a great example of the variations in registering information on life passages.
On the left, is the certificate for Petronila Aviles Gonzalez ( -1917), and on the right, Faustino Muniz Mendez (1877-1917). For Petronila, the informant is the child of the deceased. Basically her son, Basilio doesn’t know the names of his grandparents (pink arrows). For Faustino, the informant is a sibling of the deceased. His brother Casimiro knows the wife, her age, the names of their seven children and… and this is a big one, the names of his paternal and maternal grandparents.
In Petronila’s certificate, her son, Basilio Soto Aviles, is the informant, and his relationship comes later in the document. “Los abuelos paternos y maternos no lo conoce el declarante segun informa.” Translation: “As the informant states he doesn’t know the names of his paternal and maternal grandparents”
On the right, in Faustino Muniz Mendez’ certificate, his informant is his brother Casimiro Muniz. Casimiro is able to name Faustino’s wife, his seven children, his parents, his mother’s parents and his father’s parents. There are 16 people listed on his death certificate, and only 3 are listed in the transcription on FamilySearch. Good luck finding it by search- Muñiz is spelled Muñez.
In case you can’t read the image for Faustino’s certificate above, the red arrows point to significant information:
1. Casimiro Muniz mayor de edad, casado, de profesion labrador natural de Moca, PR y avecinado en el barrio de Cuchillas de Moca, PR…
2. Que era casado con Maria Hernandez, natural de Moca, blanca, de treinticinco anos de edad de cuyo matrimonio tuvieron siete hijos, seis que viven Amador, Martina Muniz y Hernandez, Toribio, Lauro, Telesforo, Francisco, Eulogio, los que residen en el barrio Cuchillas y este llamado Pablo difunto.
3. Que era hijo legitimo de Eusebio Muniz y Paula Mendez, hoy difuntos
4. Abuelos Paternos: Manuel Muniz y Felipa Perez, naturales de Moca blancos y hoy difuntos
Abuelos Maternos: Juan Mendez y Maria Perez, naturales de Moca, hoy difuntos
So we know how old his wife was, that they had some 7 children, one no longer living, and where his grandparents on both sides were from.
It pays to go beyond the transcriptions on FamilySearch and Ancestry. That way you can avoid situations like having a parvulo (infant) listed in your tree as your great grandmother because you didn’t take the time to read the original document. Thanks to Casimiro’s statement, we have three generations on one document, and the information brings us closer to the early 1800s. Don’t take the notations for race literally, use it as a prompt to learn more about how people are categorized by official services.
notice patterns in family names
find different barrios (wards) that the family lived in
determine an end date for grandparents based on mention of whether they are alive or have passed away
another point of origin for your family, either on a local level or internationally
you may also find unexpected details such as additional marriages or living arrangements, recognized or unrecognized children
Most of this information is not transcribed on Ancestry or FamilySearch.
Not every certificate from the Registro Civil has this range of information, it varies by year, with some decades offering up more data than others.
Next for my Geneabuds…
Feel free to watch the upcoming episode #72 of Black ProGen LIVE with hosts Nicka Smith & True A. Lewis— coming up on Tuesday 13 November 2018: Life After Death: Getting More With Death Records – click here to watch liveon YouTube. Tune in & discover the leads you can gather from obtaining, reviewing and distilling death records. I’ll be on the panel!