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.
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
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.
It seems almost weekly, we see articles describing tone deaf and racist approaches to the teaching of slavery, on which the foundation of this country rests, and maintains today. Part of the problems rests on the disconnect between this history and how and what we learn, together with where and who delivers a particular narrative about the past. The Southern Poverty Law Center, in response to the recent spate of incidences in schools across the country, issued a report with seven common problems in teaching about slavery, which I rewrote here to apply to genealogy.
1. We understand that slavery is not a universal experience for POC, but it is the fact of how this nation was founded. We seek to research, learn and understand the roles and experiences of families and communities within these systems.
2. We acknowledge that flaws are embedded in particular understandings of American history, and that by understanding their role in impacting family history, we can also work towards change.
3. Enslavement is an American institution that crosses time and place. It existed in all colonies and states at the time of the signing of Declaration of Independence, and its principles continue to be bound with the economic fate of the nation today.
4. We speak to the ideology of white supremacy, and point to its outline and role of eugenics within the formation of genealogical practice. We also consider the perpetuation of slavery within forms of structural racism today, that connects past and present.
5. We deal with traumatic experiences as part of our history; the focus within our approach is on resilience and survival.
6. Genealogy and family history are contextual practices- we seek to incorporate the scope of POC experience by not divorcing it from the cultural currents and practices of the time.
7. Our focus on the lives of POC decenters white experience, and instead references a framework of relevant political and economic impacts in the time leading up to and beyond the Civil War. African American institutions provided structure and opportunity, thereby affording a way out of no way.
These two quotes, from a speech made by James Baldwin in 1980 still resonate today when thinking about family histories, genealogy and their use in interpreting the larger context of living and understanding the past:
“I want to suggest that history is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”
“You got to find out the reality which surrounds you. You got to be able to describe it. You got to be able to describe your mother and your father and your uncles and your junkie cousin. If you aren’t able to describe it, you will not be able to survive it.” “Black English: A Dishonest Argument.” Randall Kenan, ed. James Baldwin, The Cross of Redemption, Uncollected Writings. 2010.
A supplement for Episode 89: Dangerous Liaisons: Jailbird Relatives and The Freaky Underside of Genealogy. Black ProGen Live! July 30, 2019
There’s no family history left untouched in some way by underground economies and prostitution. Prostitution or sex work, can be understood as a means of survival first and second, an avocation, either by choice or coercion. Beyond the economic question of support, there are questions about the nature of history that can exclude the marginalized worker, questions around ideas of gender, masculinity, power and the network of beliefs and the structure of law that declares it legal, illegal or a fusion of the two. So, if we think about family histories that deal with aspects of an underground economy, it means dealing with variables in time and place. For many this was a temporary connection or situation, a form of employment that was often unpredictable. Only for a select few, was it a situation under their direct control.
In art, prostitution is the subject of painting, literature, cinema and photography; it shapes the nature of urban, modern experience and informs the realms of tourism and the military. There are stereotypes that circulate in popular culture, in different societies, best viewed as means of defining ideas and assumptions around gender, race and various social boundaries. Looking further back, sexual slavery was also a feature of the transatlantic slave trade that used men women and children,and there’s the trafficking that continues into the present.. Columbus established a sex trade on Hispanola by 1490, with children as young as 9 years old serving as sex slaves.
Prostitution as an organized business arrived in Puerto Rico (and by extension to other colonies) with Spanish colonization in the sixteenth century. After the Spanish American War, for example, policing these boundaries of gender and race drew on discourses of eugenics and public health, so that women were subjected to moral judgements, incarceration, forced medical treatment and framed them both as a targeted category of control and as fulfillment of eugenic policies. Any behavior viewed as questionable by women living in poverty, or regarded as promiscuous, were targeted and swept up as a means of social control, even if they never worked ‘the life’.
Family, Context, Options and Motivation
Understanding how illicit businesses like prostitution, numbers running, and black market participation shapes your family history, can open up a history of different social networks, and is an opportunity to understand the various social constraints and options people faced to sell the only thing they had left to sell to survive.
Often there is an economic reason that leaves people in desperate situations, as with the women mantua makers of the 1840s whose poor pay for long hours hand sewing then-fashionable hooded outerwear. As they contended with rising expenses many were left working a sex trade in order to make ends meet. Some were persons who suddenly found themselves without other means of support; still others (a much smaller group) decide on it as a business, contending with the legal structures on the local and national level to keep business going. Employment by any means necessary was for some, key to survival. In Harlem of the 1930s, Stephanie St. Clair known as “Queenie”, “Madam Queen”, “Madam St. Clair”, and “Queen of the Policy Rackets”, ran a numbers racket that kept some 2,000 people employed during the Great Depression, despite attempts by the Mafia to take her empire over. When a young man in New York City, my paternal grandfather kept food on the table for his family by being a numbers runner, the person who brought the bets to the bookie.
Violence & social control
Depending on the age and racial designation, there may be no effort to help or investigate the murder of sex workers, denying justice as well as legal and medical support services to those who remain. Or, there is wholesale denial on offer, as with the so-called Korean ‘Comfort Women‘ forced to serve the Japanese Army during WW2, who went on the promise of factory employment and instead found themselves in harrowing conditions. Yet, acknowledgement and apologies from the Japanese government were not forthcoming. Oral histories are key to knowing and understanding what happened.
Violence, repression and incarceration are also part of the picture, adding to the complexity of understanding the past. Law enforcement was anything but consistent. Conditions vary, whether streetwalking, brothel, escort, and the legal stance per country can exacerbate or support those involved, and class made a huge difference. Military prostitution, child prostitution, trafficking and tourism are other aspects to consider when researching the past. The question of slavery, whether legal condition or condition of labor repeatedly comes up. Studies do show it’s better to have regulation and laws that protect the worker rather than have an illicit trade where it is not those who labor who gain the income.
Finding Information: Some Resources
Oral histories, photographs, police reports, newspapers, census and military records, are just some of the materials in various collections that may have information on a family member. As the essay from the Framing Resources site at GMU notes, there is no one class, cultural, religious or social perspective on prostitution, and it’s a field of study that has much to offer in terms of understanding the historical context of family histories involved with the practice, some of it very recent. Also the site provides a small area that lays out some questions helpful for working on genealogical research in terms of the nature of primary and secondary materials you’ll encounter in libraries, special collections both online and off.
Take a look at Tyler Schulze’s Black Sheep Ancestor pages “Search for your Blacksheep Ancestors in Free Genealogical Prison and Convict Records, Historical Court Records, Executions, Insane Asylum Records and Biographies of Famous Outlaws, Criminals & Pirates in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada” http://blacksheepancestors.com
The Internet Archive has over 1400 items in a search result, some of them guidebooks, others, legal statutes published during the 19th century, books and other related materials to download or borrow. See link below.
Also included are the links to special collections on Storyville, New Orleans from the Library of Congress website. Please scroll down towards the end of this post.
This list is not exhaustive, but intended to give a sense of the wide variety of materials and approaches that you can apply to your searches.
“Framing Resources Essay: Case study on prostitution” – Women in World History Website “These varied materials reflect differing class, cultural, religious, and social perspectives on prostitution, especially in the modern, Western world. They tell us what observers thought about prostitution and how their attitudes changed over time. Until recently, there were few personal accounts by prostitutes to provide clues about their varying motivations or their attitudes toward the governments, organizations, or individuals that sought to regulate the practice or abolish prostitution. Oral histories as well as the anthropological and sociological studies that document the lives of prostitutes, many of them from Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe and almost all of them poor, have begun filling this gap.” http://chnm.gmu.edu/wwh/essay/essay.php?c=resources&r=case
Andy McCarthy, “Genealogy Tips: New York City Cops in the City Record.”
“…For the five boroughs, there really is no collection of historical “police records.…”
NYPL Record Requests: FOIL
Revista Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña. Carlos A Rodriguez Villanueva, “Amor licito e ilícito: un escape a los patrones amorosos establecidos [Historia socio-sexual en ella Caribe Hispanico, siglos XVIII-XIX: Cuba, Santo Domingo y Puerto Rico]”; Jose E Flores Ramos, “Vida cotidiana de la prostitutas en San Juan de Puerto Rico: 1890-1919”; Nelly Vazquez Sortillo, “La violencia dentro de la violencia: un caso de violencia domestica en una hacienda esclavista en Puerto Rico (1871).”. 2006 vol 13, 2nd series. Issue downloadable from issuu.com https://issuu.com/coleccionpuertorriquena/docs/segunda_serie_n__mero_13
348 Dra. Nieves de los Ángeles Vázquez Lazo “Historia de la prostitución en Puerto Rico, de 1876 a 1917.” Angel Collazo Schwarz, La Voz del Centro http://www.vozdelcentro.org/2009/08/23/la-historia-de-la-prostitucion-en-puerto-rico/ Podcast: http://www.vozdelcentro.org/mp3/Prog_348.mp3
“1970s New York City: The dangerous & gritty streets during a decade of decline.” NY Daily News. Photographs of NYC’s sex workers included. https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/gritty-new-york-city-1970s-gallery-1.1318521
Timothy J Gilfoyle, City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920. (1994)
Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860. (1987)
Shirley Stewart, The World of Stephanie St. Clair, An Entrepreneur, Race Woman and Outlaw in Early Twentieth Century Harlem. Peter Lang Publishers, 2014.
LaShawn Harris, Sex Workers, Psychics and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City’s Underground Economy. U Illinois Press, 2016.
Shane White, Graham White, Stephen Garton, Stephen Robertson, Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem Between the Wars. Harvard UP, 2010.
Karen Abbott, Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America’s Soul. [Chicago] Random House, (2008).
Laura Briggs, Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science and US Imperialism in Puerto Rico, University California Press, (2002).
Eileen J Suarez Findlay, Imposing Decency: The politics of sexuality and race in Puerto Rico, 1870-1920. Duke UP (1999).
Donna J. Seifert, Elizabeth Barthold O’Brien, & Joseph Balicki, “Mary Ann’s First Class House: The Archaeology of a Capital Brothel.” Robert A Schmidt & Barbara L. Voss, Archaeologies of Sexuality. Routledge, (2000), 117-128.
Wild West Book Review: Jan McKell’s Red Light Women of the Rocky Mountains UNM Press, 2009 https://www.historynet.com/wild-west-book-review-red-light-women.htm
Heather Branstetter, A Business Doing Pleasure: Selling Sex in the Silver Valley 1884-1991. Wallace, Idaho. (author blog) https://abusinessdoingpleasure.com Race & the Houses https://abusinessdoingpleasure.com/2017/08/17/race-and-the-houses/ Files at the Shoshone County Sheriff’s Office https://abusinessdoingpleasure.com/2014/10/02/aboutthescsofiles/
“Garden of Truth: the trafficking of Native Women in Minnesota.” Minnesota Indian Women Sexual Assault Coalition. Report (2011) https://vawnet.org/material/garden-truth-prostitution-and-trafficking-native-women-minnesota
“Prostitution: A violent reality of homelessness” (2001) report https://www.issuelab.org/resource/prostitution-a-violent-reality-of-homelessness.html
Historical resource Medievalists.net list of posts on prostitution, various locations during the medieval period http://www.medievalists.net/tag/prostitution/
Hell’s Half Acre, 2017 [Victorian Los Angeles] https://la.curbed.com/2017/11/17/16654292/history-prostitution-los-angeles
Selected Items from the Internet Archive, Archive.org items
Modern Pornography & Sex Work Collection, 1960-1990. University of South Florida
CSUN, The Oldest Profession (Collections overview)
Dr Bonnie Bullough Collection, 1954-2000. CSUN, Oviatt Library, Special Collections
Reverend Wendell M Miller Collection, 1928-1988.
Citizens independent Vice Investigating Committee (CIVIC) CSUN, Oviatt Library, Special Collections
Prostitution Collection, 1834-1954., Five Colleges (MA)
Prostitution at Brigham Young University, 1997
Minnie Fischer Cunningham Papers, Standard Statistics on Prostitution Syphilis & Gonorrhea (1919)
Guide to Shelley Bristol Papers UNLV
The Real Rainbow Row, Charleston Hotel College of Charleston, Special Collections https://speccoll.cofc.edu/the-real-rainbow-row/charleston-hotel-200-meeting-street/
The Library of Congress’ page on Storyville has several special collections from New Orleans which I have included below.
Storyville: A resource guide to commercialized Vice in New Orleans. Library of Congress
Storyville: a resource guide to sources about commercialized vice in historic New Orleans.
Table of Contents
Selected Book Titles
LC Subject Headings
Archives of the City of New Orleans. New Orleans Public Library.
This includes ordinances related to prostitution.
Louisiana State Archives. Baton Rouge.
See Research Historical Records section.
Louisiana and Special Collections. Earl K. Long Library, University of New Orleans.
Includes the following collections: New Orleans Chamber of Commerce Records, MSS 66 and Josie Arlington Collection, MSS 270.
Louisiana Research Collection. Howard-Tilton Library, Tulane University.
Search in the following collections:
Al Rose Collection, RG 606 : Although listed as a jazz archive, Storyville was the place to hear jazz musicians. Search: Prostitution.
Master Rolls, Battalion Washington Artillery: 1861-1865.
New Orleans Travelers’ Aid Society Papers, RG 365.
New Orleans Records. New Orleans City Archives, Louisiana Division New Orleans Public Library.
This collection includes arrest records, arrest index, ‘Jewell’s Digest of the City Ordinances’, etc.
Note: this collection is also available on microfilm at the Library of Congress.
New Orleans. Ordinances, etc. Jewell’s Digest of the city ordinances, Rev. ed. New Orleans, 1887.
LC Call Number: Microfilm 21895 JS
LC Catalog record: 47035734
Williams Research Center. Historic New Orleans Collection.
Blue Books in the Williams Research Center’s collection, probably the largest extant, is available for research. View one of the digitized Blue Books here. Please contact the center for more information.
Last updated: 02/09/2018
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
Oral history, Alex Haley’s Roots and the question of proof
Change takes time. It can feel glacial when looking at the time frame for the development of genealogy for people of color in the US. As Nicka Smith recently reminded us in the video of Ep20b of BlackProGenLIVE on Talks Diversity in Genealogy and Family History, our path is difficult because a fundamental building block is oral history.  As she pointed out, ‘the problem of the color line‘ remains a very real one in genealogy. I’m into understanding that context, and want to take an opportunity to look back at another decade’s work where the push for truth served to reinforce a boundary. The question of proof in genealogy always looms large. For examples of practice, don’t miss the list of blogs at the end of this post.
A quote from a 1983 article that contained a relentless takedown of Alex Haley’s book Roots: The Saga of an American Family, reveals the seams along which professional genealogy developed, some eighty years earlier. This split posits the document against the voice in oral history as the legitimate source of data. Thirty-three years ago, this genealogical work was an endeavor that missed the boat in its insistence on paper as the ultimate proof, and perhaps the location there is significant, as it came out of the deep South.
Facts, Claims and the Logic of Proof
The claim that ‘No ethnic group has a monopoly upon oral tradition or documentation, literacy or illiteracy, mobility or stability' ignores the fact that enslaved people counted for chattel, that various populations were brought to labor in oppressive conditions here, and key is that most people of color were not party to creating documentation on their own behalf reflective of them as equal people with equal rights. This goes well beyond “superimposing racial divisions upon all aspects of life…” and ignores that the struggle for civic recognition reaches back to the founding of the country. The fear expressed then, was that Haley’s book could constitute a ‘…delusion that encourages mediocre scholarship in the nascent field of Afro-American genealogy and relegates black family history to the academic dark ages from which Caucasian genealogy has already emerged…’.
The problem is that this logic of ‘documentary proof as the only valid proof’ is part of the problem of structural racism, inadvertently or deliberately serving ‘to perpetuate social stratifications and outcomes that all too often reflect racial group sorting rather than individual merit and effort.’ To continue to claim this kind of proof as the only proof is an exclusionary exercise, in effect, one that insists on documentation within a context where one side holds the power, and is also one that perpetuates the gap between White Americans and Americans of color.
The following chart shows the interlocking parts of this system:
In essence, what we are witnessing today is a gradual process of desegregation within genealogy practiced in the U.S.
Strategies and Projects: Restoring Visibility & Developing Methodologies
Within the last two decades, genealogists in the field of African American genealogy have developed strategies for working with oral histories and published accounts and have successfully incorporated them within the Genealogical Proof Standard. It follows the growth of historical, sociological and cultural work on various dimensions of the experience and process of enslavement, the development of various communities of color and difference as legitimate fields of inquiry. Now there is a growing awareness of combined efforts that defy simple ethnic or racial classification as with Marronage, those hidden and open maroon communities where people of African, Indigenous and varying admixtures stole themselves to, to gain self-determination. These historic episodes do not fit neatly into traditional genealogy and require new modes of recording, interpreting and disseminating data on the families of these communities.
Given the location, this work has neither a smooth or clear path to acceptance; for instance, one can look at the changes in the narratives offered by Monticello in the 1990s to the 2010s, with the recent Public Summit on Race and the Legacy of Slavery (Sep 2016) and the recent conference (Mar 2018) Interpreting Slavery Also important are the in-place interventions by Joseph McGill of The Slave Dwelling Project, and Michael J Twitty’s rising recognition as a culinary and historical authority with his blog Afroculinaria and his important book The Cooking Gene are gaining wider regard.
The summit, “Memory, Mourning, Mobilization: Legacies of Slavery and Freedom in America” would not have been possible without the oral histories along with the genealogical and DNA data collected by the Getting Word project at Monticello. As a result, descendants now have the opportunity to stay overnight through the Slave Dwelling Project. McGill continues to expand to new sites, to have important conversations as a group participates in a simple, visceral experience of sleeping in slave cabins.
On Episode 315 (Mar 15 2018) of Research at the National Archives and Beyond, Bernice Bennett interviewed genealogist Kenyatta D. Berry, on her work with a consortium of 30 US universities currently researching and dealing with their involvement in slavery. Within their discussion the question of data, access and interpretation by descendants, genealogists and historians is in a process of development. The variety of needs range from establishing a historical narrative to understanding context, creating macro and microhistories that can recombine with documentation to create larger interdisciplinary spaces that can accommodate community. This is a coming to the table on a large scale, that holds the promise of shifting how we see our past and our future as a nation. Our family trees reach long and far indeed, with many finally linking their past to places beyond borders using documents, oral history and DNA.
Also consult the blogs of members of Black ProGen below (scroll down) to see more projects that take on various facets of genealogy to see examples of this broader change, and join us at BlackProGen LIVE twice monthly on YouTube.
Weighing what matters
I’m not saying that Alex Haley’s work cannot be analyzed for the errors it contains, but instead, that the weight of its context and the moment of its production mattered. Cited in The NY Times (and unnamed in a later article) was eminent Yale historian Edmund Morgan, who recognized that Roots was “a statement of someone’s search for identity… it would seem to me to retain a good deal of impact no matter how many mistakes the man has made. In any genealogy there are bound to be a number of mistakes.” Morgan was the author of American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975), a title that points to the persistent contradiction in the founding of this nation. Overall, historians were not alarmed. Ultimately, Haley’s book proved more novel than fact, but more importantly, it captured the imagination of millions, inspiring many to pursue their own genealogy and family history. The stakes were high for claiming a rightful place as part of US history.
What Haley achieved at the time of the National Bicentennial was to tell a story of national import from a black perspective, as he hoped “his story of our people can help to alleviate the legacies of the fact that preponderantly the histories have been written by the winners.”. One early reviewer of his work noted, “And so, he did write his entire story from the Black perspective which is sorely needed to connect the institutions and fill the void left by the omission of ‘objective’ white historians, the winners in the war of human degradation—slavery…. it is the cultural history laid bare upon the canvas of time devoid of the misconceptions and misinterpretations of a people rationalizing their sins against humanity.”
Roots and its subsequent miniseries did not omit the range of violence perpetrated on a fully human people and claimed a historical place in the narrative of America. It countered a dominant historical and legal framework of being partially human at best, and defied the weight of stereotypes from popular media. Roots is not a pretty picture of inheritance, but instead one that spoke to audiences the realities of enslavement, resilience, continuity and survival in a vivid, cinematic fashion, from a narrative with an origin in the spoken word. That challenge and denial of oral history as a legitimate basis of the experiences of people of color is slowly eroding…. Slowly.
There is an equivalence in the genealogical field that is beginning to be dismantled, an implicit claim whereby scholastic levels of genealogy equates to whiteness. Yet to paraphrase Audrey Lorde, one cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. This work is done as the field opens up to POC more broadly, who bring a different set of experiences, lineages and techniques that draw upon contexts both within and outside of traditional genealogy. It is also up to genealogists who are not POC to weigh what that legacy is and how it impacts the who, what and where of their practice.
In order to see the connection between genealogy and the ideology of whiteness more clearly, one has to go back to the 1880s, when genealogy was part of the toolkit for the pseudoscience of eugenics. This was a conduit for previous ideas about racial inferiority from the previous century, now cloaked in respectable ‘science’. It was buttressed by social and institutional dynamics that maintain racial hierarchies and racialized public policies and institutional practices, a shifting framework that is still in operation today.  It is a discourse of social division and superiority emergent after the election of November 2016, thrown into relief by the events at Charlottesville, Virginia.
Eugenics: technologies of segregation, genealogy & policy
At its most basic, eugenics is a set of beliefs and practices about how to improve the human population. There was ‘positive eugenics’ aimed at promoting sexual reproduction among those with desired traits and ‘negative eugenics’, which sought to limit certain populations from reproducing. The movement started in the UK and spread to many countries, including the US and Canada in the early twentieth century. This instigated the formation of programs intent on improving the population, that led to marriage prohibition and forced sterilization programs. These experiences are part of thousands of family histories tied to experimentation, social policies, with roots in settler colonialism.
Genealogy was important to eugenicists, because it was a map that traced the transmission of ‘defective germ-plasm’ through families, which contrasted with the legacy of white western men with genealogies of ‘quality’. This ultimately translated into policies that generated thousands of sterilizations, destroyed families with the fear of miscegenation, and transformed poverty into a problem of the individual, not society. Yet many states passed laws, as did Virginia that led to over 7,000 people being sterilized– and increasingly as archives make these documents available to the public, a better understanding of the high cost of eugenic policy emerges. Many paid, and continue to pay with their lives.
Paul Popenoe & Roswell Hill Johnson’s Applied Eugenics (Macmillan, 1918) is an appalling and unapologetically racist book. In it, the authors suggest that genealogy become the study of heredity and the legacy of traits in a family. It denies the backdrop of colonialism and slavery to blame peoples of African descent, immigrants and those living in poverty for the conditions that result from exploitation. Conveniently, context does not come into their analysis: “The historical, social, legal and other aspects of genealogy do not concern the present discussion. We shall discuss only the biological aspect…” Genealogy was seen as the way to accomplish the goal of identifying certain lineages as social problems to be dealt with via policy decisions.
Consider the backdrop for the publication of this text- in 1915, Popenoe presented his paper on eugenics at the First International Congress of Genealogy, sponsored by the California Genealogical Society and held during the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. That same February that this world’s fair opened, also saw the release of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, 3 hours of racist propaganda that fired up the Lost Cause, the KKK and stoked racial violence. None of this is lost on myself as a colonial subject, a Taino woman of ethnic admixture with a disability, who was elected and happened to be the first POC to become President of the California Genealogical Society just a century later. I worked with the board to change our motto to “Connecting people to their diverse family heritage.” I imagine Mr. Popenoe is spinning in his grave.
Over three decades, eugenic explanations went over big in the US. The authors pointed to the centrality of genealogy in delivering eugenics as a means to controlling populations ‘scientifically’:
“The science of genealogy will not have full meaning and full value to those who pursue it, unless they bring themselves to look on men and women as organisms subject to the same laws of heredity and variation as other living things. Biologists were not long ago told that it was essential for them to learn to think like genealogists. For the purpose of eugenics, neither science is complete without the other; and we believe that it is not invidious to say that biologists have been quicker to realize this than have genealogists. The Golden Age of genealogy is yet to come.” 
Medicine, law, sociology and statistics were seen as the beneficiaries of genealogical information collected at centers in the US. This led to some 60,000 Americans being sterilized in the US between 1907 and the 1970s. 
Popenoe’s book offers justifications for segregation, and falls back on phrenology’s racial hierarchies for explanations of inferiority as intrinsic to the body. In terms of the black body, the book conflates the limitations of resources with a lack of progress, noting that “If so, it must be admitted that the Negro is different from the white, but that he is eugenically inferior to the white.”
Those who did better on the tests were surmised to have “more white blood in them” and proceeds to determine a racial quantum based on percentages as did Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1781), and the eighteenth century Casta paintings of Mexico. . You can revisit some of Jefferson’s ideas about African peoples excerpted here .
It follows that Papenoe and Hill Johnson proposed to prohibit interracial marriage, and their chapter on ‘The Color Line’ culminates with recommendations to put this into law as four states did (LA, NV, SD, AL) by 1918, before turning to immigration. 
Across the text, begins to appear the familiar language that Nazi Germany put into operation— the idea that the colonizers of North America were of the Nordic race appears on p 301, and proposals for implementing sterilization to stop those ‘whose offspring would probably be a detriment to race progress.”  The plan is to remove people to a colony, tracts of land with large buildings to separate out the unwanted  
The idea of separation and segregation was one endorsed by law across the US and funded by various non-profits that discovered ways to ‘elevate’ those with ‘Nordic’ ancestry, while subjecting the poor, infirm, immigrants and people of color to identities and practices such as sterilization that reinforced their subjugation. As historian Edwin Black noted, “California was the epicenter of the eugenics movement” that had “extensive financing by corporate philanthropies, specifically the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Harriman railroad fortune. They were all in league with the some of America’s most respected scientists hailing from such prestigious universities as Stanford, Yale, Harvard and Princeton.”
Charities were paid to seek out immigrants in “crowded cities and subject them to deportation, trumped up confinement or forced sterilization.” The Rockefeller Foundation even funded a program that Josef Mengele worked in before he went on to Auschwitz. It comes as no surprise then, that such organizations propagandized for the Nazis, and funded them in Germany. If one fell beyond the gentrified genetic lines such as those persons who worked, researched and enabled the legal structures of these programs, those deemed weak or unfit were subject to extraction.
In August 1934, California eugenicists arranged for a Nazi scientific exhibit to be shown at the LA County Museum as part of the Annual Meeting of the American Public Health Association. Such exhibits legitimized what circulated in American popular culture through the 1920s and 1930s at state fairs and even world fairs. Similar ideas are circulating today within Far Right channels and from members of the US Government today; internationally, we see the growth of this ideology spread within sites of settler colonialism.
Eugenics hit its nadir within a decade through its association with Nazi Germany, and later testimony at the Nuremberg trials, where human rights abuses carried out as eugenics programs were claimed to be little different than the US.  What is problematic is that wherever such programs are employed, the criteria of selection are determined by whatever group is in political power. 
It is precisely this history that the field of genealogy has to recover from.
As a field, genealogical practice has expanded beyond the accumulation of facts and details to encompass the social histories of those overlooked or at risk of falling into obscurity. Cemeteries are being restored and along with that, the local histories of suppressed, exiled or earlier occupants of towns and cities are coming into visibility- and let us include and embrace our diasporic connections and activities within this circle.
Documentaries, podcast series like those of Angela Walton-Raji’s African Roots podcast and Bernice Bennett’s Research at the National Archives and Beyond help to disseminate new information, findings and work through social media channels. These sources have reached audiences well beyond the journal publications of various genealogical and historical societies.
There is an opening up towards acknowledgement of past harms done to various communities, that acknowledge pain while transforming it into knowledge and sites where people can come to the table and support each other in unpacking the past. This is not a kumbaya moment, but one where the aftermath of enslavement and its social and institutional reach into the present can be faced.
DNA adds another dimension, revealing past relationships that range from the coercive to the consensual that happened, and when augmented by oral history and documents, the process literally brings into visibility parts of ourselves through enslaved ancestors, free and freed people and slave holders. There are many of us who seek the receipts that establish this more contentious family history, fraught with scars and triumphs, that confirms and grounds a movement toward freedom and self determination.
The fears of the last century about the reach of one book that captured the imagination of millions as a faulty model for genealogical research were ultimately unfounded. After Haley’s book was published and the program series Roots aired, “letters of inquiry and applications to use the National Archives rose 40%. General interest in genealogy continues, as it offers a path to situate personal history in the larger context of national history, and to continuing education.
Recently, course offerings for genealogists are focused on writing family histories, and now, genealogical societies are taking it one step further and offering seminars on writing historical fiction based on family history. What the Abolitionist movement of the nineteenth century knew was that an audience had to hear not just facts, but a narrative, conveyed by a powerful voice or on the page, and if possible, to offer visual proof through photographs— all media used to convey their urgent message.
Ultimately, our task is to make visible and thereby end the historical erasure of difference (ethnic, race, gender, class) in the historical and genealogical record, and thereby honor those who came before us, our ancestors and their struggles.
1. BlackProGen LIVE, 11 October 2016. Ep.20b Talks Diversity in Genealogy and Family HIstory. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G1Z7Anc4Fj8&t=2s
2. Nicka Smith, “The Problem of the Color Line”, Who is Nicka Smith?.com http://www.whoisnickasmith.com/genealogy/the-problem-of-the-color-line/
3. Elizabeth Shown Mills and Gary B. Mills. “The Genealogist’s Assessment of Alex Haley’s Roots.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 72 (March 1984): 35–49. 35-36. Digital image. Elizabeth Shown Mills, Historic Pathways. http://www.HistoricPathways.com : [9 Oct 2016].
4. “Although some Americans have been conditioned to superimpose racial divisions upon almost all aspects of life, such academic distinctions cannot exist in the science of genealogy. It is true, at the same time, that certain procedures in the pursuit of black genealogy do differ from those in the pursuit of English genealogy, that the pursuit of ancestral research among white Creoles of Louisiana is different from that among the Pilgrims of Massachusetts, that research in Virginia differs from research in Tennessee, that research on black families in Alabama differs from that on black families in New York.” Elizabeth Shown Mills and Gary B. Mills. “The Genealogist’s Assessment of Alex Haley’s Roots.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 72 (March 1984): 35–49. 35-36. Digital image. Elizabeth Shown Mills, Historic Pathways. http://www.HistoricPathways.com : [9 Oct 2016]
5. Gary B. and Elizabeth Shown Mills, “ROOTS and the New ‘Faction’ a Legitimate Tool for Clio?.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 89:1, Jan 1981, 4. Digital image. Elizabeth Shown Mills, Historic Pathways. http://www.HistoricPathways.com : 15 Oct 2016.
6. “The structural racism lens allows us to see more clearly how our nation’s core values— and the public policies and institutional practices that are built on them — perpetuate social stratifications and outcomes that all too often reflect racial group sorting rather than individual merit and effort. The structural racism lens allows us to see and understand: the racist legacy of our past; how racism persists in our national policies, institutional practices and cultural representations; how racism is transmitted and either amplified or mitigated through public, private and community institutions; how individuals internalize and respond to racist structures. The structural racism lens allows us to see that, as a society, we more or less take for granted a context of white leadership, dominance and privilege.” The Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change, Structural Racism and Community Building. June 2004, 12. https://assets.aspeninstitute.org/content/uploads/files/content/docs/rcc/aspen_structural_racism2.pdf Accessed 9 Oct 2016.
7. See the steps and bibliography for James Ison’s syllabus “Using the Genealogical Proof Standard for African American Research” presented at two national conferences in 2010 https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/Using_the_Genealogical_Proof_Standard_for_African_American_Research Accessed 15 Oct 2016
8. Edmund Morgan quoted in Israel Spencer, NYT, 10 Apr 1977; in Mills, “ROOTS and the New ‘Faction’, 4.
9. Alex Haley, quoted in Nancy Arnetz, “From His Story to Our Story: A Review of “Roots”. Journal of Negro Education, 46:3, Summer 1977, 367-372. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2966780, 367
10. Arnetz, “From His Story to Our Story: A Review of “Roots”. Journal of Negro Education, 367-372, 368.
11. “Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between and individual and her oppression. But community must not mean a shedding of our differences or the pathetic premise that these differences do not exist. Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucible of difference— those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older— know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only means of support.” Lorde’s title and her question remain pertinent: “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?” It is important to note that this seminal essay was written in acknowledgement of the lack of participation of Third World women of color at NYU’s Institute for the Humanities Conference. Audry Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley Press, 1984. http://muhlenberg.edu/media/contentassets/pdf/campuslife/SDP%20Reading%20Lorde.pdf Accessed 16 Oct 2016.
12. Consider the development of networks of genealogical organizations AAHGS and institutes, such as MAAGI, the AAHGS’ Afrigeneas.org project, the explosion of genealogical groups on Facebook, and efforts such as the transcription of the Freedmen’s Bank papers on FamilySearch among many others that point to the blossoming of the field. There remains more to be done in terms of acceptance and incorporation of difference for genealogy by POC.
13. “Structural Racism Produces Racialized Outcomes.” See Chart, Structural Racism and Community Building. The Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change. June 2004, p12. https://assets.aspeninstitute.org/content/uploads/files/content/docs/rcc/aspen_structural_racism2.pdf
Following up on BlackProGen LIVE’s Episode #31: People of Color in the Northeast and New Jersey, I offer a brief compilation of archival websites that can be helpful for locating additional details for genealogy and family history of Latinx & Caribbean POC in New York and New Jersey.
First, a little background….
Over time, as archives develop along with the growth of communities, a variety of materials can be located within state and city library systems, universities and institutions. New York and New Jersey have a number of significant archival repositories, of which some collections can be searched on line, and to gain the most, arrange for an in-person visit. Plan to check them out after exhausting initial sources such as census and vital records.
Why this matters for your family history…
Migration occurs in waves: interviewing elders and others within your family network may ease the process of where to look for records, and determining when ancestors turn up in a given location. During the nineteenth and early-mid twentieth centuries, voluntary migration began, and metropolitan areas offered opportunities for work, housing and education that many moved to, in hope of bettering their family’s situation, if not simply to resolve issues of flat out survival. This cycle was driven by the needs of labor and industry, and people clustered in small overlapping ethnic communities. Upheaval of a system, whether due to war, political instability or economic collapse can be part of the larger context of why ancestors moved to New York, New Jersey and other locations.
Understanding this larger context will help you as you write your family history.
As Jie Zong and Jeanne Batalova note in their article on “Caribbean Immigrants in the United States”: “In 2014, approximately 4 million immigrants from the Caribbean resided in the United States, accounting for 9 percent of the nation’s 42.4 million immigrants. More than 90 percent of Caribbean immigrants came from five countries: Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Haiti, and Trinidad and Tobago”[1.] Some movement to the states was due to restrictions on immigration instituted by British government on former colonies. The Haitian diaspora began in the 1920s-1930s, and New York City has the largest and oldest concentration of Haitians in the US. 
Each country’s history varies in terms of who and why different groups of people arrived and departed its shores. The reasons why can give additional clues for tracing your family’s movement across the globe.
Note that diasporic movement of populations means potential family connections can extend worldwide. Take a look at the interactive map on Migration Information – it provides information on contemporary migrations by country, depicted on maps, along with reports on different populations.
A Preliminary Guide for Historical Records Sources on Latinos in NY State (2002)
Although dated, this 112 page guide provides details on archival holdings around the state. Also has appendices organized by topic, includes correctional facilities, various institutions. Check against more recent listings as a number of collections were augmented since it was compiled, and may also have websites.
As discussed on the program, if there are activists among your ancestors, then it’s likely that there are records from government agencies such as the FBI.
Also at Centro: FBI and Puerto Rico
Ramon Bosque Perez’ testimony before Congressional Briefing gives an overview of the archival material held at Centro, which covers four decades. (The URL is long, so you may have to cut and paste into your browser.)
NYPL- Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture,
Manuscripts, Archives Rare Books Division
515 Malcolm X Boulevard (135th St and Malcolm X Blvd) New York, NY, 10037
“The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of The New York Public Library is generally recognized as the world’s leading research library devoted exclusively to documenting the history and cultural development of people of African descent worldwide.”
Toll-free: 1-866-840-1752 or 212-401-1620Has historically relevant archives for federal agencies and courts of New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands dating from 1685 to the present.
Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, Bahamas, Barbados, Cayman Islands, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, Montserrat, Netherlands Antilles, Puerto Rico, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands, Virgin Islands