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).
On the trail of compassion and wonder: a meditation
Lately, I’ve been pondering how a broader historical framework for the genealogies and family histories can make displacement visible, particularly for identities shaped by the experiences of diaspora and migration.
Shouldn’t we ask questions about how beginnings are constructed? What’s the significance of an origin story? Who gets to tell about the dawning of a deeper historical consciousness among people? For whom does this story matter? Stories are containers for memory, with purpose.
I want to speak to the depth of this experience not because this perspective grants a sense of ‘survival beyond the odds’, but because when one listens to the bits of histories encoded in our stories and in the genes of our ancestors, these experiences can instill both compassion and wonder.
In turn, compassion and wonder feeds the hope of survival, can enable sympathy, free suppressed identities, and through this recognition, foster social change. Our family histories contain worlds within them and perhaps answers that can help us heal in the present.
2. So, how best to convey and define this complexity? There are so many questions to consider when pondering how to proceed. How can we locate and embrace the foundations created by Indigenous ancestors who kept a particular world view embedded in how they lived? Who can guide us on this journey? How do we come to terms when we discover our enslaved ancestors? Of those who were enslavers? Our task is to quilt together the narratives of survival and remember those that came before us.
These ancestries, family histories and narratives are more visible today thanks to technologies of social media and the regeneration of concepts out of these deeper pasts. But more needs to be done to unfold the hidden margins of these narratives and reveal nodes of connections- location, place, time so that you becomes we. We are a constellation of microhistories.
3. For many Puerto Ricans / Borincanos / Tainos who identify as the descendants of pre-European Boriken, already a blend of Native and African peoples, there is a growing recognition of self and community that stands in relief to a backdrop of colonization. Indigenous identity is long denied because many grew up hearing the stories of extinction, then some deemed it an impossibility because it was not 100%. What happened however is Taino people were not gone, not frozen in time and continue to incorporate change in the present. There’s a culture and the question of language, which doesn’t negate a continued presence. This identity undergoes acknowledgement and recognition both on and off the island with the situation exacerbated by the pandemic. There’s a level of acknowledgment rather than a challenge, and communities that confirm continuity, a slow shift over the decades. Growth and regeneration continues.
4. There’s extraction as a process constantly mobilized by different interests across time. Key to destroying the landscape is forgetting our fundamental interconnectedness from the seemingly inert to overtly active lifeforms. One prays for a respite from the machine of capital, from the desire for gold that threatens El Yunque, a tropical rainforest and sacred space for the Taino people. The land everywhere needs to heal and needs its stewards. Historically, assimilation was the order of the day in policy imposed on Puerto Rico, an echo of how the U.S. dealt with the nations contained within its own borders. Assimilation is an old multifaceted story whose journeys can cost us the past, its details trapped in bits of oral history. What are we remembering? What do our ancestors tell us today?
5. The backdrop of change is a constant. It goes from enslavement to industrialization to a globalization that traps and impoverishes many. Today one can begin to lay claim to this heritage while gaining visibility with less certainty of disenfranchisement. And because of technology, we can make connections with others that increases our chances of survival through the progressively larger gatherings that take place across the country. This connection can be an antidote for the historical amnesia that fades with accountability and the remembrance of survival. Can knowledge stop trafficking? Can memory heal? To receive and share their stories, heal and connect is a blessing. What lessons come from the worlds our ancestors inhabited? How are you we?
The search for my great great grandfather Telesforo Carrillo began with a fiction of sorts, created by his death certificate of 1920. Here the gap between who he was when he started and who he was at the end of his life widens.
In his death certificate, both a baker and a plumber witnessed the testimony of the informant, his son in law, my great grandfather Juan Fernandez Quinta.
He gave details that led nowhere unless one followed the women. I suspected my great grandfather Telesforo might be an hijo natural, a birth deemed illegitimate by law. With his mother listed as Maria Carrillo, the name Maria yielded nothing, so I set it aside until I could find records that encompassed their lives. A century later, this mosaic of relationships becomes a little clearer.
Telesforo Matos Ramos F75 #206 im 742 25 Marzo 1920 Declarante: Juan Fernandez Quinta, casado, proprietario, natural de Espana, casa Num pda 44 de la calle Loiza, Santurce, yerno natural de Rio Grande, vecino de Santurce 85, blanco, industrial, viudo de Andrea Maldonado, natural de Trujillo Alto, ya difunta avecinado pda 225 Calle La Calma causa: senilidad, 10PM 23 Mar 1920, hl Jose Matos & Maria Carrillo difuntos que el declarante ignora los nombres de los abuelos del difunto Testigos: JP Medina, plomero, nat Fajardo & Catalino Gutiérrez, panadero, San Juan Encargado RC: Juan Requena
The search that never ended
Why was he listed as Matos Ramos? Did my great grandfather misstate his father in law’s name, or did the secretary manage to be distracted and simply entered ‘Ramos’ on the margin? At the end of Telesforo’s life, his parents appear as Jose Matos and Maria Carrillo, both long gone, and that he was their legitimate child. What I eventually learned was much more complicated. With all of the name changes over the decades for his daughter Catalina, my grandfather’s mother.
For a very long time I turned nothing up on Telesforo, so instead I searched records up his grandson, my grandfather, Ramon Fernandez Matos, born in 1900. When I was little, his birthday was celebrated at the end of August, or rather, he celebrated it with his friends. That date didn’t come up in the Registro Civil, and neither did the name.
Just a month ago, I decided i’d try searching with the Carrillo name, and, lo and behold!! He turned up as Ramon Fernandez Carrillo, and the birth certificate that eluded me for so long finally came up, along with that of another sibling. Oddly enough, Telesforo and Catalina’s previous son, Andres, appears as Andrea Fernandez Matos, with his maternal grandparents listed as “Telesforo Matos y Andrea Maldonado de San Juan.”
As an adult, my grandfather Ramon used Matos as his maternal surname. I had never heard of Carrillo until I started tracing his mother, my great grandmother, Catalina (1862-1966). She too had several surnames at different times in her life, and it’s still unclear if the additional uses provided some kind of protection or cover for her.
She appears as an hija natural of Andrea Maldonado in the baptismal record of May 1862 from Nuestra Señora del Carmen, Rio Grande1. She was the first of Telesforo and Andrea’s 13 children, once a costurera, a dress maker who actually cut and made men’s suits in San Juan. She grew up in an area of Santurce that was full of skilled artisans and workers, Barrio Obrero. Telesforo Carrillo was a carpintero, a carpenter and laborer still working the year before he died in 1920 at 75 years of age.
A Glimpse of Youth
Recently my cousin, genealogist Maria Kreider sent me a link to an early record for Telesforo, who turned up in the 1850 Padron de habitantes for Rio Grande. Filmed by the LDS in 1987, this census record comes out of the AGPR’s (Archivo General de Puerto Rico) collection of municipal documents, here the Alcaldia Municipal for Rio Grande. The files consist of two Cajas, A and B; Caja A holds Cédulas de vecindad y padrones Caja A 1860, 1871, 1875, 1880, 1882, 1888, 1898 Caja B 1860-1870. In 1850 Rio Grande was a recent municipality founded in 1840, when it split from Loiza. It was named after the river that joins the Rio Espiritu Santo in North East Puerto Rico, perched between the northeastern coast and the Sierra Luquillo mountains1.
In 1858, he lived in Barrio San Francisco, which was a portion of the town that has since been renamed. In December 1860, he was living with his grandmother, Agustina Carrillo Santiago, 78 years old as head of household, and he appears as Telesforo Carrillo, 18 years old, working as a laborer. The other person living with them was Estevan Pinto y Estrada, a 75 year old widower. None were literate.
The next page is even more illuminating.
This was a household of Free People of Color, two of them widowed, all born on the island. What I learned about Augustina is that at an advanced age, she took care of her grandson, Telesforo, not yet the legal age of adulthood. His youth meant that her daughter, Maria Ysabel Carrillo, had already died- she does not turn up in this series of documents. So far, the man listed as Teleforo’s father, Jose Matos, only appears on his death record. Agustina Carrillo Santiago (1765-1865) herself was unmarried. This is two generations of a female headed household. Besides Maria Ysabel, she had Julian Carrillo b. 1840 in Rio Grande, who later married Petronila Caraballo Hernandez bca. 1845.
Estevan Pinto Estrada was the widow of Toribia Perez, who died before 1860; his relatives also married Carrillos. Whether he was a partner to Agustina or a boarder in the home are questions that may never be answered. As Free People of Color they would have had access to the courts and to town councils, but still carried a liability as ultimately one could not transcend their class or condition. [Kinsbruner 38; 43-44] What more could I learn of their origins?
Losing Elders, Losing Family
The incredibly fragile pages from la Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Carmen, Rio Grande of 15 May 1865 holds three deaths tied by blood and location. On the upper left is the record for Augustina Carrillo Santiago, and on the facing page, is that of Estevan Pinto Estrada. Below him is the record for Gregorio Carrillo, Agustina’s grandson, the child of Julian Carrillo and Petronila Caraballo. None were able to accept the sacraments before dying, indicating a sudden death. There are more Carrillos and Pintos in adjacent pages listed in this volume of Entierros (Burials).
So far I have found no additional information on what took place whether a fire or epidemic took their lives. They are among my Afro-Indigenous ancestors, part of an ongoing ethnocide as the government ended the use of the term’Indio‘ and instead reduced them to colors, uncoupling any political recognition of the local from a longer, deeper history of living on Boriken.
I found Agustina in an 1827 baptism for Maria Nonanta Bartolome Robles at the Parroquia del Espiritu Santo y San Patricio of Loiza, Puerto Rico. On that date, both Agustina and her brother Pablo Carrillo served as godparents, and were identified as ‘Morenos libres” or ‘Free Coloreds’.
Maria Kreider’s gift of sending me the 1860 Padron that listed Agustina and my second great grandfather Telesforo led me to my fifth great grandparents, Simon Carrillo and Josefa Santiago. who were probably born in the 1760s, in Loiza. From what I have seen, there are three clusters of families with the Carrillo surname in the early nineteenth century: Spanish emigres, Afro Indigenous creoles and African descended free and enslaved.
Among the oral history I heard, Catalina Carrillo, great granddaughter of Simon and Josefa maintained an altar, and included among the statues was the figure of an American Indian. However manifested, the woven syncretism of her belief system remembered Native ancestors, never forgotten as part of a local, spiritual sustenance. All of these layers are hidden behind the multiple descriptions and names of Telesforo Carrillo over the arc of his life.
“Puerto Rico, registros parroquiales, 1645-1969”, database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:WG7D-392M : 9 April 2020), Esteban Pinto, 1865.
“Puerto Rico, registros parroquiales, 1645-1969”, database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:W649-8WPZ : 14 November 2019), Josefa Santiago in entry for Agustina Carrillo, 1865.
Jay Kinsbruner, Not of Pure Blood: The Free People of Color and Racial Prejudice in Nineteenth Century Puerto Rico. Duke University Press, 1996.
If your Puerto Rican ancestor is on this list, then we’re related!
Since the mid-2000s, my digital family is expanding, and I’m enjoying some new connections. I tested my autosomal DNA on 23&Me, Ancestry and FamilyTree DNA, uploaded to MyHeritage, DNA.Land and am faced with hundreds, well, since the original blogpost, it’s now thousands of matches. I’m finding that some of the people i’ve known via social media are also distant relatives. I think back on when I lived in NYC as a child and how many times family have told me, wow, I used to live up there (Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan) too, and I wonder how many of those folks who passed me on the street were tied by blood.
Thanks to my prima Teresa Vega, who has the Radiant Roots, Boricua Branchesblog, I’ve been introduced to DNA, FB groups and i’ve been getting to know a lot of family and potential family. Our connection is through Rosa Maria Caban Mendez (2C4R), great granddaughter of my 5th GGP, Juan Cabal and Margarita Ruiz born sometime in the 1730s- 1740s in Aguada, Puerto Rico. Through Sociedad Ancestros Mocanos, we’ve found that quite a few people in our group have discovered DNA connections beyond the documents. And let me tell you, the level of endogamy on some of these lines ‘te da mareo’! (just makes you dizzy)
TL Dixon, of the FB group Native American Ancestry Explorer and Roots & Recombinant DNAblog graciously reviewed my atDNA GEDmatch results and noted the distribution across several different populations from several continents. There weren’t really surprises in there, as a lot matched what I was able to track via documents, contextual history and etymology of the Babilonia surname.
More recently, I’ve had the good fortune to have Fonte Felipe who has the wonderful blog, Tracing African Roots: Exploring the Ethnic Origins of the Afro-Diaspora look at my African results on Ancestry.com and see what matches come up. I’ll write more about discovering these ancestral roots in future posts, as I slowly learn to bring together local history, documents, trees and now, chromosome mapping and triangulation. However, knowing surnames can help point you in the right direction as to where that 3rd or 4th cousin might link up to you.
The Gift of Knowledge
Look, i’m related to two people on the panel on Black ProGen LIve, connections that we discovered much later. Perhaps some of you wonder why i’m on Black ProGen? It’s because one needs a space to speak to the realities of being POC and how one identifies, knowing what techniques and readings are helpful when nobody in your immediate family really has roots in New England, England or Ireland. There is definitely some up there in the mix, but it’s negligible, and my DNA looks like it went through a fan- ethnicities tossed in with no immediate connections to Europe outside of my dad’s grandfather. This is the face of the slave trade & mass migrations in your genes.
And this process never, ever stops. It doesn’t necessarily include the life sustaining ties of kin, people who are the family you make. Remember that there are ties that go beyond blood, or close ties, that make it possible for you to be here. This floating community of family changes over the course of our lives, and I am proud to say that despite the challenges of time and space I have relationships that sustain and heal– yet my tree may not show it. This too is in part, a legacy of slavery.
So, if your Puerto Rican ancestor is on this list, then we’re related!
Family Lines: Those starred on the list below are tied to Haplogroup C1b2 on the maternal line, and C1b4 on the paternal line, which is the Taino DNA that is on both my X chromosomes. More than half of the people here are on my maternal line in the NW, Aguada-Moca-Aguadilla. On the paternal line in the NE, San Juan-Santurce-Rio Grande, there is Haplogroup C1b4 via my paternal grandmother, Angelina Calo Vazquez. Y Haplogroup is European, R-L51, via my paternal grandfather, Ramon Fernandez Matos. On my maternal line, my grandmother, Felicita Rodriguez Vale is the source of my C1b2, which I could fortunately trace back to Tomasa Mendez, born about 1740.
These results fit with the resulting map of 1st to 3rd cousins on Puerto Rico as generated by 23&Me. While locations are self-reported, the results are consistent with family on both sides of my tree, and later generations may have moved south, as I don’t necessarily have specific ancestors in Yauco or Ponce areas. Eventually some arrived in New York City among the thousands who came in the early decades of the 20th Century, many escaping conditions that stemmed from the hurricanes of 1899 and 1928 that mangled Puerto Rico.
There’s always so much more to learn!
The List of my known Great Grandparents:
ps. those born outside of Puerto Rico are noted.
GG Grandfathers –
BABILONIA ACEVEDO, Manuel Miguel Narciso (ca 1804- >1868) Moca
LOPEZ DE SEGURA Y DE SOSA, Buonaventura (ca1825 – <1895)