Abstract: The only slave narrative from Puerto Rico is included in Luis Diaz Soler’s Historia de laesclavitud negra en Puerto Rico (1953; 2002). This article considers this embedded account as part of the literature of slave narratives to address a gap in the literature; this is perhaps due to the account’s singularity and brevity. Beyond this, the other source for understanding the experience of enslaved women in Puerto Rico is through legal and parish documents, generated by a colonial government and church supportive of slavery. As a result, lives under enslavement are quantified statistically, and the lack of oral history or personal accounts hampers understanding of the effects of enslavement from an individual perspective. Documenting such a life comes with its own set of issues, as shown here by demonstrating the limits of various archival resources. There is no one methodology to follow to reconstruct lives and family histories under slavery, an institution designed to prevent the formation of a historical sense of self and agency. Factoring in familial connections makes my own location as a researcher visible, as knowledge is not neutral. Despite its brevity, considering Leoncia Lasalle’s account, and that of her daughter, Juana Rodriguez Lasalle, in terms of its multiple contexts—microhistory, similarities with U.S. and Cuban slave narratives, family histories, and the archive—reveals the constructed nature of the idea of historical knowledge, which also has implications for genealogical practice involved with slavery and life post-emancipation.
Wednesday April 28, 2021 from 7-8PM– Register via the link below
Independent scholar and genealogist Ellen Fernandez-Sacco will discuss Spain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade. She will talk about its connection to her research and how it shapes her family history in Puerto Rico.
As three historians of Cuban slavery recently wrote,”Los notarios eran parte de este sistema de “escribir la esclavitud.” — Notaries were part of this system of “writing enslavement”, literally creating the legal structures through documents that recorded and controlled the lives and movements of over 51,000 enslaved POC by 1846. In this way, the documents further defined citizenship within a slave holding society. What I thread together here is the history of several people held in bondage, the predicament of pursuing freedom, its purchase and my own project of transcribing parts of a missing volume these certificates were entered into. At the end of this article is a translated list of names of those enslaved ancestors who gained freedom from one transcribed box of notarial documents.
The run of notarial documents in Caja 1444 show that between January 1848 and the end of January 1852, the elites of Moca freed, sold and bought enslaved people. Some distinctions made between those who were servants versus those who were laborers, but when a Carta de emancipación (Letter of Freedom) was issued, the bearer had proof of freedom that hopefully, led to self determination.
Several things become clear in this particular collection of notary documents, only 19 slaveholders liberated their human property, while 61 slave holding inhabitants continued to participate in selling them. Despite any bonds of blood or call to family that might exist, the exchange of money was paramount. The odds of gaining freedom in mid-nineteenth century Puerto Rico were indeed challenging.
The plaza at the center of Barrio Pueblo was used for drying coffee, and this 1914 image is telling of Moca’s deeply agricultural context. This town center was the neighborhood where many who gained their freedom moved to in search of employment. At this time, just 41 years after the end of slavery in Puerto Rico in 1871, a significant number of people from elders to adults had some experience with enslavement. I met their descendants in 2000s, and if we speak of context, there is not a single family member untouched by slavery.
Those Who Were Freed
Eight of those freed were male and eleven were female, the youngest being Ramona, 7 months old, and the oldest, Marcos, 70, born in Santo Domingo about 1781. He may have witnessed the events of the Haitian Revolution prior to reaching Puerto Rico; Ramona, if she survived, may have witnessed the string of uprisings that went across Northwest Puerto Rico with the Grito de Lares in 1868, and perhaps actively participated in the struggle for equality that continued for decades.
Some may still carry their memories, so there may be oral histories that tell of their lives. At the very least, their traces in the historical record speak to the constraints they had to live under, and hope for a better life after emancipation despite a spectrum of challenges.
The Emancipation of Mauricio and Ramona
Among those who gained their freedom were children, among them Mauricio 1 1/2 whose mother Monserrate paid for his letter of emancipation; 7 month old Ramona was purchased by Maria Encarnacion from d. Alberto Soto. In 1848, Maria Candelaria paid her slaveowner d. Cristobal Benejan for her own freedom, and in 1850, was able to buy that of her two-year-old daughter Maria, who was born on Benejan’s property and was raised by Paula, another enslaved woman who worked there. As of 1849, “…colonial authorities permitted interested parties to purchase the freedom of infant slaves at the time of baptism, for the sum of twenty-five pesos. The infant however, remained with the master who owned his/her mother until he/she reached adulthood.”  So far, there is no indication that freedom was Benejan’s intention.
One wonders what might have transpired within those two years, and how these free women worked to support their families. They became part of the free community that moved away from the rural agricultural areas to Barrio Pueblo. Here they worked providing services such as cooking, laundering, childcare, dressmaking and lacemaking among others, that continues into the present. Benejan descendants still live near the Plaza in Barrio Pueblo, Moca today.
In a transcription project on the 1870 Registro de Esclavos I’m working on, Cristobal Benejan y Suria was among the largest slave holders in Moca, with 54 persons. At this point in 1870, another three years of labor was required prior to emancipation.
Note this was 36 months of uncompensated labor, caught up in expectations of gratitude toward former owners on the part of the freed. Historian lleana Rodriguez-Silva wrote that “Political practices such as gratitude highlight the liberal features of benevolence and paternalism and undermine efforts to critique the structures of power, especially through critiques of racialized domination.”  So, the histories of abolition in the Caribbean were revised and rewritten to celebrate rather than expose how power functioned in the lives of POC.
Among the certificates of those owned by Benejan in the Registro, Paula’s name appears as the mother of Loreto, 11 (b.1859), and Calista, 1 (b.1869). There is a certificate for Paula, 29 (b. 1849) daughter of Juana, born the same year Maria Candelaria gained her freedom. What happened to the Paula that cared for Maria Candelaria’s daughter Maria? Was Paula freed in the two decades after she was entrusted with the care of Maria? Did she pass away before 1870? I’m left with more questions than I can answer.
Looking at my own tree, I have distant connections to the Benejam via marriage to another slaveholding family, the Lorenzo de Acevedo. Even one of my recent atDNA matches points to this connection on FTDNA, and there are likely more 4-5th cousins out there, like myself, with genetic ties to both slaveowner and those they enslaved.
The Benejam originate in Menorca, among the smaller of the Baleáricos Islands. They arrived in Puerto Rico during the 18th century, and became an important family in Moca, owning land and people that they freed after 1870. Cristobal Benejam purchased Juan from the parish priest Pbo.Jose Balbino David, who functioned as a local small slave dealer during the 1850s, buying and selling people to various individuals.
Living Transactions: currency & human devaluation
During the nineteenth century, the Puerto Rican economy struggled with a mistrust of paper currency, rudimentary banking practices and a lack of coinage. What was used were pesos macuquinos (‘Cob coin’), a silver coinage removed from circulation in Venezuela, and instead, was in circulation on the island for nearly a half century, without a real banking system. This meant real money was scarce.  Within this plantation economy, enslaved people were sold and the income from their sale was used by slaveholders to pay their own taxes and bills. The scant availability of cash on the island suggests the enormous difficulty of the situation that the enslaved faced in raising funds to purchase their own freedom, and the deep anxiety over maintaining family with the threat of sale and displacement constantly looming. Regardless, many continued their attempts and strategies to push for freedom.
Among the slave owners were Gonzalez, Perez del Rio, Benejan, Soto, Lopez, Vasquez, Salas, Suarez Otero, and de la Cruz; some entries give information on previous owners, and together with other notarial entries, one can glean details on the places those held in slavery by them lived and worked. The location of origin for most of the persons listed below was Puerto Rico, although some came from Costa Firme, Venezuela, the Dutch Caribbean islands, and Santo Domingo. The official inscribing the documents into the books was the mayor or Alcalde ordinario d.Casimiro Gutierrez de Canedo, as there was no official royal notary in Moca to record these acts between 1848 and 1852.
Almost all the persons listed paid for their freedom, with five cases granting unconditional freedom with no money involved. Aside from these cases, 32 pesos was the lowest price and 300 pesos the highest. The total amount spent by the enslaved for their freedom was 1,947 pesos macuquinos. Depending on the calculation, this may be equivalent to just over $10,600 US according to the Consumer Price index or $10,900 US in relative wages in today’s money. 
Given the scarcity of cash at the time, it is an astounding figure that illustrates the extractive nature of slavery that POC were forced to navigate in mid-nineenth century NW Puerto Rico.
Letters of Freedom, Moca, Puerto Rico, 1848-1852
20 Jan 1848: Pedro Gonzalez, 28, criollo (born in Puerto Rico), single, bought his freedom for 32 pesos from d. Faustino Perez del Rio. F1
24 Jan 1848: Eugenio, 26, criollo (born in Puerto Rico), single, bought his freedom for 250 pesos silver from d. Maximo Gonzalez. F2
8 Feb 1848: Mauricio, 1 1/2, freedom bought by his mother Monserrate for 25 pesos from d. Juan Jimenez. F5v
8 Jun 1848: Candelaria, bought her freedom for 68 pesos from d. Cristobal Benejans. F17v-18
24 Jul 1848: Ramona, 7 mo., mother Maria Encarnacion bought her freedom for 37 pesos from d. Alberto de Soto. F48v
24 Jul 1848: Tomasa, 35, criolla (born in Puerto Rico), mulata, servant her freedom purchased for 300 pesos from d. Felix Lopez and his wife Petrona Vega. Tomasa was “born in the home of another of their slaves named Paula.” F23-23v
24 Jan 1850: Maria Ylaria o Isidora 2, born on his property, mother Maria Candelaria bought freedom for 70 pesos from d. Cristobal Benejam. F25v-26.
8 May 1850: Felix, 60, ‘natural de la isla’ (born in Puerto Rico) light mulato, for good services, granted freedom from d. Manuel Salas’ (-1850) will. F48v
8 Aug 1850: Lorenzo, who resides in Moca bought freedom for 300 silver pesos from Jose de la Cruz of Lares, who bought him from Juan, Antonio y Francisco de la Cruz. F100-100v
15 Oct 1850: Maria de los Angeles, 26, servant, bought her freedom for 300 pesos from d. Maximo Gonzalez. F128-129
22 Nov 1850: Maria de la Encarnacion, servant, bought her freedom for 100 pesos maququinos from d. Alberto de Soto. F151
9 Apr 1851: Marcos, 70, born Santo Domingo, dark skinned, bought his freedom for 60 pesos from d. Francisco Roman. F52v-53
16 Aug 1851: Matias, 60, Dutch, tall, chocolate color, graying hair, regular front with honey colored eyes, thick nose, large mouth, bushy eyebrows, to be granted freedom for his service, obedience, respect and honor upon the death of da. Rosalia Perez. F170v-171
16 Aug 1851: Prudencio, 8, reddish color, passing hair, regular appearance, honey colored eyes, wide nose, small mouth to be granted freedom upon of da. Rosalia Perez. F171-171v
16 Aug 1851: Catalina, 40, single, reddish black color, passing hair, sad eyes, thick, wide nose wide mouth and bushy eyebrows, for good conduct from the first day, with honesty and activity proper to a slave to her masters to be freed upon the death of da. Rosalia Perez. F171v-172
29 Aug 1851: Teresa, 56, single, mulato, to compensate for her distinguished services with real love and constancy to be granted her freedom by d. Manuel Morales. His son d. Enrique Morales signed as his father did not know how to write. F176v-177
27 Oct 1851: Pedro Pablo, 30, born in Puerto Rico, single, mulato, reddish hair, regular appearance, regular nose, brown eyes, regular mouth and scant beard, purchases his freedom for 200 pesos maququinos from from d. Pedro Vargas. F227-227v
23 Dec 1851: Encarnacion, 40, born Costa Firme, Venezuela, given freedom for her good service via the will of d. Vasquez, via son d. Leonardo Vasquez. F304v
24 Jan 1852: Maria de la Cruz, 14 criolla (born in Puerto Rico), single, light mulato, household servant, straight hair, small round face , black eyes, properly placed nose, regular mouth, freedom purchased by her father Pedro Cordero for 205 pesos maququinos from d. Jose Suarez Otero, deceased, via da. Teresa Cordero, his widow. F20-20v
 Michael Zeuske with Orlando García Martínez & Rebecca J. Scott. “Estado, notarios y esclavos en Cuba. Aspectos de una genealogía legal de la ciudadania en sociedades esclavistas.” Cuba. De esclavos, ex-esclavas, cimarrones, mambises y negreros. 102-165; Table 7.2 Population Increases by Race, in Olga Wagenheim’s Puerto Rico: An Interpretive History, p. 151 for 1846 lists a total population of 443,139; 216,083 White; 175,791 Free People of Color, and Slave at 51,265. By 1869, this number drops by -12,196 to 39,069 persons. Olga Jimenez de Wagenheim, Puerto Rico: An Interpretive History, from Pre-Columbian Times to 1900. NY: Marcus Weiner Publishers, 1998.
 Cartas de emancipación de esclavos compiled from Carlos Encarnacion Navarro, Transcription, Caja 1444, Serie Aguadilla, Pueblo Moca, 20 Jan 1848-31 Jan 1852, Fondo de Protocolos Notariales, Archivo General de Puerto Rico. Translations and extracts are my own.
 Antonio Nieves Mendez, Historia de un pueblo Moca, 1772-2000. Lulu.com 2008, p.146. Ref. Caja 1444, f4.
 “The politics of gratitude refers to the dynamics through which many came to see abolition as an effort to modernize the island, an endeavor for which everyone should be morally indebted to abolitionists and their successors. The politics of gratitude thus provided the structures through which liberal reformists could preserve a racialized and patriarchal social order in the absence of slavery. In the process, liberals also constituted themselves as the only inter- mediaries between popular subjects and the imperial state.” lleana M. Rodriguez-Silva, “Abolition, Race, and the Politics of Gratitude in Late Nineteenth-Century Puerto Rico.” Hispanic American Historical Review 93:4 621-657. doi 10.1215/00182168-2351656
 “3556. Paula, 29, hija de Juana.” 1 Mar 1870. Registro de Esclavos, Moca, Dist. Aguadilla, Caja 4, FHC Film 1511797.
Context of a transcription: African Ancestors in the first book of deaths
Back in 2006, I was researching mundillo (lacemaking) in Moca, and at the same time, learning more about a shared family history that ultimately led me to explore enslaved ancestors, African and Indigenous ancestors. Their strength and perseverance in the face of difficult situations inspires. We can recognize as Daina Ramey Berry so eloquently writes in The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave in the Building of a Nation (Beacon Press, 2017), their soul value, that goes beyond the missing surnames and identities that enslavement sought to steal away.
That September, I was able to transcribe some church entries for a small group of cousins and myself which coalesced into Sociedad Ancestros Mocanos. Sociedad Ancestros Mocanos, which I established on Yahoo! Groups, was where we asked each other questions and shared research findings and transcriptions. This process goes much faster today.
Initially, the census records and civil registration on microfilm were available at the local Family History Center, and we began to piece together trees that overlapped, merged and diverged across NW Puerto Rico and beyond. However, records from Moca such as the Libros de Bautismos, Defunciones y Matrimonios, like some parishes on the island, were not part of the LDS’ microfilm project of the 1980s-1990s. Because of that, any transcriptions obtained during trips were particularly of interest, and often held clues for moving another generation back in time. One of the things that we began to notice were the interconnections our families had, the oral histories, the fact of how an economy based on sugar also tied us to Africa, to the earlier history of colonization and Indian slavery, interrupted by myriad degrees of freedom both before and after slavery ended.
In Moca, I was fortunate to stay within the Pueblo, just blocks away from the building that dominates the center of town, Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Monserrate, built in 1853. The church had volumes of parish records in a small office building at the rear of the church, built atop a hillock at the center of Barrio Pueblo, occupying one side of the rectangular plaza.
Between 1 and 4 in the afternoon the office was open, and I brought my letter of approval from the Arzobispado de Mayaguez granting me permission to consult the volumes for genealogical research. I requested the first volume of Defunciones that begins in November 1852 and took the oversized book to a pupils seat, balanced it on the tiny desk and began to copy.
Time was short, and I rapidly transcribed entries from surnames familiar from my research and shared with members of SAMocanos. I also noticed names of the enslaved among my entries and included them on my list, hoping to find connections later on. Now with DNA there is more chance to link to these ancestors, and hopefully, break down some brick walls.
A brief list of deaths, 1852-1859: Say Their Names
What follows are records for twelve people who were enslaved and who died between 1852-1859. Also listed are the names of an additional six persons who were their parents, along with several slaveholders. These bits of secondary evidence, based on original records remain precious over time, as they both tie us to the place and to the ancestors in them. In some cases they are the only record available, some not digitized even into the present, so that the reliance on a transcription becomes almost a point of faith, yet can contain errors. In some cases, a transcription is often all that remains, and questions about who and what was in the original record are moot when these are no longer extant.
Among the names are Maria de las Nieves and Juana, who both survived the Middle Passage only to die age 48 and 53 during years of epidemics that took many lives. However, the parish record does not say why they passed. There may be accounts elsewhere listing those taken by epidemics. Also in the records is Juana Cristiana, a two year old child who was enslaved, as was her mother, and parish records reveal her parents married in the Catholic church. This did not change the fact they were in bondage, subject to sale or if they were able, to self purchase and thereby gain freedom before 1873. A very real fear was being sold or taken to another plantation in Cuba, where the scale of enslavement and sugar processing was ten times that of Puerto Rico, and slavery did not end until 1886.
Beyond those named, i’ve compiled a list of the parents mentioned largely mothers, whose names may appear in other additional documentary sources, such as notarial documents or for instance, be mentioned in the 1849 Censo de Altas y Bajas for Moca (in Hereditas and on the PReb.com site), or perhaps in other SPG publications, the 1830 Censo de Isabela or 1874 Censo de Lares among others. Another short list below is for the slaveholders, under whose names the information on those listed, was entered into parish and municipal documents.
After freedom, surnames can follow those of the initial slaveholder, or take on different surnames as relationships change or are revealed upon death or marriage. Please feel free to contact me should you find a connection.
The List of Ancestors
Parents listed in Acta:
Eustaquio Arze y de Ma. Ynocencia
D. Cristobal Benejan
D. Francisco Cirilo de Acevedo
Jose Ramon Acevedo
D. Marcellino Lasalle
D. Juan Pellot
D. Esteban Soto Nieves
These are my extractions from Libro 1 & 2 Defunciones, translated, formatted with estimated year of birth added.
f.1v Antonio E. , 35, 16 Nov 1852; single
Slaveholder: D. Cristobal Benejan
f.1v Antonio E. 35, 16 Nov 1852; soltero; esclavo de D. Cristobal Benellan.
f.3 Benito, 70, 26 Nov 1852; born in Africa ca 1782
Slaveholder: Maria Lopez
f.3 Benito, 70, 26 Nov 1852; esclavo de d. Maria Lopez; natural de Africa.
f.17v Maria de las Nieves, 53, 18 Jan 1853; born in Africa, ca 1800
Slaveholder: D. Francisco Cirilo de Acevedo
f.17v Maria de las Nieves, 53, 18 Jan 1853; Natural de Africa, esclava de D. Francisco Cirilo de Acevedo.
f. 53. Juan de los Santos, 18, 29 May 1854; son of Luisa, ca 1836
Slaveholder:D. Marcellino Lasalle
f. 53. Juan de los Santos, 18, 29 May 1854; h natural de Luisa esclava de D. Marcellino Lasalle.
f.54 Justa, 16 Aug 1854; natural child of Justa
Slaveholder: D. Juan Pellot
f.54 Justa, 16 Aug 1854; h natural de Justa, esclava de D. Juan Pello.
f.124-124v “To be given a pair of oxen and a divided area for cultivation for his slaves Gabriel and Juana leaving
Gabriel, Juana, Juana, Maria; Juana and Maria to be freed upon his death.”
Slaveholder: D. Esteban Soto Nieves, 70, 7 Jan 1857; hl Pedro & D. Cecilia Nieves, casada con Juana Velasquez.
“una junta de bueyes una vaca y uno potro cuadrado por [cultivación por] sus esclavos Gabriel & Juana, dejando a Juana y Maria tambien sus esclavos libres a su fallecimiento” Testamento judicial ante Ma. D. Seledonia Torres 5 Jul 1855;
f.241 Angela, 20, 12 Sept. 1858, single, daughter of Rufina; ca 1838
Slaveholder: D. Juan Pellot
f.241 Angela, 20, 12 Sept. 1858; esclava, soltera, hija natural de Rufina esclava de D. Juan Pellot.
f. 244 Juana Cristina 9 Oct 1858, 2 years old; legitimate daughter of Eustaquio Arze & Ma. Ynocencia
Slaveholder: Jose Ramon Acevedo
f. 244 Juana Cristina 9 Oct 1858 parbula, 2 anos; hl de Eustaquio Arze y de Ma. Ynocencia esclavos de Jose Ramon Acevedo
f.259v Juana, 48, 21 Mar 1859; born in Africa, lived in this parish, parents unknown
Slaveholder: D. Juan Pellot
f.259v Juana adulta esclava, 48, 21 Mar 1859; natural de Africa y vecina de esta parroquia y cuyos padres se ignoran, esclava de D. Juan Pellot.
f.263v Juana Prudencia, 9 days old, 8 May 1859; natural daughter of Agustina…of this town.
Slaveholder: D. Juan Pellot
f.263v Juana Prudencia, 9 dias, 8 May 1859; h natural de Agustina, esclava de D. Juan Pellot de este vecindario.
f.263v Juana Tomasa, 11 days old, brown infant, 1 May 1859; child of Pedro Cordero and Marcela David.
f.263v Juana Tomasa, parvula parda, once dias, 1 Mayo 1859; hl Pedro Cordero & Marcela David.
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
While reading one of Lyman D. Platt’s research pamphlets on Puerto Rico, I came across his list for documenting family sources. Published in the pre-internet days of 1990, it’s still a great reminder of the variety of information one can use to reconstruct family relationships and fill in timelines with helpful detail.
I clustered the documentary items below according to their utility. Some sources may tell you more about a person or family than others, which can lend insight into the context of a particular time or place. Photographs are incredible resources, if the individuals depicted can be identified; at the very least, one can determine a time and place, often within a decade.
I clustered the documentary items according to their utility. Some sources can offer more about a person or family than others, which can lend insight into the context of a particular time or place. Photographs are incredible resources, if the individuals depicted can be identified– at the very least a time frame can be established for the image. There are increasingly more collections on line, which I’ll write more about in future.
Thanks to migration and time, you may be left with vital records and the possibility of discovering these items at the homes of elders, relatives and friends of the family, via FB groups.. or even eBay.
Periodically revisiting your collection of family documents is a good idea– some details may have escaped notice the first time around. For instance, i’ve gleaned information from my grandfather’s passport several times, realizing more detail was applicable than I initially thought regarding his first marriage. It’s also an incredibly rare image of them at a crucial moment as they voyaged to South America.
So, think of these general categories as applicable for different countries– not just Puerto Rico.
Some resources are available in special collections at universities and other institutions.
Don’t forget to look at Hunter College’s Centro for Puerto Rican Studies, the NYPL’s fabulous Schomburg Collection and there are additional repositories listed in my post on NY-NJ Archives: Notable Latinx & Caribbean Resources.
Suerte en su busqueda! Good luck with your search!
Much has happened since this blog post was written in 2012– the Cementerio Antiguo de San Sebastian in NW Puerto Rico was placed on the Historic Register (Ley Numero 158 of 9 Aug 2016), and it was the subject of several articles, in the Sociedad Puertorriquena de Genealogia‘s Hereditas , as a featured virtual site on KooltourActiva.com with lots of historical detail, and in the local press. In November 2016, Lester Jimenez reported in Primero Hora that conditions at the Cementerio had totally deteriorated, despite years of effort by a dedicated committee, led by Lic. Gladys Gonzalez Colon, the Sociedad Protectora Antiguo Cementerio Municipal del Pepino to gain support for its preservation.
As of September 2017, with the arrival and destruction of Hurricanes Irma & Maria, the question of preservation remains moot. Like many communities in the Caribbean Basin, reconstruction continues and life itself on the islands is a daily struggle for water, food and electricity.
We must not forget that we are all connected, despite the messages sent by some in power.
From August 2012
The excitement one feels when the past feels tangible through the records of ancestors and discovering the places they lived or were buried is profound.
Imagine then, what happens when one visits a site expecting to find a legible trace, and instead, discovers a 14 acre cemetery that is under active desecration. This was not simply finding broken tombstones, but instead, an overgrown place where coffins have been disinterred, bodies exhumed, bones stolen; where drug paraphernalia, beer bottles, animal and human feces along with clothing and underwear are strewn on the ground and within graves, where rituals are held and possibly, where bodies are now dumped. Broken coffins and bones are strewn all over; the tropical heat makes for an incredible stench. Most identifying information has disappeared from the gravesites, and I don’t know whether the cemetery exists in archival form. This is what’s left of one of the oldest cemeteries in NW Puerto Rico. It is enough to make one cry.
The Cementerio Viejo de San Sebastian is an open secret of sorts. One goes to the Mayor’s Office and asks to visit, and one is taken by a caretaker, who warns of the problems, opens the gate and then departs. Left alone, one is left shaken by the experience– things are indeed bad on the island, but frankly, one is unprepared for this. The main gate is locked, and in another area behind another locked gate with a bar is a spot where the living go to urinate. There’s plenty of places where people climb in, and go to take pieces of bodies, as if that will build their power. It is not a place to contemplate death, but to consider how it’s perpetrated on the living. This is the first time i’ve heard just how destroyed the site is. It leaves one with jaw agape. Te deja con boca abierta.
The original intent in visiting the Cementerio, first built in 1826, and re-established in 1863 was to find traces of a connection to the past, to see the names of ancestors, and it makes most cemeteries stateside seem downright bucolic in comparison. What of this cemetery as cultural resource and as a historical site? Is it a problem or a reflection of how violent life has become on an island that the US has squeezed for human capital and corporate benefit since 1898? What of this new traffic in bones?
Can anything be done? Although life is for the living, this is a situation that highlights the island’s historic lack of infrastructure, and sadly, the closeted nature of what can lurk under the label ‘bad condition’. A search quickly reveals that similar situations exist in other countries in Latin America and Europe, complaints that echo those made by a doctor in Spain in the medical journal Pabellón médicoback in 1863. There was no germ theory then, just the belief that illness was carried in bad smells.
Perhaps whatever records remain is all there is of the Cementerio Antiguo after all.
Genealogy, as a friend noted, can break your heart.
Have you had a similar experience? Please feel free to comment.
PS: Grave robbing was still happening as of a couple of weeks ago.