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.
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.