In memory of Basilio, who stole himself, November 1839

newspaper clipping
“Anuncios”, Gazeta de Puerto Rico, 26 November 1839 Page 567 image 3. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/2013201074/1839-11-26/ed-1/seq-3/>

ANUNCIÓS. El alcalde de la Moca ha participado al Excmo. Sr. Gobernador y Capitán General en oficio de 6 del corriente, que en la hacienda de Luis Masconabe, vecino de aquel partido; se ha aparecido un negro natural de Africa, de estatura baja, los dientes de la mandíbula superior apartados y altos podridos, en la inferior uno menos, varias rayas floreadas en el pecho, algunas cicatrices en el cuerpo y la espaldas, dice llamarse Basilio, que es lo único que sabe expresar en castellano, la nariz muy chata, boca y pies chicos, tiene al pie del labio inferior una cicatriz, casi imperceptible y de 20 a 25 años de edad. [1]

In November 1839 Basilio, a young African man, attempted to gain his freedom. Instead, he was imprisoned at a nearby hacienda in Moca until he was recovered by his enslaver. This announcement for Basilio ran over three days — November 26, 28 and 30 — in the pages of the official government newspaper, La Gazeta de Puerto Rico. The ad describes aspects of his physical appearance, intended to make it impossible for him to escape notice. 

According to the notice, a combination of forces were informed about Basilio . The search was authorized  by  highest ranks of local government, the Mayor, the Governor and Captain General. Why such a representative show of state power?  Because he was one of many who decided to escape bondage in Puerto Rico during the 1830s. 

Leaving the plantations

On 26 Jun 1838, Ramon Mendez de Arcaya wrote to the Third General Command (Comandancia General de 3er, Departamento Militar de la Isla) to inform them of the recent escapes of groups of five, six and seven enslaved men. They escaped by sea, from the beach Playa de Espinal on the coast of Aguada. Some lived in town without authorization, their enslavers unaware of their location. Mendez was sure they hadn’t punished them for this. [2]

Route of Escape in 1838, from Playa de Espinal, Aguada, PR to the Isla de Desecheo, and on to east coast of the Dominican Republic. EFS, Annotated Google Map, 22 Mar 2022.

Moving late at night, they took some of the small boats and canoes to make their way for Santo Domingo, stopping at the small island of Desecheo off the coast of Mayaguez. One group’s canoe failed, and they were picked up by a passing ship. This group he explained, went a distance to escape, as one was from much further away in Moca, and the others from Aguadilla. He suggested he would beef up his night patrols.

By 23 August a several page long notice, listing 12 heads of various military posts in the NW, outlined curfews, necessary permissions for those fishing by boat off the coast, and specified that no enslaved person would be permitted access to a ship or a town after 8PM. The penalty was a fine that doubled with each infraction. [ 3]

Trafficking & stealing freedom

On 26 November 1839, Luis Maisonave Duprey’s Anuncio sat at the top of the notices. The second time it ran, it was preceded by notice of an African man, Silvestre, who escaped from the hacienda of D. Joaquin de Neyra in Loiza. Neyra promised that whoever captured Silvestre would be appropriately compensated. [4]

An announcement followed for an unnamed Black African man, 40 years old, apprehended in the mountains of Barrio Almirante, Vega Baja. He was sent to the prison in the presidio in San Juan until his enslaver could retrieve him.

Next, is a notice for don Julian Garcia’s desire to purchase an enslaved Black or mulatto child, alive and without defects. After the lost horse and the offer of all kinds of black silk by hat maker Nicolas Martin, comes a notice about an enslaved man imprisoned since the end of July. Juan Jose Alvarez, 34, an enslaved mulatto man from Fajardo, was also sent to the prison in the presidio in San Juan. As with Basilio and Silvestre, the power of the Governor, Captain General and the Mayor were disposed to this arrangement, and note that “the announcement in the Gazette about their capture was so the news reached the owner and he could formally obtain them.”[5]

Above Maisonave’s Anuncio for 28 November, was a reissued public notice from the War Court on the upcoming sale of the enslaved man Francisco on the morning of 2 December, at the doors of the Auditor General’s office in San Juan. Beneath the remainder of the Anuncio, there’s a request for teachers for an elementary school in Guayama for both boys and girls.

After the appeal for teachers, interested parties should ask the female enslaver about the sale of a Black boy 8-9 years old and a Black girl 14-15 years old, via the Gazeta’s office. An estancia for sale in Bayamon and finally, offered for sale is a young Black woman with her newborn. The ad notes her milk is good and abundant, and with her knowledge of cooking, washing and ironing her price is 400 pesos. No names are given, just an address, Calle de los Cuarteles 32, the barracks just beyond the Presidio, an older building that precedes the massive structure built in 1854 that still stands today. These are such brief glimpses of lives processed by a range of institutions that happen to ignore an essential humanity when money is at stake. [6]

Who was Basilio?

Born in Africa between 1814-1819 as he was 20-25 years of age, Basilio was short man. He is described as having a small mouth, small feet and a very flat nose.  Given his age he may have worked some of the most labor intensive aspects of the plantation he escaped from. Conditions were enough for him to decide to chance his freedom.

While the skin of his trunk and shoulders were covered with scars, his chest  bore ‘varias rayas floreadas’ a pattern of stripes. This was the result of a coming of age ceremony somewhere in West or Sub-Saharan Africa before his capture.  His ‘rayas floreadas’ literally ‘flowering stripes’ were an elaborate pattern that may have combined lines with raised scars to create an effect of rows ready to blossom across his chest, rather than a geometric pattern.  These country marks were a feature that would enable a group to read and recognize their relationship. The use of ritual scarification increased as a result of raiding peoples for the slave trade. [7] 

The description of his scars may outline a hierarchy of control, with the scars on his trunk and shoulders likely scarred by inflicted violence. These scars come after mention of those marks that visually identified Basilio as part of a community, perhaps recognizable to other African-born people enslaved on the hacienda. Some probably helped him make his way towards Playa del Espinal in Aguada, to find a way out of his situation before he was caught in Moca.

The announcement mentioned that his lower lip bore a smaller scar, almost faint, and difficult to see unless he was examined closely. The notice is an invitation to go beyond the clothes and orifices to compare the details. Was this scar the trace of an injury? Is this something his enslaver would recall? His teeth were broken, some were missing and others went bad, all testament to his treatment as he came to adulthood. Was he smuggled into Puerto Rico? And for language, the only word of Castillian that Basilio knew was his name, Basilio. 

Where was he from? What was his fate that December 1839?

[1] Gazeta de Puerto-Rico. [volume] ([San Juan, P.R.), 26 Nov. 1839 Page 567 image 3. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/2013201074/1839-11-26/ed-1/seq-3/>

[2] “III.1 Ramon Mendez, Comandancia General del 3er, Departamento Militar de la Isla, 26 Jul 1848.” Benjamin Nistal Moret, Esclavos Profugos y Cimarrones, Puerto Rico, 1770-1870. Editorial UPR, 1984, 233-234.

[3]”Excelentismo Senor Don Miguel Lopez de Banos, Gobernador y Captian General de esta Isla, 23 Aug 1838.” Benjamin Nistal Moret, Esclavos Profugos y Cimarrones, Puerto Rico, 1770-1870. Editorial UPR, 1984, AGPR, RSGPR, E.23, B.64 (editado), 234-238.

[4] Gazeta de Puerto-Rico. [volume] ([San Juan, P.R.), 26 Nov. 1839 Page 567 image 3. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/2013201074/1839-11-26/ed-1/seq-3/>

[5] Gazeta de Puerto-Rico. [volume] ([San Juan, P.R.), 30 Nov. 1839. Page 576 image 4 Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/2013201074/1839-11-30/ed-1/seq-4/>

[6] Gazeta de Puerto-Rico. [volume] ([San Juan, P.R.), 28 Nov. 1839 Page 572 image 4. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/2013201074/1839-11-28/ed-1/seq-4/>

[7] Lauren Cullivan, “The Meanings Behind the Marks: Scarification and the People of Wa” (1998). African Diaspora ISPs. Paper 4. 16. http://digitalcollections.sit.edu/african_diaspora_isp/4

Who’s Your Mamá? Documents and discrepancies from early 19th century Moca : Part 3

Title slide Who's your mama?

Part 3: Gathering Information & Pulling it all together 

Excerpt, Juana Nepomucena Caban, Acta de defuncion, 1888

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. 

Steps

  • 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.   

Additional observations: 

  • 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. 

Extract, Juana Nepomucena Caban Nieves, (1808-1888) EFS 2.2022

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):

https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1-10454-2369-99?cc=1682798&wc=9376675

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.

Estimating Timelines 

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.

Excerpt, Acta de defunción, Juana Nepomucena Caban, 1888: 14 hijos

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.[1]

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!

References

[1] 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.

Part 1: https://latinogenealogyandbeyond.com/blog/whos-your-mama-documents-and-discrepancies-from-early-19th-century-moca—part-i/

Part 2: https://latinogenealogyandbeyond.com/blog/whos-your-mama-documents-and-discrepancies-from-early-19th-century-moca—part-2/

Who’s Your Mamá? Documents and discrepancies from early 19th century Moca – Part I

Title slide Who's your mama?
title slide - Document and map of Moca
Documents and Discrepancies from Early 19th C Moca

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.[2] 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. [1] 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.

[1] Mario A. Rodriguez-Leon OP’s Los Registros Parroquiales y La Microdemografica Parroquial de Puerto Rico. Centro de Estudios Avanzados, San Juan, PR 1986.

[2] Antonio Nieves Mendez, Historia de un pueblo: Moca 1772 al 2000. 2008, Lulu.com

Cover of Mario A. Rodriguez-Leon OP’s Los Registros Parroquiales y La Microdemografica Parroquial de Puerto Rico
Mario A. Rodriguez-Leon OP’s Los Registros Parroquiales y La Microdemografica Parroquial de Puerto Rico
Cover of Antonio Nieves Mendez' Historia de un pueblo: Moca 1772 al 2000.
Antonio Nieves Mendez, Historia de un Pueblo: Moca 1772 al 2000.

2/3 – Part 2: https://latinogenealogyandbeyond.com/blog/whos-your-mama-documents-and-discrepancies-from-early-19th-century-moca—part-2/ (opens in a new tab)

Searching Documents for Benejam Ancestors

Julio Ester ‘Ulla’ Rivera, November 2021. Photo courtesy of Julio Enrique Rivera.

I’ve finally submitted the materials, tables and text to accompany Part 3 of the Missing Registro Central de Esclavo volume for Northwest Puerto Rico to Hereditas. This set of transcriptions of cedulas are from Caja 2 (item 2) of 1870. The essay focuses on facets of the lives of 55 enslaved people held by Cristobal Benejam Suria or Serra in 1870, a Menorcan who arrived in Puerto Rico about 1817. Other family members were also enslavers. Several Benejam family clusters are traced from the cedula through the Registro Civil and census records, to reconstruct some of their history.

As it turns out, when I mentioned my project to my cousin, Julio Enrique Rivera, he mentioned that his dad, Julio Ester Rivera (looking very dapper in the photo above) was a Benejan. His great grandfather was Ricardo Benejam Vargas (1848-1924) born into slavery, the child of Maria Antonia Vargas and Pedro Benejam. This is Ricardo’s cedula of 1870.

Ricardo [Benejam] 22, 3531. Caja 4. Registro de Esclavos, 1867-1876 (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-CSK3-Z3WY-S?cc=3755445)

I am struck by how fragmented some of the resources available are.

Some of the documents i’m looking at:

Parish records

Municipal Document series – Censo y riqueza de Moca 1850

Cedulas, Registro Central de Esclavos

Registro Civil

What I wish there were more of for NWPR: census, contracts, notary documents; basically a database that can help descendants pull these fragments together.

As for books & articles, am rereading Benjamin Nistal-Moret’s “The Social Structure of Slavery in Puerto Rico” (1985). I’d like to use the tables as a model for what I am working on, which is information missing from the numbers he is using. This was “the first time in Puerto Rican historiography, an analysis of this magnitude has been completed with a computer.” He tells an interesting story about locating a missing 1872 Registro Central de Esclavos volume at the Library of Congress, microfilming it and returning it during the summer of 1975. As he did his work in the 1980s, his statistical work was entered onto punch cards of a computer program used in sociology. Which volume it was, Nistal-Moret doesn’t say.

I wonder how much archival material was lost, for instance, after the US returned the series of documents of the Gobernadores Espanoles – T1121 Record Group 186- Records of the Spanish Governors of Puerto Rico (impounded on the terms of the Treaty of Paris in 1898) were transferred to the National Archives in 1943 and returned to Puerto Rico by joint resolution in 1957. The microfilm of the Registro de Esclavos and the Registro Central de Esclavos are part of that huge series, and NARA has a free version at the link above.

What I try to do in this series of articles are mini-histories of persons that appear on the 6 x8″ cedulas. Connecting someone in 1870 to their appearance in the Registro Civil that begins in 1885. The process takes time, as there is no mention of enslavement, save in the surname ‘Liberto.’ Some take different surnames, while many kept their enslaver’s name, or took that of a different owner when sold before 1870.

Some of the descendants of Luisa Benejan born about 1819 appear among the cedulas of Caja 4 of the Registro de Esclavos, while three appear in the Registro Civil. She doesn’t turn up on the Registro Civil. Still, the documents together reconstruct her family.

Also reconstructed are early family trees for Pedro Benejam of Moca, born about 1817 in Moca, and who partnered with Maria Antonia Vargas, who lived until 1902 and lived in Bo. Pueblo, Moca. Among their descendants is where my cousin Julio Enrique Rivera’s line connects. The families created after emancipation were often female headed households, with daughters that worked in the local service economy, and sons in agricultural labor.

We must continue to say their names.

References

Ricardo, 22, 3531. Caja 4, Registro de Esclavos, 1867-1876. “Puerto Rico Slave Registers, 1863-1879”, database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-CSK3-Z3WY-S?cc=3755445 : 21 October 2021), > image 1 of 1.

Benjamin Nistal Moret, “Problems in the Social Structure of Slavery in Puerto Rico During the Process of Abolition, 1872”.  Manuel Moreno Fraginals, Frank Moya Pons & Stanley L. Engerman, eds.Between Slavery and Free Labor: The Spanish Speaking Caribbean in the Nineteenth Century, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1985, 141- 57.

Calling the Ancestors

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?

Seneko kakona (Abundant blessings)

Areito, Concilio Guatu-Maku a Boriken, Moca, 25 Nov 2005. Photo; E. Fernandez-Sacco
Courtesy: Martin Veguilla.

Next Week: 6/10: Bound to History – on Bernice Bennett’s Research at the National Archives and Beyond

Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Monserrate, Barrio Pueblo, Moca, Puerto Rico, EFS

Have you ever wanted to know more about the woman behind the only slave narrative out of Puerto Rico?

On June 10, 1 PM, I’ll be a guest on Bernice Bennett’s Research at the National Archives and Beyond.

We’ll be talking about Leoncia Lasalle’s & her daughter Juana Rodriguez Lasalle’s account and touch on the larger issues of archives and enslavement. See my recent article in the journal Genealogy, “Bound to History: Leoncia Lasalle’s Slave Narrative from Moca, Puerto Rico, 1945” (2020)

Event link: https://www.blogtalkradio.com/bernicebennett/2021/06/10/bound-to-history-leoncia-lasalles-slave-narrative-with-ellen-fernandez-sacco

Background: Here’s the article abstract::

Abstract: The only slave narrative from Puerto Rico is included in Luis Diaz Soler’s Historia de la esclavitud 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.

Tonight: 4/28: A History Unraveled: Slavery and the Babilonia Family

Please join me tonight on Zoom!

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.

https://www.ryehistory.org/events-calendar

Who’s Your Mamá? Documents and discrepancies from early 19th century Moca – Part 2

Title slide Who's your mama?

Part 2: How to sort through data: Context

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

Barrios (Wards) of Moca, Puerto Rico Barrio Voladoras highlighted.

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 Nieves, 3 May 1888 Registro Civil, Moca, Defunciones F66 #66 1 of 2 pg im 73 https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1-10454-2369-99?cc=1682798&wc=9376675

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.

Microfilm Sources

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.

2/4 – On to Part 3…

https://latinogenealogyandbeyond.com/blog/whos-your-mama-documents-and-discrepancies-from-early-19th-century-moca-part-3/

It’s America: Everyday is Black History Day.

4 African American Women on the steps of Atlanta University. Du Bois et al, LOC.

Oh, America. The labor, sweat and blood that went into the infrastructure of this country, into its buildings and roads is a history, that for 400 years was presented as someone else’s. All of this effort, excellence, and memory can’t be crammed into the shortest month of the year– nor can it be recounted on one day.

Regardless, we need to honor those that came before us, and one way I can think of is to find those ancestors embedded in the shadows of a suppressed history. It takes time and work to find the details , but it’s so worth it.

Juneteenth Flag. Wikimedia Commons.

As I write this on Juneteenth, I see it as a very different day this year because so many decided to stand over the last month, right after the lynching of George Floyd. His death was a catalyst, a wake up call for the complacency with an investment in death. On Black ProGen, we have talked about the crushing effects of structural racism on BIPOC families, which in turns shapes the documentation that we can access to research the lives of our ancestors.

Virginia Arocho Rodriguez (1920-2007), granddaughter of Dionisia Leoncia Lasalle & daughter of Juana Rodriguez Lasalle, Moca, Puerto Rico, 2006.

I was honored to speak the names of Leoncia Lasalle, Dionicia Rodriguez Lasalle, Juan Tomas Gandulla and Tomas Gandulla yesterday on the Juneteenth Celebration held by Black ProGen Live with host Nicka Smith, True A. Lewis, Shelley Murphy, Andre Ferrell and James Morgan III, all bringing knowledge to a lively discussion on different dimensions of what gets folded into Juneteenth, the effort, the freedom and the struggle. It makes one pause how much sitting on knowledge played into this all, how much hiding of violence, how much denial, how much disregard was surmounted in pressing for equality.

I am honored to work on the ancestors of Orlando Williams, whose struggle for justice and recognition of the humanity of his uncle, Claude Neal lynched in Florida in 1934 continues to this day. On Tuesday he will speak before the Jackson County Commission to why the tree where his uncle died needs to be preserved. But that is not the only part of that history– there is the fabric of family that continues to sustain that can’t be obscured by becoming a statistic, number, or symbol. These are ancestors we work with, whose memory we keep alive.

Honor the resilience, the survival and desire channelled into seeking social justice, building institutions, creating communities, for no one can live this life alone. May we persevere and lift our ancestors stories into the present, because we are so in need of those stories in these times– aptly named by Rev. William J. Barber II as the Third Reconstruction, preceded by the Second Reconstruction of the 1960s-70s and the First Reconstruction of the 1860s-70s.

As Civil Rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

Happy Juneteenth!

What i’ve been up to…

Rainbow, Florida

Hey- It’s been awhile! The last three months have been full, juggling health, writing & researching several projects. 
Most recently, we had a great discussion on BPG’s Ep. 106: History Unscripted: Perception is Everything with Regina Jackson, thanks to hosts Nicka Smith and True Lewis, Dr Shelley Murphy & myself. The focus is on perception via three different news articles: image as representative of community, versus image as threat across different contexts- a photo project in a Southern town, the brouhaha over the recent novel, American Dirt and the definition of civil rights activists as the problem by government agencies that should be protecting them. 

Check out Ep 106 here:

Regina Johnson, presently Chair of the Oakland Police Commission, talked about ongoing changes in Oakland, California (my former hometown) and her efforts in providing services for Black youth in the face of reduced services and the pressures of gentrification. Working with youth is a context that can open possibilities and facilitate resilience in the face of difficulty, so important for getting through life.   History Unscripted aims to spark thought about further dialogues and point to next steps toward change that one can take, so check out past and upcoming episodes!

Another BPG activity is #CREWChat on Twitter- a fun way to share genealogícal tips on a range of films. This month was Glory (1989), on the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment of the USCT, in conjunction with the African American Civil War Museum. Coming next: Imitation of Life (1959) on March 18th, 9PM EST, join in!

I’m working on a series of short blog posts, to help Mr. Orlando Williams find family in time for his Family Reunion coming up in June. Tree Climbing With Mr Williams may help you get through some brick walls and find a connection! I’ll be talking about some of the recent finds that lead to several states: AL, GA, FL, SC & NC. There is so much history in this tree! I’ll be posting soon.

Casa Labadie, Aceituna, Moca, Puerto Rico. Photo: E. Fernandez-Sacco, 2007.

Finally… I’ve submitted my article, “Reconstructing District 3’s Missing 1872 Registro Central de Esclavos for Northwest Puerto Rico” to Hereditas: Revista de Genealogia Puertorriquena, and had the pleasure of working with Ernie Rivera and Eliud Nieves on their great grandmothers who were enslaved on the plantation of Juan Labadie and its previous owner, Pedro Pellot, in Moca, Puerto Rico. Their cedulas are among those I transcribed and sought to provide context for.  Pellot (hispanicized from Peugeot) was among a cluster of emigres from the Pyrenees region- from both the French and Spanish sides of this mountain range— who eventually wound up in Puerto Rico. The article will be out in the next issue of Hereditas, complete with a transcription of the cedulas for 492 enslaved ancestors taken in 1870. 

Like I said, busy! Feel free to reach out and comment if you find a connection on these pages!

Enjoy the weekend-
Hasta pronto,

Ellen 

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