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.
A supplement for Episode 89: Dangerous Liaisons: Jailbird Relatives and The Freaky Underside of Genealogy. Black ProGen Live! July 30, 2019
There’s no family history left untouched in some way by underground economies and prostitution. Prostitution or sex work, can be understood as a means of survival first and second, an avocation, either by choice or coercion. Beyond the economic question of support, there are questions about the nature of history that can exclude the marginalized worker, questions around ideas of gender, masculinity, power and the network of beliefs and the structure of law that declares it legal, illegal or a fusion of the two. So, if we think about family histories that deal with aspects of an underground economy, it means dealing with variables in time and place. For many this was a temporary connection or situation, a form of employment that was often unpredictable. Only for a select few, was it a situation under their direct control.
In art, prostitution is the subject of painting, literature, cinema and photography; it shapes the nature of urban, modern experience and informs the realms of tourism and the military. There are stereotypes that circulate in popular culture, in different societies, best viewed as means of defining ideas and assumptions around gender, race and various social boundaries. Looking further back, sexual slavery was also a feature of the transatlantic slave trade that used men women and children,and there’s the trafficking that continues into the present.. Columbus established a sex trade on Hispanola by 1490, with children as young as 9 years old serving as sex slaves.
Prostitution as an organized business arrived in Puerto Rico (and by extension to other colonies) with Spanish colonization in the sixteenth century. After the Spanish American War, for example, policing these boundaries of gender and race drew on discourses of eugenics and public health, so that women were subjected to moral judgements, incarceration, forced medical treatment and framed them both as a targeted category of control and as fulfillment of eugenic policies. Any behavior viewed as questionable by women living in poverty, or regarded as promiscuous, were targeted and swept up as a means of social control, even if they never worked ‘the life’.
Family, Context, Options and Motivation
Understanding how illicit businesses like prostitution, numbers running, and black market participation shapes your family history, can open up a history of different social networks, and is an opportunity to understand the various social constraints and options people faced to sell the only thing they had left to sell to survive.
Often there is an economic reason that leaves people in desperate situations, as with the women mantua makers of the 1840s whose poor pay for long hours hand sewing then-fashionable hooded outerwear. As they contended with rising expenses many were left working a sex trade in order to make ends meet. Some were persons who suddenly found themselves without other means of support; still others (a much smaller group) decide on it as a business, contending with the legal structures on the local and national level to keep business going. Employment by any means necessary was for some, key to survival. In Harlem of the 1930s, Stephanie St. Clair known as “Queenie”, “Madam Queen”, “Madam St. Clair”, and “Queen of the Policy Rackets”, ran a numbers racket that kept some 2,000 people employed during the Great Depression, despite attempts by the Mafia to take her empire over. When a young man in New York City, my paternal grandfather kept food on the table for his family by being a numbers runner, the person who brought the bets to the bookie.
Violence & social control
Depending on the age and racial designation, there may be no effort to help or investigate the murder of sex workers, denying justice as well as legal and medical support services to those who remain. Or, there is wholesale denial on offer, as with the so-called Korean ‘Comfort Women‘ forced to serve the Japanese Army during WW2, who went on the promise of factory employment and instead found themselves in harrowing conditions. Yet, acknowledgement and apologies from the Japanese government were not forthcoming. Oral histories are key to knowing and understanding what happened.
Violence, repression and incarceration are also part of the picture, adding to the complexity of understanding the past. Law enforcement was anything but consistent. Conditions vary, whether streetwalking, brothel, escort, and the legal stance per country can exacerbate or support those involved, and class made a huge difference. Military prostitution, child prostitution, trafficking and tourism are other aspects to consider when researching the past. The question of slavery, whether legal condition or condition of labor repeatedly comes up. Studies do show it’s better to have regulation and laws that protect the worker rather than have an illicit trade where it is not those who labor who gain the income.
Finding Information: Some Resources
Oral histories, photographs, police reports, newspapers, census and military records, are just some of the materials in various collections that may have information on a family member. As the essay from the Framing Resources site at GMU notes, there is no one class, cultural, religious or social perspective on prostitution, and it’s a field of study that has much to offer in terms of understanding the historical context of family histories involved with the practice, some of it very recent. Also the site provides a small area that lays out some questions helpful for working on genealogical research in terms of the nature of primary and secondary materials you’ll encounter in libraries, special collections both online and off.
Take a look at Tyler Schulze’s Black Sheep Ancestor pages “Search for your Blacksheep Ancestors in Free Genealogical Prison and Convict Records, Historical Court Records, Executions, Insane Asylum Records and Biographies of Famous Outlaws, Criminals & Pirates in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada” http://blacksheepancestors.com
The Internet Archive has over 1400 items in a search result, some of them guidebooks, others, legal statutes published during the 19th century, books and other related materials to download or borrow. See link below.
Also included are the links to special collections on Storyville, New Orleans from the Library of Congress website. Please scroll down towards the end of this post.
This list is not exhaustive, but intended to give a sense of the wide variety of materials and approaches that you can apply to your searches.
“Framing Resources Essay: Case study on prostitution” – Women in World History Website “These varied materials reflect differing class, cultural, religious, and social perspectives on prostitution, especially in the modern, Western world. They tell us what observers thought about prostitution and how their attitudes changed over time. Until recently, there were few personal accounts by prostitutes to provide clues about their varying motivations or their attitudes toward the governments, organizations, or individuals that sought to regulate the practice or abolish prostitution. Oral histories as well as the anthropological and sociological studies that document the lives of prostitutes, many of them from Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe and almost all of them poor, have begun filling this gap.” http://chnm.gmu.edu/wwh/essay/essay.php?c=resources&r=case
Andy McCarthy, “Genealogy Tips: New York City Cops in the City Record.”
“…For the five boroughs, there really is no collection of historical “police records.…”
NYPL Record Requests: FOIL
Revista Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña. Carlos A Rodriguez Villanueva, “Amor licito e ilícito: un escape a los patrones amorosos establecidos [Historia socio-sexual en ella Caribe Hispanico, siglos XVIII-XIX: Cuba, Santo Domingo y Puerto Rico]”; Jose E Flores Ramos, “Vida cotidiana de la prostitutas en San Juan de Puerto Rico: 1890-1919”; Nelly Vazquez Sortillo, “La violencia dentro de la violencia: un caso de violencia domestica en una hacienda esclavista en Puerto Rico (1871).”. 2006 vol 13, 2nd series. Issue downloadable from issuu.com https://issuu.com/coleccionpuertorriquena/docs/segunda_serie_n__mero_13
348 Dra. Nieves de los Ángeles Vázquez Lazo “Historia de la prostitución en Puerto Rico, de 1876 a 1917.” Angel Collazo Schwarz, La Voz del Centro http://www.vozdelcentro.org/2009/08/23/la-historia-de-la-prostitucion-en-puerto-rico/ Podcast: http://www.vozdelcentro.org/mp3/Prog_348.mp3
“1970s New York City: The dangerous & gritty streets during a decade of decline.” NY Daily News. Photographs of NYC’s sex workers included. https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/gritty-new-york-city-1970s-gallery-1.1318521
Timothy J Gilfoyle, City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920. (1994)
Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860. (1987)
Shirley Stewart, The World of Stephanie St. Clair, An Entrepreneur, Race Woman and Outlaw in Early Twentieth Century Harlem. Peter Lang Publishers, 2014.
LaShawn Harris, Sex Workers, Psychics and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City’s Underground Economy. U Illinois Press, 2016.
Shane White, Graham White, Stephen Garton, Stephen Robertson, Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem Between the Wars. Harvard UP, 2010.
Karen Abbott, Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America’s Soul. [Chicago] Random House, (2008).
Laura Briggs, Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science and US Imperialism in Puerto Rico, University California Press, (2002).
Eileen J Suarez Findlay, Imposing Decency: The politics of sexuality and race in Puerto Rico, 1870-1920. Duke UP (1999).
Donna J. Seifert, Elizabeth Barthold O’Brien, & Joseph Balicki, “Mary Ann’s First Class House: The Archaeology of a Capital Brothel.” Robert A Schmidt & Barbara L. Voss, Archaeologies of Sexuality. Routledge, (2000), 117-128.
Wild West Book Review: Jan McKell’s Red Light Women of the Rocky Mountains UNM Press, 2009 https://www.historynet.com/wild-west-book-review-red-light-women.htm
Heather Branstetter, A Business Doing Pleasure: Selling Sex in the Silver Valley 1884-1991. Wallace, Idaho. (author blog) https://abusinessdoingpleasure.com Race & the Houses https://abusinessdoingpleasure.com/2017/08/17/race-and-the-houses/ Files at the Shoshone County Sheriff’s Office https://abusinessdoingpleasure.com/2014/10/02/aboutthescsofiles/
“Garden of Truth: the trafficking of Native Women in Minnesota.” Minnesota Indian Women Sexual Assault Coalition. Report (2011) https://vawnet.org/material/garden-truth-prostitution-and-trafficking-native-women-minnesota
“Prostitution: A violent reality of homelessness” (2001) report https://www.issuelab.org/resource/prostitution-a-violent-reality-of-homelessness.html
Historical resource Medievalists.net list of posts on prostitution, various locations during the medieval period http://www.medievalists.net/tag/prostitution/
Hell’s Half Acre, 2017 [Victorian Los Angeles] https://la.curbed.com/2017/11/17/16654292/history-prostitution-los-angeles
Selected Items from the Internet Archive, Archive.org items
Modern Pornography & Sex Work Collection, 1960-1990. University of South Florida
CSUN, The Oldest Profession (Collections overview)
Dr Bonnie Bullough Collection, 1954-2000. CSUN, Oviatt Library, Special Collections
Reverend Wendell M Miller Collection, 1928-1988.
Citizens independent Vice Investigating Committee (CIVIC) CSUN, Oviatt Library, Special Collections
Prostitution Collection, 1834-1954., Five Colleges (MA)
Prostitution at Brigham Young University, 1997
Minnie Fischer Cunningham Papers, Standard Statistics on Prostitution Syphilis & Gonorrhea (1919)
Guide to Shelley Bristol Papers UNLV
The Real Rainbow Row, Charleston Hotel College of Charleston, Special Collections https://speccoll.cofc.edu/the-real-rainbow-row/charleston-hotel-200-meeting-street/
The Library of Congress’ page on Storyville has several special collections from New Orleans which I have included below.
Storyville: A resource guide to commercialized Vice in New Orleans. Library of Congress
Storyville: a resource guide to sources about commercialized vice in historic New Orleans.
Table of Contents
Selected Book Titles
LC Subject Headings
Archives of the City of New Orleans. New Orleans Public Library.
This includes ordinances related to prostitution.
Louisiana State Archives. Baton Rouge.
See Research Historical Records section.
Louisiana and Special Collections. Earl K. Long Library, University of New Orleans.
Includes the following collections: New Orleans Chamber of Commerce Records, MSS 66 and Josie Arlington Collection, MSS 270.
Louisiana Research Collection. Howard-Tilton Library, Tulane University.
Search in the following collections:
Al Rose Collection, RG 606 : Although listed as a jazz archive, Storyville was the place to hear jazz musicians. Search: Prostitution.
Master Rolls, Battalion Washington Artillery: 1861-1865.
New Orleans Travelers’ Aid Society Papers, RG 365.
New Orleans Records. New Orleans City Archives, Louisiana Division New Orleans Public Library.
This collection includes arrest records, arrest index, ‘Jewell’s Digest of the City Ordinances’, etc.
Note: this collection is also available on microfilm at the Library of Congress.
New Orleans. Ordinances, etc. Jewell’s Digest of the city ordinances, Rev. ed. New Orleans, 1887.
LC Call Number: Microfilm 21895 JS
LC Catalog record: 47035734
Williams Research Center. Historic New Orleans Collection.
Blue Books in the Williams Research Center’s collection, probably the largest extant, is available for research. View one of the digitized Blue Books here. Please contact the center for more information.
Last updated: 02/09/2018
Oral history, Alex Haley’s Roots and the question of proof
Change takes time. It can feel glacial when looking at the time frame for the development of genealogy for people of color in the US. As Nicka Smith recently reminded us in the video of Ep20b of BlackProGenLIVE on Talks Diversity in Genealogy and Family History, our path is difficult because a fundamental building block is oral history.  As she pointed out, ‘the problem of the color line‘ remains a very real one in genealogy. I’m into understanding that context, and want to take an opportunity to look back at another decade’s work where the push for truth served to reinforce a boundary. The question of proof in genealogy always looms large. For examples of practice, don’t miss the list of blogs at the end of this post.
A quote from a 1983 article that contained a relentless takedown of Alex Haley’s book Roots: The Saga of an American Family, reveals the seams along which professional genealogy developed, some eighty years earlier. This split posits the document against the voice in oral history as the legitimate source of data. Thirty-three years ago, this genealogical work was an endeavor that missed the boat in its insistence on paper as the ultimate proof, and perhaps the location there is significant, as it came out of the deep South.
Facts, Claims and the Logic of Proof
The claim that ‘No ethnic group has a monopoly upon oral tradition or documentation, literacy or illiteracy, mobility or stability' ignores the fact that enslaved people counted for chattel, that various populations were brought to labor in oppressive conditions here, and key is that most people of color were not party to creating documentation on their own behalf reflective of them as equal people with equal rights. This goes well beyond “superimposing racial divisions upon all aspects of life…” and ignores that the struggle for civic recognition reaches back to the founding of the country. The fear expressed then, was that Haley’s book could constitute a ‘…delusion that encourages mediocre scholarship in the nascent field of Afro-American genealogy and relegates black family history to the academic dark ages from which Caucasian genealogy has already emerged…’.
The problem is that this logic of ‘documentary proof as the only valid proof’ is part of the problem of structural racism, inadvertently or deliberately serving ‘to perpetuate social stratifications and outcomes that all too often reflect racial group sorting rather than individual merit and effort.’ To continue to claim this kind of proof as the only proof is an exclusionary exercise, in effect, one that insists on documentation within a context where one side holds the power, and is also one that perpetuates the gap between White Americans and Americans of color.
The following chart shows the interlocking parts of this system:
In essence, what we are witnessing today is a gradual process of desegregation within genealogy practiced in the U.S.
Strategies and Projects: Restoring Visibility & Developing Methodologies
Within the last two decades, genealogists in the field of African American genealogy have developed strategies for working with oral histories and published accounts and have successfully incorporated them within the Genealogical Proof Standard. It follows the growth of historical, sociological and cultural work on various dimensions of the experience and process of enslavement, the development of various communities of color and difference as legitimate fields of inquiry. Now there is a growing awareness of combined efforts that defy simple ethnic or racial classification as with Marronage, those hidden and open maroon communities where people of African, Indigenous and varying admixtures stole themselves to, to gain self-determination. These historic episodes do not fit neatly into traditional genealogy and require new modes of recording, interpreting and disseminating data on the families of these communities.
Given the location, this work has neither a smooth or clear path to acceptance; for instance, one can look at the changes in the narratives offered by Monticello in the 1990s to the 2010s, with the recent Public Summit on Race and the Legacy of Slavery (Sep 2016) and the recent conference (Mar 2018) Interpreting Slavery Also important are the in-place interventions by Joseph McGill of The Slave Dwelling Project, and Michael J Twitty’s rising recognition as a culinary and historical authority with his blog Afroculinaria and his important book The Cooking Gene are gaining wider regard.
The summit, “Memory, Mourning, Mobilization: Legacies of Slavery and Freedom in America” would not have been possible without the oral histories along with the genealogical and DNA data collected by the Getting Word project at Monticello. As a result, descendants now have the opportunity to stay overnight through the Slave Dwelling Project. McGill continues to expand to new sites, to have important conversations as a group participates in a simple, visceral experience of sleeping in slave cabins.
On Episode 315 (Mar 15 2018) of Research at the National Archives and Beyond, Bernice Bennett interviewed genealogist Kenyatta D. Berry, on her work with a consortium of 30 US universities currently researching and dealing with their involvement in slavery. Within their discussion the question of data, access and interpretation by descendants, genealogists and historians is in a process of development. The variety of needs range from establishing a historical narrative to understanding context, creating macro and microhistories that can recombine with documentation to create larger interdisciplinary spaces that can accommodate community. This is a coming to the table on a large scale, that holds the promise of shifting how we see our past and our future as a nation. Our family trees reach long and far indeed, with many finally linking their past to places beyond borders using documents, oral history and DNA.
Also consult the blogs of members of Black ProGen below (scroll down) to see more projects that take on various facets of genealogy to see examples of this broader change, and join us at BlackProGen LIVE twice monthly on YouTube.
Weighing what matters
I’m not saying that Alex Haley’s work cannot be analyzed for the errors it contains, but instead, that the weight of its context and the moment of its production mattered. Cited in The NY Times (and unnamed in a later article) was eminent Yale historian Edmund Morgan, who recognized that Roots was “a statement of someone’s search for identity… it would seem to me to retain a good deal of impact no matter how many mistakes the man has made. In any genealogy there are bound to be a number of mistakes.” Morgan was the author of American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975), a title that points to the persistent contradiction in the founding of this nation. Overall, historians were not alarmed. Ultimately, Haley’s book proved more novel than fact, but more importantly, it captured the imagination of millions, inspiring many to pursue their own genealogy and family history. The stakes were high for claiming a rightful place as part of US history.
What Haley achieved at the time of the National Bicentennial was to tell a story of national import from a black perspective, as he hoped “his story of our people can help to alleviate the legacies of the fact that preponderantly the histories have been written by the winners.”. One early reviewer of his work noted, “And so, he did write his entire story from the Black perspective which is sorely needed to connect the institutions and fill the void left by the omission of ‘objective’ white historians, the winners in the war of human degradation—slavery…. it is the cultural history laid bare upon the canvas of time devoid of the misconceptions and misinterpretations of a people rationalizing their sins against humanity.”
Roots and its subsequent miniseries did not omit the range of violence perpetrated on a fully human people and claimed a historical place in the narrative of America. It countered a dominant historical and legal framework of being partially human at best, and defied the weight of stereotypes from popular media. Roots is not a pretty picture of inheritance, but instead one that spoke to audiences the realities of enslavement, resilience, continuity and survival in a vivid, cinematic fashion, from a narrative with an origin in the spoken word. That challenge and denial of oral history as a legitimate basis of the experiences of people of color is slowly eroding…. Slowly.
There is an equivalence in the genealogical field that is beginning to be dismantled, an implicit claim whereby scholastic levels of genealogy equates to whiteness. Yet to paraphrase Audrey Lorde, one cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. This work is done as the field opens up to POC more broadly, who bring a different set of experiences, lineages and techniques that draw upon contexts both within and outside of traditional genealogy. It is also up to genealogists who are not POC to weigh what that legacy is and how it impacts the who, what and where of their practice.
In order to see the connection between genealogy and the ideology of whiteness more clearly, one has to go back to the 1880s, when genealogy was part of the toolkit for the pseudoscience of eugenics. This was a conduit for previous ideas about racial inferiority from the previous century, now cloaked in respectable ‘science’. It was buttressed by social and institutional dynamics that maintain racial hierarchies and racialized public policies and institutional practices, a shifting framework that is still in operation today.  It is a discourse of social division and superiority emergent after the election of November 2016, thrown into relief by the events at Charlottesville, Virginia.
Eugenics: technologies of segregation, genealogy & policy
At its most basic, eugenics is a set of beliefs and practices about how to improve the human population. There was ‘positive eugenics’ aimed at promoting sexual reproduction among those with desired traits and ‘negative eugenics’, which sought to limit certain populations from reproducing. The movement started in the UK and spread to many countries, including the US and Canada in the early twentieth century. This instigated the formation of programs intent on improving the population, that led to marriage prohibition and forced sterilization programs. These experiences are part of thousands of family histories tied to experimentation, social policies, with roots in settler colonialism.
Genealogy was important to eugenicists, because it was a map that traced the transmission of ‘defective germ-plasm’ through families, which contrasted with the legacy of white western men with genealogies of ‘quality’. This ultimately translated into policies that generated thousands of sterilizations, destroyed families with the fear of miscegenation, and transformed poverty into a problem of the individual, not society. Yet many states passed laws, as did Virginia that led to over 7,000 people being sterilized– and increasingly as archives make these documents available to the public, a better understanding of the high cost of eugenic policy emerges. Many paid, and continue to pay with their lives.
Paul Popenoe & Roswell Hill Johnson’s Applied Eugenics (Macmillan, 1918) is an appalling and unapologetically racist book. In it, the authors suggest that genealogy become the study of heredity and the legacy of traits in a family. It denies the backdrop of colonialism and slavery to blame peoples of African descent, immigrants and those living in poverty for the conditions that result from exploitation. Conveniently, context does not come into their analysis: “The historical, social, legal and other aspects of genealogy do not concern the present discussion. We shall discuss only the biological aspect…” Genealogy was seen as the way to accomplish the goal of identifying certain lineages as social problems to be dealt with via policy decisions.
Consider the backdrop for the publication of this text- in 1915, Popenoe presented his paper on eugenics at the First International Congress of Genealogy, sponsored by the California Genealogical Society and held during the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. That same February that this world’s fair opened, also saw the release of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, 3 hours of racist propaganda that fired up the Lost Cause, the KKK and stoked racial violence. None of this is lost on myself as a colonial subject, a Taino woman of ethnic admixture with a disability, who was elected and happened to be the first POC to become President of the California Genealogical Society just a century later. I worked with the board to change our motto to “Connecting people to their diverse family heritage.” I imagine Mr. Popenoe is spinning in his grave.
Over three decades, eugenic explanations went over big in the US. The authors pointed to the centrality of genealogy in delivering eugenics as a means to controlling populations ‘scientifically’:
“The science of genealogy will not have full meaning and full value to those who pursue it, unless they bring themselves to look on men and women as organisms subject to the same laws of heredity and variation as other living things. Biologists were not long ago told that it was essential for them to learn to think like genealogists. For the purpose of eugenics, neither science is complete without the other; and we believe that it is not invidious to say that biologists have been quicker to realize this than have genealogists. The Golden Age of genealogy is yet to come.” 
Medicine, law, sociology and statistics were seen as the beneficiaries of genealogical information collected at centers in the US. This led to some 60,000 Americans being sterilized in the US between 1907 and the 1970s. 
Popenoe’s book offers justifications for segregation, and falls back on phrenology’s racial hierarchies for explanations of inferiority as intrinsic to the body. In terms of the black body, the book conflates the limitations of resources with a lack of progress, noting that “If so, it must be admitted that the Negro is different from the white, but that he is eugenically inferior to the white.”
Those who did better on the tests were surmised to have “more white blood in them” and proceeds to determine a racial quantum based on percentages as did Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1781), and the eighteenth century Casta paintings of Mexico. . You can revisit some of Jefferson’s ideas about African peoples excerpted here .
It follows that Papenoe and Hill Johnson proposed to prohibit interracial marriage, and their chapter on ‘The Color Line’ culminates with recommendations to put this into law as four states did (LA, NV, SD, AL) by 1918, before turning to immigration. 
Across the text, begins to appear the familiar language that Nazi Germany put into operation— the idea that the colonizers of North America were of the Nordic race appears on p 301, and proposals for implementing sterilization to stop those ‘whose offspring would probably be a detriment to race progress.”  The plan is to remove people to a colony, tracts of land with large buildings to separate out the unwanted  
The idea of separation and segregation was one endorsed by law across the US and funded by various non-profits that discovered ways to ‘elevate’ those with ‘Nordic’ ancestry, while subjecting the poor, infirm, immigrants and people of color to identities and practices such as sterilization that reinforced their subjugation. As historian Edwin Black noted, “California was the epicenter of the eugenics movement” that had “extensive financing by corporate philanthropies, specifically the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Harriman railroad fortune. They were all in league with the some of America’s most respected scientists hailing from such prestigious universities as Stanford, Yale, Harvard and Princeton.”
Charities were paid to seek out immigrants in “crowded cities and subject them to deportation, trumped up confinement or forced sterilization.” The Rockefeller Foundation even funded a program that Josef Mengele worked in before he went on to Auschwitz. It comes as no surprise then, that such organizations propagandized for the Nazis, and funded them in Germany. If one fell beyond the gentrified genetic lines such as those persons who worked, researched and enabled the legal structures of these programs, those deemed weak or unfit were subject to extraction.
In August 1934, California eugenicists arranged for a Nazi scientific exhibit to be shown at the LA County Museum as part of the Annual Meeting of the American Public Health Association. Such exhibits legitimized what circulated in American popular culture through the 1920s and 1930s at state fairs and even world fairs. Similar ideas are circulating today within Far Right channels and from members of the US Government today; internationally, we see the growth of this ideology spread within sites of settler colonialism.
Eugenics hit its nadir within a decade through its association with Nazi Germany, and later testimony at the Nuremberg trials, where human rights abuses carried out as eugenics programs were claimed to be little different than the US.  What is problematic is that wherever such programs are employed, the criteria of selection are determined by whatever group is in political power. 
It is precisely this history that the field of genealogy has to recover from.
As a field, genealogical practice has expanded beyond the accumulation of facts and details to encompass the social histories of those overlooked or at risk of falling into obscurity. Cemeteries are being restored and along with that, the local histories of suppressed, exiled or earlier occupants of towns and cities are coming into visibility- and let us include and embrace our diasporic connections and activities within this circle.
Documentaries, podcast series like those of Angela Walton-Raji’s African Roots podcast and Bernice Bennett’s Research at the National Archives and Beyond help to disseminate new information, findings and work through social media channels. These sources have reached audiences well beyond the journal publications of various genealogical and historical societies.
There is an opening up towards acknowledgement of past harms done to various communities, that acknowledge pain while transforming it into knowledge and sites where people can come to the table and support each other in unpacking the past. This is not a kumbaya moment, but one where the aftermath of enslavement and its social and institutional reach into the present can be faced.
DNA adds another dimension, revealing past relationships that range from the coercive to the consensual that happened, and when augmented by oral history and documents, the process literally brings into visibility parts of ourselves through enslaved ancestors, free and freed people and slave holders. There are many of us who seek the receipts that establish this more contentious family history, fraught with scars and triumphs, that confirms and grounds a movement toward freedom and self determination.
The fears of the last century about the reach of one book that captured the imagination of millions as a faulty model for genealogical research were ultimately unfounded. After Haley’s book was published and the program series Roots aired, “letters of inquiry and applications to use the National Archives rose 40%. General interest in genealogy continues, as it offers a path to situate personal history in the larger context of national history, and to continuing education.
Recently, course offerings for genealogists are focused on writing family histories, and now, genealogical societies are taking it one step further and offering seminars on writing historical fiction based on family history. What the Abolitionist movement of the nineteenth century knew was that an audience had to hear not just facts, but a narrative, conveyed by a powerful voice or on the page, and if possible, to offer visual proof through photographs— all media used to convey their urgent message.
Ultimately, our task is to make visible and thereby end the historical erasure of difference (ethnic, race, gender, class) in the historical and genealogical record, and thereby honor those who came before us, our ancestors and their struggles.
1. BlackProGen LIVE, 11 October 2016. Ep.20b Talks Diversity in Genealogy and Family HIstory. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G1Z7Anc4Fj8&t=2s
2. Nicka Smith, “The Problem of the Color Line”, Who is Nicka Smith?.com http://www.whoisnickasmith.com/genealogy/the-problem-of-the-color-line/
3. Elizabeth Shown Mills and Gary B. Mills. “The Genealogist’s Assessment of Alex Haley’s Roots.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 72 (March 1984): 35–49. 35-36. Digital image. Elizabeth Shown Mills, Historic Pathways. http://www.HistoricPathways.com : [9 Oct 2016].
4. “Although some Americans have been conditioned to superimpose racial divisions upon almost all aspects of life, such academic distinctions cannot exist in the science of genealogy. It is true, at the same time, that certain procedures in the pursuit of black genealogy do differ from those in the pursuit of English genealogy, that the pursuit of ancestral research among white Creoles of Louisiana is different from that among the Pilgrims of Massachusetts, that research in Virginia differs from research in Tennessee, that research on black families in Alabama differs from that on black families in New York.” Elizabeth Shown Mills and Gary B. Mills. “The Genealogist’s Assessment of Alex Haley’s Roots.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 72 (March 1984): 35–49. 35-36. Digital image. Elizabeth Shown Mills, Historic Pathways. http://www.HistoricPathways.com : [9 Oct 2016]
5. Gary B. and Elizabeth Shown Mills, “ROOTS and the New ‘Faction’ a Legitimate Tool for Clio?.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 89:1, Jan 1981, 4. Digital image. Elizabeth Shown Mills, Historic Pathways. http://www.HistoricPathways.com : 15 Oct 2016.
6. “The structural racism lens allows us to see more clearly how our nation’s core values— and the public policies and institutional practices that are built on them — perpetuate social stratifications and outcomes that all too often reflect racial group sorting rather than individual merit and effort. The structural racism lens allows us to see and understand: the racist legacy of our past; how racism persists in our national policies, institutional practices and cultural representations; how racism is transmitted and either amplified or mitigated through public, private and community institutions; how individuals internalize and respond to racist structures. The structural racism lens allows us to see that, as a society, we more or less take for granted a context of white leadership, dominance and privilege.” The Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change, Structural Racism and Community Building. June 2004, 12. https://assets.aspeninstitute.org/content/uploads/files/content/docs/rcc/aspen_structural_racism2.pdf Accessed 9 Oct 2016.
7. See the steps and bibliography for James Ison’s syllabus “Using the Genealogical Proof Standard for African American Research” presented at two national conferences in 2010 https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/Using_the_Genealogical_Proof_Standard_for_African_American_Research Accessed 15 Oct 2016
8. Edmund Morgan quoted in Israel Spencer, NYT, 10 Apr 1977; in Mills, “ROOTS and the New ‘Faction’, 4.
9. Alex Haley, quoted in Nancy Arnetz, “From His Story to Our Story: A Review of “Roots”. Journal of Negro Education, 46:3, Summer 1977, 367-372. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2966780, 367
10. Arnetz, “From His Story to Our Story: A Review of “Roots”. Journal of Negro Education, 367-372, 368.
11. “Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between and individual and her oppression. But community must not mean a shedding of our differences or the pathetic premise that these differences do not exist. Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucible of difference— those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older— know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only means of support.” Lorde’s title and her question remain pertinent: “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?” It is important to note that this seminal essay was written in acknowledgement of the lack of participation of Third World women of color at NYU’s Institute for the Humanities Conference. Audry Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley Press, 1984. http://muhlenberg.edu/media/contentassets/pdf/campuslife/SDP%20Reading%20Lorde.pdf Accessed 16 Oct 2016.
12. Consider the development of networks of genealogical organizations AAHGS and institutes, such as MAAGI, the AAHGS’ Afrigeneas.org project, the explosion of genealogical groups on Facebook, and efforts such as the transcription of the Freedmen’s Bank papers on FamilySearch among many others that point to the blossoming of the field. There remains more to be done in terms of acceptance and incorporation of difference for genealogy by POC.
13. “Structural Racism Produces Racialized Outcomes.” See Chart, Structural Racism and Community Building. The Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change. June 2004, p12. https://assets.aspeninstitute.org/content/uploads/files/content/docs/rcc/aspen_structural_racism2.pdf
If your Puerto Rican ancestor is on this list, then we’re related!
Since the mid-2000s, my digital family is expanding, and I’m enjoying some new connections. I tested my autosomal DNA on 23&Me, Ancestry and FamilyTree DNA, uploaded to MyHeritage, DNA.Land and am faced with hundreds, well, since the original blogpost, it’s now thousands of matches. I’m finding that some of the people i’ve known via social media are also distant relatives. I think back on when I lived in NYC as a child and how many times family have told me, wow, I used to live up there (Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan) too, and I wonder how many of those folks who passed me on the street were tied by blood.
Thanks to my prima Teresa Vega, who has the Radiant Roots, Boricua Branchesblog, I’ve been introduced to DNA, FB groups and i’ve been getting to know a lot of family and potential family. Our connection is through Rosa Maria Caban Mendez (2C4R), great granddaughter of my 5th GGP, Juan Cabal and Margarita Ruiz born sometime in the 1730s- 1740s in Aguada, Puerto Rico. Through Sociedad Ancestros Mocanos, we’ve found that quite a few people in our group have discovered DNA connections beyond the documents. And let me tell you, the level of endogamy on some of these lines ‘te da mareo’! (just makes you dizzy)
TL Dixon, of the FB group Native American Ancestry Explorer and Roots & Recombinant DNAblog graciously reviewed my atDNA GEDmatch results and noted the distribution across several different populations from several continents. There weren’t really surprises in there, as a lot matched what I was able to track via documents, contextual history and etymology of the Babilonia surname.
More recently, I’ve had the good fortune to have Fonte Felipe who has the wonderful blog, Tracing African Roots: Exploring the Ethnic Origins of the Afro-Diaspora look at my African results on Ancestry.com and see what matches come up. I’ll write more about discovering these ancestral roots in future posts, as I slowly learn to bring together local history, documents, trees and now, chromosome mapping and triangulation. However, knowing surnames can help point you in the right direction as to where that 3rd or 4th cousin might link up to you.
The Gift of Knowledge
Look, i’m related to two people on the panel on Black ProGen LIve, connections that we discovered much later. Perhaps some of you wonder why i’m on Black ProGen? It’s because one needs a space to speak to the realities of being POC and how one identifies, knowing what techniques and readings are helpful when nobody in your immediate family really has roots in New England, England or Ireland. There is definitely some up there in the mix, but it’s negligible, and my DNA looks like it went through a fan- ethnicities tossed in with no immediate connections to Europe outside of my dad’s grandfather. This is the face of the slave trade & mass migrations in your genes.
And this process never, ever stops. It doesn’t necessarily include the life sustaining ties of kin, people who are the family you make. Remember that there are ties that go beyond blood, or close ties, that make it possible for you to be here. This floating community of family changes over the course of our lives, and I am proud to say that despite the challenges of time and space I have relationships that sustain and heal– yet my tree may not show it. This too is in part, a legacy of slavery.
So, if your Puerto Rican ancestor is on this list, then we’re related!
Family Lines: Those starred on the list below are tied to Haplogroup C1b2 on the maternal line, and C1b4 on the paternal line, which is the Taino DNA that is on both my X chromosomes. More than half of the people here are on my maternal line in the NW, Aguada-Moca-Aguadilla. On the paternal line in the NE, San Juan-Santurce-Rio Grande, there is Haplogroup C1b4 via my paternal grandmother, Angelina Calo Vazquez. Y Haplogroup is European, R-L51, via my paternal grandfather, Ramon Fernandez Matos. On my maternal line, my grandmother, Felicita Rodriguez Vale is the source of my C1b2, which I could fortunately trace back to Tomasa Mendez, born about 1740.
These results fit with the resulting map of 1st to 3rd cousins on Puerto Rico as generated by 23&Me. While locations are self-reported, the results are consistent with family on both sides of my tree, and later generations may have moved south, as I don’t necessarily have specific ancestors in Yauco or Ponce areas. Eventually some arrived in New York City among the thousands who came in the early decades of the 20th Century, many escaping conditions that stemmed from the hurricanes of 1899 and 1928 that mangled Puerto Rico.
There’s always so much more to learn!
The List of my known Great Grandparents:
ps. those born outside of Puerto Rico are noted.
GG Grandfathers –
BABILONIA ACEVEDO, Manuel Miguel Narciso (ca 1804- >1868) Moca
LOPEZ DE SEGURA Y DE SOSA, Buonaventura (ca1825 – <1895)
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.