How To Research Latino Ancestry and Genealogy

Introduction to Hispanic Genealogy

Learn how to research your Hispanic ancestry.
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Indigenous in areas from the southwestern United States to the southern tip of South America and from the Philippines to Spain, Hispanics are a diverse population. From the small country of Spain, tens of millions of Spaniards have emigrated to Mexico, Puerto Rico, Central and South America, Latin America, North America, and Australia. Spaniards settled the Caribbean islands and Mexico more than a century before the English settled Jamestown in 1607. In the United States, Hispanics settled in Saint Augustine, Florida, in 1565 and in New Mexico in 1598.

Often, a search for Hispanic ancestry leads ultimately to Spain but is likely that a number of family generations settled in the countries of Central America, South America or the Caribbean. Also, as many of these countries are considered "melting pots," it is not uncommon that many individuals of Hispanic descent will not only be able to trace their family tree back to Spain, but also to locations such as France, Germany, Italy, Eastern Europe, Africa, and Portugal.

Begin at Home

If you've spent any time researching your family tree, this may sound cliche. But the first step in any genealogy research project is, to begin with, what you know - yourself and your direct ancestors. Scour your home and ask your relatives for birth, death and marriage certificates; old family photos; immigration documents, etc. Interview every living relative that you can find, being sure to ask open-ended questions. See 50 Questions for Family Interviews for ideas. As you collect information, be sure to organize the documents into notebooks or binders, and enter the names and dates into a pedigree chart or genealogy software program.

Hispanic Surnames

Most Hispanic countries, including Spain, have a unique naming system in which children are commonly given two surnames, one from each parent. The middle name (1st surname) comes from the father's name (apellido paterno), and the last name (2nd surname) is the mother's maiden name (apellido materno). Sometimes, these two surnames may be found separated by y (meaning "and"), although this is no longer as common as it once was. Recent changes to laws in Spain mean that you may also find the two surnames reversed - first the mother's surname, and then the father's surname. Women also retain their maiden name when they get married, making it much easier to track families through multiple generations.

Know Your History

Knowing the local history of the places where your ancestors lived is a great way to speed up your research. Common immigration and migration patterns may provide clues to your ancestor's country of origin. Knowing your local history and geography will also help you determine where to look for the records of your ancestors, as well as provide some great background material for when you sit down to write your family history.

Find Your Family's Place of Origin

Whether your family now lives in Cuba, Mexico, the United States or another country, the goal in researching your Hispanic roots is to use the records of that country to trace your family back to the country of origin. You'll need to search through public records of the place where your ancestors lived, including the following major record sources:

  • Church Records
    The records of the Roman Catholic church represent one of the best sources for locating a Hispanic family's place of origin. Local parish records in Hispanic Catholic parishes include sacramental records such as baptisms, marriages, deaths, burials, and confirmations. Particularly valuable are marriage records, in which the town of origin is frequently documented for the bride and groom. Many of these records are kept in Spanish, so you may find this Spanish Genealogical Word List to be helpful in translation. A vast majority of these Hispanic parish records have been microfilmed by the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and you can borrow the ones you need through your local Family History Center. You may also be able to obtain copies by writing directly to the local parish where your ancestors lived.
  • Civil or Vital Records
    Civil registration is the record kept by local governments of the births, marriages, and deaths within their jurisdictions. These records provide excellent sources for information such as the names of family members, dates of important events and, possibly, the family's place of origin. In the United States, more recent vital records are usually maintained at the state level. In general, civil records date back to the early 1900s in the United States; 1859 in Mexico; 1870s-1880s in most Central and South American countries; and 1885 in Puerto Rico. Civil or vital records are typically kept at the local (town, village, county or municipal) level in the local court, municipal office, county office or Civil Registry office. Many have also been microfilmed by the Family History Library (see church records).
  • Immigration Records
    A number of immigration sources, including passenger lists, border crossing records, and naturalization and citizenship records, are also useful for identifying the place of origin of an immigrant ancestor. For early Spanish emigrants, the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, Spain, is the repository for Spanish documents dealing with the Spanish colonial period (1492-1810) in the Americas. These documents often include the birthplace of each individual recorded. Ship arrivals and passenger lists provide the best documentation of immigrants who came to the Americas after the middle of the nineteenth century. These records, kept at major North, Central, and South American ports, can usually be found in the National Archives of the country in question. Many are also available on microfilm through your local family history center.

Tracing your Hispanic roots may, eventually, lead you to Spain, where genealogical records are among the oldest and best in the world.

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Your Citation
Powell, Kimberly. "How To Research Latino Ancestry and Genealogy." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Powell, Kimberly. (2021, February 16). How To Research Latino Ancestry and Genealogy. Retrieved from Powell, Kimberly. "How To Research Latino Ancestry and Genealogy." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).