Mexico Genealogy 101

Tracing Your Family Tree in Mexico

Mexican happy baby holding his teddy bear.
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Due to hundreds of years of meticulous record-keeping, Mexico offers a wealth of church and civil records for the genealogical and historical researcher. It is also the homeland of one in every 10 Americans. Learn more about your Mexican heritage, with these steps for tracing your family tree in Mexico.

Mexico has a rich history stretching back to ancient times. Archaeology sites around the country speak of ancient civilizations flourishing in what is present-day Mexico thousands of years before the arrival of the first Europeans, such as the Olmec, thought by some to be the mother culture of Mesoamerican civilization, who lived around 1200 to 800 BC, and the Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula who flourished from about 250 BC to 900 AD.

Spanish Rule

During the early 15th century the fierce Aztecs rose to power, maintaining dominance over the region until they were defeated in 1519 by Hernan Cortes and his group of just over 900 Spanish explorers. Called "New Spain," the territory then came under control of the Spanish Crown.

Spanish kings encouraged the exploration of new lands by granting conquistadors the right to establish settlements in exchange for one-fifth (el quinto real, the royal fifth) of any treasure discovered.

The colony of New Spain rapidly outgrew the initial borders of the Aztec Empire, encompassing all of present-day Mexico, as well as Central America (as far south as Costa Rica), and much of the present-day southwest United States, including all or parts of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.

Spanish Society

The Spanish continued to rule over most of Mexico until 1821 when Mexico achieved status as an independent country.

During that time, the availability of inexpensive land attracted other Spanish immigrants who sought the social status afforded to land owners by Spanish society at that time. These permanent settlers gave rise to four distinct social classes:

  • Peninsulars, or the ruling class, were people born in Spain or Portugal. To maintain the line, some men sent their wives back to Spain to give birth, to ensure that their children also achieved "peninsular" status.

     

  • Criollos were people of pure Spanish descent who were born in New Spain. It was this group, with the support of mestizos and other lower classes, that initiated the 11 years of rebellion to claim independence for Mexico in 1821, in response to increasing taxes and regulations by the Crown.

     

  • Mestizos were people of mixed blood (generally used to identify Spanish/Indian ancestry) who ranked lower than the criollos in New Spain’s social hierarchy. Most Mexicans today (more than 65%) are descended from this group.

     

  • Indigenas are the native Indians of Mexico. Prior to Mexican independence, several classifications were commonly used by the Spanish to identify people with Indian ancestry, including: indio (Indian), mestizo (half Indian/half white), zambo (half-Indian/half African) and lobo (three-quarters African/one-quarter Indian).

While Mexico has welcomed many other immigrants to its shores, the majority of its population descends from the Spanish, the Indians, or are of mixed Spanish and Indian heritage (mestizos). Blacks and some Asians are also part of the Mexican population.

Where Did They Live?

To conduct a successful family history search in Mexico, you'll first need to know the name of the town where your ancestors lived, and the name of the municipio in which the town was located.

It is also helpful to be familiar with the names of nearby towns and villages, as your ancestors may have left records there as well. As with genealogy research in most countries, this step is essential. Your family members may be able to provide you with this information but, if not, try the steps outlined in Finding the Birthplace of your Immigrant Ancestor.

The Federal Republic of Mexico is made up of 32 states and the Distrito Federal (federal district). Each state is then divided into municipios (equivalent to a U.S. county), which may include several cities, towns and villages. Civil records are kept by the municipio, which church records will generally be found in the town or village.

Next Step > Locating Births, Marriages & Deaths in Mexico

<< Mexico Population & Geography

When researching your ancestors in Mexico, the best place to start is with records of birth, marriage and death.

Civil Records in Mexico (1859 - present)

Civil registration records in Mexico are government-required records of births (nacimientos), deaths (defunciones) and marriages (matrimonios). Known as Registro Civil, these civil records are an excellent source of names, dates and vital events for a large percentage of the population living in Mexico since 1859.

The records are not complete, however, as people did not always comply, and civil registration wasn't strictly enforced in Mexico until 1867.

Civil registration records in Mexico, with the exception of the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca, are maintained at the municipio level. Many of these civil records have been microfilmed by the Family History Library, and can be researched through your local Family History Center. Digital images of these Mexico Civil Registration Records are starting to be made available online for free at FamilySearch Record Search.

You can also obtain copies of civil registration records in Mexico by writing to the local civil registry for the municipio. Older civil records, however, may have been transferred to the municipio or the state archive. Ask that your request be forwarded, just in case!

Church Records in Mexico (1530 - present)

Records of baptism, confirmation, marriage, death and burial have been maintained by individual parishes in Mexico for almost 500 years.

These records are especially useful for researching ancestors prior to 1859, when civil registration went into effect, although they may also provide information on events after that date that can not be found in the civil records.

The Roman Catholic church, established in Mexico in 1527, is the predominant religion in Mexico.

To research your ancestors in Mexican church records, you'll first have to know the parish and city or town of residence. If your ancestor lived in a small town or village without an established parish, use a map to find nearby towns with a church that your ancestors may have attended. If your ancestor lived in a large city with several parishes, their records may be found in more than one parish. Begin your search with the parish where your ancestor lived, then expan the search to nearby parishes, if necessary. Parish church registers may record information on several generations of the family, making them an extremely valuable resource for researching a Mexican family tree.

Many church records from Mexico are included in the Mexican Vital Records Index from FamilySearch.org. This free, online database indexes almost 1.9 million birth and christening and 300,000 marriage records from Mexico, a partial listing of vital records covering the years 1659 to 1905. Additional indexes of Mexican baptisms, marriages and burials from selected localities and time periods are available on FamilySearch Record Search, along with selected Catholic Church records.

The Family History Library has most Mexican church records prior to 1930 available on microfilm.

Search the Family History Library Catalog under the town in which your ancestor's parish was located to learn what church records are available. These can then be borrowed from and viewed at your local Family History Center.

If the church records you seek are not available through the Family History Library, you'll need to write directly to the parish. Write your request in Spanish, if possible, including as many details as possible about the person and records you seek. Ask for a photocopy of the original record, and send a donation (around $10.00 usually works) to cover research time and copies. Most Mexican parishes accept U.S. currency in the form of cash or a cashier's check.