Cinco de Mayo is a Mexican celebration recognized more in the U.S. than in Mexico. It originated with Mexican-American communities during the first years of the American Civil War as a way to commemorate the cause of freedom and democracy. Today, May 5 is observed in the United States as a celebration of Mexican heritage and pride. In Mexico, it is primarily celebrated in the states of Puebla and Mexico and in Mexico City (Distrito Federal), where the holiday is called El Día de la Batalla de Puebla (the Day of the Battle of Puebla). The most celebrated patriotic event is Mexico’s Independence Day on September 16.
Many people may not know that FamilySearch, an international nonprofit organization headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, and online at FamilySearch.org, has amassed over 100 million historical records from Mexico. And FamilySearch continues to add more records each year. Arturo Cuéllar-Gonzalez, a research specialist for Latin America at FamilySearch’s Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, has made it his full-time passion and vocation to help patrons discover their Latin roots. His interest in family history began in 1986, when his grandmother “planted in my heart the deep desire to find my ancestors.”
Cuellar spends his days helping patrons in the Family History Library. He is an accredited genealogist and has researched his personal family history records back 11 generations.
In the last couple of years, Cuellar has observed more young people getting interested in family history. He said, “They often tell me it gives them a nice feeling inside.” Many of them are becoming more aware of their family’s history because of Facebook posts from family and relatives.
For the millions of people with Mexican ancestry who want to celebrate by learning more about their Mexican heritage, he recommends six quick research tips.
1. The 1930 Mexico Census
Prior to the Mexican Revolution, 95 percent of the land in Mexico was owned by 5 percent of the people. In preparation to form a policy of land distribution, the Mexican government created a census so land ownership could be recorded and conveyed. This was one of the first mandatory accountings of everyone and included name, age, gender, birthplace, address, marital status, nationality, religion, occupation, real estate holdings, literacy, any physical or mental defects, and any Indian language spoken. The 1930 Mexico census can be searched freely online at FamilySearch.org.
2. Mexican Civil Registration Records
Mexico’s civil registration records (births, marriages, and deaths) were the first records kept by local governments. They were started in 1857 under the direction of Benito Juarez, a reformer who separated the church from the government. Before then, the only records kept were in the various churches. The churches resisted releasing their records, but changing the schools from parochial to public schools required family records. You can find many of Mexico’s civil registration records online at FamilySearch.org.
3. Parish Records
Catholic parish records began in 16th century when Spain took over the country. They installed the government and the Catholic Church in every city. Parish records show christening, baptism, and marriage records, including marriage information files. Those marriage information files came from interviews by priests who needed to prove that the bride and groom were not related or from another place and that the groom was not trying to become a priest. Some of those records include several pages of information, a gold mine for family history researchers, showing generations of ancestry to prove that the bride and groom were faithful Catholics.
4. Family Clues
Finding where your ancestors were from using family clues is the fourth research tool. That process is as much an art as science. The types of food your ancestors ate, family recipes, songs, and stories handed down for generations are hints that may give you some guidance. The type of climate or terrain or major storms and destruction you’ve heard shared through family stories can provide other clues. Old pictures in unique settings or with writing on them or the types of dress shown in the photos might help. Once the place is found, parish records may supply the needed information.
5. Notarial Records
Notarial records include records from the sale of property or making a will. These records date back to the 1650s, and not many are filmed, but they can be found in local archives. FamilySearch staff might also be able to assist in writing correspondence to custodians of notarial records in Mexico.
6. The FamilySearch.org Wiki
The FamilySearch.org wiki is a rich resource for family history researchers. It has nearly 3,000 articles written by Mexico research specialists to help you navigate the available resources and give you additional insightful information. For example, Mexican surnames are not always helpful because during a revolution some people changed their names. Or you can enter a location in the search field and see what resources exist for that locality.
While you are gathering with family and friends to celebrate Cinco de Mayo or your Mexican family heritage, do some sleuthing. Pay more attention to those old family recipes, stories, documents, and photos, and look for the telltale clues that give you key insights and appreciation for those who have gone before you. Preserve and explore these resources together at FamilySearch.org so that next year in your celebrations you will have an even deeper appreciation.