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The Universality of Latin American Research

This article focuses on commonalities involved in tracing Hispanic ancestry in Central and South America through records of the universal Catholic Church


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Whether your ancestors lived in México, the Caribbean, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panamá, Colombia, Ecuador, Perú, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, or Argentina, in many aspects tracing your roots will involve similar research strategies. This article focuses on commonalities involved in tracing Hispanic ancestry in Central and South America through records of the universal Catholic Church.1

The reason that similarities in record keeping exist in most of the countries south of the US/Mexican border is because that area of the world was colonized largely by a single imperial power--Spain.2  Religiously, the Catholic Church dominated in Spain and its colonies. The first Spanish capitols established in America by the conquistadors were Mexico City and Lima, Peru. The Spanish chose these locations because Mexico City had formerly served as the capitol of the thriving Aztec Empire and Lima was situated along the Pacific coastline and close to the wealthy and advanced Inca Empire. From there, Spaniards spread throughout the American Continents. Although Europe decimated the civilizations that previously flourished in these areas, Catholic Spain did begin recording the Christian names, baptisms, marriages, and burials of these nations' inhabitants. Today these centuries-old treasures are of inestimable worth to their descendants.

Genealogists employ Catholic parish registers in Latin America as primary sources in tracing Hispanic ancestry. Catholic clerics maintained similar registers throughout Spanish America. They wrote mainly in the Spanish language with a sprinkling of Latin phrases.

The standard approach to tracing pedigrees in this region of the world involves the following five-step cycle:3

  1. Identify the Catholic parish where an ancestor was born.

  2. Search for the ancestor's christening record in that location. This record will supply the parents names and, during specific time periods, the names of the infant's grandparents, including the mother's and grandmother's "maiden" names.4

  3. Search for all children of the parents.

  4. When the eldest child is identified, search the year(s) immediately before (or during/after for illegitimacies) to find the parents' marriage. The parents' marriage will often identify the birth parish of both bride and groom, as well as each party's parents' names.5

Start the cycle over again by following step 1 for both parents.

Many Catholic parish registers from Central and South America are available through the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Just look up the name of the village or Catholic parish in the Place Search option to find the records you're searching for.

Following this cycle throughout Hispanic Latin America can help you find ancestors back to the first written registers in the 1500s and connect your lineage to its Native American and European roots.

Buena suerte in finding your Latin American ancestry!

Muchas gracias al Profesor Jorge Ryskamp, JD, AG® de la Universidad Brigham Young por haberme instruido en los métodos utilizados para rebuscar la genealogía en Latina América.

1 This is somewhat of a redundancy and play on words as the term Catholic means universal.

2 Portugal, the other European nation that established a major colony in South America, in Brazil, and other countries such as Great Britain, France, and Holland that set up minor colonies in this region of the world are some exceptions to this statement.

3 This strategy will obviously not work in parishes where registers have not survived.

4 Surname practices have differed between Spanish America and British America. In recent centuries, Hispanics have used double surnames, inheriting both the father and mother's last names. In addition women kept the surnames they were born with throughout their lives and the term maiden name had no significance in their society.

5You can also search for the marriages of each sibling and everyone's burials; however, the cycle usually can produce pedigree extending results without adding these techniques.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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