Tracing Chicano Roots: Coming Over The Border From Mexico

by Bob Brooke

Most immigrants over the past 300 years came to America by boat, but a good number have entered the United States by land, especially the hundreds of thousands who have arrived from Mexico. And their arrivals were quite different.

For one thing, the trip was simpler, cheaper, and shorter for Mexicans, and if things didn't work out, they could go home far more easily.

Also, the immigration process was less formal. There were no immigration centers as there were for boat arrivals. Officials processed new arrivals quickly at the border.

In fact, millions of people probably immigrated without any processing at all.

In the 1920s, when the flow of immigrants from Europe was stopped by American law, Mexican workers were in great demand. U.S. railroad companies needed them to lay down tracks across the Southwest. Today, they arrive to take up duties as farm laborers, cleaning persons, etc.

Although many Mexicans came into the U.S. legally, oth ers sneaked across the border.

They waded through shallow parts of the Rio Grande or hid in the trunks of cars driven in legally.

Today, Hispanic-Americans are the largest immigrant group in the nation. Hundreds of thousands of Mexican-Americans live in California, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.

There's also a great deal of new immigration from Mexico, both legal and illegal, temporary and permanent. This makes tracking records difficult. In particular, after family records, the researcher will find the civil, church, and notarial records of most assistance.

An indispensable guide for use in researching Chicano(Mexican-American) records, as well as for all of the other Latin American countries, is Lyman De Platt's comprehensive Genealogical and Historical Guide to Latin America. Anyone trying to search for Chicano ancestors needs to become familiar with this work before launching his or her search. Le Platt's newest book, Hispanic Surnames and Family History, is also helpful.

Hernando Cortez conquered the Aztecs in Mexico in 1517, and the Spanish king est ablished the viceroyalty of New Spain in 1535. The territory of New Spain included Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Mexico, and most of Central America.

Although missionaries established settlements in all of these areas in the 16th century, it was not until the late 18th century, particularly in California, that these areas became significantly settled. Mexico's political history has at times been turbulent, not only before gaining independence in 1821 but also in the Revolution of 1910. Nonetheless, Mexico is a country with rich collections of genealogical and historical materials.

Bureaucracy reigns in Mexico, an advantage to the genealogist. Municipal governments maintain records of civil registration of births, marriages, deaths, divorces, annulments, fetal deaths, adoptions, and acknowledgment by fathers of illegitimate children. The procedure began in 1859, although in some places it started earlier and in other communities it was initiated later, and is the key source for doing g enealogical research.

Researchers should use these records compiled by town governments to supplement and complement church records. Since nearly 100 percent of the population of Mexico before 1900 was Roman Catholic, researchers should look to the registers of Catholic parishes for assistance. Many parish registers have been lost or destroyed through the decades, but those that do survive give information regarding the baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and dates of burial of family members.

Fortunately, the Genealogical Society of Utah, an organization of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City, Utah, has microfilmed many of the civil records and church registers in Mexico. Researchers can obtain these microfilms at any of the Mormon branch libraries throughout the world.

In Latin America, another important source for genealogical information, especially before the keeping of civil records, are the notarial records. Roman law is the basis of this sort of record, the concept of which conquistadors broug ht over from Spain.

The registers kept by the notaries public contain several sorts of legal transactions-wills, buying and selling of land, letters of indebtedness, etc. Nearly 800 notarial archives located throughout Mexico contain these records, although many states have brought the materials within their jurisdiction under the supervision of the state archives or special notarial archives. Although each of the 31 states in Mexico has its own major archives, the most important archives in the country for genealogical research is the Archivo General De La Nacion (National Archives) located in the Palacio Nacional (National Palace) in Mexico City.

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