Discovering My Boricua Roots On Ancestry.com (With Tips For Researchers)

by Andre Lee Muñiz | July 2, 2014 4:15 pm

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Ancestry.com now offers access to the largest online collection of Puerto Rican birth, marriage, and death records. With 5,376,623 new images, the collection of Civil Registrations in Puerto Rico from 1885-2001 - now available on the family history website - is sure to keep Boricua family historians busy late into the night, day on end.

Listed by the website as a new acquisition of June 6, 2014, the online resource is especially valuable to Boricuas of the Diaspora unable to make the trip to the island’s Department of Health, which was previously required. Now, instead of a plane trip and lodging, a few search phrases and mouse clicks are all that is needed to begin the journey of self-discovery.

My own father Stanley Muñiz, who died in 2007, would have deeply appreciated the resource. Having done some inquiry into his family in the years before his passing, he was able to trace his roots as far back as his great-grandparents. Of his eight great grandparents, he recorded the names for six, and the date and place of death – Caguas – for only two of these. He died with the date and place of death for six, and the date and place of birth for all eight, an unknown. In terms of my father’s four grandparents, while he knew all their names, he recorded the date and place of death for only three, all of whom died in Caguas, and the birth year for one – again, places and dates of birth remained largely unknown. Thus, according to my father’s records, my paternal family history began in Caguas, officially dating back at least to the 1932 birth of my own grandmother.

From l-r, my grandmother Cruzita, aunt Jenny, and grandfather Ernesto (1969)

From l-r, my grandmother Cruzita, aunt Jenny, and grandfather Ernesto (1969)

Always wanting to continue this research, when i heard about Ancestry.com’s new online resource, i knew it was time to start filling in the gaps. Fortunately, i already had an account with the website. My father asked me to create one when he was beginning the family tree i now find myself adding to. With this head start, i reactivated my account and began my research.

What followed was an exciting series of discoveries. Within a few hours, i found the missing date and place of death for two, and the missing date and place of birth for three of my father’s six known great grandparents. In addition, i found the two missing names and birthplaces of my 2nd great grandparents. To my absolute surprise, both were listed as naturals of Orocovis, a mountain town several miles west of the Caguas where most of their children died. This discovery was thanks to a 1943 death certificate i found of their child, my great grandparent, Francisco Ortiz Serrano, an illiterate tobacco farmer born in 1899, also in Orocovis. Francisco’s wife, Juana Muñiz Diaz, brought my family history to yet another town besides Caguas, having been born in 1894 Ciales.

Tip #1: Use death certificates of family members to find names and birthplaces of their parents, as well as the deceased persons’ most recent/common occupation.

By the end of the day, my paternal grandfather Ernesto’s line of ancestors, through his mother Juana Muñiz Diaz, was one of two that i could trace back the furthest. Juana’s parents, both listed as mulatos, were born in Ciales, with her father, Fabriciano Muñiz y Molina, listed as illiterate in 1910 and literate in 1920, being born there as late as 1873. Fabriciano’s parents, Concepción Muñiz and Agustina Molina, brought my family’s history to yet more towns, the former being born around 1810 in Utuado, the latter being born in Arecibo in an unknown year. Concepción died in 1885 Ciales, the only other information i was able to find on him being his mother’s name, Petrona, my 4th great grandparent, of unknown origins.

Juan Figueroa, not knowing how to write, left his mark between his name, which was then stamped (1920)

Juan Figueroa, not knowing how to write, left his mark between his name, which was then stamped (1920)

My paternal grandmother Cruzita’s line of ancestors, through her father Cruz Figueroa, can also be traced back to a 4th great grandparent. This ancestor, Concepción Figueroa, a female of unknown origins, gave birth to farmers whose grandchildren would continue farming the land of Caguas after them. One of Concepción’s children, Juan Figueroa, my 3rd great grandparent born in 1834, had ‘color’ listed as his race on his 1919 death certificate. His son, Juan Figueroa Colón, born in 1878, was listed as a sugar cane farmer in the 1930 Census, where his wife Laureana Vélez Vega was also listed as a farmer of ‘frutos menores’. Both were listed as mulato/a on one document, and mestizo/a on another. Their son Cruz Figueroa, previously mentioned, married Dominga Martinez Castro, a house worker born in 1899 Trujillo Alto, where her mother Maria was also born. Based on Census records, Cruz appears to have been the first in his family to learn to read and write.

Tip #2: Use the 1910, 1920, 1930, and 1940 U.S. Federal Census, as well as the special Census taken in 1935-36 Puerto Rico, to find the names of household/ family members, as well as their race, literacy, occupation and place of work.

Fabriciano Muñiz y Molina, a previously mentioned 2nd great grandparent of mine from Ciales, was the only other ancestor beyond my grandparents that appears to have been literate. Listed as a mulato, he is also the family member with the most consistent change of occupation over the years. Listed as a farmer in 1910, he appears to have become a jornalero, or wage earner, on a coffee farm by 1920. Perhaps this change was due to losing the land he once farmed on, or being unable to earn a decent living off it and being forced into wage labor. In any case, by 1935, when he would have been in his late 60s or 70s, he was listed as a carpenter in Caguas. This change again could have been brought about by the inability of Puerto Ricans to live off and keep their lands in the face of U.S. colonial-capitalism, in this case the land of his employer, or it could simply be the decision of an aging Fabriciano, by then a widow living in the home of his son-in-law and daughter.

Tip #3: Use Census records from different years to track the change in occupation for family members.

The main reason i’ve shared my own findings in such detail is to demonstrate the rich documentary history available online through Ancestry.com and encourage others to take up the effort of building their family tree. The Civil Registration in Puerto Rico collection now available online has a wealth of records and can help many researchers go back into the early 1800s. Hopefully the few tips i have provided aid in the process. One should also consult Ancestry.com’s own research guides, particularly the one on using vital records. It might take many hours and days, and you may not find everything you seek, but what you can learn about yourself in relation to your ancestors is profound. My experience researching only my paternal line proved no less.

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