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Solving Family Mysteries Through Genealogy

A quest to authenticate the oldest oral traditions

En español | A young Spanish physician and his English maid elope to Tampa. An Italian seaman sails the Caribbean. Someone is kidnapped in China. A farmer bids farewell to his sons, who leave their Catalan village determined to hacer las Américas, make it in the Americas.

Wars, thousands of miles of travel, and five generations later—here I am.

See also: Begin building your family tree.

This is the story of my family, at least according to family lore. The oldest oral traditions have been handed down since my great-great-grandparents were alive 150 years ago. They tell of men and women from different corners of the world who embarked on journeys that ended in Cuba, pushed by personal drama and swept by the forces of history.

I of course know the “near story.” That my father, Roger was born in Cárdenas and my mother, Mabel, in Manzanillo, both in Cuba, in the 1920s. That my middle brother and I were born in Havana. That after Fidel Castro took power we fled to New Jersey in 1964 where another brother and my children were born.

Back in Cuba I was lucky enough to know all four of my grandparents. But many years ago in very different places they too were babies in their parents' laps. What were their lives like? Which of the tales I grew up hearing are true? What else can be uncovered in forgotten archives in Cuba, Spain and—perhaps—England and China? Answers to questions such as these are what I set out to find years ago.

Who I am is partly a consequence of my actions and partly the result of decisions taken by ancestors a year, a decade, a century, a millennium before I was born—decisions that led to my being the son of Roger and Mabel and not some other couple, born in Cuba and not Norway or Sri Lanka. I also wanted to put it all in a historical context, because no family’s history takes place in a vacuum—things happened that led to Roger and Mabel deciding I should grow up in the United States instead of Cuba.

It is a mammoth task that I will never finish. There is always more to learn about a life long ago, or another name to discover a generation further back.

But I have learned many things. I have confirmed names. I have found old portraits and documented births, marriages, deaths—not only in old archives but also on the Internet. I have authenticated some of the lore. And I have found part of it is wrong. All that, plus a bit of historical research, lets me catch glimpses of my forebears.

How did I start? The advice from professional genealogists is to begin by asking your oldest relatives. My grandparents had died by the time I became interested in genealogy in the mid-1980s but my mother’s aunt (and my great-aunt) Laudelina, “Nana” still lived. Ever since I was small I had heard that everyone—at least everyone in Cuba—with her surname, Surós, was a descendant of brothers who had emigrated from the Catalan region of Spain to my mother’s hometown of Manzanillo, in the Cuban province of Oriente. Nana did not know when, but she knew where her father Jaime Surós Isern was born: Massanet de la Selva, in Catalonia.

Traveling to Cuban archives is nearly impossible, with the U.S.-Cuba embargo, so the only open road to my family’s past began in Massanet. But in the ‘80s there was no Google, no Massanetdelaselva.com. I had no idea where in Catalonia Massanet was and no easy way to find out. Nana, almost 90 years old, did not know either. I found nothing at the library of my alma mater, Rutgers University. But genealogists say perseverance pays off with surprises. I found my first written reference to the ancestral village of one branch of my family in an old Michelin guide shelved away in the musty basement of a used-book store.

Next: Private land records shed light on the past.>>

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