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Solving Family Mysteries Through Genealogy

A quest to authenticate the oldest oral traditions

It spelled “Maçanet de la Selva” with the Catalan cedilla, said it was in La Selva (“The Forest”) region of the province of Girona, and that there was also a Romanesque church of historical interest, San Llorenç. I located it on a map, a village inland from the Mediterranean halfway between Barcelona and the French border. I wrote a letter generically addressed to the parish priest, explaining I was a descendant of a Jaime Surós Isern and asked if family still lived in town, a century later.

I had some reason to be optimistic. Birth and death records kept by Spain and its former colonies in Latin America are “far superior” to those of most other regions of the world, says George R. Ryskamp, author of Finding Your Hispanic Roots.“ The greatest treasure is the parish records. They have the name of the father, the mother, their birth places, even the grandparents’ names and birthplaces.” Also, he adds, the Spanish convention of using maternal and paternal surnames opens research to more lineages. “Most [non-Hispanics] would love to have records like the Spanish,” Ryskamp says.

Some time later I got an envelope in the mail with a return address from Maçanet.

The letter was from a Father Andrés, and brought bad news: the parish archives had burned during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). My heart sank. Municipal documents in Spain date back only to the middle of the 19th century, while parish records start in the 1540s, according to Mayra Sanchez-Johnson, a genealogist who specializes in Cuban and Spanish research. Centuries were lost with the destruction of San Llorenç’s archives.

But Father Andrés had good news too: a “faithful parishioner” was named Martí Tomás Surós. “Is he perhaps related to you?” the priest asked. I didn’t know but figured if the Surós name is as rare as my family said, the chances were good.

In 1991, six years after I first heard of Martí Tomás Surós, I met him. As my wife and I drove up from Barcelona, Maçanet de la Selva arose on the western side of the highway, blue hills in the distance. There was the thousand-year-old steeple of San Llorenç with homes of red-tiled roofs clustered around it.

Martí was a vigorous man with a mane of platinum hair. He invited me to his home near the plaza by San Llorenç for almuerzo (lunch). Over chicken and butifarra sausage, he said he believed we were related but did not know how. He was a man to be trusted in matters of local affairs; Martí was a member of Maçanet’s Taller d’Historia, the town history club.

Martí’s experience at the Taller d’Historia taught him where to look beyond the lost parish archives. He knew where private land records were kept and that documents at Town Hall survived the war. His research skills paid off when he turned up the death certificate of Tomás Surós Buadas. It named five sons, including one named Jaime—my maternal great-grandfather “Bitito,” as his children called him. Tomás died on December 24, 1883, by which time Bitito, family lore says, was already in Cuba. I had never heard of my maternal great-great-grandfather Tomás before, and Nana didn’t know his name either. But she remembered that when she was a child the family did not celebrate Nochebuena dinner like other Cubans. Their Christmas Eve celebration was muted to observe the day Bitito’s father—her grandfather, my great-great-grandfather—died in far-off Spain.

The certificate also said Tomás’s parents were Salbador—with a “b,” not a “v”—and María. That established a link to a notebook recording land rental payments bearing the signature of Salbador Surós, my great-great-great-grandfather. The first entry reads, in 19th-century Catalan that Martí translated into castellano: He recibido de Joan Font I Costas 4 mesurons de trigo que paga por el año 1834. Salbador Surós; (I have received 4 mesurons of wheat from Joan Font I Costas, which pays for the year 1834. Salbador Surós.”)

Next: Finding history in Maçanet.>>

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