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Solving Family Mysteries Through Genealogy

A quest to authenticate the oldest oral traditions

Martí took us to a two story stone-and-brick house on the outskirts of town: Can Surós, he said, Catalan for House of Surós built in the 1700s and the birthplace of Bitito, Tomás and, possibly, Salbador and further back. I touched a rusty iron hoop that perhaps generations of my family had used to open their front door. The building was now abandoned. Martí said it was taken over for unpaid taxes around 1915. 

Even prior to that loss, the Maçanet my ancestors knew was a place of poverty, where peasants ate the crops they grew and only had meat “when they slaughtered a pig,” Martí explained. Salbador’s land was inherited by Tomás, as evidenced by his signature on a later book of receipts. It passed on to his oldest son Antonio, attested in yet another document. Bitito and his other brothers, cut out of the inheritance, took the path of countless Spaniards in the 19th century: travel across the Atlantic to hacer las Américas. Bitito, Pedro, and José sailed to Cuba; Baldomero, another brother, to Argentina. It was the Spain-to-Latin America version of the American Dream.

The three Surós brothers who went to Cuba were progenitors of quite a clan. Between them, they had at least 20 children, who in turn had at least 82 children, not counting the Argentinean branch or Antonio’s descendants. I do not know how many Surós cousins I have in my own generation. Over the years I met perhaps a dozen, and stay in touch with Jimmy, who lives in Caracas. When Fidel Castro came to power, Jimmy’s parents opted to seek exile in Venezuela. Jimmy was born in Bayamo, near Manzanillo. The latter is the Cuban town where Bitito settled, perhaps in the 1870s. Bitito’s descendants, including my mother lived there until the 1940s.

I returned from Maçanet energized to dig for more of my roots, though I knew I would eventually hit the rock of Cuban politics, which would make the research slow. Other than the Surós branch in Spain, almost every family record I am aware of that is crucial to my direct ancestral line lies in almost inaccessible Cuban archives. But not all. When my family came to the United States, they brought with them baptism and marriage certificates—buried in dresser drawers until I sought them out. They are full of genealogical clues.

The baptism record of my grandmother Emelina, Nana’s sister, states her parents were Jaime Surós Isern (born in “Massaná,” a reminder to amateur genealogists to beware of misspellings, since the correct spelling is Massanet) and Eleuteria Reyes Fuentes of Vicana, a hamlet outside Manzanillo. The baptism record also gave the name of the grandparents.

I already had learned, in Maçanet, the names of those on her paternal side, Tomás Surós and Maria Isern, but Emelina’s maternal grandparents were new to me: José María Reyes and Felipa Fuentes. The record included no places of birth or maternal surnames and family oral tradition is silent about both. I knew nothing of them—until years later science and modern technology would pry open a door.

But there are tales about the ancestors of my grandfather Emilio Vázquez Lotti, Emelina’s husband and an upright gentleman of the old school.

There are plenty of photos of his family. One shows Emilio’s mother Lutgarda as a young woman, sweet-faced but wary-eyed, as if readying for anything life could bring. She lived through Cuba’s wars of independence against colonial Spain, in the heart of the province that saw most of the fighting, and she died in 1931 when Cuba was a young republic. My maternal Aunt Rubí remembers her as a “very tall, very fair” woman with a strong personality. In a photo from the 1920s, Lutgarda nuzzles baby Mabel (my mother); the old woman by then had the craggy face of those who’ve seen much life.

Next: Looking into Spanish heraldic histories.>>

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