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Solving Family Mysteries Through Genealogy

A quest to authenticate the oldest oral traditions

My great-grandmother Lutgarda was the daughter of Antonio Lotti Mercader and Josefa Navarrete Cuevas, “Pepilla.” Antonio was a pharmacist in Manzanillo in the mid-19th century, when the town was home to some 4,000 inhabitants. At least, such is the story that reaches me via Eladio Ruiz, a distant cousin descended from Lutgarda’s sister. I never knew Eladio until I started researching my family tree and found that his wife, Sara, had written an informal history.

It says Antonio’s father was an Italian sailor who immigrated in the early 1800s to Manzanillo and established a shipping business, ferrying people and merchandise along the coast. It’s a reminder that Cuba was until the 1950s a place where immigrants headed, not a place people left.

Sara’s research reinforced advice from genealogists: yes, talk to older relatives with long memories, but remember that younger ones may have done family trees whose branches intersect with yours and corroborate family lore. Sara, for instance, said the names Antonio Lotti Mercader and Josefa Navarrete Cuevas had come down through her husband’s branch of the Lottis—the same names handed down, independently, in my branch. It’s as good a confirmation as one can find in the absence of written documents.

Another suggestion from genealogists applies specifically to Hispanic research: look in Spanish heraldic histories. These multivolume encyclopedias were intended for persons eager to prove descent from nobility. But the compilations are so exhaustive that even the plebeians amongst us find family links too. Largest is the 88-volume Diccionario heráldico y genealógico de apellidos españoles y americanos, by Alberto and Arturo García Carrafa, with family histories of 15,000 surnames in Latin America and Spain. A specifically Cuban work is the nine-volume Historia de familias cubanas, by Francisco Xavier de Santa Cruz y Mallen, Count of San Juan de Jaruco.

Alas, I did not find I am of noble birth. I found a Navarrete line that went from La Rioja to Santiago de Cuba but I could not make a connection.

I do know that, perhaps in the 1880s as an exhausted Cuba paused between its two wars of independence, Antonio and Pepilla’s daughter Lutgarda married Francisco “Pancho” Vázquez Martí. They became the parents of my grandfather Emilio.

I have not been able to confirm that Pancho’s parents, Juan Vázquez and Teodora Martí, immigrated from Galicia, in northwestern Spain. But I have seen the 1902 commercial directory of Manzanillo, which shows a Juan Vázquez owned a cantina.

On the same Sariol street, the directory also shows, Bitito Surós owned a bodega. Did my grandparents Emilio and Emelina already know each other in 1902 when he was eight and she four years older?

It is possible that the utilitarian Manzanillo directory contains a forgotten story of two kids who played together at their families’ businesses, who became a young couple in love, who became my grandparents, and whom I watched hold hands on a bed in New Jersey many years later while cancer ate away Emelina’s life. “To my Emilio, so that he never forgets me,” she wrote in a photo dated 1916, a dark-eyed beauty in back-lit profile. He never did. 

Next: Tracing your roots online.>>

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