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Solving Family Mysteries Through Genealogy

A quest to authenticate the oldest oral traditions

As to my great-grandfather Pancho, his work was listed as “comerciante” on my mother’s baptism certificate (occupations and addresses are another bit of information most genealogical records outside the Spanish-speaking world do not have). Family lore says he owned a mattress factory and a bottling company, and was a photographer. The many photos from that side of the family are evidence of the latter: pictures of young Emilio and twin portraits of a thirtysomething couple that, according to family lore, are his grandparents. Which set of grandparents, though? Since Pancho is said to have been a photographer, they may well be his own parents, Juan and Teodora, rather than his in-laws, Antonio and Pepilla. Educated guesswork is allowed in genealogy; at least, I allow it if I promise myself to keep looking for confirmation.

My favorite photo shows Emilio as a toddler with blond ringlets in the lap of a matriarch holding a fan and wearing quintessentially Spanish widow’s weeds. Again, family lore has it she is one of his grandmothers, but no name. And again, my guesswork: the widow’s prominent eyebrows, intense eyes, and determined jaw make her look very much like the thirtysomething woman of the twin portraits, three decades older.

Still more guesswork? The photo of the couple is from the 1860s. Websites that offer advice on dating photographs for genealogical research say the size of the photo and paper on which it is printed, plus the man’s Lincoln-style top hat and the woman’s “hoop” dress with billowing sleeves, date the pictures to the decade when the United States was in the midst of its civil war, and when Cuba was starting its fight against Spanish colonialism. Some of my relatives fought in that struggle, as I learned on the Internet.

Online Genealogy

The Internet is a genealogical tool unimaginable just a few years ago, with genealogical information from places around the world including Spanish-speaking countries. One website, CubaGenWeb, has a database of Cuban soldiers who fought in the War of Independence, where I found a private in the “Guá” infantry regiment, based near Manzanillo, named Federico Lotti Navarrete. He is my great-grandmother Lutgarda’s brother, confirmed beyond doubt because his parents are said to be Antonio and Josefa—the same as the names passed down through family lore.

Another website to check is Ellis Island Records, which has handwritten manifests of ships that arrived at Ellis Island from 1892 to 1924. I did not believe anyone in my family had come to the United States in those years, but tried several of our surnames anyway. I hit pay dirt with Surós. Two of Bitito’s sons, my grandmother’s brothers Obdulio (“Yuyo”) and Manuel (“Totón”), passed through Ellis Island.

I remember Tío Yuyo when I was seven or eight years old. He liked to wear a starched white guayabera, and was missing half an ear—bitten off, he said, by a mule during his youth in Manzanillo. It was through the Ellis Island website that I learned he visited the United States “on business” in 1903 and stayed at 314 West 14th Street in Manhattan, in one of New York’s first Hispanic neighborhoods.

Manifests also show Totón came to America four times between 1912 and 1917 as a student at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. I e-mailed my Caracas cousin Jimmy, Totón’s grandson, and he sent me a picture of Totón as a young man on the Bucknell campus, in the middle of a group of friends, hands in his pockets. . Surprisingly, an Antonio Surós also passed through Ellis Island, on a ship from Spain. I do not know if he is Bitito’s older brother, who inherited the family farm and supposedly stayed in Maçanet. This Antonio came in 1921, several years after the tax collector confiscated Can Surós.

Next: Familysearch.org and Google Earth provide more clues.>>

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