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Solving Family Mysteries Through Genealogy

A quest to authenticate the oldest oral traditions

She may have had plenty of that. Family lore has it that Rafaelita and her sister Maria Elisa, “Nena,” were raised by older half-siblings who tormented them. The father of them all was Rafael Rodríguez, “Pipón.” Rafaelita liked to tell about Pipón riding into Cárdenas on horseback, “tall and blue-eyed, cutting a figure so gallant that the whole town wanted to greet him,” my father recalls. Nena inherited Pipón’s farm, wresting it away from her half-sister, Generosa, in a lawsuit. I spent happy days visiting la finca de Nena as a young boy from Havana. I remember the smell of cattle, guajiros riding horses in their palm-straw hats, a manual pump across a country road that drew the sweetest well water I ever tasted.

Rafaelita and Nena’s mother was Severina, Pipón’s second wife. The girls spent the first years of their lives on his farm. But Severina died when my grandmother was about seven, according to oral tradition. Pipón took Rafaelita and Nena to live in the home of Generosa, his much older daughter by a first wife.

Despite the name, Generosa was not generous of spirit to her little half-sisters. Rafaelita’s childhood and teen years were spent in misery and humiliation. Generosa often threatened to send Rafaelita and Nena to an orphanage.

That may have hit close to home. Severina, family rumor has it, was a child of la Beneficencia, the popular name for the Real Casa de Maternidad—colonial Cuba’s home for the children of unwed mothers. As evidence to support the tale, family legend says her surname was Valdés, conferred by priests to every kid at la Beneficencia.

Was it true? Genealogists' advice: check the written word. First stop, my father’s birth certificate. His maternal grandmother, it says, was Severina Ramírez Valdés.

The double surname contradicts the Beneficiencia tale, suggesting that Severina had two known parents and was therefore not a foundling. My father does not have an answer. His sister in Havana, María del Carmen, “Mayita,” digs up their mother’s death certificate: she was the daughter, it says, of Severina Valdés. No Ramírez. The Beneficiencia theory is back on.

However, Mayra Sánchez-Johnson, the professional genealogist helping me research, says death certificates are unreliable, given without confirmation at a time of grief. Mayra’s contacts in Cuba comb through church archives at the behest of Cuban Americans who want to know about their ancestors but cannot—or will not—go back to Castro’s Cuba. In April 2006 her associate in Cárdenas found my grandmother Rafaelita’s baptism certificate.

On her paternal side I see Pipón and his parents, Francisco Rodríguez Alfonso and Francisca Herrera Piloto. And on the maternal side, the document states, Rafaelita’s mother was Severina Valdés of the Real Casa de Maternidad, parents unknown. A month later, Mayra’s source in Cárdenas finds Severina’s baptism certificate. It says she was born in 1872 and abandoned “at the house inhabited by Severino Ramírez.”

So there I had it: Severino and Severina, his Ramírez versus the Beneficiencia-given Valdés. Father and daughter?

For an unwed mother to leave her child with the father, and for him to accept the child, was not unusual in Cuba then, Mayra says. “This time he took the baby to the maternity house and left her there.”

Family lore and legal documents now agreed: my great-grandmother Severina was a child of unwed parents left to the care of the Spanish colonial government in Cuba. It explains why her daughter Rafaelita, my abuela, had such a hard time with her half-sister. Generosa rebelled against sharing her home with the child of Pipón and his second wife, the foundling.

There may have been more to it, I found out recently.

Next: The "chino latino" and the elopement.>>

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