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Solving Family Mysteries Through Genealogy

A quest to authenticate the oldest oral traditions

The Chino Latino and the Elopement

My father’s father, Ramón took to his grave secrets as deep as his wife Rafaelita’s. The biggest? It’s not at all certain that his surname—and therefore my dad’s, and mine—is the real thing. We may not actually be Hernándezes!

According to family stories, Ramón’s father was Chinese. If that’s true, and if naming custom was followed like tradition and the law dictate, I should have a Chinese surname.

Although my grandfather Ramón never went to college, he had an insatiable intellectual curiosity. He worked part-time as a journalist and was a self-taught engineer of sorts. After the devastating hurricane of 1933 (known to Cubans simply as “el huracan del '33”), he rebuilt the main boilers of the sugar mill where he worked and redesigned the aqueduct that brought water to Cárdenas.

It wasn't until I was in my 30s that I first heard Ramón’s father was among the 140,000 laborers who immigrated to Cuba from China in the mid-19th century. It was a brutal business. The Chinese came “usually on an eight-year contract, and they were therefore not to be regarded as slaves,” wrote the historian Hugh Thomas in his monumental book Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom.“ But the difference was in name only. The Chinese were persuaded, press-ganged…or deluded by the merchants’ Chinese agents' promises of a good life.”

Was my great-grandfather in fact one of these unfortunates? The written record indicates that he was not. On my father’s birth certificate, a Manuel Hernández Arencibia appears in the slot for “grandfather,” the place that family legend reserves for the Chinese man. Of course, Chinese who went to Cuba often took on Spanish names. But news from Mayra’s source in Cárdenas makes the Chinese connection even less likely: Ramón’s birth certificate states that his paternal grandparents—my great-great-grandparents—were Mateo Hernández Jiménez of Havana and Josefa Arencibia Álvarez of Matanzas. Even Manuel’s father was a Hernández.

One thing is for sure: nearly all of Cuba’s Chinese were male. The census of 1861 found 34,834 “Asiatics,” of whom only 57 were women. In Cárdenas, according to the 1919 census, there were 215 Chinese persons, all men. So it is almost certain that my Chinese great-grandfather, if such a person existed, founded a family with a woman who was not Chinese.

That would have been “Pilarcita” Serrano, Ramón’s mother—and my great-grandmother.

Pilarcita’s full name appears in my dad’s birth certificate: María del Pilar Serrano Philpot. It does not give her place of birth. Yet even before I first learned that my great-grandfather may have been Chinese, I had heard stories that Pilarcita was born in Tampa when it was home to a Cuban-Spanish community. The legend has it that her father had been a doctor in Spain whose wealthy parents employed an English maid named Seraphine or Serafina Philpot. The doctor and Serafina fell in love. But he was Catholic, the scion of an upper-class family, and she Protestant, a mere domestic employee.

Supposedly, they eloped and found their way to Tampa’s welcoming Hispanic culture. But the couple died in a train accident, and their baby daughter Pilarcita, who survived, was adopted by a family in Cárdenas, where she grew up.

When faced with family traditions and no corroborating documents, genealogists say to dig for clues in history. The Cuban-Spanish community in Tampa was founded in 1886 when Vicente Martínez Ybor established a cigar factory—a date incompatible with family lore. Pilarcita could not have been born then, because she would have been a child in 1893 when her son, my grandfather Ramón, was born.

Next: It's in the genes.>>

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