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Solving Family Mysteries Through Genealogy

A quest to authenticate the oldest oral traditions

En español | A young Spanish physician and his English maid elope to Tampa. An Italian seaman sails the Caribbean. Someone is kidnapped in China. A farmer bids farewell to his sons, who leave their Catalan village determined to hacer las Américas, make it in the Americas.

Wars, thousands of miles of travel, and five generations later—here I am.

See also: Begin building your family tree.

This is the story of my family, at least according to family lore. The oldest oral traditions have been handed down since my great-great-grandparents were alive 150 years ago. They tell of men and women from different corners of the world who embarked on journeys that ended in Cuba, pushed by personal drama and swept by the forces of history.

I of course know the “near story.” That my father, Roger was born in Cárdenas and my mother, Mabel, in Manzanillo, both in Cuba, in the 1920s. That my middle brother and I were born in Havana. That after Fidel Castro took power we fled to New Jersey in 1964 where another brother and my children were born.

Back in Cuba I was lucky enough to know all four of my grandparents. But many years ago in very different places they too were babies in their parents' laps. What were their lives like? Which of the tales I grew up hearing are true? What else can be uncovered in forgotten archives in Cuba, Spain and—perhaps—England and China? Answers to questions such as these are what I set out to find years ago.

Who I am is partly a consequence of my actions and partly the result of decisions taken by ancestors a year, a decade, a century, a millennium before I was born—decisions that led to my being the son of Roger and Mabel and not some other couple, born in Cuba and not Norway or Sri Lanka. I also wanted to put it all in a historical context, because no family’s history takes place in a vacuum—things happened that led to Roger and Mabel deciding I should grow up in the United States instead of Cuba.

It is a mammoth task that I will never finish. There is always more to learn about a life long ago, or another name to discover a generation further back.

But I have learned many things. I have confirmed names. I have found old portraits and documented births, marriages, deaths—not only in old archives but also on the Internet. I have authenticated some of the lore. And I have found part of it is wrong. All that, plus a bit of historical research, lets me catch glimpses of my forebears.

How did I start? The advice from professional genealogists is to begin by asking your oldest relatives. My grandparents had died by the time I became interested in genealogy in the mid-1980s but my mother’s aunt (and my great-aunt) Laudelina, “Nana” still lived. Ever since I was small I had heard that everyone—at least everyone in Cuba—with her surname, Surós, was a descendant of brothers who had emigrated from the Catalan region of Spain to my mother’s hometown of Manzanillo, in the Cuban province of Oriente. Nana did not know when, but she knew where her father Jaime Surós Isern was born: Massanet de la Selva, in Catalonia.

Traveling to Cuban archives is nearly impossible, with the U.S.-Cuba embargo, so the only open road to my family’s past began in Massanet. But in the ‘80s there was no Google, no I had no idea where in Catalonia Massanet was and no easy way to find out. Nana, almost 90 years old, did not know either. I found nothing at the library of my alma mater, Rutgers University. But genealogists say perseverance pays off with surprises. I found my first written reference to the ancestral village of one branch of my family in an old Michelin guide shelved away in the musty basement of a used-book store.

Next: Private land records shed light on the past.>>

It spelled “Maçanet de la Selva” with the Catalan cedilla, said it was in La Selva (“The Forest”) region of the province of Girona, and that there was also a Romanesque church of historical interest, San Llorenç. I located it on a map, a village inland from the Mediterranean halfway between Barcelona and the French border. I wrote a letter generically addressed to the parish priest, explaining I was a descendant of a Jaime Surós Isern and asked if family still lived in town, a century later.

I had some reason to be optimistic. Birth and death records kept by Spain and its former colonies in Latin America are “far superior” to those of most other regions of the world, says George R. Ryskamp, author of Finding Your Hispanic Roots.“ The greatest treasure is the parish records. They have the name of the father, the mother, their birth places, even the grandparents’ names and birthplaces.” Also, he adds, the Spanish convention of using maternal and paternal surnames opens research to more lineages. “Most [non-Hispanics] would love to have records like the Spanish,” Ryskamp says.

Some time later I got an envelope in the mail with a return address from Maçanet.

The letter was from a Father Andrés, and brought bad news: the parish archives had burned during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). My heart sank. Municipal documents in Spain date back only to the middle of the 19th century, while parish records start in the 1540s, according to Mayra Sanchez-Johnson, a genealogist who specializes in Cuban and Spanish research. Centuries were lost with the destruction of San Llorenç’s archives.

But Father Andrés had good news too: a “faithful parishioner” was named Martí Tomás Surós. “Is he perhaps related to you?” the priest asked. I didn’t know but figured if the Surós name is as rare as my family said, the chances were good.

In 1991, six years after I first heard of Martí Tomás Surós, I met him. As my wife and I drove up from Barcelona, Maçanet de la Selva arose on the western side of the highway, blue hills in the distance. There was the thousand-year-old steeple of San Llorenç with homes of red-tiled roofs clustered around it.

Martí was a vigorous man with a mane of platinum hair. He invited me to his home near the plaza by San Llorenç for almuerzo (lunch). Over chicken and butifarra sausage, he said he believed we were related but did not know how. He was a man to be trusted in matters of local affairs; Martí was a member of Maçanet’s Taller d’Historia, the town history club.

Martí’s experience at the Taller d’Historia taught him where to look beyond the lost parish archives. He knew where private land records were kept and that documents at Town Hall survived the war. His research skills paid off when he turned up the death certificate of Tomás Surós Buadas. It named five sons, including one named Jaime—my maternal great-grandfather “Bitito,” as his children called him. Tomás died on December 24, 1883, by which time Bitito, family lore says, was already in Cuba. I had never heard of my maternal great-great-grandfather Tomás before, and Nana didn’t know his name either. But she remembered that when she was a child the family did not celebrate Nochebuena dinner like other Cubans. Their Christmas Eve celebration was muted to observe the day Bitito’s father—her grandfather, my great-great-grandfather—died in far-off Spain.

The certificate also said Tomás’s parents were Salbador—with a “b,” not a “v”—and María. That established a link to a notebook recording land rental payments bearing the signature of Salbador Surós, my great-great-great-grandfather. The first entry reads, in 19th-century Catalan that Martí translated into castellano: He recibido de Joan Font I Costas 4 mesurons de trigo que paga por el año 1834. Salbador Surós; (I have received 4 mesurons of wheat from Joan Font I Costas, which pays for the year 1834. Salbador Surós.”)

Next: Finding history in Maçanet.>>

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.>>

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.>>

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: and Google Earth provide more clues.>>

The most comprehensive online resource is Family Search, the genealogical website of the Church of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). Central to the Mormon religion is the quest to “find their ancestors and preserve their family histories,” the website says. LDS librarian Paul Nauta estimates the church has gathered 2.5 million rolls of microfilm from 110 countries, “conservatively, 10 billion names,” including people of all faiths. Most of the microfilmed manuscripts themselves are not on the Internet, but the LDS website has an index of names in the documents. People can order microfilms delivered from Salt Lake City to a local LDS “Family History” center for viewing.

Cuban records are sparse within these Mormon archives. But there are good records for much of Latin America. For instance, a search for “Hernández” in Mexico returns 5,000 ancestral files of Hernández baptisms, marriages, and deaths from Mexican churches—and that's just for individuals whose first name starts with "A." Spain, too, is well represented. But I only have enough information to follow the Surós men of Maçanet and their wives, whose maiden names are preserved thanks to the Spanish two-surname custom.

On the LDS site those maiden names, Isern, Amat, and Buadas, appear most often in Maçanet's home province of Gerona, a region of Spain. But I have yet to find a connection. I also find 188 Suróses. None from Maçanet, unsurprising because San Llorenç’s archives were burned. But I find two men named Salvador Surós in a place called Castanyet.

I load Google Earth: Castanyet is nine miles from Maçanet. Could they be relatives? I e-mail Martí. He replies that his mother’s family—the Surós side—is from Castanyet.

The two Salvadors—this time with the standard “v”—were married in 1713 and 1766, says the online index. Too old to be my Salbador, alive in the 1830s when he signed the land documents. Could they be his father and grandfather? I order the microfilm delivered to an LDS center in New Jersey near where I live. Two weeks later, it arrives.

The reading is difficult. It’s in Catalan, it’s hundreds of pages covering two centuries, it’s handwritten in old script, and it’s so blurry that entire pages are illegible. I cannot find the two marriages referenced in the online index. But I do find a 1720 testament of a man from Castanyet named Joseph Surós. I copy the file and e-mail it to Martí, who writes back a translation:

“Yo, Joseph Surós… sabiendo que nada es más cierto que la muerte y que nada es más incierto que la hora de la muerte… nombro a mi hijo Salvador como albacea de mis bienes”. [“I Joseph Surós …knowing nothing is more certain than death and nothing more uncertain than the hour of death… name my son Salvador executor of my estate.”]

Are they my family? No clues from second surnames— the custom was not universally followed until later. Martí cannot say. He cannot say, either, whether they are his branch. The mystery remains, for now.

La Beneficencia

While the various branches of my mother’s family were coming together in Manzanillo, my father’s family was doing the same 320 miles to the west, in Cárdenas on Cuba’s northern coast.

My dad’s mother was Rafaelita Rodríguez. Of my four grandparents, I have the fewest memories of her: I remember only an old woman bedridden with an ailment similar to Alzheimer’s disease. Abuelita nodded aimlessly and muttered nothings, her mind gone. My grandfather Ramón took care of her until the end. Papi left them behind when he took us out of Cuba, never to see his ailing parents again. This was the price he paid for his children to be brought up in America.

My father, naturally, knew his mom before disease ravaged her brain. What remains for later generations is a photograph of a somber 22-year-old in a wicker settee, leaning forward with her left arm raised as if to start saying something she decided to keep to herself.

Next: Family lore and legal documents help piece the puzzle.>>

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.>>

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.>>

Still, the document reconfirmed that Pilarcita’s surnames were Serrano and the English-sounding Philpot. Was at least part of the elopement tale true? Answers began to arrive after I again called Aunt Mayita in Cuba. She found Ramón’s baptism certificate. His maternal grandparents—Pilarcita’s mom and dad—were Ramón Serrano Rodríguez, a “doctor en medicina” born in Spain, and Serafina Philpot Henderson, born in England.

A few days later there was more from Mayra’s researcher. Pilarcita’s birth certificate also said Serafina was English-born, and listed her parents: Juan (which must have been “John”) Philpot and Serafina Dreeque (but nothing on Henderson). It also named the physician’s hometown, La Coruña in Galicia, as well as his parents, Antonio Serrano and Vicenta de Ocal.I still do not know why a Spanish doctor and an Englishwoman had a daughter who grew up in Cuba and gave birth to my grandfather (possibly with a Chinese man). But now I have names to follow my Serrano branch to its gallego home. Next goal: track down the Philpot hometown in England.

As for the Chinese connection, I was still stumped. So I turned to genetic genealogy.

It’s in the Genes

I had read in National Geographic magazine about a project to help people find their “deep ancestry.” For about $100 you get a kit with a plastic cheek-scraper and a small screw-top tube in which to preserve your DNA. Then you send it in for testing.

The idea is that when humanity split into different branches that spread across the globe tens of thousands of years ago, the migrating populations were small enough to have genetic mutations shared by all members of each group, and only members of each group. Those distinct “markers” were passed to every living person today. All 6 billion humans belong to identifiable prehistoric “haplogroups,” geneticists say.

The test showed my patrilienal Y-DNA carries the markers that define Haplogroup O2—more specifically, its M95 line, exclusive to Southeast Asia. Genetics proved rumor right: I have Chinese ancestors. Perhaps Manuel Hernández Arencibia was only Pilarcita’s first husband, not my grandfather Ramón’s dad; so maybe Ramón was Pilarcita’s son with a Chinese man who resigned himself to registering his boy as the child of Manuel, the white Cuban with more social prestige.

That wasn’t my only surprise. I paid another $100 for Family Tree DNA, which conducted the tests for National Geographic, to also check matrilineal ancestry—my mother, her mother Emelina, Emelina’s mother Bitita, and Bitita’s mother Felipa Fuentes.

The result: Haplogroup L1, with origins in Africa. I asked my father to have his own mitochondrial DNA tested, the female lineage that includes Rafaelita, Severina, and Severina’s unknown mother (my own DNA would not work, because individuals can only test direct patrilineal  and matrilineal descent). It too came back as having origins in Africa.

Neither Rafaelita (whom I remember), nor Bitita (to judge from one photo), looked like they were of African descent. But DNA does not lie. Maybe Severina’s part-African ancestry explains her daughter Rafaelita’s mistreatment by the stepsister. Whatever the case, I now know that somewhere several generations back, two Africans enslaved in Cuba became my ancestors.

It all bespeaks of the history of Cuba, with its Spanish, black, and Chinese heritage, plus a bit of the culture brought by immigrants from elsewhere—Italy and England, in my case. With more than a million Cubans in the United States, it also bespeaks of American history.

But that is more recent history. Go back a little more than half a century. My father left Cárdenas to study law at Havana University, and my mother left Manzanillo when her father found a better job in Havana. It was in the Cuban capital that Roger and Mabel met, married, and had me as a child. Their lives were disrupted by the Castro revolution four years after I was born, and in 1964 they uprooted their family to search for freedom in the United States.

And here I remain—after wars and thousands of miles, after reconstructing the history of six generations of my family through Cuba, Spain, China, Africa, England, Italy. Now a seventh generation, my children, is heir to that legacy and to their mother’s Jewish heritage. In the United States. It took me until I turned 50 to realize my American life is part of history too.

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