For many Mexican-Americans, tracing the family tree hasn't been so easy.
Now that's changing for America's largest minority group as a wealth of genealogical data, including a landmark 1930 census in Mexico, is going online. Discovering information about one's great-great grandparents and other relatives could be keystrokes away for many of the nearly 32 million Mexican-Americans— a group long left out of the sleuthing done largely by European-Americans and some African-Americans.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, long America's largest aggregator of genealogical records, this year completed its more than three-year-old project to create a searchable digital index of Mexico's massive 1930 census. It has also made the information available to the Internet genealogy company, Ancestry.com.
The Church first began collecting the Mexican records in the early 1950s, but it wasn't until 2007 that it began the laborious process of transferring microfilm versions to a searchable online database, or index, at its free research site FamilySearch.org. The original documents are also available. Previously, individuals generally had to go to one of the Church's FamilySearch centers to view the documents. Through the work of volunteers, the Church completed the online work in May.
Ancestry.com's user-friendly site put the information out in September in Spanish and English, making the research even easier.
"Knowing family history is an important piece of our identity. Knowing where we came from and the forces that brought us to where we are today — it goes beyond our immediate story," said Eduardo Obregón Pagán, a history professor at Arizona State University who teaches genealogical research methods. He has painstakingly traced his own Puerto Rican and Mexican roots.
He said he eagerly awaited the records, adding that while Latinos have historically had strong family ties, they have mostly relied on oral histories to know their roots. For younger generations who have less access to those connections, the records play an increasingly important role.
Latter-day Saints, also known as Mormons, have long prioritized genealogy because they believe even the dead can be baptized and thus put on the path to heaven. And ancestors can't be baptized if their names aren't known.
As the Church has expanded globally and sought to attract new immigrants to the U.S., it has increasingly acquired demographic records from countries around the globe. Its web site has many local records from across Latin America, including down to the local Catholic parish, with Baptism and marriage records that can provide clues about older generations not even listed in the census. Such documents are generally no longer released as countries including the U.S. have come to hold tighter standards of privacy for personal information.
Information from many of the Latin American countries is still somewhat spotty. And while the Church worked with the Mexican government to make available the 1930 Census — Mexico's most comprehensive up to that time — Mexico City's data was unavailable either because the information was not centralized or lost, said FamilySearch spokesman Paul Nauta. Experts estimate the documents still cover about 75 percent of the population at that time.
Associate Professor of History at Brigham Young University George Ryskamp, who teaches courses and has written books on Hispanic genealogy, has often helped students find relatives by pouring over microfilm records. If their families hailed from small towns, the task wasn't so difficult, but with a big city such as Puebla, finding the right Juan Gómez could take hours, days or even a visit to the country.
The 1930 Mexican Census covers categories such as marriage, home ownership, occupation and even serious illnesses. It also gives a picture of the extended family, based on who lived in a household or nearby.
"It is a snapshot of the family, of life at that time," Ryskamp said. He hopes to eventual get earlier data online, as many Mexicans fled north during the 1910 Mexican Revolution.
Ancestry Executive Vice President Josh Hanna said the decision to put the Mexican records online came as the company realized relatively few Latinos were using the service and sought to tap into the fast-growing Hispanic-American market. The company has also put U.S.-Mexican border crossing records from 1895 to 1957 on the site.
Hanna said the company is making the records free to encourage new subscribers. Normally it offers a free-trial membership but still requires a credit card. If there's enough interest, Ancestry will look into acquiring vital and other records at the state level, for which it will likely charge. Its standard international fee ranges from about $25 to $35 a month depending on the length of membership. But nearly all of those records and many others will remain free on the Mormon site.
Actor Edward James Olmos of Showtime's "Dexter" is promoting Ancestry's new service. He knew some of his ancestors were Mexican revolutionary leaders, but he was intrigued to find out his great-grandmother was a single mother raising two blind sons.
"It speaks to the strengths of the family," he said. "A woman who took care of two blind children instills a sense of understanding of what kind of root you come from."
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.