Family History and DNA Link New Mexicans to Mexico, Part 1

From left to right, Angel de Cervantes, Ernestino Tafoya and Fred Aguirre at work in the Haynes Family History Library, Albuquerque, New Mexico  Photo credit: Nicolas Cabrera

From left to right, Angel de Cervantes, Ernestino Tafoya and Fred Aguirre at work in the Haynes Family History Library, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Photo credit: Nicolas Cabrera

Editor’s Note: This is the first in an in-depth series about family history and genetic links between New Mexicans and Mexico. Nicolás Cabrera, a graduate student studying Spanish, worked on this piece as part of our continuing series of stories written by NMSU students.


It’s a typical Friday morning for Ernestino Tafoya as he gazes intently at a microfilm machine in the Haynes Family History Library in Albuquerque. He scrolls through an old church register from the 1800s, frame by frame, as he extracts vital information the record has concealed for decades. The priest’s handwriting is hard to read but he verifies the baptismal entry, which is written in Spanish and contains archaic abbreviations and terms. He has done this meticulous work for over 25 years and has extracted well over 20,000 names that chronicle the family history of the average Neomexicano, or New Mexican, since the arrival of the Spanish-Mexican settlers in 1598.

These paper records link New Mexicans across the centuries to Native American and European relatives in Mexico and Spain and tell their history, which is also interwoven by blood and DNA. Like many New Mexicans, Tafoya has deep roots in the state and his passion for family history was born out of a desire to learn more about them and his identity. In so doing, he has become an expert in genealogy records and family history for northern New Mexico.

“I was born in San Miguel County in San Miguel del Vado and raised in San José. I wondered where the people from San José had come from because they couldn’t have been there forever. So, that’s why I got started,” said Tafoya.

“Basically the people from San José and that area had come from Santa Fe and a lot of them were a part of the Diego de Vargas people including the Tafoyas. They had come from Michoacán (Mexico) and one of the soldiers that came with de Vargas was my ancestor, Antonio, who stayed in Santa Fe. Two other brothers named Cristóbal and Juan settled in the Santa Cruz area,” he said.

Extractors like Tafoya work hard since they do everything twice: first by extracting the information and then checking it for accuracy. Many become proficient at paleography, the study of writing systems and historic documents, as they sort out illegible handwriting, abbreviations, locales, ecclesiastical terminology, and other enigmas written in church and civil records in Spanish. Afterwards the information is made available to genealogists and family historians in print or online databases.

Tafoya has two colleagues with whom he works regularly at the family history library. Fred Aguirre is a retired engineer originally from Las Cruces who now resides in Albuquerque. He is an expert in the genealogy of southern New Mexico, which supersedes interstate and international borders to include El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico. He got interested in genealogy for many of the same reasons that Tafoya did.

“I was curious about my great-grandparents who I didn’t know. A cousin had done some genealogy, but it wasn’t very clear and I didn’t have a lot of the background information to support it,” said Aguirre.

“Basically I started there and then there were some books on the Santa Fe Trail which prompted me to research a little more because one of my ancestors, Epifanio Aguirre, used to travel from Chihuahua to Missouri to do trading with merchants. Then he married a merchant’s daughter and I got interested in the Santa Fe Trail as a result of that,” he said.

Aguirre says that the story of southern New Mexico, including El Paso and Juárez, is linked to that of northern New Mexico. They are connected through history and blood as people moved up and down the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, the historic 1,600 mile (2,560 km) route that linked Santa Fe to Mexico City.

Ángel de Cervantes from Las Vegas, New Mexico agrees with Aguirre. He has been the executive director of the New Mexico DNA Project since its inception in October 2004 and is an expert in New Mexican DNA.

This unique project takes traditional genealogy a step beyond paper trails and family trees by linking families together through genetics and DNA samples. Many times the results offer clues and solve family mysteries that paper trails cannot. Like Tafoya and Aguirre, Cervantes developed an interest in genealogy and DNA as he began to piece together his family’s own history.

“I got into genealogy when I was 13 years old. I had a cousin who used to do extractions and I started looking at actual documents in my college years at UNM. I started doing the actual paper research probably in 1998 and 1999,” said Cervantes.

“I continued to do research on my own and then I got into DNA in the beginning of 2004. I got the spark by a graduate student from New York University who was doing his dissertation on the ancestry of New Mexico and southern Colorado Hispanics. I submitted my DNA results to him and that’s what got me interested. He said he would release the results when he came back and never did. That’s what got me started to do something independently that had more transparency with people who wanted to do DNA tests for ancestry and for genealogy,” he added.

Although their areas of expertise are different, these three genealogists have decades of personal and professional research experience that come together to tell the story of New Mexico from distinct points of view. One problem they run into is that many people who are interested in New Mexican genealogy and family history focus primarily on the northern part of the state. Consequently, the historic and genetic links to southern New Mexico and northern Mexico are often overlooked.

This is explained in part because many Hispanic families in New Mexico and southern Colorado can trace their lineage back generations, traversing through the Mexican period, to a time when this land was part of New Spain. Time and distance has made many modern-day inhabitants in the region feel disconnected from Mexico, even though the historic boundaries of New Mexico stretched from somewhere south of modern-day Pueblo, Colorado to the present-day twin cities of Ciudad Juárez and El Paso.

Aguirre said, “There doesn’t seem to be an interest from the people in the north since most of their families seem to be settled here from many years ago. They don’t seem to have an interest in the south, Mexico, or Juárez.”

Tafoya agrees. He said, “That’s true and I think that’s a mistake because when you go back to the Spanish archives and the de Vargas people, there are some who are down there that came up. So, if they can’t find them in northern New Mexico some people feel that’s the end. That might not be. They might be in the El Paso area because when the de Vargas people came up, some stayed over there. Some brothers and sisters came while others stayed down there. And they traveled to see each other or on the way to Chihuahua to trade.”

Later, when Mexico achieved independence from Spain, El Paso del Norte (now Ciudad Juárez) was siphoned off of New Mexico and became part of Chihuahua as the modern Mexican states of Chihuahua, Durango, and parts of Sonora were carved out of Nueva Vizcaya. New Mexico was designated territory status with Santa Fe remaining as its capital, but it lost El Paso del Norte as its southern most settlement.

Despite the changes in the political divisions, the fact remains that the Mexicans who live in Sonora and Chihuahua today are the closest genetic relatives to New Mexicans. Nonetheless, there is a detachment with Mexico that persists which is partly a result of a long and complicated history written by geography and conquest.

Cervantes, who is also a former state archivist, says that the north sees a conscious separation with the south, although this is a mistake both on paper and in blood. One of the reasons the separation exists is because of distance. He argues that the historic New Mexican settlements ranging from Socorro to southern Colorado have a distinct identity that has been shaped by a buffer zone, traditionally called La Jornada del Muerto, that extends south from Socorro to the Mesilla Valley.

Another reason, and perhaps more importantly, is the modern political construct of New Mexico being a U.S. state rather than a Mexican one. Tafoya reflected on this as he recalled what it was like enrolled in school in northern New Mexico.

“I think that had to do with school system. When we went to school we were referred to as Spanish rather than Mexican. But if you ask a New Mexican in Spanish what he is, he’ll say Mexican. If you say it in English, it’s Spanish. I think it’s the school system that changed that.”

He added, “The same with our names. My name is Ernestino and that became Ernest and I’m called Ernie. My sister was Emilia and she became Emily. And that happened in the school system.”

Despite geographical and political constructs that have fostered a Spanish identity instead of a Mexican one in parts of New Mexico, according to Cervantes the genetic story of the New Mexicans is one that reverberates to northern Mexico. He says New Mexicans genetically have more in common from their DNA with the peoples from the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora.

“The Spanish gene pool of Nuevo México and the Spanish gene pool of Nueva Vizcaya, which is modern day Chihuahua and Sonora, is pretty much the same. And the Native American populations of Sonora and Chihuahua and the native populations of Nuevo México were pretty much the same,” said Cervantes.

“If they’re mixing with the same people, we’re the same people. I really want to make it clear that the Neomexicano Hispano and the northern Mexicano Hispano are the same people genetically, both by their Native American roots and their European roots,” he said.

In his research, Tafoya has come across evidence that supports Cervantes. Tafoya said, “We all have Indian, I believe. I don’t know of any New Mexican line that I’ve researched that doesn’t have some Indian somewhere. We mixed with the Indians and also the newcomers.”

In its database, the New Mexico DNA Project has matches for both mitochondrial DNA, which is from the mother, and Y-chromosomes, which is from the father. These matches are found in New Mexico, Mexico, Spain, and other parts of the world. They are stored in a secure database and new matches occur as more people test. Men can test for both their maternal and paternal DNA information while women can only test for their mother’s. To overcome this obstacle, women need a male relative to test, such as a father, brother, uncle, nephew or cousin to obtain complete and accurate results.

According to Cervantes, matches from hundreds of samples in the database prove that New Mexican Hispanics are closest genetically to the peoples of Sonora and Chihuahua. These links between New Mexico and Mexico have been overlooked as people attempt to make a connection to Spain, thereby bypassing Mexico. Cervantes described how this occurred in his family.

“My grandmother, who is a Neomexicana, always said we were Spanish,” he said. “My abuelito, my grandfather, always said we were Spanish. I think it has trickled down through the generations.”

Tafoya agrees that many people elevate Spain and foster an identity of being Spanish while looking down on Mexico and ignoring their Mexican roots.

“It’s really not uncommon for people to feel that way. I don’t know if they don’t want to accept the Indian or they feel that Spain is more cultured. But there is that feeling and I have to assume that they make less of Mexico than Spain,” he said.

However, in the southern part of the state a Spanish/Mexican debate did not really exist, according to Aguirre. “In the south I don’t remember anybody saying that they were Spanish or Spaniard because of the recent migration from Mexico,” he said.

Wherever the paper trail may lead family history research, both beginning and expert researchers have countless genealogical resources at their disposal. Together, through books and blood, Aguirre, Cervantes, and Tafoya continue to help New Mexicans and others trace their ancestry to find their roots and have a better understanding of family history.

— Nicolás Cabrera

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