Family History and DNA Link New Mexicans to Mexico, Part 2

Family researchers tracing Mexico-New Mexico connections must painstakingly decipher old vital records like this one.  Photo credit: Nicolas Cabrera

Family researchers tracing Mexico-New Mexico connections must painstakingly decipher old vital records like this one.
Photo credit: Nicolas Cabrera

This is the second article about family history and genetics that link New Mexicans and Mexico. Nicolás Cabrera, a graduate student studying Spanish, filed this report as part of our series written by NMSU students.

Through the centuries, very good ecclesiastical and civil records have been kept and preserved in New Mexico that document the history of Neomexicanos, or New Mexicans. The surviving records, when coupled with DNA and genetic testing, tell a captivating story that reverberates back to Mexico and Spain through the centuries.

Ernestinto Tafoya, Fred Aguirre, and Ángel de Cervantes are three experts in New Mexico family history who have years of experience and knowledge uncovering the true origins of New Mexicans. They help both novices and seasoned genealogists trace their roots in different ways as new family branches are uncovered and genealogical brick walls crumble. Sometimes the families they help try to make direct connections to Spain and overlook Mexico, thereby missing opportunities to expand their research further.

Aguirre, who is originally from southern New Mexico, said, “One of the things that I noticed since I moved to Albuquerque is that some of the people in the north, like in Taos, associate more with the Spaniards as opposed to Mexicans. And for whatever those reasons are, they don’t seem to connect with the south as much. One of the things that I found different between the north and the south is that they’ve been here for a long time, too.”

However, the effort to connect to Spain is not unique to New Mexico and has happened in Mexico as well. Aguirre shared how during the Mexican Revolution a distant relative identified as Spanish during an encounter with Pancho Villa.

“An example that comes to mind was a newspaper article of an Aguirre. This was the 1900s and it was a great article. I can’t remember the position he had, but he was located in Juárez and it had something to do with the trade between El Paso and Juárez. They were telling his story in the newspaper where he was traveling to visit his father in Durango and that was during the Pancho Villa period,” he said.

Aguirre continued by saying, “He was stopped by Villa’s soldiers and he was taken to meet Villa who asked him about the Aguirres because he knew his dad. And the Aguirre said that his family came from Spain even though they had been in Juárez four or five generations. But he skipped over all that and went to Spain and said that the name was from there.”

Despite a sentiment of some New Mexicans identifying as Spanish, the evidence on paper and in blood says otherwise. The three genealogy experts agree that many of the families that have deep roots in New Mexico still have extended families living today in Chihuahua, Durango, Sonora, Zacatecas, and other parts of Mexico. They said that surnames such as Armijo, Baca, Cortés, Durán y Chávez, García de Noriega, Lucero de Godoy, Padilla, and Ulibarrí, among others, are not unique to New Mexico and can be found throughout Mexico, particularly in the north.

“A lot of the same families that were in New Mexico stayed in Mexico and you will see these names in cathedral records in Chihuahua. A lot of times you will see the exact same names you would see in Santa Fe for the same time period. We’re talking the 1700s,” said Cervantes.

It is also well documented that some New Mexicans stayed in the Juárez area after fleeing the Pueblo Revolt, or the Masacre de San Lorenzo as it is known in Spanish, in 1680 while others sought refuge farther south in New Spain. After the U.S. takeover of New Mexico in the 1840s, hundreds of New Mexican families who wanted to continue being Mexican also left the United States to live in the Mexican Republic. Consequently, many Spanish surnames that are in New Mexico can also be found in the records of Chihuahua, Durango, and Zacatecas.

“There are two sources that are very good pertaining to southern New Mexico and the El Paso area,” said Tafoya. “That would be the Durango project of marriage investigations. They have a lot of marriage information about the El Paso area and also “Roots” which is also marriage investigations. There are more for northern New Mexico but there are a few for southern New Mexico.”

Evidence of New Mexicans identifying as Mexican can be easily found in church records that demonstrate how the average person in New Mexico in the 1800s did think of themselves as Mexican. Priests starting in the 1820s through the 1840s wrote “Ciudadano Mexicano” or “Mexicano” in the marriage registers and marriage investigations in parishes such as Bernalillo, Pojoaque, Santa Cruz de la Cañada, Santa Fe, Tomé, Valencia, and numerous others across the region.

In the book, “New Mexico Prenuptial Investigations From the Archivos Históricos del Arzobispado de Durango, 1800-1893” compiled by Rick Hendricks and John B. Colligan, there are several entries where the term Mexican can be found. One example early in the Mexican period is dated April 5, 1824 where Father Manuel de Jesús Rada from Santa Cruz de la Cañada, just north of Santa Fe, forwarded to the Bishop of Durango an amonestación, or pre-nuptial marriage investigation, regarding Manuel Antonio Vigil and María Francisca Mestas.

In the investigation, Vigil said he was 27 and stated that he was a Mexican, while Mestas declared herself as the legitimate daughter of José Mariano Mestas and María Dolores Varela, both of whom stated that they were Mexicans. After a review by Bishop Juan Francisco de Castañiza in Durango, he granted their dispensation and the couple married later that year.

While identities can be fluid, DNA cannot be because it is passed from one generation to the next in an unbroken chain that tells the untold stories of families and their origins. Both traditional paper trails and DNA testing help people uncover the mysteries of their roots and discover their heritage.  Neither one is exclusive to the other and both should be done to have a more complete picture of a person’s ancestry.

According to Cervantes, “When you see the [Native American and Spanish] mestizaje, the mixture is pretty much the same. And I see matches. For example, I have seen New Mexican Jáquez matching Mexican Jáquez. I have seen New Mexico Gallegos matching Mexico Gallegos. So, the gene pool is the same.”

Cervantes actively recruits people to test their DNA and to expand the project’s database, thereby getting a clearer picture of New Mexico’s heritage. Meanwhile volunteers such as Tafoya and Aguirre, both of whom have tested their DNA, continue working to extract records and help people extend their family trees, one generation at a time.

Tafoya has done an incredible amount of work extracting names from baptismal, marriage, and records books. The priests who served New Mexico, many of whom were educated in Durango, Mexico City, and Spain, kept good records and those that have survived are genealogical gems that tell the story of New Mexicans through the centuries.

“I did Santa Fe from 1850 to 1899 and it was 12,000 baptisms just in that. It took three books to do it because it was just too many. I did San Miguel del Vado pretty much the same dates and that took three books too,” said Tafoya.

“I also did Santa Fe marriages,” he continued. “They had been done by Gilbert Padilla up to 1879 and I completed to the early 1900s. I’m working on Peñasco baptisms now starting in 1867 and it’s a lot so that’s going to take more than one book I’m sure. I’ve helped with Socorro, Gallup, and many others. I can’t remember all of them now.”

There are several reasons why these extractions are very important. Some researchers and family historians have trouble reading microfilm or cannot access the library. Another is paleography – many beginning researchers have difficulties reading old handwriting.

According to Aguirre, another challenge old records pose are the abbreviations that priests used to save time, ink, and paper. For example, some very common Spanish names such as María were written as Mª, Francisco was condensed to Fco, and Juan was shortened to Jn. These abbreviations can be tricky for researchers who are not familiar with them. Another reason why these extractions are important is because many New Mexicans no longer have the necessary Spanish-language skills in reading and writing to conduct research in these historic documents.

“Some researchers do not speak Spanish or can’t read it. They might understand it but they can’t read it. And there’s a lot of words that are just plain foreign to them,” said Tafoya.

“If you mention diligencias matrimoniales, they don’t know what you’re talking about, or amonestaciones. They don’t know what you’re saying. So, if you extract them and translate them into English it helps a whole lot of people who don’t speak Spanish,” he added.

Amonestaciones were the pre-nuptial marriage investigations done by the clergy on couples who wished to marry. Many times they offer valuable details that a simple marriage entry in the register typically lacks, such as place of birth, age, caste, and the names of parents and deceased spouses.

Not all New Mexico records are available online and many of them are accessible only in libraries on microfilm or in books. Also, if family history research takes a particular line back into Mexico, some of the records are only available there in archives. Records from the State of Zacatecas, for example, were only microfilmed from the early 1700s forward, despite being an important primary source area for the de Vargas and Páez Hurtado recruitment efforts of the 1690s.

According to Aguirre, Cervantes, and Tafoya, the three most important sources for New Mexican families and genealogy research beyond New Mexico are Mexico City, Zacatecas, and Chihuahua. The civil and ecclesiastical records from these areas offer important leads for researchers, especially when the New Mexican trails run dry. New Mexican genealogy and family history are told in both types of records, but most importantly in the church ones.

“That’s my favorite place to research because baptisms, for instance, mention the grandparents,” said Tafoya.

“The marriage investigations sometimes have little family trees giving you a lot of information. It’s a must for New Mexican people, I believe. When I can’t find a couple, I like to use a census to locate them and I’ll then I’ll go to the church records to find them,” he said.

Aguirre added that death records, kept by both civil and ecclesiastical authorities, are also important genealogical tools.

“I use death records because a lot of these men had several wives and I don’t always understand why or the sequence of events of what happened. So I go to the death records and I start to develop a timeline as to when things happened and when they got married again,” said Aguirre.

“Initially I saw them with one wife who had much more kids than she ever could have. So I would put together a timeline on their wives and fill in gaps, especially in my family tree where there were women that died at childbirth,” he added.

People who are interested in getting their DNA tested to complement their family trees can find a variety of tests online. However, according to Cervantes the New Mexico DNA Project exclusively uses FamilyTree DNA, which stores results in a secure database for possible matches. The basic tests start at $64 each for 12-markers and the price rises for additional markers. The results are typically available 6-8 weeks after sending in the sample. It is very easy to take the samples – testers gently scrape the insides of their mouths and mail the cotton swabs to the lab. Since men have both X and Y-chromosomes, they can test for both their maternal and paternal ancestry while women can only test their maternal side. Women will need a male relative such as a father, brother, nephew, uncle, or cousin to test in order to get full paternal results.

Some of the matches in the New Mexico DNA Project are local, while others can be from around the world. Many New Mexicans are surprised when they get their results back and find out they have more in common genetically with Mexicans than Spaniards.

“New Mexican families that have lived here for generations, especially those who consider northern New Mexico and southern Colorado as their traditional homeland, have more in common genetically with the people of the northern Mexican states than they do with the people of Spain,” said Cervantes.

It is now Friday afternoon and Ernestino Tafoya has just logged in another five hours of work. He slowly rewinds the microfilm, skims through the records he just extracted, and talks to Fred Aguirre who just finished helping someone locate records in Tortugas, a small village near Las Cruces. In the next room, Ángel de Cervantes is discussing results with the latest person who tested their DNA. Surprisingly, those results came out Sephardic and not Celt Iberian like the tester had originally expected.

Through countless hours of hard work by volunteers like Aguirre, Cervantes, Tafoya, and many others, family history and genealogy research is accessible now more than ever. Extractions published in books, online research tools like, and DNA tests available from the New Mexico DNA Project can help not only New Mexicans, but anyone interested in their ancestry find out more about where they come from.

— Nicolás Cabrera

New Mexico DNA Project:

This entry was posted in and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.