MEXICAN GENEALOGICAL RESEARCH
by John P. Schmal
Our neighbor to the south, Mexico, is a land rich in historical, cultural,
and religious significance. It is also the ancestral homeland of at least one
out of every ten Americans. Boasting a total area of 756,063 square miles, a
large part of Mexico sits on an immense, elevated plateau, flanked by mountain
ranges that fall off sharply to the narrow coastal plains of the west and east.
The two mountain chains, the Sierra Madre Occidental to the west and the Sierra
Madre Oriental in the east, meet in the southeast portion of the country.
The Federal Republic of Mexico is made up of 32 states and the Distrito
Federal (federal district). Each state is divided into municipios. According
to the 2000 census, the population of Mexico was 97,483,412. More than seventy
percent of these people lived in the urban areas. The population is composed of
three main groups: the people of Spanish descent, the Indians, and the people
of mixed Spanish and Indian heritage (mestizos). Of these groups, the mestizos
are by far the largest, constituting roughly 60% of the population.
In the 2000 census, persons five years of age and older who spoke indigenous
languages only numbered 6,044,547, or 7.13% of the total population of that
age range. Another 1,233,455 individuals ranging from ages 0 to 4 lived in
households where an indigenous speaker was the jefe. And the number of people
who did not speak an indigenous language but identified with their Indian
ancestry was much greater.
However, 500 years ago before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, the
area that is now called Mexico was inhabited by as many as 25 million Indians.
The study of pre-Hispanic Mexico and its numerous Indian tribes would fill
volumes and no amount of discussion could hope to tell the story in its entirety.
Mexico's remarkable diversity, in large part, led to its conquest by the
Spaniards. Speaking more than 180 mutually alien languages, the original
Mexican Indians viewed each other with great suspicion from the earliest times.
When Hernan Cortés (1485-1547) arrived on the east coast of Mexico in 1519,
he found a large but fragmented collection of tribes.
The delicate political balance that existed among the indigenous groups for
centuries was forever altered as Cortés and a combined army of Spanish soldiers
and Indian warriors slowly made their way to Tenochtitlán, the island capital
of the formidable Aztec Empire nestled deep within the heart of the continent.
Within two years, Cortés, with an army of 2,500 Spaniards, assisted by tens of
thousands of Indian allies, captured the imperial capital. With the collapse of
Tenochtitlán and the subsequent disintegration of the highly centralized Aztec
Empire, much of central and southern Mexico automatically fell into the hands
of the Europeans.
However, the Aztecs had never conquered the northern half of Mexico. For this
reason, the Spanish authorities sent expeditions into this vast unknown territory
to gauge mineral resources, Christianize the Indians and, where possible, to
develop trading and military alliances with the indigenous people. The conquest
of these northern lands was a long and drawn out process that was never actually
completed by the Spaniards.
The Spanish ruled over most of Mexico for 300 years up to 1822. During this
time, the rigid and authoritative colonial administrations were meticulous in
their record-keeping. Whether it be military records, taxes, local parish census,
ecclesiastic documents, or church records, Mexico is a goldmine of information
to the genealogical and historical researcher. The Mexican church and civil documents
following independence are, for most parts of Mexico, equally detailed.
For the last century and a half, war and economic instability throughout Mexico
became a catalyst for northward immigration. For this reason, many Americans
today look to the Mexican Republic as the land of their ancestors. For those who
seek to trace their roots in Mexico, the best source of genealogical information
is the Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City. Through this library and
its associated Family History Centers scattered around the United States, you can
access some 154,000 rolls of microfilm dealing with Mexico. According to the
International Collections Department of the FHL, approximately 65% of these
rolls are church records. In addition, the library holds nearly 900 books and
maps dealing with Mexico. You can access the FHL catalog at
By virtue of its large size, the Mexican state of Jalisco has contributed its
fair share of immigrants to the United States during the last century. Located
along the Pacific Ocean and extending eastward into the north central portion of
the Republic, Jalisco has the second largest population of any Mexican state.
With a total area of 31,152 square miles, Jalisco borders eight other Mexican
From Jalisco come many of the images that represent Mexico, most notably
tequila, the Mexican rodeo, broad-rimmed sombrero hats, the Mexican Hat Dance,
and Mariachi music. Boasting a population of six million people, Jalisco has
the third largest economy in Mexico and exports almost $5 billion in goods to
over eighty-one countries each year. As the fourth largest recipient of foreign
investment, Jalisco is a hub for high-tech production.
The name Jalisco is derived from the combination of two Nahuatl words, Xalli
(sand or gravel) and ixtli (face, or plain). Thus, the literal translation of the
state name in English would be sandy face, or by extension, sandy plain. In
pre-Columbian times, many indigenous groups, - most notably the Cazcanes, Cocas,
Coras, Cuyutecos, Huichols, Tecuexes, Tepehuanes, Tochos, Pinome and Guachichiles
- made their homes within the bounds of what is present-day Jalisco.
For the state of Jalisco alone, the Family History Library owns almost 20,000
rolls of microfilm, covering 198 distinct localities. Of the 165 towns and
villages whose Catholic churches are represented in this collection, 46 have
registers going back to the 1600s while another 37 have records stretching back
to the 1700s. Each roll of microfilm in the FHL collection can be ordered from
any local Family History Center for $3.77. That roll of film will stay "in-house" for one month and can be renewed at
the end of that period.
Most of Jalisco's 124 municipios are also represented in the FHL catalog.
Although Mexico enacted civil registration in 1859, most of the municipios of
Jalisco did not start keeping birth, marriage, and death records until 1867 or
later. In addition, the 1930 Mexican census is available for almost one hundred
of the municipios. Another invaluable resource for the Hispanic researcher is
the International Genealogical Index (IGI). In this database, many of the
church records held by the FHL have been indexed. Of Mexico's 26 million
baptism and marriage entries in the IGI, Jalisco accounts for 3.5 million. In
my own research, I have found this powerful and dynamic database to be of enormous
Guadalajara, the second largest city in Mexico, is the capital of Jalisco.
Founded in 1542, Guadalajara became the administrative capital of the province
of Nueva Galicia. As the second largest tourist destination in Mexico, the
Guadalajara Metropolitan Area enjoys the highest quality of life in Mexico.
With a present-day population of almost 1,700,000, it is not surprising that
many Mexican Americans search for their roots in the parish registers of
Guadalajara and its immediate vicinity.
The FHL owns an impressive 3,400 rolls of microfilm dealing with Guadalajara.
Fifteen Catholic churches, some with baptism and marriage registers stretching
back as far as 1635, are represented on 1,500 rolls of film. Padrones (local
census lists) from 1639 to 1875 comprise 48 rolls of film and can be a very
useful resource. Property and water rights records can be found on 269 rolls of
microfilm and date back to 1584. Notarial and probate records, dating back to
at least 1583, make up almost 1,300 rolls.
For the most part, the baptism and marriage records of the Jalisco parish
registers are remarkably detailed. With few exceptions, starting around 1800,
the baptism records listed the abuelos paternos (paternal grandparents) and
abuelos maternos (maternal grandparents). It is interesting to note that,
as one goes back in time, the records of some cities actually become more
detailed. For instance, a researching exploring the marriage records in Lagos de
Moreno between 1650 and 1670 will find that they are amazingly detailed, even for
Indian couples who have no surnames.
Even Aguascalientes (Hot Waters), one of the smallest states of the Mexican
Republic, has a significant representation in the Family History Library. With
an area of 2,113 square miles, Aguascalientes has a population of 619,000 and
was a part of Zacatecas until 1835, when it was given the status of territory.
Twenty-two years later, Aguascalientes would be declared a state within the
The capital of Aguascalientes is the city by the same name which had been
founded by the Spaniards in 1575 as a small mining settlement during the height
of the Chichimeca War. Some have referred to the city as La Ciudad Perforada
(The City of Holes) because of the labyrinth of tunnels created by one of
the Indian tribes in pre-Hispanic times. Although small in size, the state of
Aguascalientes is an important element in Mexico's economy because of its
textile, electronics, and auto parts industries. The state is also known for
its production of silver, zinc, copper, gold, cattle, fruits and fine wines.
The FHL owns almost 1,900 rolls of microfilm that have been extracted from
the churches and municipio offices of Aguascalientes. With twenty-five distinct
localities represented, many of the municipio records are available to researchers.
The Catholic church records for the city of Aguascalientes are contained on 531
rolls of film and date back to 1616. During the middle part of the Seventeenth
Century, the padres at Nuestra Señora de Asunción Church in Downtown Aguascalientes
kept very detailed records of marriages for Spaniards, Indian laborers, and
African slaves. The municipio records for Aguascalientes date back to 1859 and
are found on 460 rolls of film.
From one end of Mexico to the other, there are many resources available to
those seeking to find out more about their Mexican heritage. But a successful
search is contingent upon your own preparation. There are three preliminary
steps to take in a successful search for your Mexican ancestors. First, you
need to locate your ancestral town on a map. Secondly, you need to find out the
name of the municipio in which the town was located since civil records were
usually recorded in the capital city of each municipio. Thirdly, it is important
to be aware of the names of adjacent villages where your ancestors may have
attended church or baptized their children. The civil records and the church
records for some of your Mexican ancestors may be kept in two separate towns.
For the first step, it is important to realize that maps of Mexico in atlases
and tourist brochures usually only show the largest and most historically
significant cities. For this reason, I strongly advise that you visit a college
or university map library to locate a large-scale map (preferably 1:250,000).
If you have an ancestral community, which you have not been able to locate on a
conventional map or in the FHL catalog, you will understand the reason for this
course of action.
Five years ago, when my friend Donna Morales and I were working on her family
tree, we learned that some of her maternal ancestors had come from the small
Hacienda de Santa Monica, Zacatecas, during the Nineteenth Century and the first
decade of the 1900s. However, I was unable to find the hacienda on any conventional
maps of Zacatecas. My next step was to pay a visit to the UCLA Map Library
where I located a gazetteer of Zacatecas. Having pinpointed the geographic
coordinates of Santa Monica in the gazetteer, I subsequently consulted a large-scale
present-day map of Zacatecas, which showed Santa Monica as a small town. I made
note of the fact that Santa Monica belonged to the municipio of Sain Alto and
was a short distance from the small town of Rio de Medina.
Once I had become familiar with the terrain surrounding Santa Monica, Zacatecas,
I was able to check the FHL catalog. I found that the Catholic Church records
for Rio de Medina went back to 1899. I also checked the FHL inventory for Sain
Alto and found that Sain Alto's civil records went back to 1862. I was able to
locate the family in question in the records of both towns.
Since most municipio records in Mexico started in the 1860s or 1870s, the
only way you will be able to trace your ancestors back into the 1600s or 1700s
is by searching Catholic church registers for baptism and marriage records.
For this reason, locating the church your ancestors attended is crucial to a
successful search. During the course of our research, Donna and I had discovered
that some of her ancestors came from the small pueblo of Villa Hidalgo in northern
Jalisco. The parish register at La Santisima Trinidad church in Villa Hidalgo
starts in 1814.
At this point, we thought that we may have reached the end of the line for
this branch of Donna's family. However, after consulting a large-scale map of
Jalisco, I found that a small town named Cieneguilla lay a few miles northeast
across the border in Aguascalientes. In Cieneguilla, the baptism records started
in 1716. Looking to the southeast, I found another nearby town, Teocaltiche.
For this old settlement, the FHL had parish registers that date back to 1627.
This analysis succeeded and we have found Donna's ancestors in both of these
towns before 1814.
For the beginning researcher, tracing your ancestors back to Mexico is like
a search for ethnic identity. Before Mexico gained independence, the Spanish
padres at each parish would categorize each baptized child or newlywed with an
ethnic label. Some of the most commonly used classifications were español
(Spanish/White), mestizo (half Indian/half Spanish), indio (Indian),
negro (African descent), mulato (half Spanish/half African),
zambo (half Indian/half African), and lobo (three-quarters
Over the last two centuries, China, the Philippine Islands, France, Italy,
and the United States have contributed significant numbers of immigrants to
Mexico. Along with the numerous Indian groups who occupied pre-Hispanic Mexico,
these settlers have given Mexico its remarkable and fascinating diversity evident
in the faces and features of Mexican Americans today.
If your family has been living in the United States for many years, your research
needs will be quite different from immigrants or first-generation Mexican Americans.
If you do not know the town from which your ancestors came from in Mexico or
other areas, it is not likely that you will progress beyond what you have now.
It is absolutely mandatory that you locate the exact name of a hacienda, town or
village in Mexico from which your ancestor came. In this respect, your dilemma
is no different from that of a German-American, Irish-American, or Italian-American.
If you do not have a name of a place, you have nowhere to go.
It is likely that you may be able to get this information from your own relatives
or from your parents papers in storage. But, one thing you can try to find if you
have a non-citizen ancestor living in the US during the 1940s (wartime) is an
Alien Registration Card. America wanted to keep track of all the
noncitizens during this time so they were registered. The Alien Registration
Program in 1940 required that all alien residents of the United States register
at their local Post Office. The registrations from July 1940 to April 1944 are
on microfilm in INS custody, searchable by name, date of birth, and place of birth.
You can write to the address below, saying you are requesting the info "under
the Freedom of Information Act" or you can obtain a Form G-639 and fill it
out. Do not forget to say that you are specifically asking for the information
under the FOIA, or they may send the request back.
If the person is deceased, it might be good to send them a copy of the
obituary, Social Security Death index entry or a death certificate. Tell them
everything you know, where they lived in the 1940s, possible aliases, etc.
This is the address:
INS Freedom of Information
425 I Street, NW
2nd Floor, ULLB
Washington, D.C. 20536
Fax: (202) 514-4310
For more information see:
Between 1903 and 1952, 1.5 million immigrants came across the border at El
Paso and their names, ages, birthplaces, and last permanent addresses were
recorded. The El Paso office says that the records for the short-term visitors
may have been thrown away early on (1910s), but most of the records are available
on microfilm at NARA. To find out more information about the National Archives
offices and their microfilm holdings for border-crossing and other records,
consult these websites:
Mexican Border Crossing Records:
Naturalization records after 1907 can offer the researcher a great deal of
information about his or her immigrant research. You can Email these facilities
to ask them about your immigrant ancestor. If you decide to Email them, it is
always good to try and give as much information as possible about the person
concerned, birthplace, birth date, when they arrived in America, where they
lived, address, and names of family members. Giving approximate dates is better
than giving no information at all. Below is the website for NARA (National
Archives and Records Administration). This site will give the Email addresses
of the various facilities around the country:
The street address of Laguna Niguel is:
24000 Avila Road
Laguna Niguel, Calif. 92677-3497.
The mailing address is:
Post Office Box 6719
Laguna Niguel, Calif. 92607-6710
And their Email is Archives@laguna.nara.gov.
Good luck with your journey of discovery.