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Searching for Roots : Group Studies the Many Contributions of Latinos

SPECIAL TO NUESTRO TIEMPO

Americans will be sitting down to a turkey dinner next week to commemorate the first Thanksgiving between the Pilgrims and Indians 370 years ago.

But researchers of Latino genealogy--in essence, of Latino history--are quick to point out that the first “Thanksgiving dinner” occurred nearly 23 years before that of the Pilgrims.

It was on April 30, 1598, when a group of Spanish colonists, led by Don Juan de Onate, held a celebratory dinner giving thanks to God for reaching the new land. The 400 men, women and children, who had started their journey a month before from Zacatecas, in central Mexico, feasted on the banks of the Rio Grande, a few miles from what is now El Paso.

Such discoveries come with investigating personal family histories, as genealogy researcher Pauline Chavez-Bent found out. She learned of this first Thanksgiving when she traced 14 of her ancestors to the Onate expedition. The period marks the 17th generation on her genealogy chart.

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Chavez-Bent’s passion for genealogy has made her an expert since she joined forces with a organization in 1989 that soon after became known as the Society of Hispanic Historical and Ancestral Research. Chavez-Bent now gives speeches on behalf of SHHAR throughout the Southwest.

The Fullerton-based group was formed to fill a void in Latino family research in California. The nonprofit group’s mission is not only to offer free support and assistance to Latinos interested in researching their family trees, but to share information and get Latinos to realize their place in U.S. history.

Last year, SHHAR brought Onate’s Thanksgiving dinner to the attention of Latinos and non-Latinos in Orange County through a pageant held at Bowers Museum in Santa Ana. The play, written by SHHAR-member Mimi Lozano-Holzkamp, re-enacted the feast held nearly 400 years ago in what is now San Elizario, Tex. It was a feast that featured fish and duck. For SHHAR members, the performance was one way the group could inform fellow Latinos about a side of history not generally found in textbooks.

Since SHHAR was formed three years ago, the membership has grown to a support base of 100 primary members and 500 associates who belong to other groups around the country. But its growth, as well as that of genealogy groups in other states, reflects the growing interest of Latinos in learning about their roots and the contributions--small or grand--that their ancestors made.

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As Latinos “become better educated, get better jobs and have more leisure time, they are becoming more interested in their histories,” said Chavez-Bent.

Julian Nava, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and current Cal State Northridge history professor, also views the growing interest in genealogy as an aspect of self-discovery.

“I’m interested in the social, economic and political aspects of family history,” he said. “The key is what was life like during a given generation of your ancestors?”

To help Latinos with their searches, Nava authored “Discovering My Past,” a 35-page guide available in both English and Spanish. Nava said a video form of the guide will soon be available to schools in teacher, parent and student editions.

“In teaching Mexican-American history,” Nava continued, “I’ve seen that one of the biggest impediments to self-realization is confusion over identity. Who are we? Without trying to answer it in the political sense, the best starting place is learning the history of your family.”

Learning about family history begins with creating a genealogy chart, a process that requires patience and diligence. The first step is to gather basic information that is already available at home--that of your immediate family. Then, experts say, extend the process to parents, grandparents, cousins and any other relatives.

“Even if you’re not going to do the research today, at least take the time to interview as many people as possible for both dates and oral histories about the family,” Chavez-Bent said, “especially from the older family members.”

Also, the genealogy experts recommend, look for items that could be stored in your home, such as documents, old letters or photographs that have dates. Important documents, such as wills, immigration papers, and death and birth records, contain information for easy listing on the chart. The old family Bible might also have information once listed by a relative.

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Next comes making requests by telephone or letters to distant relatives, county archives, local parishes and other sources. For information on a U.S.-born relative, write to the Department of Vital Statistics in the relative’s home state.

Using diplomacy and courtesy is important while doing the requests, even if some of the information you get is wrong. People have been known to remember more at a later time, the experts say, and it is best to keep the lines of communication open.

Once basic clues have been gathered, the next step is a visit to the National Archives regional branch in Laguna Niguel for U.S. Census and other government records and/or the Family History Libraries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Angelenos of Mexican descent can also try the Chicano Resource Center in Los Angeles.

The Family History Libraries in Los Angeles and Orange are available even if you are not Mormon. The libraries store thousands of volumes of family resources, including records on compact disc and microfilm that facilitate the tedious research process.

Federico Sanchez, professor of Chicano studies at Cal State Long Beach, warned that visiting the archives can be advantageous, but it is “hard, dusty work.” He explained, “You have to nail down basic facts before you start. For example, if you have relatives that crossed the border and you know the year and the city they registered at, you can look them up in the registry from that city.”

Chavez-Bent underscores the importance of getting specific information. A common mistake in doing family searches is accepting relatives’ assertions that they came from a big city, such as Guadalajara, when the truth is they come from a small town nearby.

“There are no shortcuts in doing a thorough genealogical study,” warned Chavez-Bent. “You must start with yourself and work back one generation at a time.” She added, however, that the fun comes with learning about your origins.

Resources for Genealogy Research * Society of Hispanic Historical and Ancestral Research (SHHAR). Write: Box 5294, Fullerton, CA., 92635. The group will meet Jan. 25 at the Southwest Senior Citizen Center, 2201 W. McFadden Ave., Santa Ana. * Chicano Resource Center, 4801 E. 3rd St., L.A. (213) 920-0155. * The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Family History Center is located at 10741 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 474-9990. In Orange County there also is one, at 674 S. Yorba St., City of Orange. (714) 997-7710. * National Archives Pacific-Southwest Region branch, in Chet Holifield Federal Building, 2400 Avila Road, Laguna Niguel. (714) 643-4241.

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