When Mimi Lozano traced her family's history, she made a surprising discovery.
The 82-year-old Westminster resident had thought that her family emigrated from Mexico in 1925, following the Mexican Revolution, but in fact, her ancestors lived in the United States long before: They helped found San Antonio, Texas, in 1731.
"I didn't know anything about this until I started doing genealogy," said Lozano, who pored over reels of microfiche to piece together this past. "And then it was like, 'My God, this is not what they taught me! What happened to our history? Where is it?'"
This was the early 1980s, not long after the 1977 television miniseries "Roots," based on Alex Haley's novel of the same name, sparked a nationwide interest in genealogy. So as Lozano researched her family, she found other Mexican Americans doing the same.
"We found there was an interest, but a lot of people didn't think it was possible to do it," Lozano said of Hispanic genealogy. "But I was able to take my line back to the 1400s [and Spanish King Ferdinand II]. So when I say it can be done, I know it can be done."
This led Lozano, along with Tony Campos, Raul Guerra and Ophelia Marquez, to form the Orange County-based Society for Hispanic Historical and Ancestral Research, or SHHAR, in 1986, to help other Hispanics research their family history.
This year, the nonprofit's 30th anniversary, Lozano says the interest in Hispanic genealogy and history is as strong as ever.
"If anything's going on right now, it's a movement among Latinos to become more aware of how our history has impacted the United States," she said.
Hispanic genealogy, explained George Ryskamp, author of "Finding Your Hispanic Roots," is no different from other forms of family history research, except that it relies primarily upon Spanish-language records from Spanish institutions such as local governments and the Catholic Church.
One of the biggest challenges in Hispanic genealogy, said SHHAR President Letty Rodella, is convincing people that these records do, in fact, exist. She noted the widespread belief that records from Mexico were burned by the Spanish during colonization.
"This idea has just grown to the point where many Hispanics believe that there aren't any records, and it's such an erroneous myth," she said.
The other major problem is deciphering them, not only because they are in a foreign language but because the handwriting is often difficult to read.
This is where SHHAR, pronounced "share," comes in.
"There's a lot of nuances in the way the scribes would write," said Rodella. "A lot of times you can't tell an 'a' from an 'i,' so we help them do that."
Rodella herself is proof that the documents are accessible. Using Mexican records, she was able to trace her family to the early 1700s, and in the process she discovered that her third great-grandfather was a Spanish soldier during the American Revolution.
"Yes, we Latinos and Hispanics have a beautiful history and we want everyone to know that it is accessible, it is there," she said.
In fact, not only are the records available in most standard genealogical searches — online and in libraries through the Mormon Church, which prizes genealogy because of its belief in proxy baptisms of the dead and has a collection that's unmatched — these records have a distinct advantage over those from other parts of the world, said Ryskamp: They are exceptionally detailed.
"At birth, it gives you not only the name of the child and where his parents were born, but will also provide the names and origins of the grandparents," he said of birth certificates. "So you're getting a mini family history right there."
Hispanic records can also offer details about the family's social circle and day-to-day life. Baptismal records, for instance, include the names of a child's godparents, and marriage inventories tally the items a couple received at their wedding.
"The records in the Spanish-speaking world are literally the best in the world," he said.
Another advantage of Spanish-language records, said Lozano, is the tradition of children keeping both their mother's and father's surnames.
"So when you're doing genealogical research, you have both parents' names in a lot of the records," she said. "In a sense it's actually easier, when you think in terms of other Europeans where it's Peterson or Johnson repeated over and over again."
The mission of the Society for Hispanic Historical and Ancestral Research, said Rodella, is to explain to the local Hispanic community that they can find records if they start looking — and that theirs is a history worth learning about.
SHHAR does this primarily through monthly meetings that feature presentations on topics such as the Spanish presence during the American Revolution and Latino immigration to California and also offer tutorials on genealogical research tools.
Rodella and others from SHHAR conduct one-on-one consulting sessions for anyone who needs help reading or finding documents at the Orange County FamilySearch Library, 674 S. Yorba St. in Orange. All events and sessions are open to the public.
SHHAR also helps connect those interested in Hispanic genealogy from all over North America, and even developed special software to match people by the geography and time period they're researching.
"The value of being connected to an organization is networking," explained Lozano. "Bits of information that you don't know, someone else will know, and you'll have information that will be helpful to them."
In addition, the group puts out the monthly magazine Somos Primos, which means "We are Cousins" in Spanish. What started as an organizational newsletter now reaches more than 1 million online viewers per month.
"When you do your genealogy, you find out that we're all connected," said Lozano, editor of Somos Primos, about the magazine's title.
Robert Ponce, a retired Vietnam veteran from Santa Ana, had never shown an interested in tracing his family's history until recent years, when he started attending monthly SHHAR meetings and drawing upon the organization's resources to decode documents.
"This is kind of my family museum," he said.
Using the historical documents in combination with new technologies such as Google Earth, Ponce has been able to re-create his ancestors' lives in Mexico.
But for Lozano, most important is what Hispanic genealogy reveals about U.S. history.
"I was never that interested in history because I didn't think it had anything to do with me," she said. "That totally changed when I started doing my own personal history. I felt like, 'Wow, my ancestors were a part of this; we're rooted in this.' It gave me a real sense of being an American."