‘Cuban equivalent’ of Ancestry.com a boon to family historians

Click here to go directly to the online Cuban genealogy site.

Florida International University Libraries has unveiled an online resource to help families of the Cuban diaspora research their roots—and already several have hit pay dirt.

004hurtado_tree_genAn extensive set of family trees, civil records and sacramental documents is now available on the Internet. It references thousands of Hispanic surnames and gives everyone from the Abadias to the Zúñigas the opportunity to search for their ancestors. The material comes from the Enrique Hurtado de Mendoza Collection of Cuban Genealogy, a treasure trove that also features hard copies of more than 3,500 17th- and 18th-century books, long out-of-print publications and periodicals that few, if any, other U.S. libraries hold. The free online offerings can be accessed by going to FIU’s Digital Library of the Caribbean and searching by last name.

“The breadth and depth of the collection is outstanding,” said Lourdes Del Pino, who helped prepare materials for placing online. “All Cubans, and I mean all Cubans, no matter where you were from, your station in life, every Cuban will find something about their family, I have no doubt.”

The collection was amassed over more than four decades by Felix Enrique Hurtado de Mendoza. Trained as a lawyer, he worked as a diplomat for the Organization of American States, both in Washington, D.C., and Geneva Switzerland. Nearing 90, Hurtado de Mendoza lives in Miami and directed his family to deliver the collection to FIU in 2012.

FIU Special Collections department head Althea Silvera describes Hurtado de Mendoza’s personal quest as driven by “this need to find out where you come from . . . that somewhere, somehow there is something in your background.”

Hurtado de Mendoza spent decades seeking succession rights to a title of nobility, a stake for which he eventually secured proof but later lost to a distant relative with a better claim. His hunt involved writing hundreds of letters to fellow genealogists in Spain, the Canary Islands and Latin America. Along the way he broadened his scope to include countless other family lines that lead to places such as Argentina, Nicaragua, Chile, Costa Rica, Colombia and Venezuela.

Organizing and scanning the mostly handwritten genealogies took more than three years and was accomplished by Del Pino and Mariela Fernandez, both born in Cuba and today officers of the Cuban Genealogy Club of Miami.

“What kept us going was we knew of the need that there was for this material,” Del Pino said. She compared the online collection to what is available for surnames of other backgrounds on the popular family-history web site Ancestry.com, which provides high-quality resources and the chance to connect with other genealogists. “This was going to be our very own equivalent of Ancestry.com,” she said.

Del Pino explained that the closed nature of Cuba has for years impeded such research on the island nation. “It is very difficult to find records in Cuba unless you have someone there willing to go to the churches, the civil registries,” she said. And dealing with various offices can be hit or miss, she added. “They’re not always willingly to help.”

FIU’s Silvera encourages family historians to dig into the collection, whether online or in person. “I just hope that people will enjoy the chase,” she said. Those within reach of the Green Library at FIU’s Modesto A. Maidique Campus in Southwest Miami-Dade County can examine the physical collection weekdays between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on the library’s fourth floor.

Already a number of individuals around the country have utilized the online resource with great success and shared their triumphs via e-mail.

“I have been looking at the documents for the past few days. I was able to break through a major brick wall on our Machado line, something I have been trying to do for years. From there, I was able to connect with some other families with well-established genealogies . . . A few lines go back to San Augustín, FL in the 1500s; one line (a branch of Rodríguez de Arciniega), I was able to connect with some Spanish royal lines that go very far back. This is a fantastic collection, especially since many of the church documents from Santa Clara are now unavailable because of the condition of the books.”
Michael Andrews
Chicago, IL

“Since my mother passed away 3 years ago, I have been building my family tree, but have done so mostly through word of mouth, (plus immigration and the rare baptismal records) not able to verify many things with alternative sources. This collection has verified everything I had, and has filled in so many gaps!”
Carmen Paz
Austin, Texas

“ . . . to my surprise, as soon as I opened the Betancourt files, right on the first page I got practically all the information I have been looking for since 1997 . . . and now I can go 3 generations back . . . Thank you from the bottom of my heart!”
Susana Miranda
Kingwood, Texas

Assistance with the online library is available by emailing Brooke Wooldridge, bwooldri@fiu.edu.