Maria Cortez dug deep into Catholic Church records and family histories and struck gold.
The retired state-worker-turned-genealogist managed to trace her roots back to two of the most famous figures in Mexican history: Miguel Hidalgo, who declared independence from Spain in 1810 with “el grito de Dolores,” and the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II. “You’d be amazed; I think everyone has fascinating stories to be discovered,” said the 55-year-old, who co-founded the Sacramento-based Nueva Galicia Genealogical Society, thought to be the oldest Mexican genealogical club in California.
Cortez and 20 other Mexican Americans with roots in the states of Jalisco, Zacatecas and Aguascalientes gathered Saturday at the Sacramento Family History Center for the club’s quarterly meeting, scanning church records, Mexican census data and border-crossing information to excavate secrets of the past. Interest in exploring Mexican roots is surging, now that Latinos are the state’s largest ethnic group, genealogy TV shows are hot and DNA research is becoming more exact, Cortez said.
Mexican Americans can trace their DNA to as many as five continents, said Cortez, who was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco.
As thrilled as she was to learn that Hidalgo was her seventh cousin four times removed, and that evidence shows Moctezuma was her 12th-great-grandfather, Cortez was shocked to learn the blood of a dozen nations flows through her veins. She said DNA tests show she’s not only 41 percent Native American and 30 percent Iberian, but also 2 percent North African, a little less than 1 percent Bantu from southeastern Africa, 4 percent west Asian, 3 percent Middle Eastern, 1 percent European Jewish, 9 percent Greek and Italian, 5 percent Irish, another 5 percent from Great Britain, along with some roots in southern and central Asia and northwestern Russia.
“We’re the most mixed race in the world, and I’m a child of the world,” said Cortez, noting that other club members have made similar discoveries after researching their DNA. “In Mexico, you’re not taught about slavery, but slavery existed there. ... They didn’t disappear. They married and mixed in with the rest of the population, so a lot of us have African ancestry.”
Cortez, who now has 4,400 ancestors in her database, learned that Mariana Vizcarra, who lived in Guadalajara in the early 1700s, said on his marriage records he and his children were all “español,” or Spanish. “But his baptismal records say he’s ‘mulatto libre,’ a free man of mixed race,” she said.
The Catholic Church, “which kept wonderful records back to the 1500s,” has held the key to many family secrets, said Cortez, who took club members on a journey through dispensas, or marriage dispensation documents, that are now online. The dispensations – which the bishop grants to a couple to let them marry – include details about a prospective couple’s personal lives to determine their suitability for marriage.
“It’s almost a precursor to the telenovelas, or Mexican soap operas,” said roots hunter Irma Gomez-Lucero, a retired California State Univeristy, Sacramento, librarian who co-founded the club in 2005.
Cortez looked at one dispensa that described a groom supposedly kidnapping a first cousin and keeping her in his home. “No one would marry her after he had stolen her virginity, so they went to the bishop and he ended granting the marriage, but the couple had to attend 100 Masses,” Cortez said. “In another case, a man asked for his marriage to be annulled because after he’d fallen off a horse and hit his head he could no longer speak properly and claimed his wife became very abusive.”
Gomez-Lucero said she became a roots hunter “after my dad would tell me what I thought were tall tales.” Many of them turned out to be true. She found one ancestor who fell off a gypsy wagon in the late 1700s and traced her family to Father Toribio Romo González of Jalisco, the patron saint of immigrants martyred in the Cristero War in 1928, and Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, Mexico’s acting governor in Alta California in the 1830s.
Deborah Ortiz, who hosted the club’s first meeting at a tamale party in her living room, said her DNA is 60 percent European and 20 percent indigenous, “probably Pueblo Indians,” along with a little Jewish blood. “This affirms the pride I feel about my family’s origins,” she said.
“It’s all about family,” added club member Marty Puentes, who teaches elementary school at Sacramento’s John Morse Therapeutic Center. “I learned my paternal grandmother worked in the fields and started a taqueria in the Fresno County town of Riverdale and my dad took part in the Mexican hat dance.”
Puentes brought a family photo taken in Mexico between 1901 and 1915 depicting pistoleros, or Mexican gunslingers. “I’ve been able to unearth the story of my grandmother, who believed the best invention was the electric iron, and discovered second, third and fourth cousins I would never have met,” Puentes said. “Right now, go out and interview your eldest relatives and record their conversations – once they are gone, the stories are gone.”