Inspired by a shocking revelation on Professor Henry Louis Gates’ show, a woman wonders how to research her own heritage.
Dear Professor Gates:
My family is from Cuba. I have always had a desire to verify the oral histories from both sides of my family about our heritage. The episode of your PBS television show Finding Your Roots with Carly Simon inspired me to research my own Cuban heritage. How does one go about finding information in Cuba? What permissions does one need to obtain to get into Cuba? Are there special visas for research? —Hilda Fernandez
We’re so glad that the television show has inspired you! In the episode of season 4 that you mentioned, white singing legend Carly Simon discovered a secret that her beloved maternal grandmother had kept hidden: She was Cuban, and through her, Simon had inherited 10 percent sub-Saharan African ancestry.
As your question suggests, there are challenges to doing research on the ground in Cuba because travel for tourism is forbidden to U.S. citizens. There are research visas available, but these are typically for professionals traveling for research in their field and would not apply to family historians conducting research as a hobby. Guidelines are changing, but some group trips to Cuba are permitted, so you may be able to locate a group approved for travel that you could go with to Cuba for research purposes.
There are many avenues of research for you to explore short of traveling to Cuba yourself. We turned to Lourdes Del Pino, who is first vice president of the Cuban Genealogy Club of Miami and has worked with the show before.
The oral histories you have heard are a treasure trove of leads, she notes, so make sure you have recorded as many details from them as you can. If you haven’t done that yet, let family members know you’d like to hear the old stories.
“Prepare a list of questions and be prepared to record the conversation. Always let them know you’ll be recording, and assure them you’ll respect anything they want to keep private. Don’t rely on your memory or note-taking because you’ll always miss something. You’ll be glad to listen to those conversations later on. Enter every bit of information, even the things you now consider irrelevant. They might prove useful in the future,” Del Pino counsels, adding that in your notes, you should “always, always cite your sources.”
The next step is to “gather any documents your parents or grandparents might have brought from Cuba. Their passports will have their birthplace and the names of their parents. If they brought their birth certificates, you’ll have not only the names and birthplaces of your parents, but those of your grandparents as well. Marriage certificates, whether they’re civil or sacramental, will have the parents’ names and birthplaces as well. Most will have saved baptism and communion remembrances, ‘recuerdos de bautismo or primera comunion,’ newspaper clippings and photos,” she says.
A digital scanner app on your tablet or phone will really come in handy for capturing any documents that they want to keep in their possession.
Del Pino had these additional tips for your research:
Join a Cuban genealogy club and groups on social media. A fantastic and very lively Facebook group is Cuban Genealogy/Genealogia Cubana. Start there and then join the groups for specific Cuban municipalities or towns.
Check out the two important websites dedicated to Cuban genealogy: cubagenweb.org and cubangenclub.org [the latter of which belongs to Del Pino’s club]. You’ll find a wealth of information in our databases such as simple how-tos for beginners as well as transcribed documents from the Archives of the Indies, indexes to sacramental books, censuses, passenger lists, the Cuban Genealogy Club journals, and very useful links to digital books and relevant websites. If you live near Miami, you might want to attend one of the Cuban Genealogy Club of Miami meetings.
When you reach a point where there is no more information to be gathered locally, then you’ll have to find a researcher in Cuba, or travel to the island and do it yourself. For information on travel to Cuba refer to the U.S. State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs for updated information. Before traveling to Cuba, you must know exactly where you’ll be doing your research.
The site for Del Pino’s club also notes that in some cases “you can acquire records from Cuba, especially church records, by writing directly to the ancestral parish.”
We’d like to mention a few additional sources that will be helpful in your online search. The Cuban Genealogy Center’s site includes veterans databases, such as the War of Independence “Mambí” Veterans Data Base, which contains 69,836 names.
There is also a Cuban Digital Library, which has links for online books and sources relating to the history of Cuba that may be helpful.
Florida International University libraries also digitized material from the Enrique Hurtado de Mendoza Collection of Cuban Genealogy, which includes family trees. The free online database is available through the Digital Library of the Caribbean. They may also have records in the Special Collections that could be helpful to your search. You could begin here by seeing if they have a family tree for your family.
The Family History Library also has some sources and guides that will be helpful to getting started in Cuban research. Its Cuba Quick Start Guide provides some research strategies with the limited resources it has available, and it has various pages that break down the process into locating a place of origin, finding Cuban records, types or resources that are available, and records that are available online.
Between all of these sources available online or in the States, you could make a game plan for your research and have specific questions of collections to have a researcher in Cuba examine for you.
The National Archive of Cuba has a website, though it does not have an extensive collection and the holdings that have been digitized are small. Most research in this facility will need to be done in person, so you will need to get someone in Cuba to visit the archive in person. You can locate genealogists who specialize in Cuban research through the Association of Professional Genealogists.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.
This answer was provided in consultation with Marial Iglesias Utset, Ph.D., a visiting research scholar at the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at Harvard University, and with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, Ph.D., a senior researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 1 billion searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today about researching African-American roots.