Posted by Kathleen Cortez on October 18, 2013 in Collections, Mexico, Research

In years past, the general message to those attempting Latin American or Mexican genealogy was “Learn Spanish.” Thankfully, digitized and indexed resources now available on Ancestry and other websites have lessened the need to be fluent in Spanish. As with any genealogy project, it is beneficial to know the resources and not simply rely on what can be found online; however, the online record accessibility is making it easier to find ancestors in Mexican records.

The Opera House in Mexico City under construction in the early 1900s. Photo from Library of Congress Photo Collection 1840-2000
The Opera House in Mexico City under construction in the early 1900s. Photo from Library of Congress Photo Collection 1840-2000

The Spaniards were dutiful record keepers and, because Mexico was a colony of Spain, the records are well kept. Mexican records benefit from the fact that no major wars have been fought that led to mass record destruction like that seen in Europe and the U.S. In addition, many Mexican records have duplicate copies in the archives of Spain.

Mexican records can be extremely fruitful if you know where to look. Records of baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and burials were created and kept at the parish level. Ancestry has a growing collection of Mexican civil and religious vital records online.

  • Baptism and marriage records usually contain the names of the child or couple plus the names of the witnesses or godparents, the parents and the grandparents, so these unique records create an instant pedigree of the family.
  • Civil records of birth, marriage and death begin in 1859 and are kept at the Municipal (Municipio) level. From 1859-1867 there was no enforcement to comply. Civil birth records contain similar information to those kept by the parish.
  • Civil marriage records had a little less information than those created at the parish level.
  • Civil death records often contain the parent’s names, ages and occupations.

Because of this record keeping system, it is best to know the town of origin and that is where the records now available on Ancestry come in handy. The 1930 Mexico National Census is a boon for genealogists. Using it, those with Mexican ancestry can easily locate the ancestral place in Mexico, if it was previously unknown.

One problem encountered when conducting Mexican research is the border crossing. Even in the early twentieth century those coming to the U.S. were escaping poverty, starvation and the Mexican Revolutionaries—the most famous being Pancho Villa, and the Federales. When conducting Mexican research it may be necessary to search using altered names to account for those here illegally.

A shop in Tacubaya, Mexico circa 1884. Photo from the Library of Congress Photo Collection 1840-2000.
A shop in Tacubaya, Mexico circa 1884. Photo from the Library of Congress Photo Collection 1840-2000.

The Cortez family emigrated from Cosio, Aguascalientes, Mexico to El Paso, Texas and eventually settled in Tehachapi, Kern County, California. The family consisted of: Benito Juan, Cipriana, Marcos, Dolores, Melecio, and Guadalupe. They were easy to find in the 1930 U.S. Federal Census at the address where they lived for many years in Tehachapi, though proved difficult to locate in the 1920 U.S. Federal Census. However, the Juan Muro family was located, and although the surname is different, the first names and ages match what was known about the family. Note: Consider searching by an unusual first name.  Another useful collection on Ancestry is the Border Crossings: From Mexico to U.S. 1895-1964. In this collection we find Benito Cortez’s card, showing him crossing in 1916 using his correct name. In addition, the name of a likely relation is learned, Pedro Cortes. Benito’s wife’s maiden name was also confirmed with this record. The card just prior to Benito’s is that of his wife Cipriana Tristan and the two records used in conjunction provide a better picture of the family. An important item to note is that Mexican women used their maiden name throughout the course of their life, making female research a little easier in Mexico.

Kathleen Cortez

Kathy Cortez, MA (Psychology) is the Team Lead for the United Kingdom and Ireland research team at ProGenealogists. Genealogy has been an important part of her life since childhood. In addition to working on her own genealogy for the last 25 years and working for clients full-time since 2004, she also focused on genealogy in her psychology program. For seven years Kathy maintained an independent genealogy business specializing in long-term projects. She is a member of many genealogical organizations including: the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG), the National Genealogical Society (NGS), New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) and several locality based societies. Kathy has been a speaker at genealogy conferences including the Utah Genealogical Association (UGA) and the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS), where she was the APG 25th Anniversary featured speaker. Her genealogical activities include active participation in local societies. She spent three years as president of the Marin County Genealogical Society in Marin County, California. Read more at


  1. Rebekah

    My husband’s parents were immigrants around the turn of the century (1880 – 1905) and he only knew his grandparents names and some birth dates when I started researching his family. I eventually produced a beautiful book through Ancestry with beautiful pictures of Catholic Church records and information on many generations of the family. Even without reading much Spanish I was able to locate the birth and marriage records of many family members. The church records are mostly very precise and in a particular format and well worth the effort to locate. The beauty of the research was finding cousins and connecting numerous members of the family with each other. That is my legacy to my husband’s family. Thanks Ancestry.

  2. Luis

    I love these little “Getting Started with…” articles. I would love to see one created for “Getting Started with Puerto Rican Family History Research”!! Great place for people to get some tips for beginning genealogy.

  3. BEE

    I agree with #2. I would love to see “Getting Started with Polish family history”. There are a lot more documents out there than people realize, and thanks to volunteers, more are constantly being added online every day. While I neither speak or read Polish, you can figure out the names of children and parents on a Baptismal, and there are people who can help translate. The difficult ones are those written in Russian.

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