In the not too distant past, “many people of Mexican descent only thought about researching their ancestry on the Day of the Dead,” according to Evan Christensen, a genealogist at AncestryProGenealogists. But that wasn’t due to a lack of interest in their rich family histories.
In fact, AncestryProGenealogists research team manager Joseph Shumway believes that “Culturally, people with Hispanic heritage have a strong regard for their ancestry.” However, when they tried exploring their roots, they got lost in a maze of similar names, inaccessible records, and a lack of basic information about where their families originally lived.
Fast forward to 2017, and researchers like Christensen and Shumway say the new ease with which critical documents and databases can be found online has “sparked lots of new interest” in tracing Mexican family history. Just five to 10 years ago, uncovering some of this information might have required traveling to Mexico and going page by page through census and Roman Catholic parish records. These days, it’s just a keystroke away. In 2015, Ancestry.com made more than 200 million historical records from Mexico available online.
The advances in research can’t come soon enough for those who fear they are running out of time to make a connection with Mexican ancestors. “We now have a generation, many of them in their 40s and 50s, who are maybe third- or fourth-generation Americans, so the knowledge of their ancestors is several decades removed,” says Shumway. Today, Mexico is the ancestral homeland of at least one out of every 10 Americans. “These are people eager to know more about their history,” says Shumway. “They have a cultural love and affinity for their ancestry.”
Love of family and the importance of passing along ancestral stories to future generations are universal themes highlighted in Disney/Pixar’s new animated feature film, “Coco.” The movie is set in Mexico against the backdrop of Dia de los Muertos, the national holiday to honor loved ones who have died. Coco follows the main character, 12-year-old aspiring musician Miguel, as he journeys into the Land of the Dead. There, he meets his ancestors and works to uncover the reasons why his family has banned music for generations. It is the kind of journey Ancestry has been taking its users on for years by giving them “the power to unlock their past and inspire their future.”
In fact, the connection between Ancestry’s message and Miguel’s search for his Mexican roots is highlighted in an advertisement for the movie, which opens in the United States on Nov. 22. The spot includes Miguel’s family tree and hints at the missing branch the boy might need to realize his dream of becoming a famous guitarist.
Genealogists Christensen and Shumway expect “Coco” to further inspire a whole new group of Mexican Americans eager to dig into their roots. Shumway says many have already caught the DNA bug, buying and using AncestryDNA kits to launch their family history investigations. “As people come through the DNA door and start incorporating a family tree into their research, they are finding there are so many new ways to trace their ancestry right back into Mexico,” says Shumway.
Mexican Americans have traditionally relied on oral histories to tell the stories of their ancestors. Now, with those links to the past quickly disappearing, genealogists expect new generations to use the latest technology to ensure these pieces of their identity are preserved for more than the annual celebration of Day of the Dead.