Historias de Mi Abuelita: Tracing my Mexican Family on Ancestry®

by Anis Salvesen

My dad’s mom, Abuelita Teresa, was a master storyteller. Whether she was standing in front of a congregation in her best dress and pearls, or sitting in her living room, crocheting (also in pearls), she had everyone in the room under her spell.

I think of her often, but with my move to the big city and her passing in 2012, I drifted away from the family. Some family members I hadn’t seen in years.

But one day I looked at my AncestryDNA® test results and noticed another test taker identified as “close family.” It was my Abuelita Teresa’s daughter, my Aunt Josefina—and her research uncovered stories about our Mexican ancestors that even Abuelita would find hard to top.

From DNA Test to 3,022 People in My Family Tree

I’ve helped dozens of people tell their family stories of discovery and re-connecting with family over the years in my role here at Ancestry®. But I never dreamed that a DNA test would lead to my own story of incredible discoveries.

The first thing I noticed was that Aunt Jo’s family tree contained over 3,000 people. 3,000 of my people. And the lines connecting us stretched back 16 generationsand for one line, when I expanded the tree even a few more.

My aunt’s family tree on Ancestry® had over 3,000 of our shared ancestors, stretching way back to what is now the Southwestern U.S.

I grew up feeling very connected to my recent history, hearing family stories from my abuelita. I even met my great-grandparents and one great-great-grandparent.

I grew up visiting family in Mexico, met 4 great-grandparents and 1 great-great-grandparent (pictured are Abuelita Teresa’s in-laws, my great-grandparents Escolastica and Jesus; Jesus later lived in the U.S.)

So I thought I knew most of what there was to know about my family, what written history had managed to capture.

But wow did my aunt’s tree prove me wrong. Each branch has so many fascinating stories, but I’ll share the findings that most surprised me.

Our Family Was in the U.S. Before It Was the U.S.

The first thing I noticed about my Aunt Jo’s tree was that it went way back—way, way back.

Abuelita Teresa had told us that her father’s family were the owners of the hacienda where she was born.

My aunt was able to build on that family line and trace our ancestors back to New Mexico in the 1600s, when it was part of New Spain.

This is one of the ancestors born in Spain and living in New Mexico that my aunt had on her family tree on Ancestry®.

According to my Aunt Jo,

“We had someone come over with every wave of conquistadores. For every wave, we had one of the soldiers who seemed to come along. They might have come from nobility, but by that time, they came as working soldiers and established settlements. They came to New Mexico looking for resources. The Spanish crown was obsessed with gold. But they found no gold in New Mexico, so from there, some of the Spaniards went to California, where missions were being established. Some went to Florida, and we have relatives that went there. Others went to Mexico, and that’s how they established the hacienda system.”

No one in my family would describe how we feel about our conquistador ancestors as pride. But they’re a part of our past; echoes of them are in our DNA.

And we know the details: their names, where they came from in Europe, and where they ended up in America. With that knowledge we now own that piece of our story.

Reclaiming a Piece of History for My Schoolgirl Self

For me, finding roots in the U.S. going so far back goes one level deeper. I grew up in an area of California known as the Central Coast, in a community where agriculture was king.

I grew up in Monterey County in California, where my Abuelita Teresa also lived and once worked as a farm laborer.

I remember being in a class where everyone was sharing collages of their family history. One girl’s had a beautiful family crest. Another’s had a photo of a castle.

They all had compelling stories about ancestors fleeing famines and persecution, of bravery to leave it all behind and start again.

My collage, with a map of Mexico and a Mexican flag, was drab in comparison. Don’t misunderstand: I was intensely proud of my Mexican ancestors. But, like my artwork, I knew there was more to the picture.

I sensed my family had stories stretching back farther than what my living family remembered. But I didn’t think those records existed.

So for me, finding a connection to Arizona in the 1600s was a bit like coming full circle, uncovering what my schoolgirl self yearned to know.

Daughters of the American Revolution?

My mind was already reeling over my aunt’s research connecting our family to America before it was America.

Certainly on my Indigenous side, my people had been in the Americas for countless generations. But I never imagined that on my Spanish side I—like my classmates who had Ellis Island records and passenger lists from the Old World—would one day be able to track that connection through written records.

But then my aunt surprised me with another detail in our tree, saying,

“I can tell you everyone in our family tree back to the Americana Revolution. We could look into applying to the Daughters of the American Revolution because one of our ‘conquistador’ ancestors decided to back the Americans, and they donated to their cause.”

Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall (photo via Creative Commons, by Edna Barney)

The connection to New Spain, to the Southwest, was surprising in that my aunt was able to trace it. But it fit with the narrative I knew of the Spanish in the Americas.

A family connection to Colonial America? That possibility was not one that ever occurred to me.

I went to school back East, and my campus housing one year was in a building that had been built in the 1700s. Classmates had roots they could trace back to the American colonies.

But I never dreamed my Mexican family could lead me back to Colonial America.

We’re Not From the Part of Mexico We Thought We Were

Another surprising discovery my aunt made: We were from a different state in Mexico than we thought.

All of Abuelita’s family—and her husband’s family—were born in the tiny, central western state of Colima, as far as we knew.

And I grew up identifying strongly with being from this little state, enjoying the typical foods of Colima when I visited family still living there: locally-grown coconuts, sopitos, chiles en nogada, and—when I was older—ponche de Comala.

At parties, we played mariachi songs about Colima (shout-out to other families who play Camino Real de Colima at every big gathering).

I grew up eating traditional Colima food such as “chiles en nogada.”

On both sides of the family, I had cousins that dressed in our state’s regional attire on Independence Day (Día de la Independencia). And other cousins had the state name proudly proclaimed in decals on their trucks.

My cousins on both sides of the family dress in traditional outfits for their state (shown here are my other side of the family, in Michoacan).

This state-based identity wasn’t unique to my family. In my experience, people are very proud of the Mexican state(s) their families are from.

In fact, back home in the U.S., I noticed one of the first things other people of Mexican heritage would ask when they found out my roots were Mexican was, “Where in Mexico is your family from?”

It’s a common question, and your response immediately paints a quick picture of your family and its heritage.

But now, as a result of my aunt’s discoveries, I can almost hear Abuelita Teresa saying,

“Pues que crees…”

That is, “Well, you won’t believe…” Our family roots are in fact not all in Colima.

For those not familiar with the geography of Mexico, it’s a bit like growing up thinking your family is from Rhode Island and finding out that generations back you’re actually from New York or Virginia.

I was blown away. My entire life I “knew” I had deep roots in Colima, had met my great-grandparents and been told about their parents.

We believed we came from the small western state of Colima, with its lush volcanic foothills.

But a look at my Aunt Jo’s family tree showed that on Abuelita’s side, our family came from the neighboring state of Michoacan—as well as from further north, from the state of Zacatecas, where some of our ancestors ended up as they came down from New Mexico.

And some family members, including Abuelita’s own grandmother, were born in the state of Jalisco.

We Have Afro Latino Heritage

I had heard family stories about some branches of our family having African heritage. But I don’t think I, or my abuelita, thought it was in the family’s direct line.

Well, on Abuelita’s father-in-law’s side, my aunt found that my 4th-great-grandfather, Juan Jose Bonifacio Cardenas Rodrigues, came from a family of mulatos libres (free persons of African and Spanish descent).

He was born on the Hacienda San Marcos, in the state of Jalisco, around the late 1700s, early 1800s.

Juan Jose’s sister, Maria Lorensa de la Trinidad Cardenas Rodrigues, was listed on her 1809 baptism record as a mulata libre. Other siblings were also noted as mulato(a) libre in their baptism records.

And Juan Jose’s father, my 5th-great-grandfather, Jph (Jose) Antonio Cardenas, was listed as a mulato libre on his marriage record.

His wife, Ma(ria) Dominga Rodrigues, was listed as mestiza/crioya. A mestiza was someone who had Spanish and Indigenous heritage; a criolla (or as written, crioya) was someone of Spanish descent, but who was born in the Americas.

A 1791 marriage record for my 5th-great-grandparents, Jph (Jose) Antonio Cardenas and Ma(ria) Dominga Rodrigues (via Ancestry®)

I know from a presentation that a professor gave to my colleagues at Ancestry® that there are well over one million people who identify as Afro-Mexicans. But I never expected to find  the descendants of enslaved people of African heritage in my direct family line.

Our AncestryDNA® tests, while they don’t confirm this heritage, do align in that we have small amounts of DNA from regions of Africa where people enslaved in Mexico were kidnapped.

I feel a deep sadness and indignation on behalf of my ancestors who were enslaved or once enslaved. But I also feel a sense of strength, that they survived and endured and built families that would one day lead to mine.

My “Long Lost” Family Photos

The discoveries stretching back centuries were on my abuelita’s father’s side, the more heavily European side.

On her mother’s side, which was more Indigenous, the records my aunt has found so far have not stretched as far back.

The stories about that branch of the family I remember Abuelita Teresa and other family members recounting are that her mother or her mother’s mother spoke an Indigenous language.

And they were curanderas, or healers, passing on their knowledge of remedies to my Abuelita.

There were also, as I recall, stories about our family descending from the union of an Indigenous man and a fair-haired Spanish woman.

This was not the most common scenario in Mexican history, as Spanish women tended to wed Spanish men. But the result of this story was that it shrouded that side of the family in mystery in my young mind.

I always wondered what Abuelita’s mother and her grandmother Antonia were like in person. I pictured these strong women whom members of the community came to for wisdom and healing.

I never imagined we had any photos of them, never even thought to ask. But as I clicked into my aunt’s tree, zooming to get a closer view, I saw photos of two women: Abuelita’s mother and grandmother!

Lo and behold there were photos of my ancestors in my aunt’s family tree on Ancestry®.

I couldn’t believe it! We had photos of them? I clicked on their profiles to get a closer look.

There, looking back at me were my great-grandmother, Maria del Rosario Campos Flores, born in 1918 and my great-great-grandmother, Maria Antonia Flores, born in 1880!

Abuelita’s mother, my great-grandmother (shown at left) and her grandmother Maria Antonia Flores (at right), both photos I found my aunt’s tree on Ancestry®

There was something very powerful about seeing images of the women whose stories living family members had recounted to me, faces I didn’t think I would ever see.

A Family Photo I Will Treasure

Many of my aunt’s discoveries were beyond my wildest dreams of what I had hoped we find documentation for, building off Abuelita’s stories and reaching back centuries.

But for me perhaps the most meaningful find directly tied to my Abuelita Teresa is a photo of her that my aunt had on her tree—a picture that for some reason I don’t remember seeing before.

She was beautiful!

I had never seen this beautiful photo of my grandmother before spotting it on my aunt’s tree.

I knew Abuelita Teresa as the sweet, rounded grandma who made me tesitos (teas) and fed me pan dulce and homemade flour tortillas.

But here she was a young woman—who I know from both her stories and records was raised by her grandmother and had her first child at 15.

She buried her second child, a red-haired boy named Santiago, at age 17. As the mother of a toddler, my heart breaks for her when I see his death record.

She faced so much, so young. And later her husband went to the United States to find work, leaving her and the children behind.

Somehow she found the courage to follow, traveling all the way to the Mexican state of Sonora alone, with the children in tow.

Her 1964 passport, stamped in Arizona (the same region of the U.S. where her ancestors had been so many generations before) shows her with five children, ranging from age 15 to 10 months.

Once in the U.S., she worked in the fields, doing back-breaking labor, while pregnant and caring for young children who worked alongside her.

Through it all she pushed the family forward, supported her children in building a better life. I would like to say to her,

“Guelita, gracias por todo. Thank you for everything. Thank you for the courage you showed, the adversity you faced with dignity and grace. I think of you often, especially now that I have my own child and remember your home remedies and many stories. I am so proud to be descended from you, to reconnect with my Tia Jo and find out more about everything that led to our family. We will make sure your stories, our stories, live on.”

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The author is an Ancestry® employee. This is her actual family story.