By Isabel Wu
Do you have Mexican heritage? If so, this simple guide will help you search for your ancestors online and locate quality resources where you can find additional help.
A Brief History of Mexican Migration and Immigration to the U.S.
The history of Mexicans in what is now the United States is a complicated one and can be traced all the way back to the 16th century.
Before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 ended the Mexican-American War, Mexican citizens occupied territories of today’s California, Nevada, Utah, parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, a strip of Wyoming and Texas. When the war ended, these people stayed in their homes and communities and more than 100,000 individuals that were previously Mexican citizens became citizens of the U.S. instead.
And additional immigration wave from Mexico to the U.S. started around 1890, when 75,000 people were drawn to the U.S. to fulfill the need for cheap labor. President Porfirio Diaz’s modernization programs and railway construction spurred migration both within Mexico and to the U.S. as the railroads opened new paths taking people from rural Mexico all the way to the U.S.-Mexico border. And in 1910, the onset of Mexican Revolution furthered the migration wave.
In 1942, in an effort to combat wartime labor shortage, the U.S. government collaborated with the Mexican government and started the Bracero Program to introduce a Mexican labor force to work on U.S. farms. Under the program, 4.5 million Mexican workers entered the United States.
The influx of Mexican workers brought resentment and fear from many Americans and immigrants faced intense discrimination, violence and extreme poverty. In one striking example, The Zoot Suit Riots that broke out in LA, California in 1943 saw American servicemen carrying out attacks against Mexican-American youth.
Besides the violence carried out on the street, the state also took part in sanctioning and stomping Mexican immigration. The most infamous action was Operation Wetback, which happened in 1954 under President Eisenhower. The program, named with the racial slur used to refer to undocumented immigrants not part of the government sanctioned Bracero Program in Texas, sent more than a million people back to Mexico. Others left in fear of deportation – even if they had peacefully lived and worked in the U.S. for years.
If you have Mexican ancestry, take as much time as you can to educate yourself about the history of immigration and migration to the U.S. as trends will reveal new possibilities for research.
Where to Find Records for Researching Your Mexican-American Roots
Border Crossing and Immigration Records from Mexico
You can find an index to all legal border crossing files from Mexico to U.S. between 1895 and 1964 stored by the National Archives and Records Administration on Ancestry.
As mentioned before, many Mexicans who came to the US between 1942 and 1964 were registered through the Bracero program. You can visit NARA’s site for records regarding the program or view information about their holdings on Mexican immigration in general. Many of these records are not online.
Unfortunately very few records exist for illegal crossings. If you have ancestors that came to the U.S. outside of a legal route you will need to bypass records of crossings and instead find your ancestors in later documents within the U.S. – such as vital records and the census. Of course, many people who did not have legal status avoided being recorded and may be very hard to trace. Sometimes it is best to try and find information about them before they came to the U.S. instead.
For those whose ancestors came recently, skipping U.S. records altogether and looking to Mexico for your research is your best bet since very few recent genealogical records are publicly available.
Records for Research in Mexico
FamilySearch’s is always a great place to begin your research. This search of historical records in Mexico connects to documents from 44 collections. They include vital records, residence, marriage records, and church baptism records, etc. FamilySearch also offers many related educational materials that you can find on that page. We suggest you take their free courses for help with your research.
You can also find information from the 1930 Mexican Census on the FamilySearch site here. It is the only Mexican Census available to the public and includes information from these Mexican states: Aguascalientes, Baja California, Baja California Sur, Campeche, Chiapas, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Colima, Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Hidalgo, Jalisco, México, Michoacán, Morelos, Nayarit, Nuevo León, Oaxaca, Puebla, Querétaro, Quintana Roo, San Luis Potosí, Sinaloa, Sonora, Tlaxcala, Tabasco, Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Yucatán, and Zacatecas.
Additional records can be found in online libraries and repositories. Start with the Digital Public Library of America.
Records in Paid Databases
We have partnered with the following sites to bring you information about services that may help you. We may earn a fee to support our work if you take advantage of these databases.
The following databases are the largest online for Mexican research.
Mexico, Baptisms, 1560-1950 from MyHeritage offers 122,951,717 Records and Ancestry’s Mexico, Select Church Records, 1537-1966 offers 41 million records. MyHeritage also offers the collections Mexican Marriages and Mexican Deaths.
You can also search Ancestry’s catalog here for more Mexican Collections.
Learning Resources and Individual Archives
UT Austin’s Benson Latin American Collection holds manuscripts for Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. It also houses substantial microfilm collections of documents from the national libraries of Mexico, Spain (Archivo General de Indias), Peru, and Paraguay. The University library provides links and resources specifically for genealogy research. Here’s their guide for interested genealogy researchers.
The Bancroft Library of Berkeley houses strong genealogical and property records from the Colonial period and the Mexican Inquisition. The collections contain various account books, records of local government and churches. It is very useful for your search of earlier ancestors. Here is the guide to their Mexican Inquisition documents through the Online Archive of California (OAC).
This website has information organized by the Raul Longoria and claims to include 13,539 individuals. You can use this site to trace lineage all the way to the 15th century Spain, if you are lucky. You can search your ancestors by their surnames or other names.
This site contains information of individuals from the colonial period. The lists can help you trace your ancestors back to the 16th century. With the names of your ancestors, you may be lucky enough to find them on the lists of the descendants of the early Conquistadors or servants of kings and queens in Spain who came to the New World in search for a better life.
Archives Archivo General de la Nación
The General National Archives of Mexico, located inthe Palacio de Lecumberri, a former prison, in Mexico City, has comprehensive collections from la Academia Mexicana de Genealogía y Heráldica (Mexican Academy of Genealogy and Heraldry) and parochial records of the entire country. From my personal experience, their staff are extremely helpful and welcoming. They will go out of way to help you find whatever information you need. You can email them in advance of your visit or simply request information online. They don’t usually speak English, but a little bit of conversational Spanish can get you abundant information. This word list of Spanish words for genealogy research could come in handy.
This database portal contains digitized collections of migratory documentations between Spain and Latin America. Among the various collections of the databseis the Registro Nacional de Extranjerosen México [National Register of Foreigners in Mexico] (Mexican National and State Archives). This means the search engine can help you find out how your ancestors migrated from Spain to Mexico. The site has English webpages, so it’s easy for you to navigate even if you don’t know Spanish.
A Few Things to Remember When Researching Your Mexican-American and Mexican Ancestors
1) Start with U.S. records first. The same records that are useful for researching any of your ancestors are helpful for researching your Mexican-American ancestors. See this list of 50 Free Genealogy Sites as well as this collection of state by state search sites for free places to conduct research.
While Federal census records don’t necessarily include the hometown or home states of the ancestor you are searching, they do sometimes give you information on when your ancestors immigrated to the US, and this can be incredibly useful information. Read this guide to the U.S. Census for help identifying which years may contain the information you are looking for.
Records that contain birth information can be especially useful when trying to connect to Mexican records. Search collections of naturalization records, military records, and border crossing records. Other places that might contain information to identify birth place include albums, papers, and diaries of family members, oral history from family members, church records, court records, and Alien Registration records.
2) Try the local obituaries. The obituaries in newspapers may include detailed information about your ancestors, especially if your ancestor was a prominent member of your local community. You may even be able to track down the place of origin of his/her hometown in Mexico.
Newspapers can also be used to find birth and marriage information, details about your ancestor’s involvement in the community, and legal information.
To access historical newspapers for free online use the Chronicling America collection, or try Newspapers.com. This is a paid site, but it connects with your Ancestry.com tree and is very easy to use.
You can also reach out to historical societies and libraries local to your area of research and they can often provide free or low-cost lookups.
3) Don’t be intimidated by the language barrier. Even if you do not know Spanish, you can prevail in your searches of Mexican or Spanish sites. As previously mentioned, Google Translate and SpanishDict should have you covered. English-Spanish translation and the vice versa are among the most accurate translations Google Translate produce.
4) Look for your indigenous roots. As with any Native American research, uncovering records about your indigenous ancestors in Mexico can be a challenge – but don’t forget this important part of Mexico’s heritage. Look for clues in the many records mentioned on this page and carefully follow up to see if additional information, collections and resources exist to help you further your research. Be willing to reach out to archives, heritage societies and libraries for help finding and accessing information.
Good luck with your search!
Isabel Wu is a former magazine writer and editor with a Masters in history. She wrote her thesis on Chinese immigrants’ sojourns in Mexico during the Mexican Revolution period. She enjoys writing about the bygone times and helping people reconnect with their past through research. English is her working language, but she also conducts research in Chinese, Spanish, and Korean.
Image: Frontiers of Mexico, in Old Mexico and her lost provinces (1883). By Internet Archive Book Images via Wikimedia Commons
Originally published Sept 16, 2018