How to Research Hispanic Ancestors When You Don’t Speak Spanish

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” Has National Hispanic Heritage Month inspired you to research your Hispanic ancestors – yet you’re not sure how to go about it because you don’t speak Spanish? In this blog article, Gena gives practical tips and describes online resources to help you overcome this family history challenge.

What are your favorite genealogy projects to work on? Mine typically involve English-language records. Let’s face it, when you only speak/read/write English those are the genealogy records that you feel most comfortable using.

So what happens when you have to research outside of your comfort zone – such as researching Hispanic ancestors when you don’t know how to speak or read the Spanish language? Well, for one thing: it’s time to start planning your Hispanic ancestor research.

A basic genealogy tip is to start with yourself and work back through each generation. In this case, after you do that, focus on your immigrant ancestors and exhaust records in the United States, then work on records found in their homeland.

Here are three other tips to keep in mind.

1) Start your timeline. I’ve written about timelines on the GenealogyBank blog before (see: Genealogy Timelines: Helpful Research Tools), and it’s worth taking the time to re-read that article. Organize what you know about your Hispanic ancestors with a timeline, and then study it for gaps in information. Ask yourself what events you should be searching for, such as births, marriages, and deaths. Consider historical events that may have affected your ancestors on a personal level and would have resulted in records. For example: military service during a war. As you study your timeline, what events impacted your family?

You can learn more about historical events in your ancestors’ homeland by consulting online history timelines. And very important: don’t neglect to read online historical newspapers, such as those in GenealogyBank’s Hispanic American Newspapers.

a Spanish-language article about the "Familia Ochoa," Heraldo de Mexico newspaper article 12 September 1928

Heraldo de Mexico (Los Angeles, California), 12 September 1928, page 6

These Spanish-language newspapers were published in the United States, but they also report on events in other countries and can be a valuable resource for better understanding a historical era. These historical Hispanic American newspapers covered events important to the community they served, and provided a perspective not found in the larger city newspapers. GenealogyBank’s Hispanic American Newspapers collection includes newspapers from the early 19th century.

2) Read Spanish-language newspapers. It may seem strange to suggest reading Spanish-language newspapers when you don’t know how to read Spanish. Don’t let Spanish-language newspapers intimidate you. I don’t read Spanish either, but with today’s online tools it’s never been easier to “read” a foreign language.

It’s helpful to become familiar with genealogically-relevant words in the new language you’re trying to understand. What’s genealogically-relevant mean? It depends on what you’re researching, but some words to begin with include those for birth, marriage, baptism, death, and familial relationships. Combining a name and a Spanish-language keyword in the search box will help you narrow down results when researching a common name. Consult the Spanish Genealogical Word List on the FamilySearch Wiki for words to become familiar with. I would also recommend investing in a Spanish-English dictionary for quick lookups. These two tools will assist you as you research Spanish-language documents.

For example, here’s a search for Perez birth records in GenealogyBank.

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search box showing a search for the keywords "Perez" and "nacimiento"

One of my favorite resources for Spanish-to-English language translations is the website Google Translate. While not a perfect language translation tool, it can help you better understand what you are reading. You can use the Google Translate website on your computer or on the go with the Google Translate app. The translation app allows you to speak, scan, type or draw text. The app will even translate text from a photo. Translations can be saved in an online Phrasebook for future reference. Consult the web page for Google Translate Help for information on using these features.

3) Learn more. Perhaps you aren’t just researching your Hispanic ancestors’ vital statistics, but instead verifying a family story. In my family, one story involves being forcibly chased out of Mexico by Pancho Villa. You might have a similar story that you want to verify.

Huerta Plans Ruin of North Mexico as Check to Villa, Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper article 21 December 1913

Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Fort Worth, Texas), 21 December 1913, page 1

Good family history research is searching for records, but also learning more about a place in time so that you can find additional documents that you need. Use books and periodicals to learn more about an area and the events your Hispanic ancestors were a part of. Search on the event and read newspapers published throughout the United States archived on GenealogyBank. Join societies like the Genealogical Society of Hispanic America to learn more about research and to benefit from their publications, meetings, and conferences. Genealogy research is so much more than just doing look-ups for dates and places; it takes time to immerse yourself in the material that will help you document your ancestors’ lives.

Researching Hispanic ancestors and you don’t know how to speak or read Spanish? No problem! Take some time to formulate a genealogy research plan and learn more about what you should be researching – and you will be on your way to adding more information to your family tree!

Related Hispanic American Genealogy Articles & Resources:

Multilingual America: The Land of 420 Languages!

How many languages are spoken in the United States?

You might think that number is 25 or 100—but it is actually 420 different languages!

According to a handy new infographic from (see link below), 214 of those languages are indigenous to the U.S.—like Navajo and Cherokee—and 206 are immigrant languages—like French and German.

GenealogyBank reflects that linguistic diversity and has hundreds of newspapers that were published in German, French, Spanish and even one in Japanese.

For one example of our foreign language newspapers, see this article on German American Newspapers for Genealogy at GenealogyBank.

a list of the German-American newspapers in GenealogyBank's online newspaper archives

And here is an article about GenealogyBank’s Hispanic newspapers: Periódicos en Español—Hispanic American Newspapers Online. GenealogyBank has the largest collection of Spanish-language newspapers published in the U.S.

a list of the Hispanic-American newspapers in GenealogyBank's online newspaper archives

GenealogyBank’s deep newspaper archive is your best source for foreign language newspapers in the U.S.

Infographic: Many Languages One America

Please include attribution to with this graphic.

Many languages,one america, an infographic from

Find Your Ethnic Ancestors with Historical Newspapers

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena provides some search tips and advice to help you research your ethnic ancestors.

Are you searching for your ethnic ancestors and not having much luck finding information about them? Historical newspapers are a great resource for this type of family history research because they are the great equalizer. Whether for good or bad, depending on the time period, your ancestor could have been mentioned in the newspaper.

But, finding an ethnic ancestor isn’t as easy as conducting a singular search and then you’re done hunting your heritage. No, sometimes tracing your ethnic roots takes a little more than entering a name in a search engine. Consider the following tips to enhance your ethnic ancestry research.

GenealogyBank's search page for its African American newspapers collection

Search in Ethnic Newspaper Collections

Often when we are doing newspaper research we focus on a specific newspaper that we know existed in the city where an ancestor lived. But the reality is that there could have been multiple newspapers that reported on an area. In the city where I live, there are at least three major newspapers reporting on our area—and that’s not counting the numerous community and ethnic newspapers that also report our local news.

Ethnic communities often had their own newspapers, making them a valuable resource to trace your immigrant ancestry. Because of possible immigrant and racial prejudices, you may have a better chance of finding news about an ethnic ancestor in an ethnic newspaper than a generic area newspaper. For this reason, make sure that you don’t limit your search to just one newspaper. For each place your ethnic ancestors lived in the United States, look to see what ethnic newspapers existed for that time period.

a graphic promoting GenealogyBank's French-language newspaper collection

GenealogyBank houses various special ethnic newspaper collections and foreign language newspapers:

GenealogyBank houses various special ethnic newspaper collections and foreign language newspapers:

a list of GenealogyBank's German American newspapers

Because GenealogyBank is constantly adding to its online collections, it’s important to check back often with the GenealogyBank Blog or the Newsletter Archives section of the website’s Learning Center. Click here to search GenealogyBank’s complete newspaper title list.

How to Search for Your Ancestor

How do you search for an ancestor? The first obvious way is to search by your ancestor’s name. As you do this search, don’t forget all the possible combinations and misspellings of your ancestor’s name. Obviously if their name is terribly misspelled you could miss articles that document their lives. Keep a list of variations of their name and try each and every one. This list should be an active document that you add to as you find new “interesting” way to spell your ancestor’s name. Also, try searching on your ancestor’s name using wildcard characters such as an asterisk. See our other post about ancestor name research for additional tips.

a graphic promoting GenealogyBank's Hispanic American newspapers collection

In addition to their name, what other ways can you search for an ancestor? Instead of searching on an ancestor’s name only, combine your name search with various keywords and keyword phrases with dates. (A keyword or keyword phrase may be something like “railroad,” “St. Mary’s Catholic Church” or “Victoria Middle School.”)

In fact, on GenealogyBank’s search page you do not have to search with an ancestor’s name at all. You could focus your ancestor search on just keywords and dates. You can even exclude certain keywords from your ancestor search in order to narrow down your results.

GenealogyBank's search page for itsHistorical Newspapers collection

Think about alternative ways to search for an ancestor, like the name of an event, the name of the school or church they attended, or the name of their occupation. Even searching the names of their associates might help to uncover articles where they are mentioned. Make a timeline of the events they participated in and consider using some of those events as keywords for your search.

Get to Know the Newspaper

Probably one step we all tend to skip in our genealogy research is learning more about the resources we use. By learning more about that resource, you can better learn how to search it.

How do you get to know a particular newspaper? Take some time to read it, page by page, during the time period your ancestor lived in that area. What columns existed? In what sections are community members mentioned? What community groups are regularly discussed? Can you find specific news articles on certain days? What pages feature the obituaries and vital records announcements?

Reading and understanding the whole newspaper, not merely searching it out of context, can provide you not only with important information to help you search for your ancestor—it can also give you important social history information. Mentions of events or activities that went on while your ancestor was alive might give you some ideas for additional documents to research. Social history information can also be integrated into your family history narrative as you tell the story of your ancestor’s life.

search page for GenealogyBank's Irish American newspapers collection

Don’t Give Up

Ancestry research isn’t always as easy as simply entering a name and pushing the search button on the largest newspaper where your ancestor lived. Sometimes you’ll need to think in terms of your ancestor’s community and the times they lived in, to help you narrow down possible events and activities they took part in. Keeping a list of all possible variations of a name, and adding to that list, can help you not miss important articles. If you’re searching for an ethnic ancestor, see what ethnic newspapers were published for the time and area where your ancestor lived, and search those papers thoroughly.

a list of GenealogyBank's Jewish American newspapers collection

One of my favorite sayings is: “You don’t know what you don’t know.” I firmly believe this is true for genealogy research. Because we can’t know everything that may exist for an ancestor, be open to incorporating differing search strategies, enhance your family history research by studying your ancestor’s community, and search ethnic newspapers—and you will be closer to finding the information you need.

Related Ethnic Blog Articles

Hispanic American Newspapers for Genealogy at GenealogyBank

Versión en español

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena writes about the extensive online collection of Spanish American newspapers available on GenealogyBank, and gives examples showing how these newspaper articles can help you research your Hispanic family members.

Researching an immigrant ancestor or an immigrant community in the United States? Take a look at the ethnic newspapers available in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives. For genealogists doing research in an area where ethnic newspapers were published, that resource should be an integral part of your family history research. These ethnic newspapers printed news from back home, interviewed friends and family, reported on social events and activities, and provided a place for those new to America or with limited English language skills to feel connected.

Those with Hispanic ancestors and family will appreciate the collection of over 350 Spanish-language newspapers available online at GenealogyBank. The Hispanic collection’s newspaper coverage crosses the country and spans from the very early 1800s to the 1970s. The early Hispanic American newspapers are fantastic resources to learn what life was like for your immigrant ancestors.

Currently, states with news coverage include: Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, Texas, and Wisconsin.

For many genealogists, an introduction to newspaper research begins with looking for family obituaries. According to the chapter “Newspapers” found in the genealogy classic The Source (edited by Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking): “Where major local newspapers often overlooked or carried one-line death notices of [immigrants], the person often received detailed notice in his or her ethnic newspaper.” The lesson here is to exhaust all newspapers for an area, local regional papers as well as ethnic newspapers, as you begin your obituary search.

Here’s a good example of a full obituary found in an ethnic newspaper. In this obituary for Dona Rumaldita A Vallejos, we learn some important family details as well as the cause of her death during the Spanish Flu epidemic.

obituary for Dona Rumaldita A Vallejos, Anunciador newspaper article 14 December 1918

Anunciador (Trinidad, Colorado), 14 December 1918, page 1

One reason some researchers may shy away from foreign-language newspapers is the language gap. Don’t let a newspaper article in your ancestor’s native tongue stop you. Remember that there are many online tools to help you translate a newspaper article. In the case of an obituary, you can quickly become familiar with the most commonly used words  (names for family relationships, words for birth, death, occupation, etc.) after using Google Translate, a foreign-language dictionary, or genealogical word lists available from sources such as FamilySearch, to translate words in foreign languages.

Don’t forget that newspapers aren’t just for finding information about a person’s death—they also document celebrations for the living. Consider this brief Spanish-language marriage announcement for Raymundo Rivera and Matilde Rodriguez.

marriage announcement for Raymundo Rivera and Matilde Rodriguez, Prensa newspaper article 22 April 1951

Prensa (San Antonio, Texas), 22 April 1951, page 5

Here’s another marriage announcement in Spanish that includes more information, including where the happy newlywed couple will ultimately reside.

Rose Maria de Leon & Segundo Barbosa Prince marriage announcement, Prensa newspaper article 19 June 1958

Prensa (San Antonio, Texas), 19 June 1958, page 12

Don’t forget about researching the younger members of a family. Articles about Hispanic traditions and social events such as quinceaneras can be found in American Spanish-language newspapers. I love the following article from 1950 with the photo of an Albuquerque teen and its proclamation that she is the most beautiful 15-year-old in America. A nice added detail is that she is a redhead.

notice about Jackie Lee Barnes, Prensa newspaper article 8 January 1950

Prensa (San Antonio, Texas), 8 January 1950, page 6

American Spanish-language newspapers can be a boon to a Hispanic family history researcher. As you scour them for clues in your genealogy research, make sure that you also look for English-language newspapers for additional articles about your Hispanic family members.

Click the image below to go to the list of Hispanic American newspapers currently available on GenealogyBank for future reference. Feel free to share this list on your blog or website using the embed code provided below.

List of Hispanic American Newspapers at Genealogy Bank

Embed This Image On Your Site (copy code below):

A soldier’s last letter ….

What have I done I asked myself, to deserve to be remembered by strangers in a town in which I had never been…”

You can almost hear him ask that now, over 100 years later as we remember him.

Corporal Wilson Mcpherson Osbon (1877-1899) wrote the letter on 28 Dec 1898, in gratitude for a Christmas care package of food and goodies sent from Mrs. R.S. Gleason of Aberdeen, SD. She had sent it to him and the three other young men who were serving in the Philipines from Howard, South Dakota in Company F – among them was his brother Orman King Osbon (1874-1903).

Portion of his letter – Aberdeen Daily News 22 Feb 1899

This would be the last letter Wilson Osbon would write back home. He was killed just a few weeks later on 15 Feb 1899.

I found his story in the Aberdeen (SD) Weekly News.
In looking into it further, I quickly pulled more than a dozen articles about him and his family in GenealogyBank.
It was gripping to read his last letter.

Even more gripping to read in the old newspapers that his brother Orman was also killed in the Philippines just four years later in a fight leading a group of 22 men against a band of local thugs – in Bolinao, Philippines.

Going beyond the historical newspapers I found Orman Osbon’s obituary in a 1903 report of the War Department. It was there that I learned one more key family detail – Orman Osbon had married in the Philippines and his wife, Antonia Osbon resided in Manila.

Annual reports of the War Department for the fiscal year ended June 30, 1903. Volume VII. Report of the Philippine Commission –
Serial Set Vol. No. 4634, Session Vol. No.858th Congress, 2nd SessionH.Doc. 2 pt. 7. p. 719.
I checked the other popular online sources – none of them give these details that filled in the family tree.

I could only find the complete record in GenealogyBank – dozens of articles and reports that gave the crucial details of this family and their loss of two sons in the service of the country on the other side of the world.

The handy search box made it easy – I entered the name and it searched all 219 Million records and documents – making it quick and easy to find the details of the family tree.

Give it a try right now – there is a special give it a try rate of $9.95.

GenealogyBank – Added Over 42.5 Million Records Last Year!

GenealogyBank reported explosive growth in 2007 increasing its digital archive with over 40 million historical newspaper articles and modern obituaries.

GenealogyBank is quickly becoming the fastest growing newspaper archive for family history research with over 3,300 U.S. newspapers in all 50 states. The exclusive collection features newspapers from the 1600’s to the present day with over 106 million historical newspaper articles and more than 26 million obituaries now available for family history research. Each article is a single digital image that can be printed and preserved for family scrapbooks.

To celebrate, GenealogyBank is currently offering a 30-Day trial for only $9.95.

“We are excited about the rapid growth of our newspaper collection and the vast breadth of family history information we now have available” says Genealogy Director for NewsBank, inc., Tom Kemp. “GenealogyBank provides exclusive access to more than four centuries of important genealogical information such as obituaries, marriage and birth announcements as well as interesting and often surprising facts about our ancestors.”

Latest additions to the GenealogyBank historical newspaper collection features big city dailies and regional weeklies including: San Jose (CA) Mercury 1886-1922, Baltimore (MD) Sun – 1837-1901, Kansas City Star (MO) 1815-1922, NY Herald 1844-1863, Philadelphia Evening Post – 1804-1912, Philadelphia Inquirer 1860-1922 And many more. View entire list.

Kemp added, “Toward our stated goal of creating the single most comprehensive resource of newspapers for family history research, GenealogyBank will continue to digitize millions of family history records in the upcoming months that will greatly expand and increase the depth of our collections. We will begin releasing Hispanic American Newspapers, 1808-1980 in February along with hundreds of additional historical newspaper titles.”

About GenealogyBank: GenealogyBank, a division of NewsBank, inc., supplies individuals interested in family history research with over 300 years of U.S. newspapers, government documents and other historical records in all 50 states. GenealogyBank contains over 214 million family history records including obituaries, birth, marriage, death notices and much more.

Wow, at this great price – give it a try right now. I have been finding hundreds of articles, articles with critical new information about my family – write me and tell me what you find.

Try it right now – click: GenealogyBank