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:

Celebrate Cinco de Mayo by Tracing Your Hispanic Genealogy

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 suggests celebrating Cinco de Mayo by tracing your Hispanic ancestry using GenealogyBank’s Hispanic American Newspapers collection—and provides tips how to do this.

Looking for ideas for tracing your Hispanic ancestry this Cinco de Mayo? Maybe the typical regional newspapers aren’t yielding many results in your family history searches? Have you considered narrowing your search to an ethnic newspaper? GenealogyBank’s Hispanic American Newspapers collection has many different U.S.-based newspapers that served the Hispanic community, beginning in the early nineteenth century. These Spanish-language newspapers (note: some are bilingual) might provide the ancestral answers you’re looking for.

Need some ideas to help you get started tracing your Hispanic genealogy? Consider the following:

1) Search for Different Types of Newspaper Articles

Sure, genealogy researchers should search for their ancestors’ obituaries—but don’t forget about other life events including marriages, births, military service, and graduations; these events were all reported in local newspapers. Remember that your ancestor was part of a community and participated in academic, religious, and organizational activities and events. Some articles may only provide a brief mention of your ancestor’s name, but even that helps to place them in a specific area and time—or maybe even give you an idea about when they left a place.

It’s difficult to list all the different type of newspaper articles you might find an ancestor listed in, but a thorough search will help you uncover articles you may not have otherwise considered. For example, finding an ancestor’s name in a newspaper’s unclaimed letters list might indicate that they had moved on, were moving to the area, passed away, or just didn’t pick up their mail often. Noting when and how often they appear on such a list could be an important clue to follow up on.

newspaper column listing the names of people who have unclaimed letters awaiting them at the local post office, Tucsonense newspaper article 2 June 1915

Tucsonense (Tucson, Arizona), 2 June 1915, page 3

As you search for your Hispanic or Latino ancestor in the newspaper, consider searching by surname or full name only and not including a place name or other keywords. Now this may be difficult if your ancestor’s surname is common but—as you can see in the article below—individuals can be found in articles outside of the place they lived in. Limiting your initial search with a location may filter out relevant articles that were published elsewhere.

The following is an article acknowledging donations to help journalist and political activist Juan Sarabia, who in 1910 was detained in a Mexican prison. This newspaper article shows that donations came from donors on both sides of the border. In some cases, the city of the donor was included as well as their donation amount.

article about donations made to support journalist and political activist Juan Sarabia, Regeneracion newspaper article 22 October 1910

Regeneracion (Los Angeles, California), 22 October 1910, page 2

Enter Last Name

2) Read the Paper to Learn More about Your Ancestor’s Community

By learning more about your ancestor’s community, you can get a sense of their lives and even what records may be available. Don’t ignore news articles that don’t specifically mention your ancestor. Learning about their community can help you tell their story. For example, learning more about important industries where your ancestor lived can provide you with information about why they migrated or why they chose a particular industry for employment. In some cases an article might point to higher wages, safer working conditions, or even recruitment of migrants with specific skills.

This historical newspaper article, exploring the topic of pearl fishing in the Gulf of California, is one such example of learning more about a community. In the old news article we learn that the inhabitants of La Paz understand pearls—and it makes sense they would, since the article reports that the production value in 1908 was 3 million pesos and the annual export in pearl shells was 2 million pesos!

article about pearl fishing in the Gulf of California, Tucsonense newspaper article 1 October 1921

Tucsonense (Tucson, Arizona), 1 October 1921, page 5

Enter Last Name

3) Don’t Assume These Newspaper Are Spanish Only: Bilingual Newspapers

It’s easy to assume that a newspaper targeting a Spanish-speaking community would be printed in Spanish. While this is for the most part true, one thing a researcher quickly learns is not to make assumptions.

Not all of the newspapers in GenealogyBank’s Hispanic American Newspapers archives are printed solely in Spanish. For example the Ideal, described as a national bilingual and bi-monthly newspaper, includes articles written in both English and Spanish. Looking at this issue from 1970 for Coachella, California, you can see that articles are printed in both languages side by side.

front page of the newspaper Ideal 15 December 1970

Ideal (Coachella, California), 15 December 1970, page 1

This small newspaper includes community events, local interest articles and advertisements that provide the researcher with a better sense of their family’s community.

Click here to see a list of GenealogyBank’s Hispanic American Newspapers published from 1808-1978. Here you will find a table (sorted by states) that includes a link to each newspaper’s search page, and lists the dates of available coverage for each newspaper.

Related Article:

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

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