How to Start Looking into Your Hispanic Ancestry for the First Time

Most Hispanic countries use a system of names that combine two surnames: the first is usually the father’s, and the second is the mother’s maiden name. These two surnames are often distinguished by a y (meaning “and”) between them. 

Birth Records

Tracing your Hispanic ancestry may lead you to uncover records of indigenous ancestors. As with any Native American research, this can be a challenge. Hispanic is not a race; it’s an ethnic designation describing Spanish speakers. People from Mexico, Puerto Rico, South and Central America or the Caribbean are considered Hispanic.

Cemetery Records

Most Hispanic community can trace their ancestry to Spain, the primary settlement point in Latin America and the Caribbean. However, many Hispanics have origins from locations outside of Europe, including South and Central America. 

Many Hispanic countries follow a system where children are given two surnames, one from each parent. In addition, women keep their maiden name after marriage. It can make it difficult to find family members without other sources, such as death certificates or obituaries.

Marriage Records

Unless an ancestor emigrated to the United States within living memory, it could be easier to discover their mother country. However, many sources will help. One of the most valuable is church records such as banns of marriage. 

These announcements of upcoming marriages can provide the town of origin information. Another helpful source is the formal printed papers that families distribute to announce baptisms, deaths and other events. 

Death Records

The discovery of a small detail or fact in one record can open up many new avenues for research. Knowing how to recognize what type of records might contain that information can be an important skill for any researcher. Hispanic immigrants often left behind printed papers such as relaciones de mA(c) riots and hojas de Servicio (similar to rA(c)sumA(c)s). 

These documents can reveal personal details such as family connections, employment history, and medical information such as x-rays and prescriptions. It can help you identify possible family members in the United States.

Divorce Records

Depending on the law and custom of the time and place, divorce records can provide valuable clues about your family history. For example, some 19th-century western states and counties were known for having relatively lax divorce laws. 

It is important to remember that people of Hispanic heritage can identify as belonging to various countries of origin and descent. This diversity is reflected in the self-reported Hispanic sources of Americans in 2020. These ranged from Mexico, Cuba and El Salvador to Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil.

Military Records

If your ancestor was a military veteran, check service and pension records. Look also at home sources like photographs, letters and artifacts. Gravestone inscriptions can also provide information. You can search by state and enlistment date. 

Some files are thin, containing only nine cards; others have rich detail. Transcribe the cards into a document to gain an overview of your ancestor’s experience in a war. Then look for related records such as church, probate and land records. Also, explore published histories of military units and regiments.

Census Records

Householders were required to fill out census forms for their communities every ten years. These records offer valuable snapshots of family life at a specific time and can reveal new relatives. Look for census questions about ancestors’ country of origin and immigration information. Please pay close attention to the answers, as they may provide clues for further research. 

Photographs from households can also be useful as they may show a time-lapse family photo and highlight changing hairstyles or fashions. As you find these images, attach them to the appropriate individual in your family tree and cite them as sources in your genealogy software program.

Family Histories

The beginning researcher must know that a wealth of genealogical and family history material is in the basement or attic. Among the items that can be found may be the name of a padrino (godfather) in an ancestor’s record or a letter describing the ancestor’s town of origin. 

Printed documents such as relaciones de mercaderes and hojas de servicio can also be found in a family’s effects. These are similar to modern rA(c)sumA(c)s and can reveal much information. They can also help in finding other records.


The Texana/Genealogy Department contains many books, periodicals, microfilm and websites for researching Hispanic genealogy. For example, if you have ancestors from the Southwest or Florida, check out the library’s guides to Spanish and Mexican land grants in New Mexico and California. 

Although they have different meanings, Hispanic and Latino are sometimes used interchangeably. Hispanic refers to a person of Spanish descent or connection with Spain, while Latino is a broad term that includes anyone from Latin America and the Caribbean.

Military Documents

While Hispanic families are unlikely to keep personal diaries in the same manner as nineteenth-century Americans, the move to a new country and the resulting change in position in society may have caused a family member to document military service. 

It can provide valuable clues for determining a person’s place of origin. Enlistment and discharge papers (cA(c) Dula’s personals) and hojas de Servicio (service sheets) are commonly found among an ancestor’s effects. 


In conclusion, exploring your Hispanic ancestry can be a captivating and rewarding journey, leading you to discover a rich tapestry of diverse cultures, histories, and family connections. The unique naming conventions and cultural practices found in most Hispanic countries offer valuable clues that can guide your research. Delving into birth, marriage, death, and divorce records can unveil significant details about your ancestors, helping you piece together your family’s story.

Church records, military records, census data, and family histories are invaluable resources that can shed light on your ancestors’ lives, migrations, and experiences. These records often provide insights into origins, connections, and personal stories, enabling you to build a more comprehensive family tree.

Throughout your search, it’s essential to recognize the immense diversity within the Hispanic community. People of Hispanic heritage come from various countries and regions, each with its distinct traditions and histories. Embrace this diversity as you uncover your own roots and appreciate the rich mosaic that makes up Hispanic ancestry.