Cultural Heritage

Houston Institute for Culture 
By John P. Schmal

Our neighbor to the south, Mexico, is a land rich in historical, cultural, and religious significance. It is also the ancestral homeland of at least one out of every ten Americans. Boasting a total area of 756,063 square miles, a large part of Mexico sits on an immense, elevated plateau, flanked by mountain ranges that fall off sharply to the narrow coastal plains of the west and east. The two mountain chains, the Sierra Madre Occidental to the west and the Sierra Madre Oriental in the east, meet in the southeast portion of the country.

    Indigenous Mexico: The Lost Connection

Indigenous Languages: Are You Related to the Aztecs?

The History of Mexico

More articles by John Schmal and Donna Morales

The Federal Republic of Mexico is made up of 32 states and the Distrito Federal (federal district). Each state is divided into municipios. According to the 2000 census, the population of Mexico was 97,483,412. More than seventy percent of these people lived in the urban areas. The population is composed of three main groups: the people of Spanish descent, the Indians, and the people of mixed Spanish and Indian heritage (mestizos). Of these groups, the mestizos are by far the largest, constituting roughly 60% of the population.

In the 2000 census, persons five years of age and older who spoke indigenous languages only numbered 6,044,547, or 7.13% of the total population of that age range. Another 1,233,455 individuals ranging from ages 0 to 4 lived in households where an indigenous speaker was the jefe. And the number of people who did not speak an indigenous language but identified with their Indian ancestry was much greater.

However, 500 years ago before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, the area that is now called Mexico was inhabited by as many as 25 million Indians. The study of pre-Hispanic Mexico and its numerous Indian tribes would fill volumes and no amount of discussion could hope to tell the story in its entirety. Mexico's remarkable diversity, in large part, led to its conquest by the Spaniards. Speaking more than 180 mutually alien languages, the original Mexican Indians viewed each other with great suspicion from the earliest times. When Hernán Cortés (1485-1547) arrived on the east coast of Mexico in 1519, he found a large but fragmented collection of tribes.

The delicate political balance that existed among the indigenous groups for centuries was forever altered as Cortés and a combined army of Spanish soldiers and Indian warriors slowly made their way to Tenochtitlán, the island capital of the formidable Aztec Empire nestled deep within the heart of the continent. Within two years, Cortés, with an army of 2,500 Spaniards, assisted by tens of thousands of Indian allies, captured the imperial capital. With the collapse of Tenochtitlán and the subsequent disintegration of the highly centralized Aztec Empire, much of central and southern Mexico automatically fell into the hands of the Europeans.

However, the Aztecs had never conquered the northern half of Mexico. For this reason, the Spanish authorities sent expeditions into this vast unknown territory to gauge mineral resources, Christianize the Indians and, where possible, to develop trading and military alliances with the indigenous people. The conquest of these northern lands was a long and drawn out process that was never actually completed by the Spaniards.

The Spanish ruled over most of Mexico for 300 years up to 1822. During this time, the rigid and authoritative colonial administrations were meticulous in their record-keeping. Whether it be military records, taxes, local parish census, ecclesiastic documents, or church records, Mexico is a goldmine of information to the genealogical and historical researcher. The Mexican church and civil documents following independence are, for most parts of Mexico, equally detailed.

For the last century and a half, war and economic instability throughout Mexico became a catalyst for northward immigration. For this reason, many Americans today look to the Mexican Republic as the land of their ancestors. For those who seek to trace their roots in Mexico, the best source of genealogical information is the Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City. Through this library and its associated Family History Centers scattered around the United States, you can access some 154,000 rolls of microfilm dealing with Mexico. According to the International Collections Department of the FHL, approximately 65% of these rolls are church records. In addition, the library holds nearly 900 books and maps dealing with Mexico. You can access the FHL catalog at:

By virtue of its large size, the Mexican state of Jalisco has contributed its fair share of immigrants to the United States during the last century. Located along the Pacific Ocean and extending eastward into the north central portion of the Republic, Jalisco has the second largest population of any Mexican state. With a total area of 31,152 square miles, Jalisco borders eight other Mexican states.

From Jalisco come many of the images that represent Mexico, most notably tequila, the Mexican rodeo, broad-rimmed sombrero hats, the Mexican Hat Dance, and Mariachi music. Boasting a population of six million people, Jalisco has the third largest economy in Mexico and exports almost $5 billion in goods to over eighty-one countries each year. As the fourth largest recipient of foreign investment, Jalisco is a hub for high-tech production.

The name Jalisco is derived from the combination of two Nahuatl words, Xalli (sand or gravel) and ixtli (face, or plain). Thus, the literal translation of the state name in English would be sandy face, or by extension, sandy plain. In pre-Columbian times, many indigenous groups, - most notably the Cazcanes, Cocas, Coras, Cuyutecos, Huichols, Tecuexes, Tepehuanes, Tochos, Pinome and Guachichiles - made their homes within the bounds of what is present-day Jalisco.

For the state of Jalisco alone, the Family History Library owns almost 20,000 rolls of microfilm, covering 198 distinct localities. Of the 165 towns and villages whose Catholic churches are represented in this collection, 46 have registers going back to the 1600s while another 37 have records stretching back to the 1700s. Each roll of microfilm in the FHL collection can be ordered from any local Family History Center for $3.77. That roll of film will stay "in-house" for one month and can be renewed at the end of that period.

Most of Jalisco's 124 municipios are also represented in the FHL catalog. Although Mexico enacted civil registration in 1859, most of the municipios of Jalisco did not start keeping birth, marriage, and death records until 1867 or later. In addition, the 1930 Mexican census is available for almost one hundred of the municipios. Another invaluable resource for the Hispanic researcher is the International Genealogical Index (IGI). In this database, many of the church records held by the FHL have been indexed. Of Mexico's 26 million baptism and marriage entries in the IGI, Jalisco accounts for 3.5 million. In my own research, I have found this powerful and dynamic database to be of enormous value.

Guadalajara, the second largest city in Mexico, is the capital of Jalisco. Founded in 1542, Guadalajara became the administrative capital of the province of Nueva Galicia. As the second largest tourist destination in Mexico, the Guadalajara Metropolitan Area enjoys the highest quality of life in Mexico. With a present-day population of almost 1,700,000, it is not surprising that many Mexican Americans search for their roots in the parish registers of Guadalajara and its immediate vicinity.

The FHL owns an impressive 3,400 rolls of microfilm dealing with Guadalajara. Fifteen Catholic churches, some with baptism and marriage registers stretching back as far as 1635, are represented on 1,500 rolls of film. Padrones (local census lists) from 1639 to 1875 comprise 48 rolls of film and can be a very useful resource. Property and water rights records can be found on 269 rolls of microfilm and date back to 1584. Notarial and probate records, dating back to at least 1583, make up almost 1,300 rolls.

For the most part, the baptism and marriage records of the Jalisco parish registers are remarkably detailed. With few exceptions, starting around 1800, the baptism records listed the abuelos paternos (paternal grandparents) and abuelos maternos (maternal grandparents). It is interesting to note that, as one goes back in time, the records of some cities actually become more detailed. For instance, a researching exploring the marriage records in Lagos de Moreno between 1650 and 1670 will find that they are amazingly detailed, even for Indian couples who have no surnames.

Even Aguascalientes (Hot Waters), one of the smallest states of the Mexican Republic, has a significant representation in the Family History Library. With an area of 2,113 square miles, Aguascalientes has a population of 619,000 and was a part of Zacatecas until 1835, when it was given the status of territory. Twenty-two years later, Aguascalientes would be declared a state within the Mexican Republic.

The capital of Aguascalientes is the city by the same name which had been founded by the Spaniards in 1575 as a small mining settlement during the height of the Chichimeca War. Some have referred to the city as La Ciudad Perforada (The City of Holes) because of the labyrinth of tunnels created by one of the Indian tribes in pre-Hispanic times. Although small in size, the state of Aguascalientes is an important element in Mexico's economy because of its textile, electronics, and auto parts industries. The state is also known for its production of silver, zinc, copper, gold, cattle, fruits and fine wines.

The FHL owns almost 1,900 rolls of microfilm that have been extracted from the churches and municipio offices of Aguascalientes. With twenty-five distinct localities represented, many of the municipio records are available to researchers. The Catholic church records for the city of Aguascalientes are contained on 531 rolls of film and date back to 1616. During the middle part of the Seventeenth Century, the padres at Nuestra Señora de Asunción Church in Downtown Aguascalientes kept very detailed records of marriages for Spaniards, Indian laborers, and African slaves. The municipio records for Aguascalientes date back to 1859 and are found on 460 rolls of film.

From one end of Mexico to the other, there are many resources available to those seeking to find out more about their Mexican heritage. But a successful search is contingent upon your own preparation. There are three preliminary steps to take in a successful search for your Mexican ancestors. First, you need to locate your ancestral town on a map. Secondly, you need to find out the name of the municipio in which the town was located since civil records were usually recorded in the capital city of each municipio. Thirdly, it is important to be aware of the names of adjacent villages where your ancestors may have attended church or baptized their children. The civil records and the church records for some of your Mexican ancestors may be kept in two separate towns.

For the first step, it is important to realize that maps of Mexico in atlases and tourist brochures usually only show the largest and most historically significant cities. For this reason, I strongly advise that you visit a college or university map library to locate a large-scale map (preferably 1:250,000). If you have an ancestral community, which you have not been able to locate on a conventional map or in the FHL catalog, you will understand the reason for this course of action.

Five years ago, when my friend Donna Morales and I were working on her family tree, we learned that some of her maternal ancestors had come from the small Hacienda de Santa Monica, Zacatecas, during the Nineteenth Century and the first decade of the 1900s. However, I was unable to find the hacienda on any conventional maps of Zacatecas. My next step was to pay a visit to the UCLA Map Library where I located a gazetteer of Zacatecas. Having pinpointed the geographic coordinates of Santa Monica in the gazetteer, I subsequently consulted a large-scale present-day map of Zacatecas, which showed Santa Monica as a small town. I made note of the fact that Santa Monica belonged to the municipio of Sain Alto and was a short distance from the small town of Rio de Medina.

Once I had become familiar with the terrain surrounding Santa Monica, Zacatecas, I was able to check the FHL catalog. I found that the Catholic Church records for Rio de Medina went back to 1899. I also checked the FHL inventory for Sain Alto and found that Sain Alto's civil records went back to 1862. I was able to locate the family in question in the records of both towns.

Since most municipio records in Mexico started in the 1860s or 1870s, the only way you will be able to trace your ancestors back into the 1600s or 1700s is by searching Catholic church registers for baptism and marriage records. For this reason, locating the church your ancestors attended is crucial to a successful search. During the course of our research, Donna and I had discovered that some of her ancestors came from the small pueblo of Villa Hidalgo in northern Jalisco. The parish register at La Santisima Trinidad church in Villa Hidalgo starts in 1814.

At this point, we thought that we may have reached the end of the line for this branch of Donna's family. However, after consulting a large-scale map of Jalisco, I found that a small town named Cieneguilla lay a few miles northeast across the border in Aguascalientes. In Cieneguilla, the baptism records started in 1716. Looking to the southeast, I found another nearby town, Teocaltiche. For this old settlement, the FHL had parish registers that date back to 1627. This analysis succeeded and we have found Donna's ancestors in both of these towns before 1814.

For the beginning researcher, tracing your ancestors back to Mexico is like a search for ethnic identity. Before Mexico gained independence, the Spanish padres at each parish would categorize each baptized child or newlywed with an ethnic label. Some of the most commonly used classifications were español (Spanish/White), mestizo (half Indian/half Spanish), indio (Indian), negro (African descent), mulato (half Spanish/half African), zambo (half Indian/half African), and lobo (three-quarters African/one-quarter Indian).

Over the last two centuries, China, the Philippine Islands, France, Italy, and the United States have contributed significant numbers of immigrants to Mexico. Along with the numerous Indian groups who occupied pre-Hispanic Mexico, these settlers have given Mexico its remarkable and fascinating diversity evident in the faces and features of Mexican Americans today.

If your family has been living in the United States for many years, your research needs will be quite different from immigrants or first-generation Mexican Americans. If you do not know the town from which your ancestors came from in Mexico or other areas, it is not likely that you will progress beyond what you have now. It is absolutely mandatory that you locate the exact name of a hacienda, town or village in Mexico from which your ancestor came. In this respect, your dilemma is no different from that of a German-American, Irish-American, or Italian-American. If you do not have a name of a place, you have nowhere to go.

It is likely that you may be able to get this information from your own relatives or from your parents papers in storage. But, one thing you can try to find if you have a non-citizen ancestor living in the US during the 1940s (wartime) is an Alien Registration Card. America wanted to keep track of all the noncitizens during this time so they were registered. The Alien Registration Program in 1940 required that all alien residents of the United States register at their local Post Office. The registrations from July 1940 to April 1944 are on microfilm in INS custody, searchable by name, date of birth, and place of birth.

You can write to the address below, saying you are requesting the info "under the Freedom of Information Act" or you can obtain a Form G-639 and fill it out. Do not forget to say that you are specifically asking for the information under the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act), or they may send the request back.

If the person is deceased, it might be good to send them a copy of the obituary, Social Security Death index entry or a death certificate. Tell them everything you know, where they lived in the 1940s, possible aliases, etc. This is the address:

INS Freedom of Information
425 I Street, NW
2nd Floor, ULLB
ULLICO Building
Washington, D.C. 20536
Fax: (202) 514-4310

For more information see:


Between 1903 and 1952, 1.5 million immigrants came across the border at El Paso and their names, ages, birthplaces, and last permanent addresses were recorded. The El Paso office says that the records for the short-term visitors may have been thrown away early on (1910s), but most of the records are available on microfilm at NARA. To find out more information about the National Archives offices and their microfilm holdings for border-crossing and other records, consult these websites:

Mexican Border Crossing Records:

Naturalization Records:

Naturalization records after 1907 can offer the researcher a great deal of information about his or her immigrant research. You can Email these facilities to ask them about your immigrant ancestor. If you decide to Email them, it is always good to try and give as much information as possible about the person concerned, birthplace, birth date, when they arrived in America, where they lived, address, and names of family members. Giving approximate dates is better than giving no information at all. Below is the website for NARA (National Archives and Records Administration). This site will give the Email addresses of the various facilities around the country:

Good luck with your journey of discovery.

Copyright © 2004, John P. Schmal. All Rights Reserved. Read more articles by John Schmal and Donna Morales.

Additional Resources:

Donna Morales and John Schmal wrote Mexican-American Genealogical Research: Following the Paper Trail to Mexico, (Heritage Books, 2002). They present readers with many examples of border-crossing records, alien registration, and naturalization. The book, published by Heritage Books, is available at this website:

Details: Mexican-American Genealogical Research: Following the Paper Trail to Mexico
Heritage Books, 2002
Code: S2139; Price: $21.00