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Getting Started

  • Where were your family from before arriving on the shores of Puerto Rico?
  • Who were your great-grandparents?
  • How did they live and work long ago?
  • Do you have famous relatives?
  • Who are in those old family photos?
  • Was your family really “una familia” in Puerto Rico?

These are questions we all have asked ourselves at one time or another, but never really knew how to go about getting them answered. Most second and third generation Puerto Rican Americans know little about their cultural history, and much less about their own family history.

A Proud Heritage
Have you ever wondered who your ancestors were? Are you related to Muñoz Marin, Albizu Campos, Julia de Burgos, Roberto Clemente or even El Gigante de Carolina? Did your family descend from Tainos who lived on the island for centuries in peace, giving us our unique culture and pride? Or maybe you are descended of Spanish explorers who came to island long ago, bringing a new language and literature. Or are you descended from lineages that brought the rhythms of Africa to this island paradise.

Whether you find your roots on the island, in Spain or in Africa, one thing is certain, we are all Puerto Ricans. Descendants of a mix of people who lived and died within it’s shores. Tracing your ancestry could be one of the most fulfilling personal experiences you could ever have. We are all a part of every generation who came before us, shaping who we are today. Discovering our ancestors pays homage to their existence and helps us all know ourselves better.

Genealogy Today

Years ago, researching one’s family history in Puerto Rico meant spending hours in a dimly lit, dank archival of the some of the oldest of churches on the island. For those of us who live on the mainland, this was a challenge since doing real research requires much time….time not always allotted during a vacation to the island.

Over the years, government, private and some religious organizations have made it possible for people to trace their family’s history back centuries, providing records about our families in the past. These resources are available to the public and are close to home, making the journey to find your roots easier. More recently, new technology has helped make genealogy the fastest growing hobby today. But unless you know how to start, what your looking for, and where to look, your research could take much longer than it should.

The following are three basic steps to starting your family research for Puerto Rico. Accuracy of information is important whenever you do this kind of work. Wrong information may put you on a path to nowhere.

First Step: Interview Family

Interviewing family members should be the first step towards finding your family history. Prepare forms or a notebook where you can jot down details for you to later record in a pedigree chart or on computer software. Begin with your own parents or closest relatives. Ask for specific names of relatives, when and where they were born, etc. Your father’s father, father’s mother, brothers and sisters and do the same for your mother’s side, using only her maiden name. Ask for information on their parents (your grandparents) on both sides of the family and you will begin to see a family tree develop. Don’t be discouraged if they can’t remember certain names or dates, you can get those from other relatives or from records you will search through later. Get as much information as you can and write it in your notebook or chart. Take advantage of the information that is known only by the eldest in your family. Your grandparents and their siblings have an insight to a time long ago. Listen to their stories, they are the windows to your past. Also, share with family what you have found. Very often, sharing your findings, even if it is not yet complete, sparks memories as your family members realize how interested you are and become more willing to help you. Some will even share some of those interesting family stories that will give flavor to what you are gathering.


Second Step: Organize your Information

During the interviewing process, you are taking notes. These notes have to be organized in an easy to read format. For those without computers, pedigree charts help build the structure of your family tree. These charts allow you to build your tree beginning with your own information, then your parents, grandparents, etc., all on one sheet. Contact HGSNY for your free pedigree chart and make as many copies as you like. You can also get copies from our website. If you have a computer, there are several genealogy programs made specifically for this type of research. You can find them in your local computer or office supply store.

Third Step: Finding the Resources

Now you have names, locations and dates in an organized format. As Puerto Rican researchers, you have several avenues to go to find information. These resources will help you confirm what you already have, and fill in the blank parts of your family tree, allowing you to go farther back into your family’s history.

The Social Security Death Index contains a listing of people who filed for Social Security who have died. These listings are available on the internet at: Or you can visit your local Family History Center. There is one in every borough of New York City.

The Family History Center also has over 3900 records on microfilm for Puerto Rico. Everything from civil records that have been archived since 1885 to baptism records from some of the oldest churches in Puerto Rico, some dating back to the 1600’s!. All the American censuses taken for the island in 1910 and 1920 are also available there, even censuses for some pueblos on the island when it was still part of Spain.

El Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, at Hunter College, recently opened their Historical Archives of Puerto Rican Migration records to the public. These records are of Puerto Ricans who resided in New York City between 1930 and 1959, complete with picture identifications!

The National Archives has the complete census for the entire island in-house along with the military records for Puerto Ricans who were drafted and those who fought in World War I and World War II.

Living on the mainland has not limited us to research our roots. We have abundance of resources to study from right here. It’s up to us to take that first step towards opening the doors of our family’s past and re-discover the personal history of that culture, pride, the language and the rhythms that began with our ancestors. Discover how their lives became part of your history and leave for your children the legacy of your familia.

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