AfriGeneas World Research Forum
Cuban-Americans trace ancestry...
UM project helps Cuban-Americans trace ancestry to preserve heritage
By Madeline Baró Diaz
After Martha Ibañez Zervoudakis left Cuba as a child, her grandmother's stories connected her to an island she remembered mostly through photographs.
"Whenever my grandmother would start talking about family, I would just sit there and be hypnotized because I just loved it," said Zervoudakis, 47, a mother of four who lives in Southwest Ranches. Over the years, that interest turned into a genealogy hobby that led her to document about 2,400 relatives, with one family branch going back to the city of St. Augustine in the 17th century.
"What happens with every migration is you bring with you your music, your food, and you pass it on to future generations ... but we lose our family history," said Jorge Piñón, a senior research associate at UM's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies who runs the project.
The goal of the project is to preserve the history of the Cuban-American community and the various ethnic groups that called Cuba home over the centuries, beginning with the Guanahatabey, Ciboney and Taino indigenous settlers. Christopher Columbus' discovery of Cuba in 1492 ushered in Spanish colonization and the decimation of the indigenous inhabitants by war, slavery and disease less than a century later.
The Spanish brought in African slaves and as the sugar industry grew and railroad construction began in Cuba, an international labor force, including some indentured workers, came to the island from China, the United States, Mexico and other countries. Cuba also drew Jewish, Arab and Caribbean immigrants.
Following Fidel Castro's rise to power in 1959, Cubans of all ethnic groups fled and resettled in the United States and other countries.
Piñón got bitten by the genealogy bug three decades ago while he was living in New Orleans, the city of his ancestors. Armed with his great-grandmother's maiden name, Waugh, and the telephone book, Piñón sent out 40 to 50 letters to people sharing that name.
Distant cousins responded and in 1981, he visited them in New Orleans. In his long-lost relatives' attic was a family Bible with pictures and letters. He traced his New Orleans family back to Robert Waugh Scott, who was originally from England, and his wife, Alice McNicol George, a native of Scotland. Both moved to Cuba in the 19th century. He has since traced bloodlines going back to the 1600s and has documented more than 1,200 ancestors.
The institute has held seminars in Miami-Dade and Broward counties on how Cubans and other Hispanics can trace their family history. Much of the research involves obtaining church records -- such as baptism, marriage and death certificates -- and in many cases, tracking families back to Spain.
Because civil records are much more difficult to obtain in Cuba than in other countries, Piñón said the goal is to get a family's research there done as soon as possible.
The community of Cuban-American genealogists is transcribing documents and putting them online. The Cuban Genealogy Center has many of those documents, ranging from lists of people buried in cemeteries to databases for military and ship passengers. Ed Elizondo, a retired engineer who lives in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, runs the site, www.cubagenweb.org.
Elizondo has traced one side of his family to a knight who moved to Spain from what is now Germany in about 850. By combining his interests in computers and genealogy, Elizondo, 70, has become an expert on tracking Cuban family trees.
"It's an endless hobby," he said. "It's like collecting stamps or collecting coins, where you're never going to have a complete collection."
Zervoudakis, who teaches English in the homes of Miami-Dade children who are too sick to attend school, is a founding member of the Cuban Genealogy Club of Miami. She began dabbling in genealogy in 1988, when she interviewed her grandmother and prepared a family tree for her 80th birthday.
Hooked on the hunt for history, Zervoudakis discovered her paternal roots went back to St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States.
She learned her father's family left St. Augustine for Cuba after the English took it from the Spanish in 1763. When the Spanish returned 20 years later, so did her ancestors, but they went back to Cuba when Florida became an American territory. Eventually they settled in Pinar del Rio, where they became farmers and business owners.
Since finding the St. Augustine link, she has made many trips to the colonial city. Even during family getaways, she finds time to pore over old records.
Like her grandmother's stories, her search is a link to her roots.
"Every time I go to St. Augustine, I feel like I'm walking in a place that my ancestors walked," she said. "I'd like to be able to do that in Cuba."
Madeline Baró Diaz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 305-810-5007.