A Look at Family Names & Ancestry as Part of Hispanic Heritage Month

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from September 15 through October 15, Latina.com staffers have taken to ancestry.com for more insight into their families and heritage – while blogging about their findings. Here’s one staffer’s experience.

Growing up in Indiana, I always embraced my heritage  -- without really ever considering what that meant, at least fully. I corrected people who pronounced my last name wrong (Leal), my sister’s middle name wrong (Susana), or confused my dad for a “Benjamin” (Benancio).  Names, I thought, were important as markers of identity. Especially when you could trace them back as part of your cultural heritage. 

See, my dad was a “Jr.” – as in, he was named after his father. My sister’s middle name came from our great-aunt. And Leal? Well, we come from a long line of Leals: my grandmother and grandfather had the same last name when they married, meaning my two great-grandfathers had the same surname, as well. (Fun fact: they married siblings – so the Leal family tree is pretty wide!) 

My Mexican-American dad was one of his only siblings (of which he had ten) to move out of Texas. Thus, for as long as I can remember, we would make the 17-hour drive down to visit my family – grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and more. 

But besides family memories and anecdotes, which can become muddled and murky over time, I didn’t have much to go on. That’s when this project came in. 

I was able to find my grandfather’s date of birth, his army enlistment records for World War II and his inclusion on the census taken in 1930, when he was a young boy. His five siblings were listed, along with his parents’ names, race, education level and occupation. (My great-grandfather was a farmworker, and neither of my great-grandparents could read nor write.)

I found information for my grandmother’s parents too, but unfortunately very little. I had a birthdate for my great-grandfather Cosme, well, sort of (“about 1898”), but nothing for my great-grandmother. And I had that they lived in Duval county, where their children were then born. 

But for both of them, I remember my dad’s descriptions that became burned in my brain over time: that Cosme had some “native” blood, with dark, dark skin. And that his grandmother, my great-grandmother, had green eyes and was so light-skinned that storeowners thought she was “white,” and would question my dad’s presence when she took him shopping.

Which of course, always fascinated and encouraged my understanding of race, ethnicity and perceptions of both. Because in a world so preoccupied with categories, it was always so interesting to see what labels others put on you and your family, as well as the categorizations you come to embrace and identify with.

For example, I noted that the 1930s census, which recorded my great-grandfather (father to Benancio, Sr.) as “Mexican” and his wife as Mexican under the category of “race”, also recorded all of their children as “white.” From my understanding, because they were born in Texas, their race became convoluted with their citizenship status. Not to say that “Mexican” is a race, of course, but from records, it served as a distinction – this was a white person of U.S. status, but their parents were Mexicans. But yet, my dad’s side of the family has always held to the “Mexican” identification. Interesting no?

In any case, the project gave me even more to talk to my dad about on our next phone call. As he begins to grow older, it’s up to me (along with my siblings and cousins) to keep the family stories, names and legacies alive. Because your heritage, your family, your culture – those are all parts of you.  

How are you celebrating your Hispanic heritage this month?