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Genealogy boom gets Cubans closer to the island — or gets them off it

Cuban genealogist Lourdes del Pino doing research in the special collections room of FIU's Green Library.
Tim Padgett
Roots Research: Cuban genealogist Loures del Pino studying historical archives in the special collections room of FIU's Green Library.

Cuban genealogy is experiencing unprecedented interest. WLRN's Tim Padgett reports that for Cuban-Americans, it's about connecting with the island — and for Cubans, it's about getting off the island.

It wasn't until Lourdes del Pino became a mother that it hit her how important it was to rediscover her father.

Especially his story. Jesús Carreras Zayas was a Cuban revolutionary leader, "a commander in the Segunda Frente Nacional de Escambray," Del Pino points out. Carreras helped Fidel Castro come to power in 1959 — but he opposed communism. As a result, he had a lot of bitter run-ins with Castro's top henchman, Che Guevara, and took part in an anti-Castro revolt.

"Guevara hated my father's guts," Del Pino says. "So he had him killed by firing squad."

That was 1961, when Del Pino was only six months old. She and her mother soon had to leave Cuba, and as she moved around the hemisphere — living in exile in Venezuela, Mexico and Miami — the island would become a place, and a story, she lost contact with.

Then, she says, "I had kids, and that's basically when I started getting interested in genealogy. I just wanted them to know where they came from and who they came from — a bit of, 'Oh, I belong here,' which I hadn't had until then."

Jesus Carreras Zayas
Courtesy Lourdes del Pino
Jesus Carreras Zayas

Finding the details surrounding her father’s life and death wasn’t easy in a secretive, communist country like Cuba. Popular commercial genealogy services like Ancestry.com don’t exactly have a lot of access to records there.

But she located resources — like published accounts of people who were in prison with her father when he was killed — that not only confirmed his execution (one recounted that Guevara made a point of watching it himself), but also helped lead her to her family’s long lineage in southeastern Santiago de Cuba and beyond.

“I found we belong to one of the oldest families in Santiago de Cuba, since the colonization of the island," she says. "They were from from Ecija, Andalusia, Spain."

Today, Del Pino finds herself helping a record number of Cubans make discoveries like that. The Miami engineer is the vice president of the Cuban Genealogy Club of Miami.

It means you'll often find her poring over Cuban history books and archives in the special collections room of Florida International University's Green Library. It's a hushed space, but it's filled with fascinating folk art from around the world that seems to speak to the kind of roots research she does.

The club, in fact, has grown in recent years to more than 9,000 members. "It has exploded," Del Pino says. "We have members in Australia. We have members all over the world."

READ MORE: 'Lessons from Abuelo' wants kids — and families — to explore their own Cuban histories

That booming demand is two-pronged. For Cuban-Americans, it’s about finding roots on the island. For Cubans who live there, it’s about getting off the island.

A big driver of the former is the generation of Cubans who were born in the U.S. — and are today old enough to have lost parents or grandparents who were their only link to Cuba.

One family-history seeker Del Pino’s group has helped is Brian Tosko Bello, a marketing professional in Washington D.C. He caught the genealogy bug after a beloved Cuban-born grandmother passed away a few years ago in the U.S.

Cuban genealogy has exploded. We have Cuban Genealogy Club of Miami members in Australia now — all over the world.
Lourdes del Pino

“She’s a hero of mine, she was kind of a role model," Tosko Bello says. "And she was the last of 10 children.

"So all that oral history [about Cuba] I had done with her was gone. Like, the only other thing I could do was go there if I wanted to do more, which I very much wanted to do.”

After joining the Cuban Genealogy Club of Miami and navigating its resources, go to Cuba was exactly what Tosko Bello did in 2019. And he says the connections he made were profound — especially with the Cuba life of that deceased grandmother, Victoria Veneranda Bello Martínez.

“I found out she had a miscarriage and where the miscarriage took place in Havana," her says. "And that month I was in Cuba I walked by that corner, I don’t know, 200 times.

Roots Research: Cuban-American Brian Tosko Bello researching ancestors at the cemetery in Colon, Cuba, in 2019
Courtesy Brian Tosko Bello
Roots Research: Cuban-American Brian Tosko Bello researching ancestors at the cemetery in Colon, Cuba, in 2019

"Once you start putting all the pieces together you just get even more connected. And I’ve made so many inroads going back, like, six generations.”

As Tosko Bello hunted down his family history there, he also came in contact with treasure troves of genealogical data — especially records from church parishes and cemeteries he found while taking videos of ancestors’ graves in Colón, in central Cuba.

After returning, Tosko Bello partnered with another Cuban-American genealogy enthusiast in Miami, history doctoral student Richard Denis. They created their own site — Digital Cuba — and began digitizing Cuba’s untapped cemetery and parish information. They’ve even hosted what they call The Cuban Genealogy Podcast.

Tosko Bello says they weren’t prepared for the large response. In fact, they recently had to ask Cubans to stop sending requests to help them with personal family history searches. It was keeping them from their priority, the archive index work — which they hope people should be able to use without their help.

“We grew so fast that we can’t service the need," Tosko Bello says. "But, y’know, that’s a good problem to have.”

"The Grandchildren Law"

And these days, a mushrooming source of that demand is from Cubans on the island, according to Denis of Digital Cuba.

“I have found people there that spend the night trying to get in line at the civil registry, desperately looking for their ancestors," says Denis.

That’s because of recent Spanish immigration measures often known as the Ley de Nietos, or Grandchildren Law. They offer a path to Spanish citizenship for people with Spanish-born ancestors who, for example, were exiled during the Spanish Civil War.

It’s estimated that millions of Cubans could benefit from it. Meaning: If they can prove that ancestral connection, it’s a get-off-the-island-free card for those who, as Denis said, are desperate to escape Cuba’s repressive communist regime and collapsed economy.

Dr. Osmany Ramos at home in Matanzas, Cuba, researching ancestral documents.
Courtesy of Osmany Ramos
Dr. Osmany Ramos at home in Matanzas, Cuba, researching ancestral documents.

Denis administers Genealogías Matanceras, a genealogy Facebook groupthat helps Cubans in Matanzas — the province where his family is from — find their family histories. It's one of several that focus on particular cities and regions in Cuba.

“Seven years ago you really wouldn’t see many Cubans in Cuba on these pages," Denis says. "Now, they’re all over these pages, because — look, I was just there in Cuba last month. [Conditions were] really, really bad. I’d never seen it that bad. There’s no gas right now in Matanzas.”

One of the novice genealogists Denis is working with in Matanzas is Dr. Osmany Ramos, a family physician.

“No one can deny that the main reason Cubans [on the island] are doing this now is to someday have a Spanish passport," Ramos told me from Matanzas.

Through means like obscure newspaper archives and mainstream sites like FamilySearch.org, Ramos has zeroed in on a great-grandfather — his name was Antonio Marrero — who emigrated to Cuba from the Canary Islands of Spain.

“I’m just firming up the details of how he died and then I’m set," Ramos said. "Gaining Spanish citizenship will be a big benefit to my family.”

It’s such a sought-after benefit, in fact, that Facebook pages are being overwhelmed. Last month the director of a genealogy Facebook group for folks in Camagüey, Cuba, put her foot down. “This page will only be used for purely genealogical purposes from now on,” she wrote, “and NOT to help you find ancestors who will get you Spanish citizenship.”

Ramos says he understands her exasperation — and also appreciates more today the value of genealogy for its own sake, not just for purposes of emigration.

“What I find most worthwhile about this, really, are our fascinating family histories," Ramos said. "For example, I’m discovering my great-grandfather may have been shot to death during anti-immigrant unrest in 1911. It makes you look at yourself in important and different ways.”

The irony, Ramos told me, is that an effort that could help him someday leave Cuba, is actually making him feel closer to it.

No one can deny that the main reason Cubans on the island are doing genealogy now is to someday have a Spanish passport.
Osmany Ramos

Younger generations also drawn in

The other good byproduct of the Ley de Nietos interest, Ramos argues, is that it's gotten not just middle-aged Cubans like him interested in their family pasts, but also younger Cubans.

Younger Cuban-Americans, too, are being drawn in — including 27-year-old Gabriel Garcia, a Miami financial consultant who was born in western Consolación del Sur, Cuba, and whose grandfather had been a political prisoner under the communist regime.

Driven by curiosity about that and other family stories, Garcia started a Cuban genealogy Facebook group, Cuban Genealogy/Genealogía Cubana, when he was in high school.

"I just saw a real lack of genealogy resources for Cubans," Garcia says.

So he set out finding them — such as archives of old Cuban newspapers like Diario de la Marina. Or Google Books, where he discovered a 19th-century inheritance lawsuit involving his ancestors in Cuba's western Pinar del Río province.

"I met 4th or 5th great-grandparents for the first time, and it was the best thing ever" — an opportunity, Garcia says, to see the island through the prism of people instead of politics.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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