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Mexico Genealogy 101

Tracing Your Family Tree in Mexico


Mexican happy baby holding his teddy bear.
Gwyn Photography/The Image Bank/Getty Images
Due to hundreds of years of meticulous record-keeping, Mexico offers a wealth of church and civil records for the genealogical and historical researcher. It is also the homeland of one in every 10 Americans. Learn more about your Mexican heritage, with these steps for tracing your family tree in Mexico.

Mexico has a rich history stretching back to ancient times. Archaeology sites around the country speak of ancient civilizations flourishing in what is present-day Mexico thousands of years before the arrival of the first Europeans, such as the Olmec, thought by some to be the mother culture of Mesoamerican civilization, who lived around 1200 to 800 BC, and the Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula who flourished from about 250 BC to 900 AD.

Spanish Rule

During the early 15th century the fierce Aztecs rose to power, maintaining dominance over the region until they were defeated in 1519 by Hernan Cortes and his group of just over 900 Spanish explorers. Called "New Spain," the territory then came under control of the Spanish Crown.
Spanish kings encouraged the exploration of new lands by granting conquistadors the right to establish settlements in exchange for one-fifth (el quinto real, the royal fifth) of any treasure discovered.

The colony of New Spain rapidly outgrew the initial borders of the Aztec Empire, encompassing all of present-day Mexico, as well as Central America (as far south as Costa Rica), and much of the present-day southwest United States, including all or parts of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.

Spanish Society

The Spanish continued to rule over most of Mexico until 1821 when Mexico achieved status as an independent country. During that time, the availability of inexpensive land attracted other Spanish immigrants who sought the social status afforded to land owners by Spanish society at that time. These permanent settlers gave rise to four distinct social classes:
  • Peninsulars, or the ruling class, were people born in Spain or Portugal. To maintain the line, some men sent their wives back to Spain to give birth, to ensure that their children also achieved "peninsular" status.

  • Criollos were people of pure Spanish descent who were born in New Spain. It was this group, with the support of mestizos and other lower classes, that initiated the 11 years of rebellion to claim independence for Mexico in 1821, in response to increasing taxes and regulations by the Crown.

  • Mestizos were people of mixed blood (generally used to identify Spanish/Indian ancestry) who ranked lower than the criollos in New Spain’s social hierarchy. Most Mexicans today (more than 65%) are descended from this group.

  • Indigenas are the native Indians of Mexico. Prior to Mexican independence, several classifications were commonly used by the Spanish to identify people with Indian ancestry, including: indio (Indian), mestizo (half Indian/half white), zambo (half-Indian/half African) and lobo (three-quarters African/one-quarter Indian).

While Mexico has welcomed many other immigrants to its shores, the majority of its population descends from the Spanish, the Indians, or are of mixed Spanish and Indian heritage (mestizos). Blacks and some Asians are also part of the Mexican population.

Where Did They Live?

To conduct a successful family history search in Mexico, you'll first need to know the name of the town where your ancestors lived, and the name of the municipio in which the town was located. It is also helpful to be familiar with the names of nearby towns and villages, as your ancestors may have left records there as well. As with genealogy research in most countries, this step is essential. Your family members may be able to provide you with this information but, if not, try the steps outlined in Finding the Birthplace of your Immigrant Ancestor.

The Federal Republic of Mexico is made up of 32 states and the Distrito Federal (federal district). Each state is then divided into municipios (equivalent to a U.S. county), which may include several cities, towns and villages. Civil records are kept by the municipio, which church records will generally be found in the town or village.

Next Step > Locating Births, Marriages & Deaths in Mexico

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