| My research data base is very near completion, but to me, the personal stories are what make the data jump off the page and become an exciting historical saga.
I was helping my four-year-old students practice writing their names when my cell phone rang. Before hurricane Katrina, when I worked with troubled teens at St. Bernard High School, we were not allowed to have our cell phones on during class hours. Now, our cell phones have become a necessary intrusion on our daily lives, bringing news of insurance payments, FEMA grant decisions, or nagging contractors who needed additional materials or payments before they could continue their work on our devastated homes. I looked at the name on the display: it was my sister Darla. A slight rise in my adrenaline level was detected. Darla knew my schedule and would never interrupt me in the classroom unless it was important.
"I just wanted to let you know that Aunt Pat died."
My heart sunk. I had just last night found my phone book with the number of my mother's cousin "Ninky" Eugene Reyes, Sr., and his wife Pat, and I had decided to visit them this weekend. They had just recently moved out of their FEMA trailer and into their newly remodeled home. My plan was to visit and sit with them to gather some of their personal stories for the family history I had been working on for the past three years. My research data base is very near completion, but to me, the personal stories are what make the data jump off the page and become an exciting historical saga. Today, yet another of my elders had taken her personal insights with her to the grave. And what a woman! She was Italian, born Mary Patricia Sachitana, and had known cousin Ninky and my family since she was a teenager. She was so full of life, so animated when she spoke, and you could not have a conversation with her without laughing. I loved her positive attitude and no-nonsense take on life, love and people. She was a treasure. She had gone in for a routine colonoscopy this week, and an aneurysm was detected. Emergency surgery had been performed, but she did not survive the surgery.
The Reyes's were one of the few family members who had decided to return to St. Bernard Parish after hurricane Katrina destroyed it. Life has been difficult for us, the die-hards, who could not bear to allow our community to become a ghost town. Our family life, our friendships, our frequent gatherings had been badly fractured by distance; most of us had decided it was too hard to return and had moved elsewhere. New Orleans is where we were born, where we grew up, where we became the close, caring and sometimes crazy family that we are. But as our elders retired and moved to the suburbs in St. Bernard Parish, one by one my generation followed, to be close to our parents in their golden years. The wonderful life we enjoyed in this parish came to a tragic end on August 29, 2005, when the levees broke and sucked everything that was dear to us out to sea.
What was a passion of mine, documenting my family history and recording the stories, has become an obsession, a very urgent need. The elders of my grandmother's generation are gone, except for my aunt, Eiola Campora Martinez, my Grandma Lillian's sister-in-law. My last great-uncle, Irvin Martinez, Sr., passed away a few months after hurricane Katrina. He survived the storm, but the stress of the evacuation and returning to his damaged home were too much for his tired body.
| Thus began a journey that revealed a history so much more interesting than anything I'd read in history books. This was the history of my ancestors, of my family, and of me.
My family stories are important to me. It's not living in the past, it's not wishing for "simpler times" to return, it's not a romanticized version of reality. Were it not for the stories I've been saving in my head since I was a child, and on my computer since 2003, I would not have been able to endure what I've had to endure since that fateful day in 2005 when my world was turned upside-down. You see, my mother's family began in America in the mid-nineteenth century when a seaman, Felipe Madriaga, and an Irish girl, Brigett Nugent, fell in love on the ship that carried them to America, and they settled in Southeast Louisiana. When, in 2004, my cousins and I decided it was time for a family reunion, I decided to gather what information I had on the family, to research the history further, and have a genealogy record for our family to view at the reunion. Thus began a journey that revealed a history so much more interesting than anything I'd read in history books. This was the history of my ancestors, of my family, and of me. I can't express well enough in words what it feels like to gather stories, find documentation to back them up, and understand the people behind the names that had been talked about by my elders throughout my life.
The first document I found on Felipe Madriaga and Brigett Nugent was the 1860 census, and I found them right here in St. Bernard Parish, where nearly my entire family was living when hurricane Katrina hit. Our story had come to a full-circle! After interviewing my elders and researching the family line of Felipe and Brigett, those people were no longer names on a tomb...they were a part of me. I was amazed at how little our family dynamics have changed over the last century and a half. Our deep connection to family seems to be our lifeline, just as it was in the fishing villages of Louisiana so many decades ago. The stories of yellow fever epidemics, hurricanes, infant mortality, the Great Depression, and most important, survival, gave me strength when I needed it in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. When things seemed unbearable, my mantra became, "My ancestors survived worse; I know I can do this!" That mantra has helped me to do the things I must to get on with the business of living, without the need of medication!
Why you must begin now
Your family stories are important, too. History helps us to understand how we got to where we are today. It gives us an opportunity to pass on time-tested traditions that have improved the well-being of our family, and to identify and avoid those things that do not work. It helps us to understand how our personalities have been influenced by generations of child-raising techniques, the closeness of extended family, or the lack thereof. And, it can give us a sense of personal pride to study each historic era our ancestors lived in, the hardships they endured, and how they survived. History can be exciting when it is your own.
| As each generation passed, the rich oral tradition got lost in the ever-busy lifestyles of successive generations, especially since television....and the internet have replaced after-dinner story time.
It is important to remember your family stories, to tell them often to your children and grand children, and to write them down before they are lost forever. And, it is important to begin the conversations with your family elders that will clarify any ambiguity while they are still here to offer their eyewitness testimony! I have lost many elders over the past two decades, and aside from the personal loss I suffered through at the time of their deaths, that sorrow has been revisited as I attempt to fill in the holes, to find missing pieces to the puzzle, and give them a voice in the legacy of our family. As each generation passed, the rich oral tradition got lost in the ever-busy lifestyles of successive generations, especially since television, video games, after-school activities, and the internet have replaced after-dinner story time. That's why it is urgent that you find the time to gather the stories, to share them, and to document them for future generations.
|Rhonda Lee Richoux's family tree. Click to download pdf version.
Begin with what you know
Your parents, their siblings and extended family members can give you enough information to begin the history of your family. Write down the names, their family members, and approximate dates of birth or ages as your family remembers them at a certain time in their lives. Write down where they were born, if that information is known. Sometimes, even an assumed birthplace is enough to trace an ancestor back to his or her true place of origin once additional information is gathered.
Ask if any family documents exist, such as birth records, baptismal certificates, military discharge papers, immigration records, marriage certificates, etc. And always, always ask if there are any old photographs. Ask permission to have copies made of these documents and photographs, and please, treat these things as treasures! Return them to the owners in the same condition as they were when you borrowed them.
Once you have this information, you should begin your research with the most accessible tool available: a computer. If you do not have a personal computer with internet access, you can go to most libraries for free access to the internet, or pay a nominal fee at an internet cafe. Visit a family member with a computer. Ask your boss if you can use your work computer on your off time to do some research. While internet research is not the only source you should use, the vast resources now found online through genealogy websites can save you a lot of footwork, wrong turns, and copy fees that traditional research methods incur. Search engines such as Google, AOL and Yahoo Search, or Ask.com can help you to find these resources, and might even lead you to research already done on your family by some long-forgotten relative who did the work and published it on their family page.
I googled my mother's maiden name, Burtanog, and got quite a few hits, simply because our family had been interviewed by historians, writers and film makers who were interested in the longevity of our Filipino family line dating back to the mid-nineteenth century.
| You'd be surprised how many names are misspelled on old documents, because illiteracy, language barriers and/or accents prompted public officials to spell names as they heard them.
Should you find that someone has published a genealogy with names common to your own family history, contact the author through the email address offered on the page. I strongly encourage you to contact them, to find out what documentation they have that you might be missing, and to determine if they are, indeed, of the same family line. I have not once been refused information from anyone who was asked. Those of us who spend countless hours in researching our families are always happy to find a "cousin", and to share what we know with anyone who is interested. By sharing with you, we have another ally in our quest. Always share with them anything that you have that might add to their work. It's a win-win relationship for both of you!
When you visit the genealogy web sites, such as Ancestry.com, RootsWeb or FamilyTree.com, you have a choice to make. Most of these sites will tell you, free of charge, how many times the name you type into their search window appears in their records. If you only get a few "hits", I suggest you try phonetic spellings of the surnames, or alternate spellings of given names. "Bridgett" might appear as "Brigett"; Felipe may appear as "Philippe" or "Philip"; Mary might be "Maria". You'd be surprised how many names are misspelled on old documents, because illiteracy, language barriers and/or accents prompted public officials to spell names as they heard them. Here in Louisiana, my ancestors lived under the French, Spanish and American flags, and name spellings were distorted according to the preferred language of the census taker, priest or city clerk.
In the case of my great-great grandfather, Baltic Valeriano Borabod, I've found him or his family members under Baleriano Borabod, Baltic Baleriano, Valeriano Borabot, Borobat, and Borbat! Once you begin to research in earnest, you will have to sort through many bad hits before finding one that fits. This is where cross-referencing becomes important.
If you find enough "hits" on names you're interested in, you might consider subscribing to the service so that you can view its records, which might include viewable, printable photocopies or references of birth records, marriage records, baptismal records, obituary notices, ship passenger lists, immigration records, death records, divorce records, and census records. You will also be able to view information submitted by other members who have ancestors common to your family.
| ...I was disheartened to learn that many of the old records had been destroyed, either by storms or fires, or for political reasons during the country's history of colonialism, war, and military coups.
There are also message boards, by which you can type in the names you are researching, and possibly get responses from other members who have information to share with you. I found some long-lost relatives through the message boards, and got a wealth of information from them! Some genealogy services offer a free 30- or 60-day subscription, which might be enough time for you to gather the information you need. Other services only offer annual subscriptions, but with the time and money I've saved by finding the information and photocopies I needed online, my subscription to Ancestry.com was well worth the price. Their photocopies always include source records, so that if I wanted to go to the source to get an official, stamped copy of a record, I will know where to go.
There is a variety of software available to make it easier to record your family tree; I chose to purchase "Family Tree Maker" software. It formats everything for you, and you can publish the finished genealogy free of charge on www.RootsWeb. You will usually find advertisement for such software on any genealogy service you visit online.
Grave of Mathilda Bouquillon
History can destroy history
My Filipino ancestry has been the most difficult to trace for several reasons. One is that the genealogy services only have contracts with certain countries to access their records. The Philippine Islands is not one of the countries on their list. I found a lot of U.S. census records, births, marriages, deaths, and ship passenger lists that were important to my research, but nothing from the Philippine Islands. I found and joined several Filipino forums in an attempt to connect with people who might know something about my ancestral names, and did gain a lot of insight from the kind people who responded to my questions. However, I was disheartened to learn that many of the old records had been destroyed, either by storms or fires, or for political reasons during the country's history of colonialism, war, and military coups. Those records were destroyed before the days of photocopiers, microfiche, and computers, and, unless you can find a family member with the original documents, those records are lost forever.
Additionally, I do not know the specific birth places of some of my ancestors beyond the name of the island from which they came. In the case of my first Filipino ancestor in America, his country of origin on one U.S. census was listed as "Provencia de Manila, Spain". This in itself is, I'm told, a misnomer, as Mexico was the seat of government for the colony of the Philippines under Spanish rule. However, my mother found an old photograph of our original ancestor and his family, and on the back was written, "Great-Grandfather Felipe, from Ilocos North, Philippines". This was written by my grandmother's cousin, Lucien Laudia. It was an exciting piece of information to have, but correspondence with a Madriaga living in Ilocos Norte confirmed that record keeping was not a priority in previous generations. Unless I knew Felipe's parents, siblings and other relatives, it would be difficult to find out which living Madriagas, if any, might share our ancestry.
| By sharing the information I have with the rest of my family, we once again see the ties that bind, ties that neither distance nor time can destroy.
Those of you who still have family members in the Philippines, or who travel there personally, have the advantage of finding out what ancestral records might be available. I encourage you, or your family, to visit any church, library archives section, or records bureau that might have the information you need. Have a list of names you are interested in knowing more about. Here in Louisiana, certain records that are not yet in the public domain are available only to persons who can prove kinship to the deceased. You will have to check with the local government to find out what rules apply. Usually, a nominal copy fee is charged for photocopies, and standard fees apply for official, sealed copies of documents.
I cannot tell you what a rich and rewarding experience it has been for me to study the history of my family. I've connected with cousins I thought I would never know personally, and it's been a joyful reunion for our family. By sharing the information I have with the rest of my family, we once again see the ties that bind, ties that neither distance nor time can destroy. And I have been inspired by the courage and determination it took for my ancestors to survive the most difficult circumstances.
I hope that anyone reading this will be compelled to take on the task of being the family historian, to dig up the stories, find the proof, and present it to your family as a precious gift. Time is of the essence: our elders have done their work and will soon go to their rest. Don't let them go without their voice being heard.
My personal family page: Madriaga, Burtanog, Richoux Family History
To read my research notes and stories, and view the complete genealogy of Felipe Madriaga in PDF format, click on the "Madriaga History In Louisiana" PDF link in the Books section of my home page.
Marina Espina (book: Filipinos in Louisiana); Fred Cordova (Filipino American National Historical Society); Rene Tajima-Pena (film: "My America, or Honk If You Love Buddha"); James and Isabel Kenny (film: Dancing the Shrimp); author and journalist Helen Zia; Ruby deLuna (radio journalist, KUOW FM radio, Seattle, Washington).
Example: In the 1860 United States Census, Felipe was spelled Philippe, and Nugent was spelled Nogant. Other documents verified that the ages of the people named were correct for Felipe Madriaga and Brigett Nugent in or about the year 1860; additionally, the name of their child Elizabeth, and her age, matched what we knew of her through our family elders. Common family names on subsequent census records confirmed that the 1860 census did, indeed, list my original ancestors.