Thursday, May 14, 2015

Mexico or San Benito? Where is Grandma from?

Have I finally nailed this down?

I have never had an issue with my American heritage being relatively new; especially with a British born mother.  Having been brought up in a military family a lot of my friends had foreign-born mothers.

But my father’s US heritage was at least first generation American and probably a 2nd generation as well.  Being an “Anglo-Mexican Americans”-now that made my sisters and I a little more different than our military friends.

My dad’s father was commonly discussed as having been born in Mexico.  My dad’s mother, my Grandma Rachel, her place of origin to me, always seemed to be the question. 

I had heard that she was born in San Benito, Cameron County, Texas.  And certainly when I asked anyone, that was the answer.  Almost as if “it must be so!”  Not really paying attention much as a kid, there was something that stayed with me that said there was a doubt.

And with that doubt, I entered “Mexico or San Benito” in my grandmother place of birth when I started my tree a couple of years ago.  Certainly the first two facts I pulled off of planted that seed of doubt a little further. 

The first clue was the US 1920 census.[1]  My grandmother appears in the census as a 6-year-old living with her parents in Hidalgo County, Texas.  It states quite plainly that her place of birth, along with her whole family, was “Mexico”. Also, in this census, the question is asked regarding immigration year, and it states 1918.  Hmmm…maybe not San Benito after all.

When I asked my aunt about this finding, she said, “The census takers always put Mexico.  They didn’t care.”  While the stories of wide spread discrimination at the time are well known, that isn’t what this story is about.  I just want to know what was true.  Although there is a lot of “Mexico” all the way down the page, there are a few entries for persons with Latino names, but listed as being from Texas.

I moved on looking for more clues. 

My next clues came relatively quickly.  I found baptism registration in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico for both of my grandmother’s older siblings.  Both of my great grandparents on my grandma’s side have a long history of being from Rancho el Capote.  The likelihood she would have been baptized in Matamoros wouldn’t be out of the question.  Unfortunately, the entire year 1912, the year of her birth, is noted as missing from the on-line images at
My next “aha” moment came when I found a border-crossing card for my grandmother and her mother.[2]  She arrived in Brownsville from Matamoros and is 3 years.  The to the question on the card “Ever in US” the answer is “No”.

I’m getting ready to erase San Benito from the place of birth field in my tree.  But… is this really enough evidence to overturn any verbal evidence?  Not really.

The next record to assist (confuse) me is the birth certificate of her first child.  On the birth certificate, it plainly states her birthplace is Matamoros, Mexico.  At this point I am dying to erase San Benito!  But, you can’t believe everything you read as is evident by this birth certificate.  It had aged my grandma by 10 years!  I removed my finger from the backspace button.

The US 1930 Census starting turning the tide the other direction.  Grandma Rachel shows up with her husband and her oldest child living in Harlingen, Texas.[3]  In this census, her birthplace is listed as “Texas”.

For the birth of her next 3 children, she names Texas as her birthplace.  One of them as specific as San Benito.

In the 1940 census it is Texas again.  Finally there is the evidence of her SS-5 application in 1941 once again naming San Benito as her birthplace.

Which one to pick?  I still wasn’t comfortable either way.  One of the items I read in genealogy blogs is resolving any conflicts.  At this point I just don’t feel I have resolved anything. 

Finally, I remember asking my aunt whether she knew if there was a birth certificate for my grandma.  I had never found evidence of it online.  She had stated she remembered helping grandma file a late entry birth certificate around the time she was going to retire.  I decided to take my chances and pay the $22 fee and apply for a copy of it. 

It arrived 2 days ago.  Not expecting too much, I opened the envelope and read every detail.  I think I lucked out due to the fact it was a delay file.[4]  That means the certificate lists the supporting documentation.  The certificate was filed in 1974.   There are 3 supporting documents listed.  (Unfortunately, copies of the supporting documents do not accompany the certificate.  I asked via email the same day.  I was told the documents are returned at the time of the filing-boo!)

One document listed in the SS-5 application. I have a copy of that already.  Nothing new there.  Plus, I really am looking for something closer to the actual date of birth.
The second item is listed was an affidavit from her uncle, her mother’s brother.  Wow, I wish I had a copy of that!

The first item listed is what piques my interest.  It states it is a copy of her baptism certificate from St Benedict’s church in San Benito.  The baptism is less than 2 months after her birth. 

This is the most compelling evidence yet.  I have already emailed the parish asking them how I may request a copy of the entry. 

At this point, I have begrudgingly removed “Mexico” as my grandmother’s place of birth.  Who knows, maybe one day I will find something to make we want to put it back.  But I highly doubt the baptism certificate will point to Mexico as it was used as supporting documentation for US citizenship.

I’m disappointed.  I wanted her to be from Mexico.  It probably is a generational thing, but I’d be proud to say that is where she was born.  Does it matter?  Not at all.  But I’m not ignorant to the fact that at some point in our history it meant something socially.  Not to mention the issues of legal status; which she obviously went through.

But isn’t this why we go on this family history journey?  To uncover evidence and find our roots.  I already know I have a deep roots on Rancho el Capote outside Matamoros.  I just never met any of my ancestors that actually came from there.  I was hoping to be able to say with certainly… I had.


[1], 1920 United States Federal Census (Online publication - Provo, UT, USA:, ear: 1920; Census Place: Justice Precinct 8, Hidalgo, Texas; Roll: T625_1811; Page: 6A; Enumeration District: 99; Image:1132
[2] Lists of Aliens Arriving at Brownsville, Del Rio, Eagle Pass, El Paso, Laredo, Presidio, Rio Grande City and Roma, Texas, May 1903 - June 1909, and at Aros Ranch, Douglas, Lochiel, Naco and Nogales, Arizona, July 1906 - December 1910, NARA microfilm publication A3365, 5 rolls. ARC ID: 4489131.  M1502 Brownsville, Texas 1905-1953, 02, Image number 8567 of 10022,
[3], 1930 United States Federal Census, Year: 1930; Census Place: Precinct 6, Cameron, Texas; Roll: 2305; Page: 18B; Enumeration District: 0036; Image: 928.0; FHL microfilm: 2342039.
[4] Texas, Department of State Health Services; Vital Statistics Unit, Birth Certificates, Citing Raquel Farias, Delayed Certificate of Birth, Certificate number 292234, Cameron County, filed 26 Aug 1974, copy of original received 11 May 2015.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Cousin meets Cousin


In my previous two posts, I had discussed having ownership of my great uncle’s gramophone Uncle Fred and the Gramophone, and how more than 70 years after his untimely death, I had made contact with his direct descendants for the first time. A letter to the Editor

My Aunt Margaret called me out of the blue one day to tell me she had received a phone from her first cousin, Anthony Chinery.  This is the first time they had ever communicated.  He told her he had been in the US, and was on his way back home to the UK.  He mentioned that he happened to have been in Vail, Colorado.  Vail is only an hour and a half west of where I live.  And I had just been there a couple of days previous.   Just missed him!

She did have his phone number and passed it on to me.   “Tony” and I chatted a short time later, and I caught him just as he was leaving the east coast back to the UK.  He informed me he had a place in Vail, and returns a couple of times a year.  We agreed to make contact again when he returned.

In the meantime I researched more of what had happened to his father, Frederick Chinery, when he was presumed drown in the Java Sea on 13 February 1942.
Frederick George Chinery c1935

Frederick was working for the Malayan Broadcasting Company, and he and a few of his co-workers were among those of about 300 who made passage on the small cargo ship HMS Giang Bee.  His wife and 2 children had departed earlier on a different ship.  A survivor of the sinking gave a first hand account stating he had been with Frederick clinging to a raft for 24 hours after the sinking.[1]  There is an account online of the circumstances surrounding the sinking of the HMS Giang Bee, which was one of many ships sunk in the evacuation of Singapore.  To do the account justice, I suggest a quick read here-Sinking of Giang Bee

Tony and I missed finding an opportunity on his first return visit towards the end of 2014, but we finally found a day that worked for both of our schedules in March of 2015. 

I was a little nervous as I prepared for my trip up into the mountains that day.  I had always hoped to return this possession to its rightful family.  I had wrapped the gramophone in brown paper and twine, so it wasn’t evident immediately what I had; I wasn’t sure that he knew what I possessed.

Upon arriving in Vail, we quickly found his condo and went up to meet my cousin for the first time.    We met his lovely partner who helped make us feel very welcome.  I laid the package in the hall as I entered and we all introduced ourselves. 

Barbara, his partner, could barely contain herself and immediately went to the hall to retrieve the package.   Together, we all gathered around the kitchen island, as it was unwrapped.   I know there were tears in my eyes.   He was only a couple of years old when he lost his dad.  My father too, never knew his own dad.  I think I was imagining how my father would feel if he could connect with something of his dad’s in some way.  I could tell he was moved as he looked over the gramophone and some of the other items I brought with me; one of which was his niece Lori’s initial letter to my grandfather 30 years ago.

Once we got that out of the way, we stood around chatting and getting to know each other.  He told me I was the first relative he had ever met, outside he and his brother’s family.  I brought a family photo from 1965.  It was the last time my mother and her family were all photographed together.  With that photo, I introduced him to his Uncle, (my grandfather), and his three first cousins.  (My mom and her siblings)  There were also other pictures of his dad's brothers and sisters I had met.

He recounted to us the story of his family as refugees in South Africa during WWII. His mother knew no one.  They arrived with nothing.  His story is personal, and I did not ask him permission to share it here.  But it is amazing, and I am impressed by the incredible success he has made of himself.  In addition to success in business, he has climbed great peaks in the Alps, and has sailed across the Atlantic several times.   

We had the most enjoyable evening and then joined some visiting friends of theirs from the UK for dinner.  The friends were amazed by the dumb luck story of how, after all these years, we were able to connect while living worlds apart.  

I see the term over and over again in this hobby of mine….”Serendipity in Genealogy.”

[1]  citing Chinnery,-Frederick.  Also citing Medcalfe-Moore for additional details regarding Frederick.