This post is in memory of my cousin, Serafin Rios Santiago, who recently joined the pantheon of ancestors. It is also dedicated to his daughter, my cousin Carmen, who will carry on his legacy with love. He is our newly-appointed ancestor angel watching over us. Amen!
I have always wanted to know more about my Afro-Boricua roots. I knew I had African ancestry on my PR side. But where did my African ancestors come from? Would I ever be able to find out what country/countries they came from or would I be at a loss as to their origins as I am with my African ancestors on my maternal side? Hmmm. Well, thanks to my PR cousins and the wonderful world of genetic genealogy, I have begun to put some pieces together. My family history is slowly unveiling itself to me —not completely, but just enough to put a smile on my face and let me know I am on the right track.
Carmen & Me
I met Carmen last year when she reached out to me after receiving her FTDNA results. We immediately connected with each other and began the task of trying to find out our common ancestor. We exchanged photos of our relatives as well as the locations of our ancestors. Carmen and I are predicted 3rd cousins so we share a set of 2nd great-grandparents in common.
I found out that Carmen’s mother was born in the same town, Anasco, Puerto Rico, as my paternal grandmother. Her maternal family was from Greater Aguada in Northwest Puerto Rico which was where my paternal grandmother’s ancestors resided. As an FYI, Carmen lost her mom, Rosa Peres Ponce, when she was very young so she was excited to meet a relative on her mom’s side. I have to say that I was taken back when I saw her mom’s photo as she very strongly resembled my youngest sister Joanna. Even Joanna had to admit that Carmen’s mom looked more like her than her own mother. Clearly, our genes had a story to tell.
Whenever someone with the surname Rios popped up on my 23andme DNA Relative list, I would call Carmen to see if that person was also on her list. Imagine my surprise when I asked her if a Serafin Rios Santiago was on her list. “Oh, that’s my dad”, she said. I was shocked that I was related to her dad. I thought I was related to her via her mom. Well, it turns out that I am related to BOTH her mom and her dad.
Looking at our shared segments in Family Inheritance Advanced, I am sharing a lot more DNA with Carmen than with her father. I am also sharing DNA on completely different chromosomes which indicate that I have a different ancestor in common with each of them. Carmen and I share a Spanish ancestor on her mom’s side.
Once I knew that Serafin was related to me, I knew I had to meet him. Carmen explained that, although he was not in the best of health, I was more than welcome to come over and see him.
On the morning that I was heading to Brooklyn to see my cousins, I received my AncestryDNA results. I had taken this DNA test to see if I shared DNA with Lee and Carter descendants as my 3rd great-grandmother, Crittie Anna Lee, was said to be the daughter of Charles Carter Lee, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s older brother, and a Black/Native American slave. As my Carter and Lee DNA matches popped up, I couldn’t help to be envious at how easy it was for my Euro DNA cousins to trace their ancestry. Those of us with African ancestry have a much more difficult time doing just that. Well, I certainly hopped on the train to Brooklyn hoping to forget my envy.
My first impression of Serafin was that he had such a sweet soul and a gentle spirit. Because of his ill health, we didn’t chat for long. However, he did mention his upbringing and then he dropped a bomb— a beautiful bomb. LOL He told me that his grandfather, Federico Cabrera, was a slave until 1873, when slavery in Puerti Rico was abolished, and that he had been born in SENEGAL. Just like that, my earlier envy flew out the door. Envy who? Envy what? I think the ancestors were sending me a sign that day that all was not lost. Their stories were determined to be told even if it took time.
From what Carmen and Serafin told me, Federico was purchased in Senegal by a Portuguese man and then sold to a Spaniard, Lorenzo Cayol, and shipped to Puerto Rico. Cayol, an immigrant from Spain, was one of the original inhabitants of Barceloneta (Little Barcelona), a town in Northern Puerto Rico. He was also the owner of Hacienda Plazuela, a sugarcane plantation. Federico was one of the many slaves who labored on this plantation.
Not only did Cayol purchase slaves directly from Africa, but he also purchased them from other countries in Latin American and the Caribbean. Below, you can see that he purchased slaves from Venezuela and St. Thomas. I have other cousins whose ancestors came from Martinique and Guadeloupe. Puerto Rico was definitely part of the active Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Both Carmen and I have another cousin in common, Dr. Ana Oquendo Pabon, who is my predicted 3rd cousin and possible 2nd cousin to Carmen. Ana was so kind as to provide more info about Federico to us. In an email, she wrote:
“According to that death record we all have for Federico, he died on the 05 of April 1905 which would have made him born about 1795 not 1820. María Salgado Nieves [Federico's wife] died at 100 years of age on the 26 of June 1907 and her birth as 1807. At the same time, María’s sister Dorotea Salgado Nieves married Zoilo Cabrera who was also born África. I have always suspected he was Federico’s brother. Dorotea died at the age of 65 of yellow fever on the 15 April 1907 (two months before María) and it mentions their parents (Sabás Salgado Cruz and María de la Cruz Nieves).”
So, it is quite possible that Federico had a brother named Zoilo who was also bought in Africa and sold into slavery in Puerto Rico.
When I look at my DNA matches on 23andme, FTDNA, and AncestryDNA, I see the surnames Cabrera, Salgado, Nieves, Cruz and others that may link me to Serafin via his African ancestor. When I see that 1% of my DNA admixture is from Senegal, I now know that this is real. I also remind Carmen that she is only 2 generations from slavery. In the grand scheme of things, that isn’t that long ago. Serafin has now passed the torch to her as keeper of their family history.
[I would be remiss if I didn't mention the great contribution of Ana and her brother, Padre Jose Antonio Oquendo Pabon. They were the founders of the geographical Proyecto ADN de Apellidos Puertorriqueños (Puerto Rican DNA Project at FTDNA). Ana has been the sole Administrator for the project for over 11 years, recruiting, educating and promoting genetic genealogy. Thanks to their pioneer work, FTDNA finally conceded to adding the Taíno to their Native American ancestral groups for matching and reporting. Their website is Muertito Heaven. ]
The Rodriguez Family of Yauco
I have another distant cousin, Alex, whom I am related to on his paternal Rodriguez line. My sister Elisa and I match him, his father, his paternal aunt as well as a couple of his cousins who share the same 2nd great-grandmother, Domitila Rodriguez (1843-1914). Alex’s paternal family was from Yauco which is where my paternal grandfather’s family resided. Yauco encompassed a much larger area in the 18th and 19th centuries. Guayanilla, where Alex’s family was from, was part of Yauco back then. I can trace my Rodriguez line back to the late 1700s-early 1800s to my 4th great-grandfather, Isidoro Rodriguez who was born in Yauco. All of my Rodriguez ancestors are from Susua Alta and Susua Baja, Yauco.
Alex told me that we are definitely related on his Rodriguez line though we haven’t found our common ancestor. What he did tell me was that his 2nd great-grandmother Domitila was born a slave. She had twin boys, Marcial and Marcelino, with Alexandre Sallaberry, a Frenchman, who were also born into slavery.
Alex mentioned that all his Rodriguez ancestors were owned by a Spanish Catholic priest, Padre Andres Avelino Rodriguez y Pacheco, a member of one of the founding Spanish families of Yauco. They labored on his plantation. Domitila’s mother, Rita Pacheco, was a slave of Andre’s mother, Maria Monserrate Pacheco y Rodriguez. Rita’s mother, Eusebia Rodriguez, and grandmother Maria were also slaves. We don’t know where in Africa the Rodriguez ancestors came from, however, it is this Rodriguez line that is related to my ancestors.
I should also mention that Yauco County was the capital of Boriken, the Taino name for Puerto Rico, when the Spanish arrived on the island. Yauco was governed by Agüeybana, the most powerful Taíno “cacique” (chief) and he controlled all the other caciques on the island. On my Rodriguez side, I also have Taino ancestry. When I look at photos of my great-uncle, Enrique Vega Bonilla, whose grandmother was a Rodriguez, I also see my Taino ancestors looking back at me. One day, I hope I will be able to trace my Taino ancestry as well.
My Pellot Primos
On AncestryDNA, I have 3 4th cousin Pellot matches and another 7 5th to distant cousin Pellot matches. I also have 2 5th to distant Pellot cousins on FTDNA. All of these DNA cousins can trace their ancestors back to Moca and many have the same ancestors. This tells me that somewhere on my paternal grandmother’s line there is an ancestor that I have in common who was a Pellot.
My 4th cousins, Ernie and Frances, have told me that the Pellots were slaves on the Hacienda Irurena plantation near Aceitunas, Moca in Northwest Puerto Rico. This plantation was built by three Pellot (Peugeot in a French) brothers in the early to mid-1800s after the Spanish Crown signed the Royal Decree of Graces. They were from the Basque region of Spain and, in fact, Irurena means “three siblings” in the Basque language. The Pellots purchased roughly 1,300 acres and built a coffee plantation though they raised other crops. Of course, slaves were imported to work on the plantation.
The Pellots sold the hacienda to another Frenchman, Juan Labadie, who had been the caretaker of the plantation under them. Labadie was married to the daughter of Juan Pellot and a freed slave, Cornelia Pellot y Pellot.
After Labadie passed away in 1893, Cornelia began making plans to build a mansion which was actually built in 1905. By that time, it had become a sugar plantation. After decades of disrepair, the municipality of Moca bought the plantation in 1993. Today it is known as Palacete Los Moreau and was named after Enrique LaGuerre’s novel, La Llamarada. LaGuerre had spent time at Hacienda Irurena and based his characters on a family that lived at the fictionalized Hacienda Irurena.
All of the African ancestors of my Pellot DNA cousins came from the Guinea Coast. In fact, prior to the emancipation of Puerto Rican slaves, there was an area on the grounds of Hacienda Irurena that was called “Petit Guinee.” Below are the Ancestry.com records for my cousin Frances’s ancestors Julian and Ana Pellot that indicate that they were from Guinea, Africa.
When I look at the surnames on my Pellot DNA cousins family trees, I do see surnames found on my grandmother’s side like, Roman, Soto, Mercado, and Nieves. It is just a matter of time before I find my link to the Pellots.
So, my search for my Afro-Boricua roots will continue….