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Native New Mexican Traces Roots

Updated: May 8, 2021

A reproduction of an article published by Albuquerque Journal


Sunday, September 19, 1999

Native New Mexican Traces Roots

By Barbara Chavez Journal Staff Writer Francisco Sisneros got curious one day and asked his mother about his grandparents and great-grandparents.

That was 20 years ago.

Since then, Sisneros has traced his roots back some 400 years in New Mexico. Sisneros admits he has the bug. The family tree bug. He's got it bad, too. "I know people like me who start off asking, 'Who were my great-grandparents?' " he says. "Next thing you know they're combing through books, researching names and going wild with it." Sisneros says his family's history is very much like the histories of other Hispano families who entered New Mexico since it was colonized by Juan de Oñate in 1598.

The Sisneros family name reaches back some 27 generations in New Mexico. Others, like the Bacas, Chavezes, Sanchezes and Trujillos span probably 30 generations, says Sisneros, who is one of the founders of the Hispanic Genealogic Research Center, a nonprofit, primarily volunteer organization dedicated to helping New Mexicans trace and record their roots.

Like Sisneros, the many people who use the center's Web site -- www.hgrc-nm.org -- and resources at the various libraries and state archives, have found that by tracing their families' roots, they unlock a rich and deep-rooted heritage. Sisneros, for one, can't get enough. He says it's a project that doesn't have an end.

"That's why it's so intriguing," he says from the library of his home in Casa Colorada, near Belen. "I do what I can now to preserve this for my future generations." His library contains two computers, both packed with vital information; two microfilm machines; and hundreds of records, books, photos and documents about the history of New Mexico's people.

As the next millennium approaches, Sisneros, for one, doesn't mind looking to the past rather than the future.

What's in a name The Sisneros name in New Mexico, like most Spanish surnames, has undergone some orthographical changes. The name appears written as Sisneros and Cisneros as early as 1632. It's also been seen in many official documents as Zisneros. Sisneros says the only reason he can see in the variation is a phonological one. "To the many people who weren't educated -- though there were many who were highly educated -- the names all sounded the same." Sisneros says his grandfather, Esquipula, preferred the Cisneros spelling, but in writings from the 1930s, he often used both the "S" and "C" spellings. By the 1940s, says Sisneros, Esquipula had changed over almost exclusively to spelling the name Sisneros. Interestingly, Esquipula's younger brother, Federico, throughout his life instinctively used the Cisneros spelling.

Sisneros says there are many people who don't believe they are descended from the same family if the name is spelled differently. He says the Chavez/Chaves and Sanchez/Sanches name spellings underwent the same transformations as the Sisneroses. "But really, if you take the time to trace the roots, you see the (ancestor) is usually the same person," he says.

Sisneros While Sisneros' research has taken him back nearly 400 years, it's his family's life in the last 150 years that keeps him captivated.

It was a time of great change. The family had moved from its primary settlement in Rio Arriba to the Rio Abajo settlement of Abo, famous today for its mission ruins. In a book Sisneros wrote, "Sisneros: A New Mexico Family History," he tells of his family's life in the late 1890s and early 1900s. (The book was printed in small quantities, "mostly just for family members," said Sisneros.)


"My grandfather, Esquipula Sisneros, was born to Joaquin and Trinidad in Abo on June 30, 1890. When he was eleven days old his padrinos Nicolas Sisneros and Paublita Montoya took him to Manzano to be baptized."

Sisneros also discovered that Esquipula as an adult was a farmer and rancher and that between 1923 and 1925, he worked like others in the area on the construction of Highway 60, which was carved through the Abo Pass and ran parallel to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad.

"Every year Esquipula made sure that among the calabasas (squash) and corn he grew some punche mejicano, a native tobacco plant whose leaves when dried and crushed he favored for chewing. High up in the azotea of his house, he would keep a large can with a ready stash of punche." Like his forefathers, Esquipula also was involved in raising cattle and sheep. Esquipula ventured to La Joya to seek a bride. On Sept. 25, 1912, he married his double third cousin, Maria Ines Esquibel y Baca, daughter of Juan Silvestre Esquibel and Beneranda Baca, and brought her to live by the "ojo de Abo," the eye of Abo. Esquipula and Maria Ines had 14 children, but as Sisneros noted in his book, that's "not counting all of the miscarriages that Ines endured during her 26 years of child bearing." And many of their children died as infants. Besides tracking down the birth records, Sisneros also came across some entertaining documents. In one of Esquipula's ledgers, he proudly noted the purchase of a new car on July 7, 1925.

Sisneros noted the purchase in his book: "A Ford Model T, Esquipula noted the engine number to be 11574848. Purchased for $503.06, he bought an extra tire for $12.50 and picked up full insurance coverage for one year."

Sisneros also noted some important dates in New Mexico history. In 1918, for instance, the Spanish influenza epidemic hit the state. Sisneros says that since many of the state's doctors and nurses were in Europe with the U.S. Army, entire families became ill and in some instances, entire families died from the flu. Torrance County reeked of death and alcanfor. People walked around with their nose and mouth bandaged with gauze soaked in camphor so as not to contract the dreaded sickness. In the Manzano parish alone, Padre Jose recorded 334 deaths and noted that he had missed some in Abo and Escobosa. ... It is possible that some persons were unknowingly buried alive. Don Isidro Lovato reported to my father that he was stretched out in a makeshift coffin at his own velorio (wake) when he revived and sat up in his coffin to the astonishment of his mourners." It was estimated there were 50,000 cases of the flu and 5,000 deaths in New Mexico, says Sisneros.

Sisneros also included much happier times in his book -- his parents' wedding day, for example.

On Aug. 2, 1941, Antonio Sisneros was speeding along in a wine-colored 1932 Ford coupe from Abo to Willard, some thirty-eight miles away, to wed Aurora Garcia, who would be my mother. He was accompanied by his cousin George Campbell who had borrowed the car from his father. George would stand with Antonio at the wedding as his best man. George was to pair off with Epifania Garcia, Aurora's younger sister. That early morning as Antonio and George drove into the rising sun, the sides of narrow U.S. Highway 60 were blanketed with wild flowers still glistening from the morning dew. The aniles stooped especially tall. The wild flowers had been watered almost daily by the rains of 1941. This year was to be the wettest ever recorded in New Mexico's history -- at least since official records were first kept in 1849.

Sisneros also notes that Antonio had never been far from his home in Abo until his wedding. "He had helped his father with the cattle, the sheep and the crops," said Sisneros. More than anything, Sisneros says he hopes his book and his research represent a sampling of the history of New Mexico through the eyes of its people. He says it has helped him see his own heritage more clearly. "In Abo, a new generation, my generation, would be born to Antonio and Aurora (Sisneros) beginning in the early 1940s and reaching into the 1950s, a generation affected by more changes than all the combined changes and innovations of the previous ten generations. In spite of all the technological progress around us, our family remained poor even by those days' standards. Yet, through all the happy and pleasant moments and even through the hardships -- and there were some -- we remained a united family and a proud family. We instinctively knew we had deep roots in New Mexico and more than anything, we belonged, eramos de aqui."


Read the article on the Albuquerque Journal Website

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