Finding Mexican Roots: Tips from Colleen Greene

Doing Mexican genealogy has its own set of challenges (even beyond the language barrier). Colleen Greene, a noted Mexican genealogy expert, shares her tips for finding your ancestor's hometown and major record groups you'll want to use. She also explains the structure of Hispanic surnames. 


Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 5

​You can listen to this episode by clicking the play button below. (You can also listen on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsStitcher, and most other podcast apps.)
Length: 31 minutes

About Colleen Greene

Colleen Greene is a librarian, a genealogist, and a historian. She's the Marketing Librarian and Digital Humanities Liaison at California State University, Fullerton. Colleen is a noted expert on Hispanic genealogy, and describes herself as being "half-Mexican, twice." (Both the father who raised her and her birth father are of Mexican descent.)

Understanding Hispanic Surnames

According to Colleen, traditionally, Hispanic women do not take their husband's surname. (That makes finding those maiden names so much easier!) However, in records in the United States and in more recent records in Mexico, a woman might append her husband's surname to her own, using the prefix "de" (meaning "of.")

Colleen's ancestor was Maria Nieto (Nieto being Maria's father's surname). If Maria wanted also reflect her husband's surname, she would be Maria Nieto de Robledo. (Robledo being her husband's surname.)

The other surname pattern are dual surnames, which are for both men and women. The first surname is the father's paternal surname; the second is the mother's paternal surname.

Maria's dual surname was Maria Nieto Compean — Nieto being her father's paternal surname and Compean being her mother's paternal surname. 

Searching for Hispanic Names

On early church parish records, it isn't unusual to not see a surname attached to the child; the child is referenced by just a given name and then the parents are named. However, it isn't always consistent.

Because of all of the variations of surnames in original records, databases, and online trees, it's important to search for all of the variations and combinations. (Colleen actually creates a "cheat sheet" of variations that she checks off as she's searching.)

The Importance of Location

While it is possible to find some records without knowing the ancestor's hometown, you will find many more records if you do know it. Civil registrations are arranged by location and church records are arranged by parish.

Colleen reports that, unfortunately, the name of the hometown is often lost within two or three generations of the family coming to the United States. 

To get around this problem, Colleen suggests researching extended family members (because family groups often migrated together) and examining border crossing records (available on Ancestry and FamilySearch) and naturalization records.

Mexican Civil Registration

Civil registration is the government's recording of births, marriages, and deaths. They began in the 1860s and are arranged by location. They are available on FamilySearch and Ancestry. (Colleen stated that some of the civil registration collections on FamilySearch are restricted to FamilySearch centers/affiliate libraries or to those with LDS accounts. However, I was able to view some collections from my home without an LDS account. Check the records for the locations you're interested in.)

Church Parish Records

These are the baptisms, marriages, and burials recorded by various Catholic churches. There are a few in the 1500s, but most begin in the 1600s. They are also arranged by location (parish). While there are indexed collections on both FamilySearch and Ancestry, the vast majority have not yet been indexed; you will need to browse through the images to find the records you're seeking. Colleen has a tutorial for this on her site.

Other Resources

Posted: October 3, 2018.

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  • Thank you. Even though I have no Mexican/Hispanic records to search, I’m sure a a lot of these hints can/may be helpful for other culture.

  • Fascinating topic and gives me hope. Mexican research has been intimidating to me as I do not speak the language. I have three separate nieces who have paternal Mexican roots and DNA test results show through New Mexico and Mexico areas. Plus South America.
    I currently receive newsletters from Colleen Greene but found this podcast so helpful with your excellent questions you asked Amy.

  • Thank you Colleen and Amy. Having grown up in California and after spending 25 years living in Colorado, I know that there are many folks living in the region with mixed Mexican ancestry. While many are from Mexico, some forget that these ancestors actually lived in the same region that later becomes part of the United States. This is kind of like the New Netherland Settlers who were later absorbed into English colonial America. I am sharing this post and Colleen’s Nov 2nd program with those I know whom should be interested. You may be interested in WikiTree’s Mexican Project ( where they are collaborating to help people establish their Mexican Roots. We could use more members who can share their knowledge and expertise.

  • I don’t have any identified Mexican ancestors as yet. However, my cousin married a woman from Honduras. I am wondering if these tips would translate for that country. I am having difficulty putting her last name of Leiva Hernandez in my database. Do I put it in all in the same surname field?