Sunday, April 13, 2014

52 Ancestors – #15 Joseph de Rivera

I write today about my oldest male ancestor from whom I inherited the surname Rivera, my 4th great grandfather. I don't know too much about him, so I'll just add what I do know and see where it goes from there!

When I first began my research at the age of 14 (yup, I was that young when I really started my searches), there were a few goals I had in mind. I wanted to: 1) Find out my families ethnic backgrounds, 2) Find ancestors that traced back to Spain, and 3) Find the origins of my last name. I don't know if every genealogist goes through this or if it's more common amongst the male genealogists, but I wanted to know where my Rivera last name came from. Especially since I could and hopefully one day will pass this surname to my children, I wanted to know what it meant to be a Rivera descendant. The surname I carry everyday and identify myself with - the surname I sign on all my documents.

Don't get me wrong, I love both of my parents' surnames and definitely revere my mother's, but being born in the USA and only carrying one instead of both made me think a lot more about Rivera. When I started my search, it was definitely hard. Rivera is one, if not the #1, of the most common surnames in Puerto Rico. I had absolutely no idea where the name came from within Puerto Rico and only knew that my grandfather was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. One genealogy-altering conversation with my aunt revealed to me that my great grandfather was born in Toa Alta, Puerto Rico and from there the family would begin to unravel itself.

Toa Alta, Puerto Rico [Google]

My Rivera ancestors have been in Toa Alta for about 150 years from what my research has shown. My great-aunt herself was born in Toa Alta and I imagine we still have distant cousins and family members there. With the help of the Toa Alta Civil Registry records as well as church records, I have been able to trace my surname back to a Joseph de Rivera. Equally, my Toa Alta family has lived through most of the municipality in the barrios of Río Lajas, Quebrada Arenas, Galateo and Quebrada Cruz (all on the Western side of Toa Alta).

Iglesia San Fernando Rey, Toa Alta, Puerto Rico [Geonorte Blog]
Joseph de Rivera (also written as José de Rivera), was probably born in Toa Alta, Puerto Rico himself. Based on the age of his earliest born child, Francisco Rivera Román born in 1806, it is likely that Joseph was born about the late 1770-mid 1780s. I have been able to find the baptism records for 9 of Joseph's children, and I'm pretty sure that's all of them. Joseph's wife was named Getrudis Román, also probably a native of Toa Alta. Since I haven't been able to find a death certificate for Joseph I can't tell whether he would have been categorized as blanco or mulato/pardo.

Gertrudis on the other hand passed away on the 29th of December 1844 and was written down as parda libre on her death record. Parda libre from my understanding was a term used for mixed people who were never enslaved in Puerto Rico. This would mean that Gertrudis was born and lived free while in Toa Alta; however there is some debate to what the actual mix of "pardo/parda" really is. Some argue that a person labeled as pardo/parda would have been mixed between Spanish and native Taíno, yet some argue that the term was synonymous with mulato/mulata and would have meant the mix of a Taíno and an African. Since many people at this time were all about keeping lines as pure as possible (not all families were of course), I tend to lean towards the first meaning of pardo. I imagine that Gertrudis could have been a mixed Puerto Rican for at least 2-3 generations if her parents arrived on the earliest boats to the island.

Toa Alta for me now means a lot. Growing up I had never heard of the town, despite it being so close to San Juan, I had no idea what "Toa Alta" was. I knew of towns such as Yabucoa, Lares, Manatí, and Vega Baja because we had family who had recently moved from these areas into San Juan. Yet because I didn't know my grandfather or his family I had no idea that we had ancestors from Toa Alta and from Corozal (a neighboring town of Toa Alta). Who knew that I had ancestors living in this town for close to 150 years and potentially some of the first settlers in this town as well.

Flag of Toa Alta, Puerto Rico [Google]

Emblem of Toa Alta "Non Deserit Alta" [Google]
I really hope to one day visit Toa Alta! In all the times I have been to Puerto Rico I have never visited this town - I have however been to Toa Baja which isn't too far off. The town is one of the oldest coastal towns of Puerto Rico being founded in 1751 and the church began its construction in 1752, who knows if Joseph or a brother/sister or maybe even parent was one of the first of their family to be baptized or married in this church. I also wonder how my Rivera family made its way into Toa Alta, being that they stayed on the western side of Toa Alta could they have moved in from Vega Alta or down from Dorado?

Like I previously mentioned, I don't know if Joseph de Rivera would have been categorized as blanco or pardo but with the help of my Y-DNA I can definitely take a guess as to which category he would fit into. When I took the 23andme test for myself, these were one of the results I was most excited for - the haplogroup of my paternal lineage. I would get a genetic glimpse into the origins of my paternal line, predating many current borders and even surname traditions. I was able to discover that my paternal haplogroup is a European group known as I2a1* commonly found in parts of Eastern and Southern Europe which definitely surprised me. But my specific group, I2a1*, has a bit of a different place of origin- up in the Pyrenees between present-day Spain and France.

Haplogroup I2a1* [23andme]

Origins of the branch I2a1 [23andme]

It is interesting to think that potentially Joseph de Rivera's father, grandfather or even great grandfather could have immigrated from this area and my guess most likely Spain. The origin of the surname "Rivera" is apparently a person who has lived by the riverbank, could that possibly be how we got our surname in Spain? It is very exciting being connected to a man born about 200 years before me who passed down his surname and haplogroup to me. I can't wait to discover more about Joseph and his origins, maybe I'll be able to trace my Riveras to a town/place outside of Puerto Rico!


  1. I read somewhere once that the surname Rivera was more common in Puerto Rico then any other Hispanic country. I actually grew up knowing many. Wow 14, I'm again impressed that you started your research so early.

  2. Splendid. Great job there! You have not only managed to identify a significant forebear, you've also firmly established yourself further into history. That's what's very rewarding about tracing your roots. It's only a matter of
    mobilizing resource in order to pull this off well.

    Ruby Badcoe @ Williams Data Management