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Cubans look to genealogy as a way off the island

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Cuban genealogy is experiencing an unprecedented boom. Tim Padgett of member station WLRN in Miami reports that for Cuban Americans, it's about finding roots on the island, but for Cubans who live there, it's about finding their ticket off.

TIM PADGETT, BYLINE: Lourdes Del Pino is a Cuban American engineer in Miami, but these days, she's feeling big demand for her second job.

LOURDES DEL PINO: People want us to help them find sacramental records or civil records in Cuba.

PADGETT: She's vice president of the Cuban Genealogy Club of Miami. In recent years, it's grown to more than 9,000 members.

DEL PINO: It has exploded. We have members in Australia. We have members all over the world.

PADGETT: Del Pino spends a lot of time at Florida International University poring over Cuban archives, helping people like Bryan Tosko Bello find their families' stories. Tosko Bello is a marketing professional in Washington, D.C. He caught the genealogy bug after a beloved Cuban-born grandmother passed away a few years ago in the U.S.

BRIAN TOSKO BELLO: She's a hero of mine. She was kind of a role model, and she was the last of 10 children, so all that oral history that I had done with her was gone. Like, the only other thing I could do was go there.

PADGETT: In 2019, Tosko Bello did go to Cuba, and as he hunted down his family's past, he discovered treasure troves of data like records from church parishes and cemeteries. Back in the U.S., he partnered with another Cuban American genealogy enthusiast in Miami, historian Richard Denis. They created the website Digital Cuba and digitized all that Cuban cemetery and parish information. They also made a podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "CUBAN GENEALOGY PODCAST")

TOSKO BELLO: We are doing our first famous Cuban family tree episode, starting with Mr. Desi Arnaz.

PADGETT: Tosko Bello says they weren't prepared for the large response for genealogical help.

TOSKO BELLO: We grew so fast that we can't service the need, but, you know, that's a good problem to have.

PADGETT: And these days, a mushrooming source of that demand is from Cubans on the island, says Richard Dennis of Digital Cuba.

RICHARD DENIS: I have found people there that spend the night trying to get in line at the civil registry, desperately looking for their ancestors.

PADGETT: That's because of the recent Spanish immigration measure known as the ley de nietos, or grandchildren law. It offers a path to Spanish citizenship for people with Spanish-born ancestors who, for example, were exiled during the Spanish Civil War. It's estimated that millions of Cubans could benefit from it, meaning if they can prove that ancestral connection, it's a get-off-the-island-free card, says Denis.

DENIS: So I administer Genealogias Matanceras.

PADGETT: That's a genealogy Facebook page that helps Cubans in Matanzas, the province where Denis' family is from, find their family stories. One of the novice genealogists Denis is working with there is Osmany Ramos, who's a physician.

OSMANY RAMOS: (Through interpreter) No one can deny the economic situation and that the main reason Cubans are doing this now is to someday have a Spanish passport.

PADGETT: Ramos has zeroed in on a great-grandfather - his name was Antonio - who emigrated to Cuba from the Canary Islands of Spain.

RAMOS: (Through interpreter) I'm just firming up the document, details of how he died. And then I'm set. Gaining Spanish citizenship will be a big benefit to my family.

PADGETT: But Ramos admits there's been another benefit.

RAMOS: (Through interpreter) What also interests me about this is our fascinating family histories in Cuba.

PADGETT: The irony, Ramos told me, is that an effort that could someday help him leave Cuba is actually making him feel closer to it. For NPR News, I'm Tim Padgett in Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tim Padgett
Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.