A flash of curiosity for his Cuban roots inspired a Miami teenager to launch a voyage to the past in an effort to rescue his history. The journey took him back to a remote town in the Canary Islands in the 17th century.
Gabriel García, 17, has not traveled alone in his time machine. From his home in west Miami-Dade County he shares each stage of the trip with hundreds of fans around the world who have joined his Facebook group, Cuban Genealogy.
His age, passion and deftness to create a family tree in such short period of time, taking advantage of today’s digital technology, have turned the young man into a sensation among older adults interested in their ancestry in Cuba and Spain.
“It’s the hope of those of us who study Cuban genealogy,” says Lourdes del Pino, vice president of Cuban Genealogy Club of Miami. “He will be the heir and custodian of the history and knowledge we have accumulated throughout the years to facilitate the amateur work for those who are searching their roots.”
Two years ago Gabriel saw a TV commercial for ancestry.com, a paid subscription portal that allows users to search their family roots by reviewing online archives of genealogy records, including Census and other databases.
“It struck my curiosity to know where my ancestors came from and the history behind them,” says García, a student at G. Holmes Braddock High School. “But ancestry.com focuses mainly on the United States and has nothing on Cuba.”
Gabriel came to the United States when he was 4. Shy and respectful, he seems much younger than he is. He plans to study Business Administration and reads science-fiction books in his free time. In school, his classmates think that his genealogy hobby is “cool.” His father works in swimming pool maintenance and his mother is a housewife. Neither one of them had any knowledge about their origin and had no interest in searching it.
“I never imagined that I came from a family with so much history,” says his mother, Idalina Hernández. “We have found out about many relatives thanks to him. It’s amazing.”
All genealogical trips, no matter how long they may be, begin with a question. “What information do you have about your family?” Gabriel asked his four grandparents expecting them to remove the layers of their memories.
Reinaldo Hernández, his maternal grandfather, lives in Miami. He knew the names of his grandparents and where they were born, though he did not remember the dates. This allowed Gabriel to draw the first ancestral line to his great-great grandparents using the free templates from ancestry.com, which incorporate graphics and spaces for individual photographs and allows extending genealogical branches in consecutive screens.
Thus he began to fill every box with details about members of his family.
Hernández talked to his grandson about his cousin in Cuba, Alicia Plasencia, who had drawn her own family tree. She had her father’s baptismal certificate, where information of her great-grandparents, Ricardo Plasencia and Gabriela Aguilar, was recorded, including place and date of birth. They are Gabriel’s fourth grandparents — five generations before him.
One of Alicia’s siblings in Miami took Gabriel to a family reunion in Coral Gables. There he was informed of the work of José Ignacio Lombillo Plasencia, a retired psychiatrist in Naples who for 20 years had been investigating the origins of his family and of the Plasencias in Hermigua, a town in La Gomera, one of the Canary Islands in North Africa off the Moroccan coast. Gabriel contacted him immediately.
“I have never seen anybody of that age, or of any age, so hungry to know, in a scientific manner, about his ancestors,” says Lombillo, 75. “At least among the Plasencias — and there are many of us — no one has had that same interest.”
In the diocesan archives of the Archbishopric in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Lombillo found marriage records at the Church of Encarnation in Hermigua, where the nuptials between Carlos de Plasencia and Isabel Morales were registered on Aug. 16, 1685. The records also shows the names of the groom’s parents. His mother’s name was María Plasencia, probably born in the 1630s.
“She is the first documented Plasencia with a direct link to all of us,” Lombillo concluded.
Assembling a Puzzle
Gabriel’s great challenge was just starting. Now he had to find the link between his family tree and Lombillo’s to trace his lineage to 1630, a date he never imagined to reach when he set out to investigate his past.
“I had to find a common ancestor,” explains Gabriel, who spent weeks reviewing hundreds of names with dates of birth and death compiled by Lombillo, whose family tree’s multiple branches encompasses 10,000 family members.
The Plasencias arrived in La Gomera from the Iberian Peninsula after the Spanish Conquest of Tenerife (1494-1496). They lived there for centuries. Residents of the islands were not used to migrating.
By the end of the 19th century, however, Cuba began to take shape as a paradise land. Thousands of Canary Islanders emigrated and settled on the Caribbean island, among them Lombillo’s great-grandfather, Eduardo Plasencia, along with some siblings and cousins, all in their youth.
To connect lineages, Gabriel had to establish his blood kinship with this family pioneer — who died in Havana in 1949.
Eduardo had a sister, Felipa, married to Ricardo Plasencia. They were also cousins. Ricardo’s name captured Gabriel’s attention because it was the same name of his fourth grandparent, the great-grandfather of his maternal grandfather. He verified the dates of birth and death, and they matched.
“I was amazed by my finding,” Gabriel says.
A riddle, however, emerged. In Lombillo’s family tree Ricardo was married to Felipa; in Gabriel’s he was married to Gabriela Aguilar. A piece of the puzzle didn’t fit.
Gabriel contacted a cousin in Hermigua through Facebook, and he questioned an elderly member of the family who revealed that Ricardo was married twice. Gabriela was his first wife; when she died, he married his cousin Felipa, as it was traditional in those days.
Suddenly, Gabriel had connected himself to María Plasencia. His family tree extended rapidly through several centuries.
New Branches Grow
After overcoming the enormous difficulties of the genealogical searches in Cuba, Gabriel embarked on his second investigation from Miami. He was looking into the line of ascendance of Iluminada Bello, his maternal grandfather’s mother. Her ancestors, also from the Canary Islands, had emigrated in a cargo boat transporting lard.
“I thought the way in which they had arrived in Cuba was very interesting,” the teenager says.
Ricardo García, the grandfather who still lives in Cuba, looked for Bello’s baptismal certificate in the parish of Consolación del Sur, her native town.
There was no record for her, but a descendant of Bello’s brother had kept his birth certificate, which allowed Gabriel to begin to irrigate this branch of his family tree by obtaining the names and dates of birth of his great great-grandparents, as well as of his fourth grandparents.
In a Canary Islands genealogy online forum he met a Spanish woman with access to a wide databank with old marriage certificates. Climbing one generation at a time, the woman obtained nuptial information of Gabriel’s fifth, sixth and successive grandparents all the way to 1754, nine generations of ancestors.
Three months ago, Gabriel set out to trace his linage through the father of his maternal grandmother, José Antonio Lezcano, born in 1906 in the city of Pinar del Río.
His baptism certificate was found, but not those of his parents. Reluctant to hit a dead end, he asked a relative to search the baptism register of one of Lezcano’s uncles in San Luis, a nearby town.
A few days ago he had his hands on a copy of the coveted document. One more step in a lengthy process that is barely starting to bear fruit.