Issues & Ideas

Journalist travels to Spain hoping to trace his ancestry back to the 15th century

ONE STEP: Juan Tamayo enters Salas de Bureba, where five generations of his family lived.
ONE STEP: Juan Tamayo enters Salas de Bureba, where five generations of his family lived.

It’s 7:30 on a freezing and rainy morning, and I am waiting outside an ancient brown stone building, my $3 umbrella useless against the downpour, my pants soaked, my toes tingling with cold. And I am asking myself why I am waiting outside doors that will not open for another two hours.

I kind-of know. This building in the Spanish city of Burgos holds the baptismal, marriage and death records for all of the surrounding province back to the 16th century, including the village of Salas de Bureba where five generations of my Tamayo ancestors lived. And I want to look at those records.

But I don’t know, not really. I don’t really know what drives me to spend hundreds of hours stitching together our family history, gathering dozens of baptismal records and digging up the death certificate of my great grandfather and namesake, Juan Manuel Tamayo, who emigrated to Cuba in the early 1880s, and the service record of his father, Elias Tamayo, who served 31 years in the Spanish police.

I am not looking for lost inheritances, land or royal titles. Family lore has Juan Manuel starting out as a poor baker in a tiny village of Jarahueca in eastern Cuba. Elias’ predecessors were hardscrabble farmers in Salas, in an arid region about 180 miles north of Madrid. But I am a journalist, and I have a need to know for sure, to prove the family history and dismiss the myths. So I think of my search as something like working on an investigative story for a newspaper.

Over the past four years, I have gathered documents confirming my paternal lineage back to Angelo de Tamayo, my 5th great-grandfather, born in 1692 in Salas. His baptismal record says his father was Simon de Tamayo, also born in Salas. But then, nothing on Simon’s parents. He comes almost out of nowhere and then disappears into the fog of history. Among the more florid possibilities: He was an illegitimate child, or a Jew who changed his surname to escape the after-effects of the Inquisition. The much easier explanation is that he was not really born in Salas.

Therefore I have come to Burgos to look at the archdiocesan archives, which hold the records of nearly 1,150 parishes in the province. Newly housed in a renovated corner of an XVIII Century Theology College, it sits a stone’s throw from the magnificent Burgos Cathedral, a Gothic concoction that seems to have been modeled from meringue and was declared a World Heritage Site in 1984.

I came to the archives yesterday morning, but arrived too late. The archive has only 10 desks, so visitors arrive very early to be among the first 10 in line when the doors open at 9:30 a.m. I arrived at 8:10 a.m. and was 13th in line. I waited in an atrium until the 2 p.m. closing time, hoping that one of the first 10 – most of them professional genealogical researchers – would leave early and I could slip in. No such luck.

Today, I arrived at 7:30 a.m. and I am first in line. The researchers who arrive later give me big smiles. I’d like to think that they are honoring my perseverance. More likely, they are more showing pity for the drenched American. Later that afternoon, one of the pros helped me to get into the Burgos public library and put my hands on genealogical gold – a three-inch bundle of parchment sheets, tied with thick strips of goatskin, containing the Salas de Bureba portion of a nationwide census in 1752. I snapped more than 70 photos of the pages listing the small plots of land, farm animals, beehives and other possessions listed for Angelo de Tamayo and his wife, Maria Ramos Alonso de Prado. One of the very last pages listed a house in Salas owned by “heirs of Simon de Tamayo.” But again, nothing on Simon’s parents.

That morning, I asked the Burgos church archivists to see the book recording the baptisms, marriages and deaths in the Salas parish for the years 1665 to 1670, calculating that was roughly the time of Simon’s birth. I got a two-inch thick book of parchment sheets, marked 1649-1680 and bound in what appeared to be a thicker parchment ripped from a medieval illustrated missal, its black musical notes almost one inch high, gold and red tracery on the edges. The book is in surprisingly good condition.

I found a 1665 baptismal certificate for Simon’s wife, Angela Ruiz. But no baptism for Simon that might identify his father and give me a lead on the previous generations.

My wife Grace and I later drive to Salas, a village of about 150 one and two-story stone houses, a single cafe and a small but impressive Church of Santa Maria, with a pair of storks nesting atop its bell tower. Salas is known for its cherry and apple harvests, but no Tamayos live there now. Government records show the village had 541 people in 1940, but Spain’s massive migration in the 1970s from the poor countryside to jobs in the cities left it with a mere 140 residents.

That same mass exodus out of rural areas killed the village of Tamayo, on a barren hillside four miles northwest of Salas and, according to a book on the history of the village, the very birthplace of the surname Tamayo. The 1752 census painted Tamayo as relatively prosperous, home to 111 people who lived off vineyards, cherry trees and the mule trains that carried salt out of a nearby mineral spring. It had 145 buildings, one combination hostel-restaurant, one bread oven, one butcher shop, a two-bed home for the poor and even one physician.

But the village that Grace and I visited in November is now a weed-covered ruin, a maze of half-fallen stone walls and jumbles of wooden beams as thick as my waist that once held up the floors and roofs of homes. The gutted skeleton of the Church of San Miguel, one door lintel with a simple carved cross and a wooden door with fancy metal studs are the only three items that today point to the village’s one-time prosperity. A book on the three-dozen similarly abandoned towns of Burgos province, The Silent Towns, calls Tamayo “the most emblematic image of the depopulation of rural Burgos.”

Tamayo was officially declared “disinhabited” in the early 1960s, but Niceto Muñoz, his wife and son moved in six years ago and rebuilt one of the ruined houses in hopes of turning it into a rural bed-and-breakfast. Muñoz died from cancer last year, and his 25-year-old son, Ismael, struggles to keep his dream alive.

“There is nothing here, nothing at all,” said Ismael. Eduardo Tamayo, a doctor who lives in the dazzling port city of San Sebastian to the north and wrote the book Tamayo and Its History, bought one of the ruins for $4,000 a few years back but he and his wife are still not at all sure what they might do with the property.

The only regular visitor these days seems to be Pedro Martinez, a thick-bodied 76-year-old who spent more than 40 years as a guest worker in Germany and retired to the town of Oña, 1.5 miles away. He now walks to Tamayo every day to tend to his two-dozen grape vines, on a plot no bigger than the backyard of a Miami town home, and ferment the juice into a couple of gallons of a sparkling white wine known as Chacoli. “For my own glass,” he says. I learned later that Tamayo and Oña are the birthplaces of Chacoli.

Back at the church archives in Burgos, it is approaching closing time on our third and last day in Burgos, and still nothing on Simon de Tamayo. The archive staffers have been incredibly friendly and the professional researchers offer encouragement but soon run out of ideas. I finish scanning the Salas book for 1649-1680 and I ask for the following period. An archivist in a white smock brings me a book marked 1680-1703. There are baptisms for a Simon Fernandez and an Antonio Tamayo, but nothing on Simon de Tamayo.

And then I see it, just 30 minutes before closing time. Thirteen lines written by a priest in a handwriting so unusually legible that the words almost pop off the page: “Simon de Tamayo, widower.” The document, dated May 8, 1698, says his wife Angela Ruiz had died and records his new marriage to Francisca de Cueba. Following the standard practice of the church, it also gives the names of Simon’s parents — Sebastian de Tamayo and Bernarda Fernandez.

I scream BINGO!! and shatter the almost ecclesiastical silence of the archive. Half the staffers and visitors give me a thumbs up. Half of them frown at my disturbing noise.

The mystery, at least this part of the mystery, is solved. I could not find Simon’s records in Salas because he was not really from Salas. The 1698 marriage certificate says his parents — my 7th great grandparents — were from Cornudilla, yet another tiny village of brown stone houses four miles from Tamayo and three from Salas de Bureba. We drove to Cornudilla, but two toothless old women in frayed housecoats and plastic slippers sweeping their stoops tell us that no Tamayos live there now.

Four weeks later, back in Miami, I get an email from the Burgos church archives with a copy of the marriage certificate of Sebastian Tamayo and Bernarda Fernandez, dated Nov. 26, 1657 and recorded in the parish book for Cornudilla. The archivists can find no baptisms for Sebastian or Simon in Cornudilla from 1604 to 1657, but they do find a Josef de Tamayo, baptized May 2, 1604. I suspect that Josef is Sebastian’s father. Joseph’s baptism identifies his father as Diego Tamayo the Younger, indicating that his father was also named Diego — Diego Senior. But there are no records for any Diego Tamayos — perhaps my 9th and 10th great grandfathers — in Cornudilla before 1604.

The trail of the Tamayo family has gone cold again. I always wanted to trace it back to the 1500s – an impressive achievement. But I am stuck tantalizingly close, at 1657. What to do? Maybe that’s enough, more than I could ever have expected when I first started this excavation of history. Maybe it’s time to start digging into other family lines, like my mothers’ Tendero and Cisneros relatives.

Maybe. But maybe I just need one more little push to break that 1600 barrier. Maybe I can hire one of the investigators I met at the church archives to dig into the Burgos provincial government archives, which have legal documents such as land titles, inheritances and court disputes dating back to the 1400s. So I start again.

TARGET: Sebastian de Tamayo, most likely born in Cornudilla. Married Nov. 26, 1657