A Costa Rican Family Tree

The following is an excerpt from my current family memoirs manuscript that is intended to provide context and background on Costa Rican ancestry in general. You might find it helpful in understanding some aspects of Costa Rica’s family trees.

By the time we get around to putting together our family history, it is often too late to find anyone who still knows the stories or who can identify people in photographs. My family’s history is not so different from many other families of their time, but it contains some fascinating twists and turns. Although I began taking some notes back in the 1980’s during chats with my Abuela, I failed to sit down with her and record as much information as I could have before she died at the age of 105.

My mother, who we all assumed would enjoy a long life like her mother, died unexpectedly at the age of 81, and I never got the chance to document much of the family history that she knew. My mother and my grandmother saved everything and I have over twenty boxes of photos and mementos, but am missing many details.

My grandmother and her nine siblings produced a generation of 42 children—the pictures of family picnics from when my mother was small were taken from so far away, it’s hard to identify anybody.

I have talked to a few older relatives in recent years, and pieced together some stories from the bits each of them could provide. Ancestry sites, church records, and cemeteries have been other sources for me. Reuniting with family and filling in gaps for one another has been one of the most immensely satisfying outcomes of this whole project. Sometimes the revelation of single family secret shed light on unusual family dynamics many had struggled to understand.

The double surnames used in Spain and Latin American are comprised of the father’s last name (primary surname) followed by the mother’s last name (secondary surname.) This system allows one to better understand lineage and connections between families, and makes genealogical research easier.

Most Costa Rican families are primarily descended from European immigrants (predominantly from Spain), and the historic practice of giving children two, three, or even four middle names continued well into my generation. Of course, these full names aren’t commonly used. In my writing, I refer to individuals as they were best known.

Hyphenated names do exist and these are used in double surnames as if they are a single name. So a person could have what appears to be three or four legal last names. In some instances, I had to compare historical documents to determine the officially recognized surnames, as well as their correct spellings.

Jiménez, Fernández, Rojas, and Carranza are the primary lineages found throughout my family tree from the mid 1500’s to the present. It should not have surprised me to discover how much intermarriage occurred among just a handful of large families, but it was mind-boggling at times.

The days I spent on families whose surnames were Jiménez Fernández, Fernández Jiménez, Fernández Fernández, or Jiménez Jiménez had me talking out loud to myself and creating scores of charts to keep everyone straight.

Standard genealogical charts simply don’t allow for multiple connections between family members or those which sometimes crisscross generational eras.

I have not encountered as many of these issues in charting my father’s USA ancestry, but my Costa Rican lineage is another thing entirely! Part of this is simply because the country is small and, until the last fifty years, the population has also been relatively small. Another factor is that mountainous terrain and thick rainforest created somewhat isolated pockets of communities.

It would make sense for an individual to marry someone who lived nearby. The couple would have much in common and the families would know one another. The Spanish custom of a centrally located church with a park or plaza in front of it facilitated socially acceptable interaction with prospective partners from that community.

Among higher class society, there would have been fewer acceptable mates to choose from. Thus, in order to protect fortunes and lineage, marriages within these families would have been encouraged (if not arranged) in the same way this custom has historically been observed in European societies.

Also, it was common for men to marry their sisters-in-law following the premature deaths (usually in childbirth) of their first wives. This served several practical purposes—the surviving children were raised by loving aunts, and the children borne of the two marriages were almost true genetic siblings. Property, inheritance, surnames, and wealth were all preserved within the family groups.

The last time this situation appears in my family is when my great grandmother Carolina married her brother-in-law following the death of her sister.

It was also very common to find sisters from one family married to brothers from another. The children of these two pairings are double first cousins, and are also practically siblings from a genetic point of view. The Spanish term for first cousins, primos hermanos (sibling cousins) is especially true in this case.

I found this configuration a number of times. For example, my grandfather’s younger brother married my grandmother’s younger sister.

Within a few generations, almost everyone in a small town would be related through blood or marriage. Of course, genetic propensity to diseases would naturally be increased.

Luckily, in my family tree, we have the introduction of several totally unrelated blood lines, as immigrants from Europe or North America came to seek their fortunes in CR for one reason or another. For example, my grandmother’s grandfather Nelson was from Sweden, and my grandfather Paninski was the son of a Prussian.

Through my grandmother, I descend from Praxedes Fernández Ramirez and her husband, José María Jiménez Carranza. Dozens of Costa Rican coffee barons, politicians, and presidents descend from Praxedes and José María, which greatly facilitated my own research.

Domingo Jiménez’s arrival in CR around 1566 with a lesser known Spanish conquistador, is officially documented in Cartago in 1571. (Cartago was the first capital of Costa Rica.) It’s important to note that many Spaniards with the surname of Jiménez came to CR during the colonial era. Jiménez is the third most common surname in Costa Rica.

Although the Rojas surname is not as common, the majority of Costa Rica’s Rojas families are believed to be descendants of Gaspar de Rojas, illegitimate son of Spanish colonist Francisco Ocampo de Golfin and Catalina Tuia, a Costa Rican indigenous Huetar woman born around 1585 in Currirava (today Curridabat between San José and Cartago).

Catalina belonged to an encomienda granted to Francisco Ocampo de Golfin. In the Spanish colonial era, an encomienda was a parcel of land together with a specific number of native individuals “granted” to a specific person. That person was responsible for protecting them from enemy tribes, teaching them the Spanish language, and instructing them in the Catholic faith.

Of course, the natives were expected to pay for this “protection” with their work, foodstuffs, and bodies. Refusal to cooperate was punishable by death. In practice, an encomienda was slavery. Catalina had several masters in her life, although she died a free woman in 1658, and used an interpreter to dictate her will, as she spoke no Spanish.

This was the 16th century, a period in which women were considered property. Any resulting children may or may not have been granted their father’s surnames.  Gaspar de Rojas was supposedly adopted by a Spanish nobleman by the name of Rojas. The bottom line is that Gaspar was the first Costa Rican born Rojas, and appears to be one of my ancestors.

Catalina Tuia is called “la Abuela de los Ticos” (the grandmother of the Costa Ricans) because it is estimated that around 80% of us are descended from the children she had with three Spaniards, and 60% of CR’s presidents can trace their ancestry back to her.

My manuscript continues with details about individual family members because I somehow became the guardian of the oral history of my family, as well as of countless fragile documents, photographs, and mementos. If I fail to organize and record it all in a meaningful fashion, much of it will be forever lost with my own death. And so, I write.

Pura Vida!

Image description: Left: My great grandfather José Rojas Alpízar seated beside his first wife, Matilde Nelson Jiménez, and their first two children. Behind Matilde stands her sister, my great grandmother, Carolina Nelson Jiménez. Their younger sister Amelia stands behind José.  Top right:  Alejo Jiménez Fernández and family. (Carolina’s uncle) Bottom right: My great-grandmother Carolina with the five children she gave birth to, including my grandmother seated beside her.