Whether your ancestors lived along the U.S./Mexican border or the southernmost tip of Argentina, all Latin American genealogical research is heavily dependent on two main record sets—Catholic Church records and civil registration records. Grasping at least a basic understanding of these record types—including their history, the information provided in them, and where to find them—is imperative to discovering your Latin American roots.
Catholic Church Records
As the Spanish Crown colonized the New World, the Catholic Church became a predominant, reigning figure across Central and South America. Fortunately for genealogical researchers, this control went hand in hand with the responsibility of recording vital events. With availability back to the 17th-century, Catholic Church records are a rich source of genealogical information for those seeking out their Latin American ancestors.
The Catholic Church recorded three main record types pertinent to family history research: baptismal, marriage, and death records. In Latin America, these record types often follow a pattern that helps one anticipate the information stored within.
Typically, baptismal records in Latin America will include the following information:
- Baptismal date (typically recorded first)
- Birthdate (typically recorded second)
- Name of child
- Legitimacy status of child (indicating if the parents were married)
- Name of father
- Name of mother (recorded under her maiden name)
Often, beginning in the 19th century, baptismal records will also record the names of the child’s paternal and maternal grandparents. A perfect example of the elements of a typical Latin American baptismal record comes from the San José de Cañas Catholic Church in Cañas, Guanacaste, Costa Rica. 
As shown in the record above, Melide Juana Leonze Argentina Cerdas Chaves was born on 13 January 1915 and was baptized on 4 April 1915 in the San José de Cañas Catholic Church. The priest recorded her as the legitimate daughter of Juan Cerdas, son of Macardo Cerdas and Genoveva Ruiz, and Saturnina Chaves, daughter of Ramon Chavez and Vicenta Calvo. Her padrinos, or godparents, were Jeronimio and Juliana Fernandez.
Note that godparents were often relatives or close friends. If you’re having trouble extending your family line, pay attention to the names of godparents in your ancestor’s baptismal records, especially when the godparents appear more than once.
Marriage records created by the Catholic Church are usually presented in the FamilySearch catalog under two main titles: Matrimonios and Información Matrimonial.
Matrimonios, or marriages, may contain the following information:
- Name of groom/bride
- Marital status
- Birthplace of groom/bride
- Age of groom/bride
- Parent’s names of groom/bride
- Name of the previous spouse (if applicable)
In cases when bits and pieces of this information were omitted from the marriage record, información matrimonial records can fill in these genealogical gaps. Also known as pre-marriage investigations, información matrimonial records were created because “Catholic couples…had to go through an investigation process to prove that the couple was in good standing in the church and that they did not have any canonical impediments.” 
If the desired genealogical information cannot be found under marriage records determine if there are any pre-marriage investigation records at your disposal. Be prepared, however, to search for pre-marriage investigation records page by page, as they are not typically indexed.
Whether or not one received all the sacraments, the Catholic priest was responsible for recording the deaths of those under his ecclesiastical jurisdiction. The death records of the Catholic Church will frequently provide the decedent’s name, date of death, marital status, name of spouse (if applicable), and sometimes, names of parents.
Civil Registration Records
Civil registration records are birth, marriage, and death records kept by the government. With a few exceptions, Latin American civil registration records began in the late 19th century. While the Dominican Republic started keeping civil registration records in 1828, Bolivia did not keep civil registration records until 1940.
To find out when your country of interest began keeping civil registration records, please consult the FamilySearch Wiki page, “Civil Registration in Latin America.” 
Birth registration records kept by Latin American governments usually provide information such as the child’s name, date of birth, place of birth, parent’s names, and occasionally the child’s grandparent’s names.
Unlike most Catholic Church records, these records will also provide genealogical details regarding the parents, such as how old they were at the time of the child’s birth or where they were originally from (see the record below).  Birth registration records are an excellent resource for not only finding out more about the child but also about their parents.
Like Catholic Church marriage records, marriage registration records also contain similar information regarding the bride and groom: their marital status, the names of their parents, their age, where they were from, etc. See an example below of a 1914 marriage registration record from Moca, Espaillat, Dominican Republic.
Civil death registration records may contain biographical details regarding the cause of your ancestor’s death. The death registration record below from El Salvador, for example, states a man named Arturo Gomez was killed by General Abraham Perdomo Herrera, whose death registration record precedes Arturo’s. 
Occasionally, the civil registrar may provide genealogical data regarding the informant of the death. If the informant was a family member, death registration records may become an unexpected clue in your genealogical research. Obtaining both death records from the Catholic Church and the civil registrar may be a beneficial step in extending your family lines.
Locating Church Records and Civil Registration Records
To access these records, consult the following websites:
FamilySearch.org – The FamilySearch catalog holds thousands of Catholic Church records and civil registration records for Latin American countries that are organized in different ways, the easiest of these to search being digitally indexed databases.
For a comprehensive list of digitally indexed databases pertinent to your country of interest, please refer to the FamilySearch Wiki, type the country of interest into the search bar, and explore their “Online Genealogy Records.” The following list includes a few examples of available databases specific to Mexican research:
- Mexico, Puebla, Catholic Church Records, 1545-1977
- Mexico, Sinaloa, Catholic Church Records, 1671-1968
- Mexico, Nuevo León, Catholic Church Records, 1667-1981
- Mexico, Chihuahua, Civil Registration, 1861-1997
On occasion, the church records needed to extend your family line are not digitally indexed in these databases. In these cases, one may consult the FamilySearch catalog and search for civil or Catholic Church records by location. While these microfilmed record sets may require page-by-page searches, the information provided by these records is often necessary for extending your family lines.
Ancestry.com – There are several digitally indexed databases for Latin American church and civil registration records via Ancestry.com. Consult their website to find out more about your Latin American country of interest.
Unlike the FamilySearch digitally indexed databases, which groups birth, marriage, and death registration records into the same database, Ancestry.com divides birth, marriage, and death registration records into their own databases. For example, while FamilySearch has only one database for civil registration records of Nuevo León, Mexico, Ancestry.com has three:
- Nuevo León, Mexico, Civil Registration Births, 1859-1947
- Nuevo León, Mexico, Civil Registration Marriages, 1859-1960
- Nuevo León, Mexico, Civil Registration Deaths, 1859-1962
FamilySearch Historical Images – Not finding the records you need in the FamilySearch Catalog or a digitized database? Sometimes your ancestor’s records will be hiding in what FamilySearch calls their “Historical Image” collection. This collection includes a mix of digitized microfilms, many of which have yet to be organized into the FamilySearch Catalog. Currently, this collection has almost 5,000,000,000 historical documents (and counting!). These historical images are searchable by location.
To access FamilySearch Historical Images,
- Go to the FamilySearch homepage.
- Locate the navigation bar at the top of your screen and click on “Search.”
- After clicking on “Search,” a dropdown menu will appear. Click on “Images.”
These records will not be digitally indexed and must be searched page by page.
Latin American genealogical researchers depend on Catholic Church records and civil registration records to extend family lines. Becoming familiar with both record types can greatly enhance your family history research experience!
If you have Latin American ancestry and need help locating records to extend your lines, our professional genealogists and onsite agents are happy to help! Contact us today to discuss your goals and to get a free quote.
 Costa Rica, Iglesia Católica. San José de Cañas (Cañas, Guanacaste), Registros parroquiales, 1865-1936, “Bautismos 1914-1921,” Cañas, Guanacaste, Costa Rica, Family History Library microfilm 1103970, viewed digitally, https://familysearch.org, accessed February 2022.
 “Mexico Catholic Church Marriage Information Records,” FamilySearch Wiki, https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Mexico_Catholic_Church_Marriage_Information_Records, accessed February 2022.
 Mexico, Jalisco, Catholic Church Records, 1590-1979 (image and transcription), Purísima Concepción Catholic Church, death entries, p. 41, Zapotlanejo, Jalisco, Mexico, https://familysearch.org, accessed August 2021.
 “Civil Registration in Latin America,” FamilySearch Wiki, https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Civil_Registration_in_Latin_America, accessed February 2022.
 Zacatecas, Mexico, Civil Registration Births, 1861-1947 (image and transcription), Río Grande Civil Registrar, birth register entry for Jesús Marquez, 11 January 1915, p. 6, entry no. 19, Río Grande, Zacatecas, Mexico, https://ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed January 2022.
 El Salvador Civil Registration, 1704-2001 (image and transcription), San Salvador Registro Civil, death register entry for Arturo Gomez, 29 July 1913, entry no. 1174, San Salvador, San Salvador, El Salvador, https://familysearch.org, accessed February 2022.