Delaware’s first naturalized citizen from Hispanic origin was John Spanish. Or perhaps that’s just how the clerk renamed the Spaniard when he was naturalized in 1844.
The effort that led to him and two other early settlers was part of Delaware’s celebration of this year’s Hispanic Heritage Month and part of an ongoing push to introduce new populations to the State Archives.
In collaboration with Delaware’s Hispanic Commission, the First State is seeing a growing number of archives and museums striving to better document immigrant experiences in order to serve some of the nearly 1 million Latinos – 9 percent of the state’s population – who currently live there.
“This has been going on for 20 to 25 years,” said Anne Ackerson, executive director of the Council of State Archivists, about the interest in drawing new populations – especially Latinos –to resources such as archives, museums and historical societies. “It’s something we’re going to see more of. There’s a great deal of interest,” she told Fox News Latino.
Several state archives contacted by FNL indicated that state-led research is not common, mainly because academic research queries compete for funding and staff attention and because the documents in state archives vary.
The New York State Archives has created a guide to documenting Latino history that helps determine at state and local levels what items are relevant, how they can be kept and how they can be transmitted for others to use; archivists from Arizona mentioned they have voter registration records that can show Mexicans who were able to claim citizenship after a portion of Mexico was annexed to the U.S.; and Wisconsin’s archivists partnered with University of Wisconsin in Madison to create an oral history collection of the state’s Chicana activists. As for Californians, they can access mission census records from 1798 and copies of Spanish and Mexican land grant records.
So a state-sanctioned effort to look at how deep Latino immigration roots are in Delaware is a big step, both for the local Latino community and nationally.
The archives were worked closely with the state’s Hispanic Commission, which is tasked with getting agencies to make their services more accessible — they recently got their DMV to translate the commercial driver’s license handbook, for example.
Last year, Delaware’s archives introduced a button that, when clicked, seamlessly provides the website in Spanish.
“The community is very interested in this,” said Javier Torrijos, Chair of Delaware’s Hispanic Commission. “Some of my colleagues were very surprised how far back [the Hispanic experience in Delaware] goes.”
But it was no small effort. First, the archivists had to set standards they’d use to locate the individuals, and they decided to limit their search to people who became naturalized residents in Delaware, who had established in the state and who were married or died in Delaware — in other words, cases where it was possible to find the appropriate supporting documents.
From these documents, they were able to piece together the lives of three early settlers come from Spain: John Spanish, whose real name is thought to have been Tomas Clairmonte; Joseph Fernandez, who was naturalized in 1892; and Edward Lekens, whose parents were originally from Europe but was born in Uruguay and arrived in the U.S. at age 9.
“We have had a lot of feedback from members of the Hispanic Commission and other state agencies,” said Tamara Stock, the archivist who led the search and herself a Panamanian immigrant. “They are as surprised [as we are] that the first [Hispanic] immigrants did not report to be coming from Central America. That’s what we were expecting to happen,” she added.
Efforts to find the heirs of all three men didn’t pan out.
“We had to stop the research at one point because it might have added another layer, for example, how the first settlers contributed to Delaware’s life,” said Stock. “There are so many topics. That was our intention — to open windows and doors for other researchers.”
Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.