In the early 1860’s France, Spain, and England sent armed forces to Mexico, “to protect the interests of their nationals” doing business in the young nation. Since some of these nationals were bakers, this episode is known as the Guerra de los Pasteles (the Cakes War). Among the Spanish forces was a young ensign, Valentín Domínguez, from Zorita de los Canes, who upon seeing the beauty of the New World deserted the expeditionary force to establish himself in the small mountain town of Huatusco, in the highlands of the state of the coastal state of Veracruz, where he found a bride and a new life growing coffee. It was also here that his nine children were born.
Back in his hometown just enough news were received from him to raise him to the status of legend. There are vague recollections that he came back to Spain once, in a crisp white suit and Panama hat, the very image of a successful plantation owner. Finally, in 1907, a letter and photograph were sent, to inform the relatives in Spain of his death. The photograph was duly saved among the pages of the family Bible, and the legend of “the family in America” acquired the patina of old age.
In the meantime, in Mexico, the sons and daughters of Valentín had children of their own, and they grew up hearing the story of the ensign who had deserted, and how he had come from Zorita, and over the generations they spoke of “the family in Spain”. One of the sons of Valentín was Anastasio, who in turn had a daughter named Guillermina, who in turn had a daughter named Norma, who in turn had a son named Horacio Ferriz Domínguez.
Thirteen years ago, on my first trip to Spain, I drove to the northern provinces looking for the birthplace of my great-great-grandfather. I did find a Zorita, and eagerly asked and old man if the Domínguez family still lived there. No, there had never been a family of such name in the town, not even 100 years ago. A few years later, my parents came to Spain to celebrate their Gold wedding anniversary, and duty bound they rented a car, drove to southern Spain, found another Zorita, and suffered the same disappointment: No Domínguez family had ever lived there. Finally, a few months ago, a cousin broke the news that he had found the right Zorita, by the shore of the Tajo River, less than 100 km east of Madrid. My cousin had visited the place and made contact with the family, and from him I got the e-mail of a cousin and made a preliminary contact myself.
And that is why today I woke up early, rented a car, and drove east of Madrid in search of my roots. I ended driving too far to the northeast, but “preguntando se llega a Roma”, and after a bit of backtracking I finally came into Zorita de los Canes, a charming and very small village at the foot of a knoll dominated by the ruins of an old castle. There were also arrows pointing the visitor to the archaeologic zone of Recópolis, so I figured I would do a bit of exploring of the surroundings before immersing myself in family matters.
Recópolis is an amazing site. It was established in the VI century, by King Leovigildo, after he completed the Visigoth conquest of the Iberian Peninsula to form the first Spanish nation (the Visigoths were among the Germanic peoples who spread through the late Roman Empire in the IV century, to later expand into Iberia). Recópolis was to be the fiefdom of the crown prince, and grew into quite the busy town. Nearly a 200 years later, in the VIII century, Arab tribes conquered Spain and turned Recópolis into one of the main hubs of the califate of al-Andalusí. The Arabs were expelled from this part of Spain in the XI century, at which time the Knights of Calatrava took over the region, and moved the settlement a few hundred meters to the knoll of Zorita de los Canes, where they built a castle. The castle and the surrounding town flourished up to the XIV century, and were known for the rather large number of Jews who settled there. At this time a small church was built over the ruins of the Visigoth church of Recópolis, which during the XV and XVI centuries became the hub for celebrations throughout the region, who came to “the old city” to be merry, even though all visible signs of the Visigoth town had long been buried by soils and debris.
Reeling with the impressive history of little Zorita de los Canes I finally walked into the village. An old gentleman was working in his garden, and after saying hello I took the opportunity to ask for directions to the house of Petra Domínguez. He looked at me for a moment, and then said “She is my sister. My name is Aurelio Domínguez” “Well, then you must also be my uncle. I am Horacio Ferriz Domínguez.” He gave me a big smile and told me that his sister had been waiting for me all morning, and had just gone down to the road to take another look. And then family started flocking in. I greeted Aunt Petra, then Cousin Miguel, then Aunts Cristina and Matilde, then Cousin Laura and Aunt Isabel. It was the most delightful and long delayed family reunion one can imagine. They were all tickled pink to greet one of the long lost relatives from Mexico, and I could see strong family resemblance between them and some of my aunts back in Mexico.
We all went to Aunt Petra’s home, where lunch was all ready, and started cross-referencing family connections. Oh, yes, the memory of great-uncle Valentín was very much alive, and later Aunt Cristina produced the original 1907 photograph of my great-great-grandfather, a man with a magnificent moustache. I also had the chance of showing them photographs of the family, which my thoughtful daughter had loaded on my computer.
Alas, I may have met the last generation of Domínguez that can be expected to live in Zorita. Most of the youngsters have left the town, which officially counts with 107 inhabitants, but in reality has only 30 permanent residents. The aunts are all in their late 70s or early 80s. Cousins Miguel and Laura are slightly younger than I am, but their grownup children have already moved out of the town toward the larger cities. They come to visit, of course, but they cannot be reasonably expected to come live in Zorita for good. But it still is, and will always remain, the land of one of my forefathers.
I am insanely happy at having had the opportunity to touch base with the family in Spain. They are charming and generous, and I would very much like to come and visit them again, but this time in company of my daughter and her husband, so links can be forged among the new generations. There is something amazing at finding that the roots of your family tree are deep and strong, and that those that drank life from the eternal waters of the Tajo River, probably since the VI century, are still in place.