Coming to America in 1598: A Latino Story
In 1598 my great grandfather on my mother’s side, Miguel Sanchez Saenz [10th generation], sailed from the Spanish Las Riojas region to the Americas as an indentured servant. Saenz hailed from Anguiano, Las Riojas, a short distance from Pamplona, a town famed for
its annual run of the bulls.
By the end of the 1500s, it had become difficult to emigrate to the Americas. Scholars note that by 1560 “unskilled young men were no longer encouraged to emigrate, indeed, by 1560 the colonies were embarrassingly full of them already.” If Sanez wished to emigrate to the Americas, there was a singular way–to join his employer, Pedro Redondo de Villegas.
Villegas’ commercial assignment in Havana, Cuba was military related and he likely viewed his emigration as permanent as he left Spain with his family and servant. Spanish records listed Villegas’ trade as Contador de Fabrica de Artilleria, an accountant for a munitions plant in
In the Spanish records “Catálogo de Pasajeros a Indias [1586-1599], known as the ‘passenger lists,’ Saenz, a young teenager, is listed as a ‘criado’ or servant to Villegas. The Spanish records show that Saenz was a native of Anguiano, a Province of La Rioja-Castilla La
Vieja and was given passenger No. 4,898.
Much changed for the Spanish colonies after Villegas and Saenz landed in Cuba. Passengers were on constant alert, fearing attacks from pirate ships or “corsairs” sailing with French, English, and Dutch sailors. Following an attack on the port city of Santiago, Cuba in 1586, the
Spanish Crown decided that the colonies had to fortify and defend themselves, thus the need for more soldiers and firearms experts.
Saenz arrived in Havana at age 18, and in addition to his daily servant’s duties, he received training in the use of firearms. In 1601 as Saenz completed his servitude obligations, Spain allowed for the importation of 600 African slaves per year to Espanola, Puerto Rico, and
Cuba. Saenz was not in Havana long enough to witness the creation of large sugar plantations worked by slaves. After fulfilling his servitude obligation Saenz set sail for the port of Vera Cruz in Nueva Espana, as Mexico was then known. He was 20 years old.
My specific information about Saenz and his employer Villegas originated in Joel Rene Escobar y Saenz’s excellent research report, Family History of Capt. Miguel Sanchez Saenz and his Descendants published in 2002 in San Antonio. I also used various other historical sources
to place life in Cuba in perspective. It was helpful that Escobar, a descendant of Saenz, also documented his ancestor’s later migration from Cuba to Monterrey, the capital of Nuevo Leon, at the turn of the century circa 1600.
Escobar wrote that when Capt. Saenz migrated to Nuevo Leon, New Spain’s northern frontier, sometime between the years 1600-1610, he had already enlisted in the military. Saenz met and married Ana de Trevino, daughter of Capt. Jose de Trevino and Leonor de Ayala. My research shows that Capt. Jose de Trevino, Saenz’ father-in-law, arrived in Monterrey in 1603. Texas historian Armando C. Alonso [Tejano Legacy] notes that Capt. Trevino introduced “large numbers of cattle, sheep, and horses,” as well as farming equipment and stones for a flour mill in Monterrey.
Saenz arrived in Monterrey at a time when the Royal Crown encouraged the development of Mexico’s northern regions. In order to construct and manage ranches and mines, the colonists required military protection, as well as locally grown food. Colonial Spaniards respected
military men serving the Royal Crown, and officers, in particular, experienced higher social status than ordinary citizens.
Saenz’s story is one of an adventurous young immigrant to the New World whose fortunes were not based on discovery of gold or silver. His hard work, positive relationships with mentors and Mexican citizens, as well as service to his country provided a route for upward mobility and an opportunity to contribute to his adopted Mexican community.
Copyright 2021 by Ricardo Romo. All images courtesy of Ricardo Romo.