Olivieri's ancestors at Hacienda Tomino in Guayanilla, Puerto Rico at the turn of the last century.

Olivier­i’s ances­tors at Hacien­da Tomi­no in Guayanil­la, Puer­to Rico at the turn of the last century.

by Julio Saenz • Sep­tem­ber 6, 2013

In today’s install­ment of our series on build­ing your Lati­no fam­i­ly tree, we sat down with Jose Olivieri Rivera.  Jose has done a tremen­dous amount of work research­ing his roots in Puer­to Rico and it led him all the way to the Mediter­ranean island of Corsica.

What made you get inter­est­ed in research­ing your fam­i­ly tree?
When I was a kid I would hear these unusu­al names men­tioned. They weren’t the usu­al Gar­cia or Vazquez. They were unusu­al: Olivieri, Ben­venu­ti, Vival­di. I was raised by my fam­i­ly not know­ing that I was born with the name Oliv­eri.  I would hear about “Los Cor­sos” in Yau­co, Puer­to Rico, but I nev­er knew what to make of that.

Grow­ing up I would see my birth cer­tifi­cate and it said “Jose Emilio Diaz Olivieri”.  Lat­er I found out I was born with those names but because of polit­i­cal prob­lems we changed it.  I found out I had an uncle that had done polit­i­cal things that weren’t seen very favor­ably.  When my dad went into the army he took my mother’s last name.

I nev­er paid atten­tion to it till I was in my 20’s when I was in col­lege, then I took some trips to Puer­to Rico and the sto­ries were about all these peo­ple like Anto­nio Olivieri. I researched that on my own by com­ing in con­tact with rel­a­tives I didn’t even know.  I got in touch with rel­a­tives I had lost con­tact with.  Those clans had an oral tra­di­tion and every­one knew who had come over.

What did you find?
It turns out one of the two broth­ers went to Venezuela the oth­er, Anto­nio went to Puer­to Rico. This was because of the “Cedu­la de Gra­cias”, an 1815 edict from Spain that gave Euro­peans free land in the colonies. Lots of Ger­mans, Irish and Corisi­cans moved to the new world.  Anto­nio Olivieri was born in 1794 in Tomi­no, Cor­si­ca. He left his wife and fam­i­ly in Cor­si­ca and went to Puer­to Rico in 1824. He went back to Cor­si­ca in 1844, but in 1845 his three sons returned to Puer­to Rico. His son Domin­go Olivieri is my line.

What did they do?
They found the moun­tains in Puer­to Rico were good for cof­fee and they start­ed Hacien­da Tomi­no. They start­ed the cof­fee indus­try in Puer­to Rico.  Lots of Cor­si­cans lived in Yau­co, Guyanil­la, Peñue­las… all in “la cordillera cen­tral” (the cen­tral high­lands). They built an irri­ga­tion sys­tem and became wealthy. This is were Café Yau­cono comes from. The farm is still there, my cousins have it.

You men­tioned you found rel­a­tive you didn’t know you had?
I was lucky that I got to the old peo­ple in my fam­i­ly before they passed away and doc­u­ment­ed fam­i­ly sto­ries.  For exam­ple, my grand­fa­ther was assas­si­nat­ed in a casi­no in Mayaguez. This grand­fa­ther had at least 35 kids and often trav­eled to the Domini­can Repub­lic for busi­ness. One day by chance, a man who spoke Span­ish with the last name Olivieri called my wife’s office.  We con­nect­ed and he told me the sto­ry of his grand­fa­ther get­ting shot at the casi­no. I knew he had to be fam­i­ly. Some luck. That’s how God and life works.

Have used online resources?
I rec­om­mend folks Google “Puer­to Rican immi­grants” and you’ll find lots of info.

What advice do you have for any­one who wants to research his or her Puer­to Rican roots?
Get to those peo­ple in your fam­i­ly that have the oral tra­di­tion. We’re always going to have a horse thief and a priest in the fam­i­ly. Get those sto­ries. Video­tape them and inter­view them sev­er­al times so they can get clar­i­ty and you can con­firm details.

Get church records, ceme­tery records and mil­i­tary cas­es. That’s how we got exact names. Write things down.  Look up the “Cedu­la de Gra­cias”.  Puer­to Rico as we know it was made by that decree.  A lot of us have Ger­man roots and oth­er roots we don’t know about. Study the his­to­ry.  Each region in Puer­to Rico has dif­fer­ent mix­es. For exam­ple there are tons of Irish in Corozal.  We also did a DNA test on my mother’s side and that is worth doing.

Julio Sáenz was born in Rochester and grew up on Roth Street on the city’s North­east side. He was edi­tor and pub­lish­er of OC Excél­sior, the nation’s 24th largest His­pan­ic news­pa­per based in Orange Coun­ty, Calif.

Sáenz is the founder of ConX­ion, a pub­li­ca­tion start­ed in 2003 to serve the His­pan­ic com­mu­ni­ty of Rochester. Julio was named to the pres­ti­gious “20 under 40” list of the nation’s out­stand­ing news­pa­per indus­try lead­ers by Presstime Mag­a­zine in 2006. He is active in sev­er­al pro­fes­sion­al and com­mu­ni­ty ser­vice orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing the Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion of His­pan­ic Journalists.