A local author’s new book offers 500 years — and five pounds — worth of personal history
By Joan Trossman Bien 05/15/2008
Edward Michael Gurrola was the first member of his family to be born in California. That is saying a lot, because Gurrola has traced his family’s history all the way back to Alaric I in 380 AD. He has published a new book about his family line, and it weighs in at a whopping five pounds. Obviously, more than 15 centuries is a lot of history.
Like many people, Gurrola was curious about his roots. He knew his family only as far back as his own grandparents.
“My parents grew up during the Mexican Revolution, so they were more interested in surviving than doing genealogical research,” Gurrola says. “Once I got going on it, I made a couple of breakthroughs, so I knew who my great-grandparents were. And then things got really interesting.”
Gurrola is given to understatement: He stuck with the project for 28 years. He did not use a computer for research; instead, he used libraries and searched for records in Spain twice and in Mexico as many times as necessary in order to locate any written evidence of his family. The result is the large tome which bears his family’s coat of arms on the cover and is titled Gurrola: 500 Years in the New World.
In this country of immigrants, it can be very difficult for Americans to identify distant relatives from other countries and other times. Unlike many other countries, where families have lived in the same region for centuries, Americans are extremely mobile. Additionally, many immigrants arrived without any written documentation or knowledge of their family history beyond those living under the same roof. Records of births and marriages and deaths were reserved for nobility and landowners or were the province of the church.
Gurrola hit this roadblock immediately, as he toiled to verify just a single generation. “It took about a year and a half to find out who my great-grandparents and their parents were,” Gurrola says. “Then it just took off.”
One ancestor in particular held the key to the unlocking centuries of Gurrola’s past. “My ninth great-grandfather was the first to come over to the New World, or New Spain, as they called it,” Gurrola says. “He was a big silver miner back in 1550 and struck it rich. That’s when he took himself to Mexico City to get himself a wife, the daughter of a conquistador.”
Gurrola says this ancestor was only 22 years old when he came to Mexico, something that many young Spaniards did at the time. It was important to marry into nobility for several reasons — one being prestige.
“Very high social circles,” Gurrola says. “The conquistadors were the top of the line.”
Gurrola’s ninth great-grandfather had another connection which ran deep into the history of Spain: The mother was from Arancibia. “They were feudal lords,” he says. “They go back to the Visigoths.” This same ancestor was married to the daughter of a conquistador whose family came from nobility in Northern Spain. “That is where the beginnings of the royal family of Spain were from.”
There was another reason Gurrola benefited from that long ago marriage. “When you are dealing with noble people, they have excellent records of their own families,” he says.
After successfully mining the silver, Gurrola says his ancestor knew he had to find a more reliable source of income.
“He knew the silver was going to run out, so he took the money that he had and invested in land in Durango, Mexico,” Gurrola says. “That’s where records really become more plentiful.”
Gurrola was not prepared to learn that his family line was so distinguished. “I was sort of dumbfounded at that point,” he says. “I just started out wanting to know who my great-grandparents were. My gosh! It took a while to sink in, and then I kept going.”
As Gurrola continued to search the records and books to peel away the layers of generations to which he belongs, he made another huge discovery. “My Lord, it turns out that my 22nd great-grandfather had a sister, and her name was Ximena,” Gurrola says. “She was the wife of my hero, [Spanish diplomat] El Cid. I was flabbergasted, particularly because El Cid was one of my heroes.”
Gurrola considered what family trait may have made it down through the generations from El Cid to himself. “I was just elated when I learned about the connection to El Cid,” he says. “Maybe pride is what I inherited.”
Gurrola’s daughter, Cecile Gurrola Faulconer, has witnessed the spectacle of her father’s dogged search. But before it began, there was another intriguing family legend being told. “At one point, someone in the family thought that we were related to Pancho Villa,” Faulconer says. “That was the big thing back when I was growing up. It ended up being totally different.”
Faulconer says her father only took time off from his quest to attend to the family business. “The book really has possessed a lot of his life,” she says. “I think he was looking for his roots. He seemed to have accomplished what he was seeking.”
Gurrola himself was born in Oroville, Calif., and, at 18, joined the Navy during the waning months of World War II. “I wanted to get a ship,” he recalls. “I believed the Navy’s slogan: ‘Join the Navy and See the World.’ ”
Gurrola, however, remained California-bound throughout his military career.
His first assignment after yeoman’s school was the Mojave Pilotless Aircraft Unit. He knew immediately that it was not for him. “All I could hear was the howling of the wind and the howling of some coyotes,” Gurrola says. “I vowed that very night that I was going to get out of there. The very next day, there was an opening at Point Mugu, and I said I would take it.”
Compared to the barren high desert, Gurrola could not believe his good luck. “Man, it was paradise — the ocean and the smell of the orange groves,” he says. “I said to myself, ‘I like it here. I would like to come back when I get out of the Navy.’ Lo and behold, I came here and I am still here.”
After he was released from the Navy, Gurrola returned to his home in Oroville. “There was nothing there. Absolutely nothing,” he says. “It was 4,000 people when I left and I think maybe 4,010 people when I got back there.”
After attending college in Sacramento, he transferred to University of California Santa Barbara, bringing him closer to Ventura County. In Santa Barbara, Gurrola met his wife. They married in 1949. Although jobs were scarce, luck would have it that there was a job opening for someone with his skills in stenography at the Seabee Base in Port Hueneme.
“They needed a secretary at some of the warehouses, and there were no bathrooms for women, so I got the job,” Gurrola says. “Everything just fit into place.”
Gurrola built a career of acquiring and operating several shopping centers and other real estate properties in Ventura County. Once he made the decision to dig into his family’s history, it took him a year and a half to learn who his great-grandparents were. Twenty-eight years later, he published the book.
“It took dedication and perseverance,” Gurrola says. “I don’t know if I would do it again now that I know that it took so much of my life. You can’t imagine the elation that I’d have when I made a discovery and the frustrations that I would encounter when I hit a roadblock.”
But Gurrola somehow stuck with the project. “A lot of people are interested in going back with their families but when they hit a stumbling block, they give up,” he says. “I did not give up, that’s the difference. It took discipline. Besides having my family, I would consider this my biggest accomplishment.”
But the notion of being an author was something Gurrola had never considered. He summed up his own status as a genealogical expert: “My name is Ed Gurrola, and I like my margaritas at 4 in the afternoon. My name is Ed, no pretension.”