Desperately Seeking Susan: My Ancestral Quest to a Remote Spanish Village

By Susan Yanguas

All my life I’d wondered about the origin of my uncommon last name. A few years ago, a stranger’s Facebook post led me on a quest that differed from any vacation I’d ever taken. According to the post, all those with the last name Yanguas can trace their lineage to a small, eponymous town in the Soria Province of Spain. I was desperate to learn more about this town and its people in an attempt to become better acquainted with my Spanish ancestry. Thus, the seed for my adventure was sown.

I decided a visit to this ancient town might prove an interesting trip for my 84-year-old father and me. He had often professed that his people descended from Spanish royalty, which I had taken with a grain of salt, given that he was known to embellish a tale. But according to the Internet, there was a medieval castle in Yanguas! I was intrigued, and as I prepared for our journey I joked about staking a claim to the castle when we arrived.

With a hotel reservation but no real plan, we flew to Madrid, rented a car, and drove five hours over lonely, winding roads into the foothills of Soria.

We eventually found our destination nestled in the countryside. If it weren’t for the random automobile and electrical wires strung from building to building, I would have thought I had driven us back in time to the Middle Ages. The town had no new construction; everyone lived in the same stone structures that had been erected centuries ago.

We checked in to our hotel and told the innkeeper how we came to be there. Word of our quest spread quickly and people came by the hotel to meet us. According to them, when the original inhabitants left this town in search of a better life, they took Yanguas as their last name. To my surprise, my father and I were the only Yanguases in town.

We were introduced to many of the 45 residents that day, and even more the next. We spoke to most of them in Spanish. My father is a native speaker, but I am not. Although I got less rusty as the week progressed, the conscious effort to communicate was exhausting.

The next morning I went out exploring. The first thing I did was climb the steep hill to “my castle,” which turned out to be a dilapidated fortress less than a quarter mile from our hotel. Scaffolding and a huge crane sat idly in its front yard. It had been uninhabited since the 1600s and was currently closed for repair, as were many other places I passed. I was disappointed at not being able to see the inside of the castle so I could better envision myself hosting elaborate parties attended by European nobility.

One evening we met a local who claimed to be a tour guide, so we took him up on it. Felipe was a small, spry man whom I judged to be in his early 60s, and we struggled to keep up with him as he walked briskly down the steep cobblestone streets. Felipe proved to be a knowledgeable guide who warmed to his subject, gesturing broadly with both arms, as more people joined our group.

I peppered him with questions and learned that my ancestors were sturdy peasants who enjoyed a privileged past. According to history, Yanguas, whose name comes from the Latin ianuas meaning “door” or “portal,” was the gateway through which all commerce in the region passed. Therefore its residents were exempt from paying taxes on goods and could afford to sell their wares at a lower price and bigger profit. When I heard this I tried to figure out a way to claim, once I got home, that I was exempt from paying taxes due to my heritage.

A few days into our vacation I fell ill. Our innkeeper was tending the hotel’s bar when I approached him and asked if there was a doctor nearby. He said a traveling doctor visited the town regularly and would be there the next day. He explained that Spain has socialized medicine, so the visits are free for Spaniards. When I inquired about those who weren’t citizens, the bar patrons conferred in low tones and then urged me to just show up at the appointment and not say anything about being American.

The next morning I stood in line with others suffering from various ailments. By now I recognized several of them, and we exchanged pleasantries while we waited. After the doctor checked my vital signs and heard my complaints, she handed me a prescription slip and sent me on my way. My new-found friends were waiting for me, and when I showed them the prescription they told me it was an antibiotic. They also explained how to arrange for it to be delivered by the pharmacy in the next town, and where to pick it up. After feeling so miserable, their helpful concern nearly brought me to tears.

On our last full day in Yanguas we drove along the windy, narrow road in a direction we hadn’t yet explored, to an even tinier town called Diustes. After parking the car, we set out on foot. Up one street and down the next, we didn’t see another person until we happened upon an elderly woman and her husband gathering potatoes from their garden. They didn’t seem to mind being the only living souls in this ghost town. We struck up a conversation, and when we were ready to move on they tried to give us the only thing they had to offer: potatoes. It appeared the gift was motivated by the fact that no one ever came to visit their town.

Everywhere we went during our vacation we were treated like celebrities. I guess I’ll have to get used to that if I ever plan to lay claim to Yanguas Castle!

About this writer

  • Susan Yanguas

    Susan Yanguas

    Susan Yanguas is a Baltimore-based writer. She is contemplating publishing a cookbook of gluten free vegan desserts based on her creative experiments in the kitchen.

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2 Responses to “Desperately Seeking Susan: My Ancestral Quest to a Remote Spanish Village”

  1. Linda O'Connell says:

    Susan, I enjoyed reading your story. It sounds like you had quite the adventure walking in your ancestor’s foot steps.

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