For my 35th birthday, my mother and I went to the Story Corps booth in Atlanta. Prior to going in the booth, your facilitator has participants complete a demographic sheet that tells a little bit about the interviewer and interviewee, and it helps guide the discussion. The interview is cataloged in the Library of Congress, and various museums and centers based on your demographic profiles. My mother checked the African-American and Latino box, and I checked the African-American only. As she looked over my sheet, she paused and said “That’s interesting that you wouldn’t also check the Latino box.” It was one of those comments that made me pause and think, “Who am I?”
You see, I was raised by a very strong Brooklyn girl. My mother grew up in Bed-Study, and came from the typical matriarchal family with Carmen Hardy at the head. For Puerto Rican families, Carmen Sanchez Hardy is the equivalent of Vito Corleone…without the Mafia behavior. In New York, family weekends were filled with family and friends sitting at Grandma’s dining room table drinking Café Bustelo and eating pastries from Zarro’s Bakery, in Spanglish they talked about the latest protests and social justice issue that was impacting El Barrio. In the Sanchez Family, family comes first and we talk about things as a family. From marriage, pregnancy, financial troubles, personal struggles, and times of joy, you had to come to the elders and talk to get the family blessing or plan for how you are going to make it right. When my mother left the church, she had to fly to New York City and sit at the table to receive the blessing from the elders. Their granddaughter had to remain in the Church.
In New York, my Puerto Rican heritage is something that lived in two worlds. My heritage was in New York when I boarded the flight after Summer and Christmas break. Why, you ask? I grew up in the South where Latino = Mexican. It’s just easier to tell people that I am African-American, than explain that I am also Puerto Rican. My heritage is something that a few people can identify by looking at my nose, hair, or coloring. That is usually followed by “You are mixed with something” with a questioning look awaiting confirmation. A smile spreads across my face when I was stopped on the streets in Samara, Costa Rica or in East Harlem, by people who quickly identified that I was a part of the family. Can one pick up their identity when it is convenient?
My father’s side of the family hails from Charles City and Richmond, VA. I have an interesting and complicated relationship with my father’s side of the family. For many years, I knew the surface details about my family. I know that my grandfather and grandmother were married for over 50 years. I knew that my father has a brother, Uncle Breydon. Uncle Don and my Aunt Kim have two beautiful children. I knew that I had an older brother that lives in Richmond. Why the surface details? My father was a heroin addict, and was the product of Virginia’s “3 Strikes” Policy. This policy which was ruled as unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court, and my father’s sporadic presence created a protective mountain that kept us from each other. As a family, we didn’t know how to climb or go around the mountain. It took my grandfather’s passing this past summer to move the mountain for everyone, especially me. No different than many families or relationships, this happens and causes complication that alters the course of life. It often takes the death of a loved one to move the mountain. During the funeral, my brother and I held hands for we needed each other. I needed my big brother to guide me during all the newness and emotions around me with his passing and strangers that lovingly embraced me. He needed me because the man who was more than a grandfather passed away. I felt such warmth from family that were so glad to have their lost child home. I looked around the funeral at women who were shaped like me, had the same hands as me. A room full of cousins, aunt, uncles, and family friends…they were the other half of me. How do I fit in?
As I started thinking more and more about my family, I thought about the PBS show “Finding Your Roots” hosted by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. , and the subsequent announcement that we were now able to trace the DNA of slaves that were traded to the Americas. A very dark period of our nation’s history was coming to light. Many people who are descendants of the slave trade, would be able to start the process of their lineage. Where do my ancestors fit into the story? My friend and I decided to do the Ancestry.com DNA test. I purchased mine during the St. Patrick’s Day sale. Who knows may be I have a little Irish ancestry in my veins? My mom was born with blonde hair and blue eyes…it’s possible.
I’m taking my sample and sending it in….