reconnecting with my ancestry

My mother was in town this past week, and I seized the opportunity to refresh my knowledge of her side of the family. My great-grandfather died in 2001 and my grandfather died a few years ago, so I feel like my connections with Jamaica and Puerto Rico are slowly fading away. Those influences were so important as I was growing up, mostly in the form of food, clothing and my desire to learn Spanish, but they’ve moved into the background since I finished college and moved out on my own. Even more so once I got married and settled into a day job. While I vaguely knew I wasn’t okay with this, I realized that I was trying to reconnect with my childhood experiences through my characters in my writing. It was the prompt I needed to ask more questions.

I invited my mother over to my hastily-cleaned-in-visiting-areas house with the ulterior motive of grilling her on her family. There are things I used to know about our family that I’ve since forgotten, like my Puerto Rican grandfather being born in New York City and not Puerto Rico itself. While we had family in Puerto Rico while my mom was young, because she stayed with them in San Juan, she thinks they’ve all moved to mainland USA [or died] since then. I was particularly interested because of the problems Puerto Rico is still having. I wondered how I would feel if I were living without basic utilities, and no family members, even distant ones, reached out to me to help. What could I actually do for them on my budget? No idea. But I certainly couldn’t help if I didn’t bother to find them. I was a little disappointed to discover we didn’t have a direct connection to the island anymore, but I did find out that one of my second cousins once removed is the dean of a university, and that’s pretty damn cool.

We also talked about genetic testing. We’re both interested in the idea. I lean toward choosing 23andme so I can also have common disease markers tested. I haven’t decided to actually do it (because paranoia), but I’m interested to see just how much of my Jamaican ancestry from my grandmother is Arawak Indian versus African or European. My great-grandfather said his family was Arawak (also called Taíno), despite listing himself as White on the census after he moved to New York City. His family lived in the mountains and his features do come across as very American Indian, but I still wonder how much of that was family legend versus reality. Apparently my White great-grandmother’s family disowned her for marrying a Black man. My husband pleased me to no end by pointing out the ways in which I look like my great-grandfather. F U, great-great-grandparents.

I never knew my great-grandmother on my grandmother’s side. She died while my grandmother was a teenager. This weekend I found out she’d been in an asylum for two years during her marriage. There are family stories of her putting my grandmother in the oven when she was an infant, but there’s no one left alive who can say if this was true or just a cruel lie. Given that this would have been around the 1940s, I can only hope hers wasn’t one of the horror stories. I suppose she did come back out, and that’s something. *sad face* For a long time I thought my great-grandmother was also Jamaican, but as a teenager I learned that the great-grandmother I grew up knowing was Great-Grandfather’s second wife. She was one of the sweetest old ladies I knew. Since I don’t plan on having children, I plan on giving her name to one of my characters.

Speaking of writing, my main characters tend to be aspects of myself. Not the same exactly, but little bits and pieces of me pulled out and melded into a new person. My current MC wants to talk her parents into giving her a quinceañera party, something I tried to do unsuccessfully. I saw my grandfather’s friends hosting these and I wanted the same, mostly for the gigantic dress. As an adult, I realize that it would have been too costly for my family without even considering the religious connotations. My MC’s family is also going to bring up the feminist point of view. What will they decide together? I have no idea.

How has your ancestry impacted your writing? Do you tend to write MCs who have the same heritage as you? Do you pull out one background and magnify it? Let me know!