Beyond the great-grandparent marker, that’s as much as I know about my family tree. And even those branches are hazy. My maternal grandmother’s father abandoned his family when she was so young that she doesn’t carry his name, an enormous social stigma in Chile that has only been rectified in recent generations. Without that name, his branch remains lost. Any attempts at tracing my ancestry are stymied by the lack of record-keeping in the rural parts of Chile my family has inhabited for generations as well as illiteracy. The few oral histories available to me date from the early twentieth century. As a historian I long for a glimpse of my tree. But unfortunately all I know is that someone’s mother was originally from Italy.
A recent New York Times article notes the rise of college-aged Americans identifying themselves as multiracial, an enormous leap from their parent’s generation when our historically dual racial categories were much firmer. To some extent we’re all multiracial. Even though I don’t have the historical records available to me, I can guess at what I am. Due to the Spanish conquest of Chile, I’m most likely a mix of Spanish and indigenous blood — a mestiza. Add to that a mysterious Italian woman and perhaps some other Europeans (many of the surnames in my family are Italian and French in origin).
Like most families of Latin American descent, this ancestral enigma manifests as an unexpectedly diverse visual spectrum. Within my extended family, some cousins look like they could be my siblings. By contrast, my two brothers look nothing like me. My oldest brother looks Eastern European while my younger brother looks Middle Eastern.
Though I may never be able to answer the question posed to many celebrities in an upcoming television show, Who Do You Think You Are, I know I’m not alone. Between my brothers, forty cousins, and countless others who have similar backgrounds, we’re all in the dark when it comes to our heritage. However, every now and then a connection is made in the unlikeliest of places. After some detective work and long-distance phone calls, a fellow Ph.D. student and I realized that we are distant cousins: my maternal grandfather is his paternal grandfather’s father. And, ironically, we deduced this connection not from historical documents but because of the fact that our rural families stayed put in the same place for so long that inevitably there would be some overlap. So perhaps all I really need as I draw my tree is more time on Skype (and questioning any Bravo, Vidal, or Soriano of Chilean descent).