The Story of Stories: Missing a family narrative

When I was a kid, like many other children across the country, I had to make a family tree. My teacher showed us some samples she kept from previous years. They were lightened by the sun, and included old black and white photographs. Some of them went way, way back, some to the founding of this country. Some even had family crests, and legacies for their ancient family names. It was if each of these students were living in the newest generation of a never-ending fairytale. Incredibly excited to learn about whatever centuries old saga my family was taking part in, I asked my mom when our family history started. “Bueno,” she started. “I came to this country in 1977, your father in 1962.” My known family tree begins not too far behind those dates; great-grandparents are as far as it goes. No roots to royal families, elaborate crests or fancy black and white photographs for us. As a first generation Latino immigrant, I felt rejected from what seems like the canonical American background narrative.

The family tree exercise, which I grew to hate over the many, many times I had to make one for school, is a constant reminder of the struggles forgotten by mainstream history, and those in my family I will never know anything about. My family’s history is a narrative I will never be able to fully read, a part of my own story that will always remain dark. Several chapters have been torn out of the book; this isn’t the kind of story anyone is supposed to go looking for. America is known for being a melting pot and yet, our narrative of immigration is so limited. As a child, the only way I learned about immigration is through the story of the Mayflower Pilgrims (which was so universalized that I was absolutely convinced my ancestors had been there) or Ellis Island. This is even more bizarre when you realize that I grew up in Miami, where there were maybe two people for whom this was relevant; and yet, it was the dominant American narrative that we learned.

Having a family story in itself is a privilege many immigrant families and families of color aren’t afforded. Centuries of conflict, violence, migration, obscurity and poverty not only scatters family members, but it scatters records and names. Not to mention the more recent pain migrant parents feel, memories I can’t necessarily ask them to open up to just for the sake of enriching my personal story. From the little I have gleaned pre-“we came to this country,” I know that my father’s side lived in Cuba for a few generations, leaving during the revolution, and before that, northern Spain and the Canary Islands. From the dates, I can only imagine their migration was due to the rise of Franco’s regime. I know my mother’s family lived in Uruguay for a few generations, and before that, Italy. From that we only have one artifact: an old clock, broken, sitting under a bed. That will have to do as the start of my family tree.