Looking For My Roots

A few years ago I decided to help a friend trace her roots. It was an amazing process, made so much easier by the advent of the Internet, and the good people from the Church of the Latter Day Saints. Yes, the Mormons. The Mormons have this practice of baptizing their ancestors to help them reach Mormon heaven. Apparently, until we are baptized into LDS when we die we all hang out in non-believer limbo, which is probably a place where you get to drink alcohol, caffeine, and watch Project Runway all day. When we are rescued by our descendants, who have now moved to Utah, and have voted in Mitt Romney IV as the new president, we get to go to the heavenly kingdom. I picture it as Provo, only blonder, more conservative, and with lots of Osmonds. By the way, I hereby forbid any of my descendants to baptize me. I want to see Mondo lose again, while I sip a cappuccino. It is my special kind of hell.

LDS followers have done such an amazing job of tracking their ancestors that they have launched ancestry.com, the largest online genealogy website. For a price, you can sign up and if you have the time and inclination, and you are lucky to have had someone already do the hard work, you can easily trace your roots back to the old country.

I paid the twenty dollars it cost then, and began to work on the family tree. In about a year, I was able to trace her family tree back to the ninth century AD. My friend, who always had this idea she was strictly German, came to find that she had roots in France, Ireland, Wales, England, and various Germanic areas. I spent another month writing the story of the family in narrative form, lest anyone got tired of reading the tree full of “Hans and his son Hans.”

In the process, I learned a lot about European history, but more importantly about early European immigrants to the US. One of the more interesting bits was a diatribe by a conservative loyalist to the Crown, who was besides himself about the latest influx of lazy no-good ungodly Germans that were arriving to New York, and Philadelphia. He talked about how the government had to close the borders to these dirty people. I guess conservatives just don’t change.

Once complete, my masterpiece, that took me well beyond ancestry.com, and that exercised my dying ability to read German, was delivered to my friend and her family. The document was passed around getting some lukewarm reception and quickly abandoned for a plate of cookies. I had to remind myself that it was the journey that mattered. My learning was worth the twenty dollars, and the hours spent on the project.

A few weeks later, another friend asked me to help her do the same. This time I got lucky very quickly, and was able to serve her with a family summary that someone else had done for a very distant cousin. She was excited to find out the story of her great grandfather who had moved from London to Jamaica where she had married a young lady. The family always suspected that the young lady was mulatto, because many of them had dark skin. I found census records that showed that she at least passed as white, when they moved to New York City during the early twentieth century. She loved the story.

Of course, during this time I tried to do the same with my family roots, but apparently records in Latin America either aren’t very good, they haven’t gotten unto the Internet, or LDS hasn’t converted many of my cousins yet. Most searches ended on dead ends.

A few years ago National Geographic launched a project to perform analysis of Y-chromosomes (of course men designed this) of indigenous people looking for genetic maps of human migration from our original African ancestors. The project continues, but they have been successful in mapping a general pattern of migration starting in and around sub-Saharan Africa, out to the middle East and up to Central Asia. The Central Asian group then divides into a couple of European branches, branches that goes into Asia, and another that goes into the Americas. Those branches divide further. Interestingly, aside from those in Africa, the earliest related branch to the original humans are not in the Middle-East but are the Australian Aborigines. They are unclear on how this happened, but they seem to think that a branch quickly moved through India out to Australia, before any of the branches in other areas cemented.

After years of starts and stops looking at bits of what I could find, I decided to participate in this study. My genetics tell me that thirty thousand years ago, my paternal Cro-Magnon ancestors settled not far from where I sit right now, in Spain. Ninety percent of Spaniards, as well as Irish, and seventy percent of Brits, also share this ancestry with me. I found these facts a few weeks ago just in time for my first trip to Spain. The facts are not much of a surprise, as I clearly know where my family comes from.

My biological paternal grandfather was a fair skinned, blond man with green eyes, and small stature with the last name of Ruiz. He would easily blend in with the crowds I have seen today in Barcelona. I know nothing more about him. I don’t even know what his first name was, as I’m sure he’s not with us; he’d be in his 100s now. My Nona, never married Señor Ruiz; he was already married. Gladly I carry her surname instead, Jimenez, an incredibly common last name in Spain and all former Spanish colonies, that means nothing more than “Son of Ximeno.” This Ximeno fellow has ancestors in places like the Philippines, Guatemala, Spain, and my native Colombia; not to mention the US contingent that sometimes has allowed idiots to change the name to Jiminez. I have often thought, why don’t they just give up and just change it Jimson or Jameson?

Anyway back to the Ruizes, I don’t know when they left this peninsula for the new world. If it was early in the 16th century, it was possibly just a single male Ruiz who was with the hordes of Conquistadors looking for gold. If it was later, as I suspect from Señor Ruiz’s description, it was possibly a family looking to move up in social rank. A Spaniard family in the colonies would be placed in an instant as high society. The story goes that his family was a well to do family, as was my Nona’s. He was an older married man, and she was an impressionable and naive teenager. Her mistakes, two of them, meant she lost her status and was shunned forever from the Jimenezes, and her children never were acknowledged by the Ruizes.

The paternal line is a complete blank from 1492 to mid 20th century for me. I can easily imagine that before Columbus, my ancestors were in the ebb and flow of Western Europe, once just simple hunter gatherers, then farmers or fishermen, under the rule of Rome, or the Moors, or whatever local King was in power. One day they picked up, left, and landed in the shores of South America, and made it inland. They met others that had also made the trip, or had been in the land before the Spaniards, and continued the line.

My Jimenezes are also a mystery to me for the same “mistakes” Nona made. They also were of fair skin and well to do, which belies direct Spanish ancestry, but since we were cut off from most of the family, we grew up with no stories about the past. Once when I was 7, I asked Nona about where we came from. With a glint in her eye, she looked around and whispered “some of our family are from la bella Italia.” I told my Dad this many years later and he shook his head. He’s not one to speak badly of his blessed mother, he simply answered “I never heard that.” Nona was a flighty, naive, capricious, but tenacious woman. She could have just imagined that. I like to keep her flight of fancy alive in my daydreams. I know my ancestors lived in Spain, but why not Italy too?

I had some success with my maternal lineage, more precisely my maternal grandfather’s line. A nice lady from New Orleans did a great summary of the family, that I stumbled upon one night searching the web.

The story goes that sometime in the 14th century there was a King or Prince in what is present-day Ciudad Real (Royal City), Spain. He fell in love with a Jewish/Sephardi woman that had my grandfather’s surname. Being a royal of a Catholic territory, he couldn’t take her family into the palace, so he build a town just north of Ciudad Real that bears the name of her family, where he relocated her family, when they married. She converted to Catholicism, but her family was allowed to keep the Jewish faith.

A couple hundred years later or so, in 1492, Spain united into one kingdom and expelled the Moors back across the Mediterranean. Feeling Catholic piety, the King and Queen began a process to cleanse Holy Spain from those that were unfaithful to the Pope and Rome.

The Sephardi across Spain had to decide to stay in the country and convert, or leave. Some converted but in secret kept the Jewish faith. To prove that they were no longer Jews, they ate pork regularly, and came to be nicknamed “Marranos” or pigs. Often they were scorned and said to smell like the pigs they ate. Many were burned at the stake, or suffered worse fates at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition. Funny enough given the amount of ham I have seen since I arrived to Spain a week ago, it seems everyone is a Marrano in this country.

My ancestors didn’t stick in Spain. Some moved to France, Ireland, and the Netherlands. Those that stayed in France and Ireland eventually changed their surnames to match local spelling and converted to Catholicism or Protestantism. Some that stayed in the Netherlands moved East and commingled with Ashkenazi Jews in Northern and Eastern Europe. My ancestors took a different route.

During the colonial race between the superpowers of Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands, the Dutch were having a hard time finding men or families to move to the New World under the Dutch flag. They offered any European, regardless of background, to move to the Dutch Antilles, or Dutch Guyana under the Netherlands’ flag, and receive Dutch citizenship and land. Many Sephardi took them up on it, including my ancestors.

As it always has happened with the chosen people, they couldn’t stay too comfortable in one place, and had to move west entering Venezuela. Of course, that brought them back into the purview of the Spanish Inquisition and finally they too gave up, and converted to Catholicism. One of my ancestors became a well known revolutionary who helped Simon Bolivar, the great General that defeated the Spaniards and liberated five separate colonies from Venezuela to Bolivia, to begin his campaign. Sometime between the mid-19th century, a branch of the family moved west once again arriving in Colombia.

That is the one cool story I have of my ancestry. The glitch however, is that I can’t directly tie my family to those in the little town in Spain. The Original researcher, and I had to assume that given that the name is very rare that all of us that share it came from the same place. Tomorrow our train between Barcelona and Sevilla will be going by near that town. I wonder if there will be any kind of ancestral recognition, if that could even be possible.

During this trip, all of this has been top of mind. I keep looking at those that are Spaniards, searching for a slight feeling, a gesture, something that makes me feel like this is indeed my place of origin. It’s not easy given that at least half of the Spanish-speaking people I have encountered are not Spaniards. Also I have probably heard more English spoken in Barcelona, than Spanish. It doesn’t help that the local Barcelonians speak Catalan.

I may not have had a feeling, or anything cathartic happen yet. The truth is there is no denying I look like these people. I don’t feel like a dwarf walking around Madrid or Barcelona. I blend in easily, something I haven’t been able to do in thirty years. I bet I could actually buy clothes at the stores that actually fit. So yes, I’m home. The home of most of my ancestors, at least. The home that was once stolen from part of them, or the home that was willingly given away in search for a better one. Funny enough, I’m not a Catholic, or a Jew. I speak Spanish only about 1% of my usual day. Pero, esta si es my España. This is my Spain.

20111107-125827.jpg