Uncovering Our Roots: Why Does Family History Matter?

Many of us scour libraries, attics, government data, cemetery records, and online sources to learn more about where we come from, hoping that uncovering the stories of the generations before us will give us a better understanding of the people we are today.  We believe this personal history matters, even if we cannot quite explain why.

In her memoir, The Forgetting River: A Modern Tale of Survival, Identity, and the Inquisition, journalist Doreen Carvajal describes her journey to uncover her Catholic family’s Jewish roots that were long buried as a result of persecution during the Spanish Inquisition.  It is an engaging read, one that is well-suited for anyone interested in genealogical research or Spanish or Jewish history. Her analysis of the silent survival of Sephardic Jewish cultural traditions, even while converso families “proved” their Catholic allegiance by attending mass and tolerating pork, was especially fascinating.

My only complaints are the memoir’s incongruous structure that repeatedly jumps time and geographic location and the inclusion of what felt like distracting, irrelevant material to an outsider joining Carvajal on her journey of self-discovery.  Chapter 19, which takes place in Brussels in 2010 while the majority of the story features Spain, is particularly puzzling, both in its weak connection to the family history at the heart of this memoir and in its details about the outrageous lengths to which Carvajal went as a reporter to stalk a silent victim of clergy sexual abuse (apparently, she wanted “to understand why there was silence for so long” — even though the reasons “why” are rather obvious to anyone familiar with the social science on the subject; it may be interesting to know the specifics of a case, but if the survivor doesn’t respond to your efforts to find him, leave him alone).

A few chapters later, returning to Spain and jumping to August 2011, Carvajal ends her pursuit for clarity on her family’s history with many questions about her distant past answered, enough to solidify her understanding of her family’s origins.  Like any genealogical mystery, though, one solved through oral histories and funeral prayer cards, it seems the highest level of certainty is “more likely than not,” not “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Many of us crave to unravel our family’s mysteries, myself included, and I have often wondered why the answers to these questions are important.  Could learning about our historical background change who we are today?  Does any of it matter, or is genealogy merely another form of self-indulgent entertainment?

In my case, my maternal side is Sri Lankan, while my father’s side is Irish, Sioux, and Basque, with a DNA test substantiating portions of my family’s tale and other pieces of evidence supporting the rest (such as Census data, pictures, and multiple sources for the oral history).  I wonder sometimes whether it would matter if I suddenly learned, possibly through a DNA test, that we hail from a different area of the world, perhaps through a later migration from Africa, East Asia, or Eastern Europe?*  To some extent, the knowledge could matter in a concrete way, as some diseases are inherited and concentrated in certain ethnic populations.  Otherwise, how such a “surprise” would change how I perceive myself and my affinity with others is an open question.  It feels like these genealogical surprises do matter on some level, but for reasons I cannot articulate.

If there is a lesson in genealogical research, it is how interconnected we are to one another.  It is part of what makes the ongoing distrust of Jews in Spain, which Carvajal describes aptly, so absurd, given that Jewish and Muslim blood pulses quietly through the veins of a large percentage of the Catholic population.  Each of us is much more than what we see on the surface, the result of thousands of years of procreation, migrations, plagues, and war among groups that are more closely related than anyone ever admits.  Knowledge of this common heritage should inspire tolerance, but the level of prejudice in the world today suggests that this lesson either remains a secret or is less persuasive than I would have hoped.


Edited to add (2016): We recently learned through a DNA test that my father’s maternal grandfather was African American, a heritage he either chose to hide or did not know (he lived in Maryland/Virginia/DC in the early to late 20th Century). That his heritage (our heritage!) was a mystery until now is a sad fact of American life and history.



  1. Beautiful piece; thanks for sharing! As someone just committing to rediscovering my cultural identity and family history, this was a comforting deep breath of a read.


  2. I am a true “mutt” (English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Danish, French, and German). My maternal grandmother kept pieces of “history” about our family. Now my dad has them to give to me one day. We have my great great aunts’ baptism certificates, written in German, along with some other documents from when my family first came to America. We also have a picture of a relative with the Liberty Bell. He was one of three men who accompanied the Liberty Bell when it went to New Orleans in 1885. Learning these little things about my family is incredible. I wish I had written down the stories my grandmother told me many years ago. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I just found your blog! Fascinating discussion here. I love family history but have always been interested in history and it is the personal stories that I find more interesting than names and dates. I stick mainly to my Danish line which goes back to 1620 and this led to a journey of discovery through Danmark and villages where my family lived for over 500 years. I can relate to the comment: I know I am from Cork, especially when I am there, or words to that effect. Being Australian, it was so corny to feel I had a home when I went to Denmark, and yet that is what I felt. My interest sparked a hobby of learning a foreign language, and discovering, not just a culture so close to my heart, but also a long time friend that is related, and stories of ancestors that shaped small communities in a country far from my home. I see mannerisms and habits and walk style in my children, that I saw in my grand parents and was told was also common in my great grandparents. It therefore, is not surprising that many traits are passed genetically. Yes we are a mix of all of those, but it is interesting and intriguing to find out which ones came from where. Whilst boring to some, it is fun to me!!! Thanks for this blog. I will pop back again soon.

    1. How interesting! It sounds like researching your family history has been a very rewarding experience for you. It’s wonderful that it has encouraged you to learn a foreign language and meet new people. I can also relate to feeling a particular connection to a certain part of my ancestry. For me, that’s probably because I look the most like people from that part of the world (I certainly look more South Asian than I do Irish, and my daughters are the opposite). Still, how I’ve perceived my identity has changed over the years. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. The book sounds interesting, but the stalking of the abuse victim sounds really, really creepy, and irrelevant to boot. It sounds like the author and/or publisher just wanted to capitalize on the widespread interest in the Catholic Church abuse scandals.

    1. Yes, it felt incredibly exploitative. I could not believe her relentless pursuit of the abuse survivor in the name of journalism, nor could I believe that she included it in her memoir. Her attempt to make it relevant to her own personal journey felt contrived. The book, which isn’t bad overall, would have been better without this chapter.

  5. I can totally relate to this post right now! I decided to write a family history book about my mom’s side of the family with a cousin. I am in the midst of interviewing family members and learning about their childhood, growing up, etc. I think it is like a missing piece of the puzzle for me and many of my cousins. Even for many of my aunts and uncles, they feel it is a valuable thing to do and they also have questions about their family history that they’ve always wanted to know and hopefully we can uncover.

    I think that learning about the older generation and where our parents came from, how they grew up, can help us understand our parents better and appreciate them more.

    1. I agree with you–learning about family history helps us better understand our relatives. For example, my father, who takes after the Irish side in appearance, grew up with his Sioux grandfather, having a profound effect on how he views his racial identity. It would be hard to understand why he is the way he is without knowing more about his grandfather, who passed away fourteen years before I was born.

  6. My aunt would love this post. She has spent so much time and effort to research and write down our family history. I love sitting down with her and just hearing the stories poor out. We are lucky to have her in our family.

    1. Yes, you are lucky! It’s nice that she has made the effort to research it. To the extent there are any remaining genealogical mysteries (and there usually are), do you think you’ll carry on the tradition of researching your family history?

  7. A facinating post, touching on the magical oneness of our world. I am honoured to have put your link on my facebook.Your family history highlights the situation of my character, Juliana, in Hues of Blackness: a Jamaican Saga. I share deeply in celebrations of our oneness.

  8. I would love to do one of the DNA tests. My father’s side is German, we know that for sure. My mother’s side is Scott-Irish and a family member traced the geneology to the first guy that landed on the shore in South Carolina. But my mother is also adopted and based on her coloring thre is a good chance she’s actually from Swiss or Danish decent.

    1. The DNA tests are neat. My father did it through the National Geographic Genographic Project. The test supported our oral history for that side of the family, and it was a nice feeling to know that the stories we tell ourselves are most likely true. In the memoir, Carvajal talks about DNA tests at length. Good luck!

    1. Yeah, some of the strands of my family history seem to dead end with immigration, though I found that some countries have online records (like old Census information) that are searchable by last name. Good luck!

  9. Congratulations on being “Freshly Pressed!” I’ve become our family historian and I think there are several reasons people find it rewarding. Many today feel disconnected by an individualized culture and wonder, “Where do I belong, what influences me besides my own personal choices?” Family history can also change the way we see history in general. Events change from shaping nations to shaping (and being shaped by) our own ancestors. For instance, the wars with Napoleon become the influences that changed the economics of farming, crafts and taxes so that ancestors looked for a new life in America. I read “Our Daily Bread” about German village life in the centuries before mass emigrations to the US and learned many things that influenced the generations before me.

    1. Thank you! You raise several good points about why we find genealogy rewarding. Family history certainly does influence us in many ways, and it also makes historical events more personal.

  10. Great post. The comments are very interesting as well. I am constantly searching for my family history. I made up my mind a long time ago that my children and grandchildren would have their family history at their fingertips. We need to share the stories with our children but also write the stories, anecdotes and facts in journals.

      1. I have kept notes and lists my mother kept in magazines. After she died I needed to feel I was closer to her somehow and the quotes she copied from radio programs she would listen to provided insight as to what she was thinking and feeling during her illness and gave me closure.

  11. Congratulations on FP. Great post.I believe our interest in genealogy stems from our desire to understand our place in the world. Sadly most of us forget to look in our own back yard before its too late. I find it interesting that most people begin this search when they reach middle age, a time when their grandparents are gone – often one or both of their parents.

    1. Although what you say does fit the common stereotype it is not necessarily accurate. In fact, genealogy is something that families have done for quite some times, my own research has documented five books with information on various parts of my line, three of them were written late 1800s to early 1900s. Which means that these lineages and any historical data were all created and verified through handwritten communication. My grandmother contributed to two of these books before she died at the young age of 29 in 1905 and I have seen many examples of this in other genealogy books as well.

      I have another theory on why many people nowadays start at middle age. When their parents die, they inevitably have to take care of personal affects and in doing so might uncover old letters, pictures, etc…curiosity begins. In my experience, the most active genealogists are those who are well into their golden years. It is suddenly important to document everything you know. In her final year, my great aunt kept a small notebook next to her and when she would remember something, she’d write it down. Another wrote three books which included pictures and places and covered 400 years. I also think genealogy has been popularized by the ease of access to information and documents via the internet and most recently by the TV show, “Who Do You Think You Are?”.

      I understand some may lack interest, my own hubby had no interest in the subject until I started uncovering a little bit of his genealogy. He still doesn’t do the research but has admitted that it was interesting and he’d like to know more. I completely agree with your comment on forgetting to look in our own back yard. As a teacher, I required my students to do research, interview style on their parents and grandparents or other living relatives. Yet, I neglected to do this myself and sadly, most of what I learned about my grandparents was post mortem. I would have spent a lot more time with them, had I known what I know now…a goldmine untapped.

      1. For me, I know I became interested at middle age, and it struck me as I began to age into the role of “family elder” and felt so woefully unprepared for it that all those old people in the cracking, yellowed old family photos that I’ve seen were … no different from me. They weren’t born with grey hair and lunettes. Becoming middle-aged for me made me see those people in a new way and grow curious about them.

        My mother’s grandmother came from a small village in Italy where the girls used to wash clothes in the river, beating them against the rocks. When they went to the river, the boys would hang out on the other side of the stream and they’d flirt across the water. My grandmother would flirt by letting her skirt ride up a tiny bit so her ankle would show.

        Fast forward to after her emigration to the US, and her OWN daughter, my grandmother, had flapper-short hair and took a 1920’s glam photo of herself in a swimsuit — with her bare arms showing! — holding a parasol. Nowdays of course, it was a very modest tank suit with shorts, and she was wearing knee socks and shoes, but still — bare arms! And you could see her legs! My great-grandmother must have thought it was a sign of the apocalypse.

      2. Thank you for your thoughtful response to my comment. In hindsight, it was not my intention to trivialize genealogy in any way. My grandfather on my fathers side spent the last years of his life tracing his family back to 15th century England. It’s bound into a lovely book that I treasure.
        My comment – look in our back yards – came from a post I was putting up at the time called “Regret” Take a peek and you’ll understand.


    2. Notes to Ponder- Thank you! I’m glad you liked the post. I agree that most of us forget to look in our own backyard until it’s too late. Sadly, my grandparents died when I was a small child, and the last of that generation on one side of my family (my paternal grandmother’s youngest sister) died last year. I did get the chance to ask her a few questions about her father, a man whose ancestry remains a complete secret. He had an olive complexion, but never spoke of his background, which is understandable at a time in the US when segregation was legal. My great-aunt told me that he was Native American (not the Sioux ancestry that we know about, which comes from a different line). Who knows–he could have been anything. So, it’s just an unknown. That’s the part of my family history I am the most curious about and no one asked him before he died at the age of 88.

      Mrs. P- I agree that genealogy has become a much more popular hobby in recent years, thanks in large part to the increased accessibility of records through the internet. We are also better able to connect with long lost relatives through email, FB, and other social media.

  12. I grew up without my mom and since she was adopted, I really couldn’t tell you anything about her. I did a dna test and it was fascinating to me to realize that despite she had a English name, she had no English heritage whatsoever (my mom was adopted she was a baby). She was Spanish, Italian, and Dutch. My mother even has aboriginal heritage. I never knew. I also have Jewish from my Polish side. it’s funny how I knew nothing of my past but when I was in a Jewish neighborhood, I was mistaken as one before I even knew I had Jewish heritage. When I found out, nobody blinked. It was one big DUH.

    “Many of us crave to unravel our family’s mysteries, myself included, and I have often wondered why the answers to these questions are important. Could learning about our historical background change who we are today? Does any of it matter, or is genealogy merely another form of self-indulgent entertainment?”

    I was asking myself the same questions. =/

    1. That’s very interesting. Did learning that family history change how you see yourself?

      Part of why I wonder about the importance of family history comes from my perception of adoption–that I could love a child whether we share a common ancestry or not. While I have not adopted a child, I can see the strong bond in other families, and that bond downplays the importance of blood relations. Still, there is something fascinating and significant about discovering our genetic and cultural roots, probably even more so for people whose ancestry is hidden as a result of adoption.

      1. Well, I can’t say that my mom had any love when she was adopted. She would run away, get caught, and all of a sudden was taken to many foster homes. I had to live in a foster home, myself. It’s not pretty. While my dad did eventually get me back, I realize how screwed up the system is….but that’s another story.

        Through dna, I also learn my health habits – what diseases are higher risk, and such. That was interesting. Haha. 🙂

        1. I’m sorry that you and your mother experienced that! Yes, the foster care system is broken. I have a relatively close view of the system in my city, and it is not a pretty sight, despite the best intentions of almost everyone involved.

          To me, perhaps the most important part of family history (particularly close ancestry–one or two generations back) is learning about genetic diseases. I remember the in-depth genetic counseling I went through when I was pregnant. They asked about every living and dead relative going back to my grandparents generation (ethnicity, how long they lived, what conditions they had, etc). Possibly the saddest, but one of the most interesting, chapters of Abigail Pogrebin’s memoir about identical twins (which I reviewed on this blog on November 14th) is about a family that was unaware of their Jewish ancestry.

  13. I am quite involved in the genealogical history of my family. The key word is history, not lineage. I had done the lineage quite some time ago and then discontinued my research until I stumbled upon (Googled my grandfather’s name) a passage written about my ancestors on the internet. Lineage in many respects is quite boring unless you happen to uncover a notable person in your line.

    Although my family line is probably typical of others who have been in America since the 1600s, I did discover they were hard working, educated, religious people but forward thinking and active in the state of affairs. Family took care of family and in several generations children were adopted by other family members when one or more parent died. My great grandfather donated his remains to science well before the idea was ever talked about. In general, they were good people to the core. In this day and age it is unusual to see that tight knit structure of family.

    Doing this study has changed the way I interact with family in that I have chosen to interact with them more (not because I feel obligated but because I am interested) where I once held them at arms length. I’ve had a good foundation to draw upon and I am encouraged to live a successful and prosperous life. I’ve made quite a few “new” familial friends as well. I agree with the analogy of “jigsaw puzzle” that quality is what keeps it interesting.

    1. I agree- it’s the historical context that makes genealogy interesting. It sounds like you have uncovered fascinating information about your family. Until reading the comments from you and others, I hadn’t thought much about how doing such studies could result in increased contact with living relatives. It brings people together, and that’s a very good thing. Thanks for sharing your perspective!

  14. Loved your post. Genealogy research was never a thought in my mind until one day I found the original newspaper clipping of my immigrant grandfathers obituary – it stated he had six brothers and seven sisters still residing in Italy at the time of his death ( 1950 ). Suddenly I was driven….to find….anything. It took less than one year, many hours, trips to the library etc. I did in fact find, multiple relatives still in Italy. We have become familiar with each other and internet connect often. I will be going to Italy this spring. I plan to arrive on Italian soil on the exact same day my grandfather arrived in America 100 years later. May 12, 1913 – May 12, 2013. History matters.

    1. That’s an interesting idea — I may “borrow” it. 🙂 That means I’ll have to go to Italy to arrive December 19, 2021 which is 100yrs after my maternal grandfather arrived here.

      I found him on a ship manifest that came through Ellis Island; when I read “tailor, scar on forehead” and saw that he was meeting a friend on the street and city where my mother grew up, I felt the hair on the back of my neck prickle.

      He left no relatives at all, though — WWI saw to that. It’s wonderful that you found close family there! That’s really a trip of a lifetime!

    2. I can understand that investigative impulse! It’s wonderful that you were able to find so many relatives, and it sounds like you have a fascinating reunion planned. I hope you blog about it! You might be interested to see Sheryl’s blog (http://ahundredyearsago.com/)? She is posting her grandmother’s diary entries 100 years to the day they were written.

  15. I’m always surprised how quickly the number of ancestors that we have multiplies as we go back through the generations. For example, I have 2 parents, 4 grandparents, and 256 great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents.

  16. I’m not a massive genealogy fan, but I’ve gotten into it a bit lately. On some level, it’s like a jigsaw puzzle with no edges, where you can always fit one more piece in. If you like puzzles, it’s not only about finding your family names or anything, or an identity-based thing. It’s also just about compulsive puzzle-solving, which some people really enjoy for its own sake. It’s fun to contemplate a gap in the puzzle, envision the sort of piece that would fit there, and then hunt around for it. A likely candidate jumps out at you, but is it the right piece for that gap? Maybe, maybe not. It can be fun. If it’s self-indulgent, who cares? Isn’t all entertainment ultimately self-indulgent? And if it can help cement the bald-faced truth that ALL humans are interrelated, then so much the better.

    The thing I don’t get is why people get very personally invested in what they find on an individual level, especially very far back. I’m not responsible for the choices of any of those people in my distant past, we all have slaves and kings in our past, and anyone who thinks that for example rape was not a part of their family tree someplace is kidding themselves. My great-grandfather dumped his daughters off at a farm after their mother died. Actually he SOLD THEM. They were tiny girls, under ten years old. We’re all related to some right assholes.

    1. I like your analogy. Genealogy is like a jigsaw puzzle, one that you usually can’t complete. There is always a missing piece or more information about context you can gather. There are few certainties; it’s all about getting to “maybe.”

      I also agree that we’re all related to some a-holes, but there are some family histories that seem more densely populated with a-holes than others (or at least, their exploits are better documented for future generations to uncover).

  17. “Each of us is much more than what we see on the surface, the result of thousands of years of procreation, migrations, plagues, and war among groups that are more closely related than anyone ever admits. ” I love this bit so much and it’s so true! Wonderful post!

  18. I have always said, and believe, that you can’t know where to go if you don’t know where you started. History matters, whether it’s a family history or mankind’s history in general. Good post. 🙂

  19. I will definately have to get this book and read it. The Jews as others have gone through some difficult times for sure. That is why I think it is important when raising my children to never let them forget their Jewish heritage! Don’t you agree that passing on your heritage is important?

    1. I hope you like the book! I enjoyed most of it, with my only complaints being what I described in the post. I do think it’s important to pass on our heritage, our cultural traditions. What I question is passing on traditions that resurface hundreds of years later. For example, my great-great-great grandfather was Basque. We do not knowingly follow any Basque cultural traditions, and (to me) it would be weird to start claiming that heritage all of a sudden. The cultural traditions I am passing onto my own children are the ones that are more recently in our family tree, a mixture of South Asian and American traditions. I respect that others may feel differently about this.

  20. I’ve certainly had the experience of encountering cousins who had little to no knowledge of their ancestry, even grandparents who were living in their lifetimes. Having been privy to certain information about their extended family, I had to walk a fine line in dealing with sensitive issues that could have caused real trauma in divulging them. Pain, abuse, etc, do get passed down through generations.

    With regard to traumas more distant ancestors experienced, I think they can be understood from an historical perspective, grieved over, and accepted without it changing how we see ourselves in the world. Understanding that our ancestors experienced hardship is to be expected, even very difficult hardship and oppression. I wonder if for many people learning that their ancestors were among the elite, perhaps slave owners, or responsible for acts of horror against others might have a much more profound effect. For my part, I pray that all of my departed relatives rest in peace. There’s not much more I can do.

    James LaForest

    1. Yes, for many people, it would probably be difficult to process information indicating that their ancestors were oppressors. Perhaps it would help them understand the perpetuation and continuing impact of privilege, which could span generations. But, like you, I don’t believe we are defined by the actions of our ancestors.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  21. I came across your post and found it quite intrigueing. I am now a follower! I love genealogy, but I know it can be boring to others. I initially started my blog 6 months ago writing about my family research although I have broadened my blog now, but what fascinated me most about my research was meeting folks along the journey who helped me as I was studing several lines at one time. One blog post I wrote allowed me to meet several distant cousins I would have never known about if not for the research:

    thank you, Alesia

  22. Well, I just wrote little of my history, and my families.

    Then I jumped over to “freshly pressed.” Congrats!

    I had to read this. But, boy ‘the river RAN deep.”

    “given that Jewish and Muslim blood pulses quietly through the veins of a large percentage of the Catholic population.”

    Gutsy. Do you really mean that?

    1. Yes, I mean that. We are all related, no matter who much anyone wants to deny it. Many Jews living in Spain converted to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition. In the memoir, Carvajal writes of one study: “Their findings were intriguing, for they revealed a high level of conversions: There was evidence that 19.6 percent of living Spanish men are descended from Sephardic Jews, and another 10.6 percent carry the genetic signature of Moors.” Carvajal has many examples in her book.

          1. Rape was a not so uncommon part of conquest by the Moors. And it would not surprise me if some Catholics partook of forbidden fruit. If your study is impartial, then it would seem some Jewish blood got into the mix as well.

            How much of the admixture was because of the ‘conversos?’ And how much was from forced inter-breeding?

            There is not any easy method of determining where the admixture came from, all we can tell is that it happened.

            And personally, I am surprised that there is not an almost 100% admixture of races on the Iberian continent. Fifteen hundred years is a long time for races to mix.

            Mexico in just five hundred years has a greater mixing of people groups ….

            1. I am unfamiliar with that particular history, though I have no doubt that sexual violence has been used as a tool of war by just about every group. I have only read Carvajal’s description of the study, which was conducted by European geneticists Francesc Calafell and Mark Jobling, and so I cannot answer your specific question. Still, forced conversions certainly play a role in the genetic makeup of Catholics today. Carvajal, who was raised Catholic despite her Jewish roots, is one example.

              1. But, that does not tell us the origin of her Jewish roots, nor the percentage, nor how that should affect her today.

                Taken out of context, it reads like she is blaming her past for her being Catholic today.

                I have known many friends who have been attracted to this story over the years, and it is intriguing. But, it is difficult to lay all blame on Catholic Conversos, when there were many other people involved.

                Mexico in just 500 hundred years is about 80% European …. The reversal of your 20% in Spain. So, if conversion caused the admixture, why isn’t the admixture MUCH higher a percentage than the very recent admixture in Mexico?

                1. I can’t speak for Carvajal, but she does write in the memoir about how some people with converso ancestry have grappled with whether to renounce Catholicism and reclaim their Jewish religion. Uncovering a hidden ancestry will affect everyone differently.

                  My point in the post has to do with the fact that we are all connected–it doesn’t really matter how it happened.

                  1. We are all interconnected?

                    We just left the century with the most slaughter in the history of man, and this century looks like it might be even worse.

                    I pray some of that interconnected peace makes its way into the world around us.


  23. A wonderful piece, thank you. My own personal journey has been as much about trying to discover whatever I can about one ancestor and his life, as it has been about telling me more about myself. I’m not sure that your – or anyone else’s family history – would necessarily be boring though. It’s up to the writer to engage with his/her audience by making the narrative relevant to them. And therein lies the challenge!

    1. Thanks for stopping by! It’s not that I think that reading about someone else’s genealogy is boring–I liked most of Carvajal’s memoir, for example–but I prefer reading about the history and cultural context surrounding an ancestor’s life more than I am interested in a list of ancestors, how they are related, and when they lived.

  24. Thank you for your post, as a Jewish person with interest in genealogy I’d be very curious to read this book. I’ve recently learned that we have some family roots in Portugal, but I am constantly thirsty to learn more. Bucket list, meet genealogical project.

    1. Yeah, you might find this memoir interesting. Not only does Carvajal describe some of her genealogical research methods, but she talks a lot about the history and cultural traditions of Sephardic Jews.

  25. I’ve done a little poking around in my family history, though my excursions are limited by being on a grad student schedule and budget. I did recently discover that my grandmother’s claim to Irish ancestry is, in fact, accurate. I had doubted her because she was prone to make unlikely claims because she thought they were romantic or added somehow to her social status. Turns out she was right – I have two great-great-grandparents who were born in Ireland and came to the US in the mid-nineteenth century. It doesn’t fundamentally change who I think I am, but it’s a slight adjustment to now include those few drops of Irish blood in my definition of myself. Mostly it’s just interesting to me because it brings up more questions – Did they flee the Famine? Where in Ireland? Were they married before or after they left? I want to figure out the stories!

    1. It’s fascinating. I’m drawn to genealogy the way I am drawn to novels: they’re interesting stories full of harrowing circumstances (like famine) and secrets. My Irish ancestry came to the US in the mid-nineteenth century, too. Who knows, maybe we’re related!

  26. Intriguing post on several levels. AMB, have you (or will you) formally trace your amazing ancestry or are you content with the oral accounts?
    So true about intolerance when our genetics are so intertwined. For example, western athletes are quick to point to the so-called genetic advantages of the distance runners of the Rift Valley, or the sprinters of Jamaica. Studies have strongly suggested that genetics play little or no part in the success of those athletes and that there are many other factors involved.
    Me? I know I ‘belong’ in Cork, Ireland every time I visit – though admittedly the facts back that ‘feeling’ up 🙂

    1. Thanks! I have not formally traced my ancestry, though I am the member of my generation of the family who collects our stories and keeps them (the way my father does). I may do it at some point, but it’s more likely that I’ll help someone else in the family as they undertake the project.

  27. I feel so ordinary. I have nothing but German ancestry as far back as my cousin took our genealogy. Both mother and farther have names as German as you can get and all grandparents came from there. No mystery in our family but there is a famous German composer and famous artist in the family. I never wondered at all until my cousin paid to have the history researched. The German marriages only diverted at our generation. I guess, like Theo, I never saw a point.

    1. It could be interesting to know more about the parts of Germany they came from and the types of lives your ancestors led. Do you think it would change the way your perceive your identity if you learned suddenly that you had a little French or South Asian mixed in there? When I look at my children, who certainly look more European than South Asian and have an Irish last name, I can easily see how the South Asian heritage could be “lost” in a few generations and yet remain in their mitochondrial DNA.

      1. I don’t think it would change me in anyway. I am amazed at all the different heritages that you derive from. That is why I thought my background is mundane. Having an artist in the family explains why I am the only one. I am also the only one with blue eyes and very pale skin. That really does make me wonder.

        1. Who knows, there may be some centuries-old secrets in your family’s past! The DNA tests (genographic tests) are kind of fun, actually, and sometimes uncover hidden ancestral backgrounds.

  28. I’ve never understood the need to know one’s genealogical history. Perhaps my profound belief in the notion that we live many lives is part of my indifference. I’m utterly certain I come from far and wide, over thousands of years. In a given life, I’m exploring several threads of my soul, learning and growing. I guess it’s possible that a person’s particular life might find value in a recent genealogy, for specific reasons, so, hey, go for it!

    1. I do find genealogy interesting, but my family history is interesting to me alone and probably wouldn’t be a good basis for a memoir. The parts of Carvajal’s memoir that were interesting were about the experience of Jews in Spain during the Inquisition. I was less interested in her personal family history, but I can understand why she would feel compelled to uncover it and share it.

      1. i agree being that i have a huge family and with my mother and father alone i am the baby out of 10. Things that i learned about my brothers and sisters are very interesting and crazy. i love the stories and i wouldn’t mind going further into the family to find out more secrets or even recipes that were made because i don’t mean to toot my own horn but my family are good cooks =]

  29. A friend of mine spent untold hours researching his family’s genealogy, and I admit I couldn’t see the point. While you do get the DNA of those who bred you, the person you are is made of life experience combined with personal observation. That’s my opinion anyway.

    (And reading what he came up with was really boring! All about who begat who…. *eyes glazed over*)

    1. I tend to agree, though there does seem to be research out there about how the experiences of our ancestors (such as famine) can have an impact many generations down the line. But does our learning suddenly that our ancestors experienced famine or persecution somehow change something about how we perceive ourselves today? It will be a different answer for everyone,and I suspect that it would do little to change my identity.

      I also agree that reading about someone else’s genealogy is a bit boring, but Carvajal managed to make this memoir broader than her direct line. The most interesting parts of it read more like a history book about the Jewish experience during the Spanish inquisition.

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