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 Moor, and the oral history suggests we have distant roots in Yemen, 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.