For many people, tracing their lineage is as easy as logging onto the Internet and subscribing to a popular ancestor-finding service. For someone like me, whose ancestry is of peasants from Oaxaca, in Southern Mexico, the job is a lot harder. Like many other first-generation Americans, my roots straddle an enormous gap. Centuries of history lie on one side, while only 20 years–the time since my parents’ immigration to the US–lie on the other. While some people can find their entire family histories online, I am left with only the stories of my grandmothers and a vast register of civil documents in Mexico.
Both my maternal and paternal grandfathers died before I was born, leaving only my grandmothers as a source for the past. On trips to Mexico, I am enchanted by their stories of the past, of times before their sons and daughters left for El Norte, of times when only one television in an entire village blared telenovelas, of times when only one party ruled all of Mexico. Characters with names like Febronia and Faustino, long lost aunts and cousins who left for the DF or joined some religión, all play starring roles in these stories. Places with names like Tres Arroyos or La Culebra are the locales for these tales. Death and frivolity both take the stage; times of joy and festivity are followed by the tragic.
But these stories are increasingly harder to remember, and names and dates are increasingly confused. My grandmothers remain one of the few links to the past, but I realize that there is only so little time before more of my family's history disappears along with them. The other source is the store of civil records lying in my parents’ hometown’s municipal palaces and the state capital archives. Here, I know, is where I have to direct my search and investigation in hopes of illuminating my family's history. It seems like a monumental task to tackle such a project. It seems like such a strange or even frivolous thing to spend time on. However, I cannot fathom the thought of my family’s history remaining so cloudy. I want my own progeny to remember their own roots, so they don’t forget that they come from humble, modest origins. That their ancestors grew maize by seasons, spoke indigenous dialects, and lived in the mountains of Oaxaca. The stories of common people with extraordinary lives, that's what I want to explore.
I have challenged myself to make my next trip to Mexico far more enlightening than the usual. My mother tells me that though bureaucratic red tape makes such dives into the past difficult, it is not impossible to search the archives. As a historian, the prospect of finally diving deep into my own history and filling in the gaps and expanding upon my grandmothers’ own histories, a combination of written and the oral, thrills me. Years of history have gone unwritten. It's my own personal history project. And this time, the family tree will be a lot larger than the few branches of my 7th grade history project.
-Juan Díaz, MC 2015