Sixteen years ago, prompted by a line in my patriarchal blessing, I signed up to take a family history class at BYU. The first day of class, the professor asked us each to introduce ourselves and our goals for the semester. One by one my classmates shared their ambitions to learn more about pioneer ancestors who settled towns in Utah or Idaho. With a healthy sense of humor and self-acceptance, I stood and semi-joked, “I’d really just like to trace my father’s family back to legitimate births.”
There are pockets of pioneer ancestry tucked into my lineage. There’s a street in historic Nauvoo that shares my mother’s maiden name. But the family stories that dominate my sense of identity are conspicuously lacking in quilts and covered wagons. And, my father’s side especially—the Mexican side of the family—has always been the stumpy side of the family tree.
The story I grew up hearing was a far cry from the faith-affirming legends shared in Sunday School. My paternal grandfather was born in Mexico, somewhere outside Guadalajara, Jalisco. His father was a bandit during the Mexican Revolution that ended the year grandpa was born. His mother died in childbirth or shortly after and he was raised by one of his grandmothers (I was never sure which one) until she died and left him an orphan at the age of 8 or 9. Grandpa came to the US as an undocumented immigrant as a teenager (and changed his name in the process). We knew the names of his parents, but that was about it.
The highlights sound adventurous and to the outsider, almost romantic. I mean, revolutionary bandits sound awesome, right?!?! But, the reality is that for all of the imagined high adventure, the lived reality is filled with stories of loss, pain, abandonment, abuse, and all sorts of sorrow. The older I got, the more I came to know that, if nothing else, the story of my family was… complicated. The more I came to see that, the more I could see how those complications played out over the generations, complicating my own sense of identity along with it.
After 4 months of learning all the ins and outs of doing family history research, I found nothing. Over the intervening years, the pattern continued. The occasional search (usually when a church activity forced me to hang out in a family history library or a Sunday School lesson hit the guilt chord extra hard), never turned up any records or information.
The stumpy branch of the family tree, I assumed along with the rest of my family, was destined to remain stumpy.
And then, in a series of small little moments, I started to wonder about my family history. But, it wasn’t my grandfather’s stories I began to long for. It was my great grandmother’s. I knew a first name, and nothing more. But, that name just kept getting stuck in my mind—it filled my thoughts in random moments. I gleaned a few additional details from my living family, including her last name. But, still there was nothing.
And then, one day, Ancestry.com accounted that they would be released a huge batch of newly-indexed records from Mexico. I’d shared the post almost mindlessly on Facebook, and a few days later decided to check it out. In less than an hour, I found myself staring at my great-grandparent’s marriage certificate. Six hours later, in a late-night insomnia-driven dive down the internet rabbit hole, I’d traced my great-grandmother’s family back 8+ generations. And in one night, my family became THOSE Mormons…
As I’ve taken the time to verify each link and fill in as much documentation as I could, the experience that have accompanied that research have been… complicated. My family literally spend hundreds of years in the same small cluster of villages in Mexico—marriage after marriage, christening after christening, performed in the same little church. There was, at the very least, the appearance of stability.
And then, the revolution turned life inside out and backwards. Suddenly I could see this ripple-effect of history, I felt the messiness and echoes of trans-generational traumas that reached through the subsequent century to my own life.
I see the opportunities and blessings of immigrating to a new country. I also have a renewed sense of profound loss for all that has been abandoned in the name of progress, assimilation, and religious conversion.
I’ve confronted small but significant moments of colonization, trying to reconcile Mexican surnames and geographies with data systems designed with American and western European conventions in mind.
I have rejoiced in feelings of connection and presence of what were long-lost mothers and grandmothers. And I’ve wept in recognizing that only a generation later, their surnames disappear from the pedigree chart, swallowed by patriarchal legal conventions.
But more than anything, I suddenly feel just a little bit more whole and whole lot more… complicated.