“You tell a Jewish girl in the United States she looks Jewish, she’ll stab you right in the heart,” the comedian Jackie Mason says about American Jews trying to hide their heritage.
Their greatest pride is to convince themselves they don’t look Jewish.
‘People say I look Hawaiian. Don’t I look a little Hawaiian? I think I look more French. Don’t I look Dutch? People say I look Spanish. I think I look a combination of Peruvian and Brazilian. Don’t I look–‘
You look Jewish, you drek yenta.
I don’t know where I got the idea that I’m half Italian on my dad’s side — the Puerto Rican side. My paternal grandmother, Doña Ana, a.k.a. Mami Two, was pale-skinned with bright red hair, like Lucille Ball. So when someone — an aunt? maybe a cousin? — hinted that Mami Two or her parents might’ve hailed from Italia, it seemed to make sense.
Though it shames me now to admit it, I was proud to claim a piece of Italian heritage. I told friends, the girls I dated (or wanted to), and strangers (even the Italian ones) whenever the topic arose. As a trigueño, I was soothed by the fact that I might be half European. (My Honduran mother’s father was a Croat, which I have no reason to believe except that it’s corroborated by my mother, her two sisters and my grandma — the only people who would know. My grandma, Doña Blanca, claims to be a quarter English on her mother’s side, which is bolstered by the British half of her hyphenated maiden name. If it seems confusing to you now, just imagine how confusing it was for a dark-skinned Honduran-Puerto Rican growing up in a Chicago suburb where you were either white, Russian/Polish, Mexican, Asian, “Hindu” or black.)
As I got older I started to suspect that the Italian rumor was more wishful thinking than hard genealogy. For one, the only Italian-Puerto Rican I’ve ever met or even heard of is my half-sister, whose mother is at least part Italian if not completely. Corsican-Puerto Ricans, on the other, are pretty common, since Corsicans began immigrating to la isla del encanto in the 19th century as upheavals in France led to troubles on French-owned Corsica, and after the Spanish Crown issued the Royal Decree of Graces in 1815 encouraging more European immigration to Cuba and Puerto Rico, Spain’s only colonies in the Americas after 1821.
But whether Mami Two was even part Corsican I may never know, as I’ve been estranged from my father’s side of the family since I was in high school. And I’m not going to start telling people I’m part Corsican when I don’t know for sure.
Funny enough, now that I’ve given up my Italian fantasy, my 12-year-0ld stepdaughter has started announcing to her family members and friends that she’s part Italian. (It’s important to note that I’d never shared my heritage hysteria with her.) “I can just feel it,” she says when I ask how she knows that at least one of her ancestors was a paesano — and having just one Italian ancestor is enough for her. “Everybody says ‘I’m part Irish’, ‘part German,’ ‘part French,’ ” she says about her classmates. “I don’t wanna say I’m just Mexican.”
Fair enough. But I can’t help noticing that my stepdaughter isn’t desperate to claim she’s part Nicaraguan or Peruvian. Somehow Latin America just doesn’t elicit the reverence and pride from her that Europe does. Compared to the dignitas of Italy, at least how she and a lot of other people see it, Mexico is a backwater. At the still tender age of 12 she’s already gotten the message: Europe is good, and Latin America is not so good.
Such an understanding of the inherent value of being European versus being Latin American can’t be good for the development of her self-worth. Over the last nearly 13 years of her life she’s been receiving cues from the Western milieu that the place and people she descends from, the ingredients which are a major part of who she is and who she’s becoming, are of lesser quality than those of the people who descend (directly) from Europe. In her mind, her being “just Mexican” means she’s been born with a handicap — namely, the Hispanic handicap.
Of course, she only feels that way because she, like most of her fellow Latinos, knows next to nothing about her indigenous roots. Her Native ancestors, like mine, were brutally conquered, their culture almost completely destroyed, and their history virtually forgotten. In the clash of civilizations that began in 1492, the Europeans won and the Mexica, the Maya, the Taíno and the Inca lost. Sure, the Maya were excellent astronomers and timekeepers, and the Inca built an impressive road system nearly 25,000 miles long, but the fact of the matter is that both the Maya and the Inca, as well as all the other Native American civilizations, proved no match for the technological advancements and economic and political organization of Renaissance Europe. The Native peoples lost in the end, and nobody wants to think of themselves as descending from losers.
Nor does my stepdaughter know that the Romans, whose descendants include the Italians, Spaniards and Latin Americans, claimed to be the descendants of Troy, which the ancients tell us was burned to the ground during the Late Bronze Age. Then again, it was also widely believed that Rome was founded by the mortal offspring of the gods Mars and Venus. For their part, the ancient Greeks believed the gods played a role in the founding of their cities. Their histories and genealogies utterly unknown to them, both the Greeks and the Romans preferred their divine foundational myths to the truth: that Athens, Sparta and Rome were founded by primitive tribes, not the gods and heroes lauded by Homer and Virgil.
If school children were told as much about the Olmec, the Zapotec, the Totonac and Toltec as they are about the Greeks, the Romans, the Teutons and the Vikings, maybe my stepdaughter would be searching elsewhere in her genealogy for some connection to the great builders of Tikal or Teotihuacán, whose culture and size were peaking in the 5th century CE — just as Rome, which a few centuries earlier was the mightiest metropolis the world had ever seen, was being reduced to a city of ruins by Celtic and Germanic “barbarians.”
Wanting to be part Italian or part French is merely the desire to belong to something that most Westerners agree is something good and worthy of pride. If most Westerners don’t know or don’t agree that the indigenous civilizations of America fall into this category, that doesn’t mean the Maya, the Mexica and the Taíno aren’t worthy of such pride. That Native cultures are placed on the losing side of the ledger, ignored and then forgotten probably has more to do with the Western World’s — that is, Europe’s — obsession with itself than anything else.
There’s no denying Europe’s rich and august history which has influenced the history of the human race for thousands of years, for better or worse. Good for the Europeans, and anyone who descends from them.
Latinos too are the inheritors of that great legacy, and they should be proud of it and search their own family histories for the many connections to it. But, as Latinos, they can’t forget that they also descend from another, equally noble heritage. So while my 12-year-old stepdaughter may resent having to tell her friends at school that she’s “just Mexican,” let me reassure her there’s no such thing — she just doesn’t know it.
Featured image: Olmec colossal head found in the Mexican state of Veracruz and dating to before the founding of Rome (Jesús Gorriti/Flickr)