There’s an astute Chinese Proverb that goes something like this: “To forget one’s ancestors is to be a brook without a source, a tree without a root.” To me, it’s a saying that lends itself to another quote by Michael Crichton: “If you don’t know history, you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.”
Both quotes speak to the importance of not just knowing your family history, but recalling it actively in everything you do. Your history is the iceberg beneath the water; the hive behind the bee. Even if we fail to see it, it’s reason for our existence, and larger than our individuality by multitudes.
And, ultimately, if you forget your context, you lose yourself, as many people have and many more will. It adds up. We repeat the mistakes of the past without knowing it. We lose touch with our blood and our culture. We over-assimilate. We become that tree-less leaf, disconnected from the branch and crunched down above roots we never payed attention to.
I’ve made many mistakes, but luckily this has not been one of them. You might say that this is the one thing I’ve always done right, and something that has anchored me in my most difficult moments. Part of this is, I’m sure, because my family history feels so immediate, even several decades and thousands of miles removed. Born in Texas, I moved back to my mother’s country Venezuela when I was a baby, and lived there until age 6 (my father is Guatemalan). South American blood runs through my veins, and I’ve always been proud to be Latina—not because I was told to, either. My mother and my grandmother set an example for me that instilled in me great pride, and the desire to live up to their accomplishments.
To start with my grandmother: As a woman from Martinique originally, she raised eight successful children on her own. Each went on to forge unique career paths, a testament to her parenting, I believe, and the ambition that runs in the family! Her son (my uncle) Nelson Vasquez graduated with honors from MIT and became a high-level executive at PDVSA. Another son, Eduardo Vasquez—after some time as a boxer—learned German, translated Hegel’s work into Spanish, and became a philosophy professor at Universidad Central de Venezuela. Her daughter, Wallis de Gomez, became the principal of one of Caracas’ most prestigious private schools, Santiago de Leon de Caracas. Another daughter, Marie Marguerite, was an executive secretary in the Venezuelan embassy in Prague during the Iron Curtain years and later became a translator at the Venezuelan Opera House working with many notables from Pavarotti to Placido Domingo.
Then, there’s my mother. In a sexist age in a third world country, my mom graduated as a medical doctor at age 25. On top of this, she beat out all of her male colleagues for a coveted residency at Tufts University. She has always been elegant and inspiring; a force of personality and grace that I aspire to embody in every way I can. She has been my greatest influence in life, and I talk to her every day.
This is, of course, just scratching the surface: history is a winding road behind us that we can follow quite a long way before getting lost. These days we have so many resources to help trace our ancestry, whether through genealogy records or even DNA. While those steps may be worth taking, perhaps the easiest and best way to get started is to simply ask your parents, grandparents, and other elders about their lives. You may be stunned to hear how different things were, and even more surprised to realize how much has not changed.
In today’s day and age, staying connected to our separate and collective histories seems more urgent than ever. I’m grateful to have stayed in touch with my Latina heritage in a time when our immigrants continue to be demonized. A vast majority of Americans are descended from immigrants; as a daughter of immigrants, it’s much fresher to me, but we would all do better to recall that critical moment when grandparents or great grand parents risked everything to come here, and faced hardships and discrimination of their own—wall or no wall.
Staying rooted in my history helps me to contextualize myself as an individual and our situation in America, as well as the political struggles in Venezuela today, which I ache over daily. It has nurtured within me a deep empathy for those that struggle, those that persevere, and those that rise up in the face of hardship or worse, oppression.
So, my advice to all is to never forget that you are a part of the tree. And that tree is part of a forest; and that forest, an entire ecosystem. Our family history is what distinguishes us and connects us. Keep it at the forefront of your mind and heart, and your grasp on the world will be that much firmer.