For the next few weeks, we’ll feature a series by Victoria Marin, one of the wonderful educators at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, as she discovers her surprising and complicated personal history.
Victoria’s biracial background has been the subject of question and debate for as long as she can remember; this series is a self-guided exploration of her genealogical history. Her research sources include public records (thanks, ancestry.com!), memoirs, interviews and her own memories.
Less than a year ago, I was traveling in Turkey with my fiancé, who is third generation Italian-American. First off, it should be stated that every single Turkish person we met was compassionate, good-humored and extremely hospitable. That being said, one of their favorite lines of questions for us went something like this:
Turk: “Where are you from?”
Us: “We’re American.”
Turk: (who would look at Matthew and nod, then turn to address me) “But where are you really from?”
And thus began a hilarious back-and-forth of broken English and limited Turkish, conversations full confusion and curiosity about my identity. I have two things to say about this experience: one, it speaks to the reality that for a people who have fairly homogeneous anthropological roots going back thousands of years, it is baffling that a person (me) could be so ethnically ambiguous, and two, it’s illustrative of the hard truth about being American, both at home and abroad: if you don’t fit into the physical paradigm of being “white,” you aren’t automatically classified as American. That is, at least not without some sleuthing.
Despite the fact that Matthew is only two generations removed from his immigrant grandparents who arrived from Italy less than a century ago (a profound contrast to much of my ancestral roots that date back to the 17th and 18th centuries, and allegedly some indigenous bloodlines, too, but that remains to be proven), I’m more not-white than white in the eyes of the world, and, American or not, that demands explanation.
The problem here is that I don’t have all the answers myself; or I didn’t, before I started this project. There’s still a lot I don’t know, and will likely never know — like I often tell visitors on my tours, when it comes to human experience, some things are lost to history.
But that doesn’t make those “things” — emotions, perspectives, experiences, choices — any less real, or any less potent. The flesh and feelings of our bodies and souls, those of us who are the descendants of those troublesome immigrants who contributed to the complicated meaning of being American by coming from far and wide, we reflect our ancestors’ truth by being who we are: a complicated, wonderful mess.
And that’s where this idea came from – a determination to better understand where I came from, so that I can better understand who I am.
I began the study with my parents; two very different humans both externally and internally, who can be classified either simply as “black” and “white,” profoundly as “African-Indian-American” and “Belgian-German-Irish-Welsh-English-American,” or in any other number of ways: my mother, a consummate survivor, passionate and brilliant, and my father, a gentle soul, thoughtful and compassionate. They are certainly part of the reason I am. But what about the people who came before them? How do they factor into who I am?
One by one, I’m going to unpack each side of my direct family lineage by combining interviews with living relatives with journals, public records and photographs of my ancestors, along the way discussing the implications as I see them. I anticipate some complicated, wonderful, messy realities to emerge, just as the people who came before me did.
– Posted by Victoria Marin. Victoria has lived in New York City for three years. She has worked in publishing, public relations and public education (she also fancies pubs…coincidence?).