“The grandson wants to remember what the father wished to forget.” – Spanish proverb
“To forget one’s ancestors is to be a brook without a source, a tree without a root.” – Chinese proverb
In this blog, I will share my ancestral storylines. This is the word used by Australian aboriginals for the legends and tales that they tell from one generation to the next in order to preserve their collective memory. Since I’m a big believer in Joseph Campbell’s adage that “man is a storytelling animal“, and since my mother is proud that I’m a writer and has encouraged me to write about my family’s history, I’ve gathered my own family storylines and am sharing them here.
I hail from rivers and mountains
When I was about ten years old, my aunt Lydia (RIP)–who was like a second mother to me–told me the story of my family’s lineage going all the way back to the 1800’s, back when Puerto Rico was still under the Spanish crown and was not yet an American territory.
She painted a romantic picture of the women in those days washing clothes in the river, and even giving birth in the river in the town of Quebradillas, which interestingly means “little springs“. Lake Guajataca is there. This is why I’ve always associated my mother’s side of the family with springs and bodies of water.
My dad’s family comes from Utuado, a mountainous town whose name means “great mountain” in the Taino language and is in the very center of Puerto Rico. So I’ve always come to associate my father’s lineage with mountains.
From my aunt’s lap to a DNA lab
Some time ago I went on a learning adventure by taking a DNA test. I did it years ago by participating in the Genographic Project–the result of whose research was the (now a bit outdated, but still fascinating) documentary Journey of Man. Later, I tried ancestry.com, as new data is constantly updating how much detail we can glean from a DNA test. I am not promoting either of those services. In fact, there are dozens of such services, all of which are good in some way. But I WILL say that the journey of discovery of my ancestry, which began when my aunt abducted me in my imagination into the Caribbean of the 1800’s, has produced huge amounts of pleasure and insight.
When I logged into my ancestry account a couple of weeks ago, the website had new insights for me to “approve”. Apparently one is supposed to check in every few months. It had found–through the census registry–names of my grandfather’s uncles and aunts, and of my grandfather’s grandmother’s father. Prior to approving these suggested ancestors / relatives, I called my mother and gave her the names, and to my astonishment she remembered aunt Toña, uncle Isidro (who used to celebrate “Three Kings Day” the traditional way), the Jaca side of the family (who come from Catalonia in Spain, and we now have the name of our earliest ancestor from this lineage going back to 1847), and a few of the other names I gave her.
However, upon sharing this in our family page on Facebook, one cousin claims that the Jaca grandfather was adoptive, not a blood relative. My mother still has an uncle who is in his nineties and says that, next time I visit the island, we will pay him a visit and clarify all the questions we have about the family–that is, if he’s still alive! I plan to visit in November. Fingers crossed!
Mom referred to these ancestors as jíbaros. Jíbaros were the Puerto Rican peasants from the 1700’s and 1800’s who lived off the land, were very self-sufficient (and mostly poor), and very Catholic. Their food was tied to the land and forms the basis of our modern cuisine, and their music (“jíbaro music“) used güiro, maraca, and a four-string guitar known as the cuatro. Few people today continue this tradition. My dad’s brothers all knew how to play the cuatro, but no one that I know in my generation and after does.
“John Is His Name”
The Latin words on the shield of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico translate as “John Is His Name”. Well, I now have a storyline in my family about this.
When presented with my DNA results, my brother brought up a controversy regarding our mother’s side family name. Due to Catholic taboos, back in the day illegitimate children were not recognized formally and could not be given their father’s name. It turns out that my grandfather’s father had been born out of wedlock. He inherited his mother’s last name, not his father’s. Years ago, my brother had investigated a legend about a friend that (grandfather) Juan used to always hang out with in his younger years who looked like him, had cinnamon skin and light eyes like him, and whose father was known as Juan Hernandez. They looked alike and were rumored to be half-brothers. A cousin gives the nickname for his friend as Siko Hernández, son of Juan Hernández. And so, the story is that his father was unable to give him his last name due to his illegitimacy, and instead gave him his first name, Juan.
My mother’s cousin heard about this and corroborated the story, insinuating that Juan’s mother had been raped. He said: “Back in the days, in the haciendas, particularly in the faraway sugarcane fields, there are many stories that women were abused by the mayoral“. The mayoral is an old Spanish word for whoever supervised work in the sugarcane plantation. This adds nuance to the cinnamon skin and light eyes: the mayoral would have been white, whereas Juan’s mother–known to all in our family as grandma Lala–was half-black, had thin lips but dark skin.
Singing in the rain
My mother lost her mother when she was seven years old to tuberculosis. Back in the day, this was like having cancer. She was raised by Papá Susano, who sold vegetables and produce in a little kiosk in town. Papá Susano used to sing loudly and gleefully when he took a shower. It seemed like his most free and happiest moments came when he was taking a shower. I strongly recommend happy singing in the shower for its therapeutic benefits!
I’ve always remembered his songs. They made no sense: he wasn’t singing “songs” with lyrics but melodies, a blend of jíbaro music with what today–now that I’ve been exposed to a great deal of world music–reminds me of music from northwest Africa, from places like Mali. By the way, Heygana is an amazing song. The singer is from Mali. It will remind you of bluegrass music!
The results of my DNA test confirm that I have an estimated 3% ancestry from the Mali region, and an estimated 1% from North Africa (perhaps from Berbers who settled in Spain during the Muslim conquest?). Approximately 5% comes from Benin–this is a kingdom that held Yoruba peoples, who inspired the Afro-Caribbean religion of Santeria. Most of these parts of Africa speak French today, and my mother’s lineage has a French family name which–due to the aforementioned illegitimate son of Juan Hernandez–was passed down the matrilineal lineage to us. Hence, we are the Lasalle family. Back in the day, due to Catholic indoctrination, there was no family planning and families were huge: mom had over ten siblings; her cousins numbered 17 in one uncle’s family, etc. There’s an entire neighborhood in Quebradillas known as “el sector Lasalle”, and streets named after Juan, Susano and other ancestors.
Also, remember grandmother Lala? Her name is a title that means “Lady” in North Africa. Maybe her mother came from Mali and nicknamed her in remembrance of her native language?
One possible theory on this is that Haitian independence was extremely violent, as a result of which many French people and their slaves left Haiti and settled in surrounding areas, with Louisiana and Puerto Rico being particularly attractive for reasons of cultural similarity (New Orleans) and incentives given by the Spanish crown (in the form of land) for Catholics who settled in Puerto Rico during the 1800’s in order to keep the island loyal. These incentives were enshrined in the royal decree known as Cédula de Gracias. If Papá Susano’s great-grandmother (who was pure black) came from Haiti in this manner, that would explain how so much of my African ancestry (as per the ancestry.com results) originated in former French colonies.
The Lost City of Caparra
In the 1520’s, the walled city of Old San Juan was founded in an island connected to the main island of Puerto Rico by three bridges. This was done to ward off the Taino Indians who were waging war on the conquistadors-settlers from Europe. Today, Old San Juan is the oldest European settlement under the U.S. flag.
Old San Juan
But there was a city that was built prior to Old San Juan that few people have heard about: it was known as Caparra, and the archaeological site of its ruins can still be visited today. Only the foundations remain. In a western suburb of San Juan, the uppity neighborhood of Caparra Heights was built over the ruins. I’ve know from my childhood that this was the site of the very first European settlement on the island, but when I decided to investigate the origin of the name of the settlement, I realized that there was another Caparra in central Spain that many of the first settlers most likely originated from and which gave it its name.
It turns out that Caparra was a city in the Roman province of Lusitania, which was the ancient name for Portugal, but was found in what is today Spain, close to the Portuguese border. According to Wikipedia:
The name of the city is not originally Latin, but pre-Roman, probably Veton, just as the origin of the settlement … Possibly its significance derives from those roots which could indicate a center for exchange, barter, and trade, inasmuch as the position of Cáparra is at the meeting of two roads …
The Vettones were a cattle-herding Celtic tribe from central Iberia known for its sculptures of wild boars, pigs, and bulls.
The Celts of Iberia
According to ancestry.com, I have a very high percentage of Portuguese ancestry (27%, the highest of any national group), but I don’t know of any Portuguese family names in my family tree. While doing research on the populations that existed in the Iberian peninsula prior to the Roman conquest–after which it became known as Hispania–it became clear that there was never a fully assimilated “Celtiberian” people, which is what we were told in history class. Instead, in the East of the Iberian peninsula, there were mostly Iberian tribes and in the West, there were Celtic tribes, with most of the inter-mixing happening in the central region. There were also Greek communities, Phoenicians (including the entire city of Gad for many generations, which later became Cádiz), Jews, and other groups. The prevalence of Portuguese ancestry in my DNA test tells me that most of my Iberian ancestors had Celtic genetic markers found in Western Iberia.
Celtic ruins in Galicia
These Phoenicians intermarried heavily with the Celts, as attested by the many Celtic Gods of Middle Eastern origin: Belenos (Baal), Cernunnos (Baal Qarnayn), Ostara (Ishtar), etc. Loreena McKennitt has explored through her music much of the back-and-forth influence between Celts and Phoenicians in Europe. The Middle Eastern flavor of flamenco and other Southern Spanish musical genres is often attributed to the centuries under Muslim rule (and I don’t deny this is partially true), but I suspect that this Middle Eastern flavor in Spanish music existed from primitive antiquity, from before the Punic Wars, and attests to the Phoenician-Celtic mélange.
Spain has never been fully unified, to this day. Different regions speak their own dialects, and some–like the Basque nation–speak a language entirely unrelated to any of the surrounding Romance languages. Maybe this is the only living relative of the Iberian tongues that were spoken in the East?
In the northwest of Spain, in Galicia, they speak Gallego–the name might remind you of the Gauls, of Wales, of Gaelic language, of Galatians, and other Celtic tribes that spread through different parts of Europe. This appears to have come from a name that many Celtic tribes used for themselves. As part of my ancestral learning adventure, I’ve spent some time listening to the beautiful folkloric gaita (bagpipes) music from Galicia, which is extremely emotional and evocative. Here’s a beautiful example of Celtic Galician music.
Galician dialect is a cross between Spanish and Portuguese, which is in essence a more nasal version of Spanish. I’ve noticed the tendency to nasalize vowels and to avoid rolling the R’s in many of the regions where Celts lived, like France, Portugal, and Galicia. I think this influence persists in Puerto Rican Spanish, although it’s less pronounced.
Once I talk to my mother’s uncle, I’ll have more insights into the ancestral investigations I’ve begun. In the meantime, learning about the ancestors has greatly enhanced my sense of identity and connection with many cultures that now seem a bit less foreign, and has spiced up my curiosity about many things. Everyone has a tribal / familial mythology to discover, and I have a feeling that my journey to learn about my roots has only begun …