What to do with European ancestors?

A Spanish Casta depiction of a mixed couple

The other night, my friends and I were hanging out, sweltering in the late spring evening heat, and the conversation eventually led to mixed ancestry and honoring those who make up our blood. We were ourselves of mixed company (Dińe, mixed indigenous Anishinaabe with Celtic roots, African American, and myself Afro-Latina) with different struggles and journeys in that process. I repeated something I had heard an Afro-Indigenous American woman say in a documentary that was simultaneously powerful and profound yet causes me a lot of stress-You honor all of your ancestors because if you don’t, that’s like saying there’s a grandmother you would hide or ashamed of, and you wouldn’t do that.

And yet, I would: I announced to my friends that I already decided when I finally figure out what my ancestry is and I visit the homelands of all the people that make that up so the ancestors can “return home” (something I think would be especially powerful for those who were kidnapped centuries ago), I’m not ever visiting Spain. In my mind, they made a choice to leave, and they disrupted the lives and homelands of my other ancestors so much, they don’t get to go home. At least not with my help.

“But they’re still a part of you,” one of friends implored, laughing at my characteristic petulance. “That’s still you.” It seemed in this, she insinuated more-the unrest those ancestors feel at being away from home, surely especially by the end of my as-of-yet hypothetical world trip to other homelands, still falls on me.

But, I protested, unlike almost all of the rest of my ancestors, they were the ones at the top of the food chain who had the most agency regarding where they went and made the choice to leave to go to the Caribbean. If those grandmothers wanted honoring, they should have raised their colonizer sons better.

Traveling to Spain as a mixed American woman would be a can of worms regardless, but as an Afro-Latina, even if I fully embraced my European ancestry it would still be an uphill battle. Though it accepted and expected I claim my mixed roots, its generally also a fact that I’m not Spanish. I wouldn’t be accepted or respected as such by them. I have heard they regard those with clear colonial Spanish tongues and mixed ancestry with disdain. They probably fear we’re all going to rise up, flood over and demand for reparations for the crimes committed against our ancestors and their lands and the current exploitation and violence against Black and Indigenous peoples by their leftover settler governments, something that I am a staunch advocate of. These are present realities rooted in history I would still have to face.

But on the other hand, knowing fully the history of those early years of Caribbean conquest and colonialism, was the choice to leave Spain really wholly theirs? Do I have Spanish Roma or Sephardim ancestors who fled oppression or were forcibly removed? Spain recently granted back citizenship to expelled Sephardim hundreds of years after their violent and storied expulsion. Ureña, Ravelo, Reyes and Matos, my family names, are all possible Sephardi surnames. Even if it has been so long of them being kept from home and even if they still had to hide their Jewishness (and Latin America has a rich history of Crypto-Jews, their influence deeper & richer than most realizing), those ancestors effectively became white when they came to the Caribbean and still benefitted from and even engaged in that colonial violence. But even then, knowing the complex history of the Jewish diaspora and the opportunity to learn more and give rest to those hypothetical ancestors I know would be a powerful and necessary experience. I have no interest in Spanish citizenship, but would I bring Sephardim ancestors back home at least for a visit?

The country and these questions about visiting homelands aside, regardless if I want my Spanish ancestors, do they want me? What would they say if they saw me? Would the fact that I am their descendant be enough, or would they take issue with my lips, hair and skin like so many of my immediate family and community have, being taught from the Spanish? And were they my ancestors by choice or force? Of course I don’t believe all colonized people acquired European ancestry through rape, though a lot of us did. Regardless, how consenting could those early mixed race unions that weren’t rape have been under slavery, colonial rule and white supremacy? Yes, love conquers all, blah blah, but actually, it can’t, as love doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It cannot magically supersede social constructs, conditions and conditioning. We all know the “hypersexual Jezebel and S***w” stereotypes about Indigenous and diasporic African that were used to justify their rape, exploitation and fetishization. What’s more, where my family comes from, in colonial Spanish Caribbean, it was specifically mandated that everyone try to “whiten up” your blood by marrying up color and race-wise. That’s why you have a lot of really racially-ambiguous light skinned Caribbeans who probably only have very little African or Indigenous ancestry and whose family is all light, passing or even European, and identify with nationality and a heavily Spanish pan-Latinx identity above anything else. A mixed breed of people who have forgotten their African, Indigenous and/or Asian roots that were only one or two marriages from becoming white are the easiest to control because they see themselves as part of colonial rule, a beautiful result despite an admittedly rocky beginning, the Red/Black/White mestizaje that instead of detailing the ancestry of a colonized people and their right to decolonize and freely rule themselves much like the Métis of Canada instead is used to say “Well, I can’t be too mad ay Spanish colonial violence and rule, as I am part Spanish”. Not to specifically knock on anyone’s Spanish great great great abuelo who really loved his African, Creole or mixed Indigenous wife or whatever (or mine, for that matter), but a colony is still a colony, a colonial is still a colonial, white supremacy is still white supremacy, and colonized peoples were still making romantic, marital, and reproductive decisions under extreme social pressure and duress. There was still an accepted dynamic, an inherited violence, a legacy of exploitation carried by my European ancestors. That doesn’t go away no matter how much I acknowledge them.

So what to do with them? I guess they’re just gonna sit in the corner until I figure that out.

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Writer. Community organizer. Errant punk. Ne’er do well. Fire starter. Email: Dominicanamalisima@gmail.com

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Briana L. Urena-Ravelo

Briana L. Urena-Ravelo

Writer. Community organizer. Errant punk. Ne’er do well. Fire starter. Email: Dominicanamalisima@gmail.com

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