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  • Julie Early Sifuentes

Mixed Families and Feelings


It was about 2 years ago, and my husband and I were sitting on our couch. I was sharing with him something mi abuelita (grandma) Julia said that really stuck with me. She said that her soul would take flight (vuela su alma) when she heard the music of her ancestors play on the radio.

Mi abuelita Julia

This really stuck with me. First, I could totally relate. When mi tío Rafael shared this with me, I was in my early 20’s living in Perú, digging deep into my family history. I was seeking out all of my close and distant relatives who had information about the Sifuentes and the Ayvar lineages. I collected photos, and had a photographer take pictures of the pictures so I could have my own copies (This was before even scanners). When I heard all of these stories and looked through the pictures, I experienced a similar feeling of my spirit taking flight. There was something magical and even spiritual in learning about and connecting with my ancestors.


The other reason what she had said stuck with me was because the music she was talking about was Arabic music. Up until that point, I had discovered a lot about my family but I hadn’t heard anything about our family’s Arab ancestry. I had learned that my great great grandfather immigrated to Perú from China in the 1800's. The Peruvian and Chinese governments had come to an agreement to send Chinese (volunteers as well as people the Chinese government wanted to leave) to Perú to provide labor. My great great grandfather, Chang Lee, alongside many other Chinese migrants as an indentured servant or "semi-slave," worked in the fields and railroads after the international slave trade was illegalized. My family pictures also clearly reflected my indigenous Andean roots.



When I shared mi abuelita's dreams of her ancestors to my husband, he commented that a lot of people believe and tell stories about their ancestry that are not actually true. Of course. He's not wrong. He and I had sat together and watched Henry Louis Gates’ shows and seen the surprised looks on people’s faces when their family’s oral history either had “forgotten” something or had got something wrong. But something in me felt that this story was true, and I really did not want mi abuelita’s soul soaring experience to be based on a lie.


So I grabbed the laptop and googled around, and I was surprised to see I could purchase a DNA test for $79. A month or so after mailing my saliva in, I received in my e-mail inbox the story of ancestors told through a map, colors and percentages.


It confirmed what I knew about my dad's side and what I had learned about my mom's side from pictures and oral stories. German and English, evenly, on my dad’s side, and indigenous Andean, Chinese, Spanish, and YES!, nestled in the "Other Regions" category...2% Arabic. I feel proud when I look at this map of my heritage - it's so colorful, so many continents light up. It really resonates with my sense of who I am and who I want to be.


But what happens when the *music* of your ancestors is something you are not proud of, or when it doesn't resonate with your sense of self. I mean, let's get realistic here. There are decisions and parts of our own lives that we aren't proud of and that fall short of our own standards. If we multiply those by all of our ancestors, you can easily imagine that there are many dark and less than inspiring stories in there, both told and untold.


Let's start with one of mine that many of you might outrightly dismiss because it may seem a little (or a lot) out there. I went to see a Reiki practitioner earlier this year to treat some health issues that weren't responding to standard medical approaches. In addition to being trained in the energy/bodywork modality of Reiki, this practitioner was also a medical intuitive and medium. I knew this going in, but I was under the impression that mine would be a standard Reiki session. Turned out, she used all her skills and had some insights to share with me. While she had her hands over my stomach, she picked up that my mother's mother's mother's mother had been cursed and died of some kind of stomach problem. She explained that a business transaction went wrong between my great great grandmother (e.g. she screwed someone over), and in retaliation, the wronged person had cursed her. She strongly advised me to ask for forgiveness on behalf of my ancestors for any harm they have done, as well as forgiving my ancestors and those who have harmed us.


As a cultural anthropologist who is very curious about different ways of knowing and practicing spirituality, this experience was fascinating to me. But I bring it up for a different reason: whether it was true or not, it (ironically) injected some more realism into my magical view of my maternal family history. Of course, my ancestors did many things that were hurtful to others and unacceptable by mine and even their standards. It actually was not the first less than inspiring fact I had learned about my ancestors. When I was researching my family history years ago, I learned that my mother's father and his father and his father all had children with many women, while being married to the women in my maternal line.


On my father's side, I hadn't heard any stories about my ancestors, good or bad. Admittedly, I have been less curious about my paternal family history. Having grown up in the rural US, I already felt I knew my dad's side of the family. But as I was working on a first draft of this blog post, I drew a complete blank as to what to say about my dad's ancestors. And honestly, I didn't feel like digging into it. I didn't really want to know more. I suspect that this is at least in part related to something my parents shared with me years ago: my dad's dad was unhappy about him marrying my mother, because she was not white. When I first heard this, it validated how I remember feeling about being at my grandparents' house. There was always tension when my grandpa was around. After my grandfather died, I became close to my grandmother, but I have no memories of interacting with my grandfather.


So, I put the draft blog post away. Maybe I wouldn't write about my family history after all. Without any meaningful mention of my dad's side of the family, it wouldn't really reflect my "mixed" identity.


Days later, my parents came to visit us. That week, I was preparing for a podcast interview about Peace Corps Kids with My Peace Corps Story. The day before the interview, I took the opportunity to ask my dad more about his experience in the Peace Corps and to ask them both again about how they met.


As I was talking to them, I asked them about my grandpa. My mom nodded her head to affirm that indeed my grandfather didn't approve of their marriage. (She wanted me to mention that despite this he always treated her with respect). My dad was reading something, and he took a quick break and said, "He was a bigot." I knew this, but his concise and matter-of-fact statement surprised me a little bit. Really? I responded, leaving some silence that could be filled in. Taking another break from what he was reading, he said "Oh yeah...he grew up in the South and his family owned slaves." What??? Are you sure? How do you know this? "Well, they had a farm, grew cotton, and lived in Missouri."


My mom and my grandpa (my dad's dad)

That was it. I am not exaggerating the few words that were used to communicate this piece of information. I wasn't sure even how to react. First, I went online to see if I could know for sure. My dad didn't say that his dad told him explicitly, right? It seemed *merely* to be a very reasonable conclusion he reached based on some facts. But I felt like I needed more than that. So I searched databases and cross-referenced them with the names in ancestry.com family tree that my aunt had diligently filled in. I couldn't find any of my ancestor's exact names in my crude search, and quickly realized that I probably wouldn't ever know for sure. And I definitely would never be able to rule it out.


The next day I did the podcast interview, and I found myself mentioning my grandfather's feelings about my parents' marriage. Just 6 months into talking with people about Peace Corps Kids and listening to people's stories, I have heard a number of people with similar experiences. For some people this might mean some initial uneasiness or disapproval that warms up over time. For others I know, it has resulted in extremely strained relationships with parents and in one case, continued refusal for years to meet their son-in-law because of his racial identity.


The immediate impact that racism has within a family is painful and challenging. Contemplating the harm that was systematically done to our ancestors and the harm to others that they participated in is also painful. For me, on one side of my family, the patriarch of my family was forcibly enslaved to work in the fields; and on the other side of my family, my ancestors were directly involved in the system that forcibly enslaved black people. And on another level, many of us Peace Corps Kids have ancestral lineages that were part of a colonizing community as well as ancestors who were harmed by people who colonized their land. As abstract as this may seem when we read about these historical events in textbooks or when we hear about our ancestors live so long ago; they are real, and they are part of our stories and who we are.


It's not surprising that a commonly used rationale to oppose interracial marriage was that it causes internal conflict and confusion for the children. While there is some truth in this as a concern, there is another way to look at it. As with everything in life, within every challenge is an opportunity. Being part of an interracial and/or multicultural family helps us to develop so many strengths and some very important traits that are key for inclusive leaders. Some of these include: the ability to accept and navigate ambiguity, an ingrained ability to take different perspectives, and a refined ability to adapt and relate to people from different backgrounds. These are some of the same abilities and skills that RPCVs talk about gaining as a result of their Peace Corps experience.


Developing inclusive leadership is a really important part of our Peace Corps Kids project. We want to cultivate and leverage the leadership potential of people with mixed identity to advance inclusion and justice in our communities. Reflecting and examining one's own identity is a really important part of becoming an inclusive leader, and for those of us with mixed backgrounds, it can be both interesting and overwhelming. I share reflections on my own identity journey as a way of inviting more attention and discussion on the topic and hopefully provide some support to others. Looking forward, as a way of exploring leadership development further we will be featuring, in addition to our PCK stories, insights from mixed race leaders who are engaged in inclusion, intercultural and justice work domestically and internationally. So please stay tuned!


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