This is a picture of my ancestors working in a store in a very remote part of the Andes mountains. It was one of many pictures that mi Abuelito Rafael had stored in a box before he died, and that mi Tia Rocio keeps tucked away in her house. I might have never seen this picture or heard these stories, but after graduating from college, I spent a year in Perú to get to know my relatives and the country better. My mother was born and raised in Perú and met my dad while he served in the Peace Corps in the ‘60’s. They eventually settled in a rural community in Oregon, where I grew up. I took many trips to Perú as a kid, but I hadn’t spent a significant amount of time there until this trip. In my first few months, I visited all of the relatives I could and asked a lot of questions. I brought along the box of pictures that mi Tia Rocio showed me; I was searching for the stories that went with them.
The story about my great-great-grandfather who built this store floored me. He was born in China in the 1800’s; his name at birth was Chang Li. At age 14 he got on a ship and traveled to “the land where there were roads paved with gold”. After the trans-Atlantic slave trade had been illegalized, the Chinese and Peruvian governments came to an agreement that China would send people to Perú to work in the fields and the railroads. The Chinese government sent members of secret societies, who they considered to be an anti-government threat. The Chinese government also convinced others to voluntarily leave their homeland, hop on a boat, and see the land of the Incas. The family story is that our Chinese ancestor was part of the latter; he chose to come to Perú out of a sense of adventure.
When Chang Li arrived, he was put to work in the fields on the southern coast of Lima. He worked for a landowner with the last name of Sifuentes. After he finished his seven years as an indentured servant, or as some Peruvian scholars have termed “semi-slaves,” he took on the last name of his “employer” and became Manuel Sifuentes. Manuel traveled up from the coast into the Andes mountains to a very small pueblo called Sancos in the department of Ayacucho, where he eventually settled and built this store.
Before this, I had no idea that one of my Peruvian ancestors was a Chinese immigrant. I felt intrigued and surprised. After barely starting the journey of exploring my Peruvian roots, I learned that I have Chinese roots as well. As I looked through the box of pictures, I could see the blending of my indigenous, Spanish, and Chinese heritage. And then...I heard one detail of the story about my Chinese great-great-grandfather and his store that impacted me even more...this store was made of trees from Oregon . Oregon, the place where I was born and raised, where my father was born and raised, and where my father’s father worked in a lumber mill.
Mis primos, who told me stories about my great-great-grandfather and his store grew up in the village where Chang Li settled. They heard these stories from their parents, and they passed them on to me. I am so thankful that they could tell me these stories and even more thankful that they remembered this detail that has become so important to me. I imagine the journey of these logs in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s from a forest in my home state of Oregon, on a ship to Lima, and then up the long and arduous roads to the tiny little village where my great-great-grandfather lived. Little did Chang Li know that he would have a great-granddaughter (my mom) who moved from Lima to Oregon and settled near the pinos de Oregon where she would raise a family.
It’s hard to describe the significance of this detail to me. When I first heard it, I felt a sense of connectedness within myself. It reminded me of the feeling when you plug in the last strands of Christmas lights, and suddenly the whole tree lights up. These two worlds that in my mind had always seemed so completely separate were actually connected, long before I was born, in a very physical and tangible way.
Those of us who have family roots that traverse countries and cultures, oceans and mountains may sometimes feel like we come from two distinct worlds. For most of my life, this is how I have felt and how I have talked about my identity: “Half Peruvian” - as if literally half of me is from Perú and the other half from the US. Reflecting back, this understanding that these two sides of me were historically connected, was the first of many moments where I experienced this sense of integration and coherence. It has served as an internal guidepost on my journey of understanding and growing into my mixed identity and a more integrated sense of self. Since then, I have experienced more of these moments; they are often prompted by photographs, songs, and paintings.
A colorful painting (above) that hangs in my dining room that features a well-known symbol of an ancient Peruvian civilization and the Union train station tower, and prominent Portland landmark. A song that integrates traditional Andean music with modern contemporary music. And my favorite picture, and the only one I have where I am seated between my Peruvian abuelita and US grandma.
The well-being of people who have a mixed-race background is a new area of research and many of the emerging findings resonate with my experience. They also reflect the many stories that I have heard and read of other mixed race people. Cultivating connections with all aspects of a person's identity and cultural background is important. This strong sense of identity can help buffer against a sense of not belonging that many mixed race people struggle with at different times of their lives.
Sometimes I imagine myself, standing tall, my feet firmly on the ground here in Oregon. I imagine roots growing from each of my feet. On one side, the roots grow pretty deep without having to travel too far; on the other side, these roots have a long journey before growing into the soil. They travel alongside the coast of Mexico and Central America, past the equator, through Lima and up into the mountains of Perú. This journey is one that I have made many times. I went the first time when I was 2 years old and later when my youngest
son was 2 months old, and many times in between and since. It’s not surprising then, that upon hearing about a similar journey that a few trees from Oregon made over 100 years
ago, that two strands of lights connected inside me and everything lit up.