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Finding My Son’s Extended Family After the Death of Our Relatives

My family's story is full of tragedy and loss. So, I took my kid to meet my wife's folks in Mexico.

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I just had my 40th birthday, and though I have a wonderful family, I don’t actually have family roots to share with my 5-year-old son.

Technically I do, but I have little knowledge of them. My maternal grandfather escaped the Holocaust, but his entire family did not. His wife, also deceased, was born in a now nonexistent village of Ukraine and moved to Philadelphia, where her family’s corner store was ravaged by the Depression. She volunteered at a refugee camp where she and my grandfather met, and relocated to Los Angeles without any family.

All of my father’s relatives passed away prematurely, and due to my father’s difficulty talking about them, I only knew that his mother moved from the U.K. to Queens, New York, where she met his father, an army soldier stationed in Alabama. While in Mobile, he was forced to conceal his Judaism for fear of being lynched. They later moved to California, where my dad was born and where they both would later die before I could meet them. My father passed away a little more than a year ago, so now I officially have no living ancestors.

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That is exactly why it is important to me to try to find out what I can and share every detail with my 5-year old son, Felix. Growing up, I rarely, if ever, thought about these things. I was fortunate enough to have a loving set of parents, and though we did not have many traditions — Thanksgiving, July 4th, and lighting Hanukkah candles on the first night were the extent of it — it was not important to me at the time. I was focused on the present. But growing older and meeting people from an array of backgrounds stoked my curiosity.

Felix and his abuela share a smile in the courtyard of their Huanusco home.

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I eventually married into a Mexican family and began to see why family heritage was so important. My wife’s father has six siblings and her mother, seven brothers — all of whom now have their own families. At massive family gatherings with my wife, we would hear stories of previous generations; we would celebrate traditions that were both serious and silly, bringing smiles and even tears to the faces of many of her relatives. They had a past, they had a culture. There was a depth of spirit that was totally new to me..

So, I endeavored to seek out my roots. With zero family to rely on, I had to turn to the internet, but even Ancestry.com was no help in my quest to pursue these roots. Thus, and no pun intended, dead ends on both sides.

I am now even more thankful for my wife; she will not only be a strong mother for Felix, but she can share her lineage, culture, and history because she has these roots. Strong, deep, traceable living roots. And those, fortunately, were passed to Felix, who is now old enough to travel with us to live and experience this for himself. While he may not be able to look back and remember vivid detail from these journeys, I work my hardest to mark the memories as they occur, from the family to the food to the land.

Our recent trip was to a pueblo called Huanusco in the state of Zacatecas, Mexico. This is where my wife’s parents met and fell in love. We love to romanticize towns “with one stoplight,” but Huanusco really did not get its first stoplight until the 1990s, long after my wife’s parents had immigrated to Los Angeles and conceived their three children. The town did not have running water or electricity until the 1960s. This is a completely different world, and our trip was an epiphany.

We were embraced immediately upon our arrival: residents cooked for us, chatted with us, and were eager to guide us around the pueblo, the stream, the cemetery, even the tequileria a few kilometers down the road. Over the course of a week, we were able to enjoy Huanusco, a family ranch in Arrelanos, and the larger nearby town of Jalpa. One excursion that I can never forget is seeing the ruins of Guatimala, the family’s original pueblo that housed 30 families in the mid-20th century. It’s known as a fantasma, or “ghost,” town now. This is where my wife’s mother grew up. To think, 50 years ago they raised families that have all gone on to different places and created new, unique histories, all while laying down more roots.

While we were being given these “tours” by my wife’s family, traveling on dirt roads and driving across streams, people were kind and generous. Her family was eager to share their past with so much pride, even when accompanied by a sense of loss or nostalgia. Food was proffered everywhere, and stories were told at every turn: the nixtamalization of turning maiz into masa to make tortillas by hand, catching and killing chickens for a feast, milking cows and tending to plots of land on their property — these are all parts of a lush history that Felix could call his own. And every morning and each night, as I’d fumble for the right words in Spanish to pay my respects, I would receive smiles and hugs just for being part of this grand family, and culture.

This warmth and acceptance exists because we’re family. As we ate this wonderful food, listened to the tomborazo bands, and watched Felix play with the local children, I became misty-eyed, both in recognition of the importance of my wife having a cherished background and the fact that I really never had that experience.

My wife’s relatives would come and go, each with different stories. There was her uncle’s anecdote of playing with fireworks as a kid and almost blowing off his thumb, but because the nearest hospital was eight hours by horseback, his aunt and the local medic nursed him back to health. There were the stories of chasing frogs while eating tunas by the stream. And the festival, the annual party that would last three days in celebration of the town, the people, and the country. It was intoxicating to fill an emotional bucket that I never knew existed with this truly personal, yet collective history.

And as the roots grow deeper, Felix will be able to trace his background and personal history — at least on one side of the family. I may not have deep roots myself, but I am so proud to have been embraced by a culture that is willing to share theirs with me, and we are lucky that Felix is part of the next chapter of this long and rich family story.