I spent the better part of my life trying to figure out who I am ethnically. This summer, I finally succeeded. Most people who know me know my fake backstory. As soon as I was old enough to ask, my mother, my grandmother, and my brother and sister told me that I was Irish and Spanish. That my Irish father had died before I was born, my Spanish relatives were distant, and the only language that we needed to speak in our home was English.
Except for my mother and grandmother who kept the family secrets from me by speaking Spanish between them.
Throughout my teenage years and in my 20s and 30s, I always told people that I was a white-bread, tabula-rasa American. That my family never had a sense of its own ethnicity, so I didn’t either. But that it meant, at least, that I could pick and choose, learn and explore from among the world cultures that I found most interesting in a way that most other people never bothered to do.
And that’s what I did, too. My adult life became a series of head-first jumps into exploring with abandon one non-Spanish speaking world culture after another. English Canada. Many years of Quebec, its linguistic politics, and its Quebecois. England. Scotland. Wales. Many years of Portugal and the language of Camões, including at one point being told I spoke Portuguese like a newly arrived immigrant.
I was always haunted by Spanish, though. But every time I picked it up, I put it back down. When I was in college, my mother asked me why I took French instead of Spanish to satisfy my language requirement. I told her it was because when I was required to take Spanish in junior high school, she never helped me. I didn’t know why at the time, though now I know helping me would have been too dangerous—it would have eventually led me to my true backstory. But she did tell me that my great-great grandfather, “Papa” D’Arcy, had spoken French to her when she was little, enough so that when I spoke to her in French during my college years, she could understand me. But it drove her crazy that she couldn’t remember enough French to respond back.
In my 20s, my mother finally admitted, a year before she died, that my real father was Puerto Rican. She told me she felt ashamed that she got pregnant out of wedlock, so she sent him away and put the name of her Irish husband who had been dead for six years on my birth certificate. As she put it, she “gave me to him” to make things right—which even then I knew meant to try to deal with the shame she felt. It didn’t work—my siblings used the secret to blackmail my mother for 24 years. And months before she told me, I filed for an Irish passport, became a dual citizen, and traveled around the UK. She must have been relieved when I dropped Ireland from my travel plans—I had originally planned to visit my “father’s” hometown.
After her death, after that story, after what my siblings did, I walked away from my family completely and spent most of the next decade living in Brooklyn—in a neighborhood only eight miles from the one I grew up in, but culturally and psychically about as far away from my native Queens as it is possible to travel without actually leaving New York City. When I finally did leave New York City for Chicago in 2003, I had already been estranged from what was left of my family for years.
But as the years wore on, as so often happens, it became increasingly important to me to know who I really was and where I was from. I knew my sister had died (and eventually my brother did, too), and I never thought I would know my mother’s side of the family again, so I started searching and wishing to find my father’s side—a side I never knew, just as I never knew him. But he died in California while I was still living in Brooklyn, and as far as I’ve ever been able to tell he died alone.
Finally a few years ago, one of the few extended family members I still know from my mother’s side of the family (thanks to Facebook), my second-cousin “Aunt” Juanita started telling the real story to me. That’s how I learned my birth father left and never came back after my siblings savagely beat him when they found out my mother was pregnant—because as far as they were concerned their mother didn’t have a right to ever have sex again. And that’s when the intergenerational shame started to become clear. But it still didn’t help me find my family on my father’s side or learn more about my mother’s side. It just made me feel vindicated about having decided not to talk to my siblings again from the day I left Queens to the days they both died.
I’m enough of a believer in YCYOR, though, that I fully believe my intense yearning to know more about my father and his heritage is what brought my remaining family back into my life in 2015. But my siblings never cared for the Spanish half of their heritage. My returned family—my sister-in-law, nephews, and their families, whom I love—is as thoroughly New York as I am in attitude, yet also as thoroughly ethnically cleansed of their own origins as I always felt myself to be. So once the shock of reunion wore off, I knew there was still something missing.
So this summer I decided to start searching online and not stop until I could figure out exactly where I come from that had been obscured from me. Pick a side of the family. Any side of the family. Just, something to go on. And damned if that didn’t actually come to pass. In one, long night on Ancestry.com, in fact, all the pieces fell into place all at once. It was one of the most breathtaking experiences of my life—both for the joy of finally learning about my roots and for the pain of learning how poorly some people in my family treated each other over the years and across the generations.
It always seemed odd to me for my mother to tell me that I was a second-generation American. That she had been born here, But that her mother and the rest of the extended family had not been citizens until they arrived in the United States. How my alleged Irish father came through Ellis Island. How her mother and great-grandmother were Venezuelan, but that there weren’t really that many more details to know about where they had been before they came to New York. How, although I had more than a dozen great aunts and uncles in the northeast and in Florida who all spoke Spanish, somehow, magically, Spanish as a language or heritage had nothing to do with who I was. How could that possibly be?
So that’s the set up. The oddness of being trained that I had no real cultural heritage, while sensing the echo of that heritage throughout my life, hidden from me but managing to make itself heard all the same.
And one night this summer that all evaporated, when I learned I’m not just Hispanic, but pan-Hispanic—to a degree I couldn’t have made up if I tried. I also learned that multiple people in my family over the years have run as far away from the family as they could because of shame regarding life choices, including other illegitimate births and other absent fathers besides my own. Found warning signs that it was an enforced shame, unfairly passed from generation to generation. Uncovered evidence that the deliberate erasing of our stories of origin along the way is almost a family trait—and obviously a trait I have, too, writing this from Chicago, 14 years away from my hometown and 22 years since originally walking away from my family.
I don’t pretend that my family isn’t par with all others in terms of the good mixed with the unfortunate, with sometimes saddling our offspring with unnecessary intergenerational suck. It’s just pause-inducing to see it all at once for what it is, though at least I don’t wonder any longer why my mother made the choices she made about my concocted story of origin.
Since finding it all out, I’ve tried to figure a way to talk about how intensely Hispanic my heritage is separately from the shame and suck that’s embedded there. But it’s really one story, and it’s hard to tell without telling it all. So here’s all of it.
The key to my not having suspected any of it was my mother telling me I was a second-generation American. So, how not a second-generation American am I? For one thing, my citizenship has no Ellis Island involvement at all. My family has been American for well over a century. Papa D’Arcy—whose real name was Max and whose photograph tops this blog post—arrived in America in the 1880s as a small child. His father brought the family from Paris, France, to San Francisco, California, after Max’s mother died.
When Max became an American citizen in San Francisco in the 1890s, we became an American family. In his twenties, when Max left San Francisco before the Great Earthquake destroyed his family’s house and took a steamship to Guatemala, eventually traveling on to Venezuela where he married my then-underage great-great grandmother, Carmen, in Caracas, we became a Hispanic-American family.
You’ve probably already figured out we called her Mama D’Arcy.
When Max worked in the agricultural export business alongside the United Fruit Company—the culturally insensitive predecessor of Chiquita that created the banana republics of the last century—we became a pan-Hispanic-American family. For two-and-a-half decades, Max relocated the family as his work dictated, while Carmen raised more than a dozen children. They covered a lot of ground over the years, in Nicaragua, in Panama, in Colombia, in Costa Rica, in Cuba.
When Max finally brought the family to New York City in the 1920s, to a town house on West 57th Street in Manhattan that no longer exists and a climate they’d never known, we had already been a Hispanic-American for decades. Max wanted it that way. He required the boys to speak to him in French to keep the language alive in the family, but all of the children were required to speak Spanish and English.
Unfortunately, when the family went north, the story seems to have gone south.
When my grandmother—by the social mores of the time—”had” to marry a Chilean sailor in New York because she got knocked up with my mother, we were a sadly stereotypical Hispanic-American family. When my grandmother divorced him to marry a Cuban with whom she had my Uncle “Bunny” and went on to make it obvious that she preferred Bunny to her “surprise” daughter who would never know her own father again, we were a Hispanic-American family beginning to implode.
When my mother lied about her own age to marry an alcoholic Irish immigrant to get the hell away from her own mother in the 1940s and finally have some peace, we were a Hispanic-American family continuing to pass the problems across the generations.
When Papa D’Arcy gave up the Manhattan townhouse and moved the members of the extended family that were still living there to a large house in southeastern Queens, we were a Hispanic-American family about to collide with itself. When he sold that house to my grandmother and my mother and her alcoholic Irish husband decided to move into it with their two children to save money, putting my mother back under the thumb of her outwardly loving but privately judgmental mother…
Crash. Call the paramedics.
By the time I was born, my family had finished talking sides and pulling itself apart. Except for a few great aunts and uncles who stayed behind in the northeast and visited us every now and then during the holidays, Mama and Papa D’Arcy and the majority of my great aunts and uncles were already living—or buried—in Florida, where they all eventually went to enjoy a more familiar climate. My grandmother maintained a relationship with them all, but it rarely seemed to extend to my mother—and almost never to me.
The first time I learned that Mama and Papa D’Arcy and my extended family had for years owned and lived in the house I grew up in was this summer. From my Aunt Juanita, I learned that one of my childhood bedrooms had been Papa D’Arcy’s office. That blew me away, to find out that I spent years in a bedroom and in a house once filled with the vitality of my larger family, our history, culture, and languages, that I had yearned for but had never really been allowed to know.
It must have seemed sadly familiar to my mother when she decided to erase my father from my life as her own mother had erased her father. But like my grandmother had so clearly trained her to do, I imagine she felt such a sense of shame that she didn’t feel like she had any other choice. So she swore siblings and relatives, friends and teachers to secrecy—not just about by father, but about the real depth and breadth of my extended family. Had she honored my right to know who my real father was, Ellis Island still wouldn’t have been involved in my family tree—Puerto Ricans have been Americans for a century. But my mother literally engineered my sense of identity with a self-immunized, constructed ethnic backstory that I was never, ever supposed to see through.
She went to great lengths to keep it that way, too. Growing up, she used to tell me that Puerto Ricans were dirty. Even though if she hadn’t fucked one, she never would have had me. Or maybe because she fucked one and had me. Either way, there it is, my family completing a cycle of intergenerational shame and then going out of its way to start a new cycle again. It worked, too. I spent most of my life believing that my Spanish heritage had no meaning.
Being hurt by that cycle of shame is something my Aunt Juanita and I both share. Her father, my Uncle Max—one of the few extended relatives who visited us during my childhood—never married her mother, and eventually abandoned them both. He left them behind and moved to South America, where he created a second family—including giving a new daughter my aunt’s name.
I know, right? What the fuck?
My siblings and I handled the intergenerational bullshit that had been handed down to us differently. They ended up alcoholic like their father before them, and died early from it just like he did. I made like my Uncle Max. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I just walked away.
I used to wonder if I was the only one of us who ever had the bravery to acknowledge the generational pain of this family, to face it and try to work through it in order to let it end with us and not continue to transmit it further down the line. This year I learned that’s another thing Aunt Juanita and I share. She says sometimes the pain feels endless, but it no longer controls her or robs her of joy and love. Maybe once in every generation of this family, one of us decides it’s time to heal?
The moral of my family story is not entirely what you think it is. I believe the dead are to be remembered, not revered, and my mother and I have had some raging if unilateral screaming matches about the family in the years since her passing. But as much as I would like to be able to go back in time and shake her before she makes the decisions that damaged both her life and mine, I still feel a great well of compassion and love for her and the rest of my extended family.
Although they massively shirked their responsibility to deal with it in a healthy manner, neither my mother, nor my grandmother, nor my Uncle Max bore responsibility for creating the shame that my family carried around for so long. Who knows when the pain took hold and started to grow? With Papa D’Arcy’s father walking away from Paris? Papa D’Arcy walking away from San Francisco and his father along with it? Mama D’Arcy leaving her own family behind in Venezuela? Later in the story than any of this? Or even longer before?
Does it matter?
What really matters is letting the buck stop here. When you finally see the damage transmitting across the generations in your family, all that’s important is stopping the chain. Walking away never stops it. Trust me on that. By the time you see the pain it’s already a part of you, and it will be with you wherever you go until you take responsibility for it and finally decide to stop paying it awfully forward. Labeling my mother, and siblings, and extended family as monsters for the pain they carried would only ensure that I continue to carry it and spread it around, too.
I’d rather follow Aunt Juanita’s lead and just put all the bullshit down. My mother told me Mama D’Arcy was a tyrant. My Aunt tells me she remembers experiencing a lot of love passing among Mama and Papa D’Arcy and their children. I can see both of those things being true. But does one of them really need to be carried forward any longer?
I had a right to know my history. I know it now. I’ll leave the pain here. This is what I’m carrying forward, instead. My right to explore and live the ethnicity and language of the blood that flows within me. I’ve always known I had a Hispanic side, but it’s something else to finally be able to name it clearly and know it’s nearly all of what I am.
Had my mother married my father, I would have been Miguel Oropesa. As Michael Doyle, my name gives you absolutely no clue that in reality I’m half Puerto Rican, a quarter Chilean, an eighth Venezuelan, and an eighth French—via a Frenchman who spent nearly his entire life raising a Hispanic-American family. My heritage is the Caribbean Spanish of Puerto Rico and Venezuela. The accent of my mother and grandmother speaking to each other. The foods they would make long before I knew where those recipes came from.
The mindset of Caribbean Spanish is my birthright, too. I have a life to live and enjoy, and a world to help improve here. Be a part of the solution together with me, or get the hell out of my way, but you’re not stopping me. It’s no wonder I converted to Judaism. The approaches to life match up so well.
I spent the summer coming back to my Spanish and working towards fluency.
So I spent the summer learning everything possible about Puerto Rico, and then watching my heart break when Maria destroyed it.
And I spent the summer witnessing the destruction of the final remnants of Venezuelan democracy under Maduro.
And I spent the summer watching WAPA on Sling TV and realizing that the rapid-fire, condensed Spanish of Puerto Rico sounded almost exactly like the Venezuelan Spanish of my mother and grandmother. And that I find it easier to understand than standard Latin American Spanish.
And that it sounds it like home.
I also spent the summer rearranging my view of the world and my linguistic heritage. Letting go of French and Portuguese. Feeling awed by the places my family has been and the hispanohablante places open to me now. Places no longer an ocean east of year, but a continent south.
And I understood why last year, when Ryan and I finally fell in love with Walt Disney World and Ryan experienced the depths of the hell of a 95-degree, ninety-percent-humidity Orlando summer, all I wanted to do was turn off the AC and keep our resort room door open. There’s a reason most of my extended family moved to Florida, and now I know what it is. Apparently, it’s in our DNA to be addicted to humidity. I think that’s going to be a future blog post in itself.
Reading all of this, you might even wonder whether I’ve rethought my decision to eventually move back home to New York City—a decision made with Ryan after years of vacillating over where I want to live after all these years in Chicago—instead of the two of us moving about 900 miles further down the eastern seaboard. You’d be absolutely right to wonder…and that’s going to be a future blog post, too.
If there’s anything you should take away from my story of origin, it’s that neither you—nor I—should ever assume that last names tell our whole stories. And only truly knowing our stories can ever set us free. Of course, now I’ll spend the rest of my life correcting people who hear my name and assume I’m an Irish Catholic on two points. Pardon me, but I’m a Jew—and a Hispanic Jew, at that.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m far from ungrateful. I’m actually filled with joy about it all. Maybe I’ll just get a kippah with a Puerto Rican flag on it.
Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, melech ha’olam, she’asani Hispani.
Blessed are you, Adonai our God, sovereign of the universe, for making me Hispanic.