We’d call the guests on the season’s last episode of Finding Your Roots Hispanic, but two of them wouldn’t. Linda Chavez sees herself as a “mix of European cultures,” and Adrian Grenier calls himself a “Native American white boy,” who checks the “Other” box on forms. Only Michelle Rodriguez calls herself Hispanic. To varying degrees they all came on the show wanting the evidence to bulwark these identities they had shaped for themselves. But Gates’ own goal for the episode was the reverse, “to find out how such similar family trees could lead to such different identities.”
(Spoiler alert.) Though Hispanic Americans are often lumped together with more recent Spanish-speaking arrivals, only one of Gates’ guests, Michelle, turned out to be connected to recent immigrants to the US. Though Linda faced discrimination as a child for being “Mexican,” her ninth great-grandparents came to the US in the late 16th c. Arriving around the same time was Adrian’s 11th great-grandfather, one of the original Spanish settlers in New Mexico. In the early days of Spanish colonization the male settlers had no choice but to procreate and/or intermarry with Native Americans and African slaves. As we learned in the last episode about the eastern colonies, only later did racial divisions set in in the west, when the Spanish created an elaborate class system to preserve the status of whites above the new racial mixtures. The celebrities’ crazily tangled family trees were the result of intermarrying rather than risk losing their status. Ironic given modern discrimination against Hispanic Americans.
And even more ironic since these bloodlines did not begin as pure! The son of Adrian Grenier’s conquistador forebear had children with a Native American, as did Linda’s seventh great-grandmother when she was held captive. But Linda’s suppressed racial history doesn’t end there. The ninth great-grandparents mentioned earlier? Crypto Jews who fled the Inquisition! In fact, the large percentage of Middle Eastern genes in her DNA suggests other Crypto-Jewish lines as well.
It’s not this forgotten history that answers Gates’ original question about his guests’ differing identities, but much more recent events. “Other” Adrian was raised by a single mother who wanted him to identify with his rumored Apache forebear more than the Hispanic community she left. “Hispanic” Michelle (who cried “eeeuuw!” when she learned her DNA was three-quarters European) was raised primarily by her Dominican grandmother partially in the impoverished Dominican Republic. And “European” Linda grew up knowing that her family’s illustrious past, including a former governor of NM, had been spoiled by a criminal grandfather. Each internalized the hardships of their youth and shaped themselves accordingly. What they learned on the show may or may not change them.
For the rest of us, we are reminded that history is written by the victors. We neglect how much the Spanish shaped the US in favor of the current politicking over illegal immigration and failed assimilation. These family histories defy the usual prejudiced assumptions, leaving us with as much to reevaluate as Gates’ guests.