Why Do We Ask the Questions?

In my community, elders hold the highest position for their wisdom, for their life experience, for the battles they won and those they lost. In my case, I have valued elders from several communities that I respect and listen when their opinion is shared.

In Between
In Between, 2009, photo by Catherine Herrera

So, when one of the elders I respect greatly asks me a question, I always hope as a student to a teacher that I come up with the right answer.

Last night, one of those elders asked me, ‘why are you searching for your ancestors? You’ve gotten all the way back to 1860 in San Francisco, what does going back further matter? What does it mean? What does it change?”

My heart leapt high in the air, shouting, ‘how can I not ask these questions?’ Yet, my voice remained low in answering and I listened still.

‘I mean, ok, so everyone thinks they’re royalty,’ he continued. I think back to the laughter that the younger generations have when joking about those who are undocumented, about how people imagine they must be a ‘Cherokee Princesses’ or ‘Apache warrior.’

‘You’ve gone far back, what more do you hope to find out? What difference does it make?’ The Elder continued asking the questions, and it seemed my answers were not the right ones. I tried hard to avoid revealing how emotional I felt about the answer.

In this process of making the film about the search for my family history, Witness the Healing, I have learned enough now to not be surprised anymore that people prefer that I not continue in my search, don’t think its important to get to the bottom line.

What good comes from remembering a painful past? There is truth in that statement, I know, because I have cried when I learned more about my family.

Yet still, there have been many more moments of magic and happiness as the grandchildren of my grandfather’s generation of nine kids in his family come to meet and know each other. We begin to see patterns that run across our individual families yet unite us in ways many of us never knew until we started this process.

No one knew that music and the arts have been a part of our family’s existence for generations and generations. We knew my grand uncle now 102 played saxophone for eighty years, but didn’t know he had played at the Fairmont in the 1940’s. We didn’t know that our great, great grandma played a guitar so sweet she brought tears to people’s eyes when they heard her play. We didn’t know that this musical influence may have been fanned within our family as a result of the Mission system, with San Juan Bautista and San Jose Missions known for their emphasis and dedication to music. Does this explain why five of our cousins are musicians? There are several writers, actors and dancers too. Then there is me.

We did not know that our relative, our great, great, great grandfather lived right on Kearney Street in 1860. The same Kearney Street where we all met last night to share a meal and talk about finding relatives.

House of Nanking, Photo by Catherine Herrera
House of Nanking, Photo by Catherine Herrera

If my 102 year old granduncle had not remembered a small little detail this past March, we never would have known standing there on that street, that we were at the intersection of our family, standing on that spot where once my family walked with visions that someday I would come along and remember.

The premise of Witness the Healing is that the pain doesn’t go away on its own, history does not correct itself, and until the questions are answered, we as people cannot be whole. After all, that is the belief of our community that ‘you can’t know where you are going if you don’t know from where you came.’

The emotional side of me asks, why should denying our Native heritage and experience be o.k. any longer if there are no longer laws paying bounty for the death of Native Californians? Our ancestors gave up their culture because they needed to live. Life or Death.

It is not life and death in 2009, and no longer has to be ever again. Do programs like American Experience’s ‘We Shall Remain’ make it possible to move from a place of greater understanding? Will it finally be just a woman searching for her family history rather than some political statement from someone trying to dreg up the past that no one wants remembered? I sure hope so because I believe programs like ‘We Shall Remain’ are valuable and important, and open the healing dialog even further.

I ask the questions to honor my relatives, to pull them out from behind unmarked gravesites, to let them know how sorry I am they had to hide for I am never ashamed of you. I honor you for the sacrifices made so that one day I’d come along, hear a song, see the ocean, feel the sea breeze on my face and REMEMBER.

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