September 5, 2015

The Heritage Thing

Os Emigrantes (1926) by Domingos Robelo (1891-1975) - Museu Carlos Machado in Ponta Delgada, São Miguel
I remember very clearly when I was 5 or 6 years old having a discussion with my mother in which she explained the heritage thing to me. It never occurred to me that I might be anything other than "American," but I now learned that I was a mutt, made up of foreign bits and pieces: mostly German, but also British, Dutch, and Portuguese. I knew what the first three meant, but what was Portuguese? Even at that young age, it struck me as exotic and mysterious, and whenever the neighbor kids talked about their heritage (mostly Italian and Irish) I always led with Portuguese. For some reason that was the piece I latched onto, and it really hasn't changed over the years.

At some point, my aunt (mom's sister) and uncle got into genealogy and did a lot of research back in the dark days before the internet, when it was much harder to find this information without actually going to the places that had the documents. When I was in my 20s they started sending me updated charts of the family tree, which took my grandfather's lineage back to his grandparents, who came from the Azores. For a long time I assumed that was a mountain range in Portugal. Years later I looked at the chart again and looked up the Azores (now on the internet) and was amazed to learn about these islands out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Now I was really intrigued.

As I got older I began to notice certain mannerisms or patterns of behavior that I've inherited from my parents. I may have put my own spin on them, but they were essentially hand-me-down personality traits, as strong as any physical resemblance. I then realized that my parents had probably inherited some of those same traits from their parents, who inherited them from their parents, etc. And it struck me: Who are all these people I'm unknowingly carrying around with me? Would they recognize themselves in me? I began to explore those origins and fantasized about going to the islands. In 2011 I did a Binaural artist residency in mainland Portugal, and decided to make a quick side trip to the Azores since I was in the neighborhood. I only visited Faial and Pico for four days total, but it was very moving to be there and I knew I had to go back. I began developing this project, went back for three weeks in 2014, and here we are.

Of course, I can't really claim to be Portuguese-American, culturally or otherwise. I'm only 1/8th Portuguese, and everyone was thoroughly assimilated by the time I was born. There was no language, food, music, or religion, no identification with Azorean culture or knowledge of the Azores at all. My grandfather claimed that his people came from the island of Pico, but I later learned they were from Flores. So even the little bit we thought we knew was wrong.