In 1900, Joze Machado da Silva emigrated from Graciosa, one of nine volcanic islands comprising the Azores, a bucolic autonomous region of Portugal. Settling in Lowell, Massachusetts, USA, he became Joseph Marshall. Five years later Maria Pereira made the same trip, from luscious Graciosa to frosty Lowell. She became Mary Perry, and together they became my great-great-grandparents.
It is unclear why my great-great-grandparents changed their names. Maybe it was a point of pride, a trophy representing their successful journeys. Maybe they anticipated the positive results: the switch alleviated pronunciation challenges, and improved not only my family’s social standing, but also our earning ability. While this access to economic and social gains is a privilege darker-skinned people wouldn’t even have had as an option, for my family the change annulled my Latin ethnicity and allowed my ancestors, and by extension their descendants, to enter into the exclusive Anglo-Saxon country club called Whiteness.
Maria and Joze had seven children, the first of whom was my Grandmother’s father, John Marshall. John was born in Lowell, but after the birth and death of Maria and Joze’s second child to measles, they moved back to the Azores for about 5 years. When John was 7, on the day they were supposed to board a ship returning to Lowell, John ran into the mountains to hide, refusing to return to cold, snowy winters. Sadly, I only know the beginning of that story, and the end…he ended up in Lowell…but I so wish I knew what that coaxing session in the volcanic mountains sounded like.
A decade later, Catholic John met Baptist Lillian, a Russian immigrant, in Lowell. They impatiently waited for her 16th birthday to tie the knot. It was considered a “mixed-marriage;” neighbors and family members warned their lives would be torn asunder by ostensibly dueling religious doctrines and cultural traditions.
It was not so; no duels, no identity crises or mass hysteria, though my grandmother, John and Lillian’s oldest child, Constance, sure did cut her own path. Aspiring beyond a typical job in one of the leather factories for which her hometown was famous, my grandmother left at age 18 to join the army, and was sent off to Germany during the Korean War, eventually becoming a drill sergeant. To this day, 65 years later, she still stands like one, chest out, back straight, her hands in loose fists, thumbs aligned with the seam of her pants. She relished the sense of adventure, the self-sufficiency, and the weekend train trips to Germanic mountain towns.
Connie’s trip to Germany at 18 was her only physical connection to her father’s homeland, and it’s tenuous, at best: her plane stopped to refuel at Lajes airport on Terceira island, still a 30 minute plane ride away from Graciosa Island.
She met my grandfather in the army base’s dining hall in Germany, and he pursued her with such vigor that she broke off her engagement to another man, choosing Grandpa instead. The second of their four children is my mother, who took a DNA ancestry test about a year ago. The test revealed the exact island, neighborhood and street Joze Machado lived on in Graciosa, as well as baptism and marriage records, which I used to create a travel agenda for my ancestral soul voyage to the Azores.
These days, Grandma Connie still carves her own path. She insists on her own unique pronunciation of certain words (“Well, I say hair say-lawn”), and feels no visible shame at the cornbread she consistently embezzles from ALL buffets, wrapping it in a napkin and saving it in her purse for later. She’ll even throw in a banana (also nabbed) to create a well-balanced snack for any grandchild who expresses the slightest hint of hunger.
In chasing the stories of my ancestors I am conflicted. So often we look to the past to inform our present and inspire our future. We’re proud of our heritage, though we did nothing to create it. We have parades celebrating our people’s strengths and struggles, while we tend to ignore the brutality they perpetuated in becoming the victor, or how the spoils they gained in war protect and benefit us today.
The very things for which I admire the Portuguese–embracing uncertainty, taking calculated risks and bold, brave action–are the very tactics by which they dominated and plundered, whereas cooperation and equality could have just as easily been on their agenda. For example, the Portuguese were trailblazers in world exploration, developing new celestial mapping techniques and more effective sailboats to create the most expansive global trade network at that time, still in use today. Admirable, until we consider they dominated the transatlantic slave trade for 100 years, setting the foundations for 18th and 19th century iterations of a global slave trade along these same networks.
“Isn’t this a travel blog?” you ask. Yes, and this IS my brain in travel–it leads me to reconsider what I’ve been taught as true, right, and without alternative narratives. A few months after my mom took a DNA ancestry test, I went to the Azores in September 2016 on an odyssey to rediscover what my family lost and gained through our assimilation over the past 116 years. What I found was a wellspring of dueling dualities and uncertain conclusions.
*Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me