This project arose from an assignment in my Fall 2021 English Studies class. The goal was to explore memory, identity, and roots.
When my parents, Antonio Ruiz Diaz and Ana Josefa Estrella-Diaz Ruiz, died, the stories of their family roots also died. I missed every opportunity to ask them about their parents, grandparents, and grandparents’ parents. As I’ve gotten older, I regret I don’t have more family history to pass on to my sons and granddaughter.
I’ve now become obsessed with searching for my roots. It would be easy to chalk it up to all the shows about genealogy and the ads for DNA tests. But I know it’s something more profound, a recognition that my life didn’t begin with my birth. I come from somewhere, from generations of people in the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe. For me, it starts with the history of two people who traveled to Bronx, New York, from two different islands in the Caribbean. My parents brought their own roots, national culture, and history with the Spanish language the bridge between them. They would meet by chance in 1947 in front of a furniture store on Westchester Avenue in the South Bronx (it’s a very romantic story). At that chance intersection of life, a romance bloomed for Antonio and Ana. Marriage followed four months later, on February 29, 1948. My birth later that year. A new generational line was created by their union. I know where the line moved forward from my parents. What fascinates me is how far back it goes.
I’ve seen snatches of a family tree from Puerto Rico (my father) and the Dominican Republic (my mother), two islands in the Caribbean, 236.78 miles apart. Piecing together the family history has been difficult. I don’t speak Spanish, and many of the surviving relatives of my father and mother either don’t speak English or are too old to remember it.
This I can tell you, a Puerto Rican and a Dominican getting married back in 1948 was a big deal. My father would tell me some vague stories about his grandfather being from Spain. On the other hand, Dominicans, well, let’s just say that there was a lot more visible evidence of indigenous and African blood mixing with that of the Spanish conquerors to make some light-skinned Puerto Ricans nervous. The irony is that Dominicans on the island of Hispaniola have had a long-running dispute with that other country that shares the island, Haiti. Something about Haitians being too dark.
My father, Antonio Ruiz Diaz, was born June 20, 1925, in Puerto Rico in a small town called Maunabo, whose name came from a Taino name Manatuabón for the Maunabo River. Spain had claimed the Caribbean Island before they lost it in a gunfight called the Spanish American War in 1898. The United States then declared it a U.S. territory as if they had found a lost piece of luggage. In 1917, Puerto Ricans were made U.S. citizens, although no one asked them what they wanted. An American veteran of World War Two, my father had to deny he was Puerto Rican when he first applied for work in the Bronx. He told them he was a Spaniard and got the job. His reward for a long life of hard work, volunteering for his Church, and fathering five children, was cancer. He died in the Bronx on October 6, 1993.
The long list of names in my father’s family tree is a mystery to me, beginning with the grandfather that I never met, Pedro Ruiz Y Rivera. Born in 1893 before the Spanish American War, he died in 1930 when my father was young. Then, there are the names Juan Tomas Ruiz Escobar, Juan Rito Ruiz, and a fifth great-grandfather, Juan Correoso Gascon. I’m not even sure they were from Puerto Rico or Spain. There are gaps in the forefathers’ history with no glimpse of the women they married and their history.
I did know my father’s mother, Virginia Diaz Ruiz, affectionately called Mamá. She was born before the Spanish American War on August 25, 1895. She died on May 27, 1997, at nearly 102 years old. With my Spanish-speaking skills lost, I could not discover my grandmother’s story, of the husband who died so young, her parents, brothers, and sisters.
My mother, Ana Josefa Estrella-Diaz Ruiz, was born in the Dominican Republic in another small town, Palmar in Salcedo (Provincia de Hermanas Mirabal) on August 8, 1928. She would later proudly become an American Citizen while raising five children, telling us scary stories and teaching us to laugh. My mother fostered too many children to remember and adopted two of them. Life rewarded her for all that she gave with Parkinson’s Disease. On October 28, 2015, she died in the same Bronx Hospice where her husband passed away twenty-two years earlier.
I’ve met my mother’s mother, Melania Margarita Díaz-Mendoza. We lovingly called her Mamita. She disliked traveling to New York from the Dominican Republic, so my visits with her were always brief. Then there was my grandfather, Juan Estrella Minaya, who was born in 1899. I only met him once, remembering him as a dark brown man with a shock of white hair. I gave him five minutes of my arrogant teenage time. They both died before I was able to ask them about their stories, lives, and family history.
There is something about looking back to see where one is going. I now know that I am more than my life lived.
Special thanks to my sister, Margaret T. Ruiz, for her input and editing assistance.