What do we carry of our mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers? It has intrigued me for years. In 2008, I wrote a piece about carrying the stories of generations of women in my family not just in my memory but in my body. Years ago I wrote a poem titled "El Regreso: an invocation" where I named generations of women in my family who preceded me. I have been seeking an understanding of our connections to our ancestors my whole life. As a five year old, I built a small grave in our backyard for my twin Elisa who had died as a baby so that I could feel connected to her.
Perhaps it is because I never knew my mother that I have always sought to find her in me somehow. Perhaps it is because I lost my other half, my identical twin sister Elisa, just as we were beginning our lives.
It is these losses, these voids, that have encouraged me to find pieces of my ancestors inside of me.
Guadalupe, my birth mother
Can we know the traumas and the resilience of our ancestors? How do we recognize them? It's not as simple as recognizing wavy hair or hazel eyes. When I became an abuelita, I began to see for the first time how both physical traits and personalities are passed on from generation to generation. I also began to see how pain and trauma was passed on.
As a historian and as a keeper of family stories, I know much about the trauma experienced by my people and my ancestors. I know about the resistance and resilience as well. I believe that both are passed on inter-generationally.
A recent book, It Didn't Start WIth You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We are and How to End the Cycle by Mark Wolynn has provided me new insights in recognizing the trauma and how it expresses itself. Wolynn makes a rather amazing observation: When our mothers were in the womb of their mothers, they already carried the eggs that would eventually become us. Three generations inhabit the same body.
Several years ago, scientists discovered that the DNA of sons remains in the brain of their mothers for a lifetime. It can also reside in the liver, spleen, and skin. The generations are connected in tangible, physical ways.
Esther, my great aunt and adoptive mother
Wolberg describes the bits and pieces of memory, the body sensations we can't explain, and the emotions that we feel deeply but that we know aren't really ours. These are markers of this inherited trauma. As scholars of both Holocaust survivors and their children have noted, the children manifest the same characteristics of trauma as their survivor parents even when the children don't know what their parents went through.
Two Elisas, born a century apart. One my great aunt; the other my granddaughter.
This understanding provides both an explanation for the physical, emotional, and spiritual pains that plague us as well as hope for healing and growing. It is our history that both harms us and heals us.
Maria, my great grandmother
It is an important and scary journey to begin-- to seek the trauma that lives inside our families, our communities, our people and confront it face to face. But it is not enough to acknowledge and place the trauma. Our ancestors left us a gift-- resilience, survival, cultural practices that promote our well-being.
Mercedes, my great great grandmother
I pray that we return to the mother to learn how our ancestors have shaped us and so we can seek our healing, for the generations that came before us and for the generations that come after us.