How long would you be willing to spend to write a history of your family? Victor Victor Villaseñor spent twenty-five years writing Rain of Gold, a five-hundred-fifty page saga of his own family over the course of four generations, beginning in northwest Mexico through their migrations into the United States during the Mexican Revolution that began in 1910. He taped over one hundred hours of interviews with various relatives as he struggled to make sense of bizarre, unbelievable sounding stories like skinning a bull before running it a few miles into an Indian camp.
This gripping tale is fascinating on several levels. No fictitious piece could have more twists and turns, near escapes, suffering, or overcoming obstacles of every sort leading to the anticipated climax. Beyond the gripping plot, readers gain insight into the geography of rural Mexico in that area, Rural Mexican customs and of the era, and a graphic description of relations between mejicanos and gringos in the early part of the twentieth century. The powerful example of the two family matriarchs is both amazing and inspiring—almost mystical. His portrayal of the gradually developing insight into human nature is profound.
In his forward, Villaseñor explains how his appreciation for various forms of reality grew as he struggled to make sense of and accept the “truth” in the stories he'd grown up hearing. As a young man, he had lost interest in the stories of his elders, because he was no longer able to believe them. During the course of his research, which included trips to interview natives of the areas his ancestors had lived in, he learned that the bull story was indeed feasible, and quit doubting that earlier generations had deeply personal relationships and direct communication with Mary, Jesus and God.
He wrote the work to document his heritage for his own children, and the rest of us are fortunate that it was published widely. Villaseñor's story ends with the marriage of his parents, so there is no way of knowing precisely just how his family heritage influenced his own life, but the fact that he wrote of it demonstrates its importance to him.
Part of the power of Villaseñor's story is the account of how the two families survived the grinding poverty of the migration years. The stories are testaments to human ingenuity and resilience. Perhaps your own family has similar accounts. His family faced racial barriers that were not unique to mejicanos. Dozens of ethnic groups migrating to the United States faced similar persecution.
One way or another, we are all shaped by our roots, and exploring those roots can provide a keen sense of insight into some of the factors that shaped us into the people we have become. It may be a challenge to learn much about your family going back much further than your grandparents, if you are fortunate enough to have some family legends, get them written down before they fade away.
Not every family has such dramatic stories to tell. On one side of my family we have colorful characters, but the other side seems rather ordinary. Perhaps that's because I know fewer details of their lives. But if I don't pass along what little I do know, within another generation or two, it will all be lost and those people will be nothing but names on a family tree.
How about adding a few family facts to your own account?