I've always felt American but distinctly "other" from most Americans since I am the granddaughter of a Sicilian shoemaker, who came here as a young man, who worked as a stonecutter alongside his brothers and then paid for his mother's passage over. I knew the grandparents on this side, both Italian speakers, very well. I also knew, as a child, my grandmother's aged and frail mother, hardly understandable in English. I spent many thousands of hours at their table, along with a rabble of rambunctious aunts, uncles and cousins, routinely cursing each other out in Italian, then laughing together while sharing a glass of Grandpa Cheech's homemade wine.
On my Dad's side, there was my Grandpa but I didn't see him often and he seemed to exist in a vacumn, with no other living relatives even discussed let alone met and known. My Dad was an only child, his mother died when I was two and when this grandfather died, and then my father died, all connection to anyone in this family was gone too.
I did however remember the lesson that I learned about my parents marriage. My Dad was "white". That Grandpa I mentioned? Living in Ohio but FROM Alabama and though I had no details, I knew enough to realize that his family were likely "crackers" in their home environment... My other grandparents were Italian and my mother was "dark"... in their time, it was a fact that my father had married down by choosing her even though she was a true beauty in face, figure and spirit.
So, I've been dabbling in geneology. An afternoon with my Aunt was a great start on the Italian side. She showed me pictures of Grandpa's mother from her first Visas. OMG. She was tiny, dark-skinned, with an oval wizened face and long white hair pulled back and simply braided, wearing peasants clothes. She looked.... Native American or Indigenous Hispanic... perhaps even Algerian... Algeria IS right across the Mediterranean from Sicily... if I didn't feel "other" before, I really did after seeing these photos.
But on my Dad's side, well, they were "white". REALLY white! They were the "higher classed" though unknown factor in my genes. I had a few facts to start with. A date and place of death. The obituary for a sometimes mentioned great uncle. A dead grandmothers unusual name.
A little luck, a little instinct, a little perseverance and lots of patience and I discovered... a LOT! The rumored "Swissness" turned out to be true and possibly explains my attraction to all things goat and my having become a well-known farmstead cheesemaker. Another branch revealed Germans in abundance and notations and stories from other researchers told me that both the Germans and the Swiss were Protestant. Back in Europe, the Protestants were the "other", persecuted and driven to migrate. Upon landing here, those Protestants were at first very much an unwelcome minority, subjected to hostility and mistrust and discrimination.
OMG, there's more... after being stumped for awhile by the enigmatic "Willie Jordan" who turned out to be my father's grandMOTHER, I raced backwards through her IRISH roots to discover some of the earliest Irish Quakers. Talk about "other"!! They were Irish, possibly quite poor and starving and they were among the earliest practitioners of a rogue religion! Again, migrating, and landing in America as a minority, unwanted, shunned, insular... very much the "other".
By this time I'd taken the Italians back to Sicily and Tuscany in the 1600's, the Quakers, Swiss, Germans and Irish immigrants back to the mid to early 1700's and only one branch remained muddled and elusive so I let it all rest for awhile, and came back to it to find some breakthrough information supplied by another member of the geneology site... off to the races again with puzzling riddles, pictures of very old headstones, stories, bibles, hints, clues, slow progress through the 1800's... OMG, the first one CAME to Alabama as a slave trader from Virginia. This was an "other" of a whole different catagory!! Discovered letters to a great-great aunt from a Civil War soldier who was dead a month later. This was all so different than what I had imagined. I'm a Liberal!!! Slave traders?? Confederates!?!? Then another lightbulb moment when I realized that these early namesake families who were migrating back and forth between Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama... well many of them were actually.... get ready for it.... Cherokee!!!! Talk about the unwanted, mistrusted "other"!!
I am American, educated, modern... but descended in all branches from people who were fleeing to a better life, not wanted or barely tolerated for economic purposes by those who had arrived before them and who were either dark of skin or members of a suspect religion.
I sold goats cheese at farmers markets in the rain both days this weekend and on the way home, stopped at Luis's Taqueria in Woodburn, Oregon for some comfort food: freshly made tortillas and the best tacos you could imagine. I was probably the only Anglo in there. I was surrounded by Spanish speaking families, dressed in their best clothes having come straight from church. Barack stopped into Luis's while campaigning in Oregon in 2008... his picture is displayed proudly on the wall. As I waited in line I reflected on the "otherness" of these people around me and knew again with more conviction than ever that I LIKE having them here, that they make my life better and richer. The same goes for my Persian friend, the chocolatier and my Muslim customers who I've come to know over weekly market chats. Their "otherness" is no different than my Quakers and Protestants, my Cherokee southerners, my Irish and my "garlic eating" Italians". Cheech and Rafaella, Willie Jordan, "Lightfoot John", Obediance and Obediah, nobody wanted them here or if they were wanted at all it was only for the cheap labor they could provide. But they stayed. And survived. And contributed. And thrived. And assimilated.
I am not who I thought I was... but it turns out I'm MORE of what I thought I was.