Retracing Invisible Roots

The dock is swarming with people, fishermen, stalls selling the daily catch and travelers waiting for their ships to start boarding. The sun burns through her clothes, leaving a trail of sweat dripping down her back. On one hip her two year old daughter has made herself comfortable, her large eyes wandering about in wonder. The mother cups her daughter’s form protectively with her hand. The other side of her body works as a makeshift luggage hanger, several heavy bags draped over her shoulder. She displaces her feet, trying to find a more comfortable position despite the growing muscle ache. She’s nervous but the journey to Suriname won’t be long and she knows she will soon be comfortable again. The signal for boarding sounds through a speaker and the young woman kisses her parents goodbye. Before entering the passenger liner she turns around one more time, taking in the Georgetown port, her parents holding hands as they tearfully smile and wave at her. The woman points them out to her toddler, and together they bid goodbye to their home country, the mother unaware this would be the last time seeing her parents, the final time her feet would touch Guyanese soil.  

This is my grandmother’s story, my mother’s, and through them also mine. Because that ship wasn’t going to Suriname, it was going to the Netherlands. This is not a work of fiction, although, through the increasing distance, sometimes it feels like it is. I envision the scene on the Georgetown dock often, I wonder about my great-grandparents and the country my grandma grew up in, the house my mother took her first steps, the three week journey to the Netherlands. But I’m quite alone in my wonders, and they often remain just those: scenes of wonder I paint and inscribe on the canvas of my brain, constructing characters, narratives; history. Because 52 years later my grandma does not often speak about her upbringing in South America, or her family she never saw again since leaving at the age of 19. For all she knows she is a Dutch, white woman. Except, in this world, she is not. Not really, never completely.

When my grandma arrived in Rotterdam, somewhere around 1969, times were very different. She was tricked into going there under the false pretension of moving to Suriname in order to live with her Dutch then-husband. Instead, after three weeks of being boarded up in her hut with her child, a scared woman of color, who strictly spoke English and was packed for the tropics, suddenly found herself in a white, cold country, with no one there to pick her up. I have asked my grandma about her experiences many times. But she rather lives in the now and doesn’t see the relevance of looking back at harder days. Nowadays, in a time where people ask you where you are from– a time which expects you to identify as either black or white– a time which seems to see heritage as a quirky character trait, I struggle to find my ethnic identity. I am a white passing woman, yet I’m also mixed, but in school people used to ask me if my grandma was a ‘zwarte piet’. Because of this, my wonders never stopped at my grandma’s life in Guyana, they stretched much further, forever attempting to touch and grasp the past.

From my grandma’s story I am at least certain about my Guyanese heritage, but Guyana is a very diverse country with a heavily colonized and complicated history. It is even known as the “Land of Six People”–those being: African, Indian, Chinese, Amerindian, European (by which the Guyanese mainly meant the British), and the Portuguese (which was seen as a separate nationality from the umbrella term “European”). My grandma’s appearance does not resonate with Indians or the Chinese, so I always figured those were not part of the story of my bloodline. I have often been called a Latina because of my own appearance and my link to South America but generally, Guyana is not seen as a Latin country. Because of Guyana’s colonial past and its small number of indigenous people I wanted to find out from which countries my ancestors traveled or were forced to travel away from. 

Of course the first pitstop for this voyage was my grandparents’ house. Accompanied by two steaming cups of coffee to get the conversation started I asked my granny what she knew or remembered from her youth. Sadly, it wasn’t much as these memories were all made in her teens and she is now 70. The only thing she recalled was that her mother’s maiden name was Rodrigues, a portuguese surname which according to her mother was due to portuguese family ties. Before going to my granny I knew I wouldn’t go home with many answers. My grandma never properly spoke to her parents again after she left, as they kept contact via letters– that have now, to my great disappointment, mostly been thrown away or have been lost.

My great-grandmother was illiterate so when my great-grandfather died communication became complicated. Eventually an unfamiliar handwriting appeared on the letters, that of a man claiming to write on my great-grandma’s behalf, but only kept asking for money. When that money didn’t come, the letters stopped too. Because of this, we don’t know when or even if my great-grandma died. When my grandparents tried to find her to bring her to the Netherlands they failed because she didn’t have a birth record. So this is where the story and search through my direct family members came to an end. I realized I was tracing invisible roots.

But where do you start when your quest has no clear-cut path, no map to follow? I decided to look inwards first by doing a DNA test on myheritage.com. The results of this test were both expected and unforeseen. Unsurprisingly, I found out I have a significant percentage of Northern and Western European heritage, as I have a fully Dutch father. However, the ethnic results following this became more interesting for my quest to find the unknown side of my ethnicity. They consisted of Iberian, Amerindian, Irish/Scottish/Welsh, a little Italian and finally Nigerian and North African ethnicities. From these results I have made some hypotheses, as this seems to be the only way to approach the search with the information I have.

Ironically, the first thing I found out during my research into Guyana’s history was that the Dutch were the first to establish a foothold (read: steal) in Guyana and import African slaves to the country. Following the results of my DNA test and my grandma’s appearance this is possibly the first (but not the last) time my African ancestors crossed paths with the Dutch. From here, there are many different possible pathways to draw and hypothesize. The celtic strand of my DNA may come from my father’s side but it can also be due to Guyana’s celtic settlers. Funnily, people often ask my sister if she is Scottish because of her red hair, and by chance my grandma’s aunt was also a red-head. These features of their appearances were particularly interesting when I found out about the high number of Scottish settlers in Guyana. The Iberian part of my DNA is the only ethnicity that seems to confirm what little my grandma knows of her heritage: her mother most likely had Portuguese ties. The Amerindian results must come from the indigeneous peoples of Guyana or further inland of the continent. Because this is essentially merely guesswork I endeavored on another potentially promising route.

This route– or rather as it turns out more of a dead-end– was ‘ancestry’, a website where you can enter all the information you have and which can help understand your genealogy. But I found myself facing a wall again; the lack of birth dates and records of my great-grandparents kept me from finding out more about my family tree. The search was mainly for death or marriage certificates but to no avail. Which doesn’t leave me with a lot of options. I found myself at a crossway, all roads blocked except for some more difficult paths. Such as the road that requires me to convince my grandma that myheritage.nl is not trying to steal her DNA to leave it at a crime scene, in order for her to take a DNA test for more exact results. Or perhaps, one day, I can venture across the Atlantic and visit Georgetown myself to conduct more research in the area. 

The frustration of not being able to trace these sturdy roots that seem to have disappeared throughout history only fuels me to do more research. I realize that knowing your ancestry does not directly change anything in your life. However, by trying to understand the many different strings of fate that knot us together I think we can all feel connected to something larger than us. While it can sometimes feel like each of us live on isolated islands or like we inhabit single pages of a book, we are part of something bigger; a story– a history. By being aware of our own histories maybe we can turn towards the future differently, but also towards the now.

 It is strange that I now most likely carry the nationality of the oppressors of my ancestors and that I benefit from the white privilege that chained them so many years ago. I continue to float in between these two contrasting ethnic identities, not really white but also not a person of color. Maybe if my grandma had known she would never return to her first home when she boarded that boat, maybe if her suitcase was filled with family photos and documents instead of clothes and a toothbrush, maybe if she had been able to get her mother here– so many maybes. Things would be different, and perhaps I would have known more. But for now, I will just have to keep looking at the roots that anchor my very existence like a book which can never truly become a history yet is not merely speculative fiction. 


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