The “Fake” Family Tree

It was the kind of homework assignment a self-conscious Latina dreaded most. Picture, if you will, 1964. LBJ is in the White House. Muhammad Ali beats Sonny Liston and is crowned heavyweight champion of the world. The Beatles make their U.S. debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. And me? I’m in Queens, attending school at P.S. 154, sitting in the second row of Mrs. Warmbran’s third grade class. Oh, and I’m sweating bullets.

For, Mrs. Warmbran has just given the class one of the hardest, most horrific homework assignments of all. I’m talking much worse than in second grade, when Mrs. Green asked us to create a project for the science fair. Science was not my forte and, with my father’s assistance, I created a pinwheel made of straws. My father assured me the class would find my pinwheel brilliant and I believed him. That is, until I saw Stewie Moskowitz’ log cabin, with electric lights that turned on and off, and smoke that blew out the chimney. That little upstart had put my flimsy effort to shame.

But then Mrs. Warmbran came along with her nefarious assignment: to create a family tree. Simple enough, you might think and I would agree, if the family names were Jane or Jimmy. Or Patty and Cathy, like the twin cousins on “The Patty Duke Show.” Latino names were not commonplace in my neighborhood and I certainly don’t remember watching any shows with Latino characters. And now my teacher was forcing me to reveal that my father’s name was Enrique and my relatives had names like Teotiste, Cesar, Josefina, Juan and so on. I wasn’t ready to display my Venezuelan roots to the world.

My parents, Enrique and Mary.

So I had a plan. It involved poster board, markers, a flashlight and a lie. I didn’t want my parents to know what I was up to, so I grabbed my supplies and tiptoed down to the basement while the rest of my family gathered around the TV console to watch “The Fugitive.” That’s the show in which Dr. Richard Kimble, falsely convicted of his wife’s murder, is hounded by Lieutenant Gerard, and Kimble must find the one-armed man, the real culprit before the lieutenant finds him. Creeping down the stairs, in the cover of darkness, I felt like a fugitive myself, or El Fujitivo, as we called him in my house. That was me, El Fujitivo, trying to escape unnoticed to do my homework.

I began with great flourish to draw my fake family tree. Instead of writing the actual names, my father was now Ricky, my grandparents became Samantha and Darren and my Tia Yoly, Aunt Bea. (Yes, I know, I wasn’t very original, taking the names from TV shows of the day.) Though I knew it was wrong, I kept at it and soon I was enjoying conjuring up these new names and identities. I was feeling quite proud of myself, convinced I would get a good grade for my work, when I heard a footstep on the stairs.

“Moníca, qué haces allí?”

There was no way I could tell my mother what I was doing. I tried to shove the poster under the sofa, but my mother, shrewd that she was, spotted it in a flash. Like Lieutenant Gerard she was on to me, El Fujitivo. I had to think quickly. Could I blame it on the one-armed man?

No, it was all me, and it didn’t take long for my mother to figure it out. The sadness in her eyes said it all. My father, who normally is quick to shout and ask questions later, was heartbroken. Clearly, all they saw was that their daughter was ashamed of the family. I couldn’t find the words to tell them the truth. That all I wanted was what most kids want: to blend in. All I saw was their pain, and so I did what any kid would do. I burst into tears.

The next morning, I took the poster to school, having added the real names. This was my true Family Tree, accurately reflecting my heritage. This was the beginning, the knowing that I was different from my peers and I just had to face it.

A few years later, when I was 12, we left Queens and moved to the suburbs. At the time, we were the only Latinos in the neighborhood. A classmate asked me, “Are you ‘colored‘?”

Flinching at her choice of words, I replied, “No, I am Venezuelan.”

A Venezuelan American. Born in the U.S. and known in some circles as, El Fujitivo.

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129 thoughts on “The “Fake” Family Tree

  1. “Known in some circles as El Fujitivo.” bwhahaha! Monica, you are brilliant! You truly are! This is your strength, your forte, as you call it, your calling. You were born to write about your Latin roots. Nothing makes me smile, chuckle, or not my head in agreement than your prose about being a Latina. Perhaps it’s because I can identify so strongly with what you write. For damn sure it’s because your words are so masterfully strung together that they always leave me wanting more! I loved this post. Just loved it! Someday I’ll tell you about the time I had to write about what we had for Thanksgiving at home. I was in third grade as well! 🙂

  2. This is very interesting, You are a very skilled blogger. I have joined your feed and look forward to seeking more of your wonderful post. Also, I’ve shared your site in my social networks!

  3. It’s so hard on kids, isn’t it, when all they want to do is blend in, yet they feel as if they stick out. I love Julia Alvarez’s writing on this topic. I love your writing! Glad I found you through Judith’s blog.

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  5. That’s very courageous and righteous of you by admitting your truer self. After all, family is part of us…

    • Thank you. It did feel a bit like putting my heart on my sleeve. But there’s been an overwhelming outpouring of support and understanding which I so appreciate. So thank you for visiting my blog!

  6. Good an very informative post. I will come back to your blog regullary. One thing: I do not exactly know what do you mean in the second paragraph. Could you please exmplain your opinion?

  7. I discovered your site on bing and read a few of your early posts. I hope you will continue the very good work. I just added your RSS feed to my MSN News Reader. I’m seeing forward to reading more from you later on!

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  10. Have you ever read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott? There’s a great section in that book about how school lunches are fertile ground for writing ideas. Maybe school assignments are the same way.

    I can relate to your family tree story for different reasons. My parents were divorced at a time when that kind of thing just wasn’t normal. When I had to do a family tree, I didn’t even know how. The templates they gave us didn’t account for additional branches, half-siblings, step-grandparents and so on. I felt like I was somehow “less” than the other intact families. (Maybe I felt that way because my teacher made it very clear to me that she thought I was…)

    About Victoria’s comment about ethnic school lunches… Again, I can relate but for a different reason. In addition to having divorced parents, my dad and my stepmom were hippies and they sent me to school with hippie food (think lots of soy products) when all I wanted was a “normal” PB&J sandwich.

    It’s hard being different. Unfortunately, each generation will find a way to make kids know just how different they are.

    • Honestly, when I decided to tell my story, I had no idea how much of a touchstone this would be. I am in awe of how many people have said they can relate. How they have their own similar stories to tell, about the agony of school, homework assignments and lunches, and how a certain look from a classmate could make you fall to pieces. Why was fitting in so important? Thank you for sharing your very personal story. My heart goes out to all of us who had to endure these childhood stresses, one way or another.

  11. I’m a South African of European decent, and just discoverred a couple of years ago that my great granfather had doctored the family tree – it goes back a number of generations, and when he was alive he redrew it to remove certain ancestors, for example one who had been hanged for sheep stealing in Scotland!

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  13. i’m Taiwanese and trying to translate names into english was really difficult and the names sounded bizarre (it was just an invitation to be teased). thanks for the post – it reminds me that there are a lot of us that share the same experience.

  14. What a great story!!

    My parents would send me to school with Lebanese meat or spinach pies and when I did get peanut butter and jelly it was on Lebanese bread. I totally related to the character in “My Big Fat Greet Wedding” who longed to fit in and have a sandwich on white bread. Today, I have my 3 year old daughter rolling stuffed grape leaves and making hummus with me, while telling tales of her great grandfather who she never got to know.

    Glad I read this post — well done! 🙂

    • Thank you for telling your story too. It’s amazing how many things about who we are can bother us as kids. Whether it’s family names, traditions, foods, it affects us in the same way. At least then. Glad to know that it’s a different era for your daughter and for children today. We can embrace who we are and it’s ok. 🙂

      Thank you for visiting my post!

  15. Twas a little easier growing up in Los Angeles in the 1950’s….We were of all in the downtown Los Angeles area… Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Anglo, Latino, African American and so on. We as kids remember going to our friends homes and having such wonderful meals and time with other families. I will not forget that joy and how simple it was to enjoy the differences and knowing how alike we all were.

  16. Thank you for sharing your very personal story. The depth of what you experienced at that time helped make you the person you are today. Reading your story, memories came flooding forward for me. Even though I am a “home grown” gal, I had my share of personal moments. Mine were at their worst, when it came to parents day or any family related activity. No one ever came. I knew they would not. I believe it was a self confidence they did not possess. I always had to be creative with a made up story. But, as I did not ever want anyone to feel pity for me, I tried my best to make it appear legitimate. At times failing miserably. It was extremely difficult at first, yet with age, it simply became a part of me. I made it through childhood on my own. So, from one boomer to another, thanks for sharing!
    http://cafetodaymyblog.wordpress.com/

    • Thank you for sharing your very touching and painful story. And once again, it’s all about wanting to fit in, be like the rest, with your parents in tow. My mother always came to my school open house at school days. But what mortified me, was when she spoke to the teacher or another parent. She spoke in broken English, understanding more than she could speak. I’d cringe then. But now I feel tremendous guilt for making her feel bad about it. At least she was trying, but she knew how I felt so, for a long time, she wouldn’t speak in public at all.

  17. What a beautiful post. The comments reveal that you’ve surely struck a nerve. How wonderful it is that our world has become much more open to people from ‘other’ places. Family can be complicated enough, with or without the complexities of cultural differences. My mother’s family is Irish in origin, my husband’s family is Italian on his father’s side. Both groups came to this country and faced discrimination and fear. I try to remind my children of this fact as they meet their colorful world.

    Congrats on making FP! I agree with a previous post, I think you could write a beautiful book on growing up Latina in the US. Dios bendiga!

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I too am amazed on just how much of a chord my story struck. The stories that have come out are so diverse yet so universal. It’s wonderful to see how far we’ve come and how much better off our kids are. I’m touched by the outpouring of emotions, and am grateful to have made Freshly Pressed!

  18. I feel the pain of your 3rd grade self to some degree. But not in the sense of having difficult family names but because of estranged family members and people no one wishes to talk about. I too would have made up a family tree beyond the nucleus of our household. It would have been the only way to complete the project to the teacher’s expectations.

    In raising a boy to 8th grade thus far I’ve come to the realization that the vast majority of school projects are made up or that they have the assistance of the parents beyond what is legitimate help.

    Thanks for sharing.

  19. Wow, how funny…I had to do a family history project in the 8th grade and for me it was a shaming experience because I found out my ancestors owned slaves…other people got to find out their ancestors came over from Europe on boats, I got to find out my family is a bunch of redneck hick white trash. So then in high school and college when I had to do family trees for Spanish and Portuguese class I would always invent a more cosmopolitan family…I gave myself an Indian aunt, for example, and named my father “Nicodemus” instead of Greg…yeah, I think we’re all ashamed of our families, whether our family has been here for 30 years or 300…anyway, great post.

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  21. A very touching story.

    I often wonder what a Canadian/Puerto Rican girl went through when she attended my WASP-ish school in Western Canada, around the same time as your experiences.

    Sadly, we were not very inclusive of minorities. Your article makes me wonder what sorts of things Rosa went through when trying to fit in.

    Thanks for sharing your well-written thoughts.

    • Yes, but Latinos on TV were few and far between. And why do you think I renamed my own father, Ricky (as in Ricky Ricardo)? Also, how about Bill Dana in his “role” of Jose Jimenez? Hint: Bill Dana was NOT Latino, but he sure had got laughs portraying one. So aside from Ricky Ricardo, aka Desi Arnaz, I don’t recall too many others.

  22. This was so beautifully written, and such a poignant story. Thank you for sharing this memory with us. It can be so challenging to be different, but I think that culture in general has become more accepting. My oldest son’s name is Moshe, which is Hebrew for Moses, and not very common, to put it mildly. People are typically pretty open to his unusual name. I hope that as he gets older he doesn’t find it cumbersome, but can be proud of his heritage.

    Congrats on being FP!

  23. To us readers it may seem like it was a nice story to read. But I can imagine how difficult was to decide whether to even write it, whether it was worth remembering the whole situation and confessing it to the world. But that’s why I love blogging, it makes me feel that I am carrying less burdens than before and it gives me a new point of view to those situations. I really enjoyed this one and you pictured it really well, almost painfully.
    I am glad there are Venezuelans like you 🙂

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  25. You are definitely “coloured”. Coloured like the patchwork lives of us migrants: past, present, blended bloodlines, feet and hearts in simultaneously in different places, all stitched together in an strident explosion that when viewed up close appears to clash, but when viewed as a whole makes a glorious tapestry.

    Still stitching myself, nearly 35 years later.

  26. This was great! It’s different, but I can relate. For the entire time I was in elementary school, my dad was in prison. Good lord, I was ashamed to have my classmates know that! I made up all kinds of reasons why he wasn’t at school events or just avoided the question by not being involved. Even into my college years I didn’t often tell people that, assuming they would judge me for his mistakes. Now, of course, I realize that it doesn’t make a bit of difference, and I’m not embarrassed, because your family is your family and you can’t do anything about it. Back then, though, it loomed huge for me.

    • Thank you for sharing. It took a lot for you to face up to that, own it, and kudos to you for having embraced it. For better, for worse, our family is our one and only family. There are no substitutions.

  27. This is quite intresting. There are so many who are are not happy to reveal their family tree. I didn’t care about my family history until about 10 years ago and since then it has been a journey finding my family. I have bits and pieces but it is hard finding. I encourage you to continue to write this so others will get involved in finding out who they are, who they look like, why they act the way they do ad for so many other reasons.

  28. I loved the narrative. Very interesting subject/concept. Yes, our names at some given point of time have embarassed us to a great extent. Even worse, ancestral names. Especially in school.
    Congrats on being freshly pressed!

  29. I absolutely loved your post! I am sure that you have plenty of stories like this…I wouldn’t mind reading essays like this in a book!

  30. family heritage is a key of life facts as well, I get most hints from my family’s. why would you cheat others, unless they have bad envy towards other’s life.

  31. That dreaded family tree. As a black kid, that was quite a trying experience. A friend of mine, also black, told me that her teacher gave her a hard time or all the “missing” branches on her tree; It was like she couldn’t grasp any sort of family besides the traditional nuclear one.

    This also reminds me of all those ancestry.com commercials. At least they don’t pretend to be able to cater to everyone, since they only seem to feature upper-class white people…

  32. Oh my goodness what a beautiful read. Congratulations on being freshly pressed! I can’t wait to see what else you’ve written.

  33. This is a poignant read. So many of us are stigmatized one way or another – if not in childhood – in adulthood. We’re all different at varying times, and often uncomfortably so, and to our surprise. When it happens to an adult, we’re more able to deal with it of course. But when it happens to a child – even something as simplistic (on the surface) as a different sort of name, we never forget.

    I think the context of the 60s makes this even more striking. (And Mad Men has brought the 60s into contemporary consciousness in a big way.) It was a time when we didn’t know there were others “like us” somewhere, if not in our immediate area. It must be hard for our kids to imagine that – no cable, no social media to make the world seems a much smaller (and diverse) place.

    Enjoyed your “about” page, by the way. Ah yes, the writer’s pleasure in telling a good tale… 🙂

  34. Beautiful story, and one, as a Latina, which I can also relate. My dad is named Jesus. You can imagine all the comments I got when our family moved to a white suburban neighborhood and my classmates found out my dad’s name! The best response was when a young neighborhood boy and Star Wars fan heard my mom call my dad by his nickname, “Chuy.” The boy said, “Chuy? You mean like Chewbacca?”

  35. Good For You and sharing this story!! The childhood years can be so hard!! I felt your pain and struggle, ugh! As a parent, I am sure deep down inside your parents understood. They must have been so torn, too. Life can be so hard. You have helped with you’re sharing of this story, that is what the written word is for. I hope you are at peace about this now…my, my. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

    evelyngarone.com

  36. Your post reminds me of my brother-in-law’s own trials as a kid! When we were in gradeschool everyone always brought in fabulous treats for their birthdays. His Mexican family was not into our American penchant for desserts. His parents just didn’t get it. They actually sent him to school with a sleeve of saltine crackers once! The memories still haunt him.

  37. So fantastic! I loved this story – despite the unique circumstances that make it a special tale, it is universally relate-able. Thanks so much for sharing it.

  38. I absolutely love this story. It brings me sadness and happiness at the same time. Why? Because I lived this story myself. And… it is good to know I was not alone–though it certainly felt like it at the time.

    I have shared these feelings of experiences such as this with my own children. I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s in an all white neighborhood and went to an all white school until Jr. High. During that time, I was asked if I was Chinese, Colored, Samoan, and a whole list of combinations of races. No one ever got it right. Ever time someone new approached me, I braced myself for “the question.” Maybe this is why I was always so shy as a child. It made me feel like an outcast to constantly be queried on my race when no one else got asked this question.

    Thank you for sharing this personal story.

  39. My family tree poster board had names like Bryan & Janyce, Vernon & Ruby, Ewell & Gladys. (And I still didn’t feel as though I fit in.) The names of your family would have sounded strange to me back then. But now I wouldn’t think twice about them.

    This is one time I can say that I like what our country has become. It may have been a bumpy road, but we’ve come a long way.

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful post!

  40. At the ripe age of 40, I put together a family tree a few years back that I still have to get online somewhere. The list of names looked like the dramatis personae of an opera, and as proud as fire as I am of all those wonderful vowel-laden names, I’m glad I didn’t have to do a family tree in school as one of TWO Italian families in our very white, very working-class neighborhood (us and the Sicilians across the street). All those O’Donnells and Sweeneys and Doughertys would have had plenty to say … they sure did at every other occasion.

    There was ONE non-Italian name in the whole thing until my own generation, and so many Lous and Roses that you couldn’t keep them straight without “Junior”s getting added on.

  41. Fantastic post! Being a kid who is 8 different things, most of her cousins not looking a thing a like, grandparents that don’t seem to match their children and great grandparents that don’t look at all like what their future descendants will look like I totally understand the pain.

  42. Your story reminds me of my own. I was assigned a family tree project in elementary school, and instead of asking my parents for all the difficult Chinese names that did not translate to English, I made up English names for all my relatives. Nobody ever found out, but I always felt guilty about it.

  43. I, too, was different growing up. There were daily reminders of this too. However now I am proud of that difference.

    You see I am of Native American descent. In my youth, that was not something in which pride was encouraged. I, however, felt no need to apologize for it. It is just a fact to me. Nothing more!

  44. Great post! It reminds me of when I was a freshmen in high school. We had an assignment to create a family tree and write about our family history. Which seems like a cool project unless your ancestors are of African descent and Native American. Truth is, we don’t really know much of anything beyond one of my great-grandmas and the info we do have is incomplete. Needless to say I made up a really intense story. I just wanted to have a history like everyone else.

    Great story!

  45. I think the names in your family are beautiful. Normally I shy away from reading a long post, but your story drew me in and kept me ’til the end…

  46. I had to do a family tree in college for an Anthropology class. It is true, there is something highly personal about the act of writing down even just the names of all your relatives, the ones you’ve seen every day of your life, the ones you’ve never met. It’s like drawing a map to yourself.

    Great story, well told!

  47. I love this post! It’s hard to wonder why we all feel like we didn’t fit in way back when…because no one ever really fits in when they’re in school. But that’s the beauty of things…it’s too bad we couldn’t see the diversity forest for the trees when we were going through it the first time…

    Congrats on being FP’ed!

  48. Great story… these are the things that makes us who we are.

    Best regards from Venezuela’s little neighbour to the right.

  49. Loved this! I can relate except in my case it was stressing my multiracial identity in a society that only wanted me to check “African American” and did not see me as French / Creole and German / Puerto Rican.

    • I know the many frustrations you’ve had to face. Most of the time, all Latinos are lumped together under Hispanic, and each of us–whether Nicaraguans, Puerto Ricans, Columbians, Argentinians or Venezuelans, we’re very distinct.

  50. Congrats on being FP’d, Monica!

    This story made me sad…I’m really interested in genealogy, and quite proud of my heritage…glad you decided to put in the real names!

    Wendy

  51. I can feel your pain…just a different flavor. I was the biracial kid who everyone thought was something else, including Latina. Although I am 1/2 Chinese and 1/2 White, I’ve been subjected to all types of racial discrimination, including from people of color. I also have had to deal with my racial ambiguity and having pride of self. Thank goodness my daughter, also multiracial, has a much more colorblind world. Not perfect, but better. Check out the Hapa Project. It celebrates diversity.

    • Here’s what I learned with this post, so many of us have dealt with similar issues as a child. Luckily we came out ok, because truly, such experiences can seem like the end of the world at the time they’re occurring.

      Thanks for visiting my post!

  52. I wonder if we all don’t at some points (or perhaps many points) in our lives want to be fugitives from the true – either to stand out or to blend in depending on the prevailing thoughts and pressure of our peers. Seeming benign school assignments can be fraught with the angst over what others will think of us and often push us into unwittingly disappointing those closest to us. If we learn to look at ourselves, our lives with pride then no matter the original assignment, it is truly valuable lesson. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you for visiting my blog. Yours about trees is enchanting. What a fascinating spin on trees. I was recently in New York and had the opportunity to idle for a while in Bryant Park where you can spend hours relaxing on porch swings and in rocking chairs. The place is covered by blankets of trees. You look up and all you can see is the expanse of branches, leaves each touching the other and forming a lacy sky, so that you feel like you’re being hugged, protected by the trees. It’s like being in a green cathedral.

  53. I made up an older brother and sister for myself at school and one friend still reminds me of it! She didn’t figure it out until years later when I accidentally changed one of the names. I just wanted a more interesting family than only one younger brother!

    • Thanks for sharing. I much prefer Teotiste, Cesar, Josefina, and Juan to Samantha, Darren and Bea!

      Like LIVVY30 above, My kids have made up an imaginary little brother named Jake. The attend Chinese school (um….we’re not Chinese, that’s another story…) they only go to this school on Sunday. But, they have attended for years and Jake has gone from 3 to 7 years old. Sometimes they’ll ask (in front of a friend) “Oh, you didn’t bring Jake with you to pick us up?” I just smile and say that Jake isn’t with me.

    • It just goes to show, kids, no matter who they are, have to reconcile with who they are. Let’s hope that kids today find it more accepting than we did then. Thank you for visiting my blog!

  54. Good story, I totally understand, although I am not a minority person. I had similar assingment in school and my problem was, no one knew our family heritage past my great grandparents and that was very incomplete data. No one knew what country or countries we came from, while EVERYONE else in class was very definite on that. I made stuff up because I didn’t want to be different. For your info, my mothers maiden name was obviously of British origion at some point in the past, at least it was the same as a famous British author, Albee. My dad’s last name was french in origion, so, ergo, I said we were French and English, but my mother said when she asked her mother where we came from, she would rattle off 6 or 7 european countries and I think no one really knows.

  55. Oh my goodness! You are an amazing story-teller! I absolutely LOVED this. I was smiling, chuckling and even got chills in the end. How amazing. 🙂

  56. I would say that most of the white people I went to school with — actually, all of them — could have no idea about this kind of childhood stress. Thank you for writing that one out, I’m not sure I would have been so brave. And thanks for including the photo of your parents.
    -Wineguider, http://www.wineguider.wordpress.com

    • I would think kids of any background have had similar issues to deal with at some point in their lives. Even for Caucasians, think of rivalries/conflicts between ethnicities (Irish vs Italian) or religion (protestant vs Catholic as in England), when you’re a minority of any sort, it’s plain hard. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on my post today.

  57. That story is priceless. Childhood is challenging in the best of circumstances, but you got a little something extra to deal with. I’ll remember this and it will give me extra courage when I’m dealing with a less-than-PC crowd.

    I hope kids are finding it easier and easier to be honest about who they are.

    Thank you so much for this post. I enjoyed this slice of your history very much.

  58. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this post. I’m a first generation American. Had any teacher asked my class to construct a family tree, I might have done exactly the same thing as you did! A well deserved Freshly Pressed.

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