The female roots of my family tree

This morning, I woke up at my mom’s house. She and I spent an evening out together yesterday — dinner, coffee, a short lecture about the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, and then the BNC’s ballet performance of Don Quixote at Place-des-Arts. It was our way of celebrating Mother’s Day (which is actually today here in Canada). With the memories of the previous evening’s performance running through my head, the first thing I experienced this morning as I reflected was a sense of pride.

We’re not Cuban or any other kind of Latin American by any means, but we share the same Iberian passion, heart, and exuberance that the dancers of the BNC displayed last night, and that honestly all Hispanic people display on a daily basis. But seeing it on stage in all the sumptuous finery of classical ballet was a pivotal moment for me, I think. From the music featuring tambourines and castanets and the distinct rhythms of Spanish dances right up to the sheer joy and love of life expressed in the movements of the dancers, Don Quixote put me in touch with a side of my heritage that I’ve never really felt connected to before.

My Spanish heritage is something I don’t often consider — I have always been first and foremost a Canadian, even before I became a citizen, and of course Filipino culture reigned supreme at home — but lately it’s been creeping to the foreground of my thoughts. I’ve been thinking a lot more about my identity, which is probably why I’ve finally started poking into the Spanish and Spanish-influenced chapters of my family history. And, as it turns out, much of what links me to these roots comes from the women of my family.

Although the hot Iberian blood runs on both sides, I know more about my mother’s side of the family than my father’s. The primary factor playing into this imbalance of knowledge is that my mother’s family were all in Canada when I was growing up, including my maternal grandmother who was full to bursting of family history. By marriage she was a Gomez but by birth she was a Garcia, a direct descendant of the Mercado-Alonso union that would become known as the Rizal family, and so the family history is extremely well documented and archived. They were blessed with an abundance of daughters but only two sons, though they’re more well-known of course for the legacy of José Rizal than they are for anything their daughters did.

But that doesn’t mean any of them, or any of the ladies to follow, led boring and insignificant lives. Thanks to my maternal grandmother, whom we referred to as “Lola” in our family, my earliest recollections include stories of the great-grand-women of the family: women whose most formative and defining moments were in harrowing experiences such as world wars and civil uproar; women who, for their time, experienced the privileges of education, personal wealth, and careers — things that we today believe are normal components of the everyday life of a modern woman, but back then were considered to be firmly in the domain of menfolk; women who, in short, have created for my sisters and me an unbroken legacy of strength, grit, and resilience tempered by love, kindness, and faith.

Sometimes it’s hard to live up to that kind of family history. Here I am at twenty-six and I feel like I’m in a pretty good place in my life; at any rate, I’m more comfortable with myself and more loving and accepting of who I am now than I ever have been. But although I’ve been down the foundations of my adult life for the last few years when I compare myself to the women of my family tree when they were my age, I always feel like I’m found left for wanting in their presence. But then I remember that you can’t compare your chapter one to someone else’s chapter twenty — and the fact of the matter is, my world is very different from the worlds of these ladies, so of course it makes sense that my story is being written at a markedly different pace.

I often wonder (and honestly, worry) if I’ll ever be able to be as strong, poised, gracious, confident, and beautiful as the women of my family before me. Even when I compare myself to my sisters I find myself in a brief panic over the thought that I’ll never be anything remotely like them.

There’s a quote that I’ve seen everywhere on social media today and I’ve been pondering on it while I’ve been preparing to write this, and by putting those thoughts alongside my insecurities in the face of my feminine legacy, I’ve realized something important: it doesn’t matter if my experiences at age twenty-six aren’t quite as earth-shattering and life-changing as those of the women before me, or that I’m nowhere near as well-established in my life and my career as they were at this age.

What truly matters is that the iron-clad strength of their souls that allowed them stand upright in their convictions and the passion that burned in their hearts to fuel their lives was passed on to me, along with many examples of what one may accomplish if one looks life straight in the the eye and never backs down. It doesn’t matter how I do it myself, just that I harness that strength and passion in my own bones and heart, and live life to the fullest as they did…in the best way I know how. That is how I might live up this legacy and embrace this heritage of mine.

And so:

“Here’s to strong women: may we know them, may we be them, may we raise them.” 

When a knife in my back starts to twinge and turn

It’s been a month since I actually posted anything, which doesn’t really seem to fit the definition of “being back.” Mea culpa. Life has been pretty crazy in the last little while – when it rains in my life, it really does pour – and I’ve been fighting to keep my head up above the rising flood. But now spring has actually arrived, my life is calming down enough for me to write in earnest again, and I’m finding footing on dry land once more. And I’m more in love with life now than I ever have been.

One of the bigger things I’ve wrestled with in the last year-and-a-bit of my life was learning how to let go – of things, of people, of what never was meant to be. I was holding on to far too much of what lay behind me that I had no way to grasp the things I needed for the journey ahead.

And yes, I was holding on to a lot of pain. Far too much pain, really, but I held on to it because I was utterly terrified – of what, I’m not sure.

Was I terrified of not feeling anything at all? Was I terrified of what I might feel instead? Was I terrified of forgetting the hard lessons I had learned?

I don’t know. I was being pretty irrational about holding on to the hurt, to the point where I still can’t explain why I did…or why I kept it all hidden away and bottled up inside.

Then before Christmas last year, some of it bubbled over. Before I even fully realized what I was doing or saying, I blurted out to an old friend that I felt as though there was something wrong with me.

No, he assured me – there wasn’t, and there never had been.

And when I bubbled and blurted a little more about why I felt all wrong, he said, “Knives in the back are there for a reason. For us to learn and move on… It’s life.”

I chewed on that thought for a while after, and the next time I felt one of those knives in my back twinging and turning, I took a deep breath and pulled it out. It was the knife of a toxic connection that was starting to affect a couple of the longer, more meaningful relationships in my life. It was doing nothing to improve my life and instead making everything so much harder with all the negativity and anger it was attracting.

What filled the wound left behind was a better kind of love from others who mattered more and meant more than that one connection. I found myself standing a little straighter in my emotional state, and feeling stronger than before. I’d done it: I’d felt a knife in my back, I’d learned what it was trying to teach me, and I’d pulled it out and let go.

And it felt so good.

I’ve gone and pulled a few more out since then and done the necessary emotional first aid to patch myself up and get on with the business of life. Sometimes the process has involved letting go of something physically, such as a trinket or memento from some long-ago friendship or relationship; sometimes it’s involved taking a constant source of pain and turning it into fuel for a particularly grueling workout. But no matter what the extraction looks like, it’s as though I’m being given another chance to stand up for myself. Each new decision to pull out another knife turns the wound from a source of pain into a channel by which something better can flow into me.

I do see now why we need knives in our backs, but they don’t have to stay there. They’re more use to us in our hands than buried hilt-deep in our backs. Once we’ve pulled one out, it we can use it to cut loose something else that’s holding us down or holding us back. And while we’re doing that for ourselves, we’re reminded too that we shouldn’t be doing any more of our own back-stabbing.