Monday, March 2, 2015

When You Don't Look Like Your Dead People

My maternal grandparents, Jose Junius Ramos and Elsie Marie Sorenson, are two of my heroes. They met in 1950 at Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he was stationed as a special agent with the Counter Intelligence Corps and she worked as a secretary. They eloped a year later (to Nevada, no less--woo!).

In many ways, they were polar opposites. He was the oldest of nine children; she was an only child. He was raised in a staunch Catholic home; she was brought up in an inactive Mormon one. He was born in the Philippines and traveled around the world during the war; she was born in Utah and, as far as I know, never left it until after they were married. But they had a strong marriage and spent many happy years together until she died in 1980.

I know they must have faced more than a little prejudice, but I, for one, am grateful for their courage and sacrifice. Their example has taught me so many things--in fact, I owe one of the subplots in THE SOUND OF LIFE AND EVERYTHING to their story--and I've always been proud of the racial and cultural heritage I inherited from both of them.

As I kid, I loved filling in the bubbles for the demographic section on standardized tests. They let you fill in as many as you wanted, so I'd happily mark "White," "Asian," and "Pacific Islander." My adoptive grandfather was Filipino (and my birth father was part Filipino and part Hawaiian), so I didn't think twice about calling myself all three.

But as I got older, I gradually stopped marking "Asian" and "Pacific Islander." It wasn't that I was ashamed--that couldn't have been further from the truth. It was that I didn't feel like I could claim those pieces of myself because I didn't LOOK Asian or Pacific Islander. Sure, I had brown hair and brown eyes, and my skin tone was somewhere between white and olive, but many of my classmates could have said the same thing. Though I was technically Asian and Pacific Islander, I didn't feel Asian and Pacific Islander enough.

The truth is, I still don't. I was filling out an author questionnaire for Putnam the other day, and like those old standardized tests, it asked if I was of African American, Hispanic, or Asian heritage. At first, I just answered "No." But as I was reading back over my answers, I changed it to "Sort of. My biological father was part Filipino, and my adoptive mother's father was full Filipino." Then I realized how ridiculous that sounded and changed my "Sort of" to "Yes."

If there's one thing I've learned from my grandparents, it's to be true to yourself.


Heather said...

So lovely and true and I love these pictures of your ancestors :)

Laura Moe said...

What slovenly tribute to your people. Perhaps you write to find which boxes to check.

Laura Moe said...

I eamnt to say lovely, not slovenly. Darn self correct.

Rebecca Gomez said...

I love this. We really should be willing to embrace every piece of our heritage because it's part of what makes us who we are. And who says we have to fit neatly into a little race box? (Never mind that "race" is really just a thing people made up in order to put people into boxes in the first place.)

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Thanks, Heather! They were a striking pair.

Laura, ha! I figured something must have gotten lost in translation:)

So true, Rebecca.

Amy Cattapan said...

Gorgeous couple! And I'm glad you changed your answer to yes. We need to remember our roots, even if we feel we don't look like them anymore.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

They were a gorgeous couple, weren't they, Amy? I wish I could have known them better. She died several years before I was born, and he suffered so many strokes in his later years that I only have a few memories of his voice.