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memoir excerpt

Buried in Our Stories is the Family Tree


by I ngrid Rojas C on t r e r as
"I knew a man, a common farmer,
the father of five sons,
And in them the fathers of sons,
and in them the fathers of sons."
Walt Whitman
I Sing the Body Electric.

here is a book in my
closet as old as myself. On the
cover a white, apple-cheeked
cherubim is in the process of tripping
over a banner of white silk. The angel
is laughing, diving headfirst into a
world that is all pink heaven cloud and
plush. The cover is quilted, and at the
edges where the cloth has worn I can
see through to the cardboard. Mami
bought the book before I was born and
filled its insides with the errata of my
birthx-ray images inside the womb,
inked footprints, a frayed hospital
bracelet marked Clnica Berraquel,
Bogot, Colombia. It is a familiar book,
meant to answer for a time none of us
remember. But already on the third
page, upon coming to the family tree, I
have an abundance of questions.

The illustrator has taken pains in


making the family tree limbs strong

and varied. The leaves confidently


splay out. A blonde, blue-eyed baby
nestles into a pillow just where the
trunk grows its first limbs. There is
a white cloth draped over its private
parts. Mami has filled out my name
under this babyeven though my skin
is color canela, my eyes dark brown, my
hair black. I can almost see Mamis
hovering pen, her nails flushing white
because she grips her pens too hard,
and even though I am sure she didnt
have it then, my minds eye rests upon
her favorite ringthe golden snake
coils around her finger and flashes its
green emerald eyes and sniffs the air
with a glinting tongue.
On the first limb sprouting from the
tree on the right she has filled in her
name: Genny Contreras. In the limbs
above shes filled in the names of
her parentsAbuelo Materno: Rafael

I ngrid R ojas Contreras

Contreras. Abuela Materna: Herlinda


Marquez.
The tree printed in the baby book
(strong and sure, with birds and pink
clouds and ribbons fluttering mid-air),
was not made for a family like mine,
and so Mami leaves the rest of the tree
blank.

When Mami first told me that our


family was impossible to trace I did
not believe her. She warned me that
the family was not recorded by official
documents and reminded me that
this is why we are a family of stories.
Stories are the heirloom, passed down.
Stories are the records. Buried in our
stories is the family tree. Then she
retells the lineage I have come to know
so well:

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In the mountains in Santander,


Colombia, the father passed down the
secrets to the sons, who passed the
secrets to the sons, who passed the
secrets to the sons. Back then, each
family was said to have a quality: my
family was said to have the power to
move clouds.
Unlike Mami, I was raised in an
American high school in Bogot, where
various teachers drummed in me the
belief in records and documents, of
evidence and paper trails. I drag Mami
with me on this quest and as we fly
from Mexico (where she lives) to
Bogot, Colombia (where I was born),
as we get on a second plane that takes
us over the majestic Andes mountains
and lands us in the northeastern city
of Bucaramanga, as we drive through
guerrilla territory through impossibly
beautiful landscapes thick with fog
and flowering trees, even as we arrive
to the village of Ocaa (where my
family is from)I list and relist all
the documents that could tell us about
our lineage: census documents, land
ownership documents, newspaper
obituaries,
military
records,
immigration records, birth records.
In Ocaa, a quick chat with great
Aunt Raquel reveals that there are
no birth records to look up, due to
all the women in the family giving
birth in their homes, and a quick
search online tells me there wont be
census documents either, because
efforts were interrupted due to civil
war. Mami gloats ever so quietly and
hides behind her black mane of hair,
pressing her lips together so as not to

laugh. I kick myself for assuming the


documents would be there, and after
a while, Mami finally gains control
over her emotions and says, This is not
an organized country, not like the United
States.
And so we spend weeks holed up in
the baptismal registry annexed to
the white chapel of Santa Rita. In a
direct reversal to the stucco-ed, highceilinged chapel, the little office is hot,
filled with people, and a woman (not
a priest) sees after the requests of the
community. She sits behind the tall
counter, amidst her big fluff of hair,
slowly answering phones and helping
the villagers who always want one
of three things: appointments to get
babies baptized, copies of baptismal
records to get married, paperwork to
report deaths or legal divorce.
Mamis and my requests strike the
woman as odd, so she has us stand to
a side, where she can keep us out of
the way. Mami and I shift our weight
from one foot to the other, using the
counter as a table. Its easy to locate
the book that contains Mamis record,
easy to find the book that contains
her mothers and fathers, difficult
but not impossible to find her two
sets of grandparents, then her great
grandparents. But then, on both
sides of her lineage, we come upon
an insurmountable blank. On my
grandmothers side I get stuck earlier
on. Her father was illegitimate so he
took his mothers last name. Day after
day I ask for books from 1870, 1860,
1850, 1840, turning the dusty pages,
looking for the baptismal record of

Mamis great grandmother, but its no


use: the system was devised to keep
track of men.
Mamis great-great abuelo on her
fathers side proves to be just as elusive.
I dont know if he was illegitimate as
well, but the fact is I just cant find him.
The priest at the church, who grows
accustomed to seeing me standing
at the counter inhaling the dust of
books, tells me that if Mamis greatgreat abuelo lived in the mountains,
its probable he never came down to
the village to be baptized. What hes
really saying is that people in the
mountains were heathens, mestizos
who both claimed their indigenous
and Christian history, people who
might have not been interested in a
Catholic baptism.
Whats certain is that both him and his
secretary are irritated. I dont know if
its my constant presence at the same
spot in the counter of the registry, or
the pointless nature of my search,
and I dont ask. I am determined to
find Mamis great abuelo, Raimundo
Contreras, because he could hold the
secret to unlocking a family mystery
where did the idea of moving clouds
come from anyway? What I do say
to the priest is that I must continue
looking on the off chance Mamis
great-great abuelo did come down to
be baptized. The priest raises his white
brows at me and looks into Mamis
eyes and then into the eyes of cousin
Esther, whose help Ive also enlisted.
You ladies should wear masks, anyway,
he says after a time. You may get sick
from the dust.

I ngrid R ojas Contreras

75

We thank him, and just as he disappears


into the little side door that leads into
the chapel, cousin Esther opens the
dark flap of an especially old book.
I gasp and come near to look at the
calligraphy. The pages have yellowed,
but the ink is still jet-black and the
notes on the margin are still flushred. Slanted titles bear the names of
the baptized, but the calligraphy is
so decorated it is nearly illegible. I
am admiring the downward curve of
a serif when Esther brings her eyes
close to the page, trying to sound out
a name. She lifts the thick, leathered
book and puts her arm underneath
the great weight, tilting it up to see. It
happens in secondsI watch as the
whole block of paper slides down, and
at first I think the pages are not bound
to the cover, but when part of it catches,
the whole thing breaks into a million
grains of ink and paper, and the wave

of grain and ink and dust rolls against


itself, and I yell, Close it! Close it! but
its too late: the names of the baptized
cascade in a great mass and fall into a
heap of dust, like it was always sand
sitting there in the guise of solid paper,
just us fooled by the illusion.
I cover my mouth and say, All those
names lost forever.
The records secretary hears me.
Unruffled and serene, she glides up to
the counter and takes the book from
Cousin Esther and replaces it flat into
its row, not at all shocked by what has
happened. Its an old book, what can
you expect?

When there is nothing else to


investigate in Ocaa, Mami and I travel

to the nearby city of Ccuta, to see


Mamis older sister. Ta Nancy shows
me a few government documents she
inherited after her father died. They are
brief documents detailing debt, measly
inheritances, graves on loan. The most
important detail I come to know is
that all but one of my abuelos brothers
and sisters sign their name X.
Theres not a lot you can tell from that
single letter, two lines simply etched,
crossed at the middle. Except that an X
represents a shut door. It represents an
opting-out of the educated world, and
an opting-in into a different existence:
the woods, the sun, the crops growing
and falling, the years passing.
But an X is also the marking of a spot,
marking a treasure to be plundered by
future generations.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras is the 2014 recipient of the Mary Tanenbaum Literary Award in Nonfiction. She is a 2015
fellow at the San Francisco Writer's Grotto and is in residence in Cassis, France, as part of the Bread Loaf Bakeless
Camargo Fellowship. Her writing is forthcoming or has been anthologized in Guernica Annual, Wise Latinas (University of Nebraska Press) and American Odysseys: Writings by New Americans (Dalkey Archive Press). Currently,
she is working on a nonfiction book about her grandfather, a medicine man who it is said could move clouds.
ingr i drojasc on tr er as. c om

I ngrid R ojas Contreras

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