Tag Archives: heritage


Germany* (jûr m -n ), n. a country in north central Europe, on the North and Baltic Seas; area, 182,471 sq. mi.; pop., 65,899,000 (1946): in 1945, Germany was divided into four zones of occupation, administered respectively by France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States, in 1949, the United States, British, and French zones were constituted as (the Federal Republic of) West Germany and the Soviet zone was constituted as the East German Democratic Republic (East Germany): capitals, Bonn (West Germany), Berlin (East Germany): German name, Deutshland: abbreviated Ger., G.
*reminder that the dictionary I typically pick from is from 1955

What is it that defines a place? Its borders? The way it is placed in our collective memory, in our history books? How is that a place comes to conjure certain emotions? What about the way in which people use the land? What about the personalities, values and passions of the people that live there? How do these people’s way of life embed the place with meaning? The study of geography fascinates me because of all these questions. When people move thousands of miles from their native land, why do they often choose places with similar topographic features or climate? How do their bodies or souls gravitate there? How do they know where to go—to the place that feels most like where they come from, the home they left behind? And how does what humans do in a given space define it permanently?

Although my last name is Irish and my mother’s side is mostly Acadian French, a good chunk of my ancestry is German. And I remember when I found this out not wanting this to be the case. I had learned about the Holocaust and was horrified by the stories I read, the black and white photos I saw. I remembered the image that Elie Wiesel wrote of in Night that described babies being thrown up in the air and speared by German soldiers bayonets. And I wanted to not be from there, from the place that produced ethnic genocide, suffering, death, pain. I wanted to not be associated with or related to people who were able to participate in the mass slaughter, in a very methodical and personal way, of millions of people solely because of the God they worshipped and the way their features were shaped.

In knowing that my ancestors came from there, even if it was long before the Holocaust, it somehow made them and me complicit or related to these unimaginable actions, this behavior so divorced from the human capacity for compassion, understanding, kindness. So I found pride in my Irish roots, my Cajun roots, and I ignored my German ones.

And I wonder how we untether a place from its history. We can’t, I guess. And we shouldn’t. But what if a place only becomes about the painful parts of its history? I grew up in the South, in Louisiana—a place lush with cypress and magnolia trees, with humidity, with music streaming out of bars and out of the bells of brass instruments. This is also a place with long ugly celloid scars from the scourge of slavery and the racism that followed (and continues to follow) long after the Civil War was over. And yet it is my home. There are so many things about my home that I am proud of. I see that it is not one thing or the other, not evil or good, not about suffering nor about the overcoming of it. This place, as with all places, is defined by it all.

I also don’t know how to reconcile the fact that the suffering of a place and its peoples also shapes and informs the important and positive cultural identification of that place. Before Katrina, New Orleans was 65 percent African-American, and it is the spirit, music, family and cultural values of the African-American community that is the foundation of the streets we walk on back home. Without this community, New Orleans is not New Orleans. And this community is there because their ancestors were brought over to be slaves to white colonizers.

Germany is not just the Holocaust, but the scars are there. And the scars are visible not only to Germans but to me and the rest of the world. When I went to Germany on a high school trip to Europe, we went to two places. We walked around the cobblestones streets of Munich, where we visited the Hofbräuhaus and watched the Glockenspiel tell the hour in the evening. And yet all the time, I was thinking of the next place we were to visit: Dachau. It was raining and cold when we visited Dachau. We walked around and saw the empty plots, with wooden borders to show where the camps had been. We saw one of the brick ovens (a reconstructed one? A remaining one? I don’t remember now).

At some point, I distanced myself from the crowd and went with my umbrella to stand off alone taking in the scene. I remember thinking: This is where the Jews were persecuted. This is where they stood in rain and cold like this except with threadbare clothing and shaven heads. And I wanted more than anything to cry. But I couldn’t cry. The truth was that I could not feel their pain. How could I? I had never had to experience the sort of suffering they had undergone. So all I could do was stand there and try to understand.

I have had a hard time writing this post because whenever I thought of Germany, these thoughts came to my mind. And I thought, is that all there is to write about? I guess that’s not what matters because this is what, I suppose, I needed to write about. That my Grandma’s name is Rothermich. That my great grandfather’s name was Hupfer. And that it is problematic to come from a place—from multiple places—in which human beings were impossibly cruel to other human beings.

The key to understanding a place, I suppose, resides in the ability to not only read or understand but absorb the feeling of it all as much as possible. To see the broken down barns as well as the stately mansions, the dead trees and the ones that bear fruit. I guess it is about never forgetting the human-created sorrow that will never be absent from the place and yet to not allow that feeling of sadness to be the only feeling. To know a place, in my mind, is to know that it is a space in which both hurt and healing can occur. What happens in that space, all of it, should never be forgotten. And our responsibility to that place is to try to tip the scales, to be better to each other than future generations were and to repeat their kindness but not their cruelty.

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Francisco José de Goya, Y no hay remedio (And there's no help for it), 1810-1820 Plate No. 15 from Los Desastres de la Guerra, etching on paper

bat·tle (bat´’l),  n. [ME. & OFr.  Bataile; L.  battalia, battualia, exercises of gladiators and soldiers in fighting and fencing  <  battuere; see BATTER (to beat)],  1. a fight, especially a large-scale engagement, between armed forces on land, at sea, or in the air.  2. armed fighting; combat or war.  3. any fight or fighting; conflict.  v.t. & v.i. [BATTLED (-‘ld), BATTLING], to fight.  give (or do) battle, to engage in battle; fight.

When I was a senior in college, I took a class on “Catholic Social Thought.” We went through the different teachings the Church had about equality and justice and we ended the semester with the idea of peace and of just war. I remember vividly a day when we were talking about war and the need to step in with things that got out of hand. Dr. Barbieri, the instructor of the course, was very good about exposing us to charged issues and the different sides and then getting out of the way to let us hammer it out on our own. On that day, an outspoken senior, who was on ROTC, sitting far down the conference table from me talked about how war was justified in many cases. He said that war had happened since the beginning of time and that man’s natural tendency was towards war, was towards fighting as a way to resolve issues.

Although I was an outgoing person, I hesitated to speak in that class. I was worried I would say something wrong, and the absence of a set way of thinking from the professor meant I had to decide for myself. What if I decided the “wrong” thing. But that day, I disagreed with him. I opened my mouth, not knowing exactly what I was going to say, and I told him that I didn’t believe men and women’s natural tendencies were towards violence but towards compassion. I said that I didn’t think war was ever justified.

He brought in World War II. How were we not to fight in that instance? And I surprised myself in that moment in saying that I didn’t know the answer to that, but that neither did any of us. Did I believe that the Nazis needed to be stopped? Yes, absolutely. But how could we know we could not have been stopped in another way if it hadn’t have been through war? History had already played out and we were living with the reality of what had occurred. But none of us knew what would have happened if the war hadn’t occurred. Could the mess of Nazi Germany have been conquered in a way absent of violence and war? Maybe not. I certainly didn’t know the answer. But neither did he.

The definitions listed above are all literal battles. They refer to physical battles, to violence that involves bodies. But the newer Webster’s dictionary also refers to battles as “an extended controversy.” A controversy has been brewing in the state where I reside, Arizona. The controversy is in regards to HB1070, a bill that passed on Friday, April 23. Jan Brewer signed into law a bill that mandates police officers to pull over anyone that they have “reasonable suspicion” may be in the country illegally.

Native American Dancers at May Day Rally, Tucson, May 1, 2010

We are a proud nation and we often forget the legacy of our forefathers, that our foundation was built upon genocide and slavery. We feel so proud of our citizenship that we forget that unless we are Native American, our ancestors were once citizens of another country. And many of them didn’t come over here with any legal papers on hand. They came on boats for a better life. Mexicans often come by car or on foot. The difference is that we have decided that we want our country to ourselves. That “they” are too much.

It is in these kind of battles that I think it is important to bridge the divide between those on different sides. It doesn’t help for us to yell at one another. It doesn’t help for us to categorize each other as “those people.”

My mother’s first language was Cajun French. When she and her classmates began kindergarten, they were forbidden from speaking French. Many of them didn’t know any English but they were expected to communicate nonetheless. As punishment, six-year-olds were made to kneel on dry rice in the corner or write “I will not speak French in school” hundreds of times on the blackboard. The ensuing result for my mother is that she didn’t teach me French and until ten years ago when it was required by her job, she barely spoke it herself.

I genuinely believe that much of the problem white citizens have with Mexicans immigrating here is not because they take jobs away or because they don’t come here legally. I believe many Americans of European heritage feel threatened by the Mexican culture, which has a rich language and deeply rooted traditions. I believe that White Americans have suffered a great loss and are still grieving for it.

We came here from our European countries in search of a new land and a place where we could be ourselves, to practice our own religion and our own traditions. And the truth is that America has not always supported this. Many of our ancestors abandoned their traditions to become American and we don’t like seeing other people have their cake and eat it too. We didn’t have that chance. Why should they? They should because no one should have to abandon their cultural traditions when they go to another country. Our culture is embedded in us. The places we come from, the people who love us are within us and that doesn’t change when we change physical locales.

This country was founded on the tragedy of one culture dominating another, but does that mean we should continue in this very dangerous path? It seems that now White Americans want immigrants from other traditions to give up what we had to, to sacrifice their cultural roots to be part of this country. But just because we had to go through this suffering doesn’t mean we should continue this cycle.

It seems to me that beyond this being a political battle or even a cultural battle, this law and many other anti-immigrant laws are about the internal battles within all of us. What do we need to do to find our own identity so that we don’t feel threatened by others? What can we do to appreciate our country as a place that is full of people of all different ancestral roots, people who come from rich, cultural traditions? Can we learn from what has been lost before we ask others to sacrifice who they are and where they come from? What can we personally do to reclaim our own traditions so that we can make ourselves whole again?

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