Saturday, October 20, 2012
Is Elizabeth Warren Part American-Indian? -- Does It really Matter? From The New York Times -- October 19, 2012 All My Mother’s Stories By JUDY BOLTON-FASMAN ONE of the more hotly contested issues in the Massachusetts Senate race between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren has been Ms. Warren’s claim that her mother was part American Indian. Ms. Warren has only family lore to back up her claim, and Senator Brown, accusing her of opportunism, has demanded proof. But as Ms. Warren counters in her own ads: what kid asks her mother for documentation? I can sympathize. Growing up, I never questioned my mother’s claim that our family was descended from the Spanish dukes of Albuquerque. My mother is fiercely proud of her royal ancestry. A Sephardic Jew who traces her lineage back to 14th century Andalusia, she swears the dukes were Jewish until forcibly converted during the Inquisition. She believes we are entitled to a castle in Spain, and possibly own property in New Mexico. The property claims never really mattered to me, though. What was important was that her story helped me define myself as a Jew and a citizen of the world. Our royal genealogy isn’t my mother’s only story. She also likes to tell about how, as a student at the University of Havana, she was caught in the crossfire on the day when henchmen for Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban dictator, murdered the president of the University Student Federation. She says she had been in class and ran outside to see what all the commotion was about. After she arrived in the United States, my mother told that story to gain entry to a master’s program in Spanish literature, and she went on to a long, satisfying career as a Spanish teacher. But while doing some research a few years ago for a family memoir, I discovered the dates didn’t align. The university had been closed for over four months when the student body president died in 1957. It didn’t reopen until 1959, when my mother was already in the United States, safe in the knowledge that, back then, a university transcript was impossible to retrieve from Cuba. My mother had other school stories, and it took just one phone call to someone who knew her in her youth to realize that every one, in all that beloved detail, was completely fabricated. “She told you she went to the University of Havana?” said the woman, incredulously. The stories were made up. Did that matter? To me, my mother’s university stories defined her as fiercely Cuban and sadly exiled from her country. It was clear to me from an early age that the passion in those stories was inextricable from the passion that fueled her love for Spanish literature. When I was a child and she was still a graduate student, she told me intriguing bedtime stories about Miguel de Unamuno’s loss of faith when he was just five years old — my age at the time. I thrilled at Lazarillo de Tormes’s picaresque escapades. I eagerly anticipated serial installments of Don Quixote’s quests with the hapless Sancho Panza from the genuine Cervantes, rather than Broadway’s “Man of La Mancha.” The revelations about my mother’s Cuba stories should arguably lead me to doubt her claims about our ancestry. But I haven’t felt the need to do any formal genealogical research to dispute the essence of her account. Am I in denial? Or worse, am I knowingly perpetrating a lie? I don’t think so. And I don’t think the details of Elizabeth Warren’s story matter as much as the fact that the story has been perpetuated with well-intentioned conviction. It’s a family legend that has inspired her to identify with the dispossessed and work on behalf of the marginalized. For my own history, I’ve found as solid and authoritative proof as any in my father’s 25th Yale University Reunion book, published in 1965. The thick hardback volume sat on our living room coffee table for years. In it my father reported that his much younger wife, the former Matilde Albuquerque, “is a descendant of the Duke of Albuquerque, and graduated from the University of Havana. She is an English and Spanish teacher, translator and singer, and active in aiding Cuban refugees.” That’s all the confirmation anyone should need of the peripatetic family lore on which I was weaned. Elizabeth Warren says her parents eventually eloped because her father’s family disapproved of him marrying a woman with Native American blood. That’s all of the corroboration we should need from her too. When it comes to family lore, true and false are often beside the point. Judy Bolton-Fasman is a columnist for The Jewish Advocate of Boston.