The Motivator: How My Ancestry Research Began

According to some, I died in 1971 at the age of four and came back in 1986 as the oldest daughter of my former sister. My family knew who I was right away because I came back as my own spitting image. They welcomed me home with a family baptism, an informal ceremony that recognized me as kin and was meant to ward off evil until I officially became part of the Catholic church. My mother never did make it official, for which I am grateful. But as far as I am aware, I was the only one of my siblings to receive such an intimate reception. I was special.

My mother disagreed.

I asked her once whether she believed I was the reincarnation of her sister. She rolled her eyes. “No, you are not my sister,” she said, sighing and sucking her teeth. “I know because she came back to me once in a dream and told me she didn’t like me yelling at my children. She said I should stop yelling so much.”

“What was her name?”

“I don’t remember.”

I’ve wanted to know ever since. It did not matter that name had ever been mine (I’m with my mother on this; I was never her sister). I just needed to know. Because.

In 1971, my mother lived in Puerto Rico with her parents and her older sister, whom she looked up to. This older sister would keep my mother, who had been a rambunctious and pugnacious child, out of trouble. When she couldn’t keep my mother in line, she was there to bail her out, pulling her away from fights that she had started with neighborhood kids. When my mother’s sister died, I believe she took my mother’s spirit and my grandmother’s soul with her.

Wait. I need to correct myself here. This girl did not die. She was killed. Sometime between Christmas and Three King’s Day. It’s a time of intense, joyful celebration in Puerto Rico. Everyone dresses up and goes to parties at each other’s houses. They eat, drink, and dance together all night long. It is the happiest time of the year.

My mother, her sister, her parents, and a bunch of others were on their way back from a party when a drunk driver slammed into that poor girl. The speeding driver had swerved into the crowd of people waiting to cross the street, scraping one person’s elbow and barely missing my three year old mother before dragging her sister away. The driver was never caught, and the girl’s body was found mangled and lifeless down the road.

This one moment in time had a profound effect on my mother and her family, and things pretty much changed for the worst. This story, however, is ultimately not mine to tell.

Flash forward to 2015, the year I reconnected with an aunt on Facebook. She was one of the last in a string of family members that have found me over the years. She has also, thankfully, been among the most open. Members of both sides of the family do not like to talk about our past. Whether this silence comes from shame, fear, sadness, or regret I can’t tell. They could also believe they are sparing me from some unpleasantness, or it could be that our language barrier muddies things (they speak Spanish; I don’t). Whatever the case, many times my questions go unanswered. So I was surprised when this aunt started to send me pictures of her parents (my great grandparents! I had never seen them before.) and seemed willing to answer any question I wanted to ask.

What was her name, titi?


Wow. I don’t know exactly where my mother got my name. I just know she liked the way Arielle sounded, but at the last minute changed it to Ariela to make it sound more Spanish (surprise, she made it Hebrew). I don’t believe she knew why she picked this name, but I do. It sounded like a name she had long forgotten but still lived in her.

So I plugged Marianela’s name into an tree I had made years ago to keep track of the little bit I knew about my family. Then I forgot about it. I believed I would never know more than that. But one day, I noticed a little leaf next to her entry on my tree: had found a possible record. A death record that it would not let me view fully until I paid for a subscription.

I gave them my money, and sure enough it was her. Marianela.

I knew her birth date. I knew exactly when and where she died. And I also noticed the name of the person who reported her death. He was an uncle I had not known existed.

So I thought: what else can I find? I have many strikes against me: limited knowledge, an inability to approach some people with questions, shitty Spanish skills. Could I really be successful at ancestry research?

Yes, I could. Marianela had opened up a whole world.

And that’s why I’ve started this blog. There are family stories waiting to be told, and I want to tell them. My goals are straight-forward: I want to leave a record for others, to put some pieces together, to solve some mysteries, and to know who my people are and where they come from. This project is about understanding a distant past and will require me to research Puerto Rico’s history (and maybe even other places?) in order to understand my ancestors better. My scope is also broader than I ever imagined. What’s up with my husband’s family and their supposed Filipino ancestor? Where did my maternal grandfather’s last name come from? Are me and my husband distant cousins as I’ve long joked? Why do my grandfather’s siblings have different last names even though they have the same mother and father? My husband’s great grandmother shares my best friend’s last name and is from a town not too far away from my best friend’s family; are my husband and my best friend related? There are so many questions, and I am thankful to Marianela for helping me begin to answer them.

I don’t know how far this will go or when I will know that I am finished, but I hope you’re willing to join me for the ride.


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