A Complicated Inheritance

My daughter’s connection to our family heritage isn’t as clear-cut as my own. But it’s just as essential.

Millennials are (finally) having kids. So what kind of parents will they become? These stories from our millennial parenting issue reflect six distinct experiences and reveal that generational divides aren’t always what they seem.

My 2-year-old daughter loves trains. One of her favorite books is about the transcontinental railroad, and she gleefully hollers choo-choo from the back seat when she glimpses an Amtrak train. What she doesn’t know yet is that her great-grandfather spent his life working on the railroad. In the 1930s, he left middle school and eventually became a pipe fitter for the Southern Pacific Railroad to support his mother and siblings. As a Mexican-American in Tucson, Arizona, the job was perhaps his best shot at lifting his family out of poverty.

Despite some of his supervisors vocally doubting his abilities, he persisted. When the work took him to outposts in Ogden, Utah, and Oakland, California—away from my grandmother—he regularly commuted to see his growing family.

Rebecca with her daughter in San Francisco.

As a child I couldn’t grasp the sacrifices they made to realize the American dream. Instead, I yearned to blend in with my classmates, whose grandparents didn’t watch telenovelas, speak another language, or expect them to go to Catholic Mass every Sunday.

This struggle is something my daughter won’t face. Her physical traits—blue eyes, blonde hair, pale complexion—don’t hint at her Mexican-American heritage. Her last name is Irish. She attends an immersion preschool, but we rarely speak Spanish at home. When she spends time with my father, they watch YouTube videos of farm animals instead of telenovelas. I haven’t taken her to a single Mass, much less baptized her.

I consider it my responsibility, however, to ensure she understands how her family fought to forge a better future on her behalf. She must know that even if her class and skin color afford countless privileges, her forebears were determined to win dignity and equality when few recognized their worth. This knowledge is her inheritance. I hope it will guide her in a world that offers too many opportunities to be cruel to those we don’t know or understand. I will one day show her the paintings her great-grandmother made in her 50s, after obtaining a GED and attending community college. I’ll describe how my father’s classmates and teachers bullied him for speaking Spanish, and how he went on to receive a master’s degree.

I’m not a devout Catholic like my father, but I will take her to church eventually because she deserves to witness faith firsthand. We don’t live close enough to relatives to have Sunday gatherings where she can play tag with a dozen cousins. I can guarantee, though, that she’ll appreciate the importance of family ties.

I won’t know for a long time if I’m doing this right, but if it sustains my daughter in some critical way, I will have succeeded.

Rebecca Ruiz is a senior features writer at Mashable.

Still life photography by Desiree Espada; courtesy of Rebecca Ruiz (beach)

Originally Published April 2017