As stated in the first post, the purpose of this blog is to serve as a log or journal of my family history research. Before I describe the first few encouraging steps I have taken on my genealogical quest for knowledge, I feel the need to detail the background information I have gathered informally over time. I guess that should be expected from someone who is interested in researching her family history – how can I tell you about where I am without describing the events that brought me here?
In the 8th grade one of my teachers arranged a potluck in which each student was to bring in a dish from their culture and explain where it came from. When I asked my mom why our Panamanian family eats fried plantains (pronounced plantin’ NOT plantanes, thank you), she talked about how everyone in Panama eats plantain. As some sort of afterthought she mentioned that that her grandparents, who were from St. Lucia and Martinique, and my father’s grandparents, who were from Barbados and Jamaica, came from countries where plantain was also widely consumed.
This was the first time I had ever heard of most of these places in any context, let alone in my own family tree! St. Lucia? Martinique? Jamaica? Barbados? HUH? Once I digested this new information, it made total sense. So that’s why all the Panamanians we knew, like us, did not have Spanish surnames. That’s why my friends would assume that my dad was from Jamaica (they thought he talked like a West Indian, mon). That’s why, unlike many of my Latino friends, I was able to comfortably communicate with my grandparents in English. That’s why we called meat turnovers empanadas one moment, patties the next. That’s why the DJs at the Panamanian gatherings I grew up going to would play salsa and merengue, then calypso, soca, and reggae, then some old school soul jams. That’s why!
Now all of this is probably a bit more obvious to people who live outside my head, but I had never questioned any of this because that’s just the way things were. All I knew was that for me all of these things, including being black, were wrapped up in that one lovely word – Panamanian. Clearly, the story behind all of this is more complicated, nuanced, and layered than any single word could ever capture, which is why it is so important to me to learn more about my great-grandparents, those who came before them, and where they all came from.
The following are a couple of clues that I have been able to pick up over the last few years for both sides of my family:
Paternal (Thomas-Lewis) Family: Remember how my mom told me that my father’s grandparents were from Jamaica and Barbados? Well, it turns out she was half right. About a year or two ago, when looking for my own birth certificate, I found that my father had copies of his parents’ birth certificates as well. I made copies for myself, knowing they would be useful when I did finally get serious about conducting family research. My grandfather Kenneth’s birth certificate confirmed that his parents were from Barbados. But it turns out my grandmother Daisy’s parents were also from Barbados. Good to know!
Maternal (Vallee-Columb) Family: Just last month Ann Marie called to tell me about a surprising – and initially confusing – finding. Judy had gotten ahold of Tio Alfonso’s birth certificate after his recent passing (may he rest in peace). His parents, who we have always known as Josephine and Simon, were listed as Adele and Francois on the certificate. Who were these people?! Well, after getting over the shock, we reasoned that Josephine and Simon must have been nicknames used by Adele and Francois. Given the history of some our family members being known more by their nicknames than their official names, this is not a crazy conclusion to jump to at all. Tia Claire later confirmed that these were her parents’ real names. I presume she never volunteered this information before because she thought of them as everyone else did, as Josephine and Simon.
Both of these findings illustrate how useful birth certificates can be in conducting genealogical research. I was also able to use Kenneth and Daisy’s birth certificates to estimate their parents’ years of birth since their ages at the time of the birth were captured on the certificates. Moving forward, one of my homework assignments for myself is to continue to gather birth certificates for my grandparents’ siblings. The information that is captured on birth certificates likely varies by place and time of issuance, thus some may provide useful data that is absent from others. Taken together all of this information will help me to track down documents related to previous generations.