Over the past few years, I’ve been interested in genealogy and tracing my family tree as far back as I could. Thanks to Ancestry.com, I’ve been able to trace my family back to my 11th great-grandparents, into Canada, France, England and that is just a part of my family. The names and dates listed are just a part of the story. I often wondered what their lives were like, their hopes and dreams, their struggles and their fears. Did they ever fathom that their 11th great-granddaughter would wonder about them? It is important to talk to our elders and learn from them while they are here. The life lessons and the historical eyewitness testimony that they can give us is priceless.
The events they have witnessed or taken a part of can help history come alive for us. I remember talking to my grandmother Ruby about her experiences in the Great Depression in the plains of Oklahoma. The simple words she told me have stayed with me to this day. She told me that nothing went to waste because they didn’t know when they would be able to buy more. It is a lesson that I have learned myself. I also wished my grandmother Ruby was still here. I would ask her advice about how she moved on with life when she lost her first child. Although, I smile, knowing she would probably say “because I had to.”
This past week, my family has lost a sweet man and truly the last of his generation. Samuel Arzaga, Sr was my uncle by marriage. Even though there was a language barrier between us, I know he was happy to see me and my husband happily married and raising a family. What I didn’t know was the events he witnessed and the events he suffered and struggled through in order to make a life in America. I recently learned that he was a Zootsuitter in the 1940s and experienced discrimination at every turn. The irony is that I am writing a story about Los Angeles in the 1900s and I’ve been researching the Zoot Suit Riots. I’ve been looking for eyewitness accounts and little did I know that there was someone right there. What amazing stories he could have told me. Now I’ll never be able to hear them.
My research has made me realize how important it is to talk to our elders, to get their stories before they are gone and lost to history. It is a lesson I will pass on to my children and hopefully one day, my grandchildren. It is a funny situation you find yourself unable to talk to your elders when they’re here but when they are finally gone, you have a million questions. I encourage everyone to speak with their grandparents, neighbors or any elders you can find because everyone has a story to tell. You’ll be amazed at the history you’ll hear in their words. You’ll be amazed how eager they are willing to share their experiences.