Sunday, October 30, 2011

Family History vs. Family Facts

When it comes to genealogy, I have something of a personality split that pops up from time to time. On the one hand, as a researcher and historian, I try to be very cautious about what information I consider reliable and pass along to others. At the same time, as a writer and storyteller, I love the family yarns and narratives, and it's very hard to avoid speculating and "putting pieces together," even when they may not all be there.

An example: When I first started tracing the tree, one of the stories that kept coming up from my great-aunts about their mother's family was that their grandmother had been in a Tsarist prison. As I interviewed each one in turn, I kept getting more pieces of the puzzle. The story is that the grandfather was making his own liquor in their shtetl, that someone informed on him, and that when the police came to arrest him, he wasn't there-- and so his wife took the blame and went to prison for several years. Depending on the chronology, this may have precipitated-- or happened during-- the family's immigration to America. Now, despite there being zero documentation for this, it is one of my favorite bits of family lore, and I have repeated it to various cousins and relatives whenever I get the chance-- though always clearly identifying it as a story.

Given this background, I'm somewhat sympathetic-- though maybe the word "almost" is more appropriate-- to Sen. Marco Rubio's recent debacle with his family history. Rubio, whose star in the GOP has been steadily rising (at least according to the national news media) since his election to Senate in 2010, has made his parents' story of immigration from Cuba a major talking-point of his campaigns and political narrative. According to Rubio, his parents "fled" Cuba after Fidel Castro's coup and he was raised as a son of exiles in Florida. The story is compelling, powerful, and resonates with a lot of people-- both in the Cuban community and beyond it. It's a classic tale of coming to the United States to escape persecution, and it has the additional benefits of the "pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps" narrative, as well as a chance to emphasize how Cuban Communism under the Castros utterly failed, which are undoubtedly major reasons Rubio's story appealed to GOP voters.

There's only one problem with all of this: it's not, strictly speaking, true.

Researchers have found documents showing that the Rubios came to the US in 1956. At the time, Castro was not even in Cuba. He wouldn't take over for another three and a half years. Rubio's parents left Cuba not because of political repression but simply to make a better life.

Rubio has tried a few different tactics to defend his story in light of the newly revealed facts. The first thing he's done is to say that it's not his fault he didn't know this stuff:
In a brief interview Thursday, Rubio said his accounts have been based on family lore. “I’m going off the oral history of my family,” he said. “All of these documents and passports are not things that I carried around with me.”
So... it doesn't matter that I said things that weren't true because I never bothered to verify if they were true? Not the defense I'd go with. A much better version of this argument would be, "I'm as shocked as you are. I was always told, by this relative, that relative, and this other relative, that my parents came here in 1959. " That makes it sound like you actually care about the facts, as opposed to being involved in a tug-of-war between your parents' own documents and the fantastic universe you've created in your head where your Dad led his own anti-Castro militia group (Rubio's Rebels?) through the Cuban highlands, set Fidel's beard on fire, and then beat a hasty but heroic retreat to fight another day (or spawn a kid who would get elected into public office, whatever).

The other approach has been to claim that none of this matters anyway, because details are stupid:
"...It’s not like they discovered my parents were from Canada. My story is essentially the same one. My parents came to this country in search for a better life. They were prepared to live here permanently but always wished they could go back to Cuba," he said.
Again, nice try. There's a world of difference between going back for a visit when you're already established somewhere else and deciding, "Nah, I'll stick with Miami," and suffering actual political repression, to say nothing of the trauma of being a legitimate refugee having to flee a country with nothing and having to start entirely from scratch.

I'm not saying the Rubios had it easy. In a lot of ways their story is quite similar to many of my ancestors' stories. There's nothing wrong with your standard immigrant tale. At the same time, I would never identify my ancestors as political exiles or refugees. Of course, most of them were trying to escape increasingly tyrannical and discriminatory governments, but the vast majority's primary motivations seem to have been economic.

My take? Beware of politicians selling personal narratives as a way to appeal to a broader constituency-- their primary goal is not simply to tell a story but to make a connection, which also means that they may not care that much about the details. Rubio has clearly used the narrative of his parents being political exiles as a foundation-stone for his political identity, despite the fact that they were not. The fact that he's claiming this changes "nothing" only reinforces how he's much more concerned with protecting the image he was able to develop based on that story than the actual family history he pretends has shaped him so significantly. Not only is this a case of a politician not respecting his audience, but sadly also an instance of someone exploiting their family history in bad faith.

I can relate. Aunt Bozette has invented more than a few off-kilter theories about our family over the years, usually with precisely zero evidence. Among the best ones were that since one of her grandmothers was Hungarian, clearly her grandfather had to also have been Hungarian, and that this must have been how they met. Never mind that I had documents going back one hundred years showing that his family had been living in Czestochowa and that he and all his siblings had been born there, too. Aunt Bozette was "convinced," because, among other things, she clearly thought being Hungarian was sexier than being Polish. When I clearly wasn't budging, she accused the records of being unreliable because they spelled the family name differently than the American relatives did. (When I pointed out that name spellings varied in Poland, that many Jews of that period could not read Polish, and that members of our own family had been illiterate, she went into an e-rage, sputtering that we had "always" been very educated-- and offered, as proof, that her father and uncle had both gotten degrees from NYU.)

The reverse has also happened: there have been several occaisons when long-standing family stories have wound up being not exactly true. When this came up, my reaction was not defensiveness or anger, but excitement-- now we could find out the real story! There's nothing wrong with correcting the record or amending the stories. (Was I disappointed when I found out that great-great-uncle Nathan wasn't shell-shocked in World War One? Sure-- but then I got to find out about his actual record as a Marine stationed in Cuba during the Banana Wars.) There's also nothing wrong with qualifying the stories as stories-- which exist in their own right as a family commentary or gloss on the actual events. It's not "bad," they're just different kinds of data. Where you get into trouble is when you start giving the stories preference over the available, documented, evidence, because you think the truth isn't as interesting, scandalous, or beneficial to the greater narrative you want to tell. That's when you cross the line into being dishonest and verging on sleazy.

It's not necessarily Rubio's fault that, absent hard facts, that he made some embellishments (or repeated the embellishments of others)-- though given that he clearly was interested in his family history, I find it strange that he never bothered to ask for an actual date-- but everything he does as a response to it is all on him. So far, I'm unimpressed.

1 comment:

scazon said...

I like this a great deal. Goodness knows I've been guilty of this sin as well, as I'm sure have many otherwise intelligent, thinking people who are interested in their family history. Of course, the kicker is the arrogance associated with a refusal to amend your mental/psychological narrative when it turns out to be in conflict with the historical narrative. That's where Rubio is failing, and I can't say I'm really that surprised: bluster and arrogance are always easier than a sincere reevaluation of one's own convictions.