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Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

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Faces of America: The True Dichotomy of Eva Longoria

Posted: 10/07/10 02:05 PM ET

You might say that since ABC aired its most famous mini-series in 1977, that I have had a serious case of Roots envy. Like Alex Haley, I wanted to be able to find the ancestors on my family tree, deep into the depths of slavery. And to find the lost tribal or ethnic identity of our African ancestors, just as Haley claimed he had, would be more than I could imagine. Well, the Bible says be careful what you wish for. Now, with the digitization of a remarkable variety of public documents through companies such as Ancestry.com, and with affordable DNA tests, all of us can find out an extraordinary amount of information about our ancestors -- both our recent ancestors over the past few hundred years and our more distant ancestors, thousands of years ago.

After producing two PBS series devoted to African American ancestry, African American Lives and African American Lives 2, in which I traced the family trees of nineteen black people, I received a letter from a woman who described herself as eastern European and Jewish, asking me why I didn't trace the ancestry of people with her background? Why, she asked, should black people have all the fun? I had also received many letters from people of West Indian ancestry, asking if the techniques that we used on African Americans would work on their ancestry as well? So, I decided to do a new series, using what I think of as the "Noah's Ark" approach: two Catholics, two Muslims, two Jewish people, two West Indians, two Asian Americans, a Latina and a Native American, etc. And the result was Faces of America, in which we were able to uncover an extraordinary amount of information about the subjects of the film, tracing ancestors back as far as the 5th century A.D. What's more, we were able to draw upon cutting edge genetics to offer certain tests to our guests that did not even exist when I filmed my first African American Lives series just a few years ago. Most gratifying, for me, was being able to have my father's entire genome sequenced, making him the oldest human being ever to have this done.

Faces of America, now published as a book by the NYU Press, is intended to be a tribute to the true triumph of American democracy, which is the diversity of our people, a diversity that we can now measure both through the branches of our family trees and in our genes. The hunger to recreate our virtual families, certainly not a new phenomenon judging by the popularity of such reference works as Burke's Peerage and Gentry and DeBretts, would seem to be insatiable. Stuart Hall has said, famously, that cultural identities have histories; so do families, so do individuals, of course. But it is the curious relation among the histories of these three entities -- how they converge, and how they do not converge -- that makes the assembly of our virtual families so endlessly fascinating.

The Temple of Delphi posted as its motto "Know Thyself." We might amend that today to say "Know Thy History, Know Thyself." I have published the family histories of each of my twelve guests for the PBS series as chapters in the new book, in order to share the rich detail that could only be touched upon in the television documentary. The Huffington Post is excerpting a series of these fascinating stories. The following examines Eva Longoria.

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Excerpted from Faces of America

Eva Jacqueline Longoria was born on March 15, 1975, in Corpus Christi, Texas, one of four children born to Enrique Longoria, Jr., and Ella Eva Mireles. Her parents were both Mexican Americans, and Eva told me she always extremely proud of her roots. "My family really has a strong sense of where it came from," she said. "I always felt really connected to my culture, whether it was through language, through religion, through tradition. It was just the way we grew up. If people ask me what I am, I say I'm a 'Texican.' Not Texan, not Mexican. Texican. Many of us do. The Texicans are the indigenous native people that were here before anybody else except the Indians. We were here for a long time."
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Through our research, we were able to trace Eva's family across centuries and continents: from Texas across the Rio Grande into Mexico and then all the way back to Asturias, Spain, where her eleventh-great-grandfather, a man named Pedro de Longoria, who was born in 1525. And we were actually able to identify the first member of the Longoria family to set foot on the continent of North America. His name was Lorenzo Suarez De Longoria, and he is Eva's ninth-great-grandfather, born in Oviedo, Spain, around the year 1592. He immigrated to the New World when he was just eleven years old, traveling as the servant of his uncle, Pedro Longoria (not the same Pedro as Eva's eleventh-great-grandfather), who had been appointed the magistrate of Mexico by the Spanish Crown. The Longorias arrived in Vera Cruz in the summer of 1603, thus landing in North America seventeen years before the Mayflower! Today, our society tends to stereotype Mexicans as recent immigrants; Eva's family predates even the Pilgrims on this continent, forcing us to reconceive the way we think about the place of Mexico and Mexicans in the history of the New World.

We could not determine exactly why Lorenzo left Spain at such a young age. But we found an incredible story about his family in the Oviedo archives--a story that may shed some light on Lorenzo's decision to emigrate. Sometime in 1593, when Lorenzo was just a year old, the family became embroiled in a legal battle with their neighbors in northern Spain. We don't often uncover lawsuits from the sixteenth century, so this was a very unusual find for us. It seems that Lorenzo's father and his brothers had confronted the family of Diego Suarez in order to keep them from harvesting on their land. There are different versions of what happened, but all the accounts indicate that there was violence. The two families essentially fought a battle using farm implements as weapons. According to the documents, Suarez said that the Longorias came armed with heavy wooden staffs, reinforced with iron, and pitchforks and that Pedro Longoria, then a cleric in holy orders, led the attack, "telling my sons that by God, he would see them sent to row in prison ships." The lawsuit also alleges that Pedro called the Suarez daughters "wicked shameless whores" and that he struck them several times with a pole. "Well, we know where I got my Latin temper now," said Eva, laughing. "Nice, guys."

On November 16, 1593, the magistrate ordered all the Longoria men to be arrested and imprisoned. Before this order could be fulfilled, however, the Longorias were able to produce a deed from 1568 proving that the land was legally theirs. And so Eva's family was exonerated, and they were set free--despite the violence. And ten years later, Pedro the pole-swinging cleric was appointed a magistrate in New Spain. Eva laughed again. "This is a movie! These people are crazy."

The lawsuit tells us that land was very scarce, of course, in Spain and quite precious to Eva's family even then. It also helps us understand why her ancestor might have come to Mexico when he was just eleven years old: his family may have thought he would benefit from a fresh start.

At this point, Eva and I began to discuss the fact that although she identifies herself as Mexican--or Texican--her genealogy shows that her ancestors for the bulk of their history were considered Spanish. This, as I told her, resonates in the family even today. When our researchers interviewed her Aunt Irma, she talked about being Spanish and, quite frankly, was not at all interested in being identified as Mexican.

"That's funny," said Eva, "because I through and through feel Mexican, but obviously we wouldn't speak Spanish if it wasn't for the Spaniards. We wouldn't be Catholic if it wasn't for the Spaniards. But honestly, when I go to Mexico, I feel at home. When I go to Spain, I feel a connection, but I feel more at home in Mexico--maybe just because it's closer and it's what I know. In my family, I am the one who claims Mexico ancestry the strongest. Every time they ask, 'Where are you from?' my dad says, 'Spain.' 'Dad, we're from Corpus Christi.' We're not from Spain; we're from Texas. He would always talk about our ancestors, and I never really understood that when I was younger. But now I feel very proud that my family is from Spain. I feel very proud that the Longoria name has been so strong and unchanged."

I then told Eva that the admixture test of her DNA supported our genealogical research and her father's view. She is 70 percent European, 27 percent Native American, and 3 percent African.

"That makes sense," she said. "I'm European. And that's how I define Mexican, as a European that conquered the natives. It's a little surprising, because I thought the percentages would be flipped. I mean, the Spanish conquistadors were the minority when they conquered and eventually overtook the society of Aztecs and Mayans. I guess I thought I would be a little more native, because, like I said, I feel closer to Mexico. But this makes sense."

Watching her response to these findings, I was struck by something that had occurred to me many times over the course of this project: almost all the subjects hoped to see more "ethnic" in their ethnic identities--more evidence of racial mixing in their personal pie chart, even the ones who were most mixed. European ancestry, in our world today, is not the source of pleasure and pride that it was even a few decades ago. The reasons for this are understandable and perhaps obvious, but it has been fascinating for me to see it unfold on such a personal level.

I asked Eva how she felt about seeing 3 percent African ancestry in her admixture. "I love it," she said. And she knew what it meant, too. Many people don't realize that Mexico had a large slave population early on in its colonial history, and that African presence is still quite alive in the area around Vera Cruz.

I then asked her how she felt about her large amount of European ancestry. "Well," she said, "it's complicated. If I had had to guess, I would have written 70 percent Native American indigenous to Mexico and 30 percent European. To know that I have Spanish blood in me--everyone knows that in Mexico--but a majority of Spanish blood . . . You know, I've been so proud of being Mexican, of coming from the indigenous native people."

I asked Eva how this knowledge changed her. Did she still identify herself as a Texican? Or would she say Spanish, like her father?

"I'd go with Texican," she said, "still--Texican or Mexican American. I feel like it's a true dichotomy of who I am. Because I am through and through Mexican--we just made tamales yesterday, you know? We love mariachis, the music, the language are ingrained in me. It's where I'm from and my source of inspiration, my source of intelligence, my source of my acting. But yet I am so American. I made an apple pie yesterday, too. I went to college here. I speak perfect English. And I think there's a lot of us Texicans that are really just split down the middle, wanting to hold on to the heritage and the Mexican traditions and yet wanting to be seen as Americans. And that's me. And that's what I'll always be."

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard. He has written twelve books and produced and narrated ten documentaries. His new series, Black in Latin America, airs on PBS in February.