John, Sarah & Keith

  • John, Sarah & Keith, New York, NY

“He served in World War II when he was 40. He was obviously way too old, but he signed up. They were like, “Don’t worry, we don’t need you, we got a lot of young people.” But he said, “No, no. I’m going. I’m going to do this.” He served a whole tour through Italy. Then he came back, and he was a lumberjack in the Pacific Northwest before they had chainsaws, when they had the two people with one big saw.”

John’s story:

I’m from Sacramento, California. I have a bunch of mixed influences actually. My mom is fully Mexican but her parents raised their children to assimilate into American culture. That was what they always wanted to be. My grandmother brought nine of her siblings over the border when she was twenty years old. She was very much trying to get out of Mexico. She is from Jalisco. I don’t know much about her family except that it was huge. I know that I have fourteen great uncles and aunts somewhere, and they have a ton of kids too.

My dad, he’s half Italian and half Syrian, but he was adopted. He’s actually never wanted to reach out to learn more about his heritage. He always felt like that would be some sort of disrespect to the people that raised him. I’m pretty sure he still thinks about it. I know I do, but who knows. With all the stuff going on in Syria right now, who knows what distant family I might have over there. Those are my people, pretty much.

I’ve heard from my uncle, he was adopted with my father, that as recently as ten years ago their “family” over there was still alive. I suppose I would like to know, but I don’t know what I would find. It’s not like there was something I was missing. I’ve always felt very American, very very American. It would be interesting and maybe make for a great trip, but it hasn’t ever been like a hole in my life.

On my mom’s side, they were migrant workers in California and for the entire 20th century, her whole family was. They have an incredible work ethic. There are so many mysteries that I don’t really know. I’m not even sure my mother is the child of my grandmother’s second husband. Things kind of get revealed to me as they see fit, as people choose to remember new things. I don’t even know if my grandfather was fully Mexican. His last name was Castro. I know that it was hard for them in the 1960’s obviously. He might have been a mix of Caribbean, or I’ve heard El Salvadorian, but I’m not sure.

He served in World War II when he was 40. He was obviously way too old, but he signed up. They were like, “Don’t worry, we don’t need you, we got a lot of young people.” But he said, “No, no. I’m going. I’m going to do this.” He served a whole tour through Italy. Then he came back, and he was a lumberjack in the Pacific Northwest before they had chainsaws, when they had the two people with one big saw.

My grandma, she worked up and down the Valley in little towns from Merced to Oroville and the northern parts of the Valley their whole lives. My mom did that when she was young. I think they were proud of their Mexican heritage, but there must have been something that they were trying to get away from, because they really wanted to be Americans. They really, really did want to be Americans. I love my American comforts, but I’ve just always valued working hard to get what you want. I think that was something that they always passed down and instilled in us.

My dad’s mother, his adopted mother, grew up in rural Minnesota, but absolutely hated it. It was cold. They lived in a tiny little house, and she always tells me, “I was the one who told all of my friends I was going to go to California.” She finally did, and it was late 1930’s and she needed a job. She went to this little company that was nothing at the time called IBM. She applied for a job to answer phones and she didn’t get it. The next day she showed up anyway and they were calling all the people’s names who they had given the job to, and at the end, they said, “Did we not say anybody’s name?” And she said, “You didn’t say my name, you didn’t call me.” They said , “Oh, okay. All right, let’s get down to your paperwork.” She worked at IBM at the dawn of the infancy of that company, and then she went on to do the same with Lockheed Martin during the war. She was like a Rosie the Riveter. She built P-38 fighter planes. It’s incredible how she was just like, “you didn’t call me,” and hustled her way into a job. You could never get away with that now.

Sarah’s story:

My dad’s whole family is from Liverpool, England. That’s actually where I was born but we left a month later. I’m from Southern California, and Southern Oregon is where I was raised. I’m half-British. My mom’s side is Mexican on her mother’s side and French Basque on her father’s side. My great-grandparents actually met in Sonora, Mexico. My grandmother is from New Mexico and then moved to Los Angeles, where my parents met.

I’ve always been fascinated by my heritage. I think as an actor, I end up connected to it because I play a lot of British roles. I love dialect, and I’ve always had this connection with it. It’s easy for me. I end up playing a lot of Hispanic roles as well. I find a deeper connection with it through acting.

My dad has the classic come-over-to-Ellis-Island-on-a-ship-with-my-grandmother-when-he-was-three story. It was 1952 when they came over. She was sick the whole way, I guess, and a bunch of crew members helped take care of her. They made it over and settled on the West Coast. I also recently learned that my great-grandmother on my mother’s side was a real character, a very strong-willed woman. When my great-grandfather and great-grandmother met in Sonora, he spoke English, but she was like, “If you want to woo me, if you want to court me, you’re going to learn Spanish, because I don’t speak English.” I thought that was funny. My mom said, “I guess he learned to speak Spanish, because they went on to have seven girls,” one of which is my grandmother.

I had an amazing grandfather who also served in the war. I know a lot more about my mother’s side, and they are amazing people. My grandfather on my mother’s side played guitar and sang.

My grandfather was in the Army, and while he was there he was writing letters back to my grandmother. There was actually a point where they had a Japanese prisoner of war that they were holding and he became friendly with him. He did a couple Japanese drawings on bed sheets that my grandfather kept. We have those in the scrapbook, which are pretty cool.

Keith’s story:

I was born in Brooklyn. On my father’s side, my grandmother is 100% Italian. My grandfather is Irish and a few other things. Then, on my mother’s side, I know I’m part Russian, part Polish, part Native American but not sure what side that’s on. I definitely know I’m Italian, Irish, Polish, Russian, Native American, and I think there’s two or three more in there that I’m just forgetting. Actually, the highest percentage of what I am is Italian because my grandmother is full, my dad is half, and I’m a quarter. I’m a big mix. It also is kind of funny because my mother’s parents are Jewish, and my father’s parents are Catholic. In the Jewish religion, it goes by what the mother is, and the Catholics go by what the father is. I’m considered a full Jew and full Catholic, even though I’m essentially an Atheist.

My great-grandparents on my mother’s side were artists. My great-grandmother was a painter, and my great-grandfather was actually an opera singer in Russia. He was Jewish, but because he was an artist the members of the Nazi party really loved and respected him so they basically gave him a little nudge saying, “I think you want to get out of Russia and go away.” From my understanding, that’s what ended up bringing him over to America, that little nudge. My great-grandmother’s paintings are pretty incredible. She studied at a renowned art school in Europe.

They actually dissected cadavers to learn about muscle and bone structure. That’s how in-depth the studying was. All over my grandmother’s place were her paintings, and a lot of them were given to my mom, and now my brothers and I have them in our houses. They’re pretty incredible. She actually for a little while was one of the artists for Harper’s Bazaar. We have old sketches she did for magazine covers and different things back then. Some of them are copies of Picassos and things like that that she’s done, or copies of magazines. Some of them are originals, but she was a pretty incredible painter. Those have already been passed down through a few generations, and that will definitely continue.

My grandfather, my dad’s father, his family used to own a bar called Bank Bar. My grandfather had a jukebox with old 45’s, and every few months they would take the old 45’s out and load them up with the new singles. My grandfather would bring the 45’s home and give them to my dad, and then my dad kept them, and now I have them. My dad was the person that got me into music because he was a drummer and went to Woodstock and all that stuff. Now I have 45’s that used to be in a bar generations ago. I love that, the passing down of items.

I think we’re lucky to grow up where we grew up, because my family being in New York in a very diverse place, they always stressed that it’s not about your ethnicity or this or that. It’s about whether you’re just a good person or not. It doesn’t matter where you come from. I was always taught to appreciate people for their cultural differences.

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