Everything grows out of its roots. Whether it’s your plant, your hair or yourself. We are a genetic combination, but also the survivors of millennia of stories: under our skin, the lovers separated by the war, the migrations from distant coasts, the ancient nights spent gazing at the stars in awe, are hidden. Having grown up with the literature of Márquez and Allende, I could not but become thirsty for almost forgotten stories: you will understand what I mean if you, like me, got lost in the rooms of The House of the Spirits and felt part of those One Hundred Years of Solitude. In a reality where memories are relegated to aseptic screens, flipping through old albums and caressing the yellowed paper of faded portraits appears to be a pleasure for the few.
Actually, in recent years more and more people have discovered the difficult but satisfying art of genealogy. This is true for the older generations, who thanks to modern research systems and digitized databases have had the opportunity to easily discover information about their ancestors. But it also applies to Millennials. It seems inconsistent, with their inclination to move away from traditions. Yet, the data are clear: more and more young people, for example, have decided to start building their family tree starting from a DNA test.
Just go on Youtube and look for ‘dna kit’ to find yourself among thousands of videos where young vloggers show their results regarding their ethnic descent: just buy a kit from one of the different dedicated sites, take a sample of saliva and send it to the laboratory. In a few days, the result will arrive via email. I performed this process myself, giving a kit to several members of the family to understand where the surprising ethnic percentages discovered through mine came from. With DNA tests it is also possible to get in touch with a more or less long list of users who share the same portion of DNA: this not only helps researchers like me, who are interested in better understanding their origins and shedding light on relatives on which there is little information. It is also a useful tool for those who have been adopted and want to have answers, up to the most extreme cases: thanks to the DNA kits and the increasing number of users on the genealogy portals, the Argentinean grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo have succeeded in finding their grandchildren who disappeared during the Guerra Sucia, the Dirty War. And many cold cases have finally found a culprit. This helps us remember how, even if unconsciously, our existence is conditioned by everything that happened before us.
And listening to the past is important. Especially in a historical moment like this one, when words like integration, tolerance and equality seem to have a distorted and little shared meaning. Because listening allows us not only to get to know others – subjects we don’t particularly care about, that we feel distant from – but above all ourselves. And that is how we become aware of the present: when we understand our past. A past often made of escapes in the night, months of navigation from one continent to another crammed among a thousand others, of ancestral migrations only our cells can have memory of. Genealogy can help to break down barriers, not only temporal but also the most current ones of racism and of the fear of the different. Our roots often draw on lands that we can’t even imagine, places that we believed to be extraneous but which we discover are part of us.
For Late Millennials it is impossible to imagine an undocumented life. This is understandable: we have grown up with countless social networks on which to post selfies or souvenir photos. How then can we conceive that the lives of those who have been there, before us, disappear without a testimony? We are not willing to return to the path of the old generations, we love to travel and blend cultures. But there is one thing we don’t compromise on: the memory of oneself. This is the explanation I found, during nights spent between state archives and immigration registers. And that’s what I felt unearthing secrets that nobody knew: stories of lives lost during the wars, medals of value narrated in old military books, illegitimate children in registers of churches overseas and famous people. Stories forgotten in state archives, in letters well placed at the bottom of drawers, in hearts that have long since gone away. We owe our fortune, our being here and now, to all the words never told. In a world where everyone is talking about themselves, it’s nice to know that you can still learn to listen.