Papel Picado pattern, perforated paper on black background, stock illustration


An Education in Ancestry

Ahead of Hispanic Heritage Month, the author took a deeper dive than ever into her family history, unearthing stories and a renewed commitment to keeping them alive

National Hispanic Heritage Month is America’s annual celebration of the countless Hispanic Americans—the famous, certainly, but the more anonymous, too— who have enriched and influenced our country. This occasion began as Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968, and in 1989 it became a month-long event running from September 15 to October 15.

Different people celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month differently, but it’s often marked by cultural, culinary, and traditional engagement: movie screenings and music festivals, Latin cuisine tastings and cooking demonstrations, family gatherings and community ceremonies.

Over the years, I have participated in these activities and always learned something new. But as a Latina, I have always felt something was missing from these celebrations—at least for me—and that I could do more to honor my own cultural history and ancestry.

Two photos, side by side, the one on the left a sepia-toned shot a young woman standing while holding a chair, the one on the right of an old couple smiling in dressy clothes

Courtesy Michelle Cruz Arnold

(left) Great grandma Maria Cruz, sometime before she was married (it’s believed she’s about 14 in this picture); my great grandparents Candido and Maria Cruz celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.

A few years ago, I spent a lot of time researching my family’s origins. Inspired by my husband’s family’s genealogical research and record keeping—they can trace hundreds of years of their Spanish and Hispanos (of New Mexico) ancestry—I decided to dig into my own heritage. Thanks to the rise in popularity of ancestry websites, I was able to map out a somewhat extensive family tree on both my mom and dad’s side. And while I already knew many details about my roots, I wasn’t prepared for the incredible stories, history, and pictures that I uncovered.

One story that I find especially compelling is that of my paternal great grandmother. Maria Garza was born on September 19, 1896, in Port Aransas, Texas. Like many in South Texas at that time, the Garza family were agriculturally-focused farmers. Maria married my great grandfather, Candido Cruz, at an early age and together they raised 16 children together, including my grandfather, Rafael Cruz. Raising those kids didn’t stop Maria, though. She became a midwife, delivering many babies—including my maternal grandfather, Adolfo Galindo—and earning great standing in her community. In fact, she was often favored over doctors, thanks to her bedside manner and wealth of experience.

Family members have shared wonderful stories about her midwifery, like how patients would often pay her in small increments over many years and how she would bury the money in her yard for safekeeping. But what’s so impressive to me about my great grandmother was that she achieved great success without formal schooling (she only had the equivalent of a grade-school education) at a time when women were not encouraged to work outside of the home.

Two family snapshots stacked on top of each other, the top of a large group of people and the bottom of two men holding young children, with a grandmother standing between them and a little girl at the front of the group

Courtesy Michelle Cruz Arnold

(top) Candido (seated in suit jacket) and Maria Cruz (to Candido's left) with 13 of their 16 children; (bottom) a 1981 family photo with, from left, me, my dad, Maria Cruz, Rafael Cruz, and my sisters Nelda Jean Cruz Hunter and Julie Anne Cruz Rosenberg.

I did get to meet my great grandmother, but I’m sad I was too young to have a meaningful relationship with her before her death in 1983. And I’m disappointed I didn’t get to ask her about her experience as a midwife or learn more about what her life was like as a mother and professional.

One way I can honor her is to learn her story and share it with others. It’s the least I can do for someone who paved the way for me and others in our family to be successful.

That’s really the heart of National Hispanic Heritage Month: celebrating exceptional people like Maria Garza—everyday trailblazers who made their communities better places for generations to come. But having the experience of more purposefully tracing my roots and feeling the excitement that comes with unearthing amazing stories about my ancestors, I know that celebration doesn’t need to be limited to a prescribed set of dates on the calendar. We can make every day an occasion to celebrate Hispanic heritage.

My great grandmother earned that honor, too.