Every family has a story. Or rather every family has a number of different stories. This does not mean that there are not important overlaps and consistencies among the stories that different family members tell. Both what is the same (or nearly the same) from one family member to the next and what is different is important to attend to as one tries to make sense of the story of one's family. It is important to understand where the schisms are: Are there emotional and narrative fault-lines between generations? Between genders? Between matrilineal and patrilineal sectors? Between those that immigrated to the United States and those that were born here? And, just as important, where are the alliances? Between mothers and daughters? Between those who are the most or least educated? Between those who share a religion?
In this paper I create a family narrative for my own family, examining the stories that we tell about ourselves and what that over-arching story tells about who we are. In doing the research I discovered some facts that I did not know and many opinions that I did not know that different members of my family held. I also discovered to my surprise that my family does have myths about itself.
Stories in my family followed the same patterns and performed the same function that researchers have found to be the case in other families. Wolffe summarizes the ways in which stories help keep family members feeling connected to each other even as families change from year to year and generation to generation, often in dramatic ways.
Family stories, told and retold, become important vehicles in shaping the lives of family members. Knowing and understanding family narratives can aid students in understanding their families' histories, communication patterns, and meanings. The stories are a cohesive element for holding the family together, and may also capture the essence of the personality of members
Family myths have stabilizing effects on the family and communication patterns. In a family communication course, teacher and student alike can provide personal stories. Students may begin by interviewing an older relative, and continue to collect stories through the semester
The use of family stories promotes family awareness, intergenerational sharing, an understanding of family and self, and appreciation for the uniqueness of the family. The family narrative is a part of personal heritage, uniting a family's past and its present and providing a link to future generations.
None of the members of my family whom I interviewed for this project recognized that the stories that we tell about ourselves and each other fit into the kind of function described above. I asked my family members what they thought was important about the kinds of information that they highlight when someone like me asks them to describe themselves. To this question I got pretty much confused responses. They did not see their stories as stories at all, much less a connected narrative. They saw their descriptions of themselves and each other as "just the facts."
Just a "Normal" Family
The narrative that was very much at the front and center of the ways in which my family members describe my family is that we are just a "normal" family. This seemed to some extent different from the kinds of family narratives described by authors such as Gouldrup (1987). He argues that family narratives often (and even more often than not) highlight aspects of the family that members see as making them unique or special. Indeed, he writes that one of the major functions of family narratives is to make families feel that there is something that sets them apart from other families.
This specialness is seen as a source of legitimate family pride and the family narrative (in either formal or informal versions, as something written down by a family member who is especially interested in genealogy or simply as a series of stories told at every birthday and wedding) is a way of proving this specialness.
What my family members told me is that they are just like every else. For example, my Aunt Juana, who is sixty, said that she knew that there was some story about her family name but that she didn't know what it was. Other members of the family that I interviewed said that they knew even less than this about their name. It seemed to them to be just something that they had been given when they were born. There was in general a "it's no big deal" feeling to responses to this question that extended across the generations and included both males and females.
I believe that the reason for this lack of information as well as a lack of curiosity about the origin or meaning of the family name arises from the fact that my family is composed mostly of recent immigrants from Mexico to the United States. This also, I believe, explains the fact that all of the members of my family emphasized the fact that they were ordinary in every way. I had initially thought that my family members were just trying to be modest, not to present themselves as being better than other people. This seemed at first to be a good explanation because they are in fact generally pretty modest, saying that anything that they achieve is due to hard work and God's blessing and not because there is anything special about them.
I also wondered if perhaps my family is made up of people who are really boring and I just never noticed this because I love them.
But after I had interviewed all of my relatives, I realized that what had at first seemed to be the lack of a story -- for "we're all just normal and average" seems to be pretty much a non-story -- I understand that this is the precise function that this central theme of my family narrative serves. Immigrants spend their lives feeling out-of-place, marked as belonging somewhere else (in the view of many of the native-born to their new country), knowing that they will live and die as being from somewhere else (Tate, 2009, p. 28).
By repeating over and over to me (and to each other as they compare their daily lives and the goals that they have for themselves and their children) that there is nothing special about them, they are actually saying how important it is to them that they can someday fit in. They want to believe that they will be seen as just another ordinary American family, not as the "Mexicans." This desire to be seen as belonging runs deep through all immigrant families, but I believe that it is especially relevant and strong right now for Mexicans who have emigrated to the United States, which is in a political phase in which there is a high level of anger among some Americans at "illegals." If one is worried about being seen as dangerous by other Americans, there is a strong incentive to describe oneself both as ordinary and not being attached to the aspects of one's life that would connect one to one's pre-emigration life such as one's family name.
The Journey Here
The other most important chapter that I found in talking to my relatives as I worked to understand the narrative of my family is that there is very little focus on the process of immigration itself. I realized as I talked to my aunt and brother that I had never really thought about how my relatives came to this country. I knew the basic details of most of the stories, but I had never really asked anyone what it meant to them to leave their native country, about how this affected their sense of who they were. The story of the immigrants' journey is a fundamental part of the story of most Americans' lives (Semple).
However, the actual process of immigration seems to be glossed over in my family. Again, this may reflect the current atmosphere that makes many immigrants very hesitant to disclose their immigrant status, especially if they came to this country illegally. But I think that there is another dynamic at play here as well that tends not to be acknowledged in the archetypical version of the immigrant myth. For members of my family, their lives are not defined by the walk across the border. The journey itself was very brief and almost incidental to their stories.
The predominant way in which they see their lives is in before-and-after terms. They describe what it was like to live in Mexico, and they describe what it is like to live in the United States almost as if they were talking about two different people rather than two different phases of their own lives. This bifurcation into a Mexican life and an American life suggests that it is important to each of my family members that they see their life as one of progress, a life that does…