Points south and east
Finding yourself through travel and genealogy
By Ceil Lucas, the author of How I Got Here: A Memoir
It would seem that I had an expat childhood.
The nutshell summary: I was born in Phoenix in 1951; in 1956, my father the civil engineer accepted a job in Guatemala City. In 1960, he was hired by the Food and Agriculture Organization ( FAO) of the United Nations located in Rome, Italy. I came to the US for college in 1969. I returned to Rome for the 1971-1972 academic year.
While I have traveled extensively, I have lived permanently in the United States since August of 1972. Ages 5 to 21: four years in Guatemala City and 12 in Rome, with two nine-month stints for freshman and sophomore year at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.
I knew that I would eventually write a memoir about my childhood in Guatemala and Italy, to preserve the memories of living in Latin America in the mid-1950s, a fraught time, and in Italy in the 1960s, during the post-war economic boom. I learned to speak Spanish in Guatemala, learned to read and write in Spanish. I arrived in Italy at age nine, had many Italian friends, went to an all-Italian YMCA camp in Sardinia when I was ten and later went back as a camp counselor: total immersion in Italian from when we arrived and it left me with a strong Roman accent, quite distinct from the accents of Florence, Milan, Naples, or Venice. I developed a deep attachment to Italy which I have maintained over the years, partly from teaching Italian to university students and adults for 44 years.
When I came back to the U.S. for college in 1969, my stance was often, “Well, I wasn’t raised here; I’m not from here”, hand on my hip, head cocked. This was 1969, in the middle of the Vietnam War, and I also brought with me general European opinions about it, opinions not favorable to the U.S. involvement. The deal with my parents had been that, if I wanted to go to college – which I did – it would be in the U.S., non-negotiable. So I came to fulfill my end of the deal, with a large part of my head and heart left behind in Rome.
But I have not one drop of Italian blood in me. I am frequently asked, “Oh, do you still have relatives in Italy?” I never had any, ever, even though I sound like I must. As I was organizing the memoir, I had also started working on my family’s genealogy and came to find out my mother’s people came to Eastern Maryland from Scotland in 1654; my father’s people were Quakers who sailed to Philadelphia from Weymouth, England, in 1679. And the name in 1500 was De Lucas, with some Spanish blood as well.
As I organized the memoir and worked on the genealogy, I had to slowly come to terms with the fact that, when your folks arrive in 1654 and 1679, you’re “from here,” deeply American. No Italian blood but lots of Scots and English blood. Writing about all of my travels and working on my family’s history got me to my true ethnicity. It forced me to face the occasional difference between my identity quite naturally forged by a childhood outside of the U.S. and my American ethnicity, roots put down, in the case of my mother’s family, 122 years before there even was an America. I have come to feel like I know all of these ancestors and they made their way into what I call my genealogical memoir. I have gotten comfortable with all of them.
About Ceil Lucas
Ceil Lucas, the author of How I Got Here: A Memoir, is a sociolinguist. She holds a bachelor’s degree in French and Art History, a master’s degree in French and Italian, and a doctorate in Linguistics. She spent 40 years as a professor and researcher at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC. She began teaching Italian in 1973 and continues to do so. She is the editor and co-author of 22 books. The memoir is available on Amazon.