A reporter unravels a family mystery…

Doreen Carvajal's grandmother and aunt kept family secrets

Doreen Carvajal’s grandmother and aunt kept family secrets

Doreen’s grandmother, Luz, and Aunt Cecilia

“We can change the story we tell about ourselves and, by doing that, change our future.”

Doreen Carvajal, author

The Resale Evangelista

What is the burning question in your life?

I’m asking because I think the search for an answer–whatever the question–creates a sense of passion and purpose in life. I’m envious of those who not only have such a question (and recognize it), but summon the will, the energy and the resources to pursue the answer. In the process, those people experience a deep sense of satisfaction and, I think, come to know some fundamental truths about themselves.

My friend and former roommate, Doreen Carvajal, is one of those people. (She wrote a guest post last year for Resale Evangelista, about furnishing an old stone farmhouse in France with great finds from auctions and flea markets.)

Doreen grew up with nagging questions about her family. Daughter of an American mother and a father born in Costa Rica, she was raised a Catholic–complete with fish on Fridays, regular Sunday Mass and plaid, parochial school uniforms. Why, then, did her paternal grandmother and great aunt explicitly forbid having priests officiate at their funerals? It was a puzzle, one among several mysteries enveloping, like a persistent mist, that side of her family’s history.

This much she knew: Her ancestors fled Spain during the Inquisition, finding refuge in Costa Rica. Now a Paris-based reporter for the New York Times, Doreen  decided in recent years to unravel the mystery. A dogged reporter and a lyrical writer, she put those talents to use digging up her family’s history–and uncovered a secret kept for hundreds of years, generation after generation, that caused her own identity “to shatter and shift, changing who I am.”

She tells the tale in “The Forgetting River: A Modern Tale of Survival, Identity and the Inquisition” (Riverhead, 2012). “We were the descendants of secret Sephardic Jews–Christian converts known as conversos (converts).”

Even after the book was published, Doreen kept digging–and uncovered more detail. Her ancestors were investigated by the Spanish Inquisition in 1486 for secretly maintaining their Jewish identity.  One ancestor clashed with Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada, finally achieving moral victory on his deathbed, when he refused last rites and commanded the Church’s representative to “Go to the Devil!.”

(Doreen’s story, reported in the New York Times, is fascinating not only in and of itself, but also because it reveals that bureaucrats haven’t changed much over six centuries. Doreen found details of her ancestors’ daily lives and their epic battle with Torquemada in Inquisition folder 1,413, No. 7, housed in the Madrid national archives. Bureaucrats can’t help themselves–record-keeping is in their blood!)

What I admire just as much as Doreen’s story is her persistence in uncovering the details, solving the mysteries. As she said in one of her articles, “We can change the story we tell about ourselves and, by doing that, change our future.”

I think I’ve come to know what the burning question is in my life–though I’m not yet ready to share it. I haven’t decided how to pursue the answers, or even if I have the will to pursue them. Until I do, I’m not sure how fully present I can be in my life, and that’s something I have yet to figure out.

I don’t think every burning question has to be personal. I wrote recently about a journalist who spent the bulk of his professional life tracking down a despot who ordered the deaths of millions of Cambodians. And maybe we don’t all need burning questions to know our purpose or our passion. But it is worthwhile to ask: “What is the burning question in my life?”

Life, I think, would be both more simple and more rich if we focused on those questions, regardless of the answers–or lack of them.

As an unknown someone once said, “There is no answer. Pursue it lovingly.”

One thought on “A reporter unravels a family mystery…

  1. Pingback: Tiny houses, travel & defining home | Resale Evangelista

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