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New York, U.S.A. – What does it mean to be Hispanic? The final season of Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr., the PBS television series that explores issues of race and identity through the genealogy of some of America’s best-known personalities, seeks to answer this question.
Through the family histories of actors Michelle Rodriguez and Adrian Grenier, and Linda Chavez – an author, syndicated newspaper columnist and political analyst for FOX News — host Henry Louis Gates, Jr. investigates American identities that took shape long before the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Rock.
The three subjects of Sunday’s episode all share Spanish colonial roots, yet each views him or herself very differently: as Native American, Puerto Rican, Dominican, or simply Latino.
Crisscrossing Mexico, Spain, the Caribbean, and the American Southwest, Professor Gates reveals underlying connections that show how Hispanic identity has emerged from the tangled histories of European, Native-American, and African peoples.
Such connections drive home the point that Gates makes in this series, as well as in his previous television productions: despite our diverse backgrounds and racial differences, Americans are much more deeply related than we commonly acknowledge.
In the past nine weeks of the series, viewers learned that married couple and award-wining actors Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon are distant relatives. Viewers saw how CNN anchor Dr. Sanjay Gupta, comedian Margaret Cho and media mogul Martha Stewart had similar ancestral stories, though their roots led to completely different parts of the globe.
The series also showed how Harry Connick and Branford Marsalis , musicians and best friends from New Orleans, both had European ancestors who immigrated to the slave-era South in 1850. And viewers discovered that musician John Legend and comedian Wanda Sykes shared dramatic, long-lost stories of freed black slaves in their respective family histories.
For this Sunday’s episode, the Finding Your Roots research teams trace the families of Chavez, Grenier, and Rodriguez back in time to uncover parallel stories about the interactions between Spaniards, Native Americans, and Africans in the New World. Chavez’s roots lead from bootleggers in Depression-era New Mexico all the way back to Spain in the 1500s — by way of the Pueblo Indians who the Spanish sought to suppress.
Grenier’s ancestry also has a strong connection to Native American tribes in the Southwest. His 11th great-grandfather, Hernan Martin Serrano, arrived in New Mexico in 1598 with the territory’s controversial “founder,” Don Juan de Onate — and found himself marrying into the Indians he came to fight.
Similarly, Rodriguez’s family is steeped in the racial politics in the Caribbean, where generations of her ancestors interbred — with cousins marrying cousins — to keep out African and Native American blood. In the end, Gates reveals that none of these families were as racially “pure” as they pretended to be — and that Hispanic identity is far more complex than we imagine.
Perhaps most surprising of all, Chavez’s ancestry links her to “Crypto-Jews” — Spanish Jews who converted to Catholicism to survive the Inquisition, yet continued to practice their religion in secret.