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Discovering my heritage through family photos

The impact of photos is undeniable. The preservation of memories is critical. Guest blogger Samantha Savello shares how a happenstance discovery of a family photo album changed the trajectory of her life.

The power of family photos

When I was a child, I went to my grandmother’s house and found a framed photo of my mother, aunt and grandparents. While I saw my grandmother regularly, I hadn’t seen my grandfather in years and knew little about him. 

“Is that my grandpa?” I asked, eager with curiosity. 

“Yeah, that’s him,” my grandmother responded. “That’s all of us in Puerto Rico. It’s where he’s from.”

As a nine year old, it was news to me that we had family from the Caribbean. My mother rarely mentioned her father, and when she did, his background never came up. 

I brushed over the photo with my fingers, taking in the tall, vibrant palm trees in the background. “That’s so cool. I had no idea.”

Sensing my excitement, my grandmother pulled out a photo album. “Do you want to see more pictures?”

We spent the next hour poring over my grandfather’s family tree. Inside of the album, there was a collection of black and white photos of him and his three sisters as kids in San Juan. A photo from a few years later revealed their big move to New York City. Dressed in shorts and T-shirts, the teenagers stood on the steps of their apartment next to their mother, a petite, tanned woman who softly smiled. As the album went on, blurry photos of a music stage showed me how my grandfather joined a Latin band. Photos of my grandparents together boasted of a whirlwind romance. Baby photos of my mom and aunt marked the start of a new family.  

While I looked through the images, my grandmother explained to me the stories behind each photo, from the people in it to what was going on in the world the day it was taken. I wasn’t sure what I was more impressed with: how sharp her memory was or how well she had managed to keep so many photos from the past organized. 

All of the photos intrigued me, but my favorite was the one of my grandfather as a little boy, standing in front of the houses in Santurce, the neighborhood where he grew up. 

“His dad died when he was young, so he had to start working at twelve,” my grandmother explained. “He shined shoes to make a living for his family. Eventually, they moved to America and he had to learn English. He went to school and became an engineer. We met not too long after he graduated.”

Colorful Building

Exploring my roots 

My experience that day going through my family history with my grandmother was just the start of a lifelong interest in Hispanic culture. After that, I couldn’t stop thinking about Puerto Rico and the experience my grandfather and his family had gone through. The next day, I went to the library and checked out as many books as I could about Puerto Rico. I wanted to learn about the island, the people, the food, the religion. But above all, I wanted to learn about the language.

“Your grandfather speaks Spanish and English,” my grandmother had told me when we had been looking at the photos together. “Your mom didn’t learn too much Spanish growing up. Just bits and pieces. But I had to learn it in order to speak with her abuela — your great grandmother. She never learned English.” 

“So no one in the family really knows Spanish anymore, except you?” I asked.

“Not really,” she said. “Since your grandfather and I divorced, I don’t even really speak it either.”

Continuing the family legacy 

When it was time to choose a foreign language to study in middle school, I picked Spanish without a second thought. I was so excited to learn the language of my relatives and even more so, be able to read books and literature from Puerto Rico.

It took some patience, but by the time I finished high school I was nearly fluent in the language. My brother and cousins, on the other hand, dropped Spanish after just a few years and showed no interest in Puerto Rico.

As I entered college, I had the discovery that I was probably the only one left in the family who was going to know the language or preserve traditions. I decided to keep taking Spanish classes to deepen my understanding of the language and Hispanic culture in general. 

Lucky for me, my university had a wide range of classes within the Hispanic Literature and Culture department, ranging from Medieval Spanish Literature to Latin America Novels. The most insightful class I took was one called “Latinos in the US,” where we dove deep into a genre called Nuyorican poetry

The genre, which began in the 1960s, characterized the experience of Puerto Rican immigrants who moved to New York, which is exactly what my grandfather and his family had done. As I learned about this, I kept in touch with my grandmother, asking her to send me some of the photos as I did my research. 

“Do you think it was hard for him, moving to New York?” I asked one night over the phone. 

“Definitely. He had to learn English fast,” she replied. “People in New York weren’t understanding. His mom refused to learn English even once she moved here and it made her life very difficult. People weren’t so accepting.”

This conversation really stuck with me. The following year, I decided that in commemoration of my grandfather and his family tree, I would write my senior thesis about the expression of the Nuyorican experience through poetry. Not only did I spend the year diving deep into my family history, but I also interviewed modern day Nuyorican poets and began to write bilingual poetry of my own. That year, I began teaching Spanish at Brown University and the following year, I continued teaching it in Boston.  

The impact of storytelling

The psychology of family photos 

As a kid, I had no idea that a simple family photo would impact the trajectory of my education and career. But in retrospect, it makes sense why the pictures had such a strong impact on me. Various studies have shown that visuals are scientifically proven to cause a faster and stronger reaction than words alone. This is because visual memory is encoded in the medial temporal lobe of the brain, which is the same place where emotions are processed. In the end, the photos led me to discover  a much deeper emotional connection to my family tree than I would have developed from just hearing the story alone.

In addition to creating heightened emotional connection, images also help us remember stories better in general. According to Brain Rules by John Medina, when people hear something, they are likely to only remember 10% of the information 3 days later. However, when an image is added to reinforce the concept, people are likely to remember 65% of it. 

This may explain why I remembered my grandfather’s story so well, even years after looking at the photos. 

Making the most of memorabilia 

I was fortunate enough that my grandmother had put together a photo album and kept the old photos intact. But the reality is that given the rapid pace of our daily lives and the difficulties of photo preservation, it’s not always so simple. Luckily, there is now a wide range of technology available to preserve your photos and keep your family history alive, like Rosy, a private smart home digital assistant and mobile app help families curate meaningful digital experiences and coordinate important matters with ease. Instead of just having one photo album on hand, you can create an experience that’s accessible to your relatives online. 

What you can do to preserve family photos

My story is just one of many about how family photos can impact the decisions we make. If you don’t have your family photos accessible or don’t know your own family history, it’s never too late to start. Sometimes it’s as simple as going through your documents or connecting with family members and relatives to figure things out. You are also making brand new memories everyday, which you can record and digitize for future generations. We have so many more options now than we did back then, so make sure you’re taking full advantage of them. You might just end up changing your family’s history for the better.

Have a story you want to share? We invite you to blog on your personal perspectives of memories, family, photography, home organization and much more. Send us a message on our Facebook page .

 

About the Author

Samantha Savello is a freelance writer and social media marketer from New York. She also performs stand-up comedy and spoken-word poetry. You can see her work at samanthasavello.com .