I was a college freshman the first time I heard the term legacy. I knew the traditional definition of the word— something received from the past—but the way my classmates used it to size each other up was more loaded. So-and-so was a “legacy” because they came from a long line of USC alumni and their family’s history with the school probably helped them get in. Before then, I didn’t think much about inherited advantage. In fact, I didn’t really think about inheritance much at all. I certainly didn’t know that white households inherit wealth over five times as much as Black households and over six times as much as Latino households. Seeing it so plainly opened my eyes to how our lives are regularly nudged and altered by the experiences of our ancestors. I started to wonder: If everyone has a family legacy, what was mine?
Think about it this way. To be alive today, we each come from 2,048 ninth-great-grandparents, 1,024 eighth-great grandparents, 512 seventh-great-grandparents, 256 sixth-great-grandparents, 128 fifth-great-grandparents, 64 fourth-great-grandparents, 32 third-great-grandparents, 16 second-great-grandparents, 8 great-grandparents, 4 grandparents, and 2 parents. There are thousands of people in each of our family lineages, and their emotional experiences leave a mark on us.
Before I was born, the lives of the Medellin women set the stage for the family legacies that were passed down to me. These Invisible Inheritances are a part of our birthright. Yet while some people are legacies at fancy colleges or country clubs, First and Onlys often emerge from cycles of instability and adversity. This doesn’t discount or dimin- ish the many positive legacies we receive from our families. But by nature, being a First and Only usually suggests that there was an effort to break away from something. And that pattern is often written right into how our body reads our DNA sequence.
It turns out that the matrilineal line resembles a Russian nesting doll; the egg that once created us was originally formed inside our mother’s fetus while she was still inside our grandmother’s womb. Three generations commingled in the same body, blood, and spirit for a moment in time. Epigenetics—the study of how behaviors and environment can cause changes to how our genes are expressed—has explored how trauma can be passed down from one generation to the next, whether from economic insecurity, discrimination, emotional neglect, or any number of hardships. Research suggests that our ancestors’ struggles sometimes altered them down to the cellular level, and that those changes were then passed on to us, affecting our own mental and physical health. Even the emotions our moms experienced when they were pregnant with us. This idea really hit home for me when I learned about genograms in grad school. It was 2007, and I was in the second semester of my first year at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Sitting in the back of a classroom with stadium seating, I listened as the professor introduced our guest lecturer of the day, a trained psychologist who worked in leadership. I don’t know if I ever paid more attention in a class than I did over the course of the next hour.
Using a whiteboard, the woman mapped out Hillary Clinton’s genogram to illustrate how generations of women in her family had experienced betrayal trauma because of infidelity. I couldn’t believe how explicit the connections were when you examined the dynamics of family relation- ships through time. It was like interpreting a visual lan- guage from one’s ancestors. As the lecturer described her process, I scribbled notes so I could re-create one for gen- erations of my own family.
A genogram is a diagram of your family tree, but instead of showing only birth order and family structure, it maps out the relationship dynamics between your family members. Divorce, hostility, indifference, betrayal, distrust, abuse, control. An illustration of your family’s emotional inheritances, through generations.
After class, I tucked myself away in a quiet corner of the Kennedy School library, pulled out a blank sheet of paper, and wrote each of my family members’ names chronologi- cally in what looked like an org chart. When I came across an experience or a dynamic that seemed to repeat over gen- erations, I used a black Sharpie pen to draw a line connect- ing every person involved. And then there it was, clear as day: My great-grandmother. My grandmother. My mom. Me. Our family’s genogram revealed several bold lines that directly connected the four of us.
Three generations of women in my family had primarily been single mothers. Three generations of women in my family struggled to make ends meet. And then the boldest line, a central thread woven into all the others: Three generations of women in my family had been in emotionally tumultuous relationships with chaotic men.
There it was, one of my family’s Invisible Inheritances, unmistakably plain on paper. Falling in love with the wrong man had sidetracked each of their lives in a consequential way. It flowed like an underground river in my family—an undercurrent pulling us for almost a hundred years. All the way back to my great-grandmother Maria Elena, who was born in 1907 in the Mexican state of Sonora.
According to my great-uncle, beautiful was the word most commonly used to describe Maria Elena, but from the few tattered black-and-white snapshots I’ve seen, the word I’d use is intense. She didn’t seem to smile much in photos as a young woman, her dark eyes often downcast or looking off into the distance. Most women of the time would draw fake moles on their faces, using a dot of black eyeliner, but the mole under Maria Elena’s lower lip was real. I should know. I inherited her trademark mole in the exact same place.
Maria Elena was raised Catholic and had a predict- able middle-class upbringing until she caught the eye of a charming Mexican banker ten years her senior. She was only around sixteen years old when Alfonso started pursuing her with over-the-top declarations of eternal devotion. His love bombing did the trick. Maria Elena fell hard for his worldliness and fedoras, and in the early 1920s, they married and moved to Nogales, Arizona, where he found work as a bank manager. Not long after, the drinking started.
Alfonso had a habit of coming home drunk, yelling angrily, and throwing things around the house. Unfortunately, my great-grandmother was already pregnant with her first child when she realized this. Alfonso never laid a hand on her, but the verbal and emotional abuse kept Maria Elena in a constant state of fear throughout her pregnancy. How trapped she must have felt to be two hundred miles away from her family, in another country, when her dream man turned out to be a nightmare. How humiliating and hopeless it must have seemed.
One night, Alfonso came home more intoxicated than she’d ever seen him and yelling so violently she feared he’d hurt her and the baby. Even though she was in her last trimester, she left their home that very night and traveled the next day to stay with her parents, who happened to be temporarily stationed in Los Angeles while working in a diplomatic capacity for the Mexican government. Alfonso followed her to LA, begging her to return, but she refused. He was the love of her life, but that didn’t matter anymore; she had a baby to protect. They soon fell out of touch and Alfonso remarried not long after.
Choosing to become a single mother at nineteen years old in the 1920s was gutsy. She would need to find a job and face the stigma of being a young divorcée, but she was willing to do that and more if it meant keeping her daughter safe. That daughter, my grandmother Maria Louisa, was born not long afterward, in 1927. She became our family’s first US citizen by birth.
Excerpted from the book First Gen: A Memoir by Alejandra Campoverdi. Copyright © 2023 by Alejandra Campoverdi. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.