Genealogy and Race Politics

Genealogy and Race Politics

by Diana DeLugan

Earlier this week, I caught up on some national news and heard Donald Trump formally announce his plan to run as a Republican candidate for President of the United States on the same day I heard MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry’s exclusive interview with Rachel Dolezal. Trump otherized Mexican immigrants and Dolezal proudly claimed her black identity despite being born Caucasian. Whether we agree with them or not, we have to admit that Trump and Dolezal make us think.

Map of US 1673They help us move the “race” conversation one step further. When asked to self-identify, what race are you? Will your descendants understand why you claimed the race you chose? Does any of it matter?

What Was Your Race at Birth?

Race is a division of humankind. The word is synonymous with ethnic group. We all relate to others who share our customs, our language, among other similarities. At birth, we were born into a race to which our parents or guardians introduced us and we adopted it as our own. For those of us born in the United States, we should feel like one homogeneous group. Right? Who doesn’t love hot dogs, baseball games, and fireworks every Fourth of July?

The raw truth is that we are more like a bowl of mixed vegetable soup. Each of us possesses our own juicy flavor. Nourished by a wide array of influences, we could be from the same biological family and yet vastly diverge in our innermost thoughts. We all sway to music but we are fiercely unique, a kaleidoscope of rhythms pulsating to different drums influenced by all nations. So what race does that make us?

Shifting Borders Affect Race

Like Dolezal, do we claim a race that resonates with us despite our race at birth, or do we allow politics to decide who we are?

AZ territorial bd of healthMy great-grandfather, blue-eyed Ricardo Otero, was born in Tubac, Arizona. His death certificate reports his race as White. Ricardo’s uncle, Sabino Otero (widely known as Cattle King of Arizona), was reported by one source as a good Mexican. Sabino was born in Tubac before the Gadsden Purchase in 1854, when Tubac belonged to Mexico. Sabino’s grandfather, Atanacio Otero, was born in Tubac when Tubac was part of Nueva España (New Spain). That would have made Atanacio Spanish.

Ricardo OteroAt first blush, it sounds confusing. While conducting genealogy research, it is important to factor in historical border shifts. Look at the local geography of where you were born and ask yourself whether the borders have changed. If yes, which government was in control? Historical documents will someday report what our race was. But which race is ultimately recorded depends on the political and government authorities. How will our descendants deal with conflicting information?

Set the Record Straight – State Your Race

Don’t let the passage of time dictate who you are. Take the time to share your racial identity with others if “race” matters to you.

As for me, I’m siding with Carlos Santana. When asked his race, Mexican-born Santana said, “I represent the human race.”             

_______________Diana DeLugan
Diana DeLugan is a proud eighth-generation Arizonan, Otero family historian, singer, and author. To learn more about Diana, find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest, or email her at

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1 Response to Genealogy and Race Politics

  1. bethkoz says:

    I beg to differ with the first sentence of your second paragraph. The words “race” and “ethnic group” are not synonyms. On your Ricardo Otero’s death certificate, the choices are White, Indian, Negro and Oriental. When I was in 4th grade (I think that was when we learned the ‘races of man’) the choices were Caucasian, Indian, Negro and Oriental. This is a very Western-Hemisphere-centric classification.

    I do not know what classifications are used in Asia, but I remember from Ghandi’s writings that the white-imposed classifications differentiated between Negro and Colored (of which Ghandi wrote so eloquently).

    Your point, however: that we need to be aware of the boundaries of the countries when we do geneological research is well taken. My first traceable ancester (according to my brother the geneologist) was surnamed Zant (which was my father’s middle name and his mother’s maiden name) and he emigrated from Switzerland to The New World (Georgia area) in 1730s. But was he Swiss? He might have emigrated to Switzerland from another European country stressed by war or religion or famine.

    It’s all fascinating, and I wish I knew more! But I have other fish to fry . . .


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