I was sitting on a bench at the Santa Monica Pier one day, watching the Ferris wheel spin, when a young boy sat on the other end, stared at me for awhile and then suddenly asked, “Are you Chinese or Mexican?” That’s when I began to wonder about my genealogy.
Kids ask strange questions, so I waved him off like a fly on the butter, but then I began to think about what he’d said. When I arrived home, I asked my wife, the observant Cinelli, if I looked Chinese. She asked, “Why? Do you feel Chinese?”
I told her about the kid at the pier and wondered if, because of my brown skin, I could pass for Chinese. “Well,” she said, “you squint a lot, which would give you ‘Chinese’ eyes, but you aren’t actually brown. You’re more ecru. You’re an ecru-American.”
“There is no such thing as an ecru-American,” I said.
“OK,” she replied, “how about an acorn brown-American?”
My mother always told me we were Spanish, but when I repeated that, people said, “Yeah, sure you are,” like I was actually a closet Mexican trying to pass as a Swede. So I looked deeper into our heritage and discovered, lo, I was Basque.
According to a book called Shadows of the Past and various genealogical websites, a man named Benito Anselmo Larragoite led a Basque contingent from Bilbao to Santa Fe in the mid 1800s, when New Mexico was still a territory. I don’t know why they came. Maybe for the tacos.
My mother was born into the Larragoite family and married a Martinez, who was also Basque but who drank too much, so she dumped him in California. I was born in Oakland, not quite knowing who I was, but thanks to the nosy kid, that has changed. I have a history now.
The Larragoites were and still are a family of educators, lawyers, statesmen, poets, law enforcers, doctors and other good things, though one of them—possibly a poet—was hung as a horse thief. Santa Fe streets, schools and parks are named after the Larragoites, but none are named after the horse thief.
We traveled to Spain’s Basque country a few years ago, and I’m pleased to report that many of the men looked like me, acorn-brown and proud of it. I’m proud of it, too. But every once in awhile I have a serious hunger for egg foo yong.