Chameleon Chapter 3 - Finding the Bangos

When we were young, my Dad would occasionally reference our Spanish heritage or mention our family members that he visited before we were born, but besides a handmade sweater that my sister Allissa and I wore growing up and the occasional questions about the origin of our last name, I was never truly able to absorb the information. I also don’t remember ever really asking him any details until February 2017, right before I left for my own trip. I was in a New York City cab with my parents when Dad suggested meeting up with me in Spain to reconnect with our cousins. I was approaching my travel plans loosely and spent very little time thinking through saying yes and suggesting May as a good month. I told him to let me know when and where I should meet him and I would be there.

It was in the next moment when I realized that I knew next-to-nothing about the trip that Dad had taken 37 years ago to connect with my great-grandfather Severino’s sister’s descendants who were living in the northern Spanish town of Cancienes-Nubledo in Asturias.  At that time, Dad knew rudimentary Spanish, and they knew no English, but he managed to arrange (through letters mostly) for them to pick him up at the airport outside of Oviedo. He planned to stay with family for a week before traveling around northern Spain on his own. Things didn’t start off exactly as he hoped. He told them his flight arrived at nine without clarifying that it was PM. They assumed morning (24-hour clock system and all) and arrived then only to return home without him, thinking that he had gotten the days mixed up.  Dad arrived at night and after waiting for a while, managed to take a taxi to Amor’s house, the only address he had. He stayed with Amor and her husband and daughter the first night, Avilés which is next to Cancienes, and then moved to Mina’s house (Severino’s sister) the next day. It is still incredible to me that he managed all this in the first hours of his first trip out of the country. 

Instead of traveling after a week, my father spent the entire 20 days of his trip with our family in the small, farming community.  When he left, he promised to write, to improve his Spanish, and to return the following year.  That’s when things got complicated.  The next year he married Mom and while he invited the cousins to attend, they couldn’t make the trip. A couple of years later, Allissa was born. After that I arrived, and Anna completed our family ten years later. Dad wrote and sent photos to the cousins for a few years and attempted to call once or twice, but the language barrier, lack of technology, and general progression of life events that resulted in everyone falling out of touch.

Skip ahead to May 24th, 2017 and I’m waiting for my Dad at the Oviedo Airport.  I arrived the day before from Lebanon and was in my third month of continuous travel. I was waiting for him outside of baggage claim and when the exit doors opened and he finally saw him, he did the thing he always does – get completely startled by the sight of me.  It’s one of my favorite, inexplicable habits of his.  When we are meeting up, he can’t ever see me until I’m right in front of him.  When he finally does, I’m standing directly in front of him and he gasps and clutches his chest like I’ve just jumped out of hiding to surprise him. I was expecting the reaction, so our reunion started with immediate befuddlement and laughter. It was exciting to see him and also a bit strange. Here was my father in a totally different environment after so many years of mainly seeing him in the familiar context of home.

We figured out the rental car and then we headed into Oviedo, the city where my sister Anna had spent the fall semester and where my friends Maria and Lucas are from.  I was interpreting for him, which I had not mentally prepared for despite being fully aware of the situation, so initially, it took a bit of an adjustment. For the record, I’m not a good interpreter.  I have my own “style”, which is basically just summarizing how I see fit…

We decided to spend the first few days exploring northern Spain before trying to track down the other Bangos.  Dad was feeling guilty for not keeping in better touch and nervous about how the interaction would go. I didn’t think he had anything to feel guilty about – staying in touch is a two-way street and with the language barrier and lack of technology at the time, it made total sense that the connection had faded over time.  But I was ok with his preference to wait, so the next day we left for Gijon, Llanes, Santillana del Mar, and Santander. We ate well, did a bus tour, walked around, stopped at beaches and explored.  All the while we talked about family, roots, connections and what it meant to look for people. 

On the 28th, we drove from Santillana, stopping at some beaches along the way as we headed to Cancienes to start our search. Incredibly, my father still had the address book he used to record the names of our family members, a couple of telephone numbers and some of the towns but no full addresses (they didn’t really have house numbers at the time), so we had a place to start.  Dad rightly figured that Sunday would be good because there was less of a chance that people would be at work. We pulled into the only restaurant in town that was open on Sunday and asked the waitress if she knew some of the names of our family members.  This was the line I would use over and over the next couple of days: Perdón, tengo una consulta: Estamos buscando familiares aquí.   ¿Conoces el nombre José Bango? O Amor Gonzales... etc. and I would proceed to rattle off names.  At the restaurant, we asked about any women named Rosa (no last name) who would be around 80 years old. The waitress hadn’t heard of her, but she went back to ask the owner. He came out to chat and gave us information on a Rosa who was about the age of the person we were looking for. This Rosa used to live in town but now lived up the road in the next town. He also gave us directions to the town cemetery, where Dad had gone on his last trip, to visit the grave of José Bango, Mina and Severino’s father and the rest of the family that had since passed away. We also found out that there was another José Bango in town. Dad was pretty sure he wasn’t related to us, but we learned he came into the restaurant often, so we left my father’s email address and phone number just in case. We then drove to the next town to look for Rosa. This lead ended up being a dead-end, so we then worked our way up to the cemetery back above town and saw the graves of several relatives, including a few that Dad knew from his previous trip. One, in particular, was Alvaro, the husband of Rosa and the son of Mina, who Dad had gotten along very well with. Afterward, we kept driving around the same roads, Dad alternately seeing things that we familiar, but not quite able to identify anything specifically. Coincidentally, there is a tiny village called Bango that borders Cancienes.  The single road in Bango has what appears to be the only house in the village with a mailbox that says Bango on it. Dad definitely didn’t recognize it though, and it was a newer model home so we assumed this was José Bango´s house.  And while we were pretty sure we weren´t related to him, after passing it for a third time, we finally decided to stop and see if the unrelated José Bango would be able to provide some answers to us.

We used a driveway up the road to turn around back towards the house. An adult man was mowing the lawn and woman and two girls doing yard work. I rolled down the window to apologize for using their property to turn around – If you are wondering at this point, yes, I was the most overly, unnecessarily polite person in northern Spain for the entire time I was there – when Dad yells out, “Bangos?!” The woman looked perplexed but also slightly interested. I stopped our slow turn so she could approach and then I said my now familiar line. She responded by saying she would ask her husband. The girls, who had curiously followed their mother to the car window, ran to get their father.  I explained the situation to him and he said yes, he knew the people we mentioned. He had gone to school with Sonia – one of the daughters, and he could call her. He pulled a cell phone out of his pocket and dialed her number.  She picked up.  He explained the situation and after a couple of confirmations, she agreed to speak to me. He handed the phone over and let me try to further explain our connection. She was only six years old when my father had last visited, so she didn’t have any specific memories, but she told me she remembered hearing about it and she confirmed the names of her parents, etc. She told me that she was working, but her parents were at home. After I hung up the phone, the neighbor started to explain how to get to the house, but then thought better of it and decided to take us there. His daughters piled into his car with him and Dad and I followed them down the same road we had been up and down all afternoon. It turned out that we were in the right area and had passed the house multiple times without being able to identify it. We pulled up and all five of us got out and marched up to the house. It felt like a movie scene – the foreign strangers getting the whole town involved in order to find their long-lost relatives.  The stairs were connected to the second floor, which seemed to increase the drama. As we got closer an older man who looked to me like he was related to my grandfather (although that could be a reach) emerged from above us at a slow shuffle, his wife peering over his shoulder. The neighbor explained the situation and then turned to me to take over. I jumped in to reintroduce my father, feeling my mouth get dry as I spoke. All the while Dad stood there looking quite stunned. The older man nodded his head slowly as I haltingly found the right words in Spanish to describe the situation. Yes, he remembered the American cousin that came to visit. He then turned to my father with no emotion evident on his face and in Spanish that I could barely understand deadpanned while looking at my father – “You said you would come back the next year…” he then looks over at me, “I guess you’ve been busy” as he shrugs and opens the door a bit wider, motioning for us to come inside. 

Then, there we were.  Sitting at the kitchen table as snacks and drinks were laid out in front of us.  Aurelia, Fernando’s wife was giving Dad a hard time: How could he think that she wouldn’t remember him? And did it really take him 37 years to return when he said he would be back just one? And why wasn’t his Spanish any better? It was bad before and Dad had said he was going to practice to get better.  I was translating as fast as I could, but overall I was feeling completely overwhelmed. I realized that I had been prepared only for the search. I was enjoying the adventure of it and the interactions with all of those people with a specific goal in mind. It felt like a treasure hunt, but better because we were finding family.  In that moment at the table, I discovered that I was completely unprepared for what would happen, and what we would talk about if we actually found them. Dad was at a loss too and without a strong grasp of Spanish, I was taking over driving the conversation.

How do you ask people you’ve never met and know next-to-nothing about, how the past 37 years have been?

The answer is, I didn’t.  Instead, we went back to Dad’s visit. We talked about the village cookout that they had organized, the Independence Day celebrations, my Dad getting driven around by 15-year-old Marco without knowing he didn’t have his license until the last day. Even after all the years in between, they still looked incredulous when they talked about how many photos he had taken: “Oh! I should take a photo of this rock! And that one!” and how he got sick for a night and refused Mina’s food (which she apparently wasn’t very happy about). They kept joking about how busy he had been since he was last there, now with three kids and a wife – almost as if everyone else lives hadn’t moved on as well.  But we also learned about how their families had expanded, and I also got subtle messages about how some relationships had broken apart. Other family members started to trickle in, Begonia who had been nine during the previous visit and Fernando, another of Mina’s sons, who lived next door. The stories repeated themselves each time a new person entered, and the memories stayed consistent. Begonia showed us Mina’s old house that was abandoned now and pointed out the room where my father stayed when he visited. This also gave a clue as to why Dad hadn’t been able to recognize the house, they had built a new one! As Begonia showed us around, I realized just how small and rural the town was and I couldn’t stop thinking how strange it must have been to have my father visit all the way from the US all of those years ago.  It had been so out of the ordinary that people remembered so many of the same specific details after all of these years.  It was incredible.   

We then moved to Rosa’s which was the next house on the road. It was then that the subtle undertones of old tension I was picking up at the first house started to come through more clearly. Begonia rode with us over to Rosa’s house, but she didn’t come into the house. She just dropped us at the door and said hello to Rosa from the stairs. I didn’t have much time to absorb their interaction though, because what happened next was something that I hope I never forget.  The feeling of knocking on Rosa’s door and seeing her face when she recognized my father. It was of such deep recognition and pure joy. It also felt almost like she had been waiting for him all these years. She just picked up mid-conversation and started teasing him immediately while wrapping us both up in strong hugs. Dad turned to me as we walked inside and told me Rosa had been his favorite.  When he was there previously, her husband Alvaro had still been alive, and he spent a lot of this time at their house with their two children. When we arrived, Rosa called her daughter Chus and she came down the road with her young son who was named after Alvaro. It was immediately easy and comfortable with Rosa and Chus – it felt like being with old friends.  As the night wore on, it started to hit me just how incredible this experience was.

I didn’t get the story about the tension within the families of Mina’s four children until a couple days later when Chus told me about the land dispute that occurred following the death of her father Alvaro, who was Mina’s son. But I didn’t know all of that yet, so when we were leaving Rosa’s that night and told them we were going to visit Amor the next day, we were met with quiet head nods and little else.  The next day, we drove about 15 minutes down the road to Avilés to try and track down Amor and her family. We started by asking directions at a bakery that was close to the area that was listed in Dad’s address book. Dad had a building number and a neighborhood listed for Amor, so we were hopeful it would be easier than the day before.  But when we started to ask for the location of the building, a lot of people seemed perplexed. The problem was that the original buildings all had numbers and as new ones were built, numbers were added haphazardly. So now everything was out of order.  We spent hours asking people, knocking on apartment doors, and walking up and down this hill that had 40 buildings and townhouses.  We did this for so long that we started to develop some techniques: Look for stores or restaurants to pop in and ask the store owner and customers at once and ask elderly people who may remember the neighborhood how it looked before. However, after two hours with no luck, we got to the point where we could have been frustrated. We were hungry and had been circling around the same hilly area for so long and we kept coming up at dead-ends. And while I refused to let the feeling take over, I was starting to lose hope when Dad turned to me and said, “I’ve never done anything like this before.  It’s pretty remarkable.” He was so right.  His comment reenergized me.  He was right, this was pretty remarkable! I had never done anything remotely like this and I probably never will again. We were in a working-class neighborhood in northern Spain, tracking down a couple of octogenarians that my father had met once almost forty years earlier. Northern Spanish culture is not known for its warmth or hospitality. But while most people we spoke to were a bit startled at first, once they heard our questions, they were generally interested in helping us. It was 2017, and we hadn’t been able to find any of our family members on social media, but we also still able to go door-to-door without fearing for our safety or causing too much of a disruption. It doesn’t really seem like there are many places that have that combination anymore. The idea of calling it quits crossed my mind, but I didn’t say it, because I knew we were SO. CLOSE.  We were in Amor’s neighborhood, we knew that.  We had traveled for far, we couldn’t just give up.  I acknowledged that there never again be a time in my life when I get to track down long-lost family from generations past in a foreign country. I was with my father, a man who has luckily been a constant throughout my entire life. A lot of people don’t even get that privilege and here we were meeting the descendants of my great-grandfather’s family.  It was clear that we had easier lives the U.S. – even traveling internationally was a privilege the family we met hadn’t experienced. So I let this information reenergize me. I snuck into an apartment building to creepily knock on people’s apartments to ask for Amor – no luck. I started asking teenagers who were milling around, hoping maybe they knew some of the elderly people in the neighborhood, but we still weren’t having any luck.

So eventually, I texted Chus. In hindsight, I should have contacted her earlier (it would have made this story shorter at least!), but I hesitated because of the tension I was feeling surrounding the different family units.  Plus they had not offered to help last night, which I found telling.  But I really didn’t want to leave Avilés without meeting Amor and her family and Chus called over to their house as soon as I texted her and got directions for us.  Chus later confessed to me that it was the first time she had spoken to Amor since her father’s funeral, years before.  Like the previous day’s search, we had driven past the correct building multiple times in the previous hours.  It was one of only a handful of apartment buildings we hadn’t stopped at. Amor told us to park by the gas station across the street and she would come out to meet us.  She walked over to the car in her outdoor slippers, white hair gently styled on her head and popped into the back seat like an old friend to show us where to park.

This visit was different and fun in its own way. It certainly was helpful that I was hitting a groove in my interactions with long-lost family skills. I wasn’t even stressed about not being able to understand Amor’s husband and his Galician accent combined with his lack of hearing which complicated our communication. I just rolled with it all and focused on Amor who was super sharp, active, and easy to understand. After having coffee and snacks at the house and hearing the same stories about dad’s previous trip, we all piled into our rental car and drove into town to meet up with one of their daughters and her family and took a walking tour of Avilés. While we were walking and talking, I took another moment to acknowledge how exactly I got there and how fortunate I was to be able to speak their language. No one in our family seemed to be able to speak more than a few words in Spanish. It would have been miserable without being able to communicate. On top of that, I kept reminding myself that these people were related to us! And they had been living their lives so far away. And after all of these years, there we were together sharing moments and conversation. 

After our visit with Amor and her family, we headed back to Cancienes to have dinner at the restaurant that we first visited in town. It turns out that Chus’ husband is the head chef and Sunday (the day we first came in) is his only day off. We got to speak to the owner again and tell him about all of our adventures since we saw him last. It was a real contrast from just 48 hours earlier when we had been there inquiring about our family. Now we were sitting with them enjoying a meal, chatting away, telling jokes and sharing stories. 

As I mentioned, everyone we spoke to recounted similar stories from my Dad’s previous visit.  Chus remembered so many details, including the Little Prince book that she got from my father, and how they gave him a Don Quixote book to take home (which he still has). With slight variations depending on the personal experience, everyone recounted the same memories and it finally dawned on me that night, as I looked around this rural area, just how big of a deal my father’s visit must have been in town and for our family members. A young American man – who was the descendant of their family that moved away and never returned. Proof of roots in another country that must have seemed impossibly far away. 

Throughout this experience, I learned much more about our family history. I learned that my great-grandfather, Severino had left Spain because he didn’t want to fight for the monarchy, and he didn’t want his sons to either. So he took his wife and two young kids and uprooted them to travel to a new continent where they knew no one and didn’t speak the language. My grandfather was born in West Virginia as the third child and the only one born in the US. We’ll never know if Severino’s decision was truly and purely that principled, but it was the first time in my life that I could adequately fathom the courage it must have taken. I was now experiencing a version of the small, rural community in Northern Spain where he was born. Most people who live there don’t speak another language now, so I can only imagine that Severino and his wife knew no more than a few words of English before they left – if that.  And no one else from the family has moved since.  Mina’s descendants built new houses next to the old ones on the family land. Aside from Dad, only Severino’s daughter Amor had returned to visit when she was younger. My grandfather – who, I should mention, I adored. A man who was ahead of his time, a feminist WWII veteran who empowered my Aunt to live independently and pursue her own education and career, and encouraged the same from us from the time we were small. A man who raised both his sons to be feminists.  A man who was honorable and soft-spoken – had never gone to visit our family there.  My great-grandfather and his wife never returned. Not for funerals, weddings, births, or any other significant milestone.  And no one from Spain had ever visited our side of the family in the US. I wanted to feel that connection with the land and these people I was meeting, something intangible yet present – but I didn’t.  That’s not to say that I wasn’t making connections, it was just different than I had imagined. It was human connection, similar to what I forged during my travels and throughout my life.  Something that comes easily to me – even more so when I can speak the native tongue of the place, or when they can speak mine. 

Other dominant feelings were amazement, gratitude, and utter awe of my Dad. What guts it took for him, at 33, to travel to Spain to reconnect with these people after so many years. I still can’t quite get over that my father - having no previous international travel experience and only a rudimentary grasp of the language - went out and got a passport at 33 years old and traveled to a rural town in Northern Spain to stay with strangers who happened to be long lost family, having previously only exchanged letters and one phone call. We found out that he kept up the communication after his visit longer than he remembered too. They had saved photos of Allissa as a baby and could remember what he wrote in the letters that he sent upon returning to the U.S.  And what a humble, courageous decision to come back all those years later, with me. How did he do it? He served the role as the liaison with the U.S. Bangos and the Spanish Bangos not once, but twice. And the Spanish Bangos were gently teasing him about his language skills…it was all I could do to only gently retort that he had been the only one to reach out, to visit and then visit AGAIN. He was the only one to do that. He had even made an effort to improve his Spanish over the years, by practicing with whoever was willing.  And he brought Spanish cooking to our house and shared an appreciation our family for the language and the culture.

In addition to all of the things that I was thinking about related to my own family and this experience, I also couldn’t stop thinking about today’s refugee crisis and the vitriol and hateful rhetoric against people who are different, that the U.S. is now promoting here and abroad. How could I process it all?

My answer has been to write, to give myself the space and time to think – recognizing that it’s a complete privilege to dedicate days to process my experiences and my emotions. All of these feelings, of awe, gratitude, privilege, of disconnection and connection, of memory, of familial bonds, of questioning how bonds are formed and maintained. These feelings are intertwined with all of my experiences during this extended trip and all of the new information I’ve exposed myself to. And I recognize that processing all this should never really end because I’m receiving new information all of the time. 

Specifically related to finding family members in Spain, I came away with a few major takeaways:

  1. My father’s modesty and ability to place himself in emotionally vulnerable situations is something I would like to emulate for my entire life, no matter my age. 

  2. My great-grandfather took a huge risk and I’m grateful to him for doing that. 

  3. My family has extended and I need to play a very large part if we want to maintain the re-connection. At this point, it feels totally up to me. 

  4. I’m one lucky human.

  5. It was reconfirmed that Bangos rule - all over the world, apparently.