SOAPBOX: Roots and bridges
On KJZZ's SOAPBOX, The Show turns over the the mic to listeners. For winter 2022, writers tackled the theme EATING CHRISTMAS.
This Christmas I plan make a new dish to honor to my Nicaraguan roots. It's called Vigoron, a combination of boiled yucca, cabbage coleslaw and pork rinds (or chicharones, as we Nicaraguans say).
And if you know me, and didn't know I had Nicaraguan roots, join the club. I didn't find out either until I was 51.
It's the old story. Lonely neglected small-town Mormon rancher's wife meets handsome-but-also-married Latin immigrant in an Army uniform. He's been sent to my hometown of Springerville for a few weeks to help battle a large forest fire. Think Bridges of Apache County.
He leaves and never returns. Then there I was, the unexpected youngest of five, with a nine-year gap between me and my next oldest sibling, and — it's crucial to mention here — the only Latino in a very pale family.
My parents divorced, but my dad, Quentin Sherwood, was a good sport and a good father until he passed away when I was 15. When I turned 17, my mom finally told me our story. My biological father's name is Juan Martinez. He was an immigrant, but she had grown hazy on where from. She stopped my rapid-fire guesses when one seemed to ring a bell. So I've spent most of my life thinking I was half Uruguayan.
I never held any hope of finding him. Do you know how many Juan Martinezes there are in the world? But then, in 2019, I opened the best Christmas gift ever — a DNA test from Ancestry.com.
The results drew a tight circle around one country — not Uruguay. I am Nicaraguan AF.
Months later, after only distant hits, a young California woman showed up in my feed who was at least a first cousin. Her name: Rhiannon Martinez. Too nervous to reach out, my wife did it for me. To our surprise Rhiannon wrote right back.
She said, "My dad is Juan Martinez Jr. I think he could be your brother."
From there things moved fast. Juan Junior is the oldest of five new siblings I would eventually meet — two older, three younger. I had just cannonballed — literally —into the middle of their family pool. I was quick to point out that I wanted nothing from them. I only wanted to know who they are.
Juan, it turns out, is the only one who doesn't share my politics. I found that out when he opened our first phone conversation by roasting me — good naturedly — as a "Sandinista propagandist" because I had been a journalist and I now work in Democratic politics.
But we got past all that, and he told me about our father, a surveyor and topographer by trade. He's alive, but he had left his family behind when they were kids.
There's a gulf between Juan Senior and his children, and even with his own siblings, that is not my story to tell. He knows I exist, but that may be as far as the connection goes.
That's OK because the remaining Martinez family has welcomed me. This summer, in Los Angeles, I met four of my father's eight siblings. All successful, interesting and retired. All but one, my Tio Lazaro, are still alive. At this stage of my life, their overall longevity is welcome news. Although he only passed away recently, I was told I could be Lazaro's reincarnation. Since he considered himself the most handsome in the family, I accepted the compliment.
They fed us vigoron and gave me pictures of my father as a young man, as well as a framed hometown newspaper proclamation celebrating my late grandfather, Dr. Samuel Martinez, when he graduated from medical school in 1932.
Dr. Martinez was all about education. For instance, I have a brother who is one of California's top economists and an aunt who is a Catholic school principal in Nicaragua — Sister Melania. I went from being the most educated person in one family to bottom third of another.
Like my Martinez siblings, I grew up poor with a single mom. But I always felt compelled — pulled more than pushed — to go to college and to do something with whatever talents I had. I feel now that Dr. Martinez has been watching over me my whole life. Watching over us.
And I hope he is watching when I make vigaron because I'm not even sure what yucca is. But I do know who I AM.