September 13, 2000
So it was to my surprise when a Swedish immigration official (who spoke several languages) tried out her Danish with me as I entered Sweden on vacation. After staring blankly at her, she realized I had no idea what she was saying and exclaimed, "But your last name is so Danish. You are not from there?"
Well, I guess I am. At least partly. Like most North Americans, South Americans descend from a long line of immigrants from Europe, Asia and Africa. My particular heritage is a strange mix-an ethnic tossed salad, if you will. But unlike many Americans, Brazilians (like me) aren't that interested in who came from where, genetically speaking. My mom was born in Brazil and my dad came from Uruguay (know where that is?). Ditto for my grandparents. That's as far as I thought about it.
But after I moved to the US, many people started asking me about my last name. "Sorensen…that's from somewhere in Scandinavia, right? No wait! Don't tell me…. Denmark, right?" The inevitable question followed, "But if you're from Brazil, how come you have a name like that?" I knew my dad's grandfather had immigrated to South America from Denmark, but beyond that, I couldn't explain.
Where am I from? Why does my full name-Daphne de Souza Lima Sorensen-sound like a trip to the United Nations? And what about my Viking roots? Several years ago, my father shed some light on these pressing questions and perked my curiosity with the following statement, "When your great-grandfather was 11 years old, he ran away from Denmark!" It turns out that Jans Sorensen (the aforementioned great-grandfather) stowed away on a transatlantic liner bound for Argentina in the late 1800s at the not-so-very-ripe young age of 11, leaving his family and friends behind. I have no idea how he survived the journey, or his arrival in a new continent for that matter (he was only 11!), but by the early 1900s he was married and had 6 children, one of whom was my grandfather.
Like most immigrants, Jans had to change his name when he arrived in his new country. If he had traveled to the US, he would've been called John. In Argentina, however, he became José. Funnily enough, he insisted that everyone, including his wife and children, only call him El Rey ("The King" in Spanish) and nothing else! Most people obliged, since he was a very powerful man for a while. My father told me that El Rey spent hours everyday conjuring up "get rich" schemes, and some, like his flame throwers designed to kill locusts, worked wonders. Others, like his car horn that emitted a "Ford! Ford!" sound (which he was convinced he'd sell to - who else? - Ford Motors, and make a fortune) weren't as successful. He dabbled in anything that showed potential, and one time even received a payment in camels because he thought he could make some money with them!! Camels in Argentina-hello?!?!
Eventually, he ran into some trouble with the Argentinean authorities and moved his family hastily across the border into Uruguay. My dad doesn't know exactly what happened, but I am determined to dig deeper. After all, my great-grandfather was an eccentric camel trader whose hair-brained schemes made him one of the most notorious immigrants in Argentina! Sounds crazier than any soap-opera…
And that's just the Sorensen part of my name! Remember, the whole thing is Daphne (Greek, for no particular reason) de Souza Lima (as Portuguese as they come) Sorensen (thanks to El Rey). My mother's ancestors did come from Portugal, but nobody knows when. I asked my grandmother that once, and she simply said, "We've been in Brazil for a long time, and I'm sure we've got a bit of every race-Indian & African-in our blood too." When pressed, my grandmother said that her dad "came from some Dutch lineage." Everyone else, she insisted, was homegrown. Although her response is not very scientific, it is typical of the way most Brazilians think about their roots. We're not very good at tracing back, and aren't too concerned to know who came from where; which is too bad, because as I found out from my dad, family stories can be especially eye opening.
Case in point: during the course of yet another conversation about our relatives, my dad said to me, "Did you know that your great-grandmother was nobility?" He was referring to his mother's mother, Micaela Micu Villademoros. Great-I have a King one on side of the family and a Countess (or was she a Duchess?) on the other! Micaela was married to a man named Raúl (my other great-grandfather), who died in a casino during an especially heated argument with a dealer. The story goes, as he shouted and screamed, he suddenly stopped, clutched his chest, and keeled over. It was a heart attack, no less, and a fitting way for a man like him to perish (so says my dad).
So far, what I have pieced together about my family-and my roots-compels me to find out more. At first glance, the history of my ancestors seems somewhat predictable, much like the history of countless immigrants who made the crossing from Europe to the New World. But in looking closer, I realized that each of them tells a story and that each story in turn affects me and shapes my identity and also my future. So next time someone asks me about my name, I'll just say, "Let me tell you a story about my great-grandfather, the one they called El Rey…" Someday soon, I'll be able to tell it in full.
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