Dear Portia: How Do You Find Belonging When Your Ancestry Is Erased?

Dear Portia,
Where do you place your footing when the footprints of your ancestors have been erased? Gentrification has/is pushing out the remnant of my marginalized community that was once here-do I fight to stay or do I wave my flag in surrender?


Hello GW, 

You ask such a poignant and important question around our roots and identity. It’s one that resonates with me deeply. As for the gentrification piece. Sigh. It sucks, my current neighborhood is flipping, too. Often coming and going for me has been driven by my economic reality, I haven’t had much choice. However, learning and forming my own identity in community has helped me not depend on society to hold my history and has mitigated some of the pain that comes from a loss of feeling “home”.

It’s a long, hard wrestling to realize history has no place for me as white supremacy runs its course. But, I have found the type of space and place I have wanted to live has changed as I’ve grown in understanding my ethnic identity. I can carry my community with me, independent of my neighborhood. I do want to offer some thoughts though toward the identity piece, and perhaps they will contribute to the challenges of gentrification, too.

Displacement comes in many forms and for many reasons. It’s a cruel reality that makes us confront some of the most challenging things of our society and history– poverty, race, class, genocide. I know this too be true for myself, being an adoptee. Roots are feeble when you have no history. 

Roots are feeble when you have no history. 

Make Space For Recognizing Loss

First, I think it’s important to make space for the lament and grief of loss and to remember. An erased history is not a one-time loss; it shows up in inconvenient, unexpected ways. As I’m continuing to journey in life, I’m finding layers of understanding what it means to be adopted, to not have a known family history or connection. At various points in my life this has felt and impacted me differently. Sometimes it doesn’t bother me at all, at other points it has felt devastating. It’s ok to feel all the nuances of hurt and sadness.

Build Community

I have a few, faithful friends who I trust with my grief and sorting through these complexities– and this number has gotten smaller as I’ve gotten older! But they understand loss and grieving and honor and respect when it shows up. They also speak truth to me of my value and don’t let me get stuck in those muddy places.

Finding my footing has also looked like studying the history of India, adoption and creating learning around the identity of being a transnational adoptee. I’ve also chosen to be part an online group of adoptees from my orphanage. We also have a few families in my church that have connection to adoption in various forms and we meet occasionally. Some of the most significant healing has come from meeting women who are birth mothers and learning of their choices and journeys to allow their child to be adopted. Though our journeys aren’t exactly alike, we form and hold a new collective memory of what it means to be adopted. I’m recognizing this will be a forever journey.

Learn From Others

For the better and worse of it, we aren’t alone in this situation and we have wise elders who have gone before us modeling resilience and showing us what it means to hold and save our own identities, cultures and build community.

In college, I studied ethnic identity development. I found a lot of life in learning from cultures who practiced what is called “hybridity”, that is, they took the culture that they were forced into and repurposed it by tapping into their indigenous history. This is where a lot of the narrative of “reclaiming” comes from. Seeing that other communities and cultures have done this helped me realize that I could limit the erasure of my heritage and renew it by starting my own ways of learning and practice.

Traveler, there is no path, The path is made by walking. -Antonio Machado 

Let me leave you with this– it’s a poem I’ve come back to several times on this journey, it centers me in knowing the work is worth it.

Traveler, the path is your tracks

And nothing more.

Traveler, there is no path

The path is made by walking.

By walking you make a path

And turning, you look back

At a way you will never tread again

Traveler, there is no road

Only wakes in the sea.”

XXIX: Traveler, there is no path. The path is made by walking by Antonio Machado

Ruthie Johnson

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