A few years ago, at the height of the genealogy service craze, my dad bought me a DNA kit for Christmas. I have a blended familia, with roots in Mexico and Puerto Rico. That’s all I knew for sure. That’s how it is for a lot of immigrant families in America, stories of heritage lost with time, death, and poverty. This genealogy kit would give me the chance to provide some clarity to the mist that surrounds my family tree. Little did I know it would lead me to…Lebanon? When the results came in, we found that my maternal great-grandfather, whose name we now know was Mamouhd Zaden, immigrated from Beirut, Lebanon to Silver City, New Mexico, in the late 19th century.
I’m going to tell you the truth. I have no concept of what it means to be Lebanese. My grandmother, who never knew her Lebanese immigrant father, only knows herself as a Mexicana. Any clarity to this subject was going to come from my research. I found cousins, spoke to new family and tried to devour any Lebanese travel food and culture content I could get my hands on.
Then the explosion in Beirut occurred on August 4. And my research intensified as I began to learn about the current situation in Lebanon and the history that got us to this point. In the process I learned about the deep connections between Latin America and the Levant and at the heart of those ties is the pain of a nation in crisis.
At the Port of Beirut, a large fire occurred near two grain silos that resulted in a mushroom cloud and supersonic wave blast that ravaged the city seven miles from the explosion site. Based on an analysis done by the University of Sheffield, this is the largest non-atomic explosion in world history. More than 200 people were killed, 600 injured, and dozens are still unaccounted. But where does the blame sit? Lebanese customs insist that they requested assistance in removing the flammable material from the warehouse where the explosion occurred and that those requests went unanswered by the Lebanese Government. Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab simply stated that the disaster was unacceptable before he and the rest of the Lebanese Government stepped down from power August 10.
Many people in Lebanon have made evident their dissatisfaction with the handling of this crisis. Protests have occurred along with clashes between protestors and police. In these images of streets ravaged by mismanaged leadership, I see the reflections of the unrest of the American people, as well as in my research of Latin America. Though I grew up Latinx and studied politics in high school, I was never taught how closely these two parts of myself, Lebanon, and Latin America, existed culturally. It wasn’t until I did my research did I find these connections were at the root of my family heritage.
Superseding a shared history of civil unrest in the face of what appears to be corruption, connections between the Levant and Latin America are many. One of the largest and possibly most significant connections between the Arab world and Latin America is that of Arabic speaking Brazilian Emperor Pedro II. Upon his subsequent visits to the Middle East, were the catalyst of much Arab migration to Latin America in the late 1800s, around the same time my own great-grandfather would have immigrated.
You can also find callbacks to this influence in Cuba’s capital of Havana at the Arab Cultural Center. Syrian households often start and end their days with Mateh, a warm tea drink that originated in Argentina. Photojournalist Dara Ghanem describes the cross-cultural transactions that exist between Latin America and the Middle East as a form of self-discovery, and her travels to South America brought her closer to her Syrian roots. I hope I can share in that experience, as I learn more about my own heritage while staying close to home.
But now more than research must be done. The explosion released chemicals in the atmosphere that the Lebanese Government is advising against inhaling. So much so that people are being asked to keep windows and doors closed to avoid exposure. Hospitals have reached capacity, and blood donations are critically low. This is a scene Latinx communities have watched play out across our homelands at the hands of disorganized relief and organized crime.
What I can do now for Lebanon is three-fold. I can donate, educate, and support and encourage others to do the same. Donating to organizations like the Red Cross ensures that aid is provided directly to the people, avoiding bureaucracy that could stop the flow of donations to those who need it most. We can talk about Lebanon, especially using social media. We can also have conversations to educate friends and family about this tragedy. Keeping this story in the news cycle puts pressure on the powers that be to keep finding ways to help. Finally, you can follow the nonprofit Impact Lebanon for further information, ways to assist, and places to donate.
As I continue to connect with family members with my DNA kit, I tell them it’s the gift that keeps on giving. And in these times where our world feels so small, I am able to discover more of it and get closer to myself in the process.