Saturday, April 25, 2015

"Who Do You Think You Are?" - America Ferrera

Well, I'm slipping further behind, but the light at the end of the tunnel can be seen.  Tomorrow (Sunday) is the final episode in this season of Who Do You Think You Are?, so I won't have too much more to catch up on.  Sometimes real life simply interferes and doesn't leave me the time I need to rewatch an episode and try to ensure I've understood everything correctly.

This is my delayed review and commentary on America Ferrera's appearance on WDYTYA.  The teaser tells us that Ferrera will travel to Honduras to connect with a father she barely knew.  She will also trace an ancestor with charisma and power and try to learn if he was truly on the side of good.

Ferrera is characterized as a beloved actress whose fame began as a teenager when she appeared in Real Women Have Curves and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.  She was more recognized and gained critical acclaim after starring in Ugly Betty at the age of 22.  That part earned her an Emmy and a Golden Globe award.  She also portrayed Cesar Chavez's wife, Helen, in a biographical movie about the labor leader.  In her personal life, Ferrera is involved in social justice, particularly in immigration reform and children's issues.  She lives in New York with her husband, Ryan Piers Williams.

Ferrera's parents are América Griselda Ayes and Carlos Gregorio Ferrera, both Honduran immigrants who came to the United States before they had children.  Although she and her siblings were born and raised in Los Angeles, and she jokes that she was a Valley Girl, she feels a connection to Honduras because of the culture she grew up with.

When Ferrera was about 8 years old, her parents "split up" (according to Wikipedia, divorced) and her father returned to Honduras.  She never saw him again.  He died there in 2010.  The first time she visited Honduras, in 2012, she somehow "ended up" visiting the small mountain village that her father was from (and how exactly does one accidentally end up visiting a small, out-of-the-way mountain village?).  The visit piqued her interest in family history.

Ferrera's older sister Jennifer is her family foil at the beginning of the episode.  They discuss how family history wasn't really talked about and that they know nothing about their father's side of the family, other than hearing that his grandfather or maybe great-grandfather was possibly in the military, maybe a general.  They agree that if Ferrera wants to learn the facts, she's going to have to start in Honduras.  (Taking into account the documents she ends up seeing during the show, this is probably one of the few instances in the history of this program where taking off to another location, particularly at the beginning, to do the research is actually warranted.)

La Esperanza, the small town in which Ferrera's father was born, lived, died, and is buried, is the first location she visits.  While riding in a car to her first destination, she says that this trip, where her purpose is to learn about her father's family, has her feeling a little nervous.  She's thought about doing this, but now that she's actually here, she's feeling very emotional.  When she was here in 2012 she met a woman her father knew; she's headed to visit the woman's son, a friend of her father.

In what is probably his home, Romualdo Bueso says that he and Carlos Ferrera were close friends, like brothers.  They knew each other from about the age of 5 or 6.  Bueso offers to show Ferrera some photos, which include some of her father from the 1970's when he was about 20 years old.  Ferrera holds one photo and says it reminds her of her brother.  Bueso says he has many photos that her father sent.  Ferrera goes back and forth between speaking Spanish and English here and throughout the episode; when she does speak Spanish, it's a little stilted and hesitant.  I suspect there was usually an interpreter available, though we never see one on camera.

Bueso says that Carlos talked about his family and often cried.  He apparently missed his children very much and had good memories.  He thought he would eventually return to the U.S., though he never did.  He didn't contact the children because he had some problems, which Bueso describes as struggles in his heart.  In Honduras he worked with computers and ran a school teaching computer skills.  He enjoyed teaching.  Bueso points out that Carlos came from a very intellectual family.

Ferrera asks if Bueso knew her grandparents.  He says he knew her grandfather, Don Carlos Ferrera, but not her grandmother, Georgina.  Ferrera says her middle name is Georgina, and the two agree she must have been named for her grandmother.  When Ferrera asks about her great-grandparents, Bueso says they were María Luisa and General Gregorio Ferrera.  (Hey, look, we found our general already!)  Bueso says that to learn more about her great-grandfather, Ferrera should go to the Municipalidad de La Esperanza and find a historian there.  She thanks him and calls him Don Romualdo; he corrects her and says she should call him Tío (Uncle) Rumi, a nice touch.

In the bridge to the next segment, Ferrera says it feels good to have learned a little more about her family.  She may never really know about her father's struggles and why he stayed out of contact, but it means a lot to know he missed his family.

Palacio Municipal de La Esperanza
It is not stated where the next segment is, but the large building we see before Ferrera is inside is the Palacio Municipal de La Esperanza, the city hall (which has a Google+ page), so that's my best guess, and it could be what Bueso was referring to.  Inside some building, Ferrera meets Latin American historian Dr. Suyapa Portillo, of Pitzer College.  Portillo starts out by saying that the records from this area are in poor condition and that it has been difficult to find much on her great-grandfather.  She then says she found one document, which she hands to Ferrera in a file folder.  It turns out to be a page from the 1895 census (censo general) of San Jerónimo (part of Jesús de Otoro), in the Department of Intibucá.  On the list of names are Sebastian Ferrera (60 years old), Gregoria Gonzales (50), and what appears to be their fifteen children, including Ciriaca (24), María (20), and Gregorio Ferrera (14).  Portillo cautions that the form does not state relationships but only the head of household, but I was able to read that Gregoria was listed as mujer (wife) of Sebastian.  So it seems that the parents of Ferrera's great-grandfather Gregorio were Sebastian Ferrera and Gregoria Gonzales, her great-great-grandparents.  Sebastian was a labrador (farmer).  Ferrera asks how her great-grandfather could have gone from being a farmer's son to a well known general.  Portillo says she knows a local historian nearby who can help her find out.

Ferrera goes to Jesús de Otoro, where she meets Professor Jesús Orelio Inestroza, a "guardian of historical documents", who has been collecting them for decades.  (So is this a personal collection?)  He says he has found many papers about Gregorio.  The first one he shows is an 1895 list of students enrolled in a school for boys, which includes the monthly "dues" (probably better translated as "tuition") that were paid.  The first name on the list is Gregorio Ferrera, and his father was Sebastian, confirming the hypothesis based on the 1895 census.  Inestroza says it was not common for a 14-year-old to still be enrolled in school at that time; most children of that age would already be working to help support their families.  The fact that Gregorio was in school indicates that education was important to Sebastian.  Ferrera sees a parallel in that her parents moved to the United States so that their children would be able to have a good education.

Next Inestroza pulls out a copy of El Monitor, a national newspaper, from 1908.  It has a short article about Gregorio Ferrera, who was leaving his position as head of internal revenue to lend support to the government in its current military campaign.  His position was going to be filled by Rafael Pineda.  Gregorio was then about 27 years old.

Inestroza explains that Gregorio was a member of the liberal party (how does he know this?  where's a document that shows it?) and loyal to the president of Honduras.  There was a threat to overthrow the president, and Gregorio was going to defend the government, probably as a volunteer.  Ferrera asks what it meant to be in the liberal party in 1908, which Inestroza doesn't really answer.  He says that there were two parties, the liberal and the nationalist, and that this period is the beginning of the civil war, when the two parties sometimes resorted to armed conflict.

The narrator steps in at this point to explain that Honduran civil wars were tied to the popularity of the banana, which had become the main export of Honduras after its introduction in 1870 to the United States.  The term "banana republic" was coined by author O. Henry to describe the control exerted by U.S. interests in the area.  Bribes, kickbacks, and shady politics were the order of the day, creating policies that were good for American companies but bad for Hondurans.  In 1908, the Cuyamel Fruit Company backed nationalists over the legitimate president, Miguel Dávila, a liberal.  Men such as Gregorio Ferrera supported the president.

Ferrera asks Inestroza how she can learn more about Gregorio.  (It's a shame we saw only two of the "many" documents Inestroza said he had found relating to Gregorio.)  Inestroza says she should go to the national archives, where there should be more documents about him.

With no interlude, Ferrera heads to the national archives in Tegucigalpa, which the narrator tells us is 100 miles east of Jesús de Otoro.  Historian Rolando Zelaya y Ferrera (incorrectly shown as Ronaldo on screen) of Universidad Unitec is there to greet her.  (I don't know how common the name Ferrera is in Honduras, but one would think the coincidence of their names would have been mentioned.)  Ferrera has asked Zelaya to look for documents about Gregorio's military career after 1908.  They are in a room filled with shelves and stacks of books and documents.  Ferrera asks if any of the information there is backed up or protected electronically, and of course the answer is no.  Zelaya says they'll have to look through them the old way.  He eventually points out one particular pile, and they move those items to a table.

An issue of La Nación from August 16, 1919 is the first document Ferrera looks at.  She notes that it was about 11 years after the last item she had seen.  The newspaper is very fragile (I wonder if it or the issue of El Monitor is available on one of the ProQuest or NewsBank databases, which would have negated the need to handle this delicate item).  A translation of an article that mentions Gregorio appears.  The article, "Victory for the Defeated of Santa María", explains that the people of Intibucá had declared that President Francisco Bertrand was in that position illegally.  Several names supporting revolt against Bertrand were given at the end, including Colonel Gregorio Herrera, which Zelaya is a typo and should read Ferrera.  The other names are all military men also.  At the end of his legitimate term, Bertrand didn't want to hold elections but instead wanted to hand the presidency over to a relative.

Ferrera is confused by this turn of events.  Previously Gregorio had fought in support of a president, but this time he is against the president.  She gets very emotional and is proud that Gregorio stood for democracy and fought for elections to be held.  Zelaya tells her that the result of this revolution was that Bertrand was exiled and elections were held.  Rafael López Gutiérrez (yet another military man) won the presidency in 1920 (in an apparently manipulated election).

And what happened after this?  Zelaya has another item, an issue of Time magazine from September 15, 1924.  (This is online, so there's absolutely no excuse for handling the original, which again looks fragile.)  López Gutiérrez's term had expired on February 1, but he had forcibly remained in office and then had died in March.  Two more generals, Arias and Bueso (possibly related to Tío Rumi?, but again not discussed) took over as dictators.  Gregorio, allied with General Tiburcio Carías, now took up arms against them.  General Vicente Tosta became the provisional president.  According to the article, three months later (reported in the August 11 issue of Time), Gregorio said that Tosta was bad for the country.

from September 15, 1924 Time magazine

Ferrera says she wishes she knew more about why Gregorio had called for a revolution against Tosta.  Zelaya explains that during the first 33 years of the 20th century, this is how things went in Honduras.  Leaders were friends, then enemies, then friends again.  Someone might be on the side of the liberals in one fight, then support the nationalists, and then return to the liberal fold.  It was constant flip-flopping.  Gregorio seemed to have no qualms about starting a revolution against a president if he didn't agree with the man's politics.

Next, in what is probably one of the lamest segues, Zelaya says he has no more documents, so maybe they should look on (at least it took them halfway through the episode before they resorted to Ancestry!).  But the comment of "right, maybe they have some more articles about him" was pretty pathetic.  Zelaya has Ferrera search for Gregorio Ferrera in Honduras and says to use the year 1925 because they want to look for items after the 1924 article.  Seriously?

San Antonio
April 16, 1925
The sad intro notwithstanding, of course Ferrera finds an article:  "Again Hearing from the Irrepressible Ferrera", in the San Antonio Express of April 16, 1925.  (When I tried the same search, the first 99[!] hits were for Gregorio.  They actually had quite a bit of material to work with, even if we saw very little on screen.)  After "reputedly fair elections", Miguel Barahona was named president.  Gregorio, noted as "a former war minister" and "notorious for his political obstinacy", was said to be leading an insurgent force, although the article points out he was hostile to Tosta, not Barahona.

Ferrera wonders if this revolution was justified or not and asks Zelaya what happened next.  He points her to the national library, where she should talk to Professor Justin Wolfe.  As she leaves, Ferrera says she didn't grow up with her father, so she hadn't known what parts of her character might have come from his side of the family (here we go back to that theme).  Now, however, she feels a direct connection with Gregorio, but she is concerned because he seems to have turned against his own allies.  She wants to know if his intentions were pure or if he had become a power-hungry warmonger.

At the Biblioteca Nacional de Honduras, Justin Wolfe of Tulane University is waiting for Ferrera.  He also says he has had trouble finding materials after 1924 for Gregorio, but he has a printed item from 1929 titled "Al Pueblo Hondureño", with Gregorio's name at the bottom.  Gregorio was about 48 years old at this point.

The document, which unfortunately Wolfe does not explain the purpose or origin of (maybe it was a manifesto?), was addressed to the Honduran people.  It begins with a comment about a long and painful exile.  After the overthrow of Tosta in 1924, Gregorio had become persona non grata in Honduras and had to leave for a few years.  Now he is returning for Honduran peace.  He promises there will be no more revolutions or agitation and speaks of one flag to be symbolic of the future of the country.  He wants people to unite for the nation's peace and prosperity.  He talks about engaging in daily work and a modest living and declaims any interest in an official post.  The document is dated February 1, 1929, San Pedro Sula.  Sounds good, right?

Wolfe says the document is typical of what you could expect from Latin American caudillos.  These were powerful, regional strongmen, often with military ties, who controlled various areas.

The narrator explains that after independence from Spain in the early 19th century, many Latin American countries suffered from instability.  Caudillos often became champions of the poor and marginalized.  The local residents of Intibucá backed Gregorio Ferrera and made up the bulk of his armies.

Ferrera comments that Gregorio had come back without guns blazing and seemed to have had a more enlightened view.  But what did he do after this?  Wolfe says there was very little information but in the U.S. national archives he found a confidential communication, dated October 18, 1930, sent from the American consulate in Honduras to the U.S. Secretary of State.  The letter says that the electoral campaign in Honduras was becoming more acrimonious.  The then-current president, Vicente Mejía, was a liberal, but it was believed the nationalists might win the next election, which could give them a springboard to the presidency.  Recent reports about General Ferrera were disquieting, and the legation feared trouble if his candidates were defeated.  Colonel Maloney, an American civilian (a colonel is a civilian?) living in San Pedro Sula, had supplied some information.  Gregorio and his men were said to have about 200 rifles, 1,000 grenades, and five machine guns.  One comment was that "Ferrera is a difficult person to control."

So not even one year after Gregorio's "I come in peace" declaration, here he goes again.  General Carías was the leader of the nationalist party, and it seems that Gregorio had shifted in his loyalties.  The incumbent was liberal, but now Gregorio was supporting the nationalists.  Was this shift a betrayal of the state, or loyalty to the people?

The consulate document has more information.  The Honduran minister for foreign affairs was concerned about Gregorio and was urging the United Fruit Company to do something about him.  The United Fruit Company was financing Gregorio's cattle and banana ventures, so he was on some level obligated to the company.  United Fruit had a monopoly in the international banana trade, but the Great Depression had affected their revenues.  Earlier Gregorio had appeared to be idealistic, but now it looked as though he was "paid for" and under the thumb of a corporation.  It was difficult to know how much Gregorio was still supporting the people versus just being a tool of the company, but Ferrera comments that if he had been just a tool, it is unlikely there would have been much trepidation about what he would do.  Wolfe agrees.

From this we go directly to finding out about Gregorio's death.  Wolfe hands Ferrera another newspaper, this one dated June 27, 1931 (El [something]; the title was on the top of the page, but it was very small on screen).  The big headline was about the body of General Ferrera being sent to his wife and children in San Pedro Sula.  So one year after the consulate communication, Gregorio was dead, at the age of 50.  The article, by J. Antonio Inestroza (related to our "guardian of historical documents" perhaps?), says that the body had been checked to verify his identity.  It called him the principal enemy of Honduran peace.

Ferrera is astute enough to wonder if this was a national newspaper and whether the people in power would have controlled the perspective presented in the article.  Wolfe agrees that is indeed the case.  Gregorio was fighting against the government again, but on the side of the nationalists.  The unanswered question is still whether he was driven by his interest in the people of his country or by his own personal interests.

To try to answer that question, at least in part, Wolfe brings out a book.  Los Hijos del Copal Candela is what the cover shows, though it should be Los Hijos del Copal y la Candela ("Children of the Copal and the Candle").  The book was written by an anthropologist (Anne Chapman) who worked in the Intibucá region in the early 1960's.  Wolfe picks one interview, with Rómulo Gómez, who fought as a soldier with Gregorio.  Gomez said he was always on Gregorio's side.  Wolfe adds that people from Intibucá were "Ferreristas" and that many died following him.  Whatever reasons he may have had for what he did, he had the support of the local people, who loved him.  The interviews were conducted more than 30 years after Gregorio's death, and it was apparent that the interviewees still remembered him and his charisma.

Ferrera comes to the conclusion that whatever Gregorio was fighting for, it was clear he was fighting against dictatorship.  When Honduras had one dominant political party and one dominant fruit company things were stable, but the people had no options.  Gregorio fought for the people to have options, but that fight came with sacrifice.

A realization that hits Ferrera comes from the headline of the article:  Gregorio's body had been delivered to his wife and children.  It was easy to forget that he was not just a general but also a father and husband, part of a family, and she too is part of that family.  Overall, Gregorio was a complicated man and an enigma in Honduran history.  The interviews showed, though, that people who followed him respected him.

To close out the episode, Wolfe suggests that Ferrera visit Gregorio's home town of San Jerónimo.  There she finds a community center (salon de actos) dedicated to Gregorio.  It was finished or dedicated August 30, 2014, which seems a little too coincidental to me.  I suspect it exists because of the research done for this program.  But Ferrera is proud to have learned that her great-grandfather was a local hero and is still a legend 100 years later.

Ferrera has been involved with politics for a while and never questioned why it was important to her, or what parts of herself came from her father.  Now she "knows" and is proud to be part of a family that was willing to defend its ideals.  Her family history inspires her, which is a great thing to come out of an opportunity like this.

The Spanish-language Wikipedia has a page for Gregorio Ferrera.  It begins with a comment on how Gregorio was who people thought of when they talked about a caudillo and ends with a reference to a book published in 1933, El verdadero origen de la muerte del General Gregorio Ferrera ("The Truth about the Death of General Gregorio Ferrera").  Now there's a source I wish they had used during the show!  The page also includes a list of many of the battles in which Gregorio participated.

Several of the links I used for this post go to Spanish-language pages because the pages available in English had such limited information I did not think they were worthwhile references.  If you do not read Spanish, use Google Translate or a browser add-on, and you can get the gist of the articles.

Something I found while checking links for this write-up was a photo (undated) of Gregorio, which I was surprised they did not use in the episode.  But since I did find it, here's what our hero looked like.
Sheboygan Press, April 21, 1931


  1. Thank you for that detailed write-up and your additional research!


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