"Christy Turlington is latina?" Mariah Carey sounds surprised to hear that the also-very-famous supermodel is half-Salvadoran. "Wow," she says. "I guess it's not that shocking that some people don't know I'm part Venezuelan."
Part Venezuelan, part African American, and part Irish, to be exact. When it comes to her ethnicity, it's been said that if Mariah married Tiger Woods, the pair would represent the entire census report. But Mariah's cultural background has been a big issue before she was even born: Her Irish maternal grandparents never forgave her mother, Patricia, for marrying Alfred Roy Carey, who was African American and Venezuelan. Mariah would later discover that racial issues weren't restricted to her mother's side of the family.
Mariah's parents divorced when she was 3 years old, and she was raised by her mother. For long periods she was estranged from her father, so she grew up knowing that she was triracial without being exactly sure what that meant to her.
As a performer, Mariah knows no cultural boundaries. Her music is popular across the board (she is the best-selling female singer of all time), and she can be claimed by white, black, and brown audiences alike. But at the core of every multiracial child is the question of identity who you are, where you come from, how others see you, and how you see yourself. And there is always the question, which comes both from others and from yourself: Is quarter enough? Can you quality how "Latina" you are by the amount of Hispanic blood that flows within you?
Recently, through a series of events that combined love, success, and tragedy, Mariah began to search for her Venezuelan roots and, ultimately, her answers to these questions.
"My father was mostly African American, and his father was Venezuelan. But we don't know if he was Venezuelan and white or Venezuelan and black." Mariah says of the twisting branches of her father's family tree. "We're confused."
For Mariah, life has been a series of separations and reunions that either fill in gaps of her background or create new ones. In addition to the feuding between her mother and grandparents, Mariah's father and his father were also estranged. "I didn't meet my paternal grandfather until I was about 6 years old because my father's parents divorced when he was a little boy. He was raised by his mother, Addie, who was African American," she relates.
Growing up in Harlem and the Bronx, New York, Alfred Roy identified more with his African American side. "But as he got older," Mariah recounts, "he wanted to investigate more of every aspect of what he was. That's when he started on his quest to trace his roots."
It was daunting project from the start. "My father just told me a story this past year," Mariah says. "We had always thought that 'Carey' was a name that my grandfather made up. But what we found out is that my great-grandmother Margarita Nunez was with a man named Carey. They weren't married, but my grandfather took his name because he was actually his father." Adding to the mystery was Mr. Carey's lineage: "Apparently he had red hair and freckles, but he could've been black or white. We just don't know."
Family history is often passed down through storytelling and folklore, but occasionally memories blur with time. "My grandfather would tell stories about his childhood in Venezuela, but they changed from time to time because he was young when he came here," Mariah says wistfully.
Sometimes the only thing you can do is go back to where it all began.
Mariah was born in Long Island, New York, 33 years ago. Her life has been marked by struggle. In addition t her parent's divorce and her estrangement from her father, she was not exactly well off growing up. She has admitted to being a workaholic who often pushes herself to the brink of exhaustion (remember her much publicized emotional and physical breakdown of 2001?), motivated by a fear of going broke.
That seems unlikely to happen. Her Cinderella story began when she was discovered by the Sony Music Entertainment executive Tommy Mottola, who later became her mentor and husband. Mariah's career soon skyrocketed, and it has continued to climb, even after her divorce from Mottola; a huge recording contract that went bust; a movie, Glitter, that wasn't exactly a box-office smash; and the infamous breakdown. Showing the world that those momentary setbacks, Mariah released a hit album, Charmbracelet, late this year.
Of course, there's a lot of hard work involved in maintaining Mariah's diva status and that means traveling the world to perform, do interviews, meet adoring fans, and participate in fund-raisers such as Teleton 2002: Juntos Haremos el Milagro, a fund-raising concert in Mexico to benefit children with disabilities in Latin America. A diva, however, can choose where she wants to go. "I was going to be near Venezuela on a promotional trip, so I asked to make a stop, Mariah says. "I wanted to experience what it felt like to be there."
It was quite a journey. Though she's never visited the country before, the Venezuelan people greeted her with banners hailing her arrival "home." "They were so welcoming," she says, deeply moved. "They said they were so glad to have me there."
Her fellow Venezuelans were so eager to help Mariah trace her family that a TV show ran a contest for anyone who had information about Mariah's grandfather. It was a nice idea that backfired. "My grandfather was an elderly man who passed away about seven years ago, and guys who were about 40 years old were showing up saying, 'I'm Mariah Carey's grandfather!'"
More successful was a trip to the town where Mariah's great-grandmother Margarita Nunez was born. "We did some extensive research and discovered some people who may be related to my grandfather. I talked to anyone who might have more information because my father had found researching his family tree particularly on the Venezuelan side," Mariah sighs. "The way he was, it kind of took him a long time to get around to doing things like that."
Mariah was able to her father about the trip to the town, the information she'd discovered, and the connection she felt to Venezuela before Alfred Roy passed away last summer, on July 4 and yet another link within the family was lost.
A few days in Holland, a day or two in England. Then it's on to Japan and Hong Kong and back to New York, Wherever Mariah goes, the question of race rarely matters. To the rest of the world, she is an American.
"That how Luis saw me," she says, referring to Luis Miguel, the famous balladeer who was her boyfriend for about a year and a half. "He's from Mexico, so to him I was an American and would have been even if I was a full-blooded Latina." In some ways, though, the two were able to connect on a cultural level. "He would teach me Spanish, and he knew all about my background. Luis was actually with me in Venezuela," Mariah reveals, though she rarely talks about him anymore. The two broke up early in the summer of 2001.
With loss, sometimes there is gain, and after Alfred Roy died, Mariah was reunited with her family once more." After my father passed away, we all got together. It was almost as if no time had passed. They still have the same house that I used to go to when I was little! I got to see all the people on my father's side, my cousins, and my step-grandmother, Nana Ruby, who is still alive."
Mariah's extended family includes her father's half-sisters, who took the information Mariah gathered in Venezuela to continue researching the family tree. "Someday I'll get to meet the rest of them," Mariah says.
And so the search continues, both within the family and with Mariah herself. "I feel like a little bit of everything because that's what I am," she says. "And I'm not saying I feel Latina above and beyond the other parts of me because I don't want to sound as if I'm jumping on a bandwagon, suddenly saying, 'I feel more Spanish than anything!'
"But," she says, searching for the words to convey her feelings, "I do feel a connection with the place, with the people, with that part of me. It's a very important part of who I am. And maybe there are some people out there who think a quarter Venezuelan is not a lot... Well, may be only one quarter," she smiles, "but it's a strong quarter."