3
May

How to do a Cultural Heritage Interview

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Have you ever wondered how to do a cultural heritage interview? Do you want to know cultural heritage interview questions that you could ask your relatives who immigrated to the United States, or are descendants of immigrants?

In this post, I’ll discuss:

  • Why it is important to document our ancestor’s cultural heritage by interviewing them (if possible) and their descendants
  • The best cultural heritage questions to ask during a cultural heritage interview

I have great-great grandparents born in the Netherlands, Germany, Slovakia, and Poland – six ancestors in all born in these countries. Five out of my eight great-grandparents were children of immigrants, and I’m sure most of them heard some fascinating stories from their parents growing up.

What did they miss most about their native country? Was it hard to learn English? What were their favorite cultural traditions? Favorite foods?

I’ll never know the answer to these questions.

Is it important to document our ancestors’ cultural heritage?

Why is it important to document our ancestors’ experiences as immigrants and their cultural heritage? Most of the unanswered questions I have about my ancestors are related to their culture and their experience as immigrants to the United States.

I already know what my experience was like growing up as an American, so I’m more interested in what it was like for them to leave their home country to begin a new life somewhere far away.

I wish that my parents and grandparents had had the time and the inclination to talk with their parents and grandparents to ask them the questions that I include below in this post. It would have been amazing to add their experiences to the historical record of our family tree.

All of us can find immigrants or descendants of immigrants in our family trees. Our immigrant ancestors left behind one country and culture, and became part of a new one here in the US.

They may not have given much thought to the cultural traditions they and their descendants might lose, or the culture they might gain, by coming to a new country.

As someone who married and started a family with a person who immigrated to the United States, it’s something that is on my mind almost every day. I see my husband teaching our children about his life growing up in an indigenous Mexican village in Central Mexico and think about the future.

Will our children remember his stories about foraging for mushrooms in the forests on the skirts of Popocatepetl? Will they remember the Nahuatl words he has taught them, and know that a rabbit is a tochtle?

Is it possible that they will be able to describe the taste of their grandmother’s tlatloyos made with heirloom beans passed down within the family for generations?

If I don’t write these stories down to document my husband’s life and experience, there is a good chance that our children will forget.

And if they forget, they will never be able to pass this information down to their passionate and curious descendants who would love to know about their great-grandfather’s experience loving and leaving Mexico to start our beautiful life in the United States.

How to learn about your immigrant ancestors’ culture?

Is there a way to avoid the loss of your family’s cultural heritage? I recommend doing “cultural heritage” interviews with as many older family members as you can.

Cultural heritage interviews don’t have to be stressful and formal. Even though you will be taking notes, think of it like an informal conversation between relatives.

What if you don’t know where your ancestors were from?

It’s tough to do a cultural heritage interview if you don’t know where your ancestors were from, and there is no one to speak with about your ancestry.

In this case, I strongly recommend taking a DNA test with one of the DNA testing companies below. This is the best way to learn as much as possible about your roots to begin the process of discovering your heritage.

If you use a link below to make a purchase, I may get a small commission at no extra cost to you. It helps support the education that I do on this site, so thanks!

Questions to ask during a cultural heritage interview

The following questions will serve as conversation prompts during the cultural heritage interviews that you conduct with your family members. It’s absolutely fine if your question reminds your relative of something that they would like to tell you about.

Let your relative tell you any information that they feel is relevant to your question. Just make sure to take good notes. You can always go back through and organize your notes later on.

I’m assuming that you already know the basics about your relative, but just in case, make sure to ask them their biographical information. Date of birth, place of birth, and names of parents are biographical detail important for your documentation of family history.

The following are questions that you can ask during a cultural heritage interview documenting your family’s cultural history:

These questions are phrased as if you are addressing a relative who is a first-generation immigrant. If your relative is the child or grandchild of a first generation immigrant, then you might have to change the wording of the questions slightly to make sure they make sense.

1. What was the name of the town that you lived in in your country of origin? Did your family always live there, or did they come from somewhere else?

2. Why did you, or your ancestors, decide to immigrate to the United States?

3. Did the entire family come, or did some relatives stay behind? If some stayed behind, who were they? Did you maintain contact with them?

4. What was the journey to the United States like? How did you travel? Were you worried about what to expect once you got here?

5. What did you bring with you on your trip to immigrate to the United States? What did you leave behind?

6. When you or your ancestors came, were there plans to return home eventually?

7. Did your parents meet in the United States, or did they meet in your home country?

8. What languages do they speak where you come from? Which of those languages do you speak? Which did your parents and grandparents speak?

9. Do you remember any stories about your grandparents or even great-grandparents?

10. Describe your favorite traditional dish, and how it was prepared. Who usually prepared it for family meals?

11. Which holidays were the most important to you growing up? How were they celebrated? Were there special foods or dishes prepared in celebration of those holidays?

12. Do you have any photographs or items that are from your country of origin? What are they? Why are they important to you?

13. What are the differences between where you were born and where you live now? What are the similarities?

14. What is it you miss most about where you grew up?

15. How often do you speak your native language?

16. Is there a tradition or celebration that you hope that your descendants maintain?

What to do with information learned in a cultural heritage interview?

Some details learned in the interviews you conduct with family members can be added directly to your family tree. For example, names, dates of birth, and places of birth are important items that should be added to your relative’s profiles on your family tree building site.

(For the record, I absolutely love building my trees on Ancestry and highly recommend it to everyone. It’s free, too!)

Your notes can be scanned into a PDF document, or you can type them up and save them as a PDF file to be added to your tree at some point in the future.

Remember that it is important to keep your living relatives’ information private, so if your notes contain details about living people, you should not put them on a public family tree or anywhere on the internet. You can keep them on your computer, or in a physical file where you store your genealogy research.

Conclusion

I hope that this post has helped you understand the importance of cultural heritage interviews and the basic questions that could be asked in such an interview.

If you have any questions about something that you read in this post, or would like to share your own experience conducting cultural heritage interviews with family members, please join us in the discussion below.

Thanks for being here today!

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