by Augustine Villa
As a junior in chemical engineering, when I began seriously thinking about my Honors project this spring my immediate thoughts were on research. I have done research in several disciplines across Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, and even in the Psychology department, but never felt the deep connection that I wanted to have with my Honors project. I wanted to pursue something that was special to me and that I would be proud to remember. I also felt that it would be awesome to pursue something completely unique, something that I had not heard of anyone else doing for their project. Unfortunately, for much of this semester, I was unable to put my finger on something that would fulfill my visions for a project.
This spring, my 89 year old paternal grandfather came with us on my family’s spring break trip to Arizona. Talking with him on the 20 hour drive to our destination, I realized that I wanted to preserve my family’s history, memories, and opinions in a way that I could access later and share with others. My father’s side of the family in particular abounds with interesting and intriguing stories and lineage over the last several generations, and that is something that I want to capture and preserve. I think that doing so through my Honors project will not only give me even stronger motivation to document my family’s history, it will also hopefully help me find resources to help me do it in a professional manner that can be saved and shared for generations to come.
In talking with my grandfather previously and over Spring break, I learned so much about his life, my family’s history, and what it means to be a Villa, but each time I see him I appreciate more and more each story he has conveyed, and I don’t want them to be lost. Through him I have learned that my great-great-great grandparents were a duke and duchess in France during the French revolution. Due to the revolution, they fled to Haiti. They later were forced to flee Haiti as the unrest spread to the island (which was a French colony at the time I believe). They ended up in Spain, which is where some of my distant relatives continue to live to this day, including my 3rd cousin David Villa who starred on Spain’s World Cup winning team several years ago. My great grandfather was born in Spain, but as a teen stowed away on a ship to get to the United States. It appears my bad sense of direction may be genetic, because he did not end up in the United States, but rather in Cuba.
Both of my paternal grandparents were born in Cuba, and my grandfather attended the University of Havana at the same time as the infamous Fidel Castro. My grandfather was studying to become a doctor, and Fidel was attending Law school at the University. Unfortunately (or fortunately), they knew each other and did not get along, as my grandfather disagreed with many of the ideas Fidel loudly proclaimed. He also describes Fidel as a guy who felt like everybody owed everything to him, that he was better than everyone else, and thus could never take criticism well. He also disliked Fidel because of one particular incident in a Havana bar. My grandfather was there with his girlfriend at the time (I believe it was my eventual grandmother but have to confirm), and Fidel walked in. Fidel proceeded to make several rude comments to my grandfather’s girlfriend, at which my grandfather punched Fidel in the face. Fidel left immediately and gave my grandfather much less trouble over the rest of their time at the University.
Luckily, after working for a short time at a hospital in Cuba, my grandfather came over to Chicago to teach doctors in the US how to do a laparoscopy. He has lived in the same house ever since moving over. Hopefully this one story gives insight into the pride I feel in my family’s history and why I have chosen (pending official approval) to pursue full documentation of my family’s history with interviews and eventually a website or other method of electronic documentation for sharing.