My father's family landed in 1942 Los Angeles as if by immaculate conception, unburdened by any past.
Growing up, I knew all about how my mother's grandparents came to California from southern France and Sweden. But my dad's side was a mystery.
All I heard were a few stories about my grandfather as a youth in Hannibal, Mo., how he found a tarantula in a shipment of bananas at his dad's corner store, how he and a friend once rode motorcycles out west. But no one talked about Mozingos further back, or where they came from.
I might never have given the subject any thought except for a strange word: our name. All my life, people had asked me about it.
I began to look into it, and the more I learned, the more I realized our history had been buried. My curiosity turned to compulsion. I had to unearth the truth about our origins and the forces that had obscured them for centuries. I wanted to know my forebears and feel myself among them, to see if their forgotten personalities and struggles and secrets somehow still lived within us.
I set out last year to learn our story, traveling from the Tidewater of Virginia to the hollows of Kentucky and southeastern Indiana and beyond. At times, I struggled to absorb what I was finding, and I met Mozingos who were skeptical of it, or ambivalent, or fiercely resistant.
I learned that our early ancestry reflected not so much a quirk of American history as the messy start of it, seeding a furious internal conflict that continues today.
With us, the whole battle was embodied in a family — and a name.
My parents always said they thought "Mozingo" was Italian. But this was offered only as theory.
We were open to suggestions.
One came from an acquaintance who said he found a bunch of Mozingos in a phone book in the Imperial Valley and was told they all were Basque shepherds. On this authority, we became French Basque.
Next we heard that "Mozingo" was an Americanized version of "Mont Zingeau," a mountain in France or maybe Switzerland I could never find on a map.
All of this was beginning to feel a bit dubious when I met Sherrie Mazingo, whose name is a variation of ours. Sherrie was a broadcast journalism professor at USC when I was a grad student there in 1996.
She was black — and she had news.
She'd learned from genealogists at a family reunion in North Carolina that the Mozingos probably descended from a "Bantu warrior" from the Congo who became an indentured servant in Virginia in the 1600s.
That would mean that all Mozingos in America — including me, who grew up in Dana Point, the blue-eyed, surfing son of a dentist — had a Bantu last name.
My first reaction was to laugh. But upon further reflection, it seemed feasible. Ten or so generations had passed. Traces of a race could easily disappear in three.
My family took the news as a great lark, while duly noting that my grandmother would roll over in her grave.