iMahal Interview Series:
July 22, 2001
Gimbel: To talk about my upbringing, I need to set the family cultural context, because my upbringing was strongly influenced by my family background, which is very mixed. My father's great-great grandfather was a German Jew who came to the US from Bavaria in the mid-1830s. He emigrated partially as a reaction to the anti-semitism that was prevalent during the Metternich regime and partially to escape forced military service. As I understand it he arrived in the port of New Orleans, purchased a rifle and some other goods and set out to work as a trapper and fur trader along the Mississippi River. By the age of twenty five, he established a trading post in Vincennes, Indiana, which had the unusual policy of fixed prices and customer refunds. At the time, these policies were unheard of, particularly among minority groups such as Native Americans, who generally received less preferential economic treatment. Eventually his offspring expanded the business into a series of department stores, which no longer exist.
My mother's family was part English and part Spanish. Some of them came to New England in the 17th century, so they must have had the similarly dubious distinction of leaving Europe for religious or political reasons.
In my childhood I was fortunate in many ways. I had a very supportive and close family, with strong family structure. I got a very good education. I had a grandfather in the US while growing up who was a caring mentor. We had a close relationship. I was also close to my great-grandmother. In our household, we had help who spoke Spanish. As a result, I learned Spanish before I actually learned English. This allowed me to relate to my Spanish linguistic identity.
I don't think I had any particular heroes. Perhaps I am different from other people in this respect. Though maybe I could say that a hero for me was my grandfather on my mother's side. He came to the US from Cuba at a very young age, and considered himself Spanish, Catalonian to be more precise. He was born in Cuba in 1905, seven years after Spain's defeat in the Spanish-American War and I think that that historical incident must have profoundly affected his sense of identity.
According to what he told me his family came to the New World because they were "segundos," the "second sons" of aristocratic families who would therefore receive no inheritance. Traditionally, segundos either entered the priesthood, or went of to make their fortune in the New World.
All photographs copyright and courtesy of David Gimbel or Archaeos