Sam Ortiz, 37, is a Nuyorican — a title combining Puerto Rican heritage with New York City roots. He grew up with his parents in the city and remains close to his family today. When his grandparents immigrated from Puerto Rico to start a life in the states, “they started with so little,” said Ortiz. At least, that’s what he always heard from his mother’s stories growing up: His grandfather, born in Puerto Rico, passed away two weeks after Ortiz was born. And still, his childhood was full of pride for a rich family history — a history he knew was one of love and sacrifice, but one he didn’t know much else about.
A trip to Puerto Rico at 23 kickstarted Ortiz’s eventual full-time passion and career as a commercial and portrait photographer. Today, he walks the streets of NYC most often with a camera in hand. His days are dedicated to telling people’s stories, but it wasn’t until recently that he decided to dig a little deeper into his own.
Puerto Rican culture is seen, heard, and celebrated throughout New York City as an integral part of the community. But despite growing up in this vibrancy, Ortiz still felt a disconnect from his ancestors. With Ancestry, Ortiz was able to not only read about his family lineage, but also explore images and documents from his late grandfather. His findings led to a burst of creative inspiration, and with the holiday season around the corner, his first thought was to share what he learned as a gift to his mother.
Read on for Ortiz’s creative process as he discovered more about his familial roots.
How did you discover photography as a medium?
I can’t say that I know for sure when I started taking photos. Looking back I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t take photos. My family was very keen on keeping photo albums and keeping framed photos of each other throughout our homes. My grandma in particular set the tone for this. I remember going to her place throughout the years and having a good laugh at all of the family’s old photos throughout her apartment and in her photo albums. The value of capturing those moments was something that always stuck with me and made me continue to want to document life. I’d say that’s what got me into photography.
What did you do when you found your family information on Ancestry?
I decided to put together a photography project around my Ancestry discoveries to show my mom. I layered all of the digital documents I found on Ancestry with photos of the physical documents and mementos my mother kept from her childhood. Together, they made up the base of my art piece. I then used the information I discovered on Ancestry to track down the exact address my grandfather moved to when he first arrived in the Lower East Side, and I snapped some photos of that street and area. My grandparents lived their entire lives in NYC on that street, which made it extra special. I added in a photograph of my grandparents wedding photo that I took through a Hasselblad film camera — giving it a vintage feel. This became the center of the final project.
The more you observe the final image, the more you discover. Like my experience with Ancestry, you can’t help but feel drawn to the details — to keep digging and learning new information.
How did your mom react to the gift?
This opportunity to explore and discover these things on Ancestry…I mean, what better gift could I give my mom. I’m very close to her already, but I know she was moved by how much I want to learn about my grandparents. In my pursuit to learn more about my mom’s family, I started to learn more about her, too. For my mom, she never needs some big plot twist or crazy finding for it to really mean something. The fact that I took the time at all to learn more about her family is enough to bring us closer together.
How did you feel going through the documents and photos you found on Ancestry?
I felt an overwhelming connection to my grandparents. It was one that I never felt before — there was so much excitement and emotion. It was surprising to see such detailed documents that still exist. For me, learning more about my family was a huge step in learning more about myself. It became my source of encouragement that the choices I made in my life were the right ones.
The idea to turn your discoveries into a photography project feels so special. Where do you see creativity in your family?
Thinking about it now, my family is very creative. I grew up surrounded by music in particular, but we’re sort of all over the place in terms of each other’s individual creative talents. My parents have recorded Grammy award-winning albums singing with their church choir. Creativity has always been a form of expression for us, but I think I’m the first of my family to do something creative as a full-time job.
What do you think your grandparents would think of your life today?
When I was working as an IT professional for close to 14 years, I realized I was simply not happy doing that job. I felt like I needed to step out of my comfort zone and work toward something I’d be proud of and that would give me a better quality of life. In a way, it’s very much like what my grandparents did when they came here. The risk they took eventually paid off, because it provided a better life for me and my parents. Ever since I took that leap and made that career change, I’ve been working hard to achieve success and make my grandparents proud. They didn’t sacrifice everything for me to conform to other people’s expectations. They did so I could live a life on my own terms. Finding out more about them reminds me that I’m continuing their legacy and making sure their hard work, bravery, and sacrifice wasn’t in vain.
Are you proud of your family history?
Growing up, I was always proud when I’d hear my mom tell me stories about her parents. They started with so little and lived such difficult lives, but they managed to fight to stay afloat. At the same time, they encouraged their kids to take full advantage of the hard work and sacrifice they were making on their behalf. My grandfather had a short life and my grandmother suffered great losses during her time here. But if they could see how much my family pushes to keep their dreams going today, I have no doubt they’d do it all over again.
Share the gift of discovery with your family and friends this holiday season. Get started with Ancestry.
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