For some of us who exemplify the proverbial melting pot, though, finding an emotional link to the past can be tricky. My sons, for instance, are a typical American stew of ancestral ingredients. They are made of English, Irish, German, Swedish and Hungarian stock, with a pinch of Native American thrown in.
They are also part Basque, and it is this piece of their heritage — my heritage — that I recently set out to explore.
For the past few weeks I've been traveling with my family in Spain, and we spent some time in the northern corner of the county straddling the French border that is home to the Basque people.
I visited the village that my ancestors hailed from, and which gave me my name: Apodaca, or Apodaka, as the Basques spell it.
I'll indulge in a little bragging. The Basques are an ancient race, fiercely proud, hardy and independent. They endured through one conquering army after another; the Romans, Visigoths, Vikings and Moors were unable to dislodge their customs or their strange language filled with Xs and Ks, Euskera, which is unrelated to any other language on Earth.
Even the geography, dominated by rugged green mountains and lush hillsides, stands in defiant contrast to the rest of Spain.
The Basques were skilled farmers, shepherds, fishermen and shipbuilders and they were avid explorers and settlers of the New World. They crewed Columbus' expeditions. A Basque sailor and navigator, Juan Sebastian Elcano, completed the first round-the-world voyage after Magellan was killed.
Other Basque contributions include the sport known as pelota, or jai alai; the Jesuits, founded by the Basque St. Ignatius de Loyola, and those jaunty-looking berets.