There is an email sitting in my inbox that has the potential to change my life.
A few weeks ago I sent my DNA for analysis by one of the more reputable organizations that perform such services, and the link with my results finally arrived. Maybe now my sister and I will – finally – learn who we really are.
You see, there are some mysteries in my family. I’ve been intrigued with the idea of DNA analysis to discover our racial/ethnic origin for years, and I’ve been patiently waiting for the genetic databases to get larger and the price to get smaller. The organization I chose, 23&me, did a great job reminding me at more than one step of the process that once one knows their results, they can’t “unknow” them. Given that the results include genetic information with possible medical implications, this warning is entirely appropriate. But apparently some folks can be unpleasantly startled by what their genes reveal about their racial and geographic origins. However, I welcome this. The questions I, my sister, and mother pondered for years might finally be answered! But I’m nervous to know – what if they’re not answered, or the answers raise more questions?
The main question my sister and I have is – what is our true racial and ethnic background? As far as we knew growing up we were White. My father, born and raised in New Orleans, was light-skinned and descended from German, Dutch and French stock. Both of my parents have (or had, my mother died in 1999) “dark brown” hair and “dark brown” eyes. But my mother’s hair was really black. Her eyes – when she was a child – were “black like two olives” and her skin was “olive toned”.
I don’t remember how the topic of race first came up in our family. It sounds strange now, but when I was a child, my mother made me a brown-eyed doll because she couldn’t find one to buy without blue eyes. As kids, I remember noticing how much darker my two siblings were than me – I was jealous of how my little sister could run around outside in her wading pool with no sunscreen for an hour and come inside several shades darker. Most of the kids my brother and I went to school with in the Los Angeles area were African American, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Armenian and Latino (mostly Mexican). We didn’t look like any of the few White (blond) kids at our public school in a poor neighborhood, and we definitely didn’t look like the rich White (blond) kids at church who didn’t seem to like us very much. I understand now that this was probably more about social class than race, but I also couldn’t help but notice that our only friends at church were kids from the one Korean family, the one African American family, and one other White family whose son went to a “ghetto” school like we did, had a curly blond “fro”, and could “dance Black.”
My Mom knew a lot about her background. Her mother was a Scudder – as in Laura Scudder – and they were big on genealogy. Her family had lots of documents and lots of stories. Mom always explained her coloring as a result of having been descended from a long line of German, English, and Scots-Irish peasants who spent a couple hundred years “running around the backwoods” of the New World, likely intermingling with local Native Americans. She’d also shrug and comment that “everyone invaded the British Isles at some point” so maybe there were some swarthy southern European or Moorish folk in her bloodline from hundreds of years ago. I was fascinated by the stories of how my grandmother would get asked if she were a babysitter – or if her three children had different fathers – because her kids looked so different from one another. My Mom was the middle child and the only girl. Her older brother has lighter skin, brown hair, and hazelish eyes. Her younger brother is pale and blond with ice blue eyes. When we got together with my Mom’s side of the family, I loved taking photos of my brother with my cousin Claire, the younger daughter of my pale uncle. You couldn’t imagine two more differently-colored kids – like one was a film negative of the other – much less that they’d be cousins. Even though I didn’t know the word as a child, I lived the muilticolored family and genetic mysteries that are part and parcel of the mestizaje (race mixing) typical of Latin Americans I came to know and love later in life.
Speaking of photos, I noticed that in the old pictures from my Mom’s childhood, she really stood out – a raven-haired brown kid amongst Whiteness. Years later after both she and her mother were gone, I brought some of those old photos to share at my grandma’s funeral. One of my cousins took one look at my mother playing on a beach in the mid 1940s and said “oh my gosh, Aunt Jane looks so Mexican!” It was true. But she wasn’t always alone in her brownness – my grandfather was also dark-skinned with black hair, unlike any of his five siblings that made it past childhood. Born and raised in a tiny town in rural Pennsylvania, my grandfather’s mother Ada Lea had been an illegitimate child born into a Mennonite community. The story went that her mother (my great-great grandmother) had gotten pregnant by a man who’d promised to marry her, and once she was with child, abandoned them both. She burned the only photo she had of her child’s father, and all we know is his last name was Reeder. We speculated that perhaps this mystery man had been Native American.
Over the years, more stories and mysteries had accumulated. One day when I was a teen, my mother told me about having gone to the dentist and the hygienist who cleaned her teeth asked her what tribe she was. The hygienist was Cherokee and told my Mom she had formations on her teeth (I assume the shovel shape I also have) that typically are found only in Native Americans. There was another time in my early 20s when my mother was casually describing how my sister had had a large blue birthmark at the base of her spine when she was born, and the doctors said it would go away when she got older. I about fell over, and exclaimed, “What?! Mom, that’s the Mongolian spot!” Also called “blue butt” among some Native American groups, this is a trait found primarily in Asian and Native American children.
After stories like these, and after looking around my grandma’s funeral and noticing the only brown people there were my two siblings and my cousin Eric (younger son of my mother’s older brother who, by the way, I watched roast — without using sunscreen — to a dark mahogany during a two-week family river rafting trip) I concluded the mystery blood was much more recent than the Romans or our colonial ancestors “running around the backwoods”, and that it came from my grandfather. I’d even asked my grandmother a few years before she passed if she had any insights about our coloring, or if it was possible her mother-in-law had gotten pregnant with my grandfather out of wedlock. Who knows what went on in those tiny rural towns, Pennsylvania Dutch Brethren Church members or not! But Grandma insisted that Ada Lea was “a saint”.
In the meantime, my own life, and that of my siblings, has been colored by our color. We used to tease my brother that he could become an international spy, because people came up to him all the time speaking all manner of languages – Arabic, Farsi, Armenian, Spanish. As a teen, my sister got scolded by a young Chicano one summer (after weeks of boogie-boarding in the California sun) for “denying her heritage” by not speaking back to him in Spanish. She passed for Italian when she lived in Italy as a young adult. She was scrutinized at airports just after 9/11.
As for me, I pass as White, Hispanic/Latina, Mexican, or Argentinian depending on where I am, what language I’m speaking, and who I’m talking to. I learned Spanish as a teenager (in school and in my surroundings) and found a home in Mexico, where I like to say I came of age in Mexico City at age 20… mi México, a culture where I’ve always seemed to fit better than the U.S., and where I was accepted, loved, and mentored in ways I never was in my country or family of origin. I was university educated in Los Angeles and Mexico City, and lived and worked in the barrios of Los Angeles after graduation. I’ve dated almost exclusively Latino and Latin American men. I’ve travelled extensively in Mexico and Latin America, and lived and worked professionally in western Mexico for a few years in my late 20s. I’ve essentially lived a bilingual and bicultural life for 23 years, the last 11 of which have been in the only majority Hispanic state in the U.S. — New Mexico.
And, I have my mother’s eyes. While mine were never “black as olives”, they are getting lighter and greener with age like hers. When she died at 55, my mother’s black olive eyes had faded to the color of green olives. Apparently this is a trait often found among mestizos – mixed-race – people. It seems to be especially common in Guatemala, and the hazel-like color has a name in Latin America – ojos de miel – honey eyes.
Because of our early and ongoing experiences, neither my sister nor I fully feel comfortable identifying completely as White. For me there are two reasons. One, I’ve never felt (or was treated like) I completely belonged among most White people, and I’ve rarely identified with their experiences or worldview. Two, “White” isn’t always what people see when they look at me. Even though I identified myself as White, many people of color my whole life have told me I’m “not really” White, encouraged me to pass as Latina, didn’t know I was White — or didn’t believe me when I said I was!
In the last couple years I’ve taken to identifying as multiracial, since after talking with multiracial people who know their DNA, my experiences and search for legitimacy really align with theirs. I’m mindful of not claiming a heritage I have no proof to claim – nor that I was raised in – but I can’t help but believe I have brown ancestors who deserve to be recognized and honored. I can’t help but believe my mother’s color must have had a profound effect on how she was treated, as a brown-skinned, black-haired beauty growing up in Pacoima, California (Ritchie Valens went to the same high school a couple years ahead of her) where Whites and Mexicans weren’t always on the best of terms.
My DNA sits in my inbox. Will it answer questions I’ve had my whole life? Will it solve this mystery in my skin? Will it provide a secret code that allows all the puzzle pieces to drop into place and finally make sense? Will it provide some legitimacy to my experience and identity? Or will it show my ancestry is all from Europe? If so, what then?
Read the follow up post! Waiting for Race (part II).