How DNA Helped Me Trace My Latino Heritage

Photograph by Bryanne Salazar

I was a café-con-leche baby born to a white mother who already had a white son. My mom didn't know who my father was, aside from some vague memory of a nameless one-night stand with a man who she believed was Mexican.

For the first decade of my life, I was paraded in front of the family in señorita dresses and taken to the local Mexican restaurant to celebrate my birthday. This was my shallow and limited experience of Mexican culture.

Then, just shy of my 11th birthday, my family told me that I was actually Middle Eastern. They based this decision on my features—my dark, almond shaped eyes; my broad, curved nose; my tan skin. In that one brief conversation, my entire sense of self changed.

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I spent the next 20 years in a sort of self-induced limbo. When people asked (and they always ask), "Where are you from?" I didn't know what to tell them. They weren't asking about the small suburb north of Sacramento, where I grew up. No, they were asking where my differences came from, what country did my ancestors abandon to plant roots in the U.S.?

When I gave birth, I could only give my sons half of my genetic knowledge. Did twins run in my family? Am I Latino? Middle Eastern? Do I carry a risk for heart disease? Cancer? I had no way of knowing.

To not know about myself became a tantalizing mystery and the missing information of the Holy Grail. I wanted it, but I didn't believe I would actually find it.

Photograph by Bryanne Salazar

The impossible became a reality when, in 2013, I watched a documentary on PBS and discovered that a simple cheek swab could tell me everything I needed to know. I remember how excited I felt that night after ordering a kit. It was as if I'd unearthed some ancient manuscript only I could read.

A DNA test gave me the opportunity to know myself in a way I simply could not have done before. While I do have hope that one day a close relative of my biological father will take the same test and link me to the final piece of my story, I am content with knowing the basics for now.

What I didn't know that night, and didn't count on once I received my test results, was how complex the answer of my ancestry would be.

The results, gleaned two months after swabbing the inside of my cheek with a long medical-grade cotton swab, were less cut-and-dry than I'd expected. I was a mutt in every sense of the word. My DNA revealed connections in Eastern and Western Europe, the Middle East, and, strangely, Native America, among a few other isolated regions in the world.

Because I had grown to believe the story of my possible Middle Eastern heritage, I failed to understand what the 13 percent "Mayan/Native American" meant for my ethnicity. I treated it like an anomaly, a mistake in the coding, something I couldn't explain—so therefore, didn't try.

I proclaimed that my father was, indeed, Middle Eastern. How else would I have this ethnic marker?

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The 13 percent of me that hailed from somewhere else remained dormant, unacknowledged—as if it didn't really exist. It would take an entire year of me saying this out loud (and believing it) to discover that I had been completely wrong.

A clue to my mistake came from the relatives connected to me by the DNA results. When you take an at-home DNA test, you have the option of being linked to genetic family members who have also taken the test, and the test tells you how you're related, whether it's a cousin, a sibling, a child, or even a parent. What I found that first year were hundreds of new third-, fourth- and fifth-degree cousins, and almost all of them were senior citizens of Jewish ancestry. Many elderly Jewish men and women have a keen interest in discovering their ancestry, as many lost their family histories during the Holocaust.

Every month or so, I would log in to my account and scroll through the new family matches on my screen. There were scores of cousins, hailing from all over Eastern Europe and the U.S., but never did I find any cousins from the Middle East.

Slowly but surely, younger generations of Latinos are taking interest in learning about their DNA story. Their elders often don't understand why they would take the test. One new cousin shared with me that his parents never had an interest in learning about their past. The reality is that I never would have discovered the truth about myself had my Mexican relatives not been as curious as I was.

Then, just one year after taking the test—there was a name on my family connections page that stood out from all the rest: Gonzales.

I sent an email to my new cousin asking if they would mind sharing where their family was from so that I might learn how we were related. I figured that she would have a stray European or Middle Eastern relative that would be our link. I was wrong.

She responded right away. Her entire family, as far back as she knew, came from Jalisco, Mexico, and only 40 years before had immigrated to Southern California.

"But how could that be?" I asked my husband. I was genuinely confused. If my father was Middle Eastern, and I had already been able to trace my maternal lineage all the way back to Europe, then where did this Mexican connection come from?

I put the information in the back of my mind, occasionally turning and basting it until it was fully cooked. Over the next month, I was connected with four more Latino cousins, with the last names Patrón, Ramírez, Magaña and Delarosa. I emailed every one of them, and, like my Gonzales cousin, they too traced their ancestry back to Jalisco.

Slowly but surely, younger generations of Latinos are taking interest in learning about their DNA story. Their elders often don't understand why they would take the test. One new cousin shared with me that his parents never had an interest in learning about their past. The reality is that I never would have discovered the truth about myself had my Mexican relatives not been as curious as I was.

When I finally put all the pieces of my story together, I couldn't believe how ignorant I'd been.

Photograph by Bryanne Salazar

While watching History Channel, I listened as they discussed the early empires that ruled the Middle East. In that hour-long show, I remembered a simple fact that I'd long ago learned (but somehow forgotten) in school: Israel, the home of Judaism, is a part of the Middle East.

The DNA that connected me to the Middle East and to numerous cousins of Jewish descent was one in the same.

I was part Middle Eastern, but that was probably due to my maternal Jewish ancestry, not necessarily because of my biological father.

The complete story of my genetics finally made sense. That mysterious 13 percent Mayan connection was not a blip; it was the key to understanding who my biological father was.

When I researched my ethnic DNA composition more thoroughly, I recognized the pattern I had failed to see a year earlier. Western Europe, which I have a whopping 30 percent connection to, includes Spain, the very country that, a few hundred years before, colonized Mexico and brought with it the Spanish language.

Spain was occupied by the Moors from 711–1614 and undoubtedly, the later Spanish conquistadores carried some of that ancestry in their DNA. That DNA was the stuff that merged with Native Americans, like the Mayans, creating a piece of what is modern Mexican genealogy—and more specifically, my Mexican genealogy.

My biological father was not Middle Eastern. He was Mexican, as my mother had originally told me. It was through him that I inherited my brown eyes that sometimes turn green and my wavy, dark hair.

Last month, I was connected to yet another Mexican cousin. Like my other cousins, he shared with me that his great-grandfather was from Jalisco, and the rest of his family hails from nearby Colima. When I saw a picture of my cousin, it took my breath away: he has green eyes that look so similar to mine.

Today, I am happily exploring my Latino heritage. I plan on one day visiting Jalisco and learning more about the state where half of my ancestors are from. A DNA test gave me the opportunity to know myself in a way I simply could not have done before. While I do have hope that one day a close relative of my biological father will take the same test and link me to the final piece of my story, I am content with knowing the basics for now.

Until then, I only hope more Latinos will also take a DNA test to unlock their own histories, and by doing so, help people like me fill in the missing pieces so we can pass that history on to our children and grandchildren.

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