Friday, August 8, 2014

The Reluctant Latina – How a DNA test can change who you used to think you were



The Grubbs

As I logged into Family Tree DNA, one early spring evening to obtain my long-awaited results to an Autosomal DNA test, I immediately clicked into Population Finder to finally answer the question that had plagued me my whole life:  what is my ethnicity?

I fully expected to confirm my Italian roots – an ethnicity I could identify with for many reasons.  One, my adoption paperwork stated that although my father was of Peruvian descent (something that never clicked in my brain the first time I read the paperwork) —his family was noted to be Italian-born.  That bit of info confirmed the opinion of what hundreds of strangers and friends over my lifetime already knew:  “you must be Italian.”   

I had already confirmed my European heritage years prior through a paper trail and a reunion with my maternal birth family. Looking in the mirror my whole life, all I saw was a WASP.

Population Finder disagreed.  As I sat staring at the computer screen which revealed my 30% Native American results, I was confused.  My skin is white – I look Anglo (at least I thought I did).  I do not have one relative on my adoptive side nor my maternal birth family with names like “Torres, Guerrera, or Martinez”.   But I do now---lots and lots of them!  I can see some of my DNA cousins’ faces when I log in late at night as is the routine–many with dark skin, some with light like me.  These faces make me want to cry some days and jump for joy on others.

Population Finder (now known as My Origins) cannot identify exactly what country your ancestors originated from; however after taking a second DNA test at 23 and Me and a third at Ancestry, and speaking with many DNA cousins, there leaves little doubt that my paternal family has roots in Mexico and Peru.  But what does this mean in the bigger picture? What does a discovery like this mean to one’s identity in middle age?
Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine

As the shock began to sink in, I flashed back to all those moments in time that were pushed out of my awareness.  The time when the creepy attorney I used to work for called me a “hot Latin woman” in the middle of a staff meeting.  The time my boyfriend said whenever he went to see Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine in concert, he thought of me.   

I remembered  how I have always been drawn to the Spanish language, taking classes in middle school, high school and college. My favorite class at my university was a history of Peru--my favorite part being when we saw the slides from our professor’s trip to Machu Picchu. I told myself then I would go to Peru and see that amazing place for myself one day. 

For someone who never was into geography and couldn’t tell you today all the European countries if my life depended on it, I gladly memorized every Central and South American country on the map. I had a crush on one of my college Spanish professors and I dabbled with the idea of changing my major to Spanish.  When I was a kid, I had a huge crush on Desi Arnaz, Jr. (but who didn’t?).   
Desi Arnaz Jr.(the son of Lucille Ball)

Once I got my license, I lost count of how many trips I made to Taco Bell for my beloved Enchirito.  It was always preferred over hamburgers at McDonald’s.  In the 90’s, I secretly liked Ricky Martin (My husband always referred to him as a “flash in the pan”). 

What do all these little pieces of memory really mean, anyway?  Apparently, a lot now.  Even crazier, friends who formerly had never told me this before are telling me now that they always thought I looked Latina but of course, never said anything.

I work at a Court in the criminal/traffic division in a WASP community.  I directly communicate face to face with the public every day.  There is one Latina attorney  who comes to my window who is a force to be reckoned with. She is flamboyant, dresses loudly and speaks loudly. She draws attention to herself and she treats everybody like they are her personal best friend.  When I see her now, I think, “Am I like her?”  I have noticed more and more customers at my place of employment of obvious Hispanic descent who can barely communicate with me in English.  They sometimes bring a friend or family member to translate what I am saying.  I wonder, “Am I like them?”. 

The truth is, I can’t identify with any of the Latino people I come in contact with because that is a part of me that has been severed or cut off from my awareness, like a limb of a tree, for more than half of my life. The limb was buried although it is being slowly resurrected over the last year and a half as I try to find meaning in my new-found ethnicity and identity.

Ricky Martin
I Google, “Latina women” because I’m certain there must be something I need to know about them.   I learn that there are many stereotypes about Latina women – most surrounding our hot, spicy, “JLO” image.  

I learn that my medical history has abruptly changed to include a much higher likelihood that I will become diabetic or die of diabetes.  I am also more likely to have HPV and cervical cancer or get pregnant out of wedlock.  My education and job prospects pale in comparison to my Anglo counterparts, according to one article.  I realize how fortunate I was to grow up in a white suburb and go to college.  However, at the same time, I mourn the loss of my cultural identity -- having my Latina family cook authentic dishes and teach me what it means to be a Latina woman.  I only know how to be a white woman although there are times when I know I don’t truly belong to the WASPs. 

Should I re-think my wardrobe?  Should I add more color – maybe some bright lipstick? (tried that in the 80’s—don’t really think it’s me).  Does this explain my short, full figure and refusal to give up my favorite foods while surrounded by the thin white women in my family who are always on a diet?

I’m not sure what it means to be instantly Latina. Should I join a support group for the formerly all-European and newly Hispanic?  Should I begin to learn to cook authentic dishes and plan a trip to Mexico?  I have been wanting to help people who come to this country and who have the monumental task of learning the peccadillos of the English language (I feel there/their pain in trying to figure out what in the Sam Hill the English rules really are and why people like Sam Hill are referred to).
Elsa's fried ice cream with honey

The truth is I haven’t figured it out yet. 

One of these days, you may hear about me singing fluent Spanish  in a Latin American band from a little cantina in Mexico – being embraced by my Latino family and finally learning what it is I am supposed to know about being a Latin-American.  

But until then, I will have to be satisfied with listening to Enrique Iglesias on You Tube or taking a trip to my favorite local Mexican Restaurant – Elsa’s-for their amazing fried ice cream.