I’m totally deaf in my right ear. It happened as a result of numerous tumors that grew inside my right ear over the course of years, destroying the small bones that allow us to hear. My otolaryngologist told me that the roots of my tumors and subsequent deafness must have started before I was 9 years old. Medicine people have often asked me, “What don’t you want to hear.” “What didn’t you want to hear as a child?” Honestly, I hate that question. I think most of us have things we don’t want to hear and for me, that question elicits fear and anxiety. Not wanting to hear resulted in one of my most significant interrupted stories dragging out until my sixties. So, this is a cautionary tale and a story of hope.
My parents told me that I was adopted just as I was about to enter first grade, at the recommendation of my elementary school principal. I didn’t really understand what it meant but as I grew up, I began to hear stories about my birth mother. For most of my adolescence and teenagerhood, I felt numb and disinterested when I thought about her. When I gave birth to my son when I was 25, my anger came out. How could a mother leave her child? As a new mother, I couldn’t imagine. It took many years to heal my relationship with my birth mother, complicated by the fact that she died when I was 21 years old.
Somehow, my birth father escaped my attention and my anger. I occasionally heard comments about him. “Dicen que tu papá era americano,” was the most common and the one that made me angriest. How could I have a White father? I was born in Juárez and I identified strongly as a mexicana, and later a Chicana. Looking back, I remember the times that my “authenticity” as a mexicana was questioned and the pain that this caused me. My aunt used to tell my mother that I was too agringada. Once, a stranger I met at a neighborhood tiendita argued with me about my identity, saying that I didn’t have the “face” of a Mexican. Being raised by a very white-skinned mother (to whom I was biologically related) allowed me not to question my own light skin or my features.
Years passed. I learned more about my mother, especially when I met my birth aunt, her sister, around 2001. The day I met her in her long-time home in Arizona, she handed me a framed photo of my mother and a manila envelope with several photos in it. “Este es tu papá, she said. “This is your father. He loved your mother very much.” When I looked carefully at them, weeks after she’d given me the envelope, I noticed there were three men, not one. Two were very handsome Mexican-looking men. One had written a very romantic dedication to my mother, calling her “mi reina.” The third was a very young White man, a teenager probably. Could the young white man be my father? Could he be the “americano” that I had heard about in my youth? I laughed and put them away in a drawer where they stayed for years. I chose to believe that none of them were my father.
Then about four years ago, I decided to do my DNA. I spit in the tube and sent it off to the lab not because I was thinking about who my father might be but because I wanted to know how Indigenous I was, what percent Native American my DNA was. After finally finding my spiritual community among Mexicans and Chicano people who returned to our roots in Mexico, I needed affirmation. I certainly understand how problematic this is…. But I felt I needed this.
Some of my friends in academia make fun of DNA tests and it’s especially easy to do so if you look at DNA company commercials. One of my favorites features Kyle who thought he was German but turned out to be Scottish! Of course, and this is common sense, identity is much more complex than taking a DNA test and we can’t simply switch from lederhosen to a kilt, but DNA is an incredibly useful tool in bridging our interrupted stories. It helps answer questions for adopted people from “What ethnicity am I?” to “Who are my parents?”
I remember the day my DNA results came in. I excitedly opened the link in the email. I was 2/3 European, with Irish being predominant. I sat there staring at the computer screen confused. European? Irish? Because I couldn’t believe it, I took another DNA test at another company. Two months later, the new results came in. They were more or less the same: Native American, Iberian, and Irish in roughly the same percentages but the European DNA was again roughly 2/3.
I thought of all the ways the Irish had come to Mexico: during the US-Mexico War of 1846-48 with the famous San Patricios and with Irish migration to Mexico during to purchase mines during the Porfiriato. I knew that Chihuahua had the highest numbers of Irish migrants than any other state except for el Distrito Federal. I was trying to make sense of it, but I wasn’t listening.
“Dicen que tu papá era americano.”
Eventually, as a learned to navigate the DNA websites, I looked at my DNA relatives, those individuals who had also taken the DNA test and to whom I was related to biologically. The list was filled with people whose roots went back to Harlan County, Kentucky. What??? Early in the first couple of years, I wrote to relatives asking if they knew anything about a relative having lived in El Paso, on the border, but no one knew. Of course, I didn’t even know my father’s name. I could see that I was related to families with classic Kentucky last names: Brock, Lewis, Sizemore, Osborne, and Saylor. I was even related to the Fugates, the famous “blue” people of Kentucky who have a gene that produces blue skin of various hues.
I studied Kentucky history and learned about the tri-racial Melungeons. I learned about the Cherokee who many of my relatives claim as their ancestors. I learned about the labor strikes in Harlan. Like a good historian, I attempted to put my DNA into historical context. I listened to blue grass music. I looked at photos of Appalachian families. I tried to feel connected.
My DNA “family” were overwhelmingly kind. They spoke to their grandmothers and other elders in their families. They encouraged me that I would find out what I was looking for. Just recently, a DNA cousin from Kentucky wrote to me and said, “Welcome to the family.” Their kindness was very comforting yet, I was still confused and more lost than ever.
This is a common Internet image of the Blue People of Kentucky. I don't yet have its source.
About a year ago, a “new” DNA relative appeared and we were closely related. So closely related that, finally, I learned who my birth father was: an americano from Kentucky. My cousin Melinda Gould put her expertise in genealogy and DNA to work to make the genetic and genealogical connections. My birth father was a young man named Charles who had been stationed in El Paso in the 1950s but whose ancestors had lived in Kentucky for generations.
For decades, I had refused to listen. By the time I could listen, everyone who knew anything in my maternal family about my paternal side were gone. Were it not for DNA testing, I may have never been forced to listen. I would not have begun to bridge the interrupted story of my birth father. I would not have found Charles.
As I looked through the historical records, I found Charles listed as a small child living in a Harlan County mining town in 1940. The towns were known for their poverty and inadequate living conditions. Coal mining was one of the most dangerous occupations and working conditions were deplorable. It is no wonder that that in the 1930s, the mining camps were “Bloody Harlan,” where miners and unions clashed with mine owners and law enforcement.
In a 1931 article, John Dos Passos wrote about the impoverished conditions of coal miners. One coalminer’s wife testified that her family of four barely managed to exist.
My father’s family had not always lived in the mines. As I went back from census to census, tracing his father and mother, then his grandfather and grandmother, they were farmers. Earlier generations farmed in Laurel (home of Kentucky Fried Chicken) and Perry (think the “Dukes of Hazard”) going back to the early 19th century. Earlier, the family moved across N. and S. Carolina, eventually settling in Kentucky. In Alessandro Portelli’s They Say in Harlan County: An Oral History, one of the narrators says that sometimes, out of desperation, farmers came to mining camps to look for work, without a clue as to what mining entailed. “But they were glad to make a little money even under those conditions….” Said one narrator.
Charles died about twenty years ago. I’ve tried to discretely contact his family—they have not responded. But it’s fine. I have the bridge I needed to heal the interrupted story. Finally, fifty years later I listened to what I didn’t want to know and I found my heart growing to welcome in all the new ancestors that I found.