Coal miners in W. Virgina, 1908. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Well, I was born a coal miner's daughter
In a cabin, on a hill in Butcher Holler
We were poor but we had love,
That's the one thing that daddy made sure of
He shoveled coal to make a poor man's dollar.
"Coal Miner's Daughter" by Loretta Lynn
I always loved Loretta Lynn's song, "Coal Miner's Daughter." I'm not even sure how I ever heard it since it came out in 1969 when I was 13 and listening to the Beatles while my parents played Edie Gorme y Trio los Panchos. Somehow in my youth, I heard it and loved it. Little did I know all those decades ago that my paternal roots were deep in the coal mining country of Kentucky.
I knew I was adopted since I was six and about to enter public school. I remember my parents going with me to the principal's office to register me for first grade. When we returned home, they told me about my adoption, at Mrs. Knight's suggestion. "It's important for her to know the truth," she had advised them. They told me about my birth mother, Guadalupe, but didn't mention my biological father.
As I grew, I never wondered about my biological father. To me, my daddy was my father and I was a devoted daddy's girl. Jerry Leyva showed me consistent and unconditional love. His stories shaped my worldview. When he went into a coma in 1997, I stayed by his bedside for days. He waited to die until I left to teach on the first day of class. I always think he couldn't bear to leave with me there.
Over the years, occasionally, I would hear the family rumor that my biological father "era un Americano," a white man. I never believed it and I never pursued it. Unlike my birth mother who I cried about and raged about internally for most of my life, my birth father was a passing thought to me.
I rarely thought about the mythical "Americano." Until I did a DNA test three years ago that is. The results turned my life upside down. The great majority of my DNA relatives who were identified by both Ancestry.com and 23andme.com had Kentucky roots. I couldn't believe it. Kentucky?
I threw myself into reading about Kentucky history. It turned out I am related to the "blue-skinned people of Kentucky," have Cherokee ancestors, and come from some of the earliest settlers of the region who arrived in the 18th century looking for land and found the green mountains to be home. While conducting research, trying to understand what it meant for me, a Xicana/Mexicana/india to have a white father, I felt torn up inside.
WTF I thought, for at least two years. How could I be half-white? I understood perfectly well the problems with this kind of question, teaching ethnicity and race and identity as I have for so many years. But it was a question that obsessed me, tortured me, and made me wonder about my biological father for the first time ever. My son told me one day to stop suffering. "You're just some random baby to that family. You were raised Mexicana and that is who you are." I never thought being called a "random baby" would bring me such comfort, but I stopped suffering. But I kept hoping that I would know who he was.
Then almost three years after discovering my Kentucky roots, my brilliant and generous cousin Melinda Gould, who I had also met through Ancestry.com, completed the puzzle for me through her understanding and experience with DNA and genealogy. I am grateful that she gave me the gift of her time and knowledge; we have never met in person but she feels like real family to me.
I still don't understand the mechanics of how Melinda figured it out, but she did. She found out who my Kentucky father was.
My "Genetic Communities" according to Ancestry.com.
Years ago, I went to meet my birth mother's sister, already elderly, to ask her about my mother. Back then, as I said, I didn't wonder about my father but she wanted me to know that my father "loved" my mother "very much" and that they were both in love. She handed me an envelope with photos, saying "Este es tu papa." When I returned home, I looked at them and realized that the photos represented at least three different men. I just laughed, thinking I would never really know the truth. Until Melinda did her DNA/ genealogical magic.
Melinda even told me his name. I could finally start piecing the story together from her research in the historical records. He was a kid in the military who met my mom in Juarez and I was the result. Don Tosti, composer of "Pachuco Boogie" and the first Latino composer to sell a million records, said in an interview years ago that his mother was a young woman in El Paso and his father was a soldier at Fort Bliss. "They went out to dinner one night and here I am." That was me. A kid from Kentucky came to El Paso, met a beautiful teenaged Mexicana in Juarez, and here I am!
I didn't know how much pain I had held in my whole life never wondering who my biological father was. To "not" wonder is as painful as always wondering.
As Melinda and eventually I continued to search the records, we learned more. He grew up in a Kentucky mining camp. He went on to marry a Kentucky girl a couple of years after I was born. They had several children. Unlike his father who was a coal miner, or generations of farmers who preceded him, he remained in the military for twenty years. He is now deceased. I doubt he knew about me.
With this background information, I knew which photo was him. It wasn't the movie star handsome scuba diver or the Latin lover looking man with a moustache and a wicked look in his eye. It was the goofy white boy. I keep his photo out on my dresser now, always looking for a resemblance.
1940 Census from a coal mining camp.
I never expected it to be him, but learning it was healed me. Or at least I'm on the road to healing. I don't have a desire to meet his/ my family. Melinda says I will when the time is right. She's probably correct. For now, though, the gift that my cousin has given me is a name, a face, a family history that I can say is part of me. I will always be Jerry Leyva's daughter. He will always be my daddy. Now I can accept that there is a second father that is part of my story.
Happy Father's Day, Charles, from your fronteriza daughter.