I recently took an ancestral DNA test because I’ve always felt like an adopted child of the world. It’s not because I don’t know who my parents are, but because I can barely trace my family tree farther back than my own parents (pictured above.)
My middle school art teacher used to say, “I can trace my family back to the 12th century!” I was so jealous of her! Meanwhile, I barely knew my grandparents. As much as I’d like to believe that I should just look to the future, I just wanted to know a little bit of my history. Most of the ancestral information I could deduce was not from actual records or genetic information, but by assumption based on the country I was born and my features, which is not exactly scientific evidence. I had spent hours throughout my adolescence in front of mirrors trying to understand myself and how I came to be.
Growing up I was often asked “Where are you from?” because I have ethnically ambiguous features that in New York are typical for a Latina, but in a place like Cairo make people wonder where I came from. My partner is Egyptian, and when we visit his family in Egypt, I seamlessly blend in with his Arab family. If I didn’t speak, no one would ever know I wasn’t an Egyptian woman, so naturally many are confused when I state that I’m Dominican-American. His family has always said they are sure I have some Arab ancestry, but now that I know better I’m sad to disappoint them. I have less than 1% Middle-Eastern ancestry, a drop in the ocean compared to my partner’s nearly 100% Middle-Eastern heritage as dictated by his DNA.
Having an atypical surname did not help either. If I only had a dime for every time someone asked “Valoy? Hmm, where is that name from? Is it French?” And now that I have the evidence, the answer is no, I have no apparent French heritage.
I was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in the United States. I’m Dominican, Caribbean, Latina, and American; I hold all these identities simultaneously and interchangeably. All these identities are equal in my mind. But I know that they are based on a mixture of many races and ethnicities, and that is what I was searching for when I took an ancestral DNA test. To me it wasn’t about confirming what I already knew, but literally finding my place in this world. So while I learned from ancestral DNA that I am mostly of European descent, my lived experiences were not. Being ethnically mixed while not knowing what those ethnicities are has left me in limbo in a society that is eager to fit people into boxes. While my straight hair and light complexion grant me insurmountable privilege within communities of color, the languages I speak, my customs, my likes, and my relations set me apart from Europeans.
For this reason I call myself Latina even more so than Dominican. It’s the closest term to explain an identity that is not homogeneous but that is ambiguous— especially in the United States, where race seems to be White, Black, Asian, or Other. So where does that leave me? The Brown race? Multicultural? Multiracial? These aren’t always options for people like me.
As I wrote this, National Geographic commemorated their 125th anniversary issue with a feature on what we will look like in the near future, after presumably much more interracial breeding. It’s somewhat laughable to me because this racial mixing that National Geographic exalts as something that will help us move forward and presumably past racism has been going on for centuries. As far as I’m concerned — and as far the strange man who said I looked like a cup of café au lait is concerned, too — racism is still very much alive after more than 500 years of mixing, in the Americas. I suspect in the year 2050, people will look just like they do now. Though genealogists understand that race is not defined by genes and the human race is almost genetically identical, race does matter outside our bodies and beyond Petri dishes.
I was born in the Dominican Republic and I know our history, so there is little chance my ancestors were all native to the island. Latin America has a history of colonialism, slavery, and immigration (very much like the United States.) This set the stage for a population with an array of phenotypes and skin complexions, and much racial ambiguity.
Adding to the conundrum, I happen to be from the one island that served as the stomping ground for many idealist conquistadores, voyagers, adventurers, exiles, and missionaries. It is an island that was populated by Taínos who were mostly annihilated by European diseases and forced labor. Eventually the island became the battleground for many powerful European nations looking to get a piece of the New World.
To me, being Latina explains where I live now, my customs, language, traditions, and cuisine, but it doesn’t explain where my ancestors came from. I want to know how patterns of migration and historical events shaped my distinctiveness. Yet it was clear to me that because I’m a Caribbean woman, tracing my history wouldn’t be as simple as looking through some birth certificates, property records, census records, or tracking my surname.
It became evident that ancestral DNA would be the only way of understanding my past. A mitochondrial DNA test (mtDNA) would find my maternal ancestor, and a Y-DNA test taken by a male relative would find our paternal ancestor. Because I was looking for a larger overview of my ancestry, I took the autosomal DNA (atDNA) test that would provide me with all my inherited ancestral information. Unfortunately my genes are not stamped with a country of origin, but some comparisons to known populations would be able to determine a point of origin.
A simple spit test, and a few weeks later I was provided with a list of countries in which my most recent ancestors likely lived. I thought I would approximately know what the results would be, but was I in for a surprise! I expected my ancestry to be split halfway between West African and Iberian roots, but what I got was a lot more interesting and confusing. Nigerian, Italian, and Greek ancestry are perhaps not very far fetched, but what about traces of Scandinavian, Northwest Russian, Western European, Beninese, Togolese, Cameroonian, and Native American ancestry! That’s a lot of people from all over the world coming to live in the DNA of a Caribbean woman.
After the initial excitement I called my parents to share the news. When I asked my father to take a guess his first response was West Africa and Britain. He claims that his family came from a colony of freed slaves that left the United States and made their home in the coastal city of Sámana in the Dominican Republic, formerly Haiti. The Sámana Americans are very aware of their distinct history, so it is entirely possible that my father is correct, but I have no way of knowing. It’s unclear how he knows this information, but one thing I was certain of was African heritage. Now, his wild guess that we might have British ancestry was a little off; about 2% trace origin is not very convincing. We talked about our Nigerian, Ghanaian, and Cameroonian heritage and reflected on the importance of acknowledging these roots with scientific evidence.
When I spoke with my mother, she was reluctant to take any guesses, which is not so surprising. She knows that she has European features, but she was orphaned as a toddler and only knows some of her paternal relatives. When I pressed her for a guess, she said we likely had Spanish origin, and also insisted that most Dominicans have some African heritage and she assumed she must have some, too. I knew this was hard for her because it reminded her that she doesn’t know most of her family and that stirred up a lot of emotions, but she was curious. I confirmed that we did have some Iberian heritage, but that most of our European heritage was Italian and Greek – to which she laughed and said “I suppose someone had an Italian lover, or many!” She randomly decided that my Irish heritage was probably from my dad, and the 4% North-African heritage was likely from her side – no particular reason, just her hunch.
I also called my two sisters, and as I expected, my sisters and I were shocked that we had 7% Native American ancestry. We assume it’s Taíno, who were presumably all wiped off the island, but definitely live in our genes and customs (see, casabe.) To us it was a way to reaffirm our connection to the island and this continent, as tiny as it may be. But even more importantly, it’s proof that colonization, slavery, and war haven’t killed the indigenous inhabitants of the Caribbean. Ancestral DNA serves more than just an interesting bit of information for us, it’s a literal link to a history that was deliberately erased and buried.
This matters a lot! Living in the United States as a Latina means that I have to deal with immigration policies that hurt people like me. Our home countries are wrecked by poverty and corruption so we leave to find a better place, as human nature dictates. But when immigrants are told to “go back to where we came from” it can literally mean not going anywhere or leaving to an entirely new continent.
The personal has become political, and while I find myself I also find others like me.
I still would eventually like to do a mtDNA and Y-DNA test to isolate my hereditary information, but for now I feel happy to have started on this journey. I promised my mom that I would take some time off and travel back to the Dominican Republic with her to trace her family. I might not know for sure what all this information means and why they came to live in my genes, but it has solidified my belief that little parts of me are in every continent, and the entire world lives in me.
I am not African. Africa is in me, but I cannot return.
I am not taína. Taíno is in me, but there is no way back.
I am not European. Europe lives in me, but I have no home there.
I am new. History made me. My first language was spanglish.
I was born at the crossroads and I am whole.
By: Aurora Levins Morales
*I originally wrote this article for Double X Science