Dealing with an unexpected DNA result, a new life with a new ethnicity

Dealing with an unexpected DNA result or how to deal with Life after a DNA surprise.

The Surprise

About four years ago, I, like many others took a DNA test from Ancestry.com and found a bit of a surprise in the test results. The results were unexpected. Turns out that my Mexican mom had an affair with a dance instructor and construction worker that was in town for a construction project in southern California. You may have heard of the place, Disneyland.

When I took the test it was because I was having trouble finding information about my mom’s father who was from Mexico. I only had his name and a couple of stories and that was it so I thought that a DNA test might help with the brick walls. After doing the spit test, and sending it in like millions of others, I waited for the results to come back.

AncestryDNAPlayerCardJayFernandezThe first thing I noticed was that my ethnic makeup was not what I expected. According to Ancestry and others, ethnicity is just an estimate based on the size of their reference panel, in other words, how many people had previously taken the test that met certain criteria. My Mom was from Mexico and my Dad was from Puerto Rico. I expected to see southern Mediterranean connections, maybe some from Africa and some indigenous parts. But where did all this Scottish, Irish, Welsh, and English come from? Not to mention Scandinavian, German and French. Sure I had Spanish connections but only about 12%, not what I was expecting at all.

The next thing that happens is that you are matched with cousins that share DNA with you. Where did all these people come from that were from Kentucky and the Midwest? At this point, I was pretty sure that I was the one in a million whose test got mixed up with someone else’s test. Mom had grown up in an orphanage due to the great depression so there were no names that looked familiar to me to double-check on. However, on my Dad’s side of the family, I reached out to a couple of my cousins I knew who had taken a test and got their user names. When I found their profiles, no match, we didn’t share any DNA.

After contacting Ancestry and being assured that the test was correct and surprises were known to happen from time to time, I went back to trying to figure out the mystery. I joined a group on Facebook and found a Search Angel. These wonderful people volunteer to help others unravel their DNA mysteries. So after sharing my story, I got a volunteer who offered to help. The amazing thing was that she and I were cousins according to Ancestry.

A few months passed and eventually, the story started to emerge. Dad was not Dad but just my Mom’s husband who took me in as his own. My Mom had met Don who had come to California for work. Don’s roots ran deep in Kentucky and the midwest and eventually reached back to the English Isles. For clarity’s sake, I will call Dad who I grew up with my Adopted Dad, and the Dad I never met as Bio Dad.

During this time I received a note from a DNA match who didn’t know their father but since we were a close match, would I possibly know the name. I quickly called him and let him know that I did in fact know his father and the reason that he had not found him in the records was that he had the name spelled wrong.

As we were exploring surprises, it was just one more as it turned out my Mom’s sister had a grandson that no one knew existed. I had the unfortunate job to fill this guy in as his dad had committed suicide some years earlier. However, for me, here was the first DNA connection to a real person on my Mom’s side of the family. A second surprise came soon afterward when I found a niece that we were unaware of from my half-brother through my mom’s side.

Adjusting to the new ethnicity

Quick recap here, I was 58 years old and had no idea that I was anything but the son of a Puerto Rican Dad and a Mexican mom. Because we knew very little about mom, we identified as Puerto Rican. I was proud of my heritage and loved the island, the culture, and oh yes, the food!

My heroes included Roberto Clemente and I was proud of how many times the Miss Universe pageant was won by Puerto Rico (5 of them). Learning that I was so English and Scottish did a number on how I looked at myself. I still carried a Spanish surname but I found myself interested in the new family’s history. I tried out a couple of Irish pubs and restaurants, listened to the music, and attended highlander games. I even got a few kilts nowadays.

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Powhatan, the author’s 11X Great grandfather

But before I dug into the European connections, I was steeped in Americana. Cousins that went back to the founding fathers. Nathan Hale, the first American spy of the revolution was a first cousin. Boston Tea party, yup the family was there. Salem witch trials? Lost a cousin there at the stake while her sister managed to keep her skin. And the list goes on and on, all these people I had read about in history class were often, cousins so and so and Uncle this or grandpa. I am even a direct descendant of Powhatan, Pochantas’s dad.

Although this was all fun to learn about these people, I often feel like an outsider looking in. I grew up thinking that this was the other man’s history because mine was based in Puerto Rico. Slavery was something I never thought of, yet now I have ancestors that owned slaves. Although I did have one cousin that freed his slaves and married one who became a member of high society in Philadelphia.  You can read about their story here, it’s quite fascinating.

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Street in San Jose is named for Liberta Cesena, the author’s 3X great aunt

The other change has been with my Mexican side. I used to get upset when people assumed that Puerto Rico was the same as Mexico. I was always educating folks. Growing up in southern California, the Mexican influences were all around me but at arm’s length. Now because I am finally learning about the Mexican side of my family, I am learning about how connected to California I am. My great aunt several times over has streets named after her in San Jose and my favorite racetrack growing up, Laguna Seca was the family homestead. The connection to Mexico is also notable as millions go to Cabo San Lucas for vacations. Grandpa Cipriano Valle Ceseña was the founder of the town and his name can be seen on a plague in the city center.

Meeting the new family

I now am armed with all this history and paper trails, but now it was time to reach out and see if I can confirm who I believe to be my bio dad. Bio dad was one of several boys so while we knew the family, the exact male in the family was unknown. Two of the boys had been in California about the right time. So with names in hand, I reached out through FB to a cousin (sister?) who may know something about my bio dad. These folks had no idea I existed and so there was quite a bit of hesitancy when we first started to chat. My cousin was in touch with two other cousins and finally, I offered to pay for a test so we could confirm the connection. One stepped forward and said sure, why not?

Once we got the results, there was no doubt, that the person who stepped forward turned out to be my half-sister through my bio dad. The person I had reached out to originally was my first cousin. Lots of questions all the way around and lots of introductions. I should mention, that growing up with my bio dad I had one brother who was eleven years older and my adopted dad had a daughter from a previous marriage who was twenty-two years older than me, so for all practical purposes, I grew up an only child.

Jay Fernandez SILVER
Author with his two new biological brothers

Bio family is a bit larger! I am the oldest of my bio dad’s kids followed by three girls and two boys. Of course, they all have families so in an instant I had 24 new nephews and nieces including some great nephews and nieces. Most of the family was in Illinois except for one sister who moved to Oklahoma many years ago.

After a few months of getting to know folks by phone and email, it was time to venture out to Illinois and meet the family. One of my new sisters is an organizer and pulled together a family reunion for the clan so everyone could meet the new kid. Let me get back to that in a minute, but first, there is the first meeting.

I took a hotel in Jacksonville, Illinois which is for all practical purposes a town surrounded by cornfields. Coming from the pacific northwest I was struck by how flat everything was. But anyway, I flew into St Louis and drove up to Jacksonville to my hotel. I called my sister who drove out to the hotel to get me with her daughter. I was so anxious, nervous, and excited to meet her that I couldn’t wait in my room so I came and sat on the bench outside the hotel. The third car that drove up was the one. My sister walks up and we both embraced like long-lost friends. It was the weirdest feeling to just meet someone yet feel like you have known them forever.

Her daughter was filming the whole event to share with the family. I only had a few days so my sis put together an itinerary to make the most of the visit. She definitely has a skill I don’t have. Over the next few hours, I got to meet each of the siblings individually and with each one, the feelings were the same, a sense of belonging.

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Author with his “new” nephew

One thing I noticed right off was how the different generations handled things. The older ones, around my age, started off very welcoming but wondering what I wanted. The elder of the family, my aunt just couldn’t get over that I was me and not my bio dad, apparently, we looked alike. The younger ones say teens to mid-lifers were again welcoming and had the same basic response that my bio dad was human and there was no need for secrets. The youngest ones are my joy because as far as they know, they have always had an Uncle Jay!

At the family reunion and the time right after it, was a chance to meet a ton of cousins who were able to make it to town. One of my new aunts had had a lot of kids, so my cousins followed their mom’s example and had a ton of kids too. I still have a lot of names to get to know yet. We went to my bio dad’s grave and later the siblings had a bbq with just the immediate family. It was nice just to chat and get to know folks better.

The biggest takeaway from all of this is that my bio dad had no idea I existed. When he found out that my mom was married he dropped the relationship and moved back to Illinois. Since he passed before I even met him, I will only know him through second-hand accounts and some photos. The second big item was that there were a lot of people that looked like me! Obviously, we have the same genes but growing up I was always looking to find similarities with my adopted dad and there were none. The best I could do was that we shared the same calves. Now, I have a whole mess of people that have the same eyes or nose, etc. It’s fun but kinda weird too.

Adjusting to life with the old family

Shortly after we identified my bio dad, I had so many questions and likewise, the old extended family had many questions. At the top of the list was who knew about this? Why wasn’t I ever told? Since it was obvious that I now knew the truth and that all my adopted dad’s siblings and he had passed, some info started to come out.

Apparently, my mom and adopted dad were having a rough time of it in their marriage, so my mom was known to go out to get away from it all. She saw different folks and my oldest sister knew what was happening. When my mom became pregnant they thought the father of the baby was either the local store owner or a dance instructor she hung out with on occasion.  The dance instructor it was.

Since the dance instructor had left town without knowing about me, my mom’s husband said that the baby would be raised as his own so that I didn’t suffer because of my mom’s mistakes. Some sort of informal agreement was made that after the baby was born and weened, they would get a divorce and since my adopted dad was employed, owned a house, and was stable, I would stay with him and not my mom. A kid staying with a dad back in those days was very unusual and made my mom look very bad.

My adopted dad had one sister he was very close with who knew about the arrangement as did my sister, but he made them swear that I would never know about the situation so I could grow up having roots which are very important in Latino cultures. Fast forward 58 years and DNA is now available and the lies start to become revealed.

As I learned this, there was a mix of feelings. It took time to figure out how I felt and to a certain degree I am still figuring that out nearly 5 years down the line. My first feeling was disbelief that my mom, my sister, and my aunt were able to keep it all from me for so long. My adopted dad gave me a hint once when he said to me “If anyone says that I am not your father, tell them, no but he was my Dad”. Since he was a heavy drinker and there was no context for that statement it just got filed in the background as a drunk rave. Now I understand where that comment came from.

One of my biggest frustrations was all the people who wanted to tell me how I should feel. Many along the lines of how great my adopted dad was for raising me as his own, especially when I was conceived by another man. Sure, he did all that and more, but he also lied to me as did my aunt and sister. I recognize that they were looking out for my welfare but for someone that values honesty, it was hard to swallow. At least as I got older I should have been told.

My sister apologized and told me she was just honoring her father’s wishes. I should also remember that she loved me and that I will always be “Tio Jay” to her kids. Lots of reaffirmations that I am still family and am loved, nothing had changed. But alas it had changed. My sister who I love dearly isn’t even related to me. My brother is only a half-brother, so the DNA defines at least on a biological level how we are related.

This really struck me shortly after we found out when talking to my sister. We used to refer to my adopted dad as Daddy, but in this particular conversation, she referred to my Dad and your Dad repeatedly. So while there were all these affirmations, there was also clearly an underlying change too.

The other big hassle is how to refer to all these people. I had three sets of families and while my mom’s side of the family was fairly small, my bio dad’s side was huge. All relations were “half” of something, half-sibling or cousin on your father’s side, etc plus I still had my adoptive family which was also huge. Maybe not so much with siblings but with aunts, uncles, and cousins. My adoptive dad had 17 siblings! In Rural Puerto Rico, kids were the help.

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First time meeting the biological family in Illinois

The real problem comes with talking to folks that don’t fit into one of these three groups. Outside of the friends or time when this comes up in conversation, I find helping my own kids understand who is who can be challenging in part because I am still learning and their approach is different than mine.

They have great relations with many from my adoptive family and these folks are their family. Now that there are all these new folks, I will often hear, I am glad for you Dad but I don’t know these people, they are not my family. They are slowly warming up to the changes, but there is a lot of hesitancy still.

Honeymoon is over – we be different

It’s been almost five years now since I first found out my story. I have had the chance to meet my new siblings and many of my cousins. I am accepted and relationships are growing, sort of. Becoming part of a family that has its own history and shared memories, you are bound to find the landmines.

Shortly after meeting folks, I started to hear about the family dramas. There were strained relationships between folks, spouses at times did not get along with other spouses, plus the normal stuff families often have to deal with like drugs, out-of-wedlock relationships, and broken marriages.

I found myself walking a thin line at times of trying to be sympathetic without taking sides. I don’t want to find myself in the middle of anything. But at times, I just didn’t get it. My adoptive family was typical of many Hispanic families, large extended families that were as close as your immediate family. For example, I remember a time when a cousin was in a hard spot, so the news got out to everyone and everyone pitched in to help them out. My spouse could not understand why I would give to someone that I personally had never met. She had a different view of extended family and what responsibilities we had to them.

Well my new family, is a bit more midwest on that account. Where I would jump in and help any family where I could, I found situations where the family living down the street was about to be evicted and no one offered to help. Even more astonishing to me was that they never bothered to ask for help, they didn’t think that family was the “go-to” for them. Wow, family is always the first go-to for me growing up.

Growing up we always had family gatherings, especially at the holidays, but the new family here operates pretty independently from each other, seldom talking to each other much less getting together. I learned that the reunion that was put together for me was the first time some of those folks had seen each other in years. In talking to one family member, I was further amazed at how many family members they did not know at the get-together. Most of these folks live within an hour or so of each other.

Please understand, that I am not judging good or bad here, rather what struck me as different coming into a new family at my age. I have adopted two kids in addition to my four biological kids and I am much more sensitive to how they feel and are adjusting to life with me after having gone through this myself.

Last year I retired and decided to move away from Portland, Oregon. The cost of living, especially on a reduced income was something that I needed to seriously consider. One of the options was to move closer to the new family which I did. I live one town over from one of my sisters. The locale made sense in my situation so off to rural Missouri I went. Besides my sister and her daughter’s family, I live about 90 minutes from numerous cousins and about 3-4 hours from all the other siblings except one that moved to Florida.

To be honest not much has changed for me familywise. Although I get along with the family, we don’t talk all that much. And I will be the first to admit, I get wrapped up in my world and don’t reach out as often as I should. I see my sister every few weeks and a cousin every now and then, but that has been it.

Managing expectations

As I settle into this new reality, I need to remind myself of the obvious, my bio family are midwesterners and my adopted family is Hispanic and they are not the same. I find myself wanting to take what is the best from each family and apply that to the other. This is of course based on my own bias regarding what I consider the best.

I would love my bio family to be more connected and that may not happen. As I become more connected to the family a few family members are remembering to keep me in the loop or make comments about involving me in things, but often that is the younger family, nephews and nieces wanting to include me more in thire life.

I have to give my kids the time to make their own relationships with the new families. Their experience with them is not my own and they need the space and support to do that. I am excited as this summer my kids will be visiting for a vacation to my new home so they can start the process of getting to meet the family in person and become real to them.

As I continue with my genealogical journey I am uncovering other family secrets. Other adoptions that were unknown and family trees that will have to change. New relationships with folks that we didn’t know existed in some cases with the folks just down the road from us. I don’t know if the bio family appreciates these discoveries or not, but they are what they are and in my mind can be dealt with if they are in the open.

Finally, it’s been nearly five years but I think it may take much longer than I expected. Even though I never spoke about timelines, I think deep down I was hoping for deeper connections already. Often the expectations that need to be managed are my own.

Conclusion

It has been a journey of ups and downs. Learning to deal with feelings I often did not know I had. Connections that feel real and deep from the begging yet are new and need to be developed. Chances and choices made that will change us one way or another as part of this family.

The discoveries you find will cause you to feel and often these feelings and situations are new territories for you as they were for me. Take time to process, your feelings are real and need to be settled by you, not well meaning friends or family.

Realize the honeymoon, that is the excitement of discovery of a new family is quickly over as you settle into your new reality. I find the reality is sweeter than the honeymoon as I develop real relationships with real people with whom I am connected tp for the rest of my life.

I hope that by sharing my story with you, you can gleen some tidbits that will help you along your journey.