DNA testing sites make discovering your family history seem like one big genealogical adventure. But what about those ancestry stories that don’t have a happily ever after? The ones that expose a family tree’s gnarled roots and broken branches?
Take, for example, my family.
The Garcias are led by a pair of oddball patriarchs who could give Clark Griswold a run for his money: my father, Joe, 71, and his brother, Tony, 68. My dad and uncle identify culturally as African-American — they were raised by a black woman from rural Maryland. But according to the family history, their father was of Mexican-Indian descent, hence the last name.
Well, last summer, Uncle Tony sent in his DNA sample for my niece’s school project, and what ensued was a chain of existential group texts and conversations involving all the Garcias, former Garcias, and anyone married to a Garcia.
My uncle’s ethnic breakdown identified him as more than 70 percent African and 20 percent European.
“No Spanish! Not one drop!” texted my cousin Tony, an attorney in Baltimore and Uncle Tony’s son, referring to the fact that we apparently had no Mexican roots. As if we’d all missed that part.
All my life, I had been told that my paternal grandfather, “Injun Joe” Garcia, was born on a reservation in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. He spent most of his time sailing the high seas as a merchant marine cook and part-time hustler, which is why my dad and uncle never learned Spanish. The one person who could pass along our mother tongue was a deadbeat dad. By the time my father turned 7, Injun Joe had split forever. It wasn’t a pretty story, but it was the only one I had ― and it was set to unravel like a loose braid.
How could I be a Garcia with no Hispanic heritage? It didn’t add up, and that felt deeply unsettling. I decided to get my own DNA tested, selfishly hoping that Uncle Tony had a different, non-Hispanic father, which could explain away this whole thing. Never mind that he and my dad look almost exactly alike. Or that I’d be quietly suggesting my married grandmother was a minx in the late 1940s. I was ready to accept any possibility that preserved my identity exactly the way it was.
A few weeks later, my test results came back. No Hispanic anything. Nada. Just like that, one email forced me to rethink my entire racial and genetic makeup.
At first, I was in disbelief. What about all those people who came up to me on the streets of New York City and started speaking Spanish? They never doubted for a moment that I was Hispanic. And I had always killed it in Spanish class, seemingly because I had Latino blood coursing through my veins. Accepting that I wasn’t a Garcia felt dangerously close to abandoning my identity.
I was more ready to process things a week or so later, when one of my newfound relatives reached out through the DNA site. If the testing results hadn’t done enough to steer me toward a life crisis, a phone call with her certainly made up for it. It made me rethink everything.
“I knew Joe Garcia well,” said my 86-year-old cousin Dolores Carter, who is black. “He named himself Garcia. His real name was William Worthey, and he wasn’t Mexican.”
Carter lives in Richmond, California, but she is originally from Okmulgee. She lived near my grandfather for a while and has no shortage of unflattering stories to share: “Uncle Joe was my mother’s uncle, and he was ugly. Not a bad-looking man, but ugly inside. He was a gambler, and he was mean. Violent, too. He was always fighting, and he beat any woman he had, including your grandmother, Margaret.”
So Garcia wasn’t even my real name.
“I once overheard my mom and dad say Uncle Joe was a wanted man,” said another new cousin, Marie Shakoor, 71. “He was wanted under the name Will Worthey, and that’s why we think he changed his name to Joe Garcia.”
My cousin Tony said our grandfather exhibited classic escapist behavior, which supported Shakoor’s theory.
“If you’re trying to change your name and your identity, you’re typically trying to evade law enforcement,” Tony said. “Choosing to be Mexican-Indian may not have been our grandfather’s first choice, but it may have been the better option.”
The more I learned, the less I wanted to know. I had always liked being a Garcia. Growing up in a black community, where surnames like Smith, Brown and Jackson are ubiquitous, being a Garcia set me apart.
Perhaps more significantly, being a Garcia meant I could trace my roots to an ancestral homeland — albeit Mexico, not Africa. This was noteworthy when you consider that many African-Americans lost all ancestral ties as a result of slavery and the slave trade.
Will Worthey gave me something really special when he assumed the name Garcia and passed it along to his sons. He gave me a lineage. In a cruel twist, it was completely fabricated.
This collision of identity and DNA testing speaks volumes about our individual and collective search for belonging, as well as the complexities of race and ethnicity. It also underscores the critical need for scholars such as Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Alondra Nelson, author of The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome. Their works around genealogy and history are empowering people to explore their roots and consider the role science and DNA can play in creating new narratives.
That last point wasn’t lost on one member of the “family formerly known as Garcia.”
“I’ll tell you one thing,” my cousin Calida said. “This really takes the pressure off of having to learn Spanish.”