One in an occasional series of essays on identity
She stands there in what appears as a photography studio in a possibly manually colored picture, her hair gray and short, dark eyebrows, left hand on her hip, her right arm leaning on an elevated small table of some kind, a pink full body dress with a pink cinch wrapped around her wide body. It is difficult to determine her height but not her stern stare. Serious, like maybe she was anxious for the session to be over. Her name is Simeóna Marte. According to a recently discovered cousin, she is my 2x great-grandmother, who was born in the Dominican Republic sometime in the middle of the nineteenth century.
I know nothing about her, but the strength visible in her stance and face shout out to me from another century, another country of which I know very little. My mother’s place of birth, the Dominican Republic, shares an island called Hispaniola with the poorest country in the Caribbean, Haiti. For most of my mother’s life in New York, she spoke little of her heritage and ancestry to me. My mother, Ana Estrella Ruiz, was married to a Puerto Rican man, my father, Antonio Ruiz, whose heritage and ancestry dominated our view of where we came from. He proudly proclaimed that his grandfather was from Spain, the colonizer of much of the Caribbean and Latin America. And for years, growing up in the South Bronx, I called myself Puerto Rican, ignoring my Dominican self.
In my later Puerto Rican Pride teen years, my mother couldn’t help reminding me that I was also half-Dominican. She didn’t proclaim as if to belittle the Puerto Rican heritage but to remind me that my roots were complicated. While Spain may have played a significant role in determining our origin, it was not the only nation that either colonized a path through the two Caribbean islands or contributed to the DNA pool through indigenous settlement or importation of enslaved people.
My family is a study of diversity. We like to call ourselves rainbow people, from the noticeably white European features of my father to the brown features of my mother. While we, as children, spent more time with our father’s Puerto Rican family, we would occasionally meet my mother’s Dominican family. Her aunt and uncle sponsored her immigration to the Bronx, New York, where she would eventually meet our father.
Her mother, whom we called Mamita, did not like leaving her home in the Dominican Republic. Something about the big city. She spoke no English, just like my father’s mother, and I had previously lost my Spanish, so communicating was not easy. Her brown skin revealed years of tropical living. My grandfather, her husband, and I only met once for a few minutes (the disrespect of a teenager who had other things to do). All I remember was his white hair, even darker than his wife’s skin. I kissed his cheek and asked for his blessing, and I was out the door losing an opportunity to discover from him and my grandmother the answers to all the questions I now have at seventy-three. Questions haunt me as I search for my family’s history, from the nineteenth century to now.
As tested by Ancestry.com, my DNA reveals that Spain (28%) and Portugal (22%) comprise fifty percent of my ancestry. That is not surprising considering what my father told us and, of course, the historical record for Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Of course, one would expect France (8%) to be in the mix since that colonizer once controlled the island of Hispaniola, where French is a dominant language in what is now known as Haiti. What did surprise me were the other thirty-eight percent. Twenty-seven percent were from countries of Africa, including Egypt. Of course, it shouldn’t be surprising considering the transatlantic African slave trade committed by European colonizers along with Arab and African collaborators throughout the Caribbean and the Americas.
All the long DNA lines from Europe and Africa flow through the Caribbean and my father and mother’s family, including Simeóna Marte, into the body of their oldest son, me, born on December 8, 1948, in Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx. The DNA would continue through my second marriage to a woman of Puerto Rican ancestry born in New York.
My oldest son, named after me, married a woman of white European heritage, and a girl from their union was born who is now five years old.
Then there is the third marriage (yes, I’ve been married three times) with a woman whose mother was Japanese and whose father was a Black American from Louisiana. We have a son with dreadlocks who cannot be mistaken for anything other than a Black man, except he has a Japanese name with a Spanish middle name. Let that DNA story settle into your imagination for a minute.
Searching for me is not only recording your life events and the family you know as you grow up. It is also about understanding the history of where you come from, the people and their history, the towns, and cities they lived in, the culture they celebrated, and the horrors and successes of life. I wish for that knowledge because it is who I am today and what I have passed on to my two sons and granddaughter.
It is not about what label to use to call myself but the totality of my DNA, my family, my children, the cultures that have shaped my outlook and helped define me, and the people that have surrounded me all my life and that I seek out now in search of new ideas, new visions, and new futures.