DNA: Searching for Me

One in an occasional series of essays on identity

Simeóna Marte, my 2x great-grandmother

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.

My mother and father

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.

My mother’s mother, Mamita

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.  

Clockwise: My son Antonio, me, Antonio’s wife Crystal, and my granddaughter Anabella

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.

35 years
With our very young son, Daichi Gant-Ruiz

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.


Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

This is the first in a series of works exploring what it means to be American.

I pledge allegiance to the flag but whose flag is it as I am standing there in the catholic school classroom with the white faces and red hair and blond hair and white shirts and white blouses and blue pants and black pants and the nuns are covered head to toe in their own hijabs but without their faces covered and they’re leading us in a solemn tribute to a country that tells me that I am an American but really they were just joking because I’m not really like them because my father is from Puerto Rico and my mother is from the Dominican Republic wherever the hell that is and even though I was born in Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx that doesn’t give me the right to think that I’m an American citizen when in fact it was just an accident of time and place when the truth is that I could have been born somewhere else like Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic although I keep telling them that Puerto Ricans are American citizens since 1917 they keep telling me they don’t care because it’s nothing more than an island where they take the whole family on vacation to San Juan beaches and that rainforest whose name they can’t quite pronounce and anyway they say Puerto Rico don’t send their best and brightest except rapists and murderers and bank robbers and juvenile delinquents so really I’m not a real American blue blood but probably a descendent of criminals so they tell me to look at me they ask do I have freckles and red hair and black hair like those nice Eyetalian kids whose parents hang out at that social club across the street from Saint Rita’s Parochial school sipping expresso and playing cards and kissing the ring of the old man who occasionally shows up in a Cadillac with a fat driver and his pinkie ring and shiny suits and silk overcoats and shoes that definitely weren’t bought at Buster Brown and all I can think as I stand at full attention with my right hand above my heart screaming louder than all the other kids in the class I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America trying to prove that yes I am an American and they’re laughing because I’m screaming I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America louder and louder and sister Mary Joseph Jesus is now looking at me sternly and warning that she will not tolerate anyone making fun of the pledge of allegiance to the United States of America even people who claim to be Americans just because they were born here by accident in the greatest country in the world instead of somewhere else like on a boat called SS Marine Tiger or one of those propeller planes that come from some foreign country like Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic destined for LaGuardia or Idlewild Airport in New York where those black or brown or yellow looking people arrive to infect their great nation with foreign blood (Did I tell you that Puerto Ricans are American citizens since 1917?) and strange customs and strange music and strange language (Is that Spanish?) that is definitely not American or English and I scream louder as I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands one Nation under God indivisible with liberty and justice for all because I was told by my father from Puerto Rico and my mother from the Dominican Republic that they came to the United States of America because they were told by their uncles and aunts and cousins and radio shows and newspapers and movies before there was television that this here United States of America was the home of the free and home of the brave and that there was an America the beautiful and that because people have been coming from countries like Ireland and England and France and Italy and Germany and Spain they thought that well that means they could also be welcomed because they were looking for the same damn things those people from Ireland and England and France and Italy and Germany and Spain were looking for and everyone is looking at me as I’m thinking these things and they can hear me under the screaming of the pledge of allegiance to the flag that I am also an American because I was born at Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx and that made me an American citizen and anyway my father was already an American citizen since he was Puerto Rican so I am an American because I was born in the United States of America as the voices stop and I drop my hand from my chest and smile broadly on my brown face under my black hair and through my brown eyes and nod that this is who I am, an American.

Image by Prawny from Pixabay

Searching For Me

This project arose from an assignment in my Fall 2021 English Studies class. The goal was to explore memory, identity, and roots.

My mother and father

When my parents, Antonio Ruiz Diaz and Ana Josefa Estrella-Diaz Ruiz, died, the stories of their family roots also died. I missed every opportunity to ask them about their parents, grandparents, and grandparents’ parents. As I’ve gotten older, I regret I don’t have more family history to pass on to my sons and granddaughter.

I’ve now become obsessed with searching for my roots. It would be easy to chalk it up to all the shows about genealogy and the ads for DNA tests. But I know it’s something more profound, a recognition that my life didn’t begin with my birth. I come from somewhere, from generations of people in the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe. For me, it starts with the history of two people who traveled to Bronx, New York, from two different islands in the Caribbean. My parents brought their own roots, national culture, and history with the Spanish language the bridge between them. They would meet by chance in 1947 in front of a furniture store on Westchester Avenue in the South Bronx (it’s a very romantic story). At that chance intersection of life, a romance bloomed for Antonio and Ana. Marriage followed four months later, on February 29, 1948. My birth later that year. A new generational line was created by their union. I know where the line moved forward from my parents. What fascinates me is how far back it goes.

I’ve seen snatches of a family tree from Puerto Rico (my father) and the Dominican Republic (my mother), two islands in the Caribbean, 236.78 miles apart. Piecing together the family history has been difficult. I don’t speak Spanish, and many of the surviving relatives of my father and mother either don’t speak English or are too old to remember it.

This I can tell you, a Puerto Rican and a Dominican getting married back in 1948 was a big deal. My father would tell me some vague stories about his grandfather being from Spain. On the other hand, Dominicans, well, let’s just say that there was a lot more visible evidence of indigenous and African blood mixing with that of the Spanish conquerors to make some light-skinned Puerto Ricans nervous. The irony is that Dominicans on the island of Hispaniola have had a long-running dispute with that other country that shares the island, Haiti. Something about Haitians being too dark.

My Father

My father, Antonio Ruiz Diaz, was born June 20, 1925, in Puerto Rico in a small town called Maunabo, whose name came from a Taino name Manatuabón for the Maunabo River. Spain had claimed the Caribbean Island before they lost it in a gunfight called the Spanish American War in 1898. The United States then declared it a U.S. territory as if they had found a lost piece of luggage. In 1917, Puerto Ricans were made U.S. citizens, although no one asked them what they wanted. An American veteran of World War Two, my father had to deny he was Puerto Rican when he first applied for work in the Bronx. He told them he was a Spaniard and got the job. His reward for a long life of hard work, volunteering for his Church, and fathering five children, was cancer. He died in the Bronx on October 6, 1993.

Father’s Family Tree

The long list of names in my father’s family tree is a mystery to me, beginning with the grandfather that I never met, Pedro Ruiz Y Rivera. Born in 1893 before the Spanish American War, he died in 1930 when my father was young. Then, there are the names Juan Tomas Ruiz Escobar, Juan Rito Ruiz, and a fifth great-grandfather, Juan Correoso Gascon. I’m not even sure they were from Puerto Rico or Spain. There are gaps in the forefathers’ history with no glimpse of the women they married and their history.

My father’s mother and a very young me

I did know my father’s mother, Virginia Diaz Ruiz, affectionately called Mamá. She was born before the Spanish American War on August 25, 1895. She died on May 27, 1997, at nearly 102 years old. With my Spanish-speaking skills lost, I could not discover my grandmother’s story, of the husband who died so young, her parents, brothers, and sisters.

My Mother

My mother, Ana Josefa Estrella-Diaz Ruiz, was born in the Dominican Republic in another small town, Palmar in Salcedo (Provincia de Hermanas Mirabal) on August 8, 1928. She would later proudly become an American Citizen while raising five children, telling us scary stories and teaching us to laugh. My mother fostered too many children to remember and adopted two of them. Life rewarded her for all that she gave with Parkinson’s Disease. On October 28, 2015, she died in the same Bronx Hospice where her husband passed away twenty-two years earlier.

The Women in my mother’s Family Tree

I’ve met my mother’s mother, Melania Margarita Díaz-Mendoza. We lovingly called her Mamita. She disliked traveling to New York from the Dominican Republic, so my visits with her were always brief. Then there was my grandfather, Juan Estrella Minaya, who was born in 1899. I only met him once, remembering him as a dark brown man with a shock of white hair. I gave him five minutes of my arrogant teenage time. They both died before I was able to ask them about their stories, lives, and family history.

There is something about looking back to see where one is going. I now know that I am more than my life lived.

Special thanks to my sister, Margaret T. Ruiz, for her input and editing assistance.

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