When I was little, my grandfather used to tell us grandkids stories of his youth in Peru. He loved sports, and would often talk about his days playing for the Peruvian national baseball team and running track and field. He would joke that none of his grandchildren were born with his competitive nature or his gorgeous, muscular legs. That’s when my grandmother would chime in with, “those chicken legs?” which would send us all into fits of laughter.
As we grew older, however, my siblings did get sporty; my brother played soccer and my sister ran track. But my version of sport was selecting my Oscar predictions, belting out Broadway tunes, and memorizing as many of Shakespeare’s monologues as possible.
I was creative and “right-brained,” whereas my family was more business-minded and focused on education. The older I got, the more I noticed how different I was from them; I was the only one with freckles, the only one with fine, straight hair, the only one who was light skinned, the only one who found business and math boring. Most days, I didn’t question it. But sometimes, I wondered how many of these traits came from my father. Most intriguing to me of all, though, was the fact that my last name is Portuguese/Brazilian, despite the fact that my mom has always told me my father was Mexican.
My parents split up just before my younger sister was born, when I was not even 2 years old. I didn’t see my dad again after that, and so my memories of him are scarce. My mom moved in with my grandparents and I grew up surrounded by love, joy, and laughter. As a result, I never really felt that I missed out on anything by not having my father around — my family was close, with my abuelos and tios always there if I needed them. But it was those small differences that made me wonder … Did I get these freckles from him? Did I get my love of writing from him? Did I get my stubborn temper from him? Were his parents left or right-brained? And even more so, do I have other siblings, tios and primos, that are more like me?
In 2007, when I was pregnant with my daughter, I began to ask my mom for everything she knew or could remember about my dad and his family. I was determined to have answers for my daughter someday, so that she would always know who she was and everything that made her who she was. I never wanted to say “I don’t know” (like my mom so often did) when my daughter came to me with a question about her heritage. My mom remembered my father’s birthdate, his mother’s name, that he had about five other siblings, and that he was a charmer whom women loved. She made an effort to contact an old mutual friend, to see if she could get ahold of my dad, so he could answer my questions himself.
Sadly, we found out my father had passed the year prior. This news left me wondering if I would ever be able to fill in all the blanks from my history, and my daughter’s heritage.
After seeing an advance screening of Disney•Pixar’s Coco, I quickly identified with how the main character Miguel Rivera felt different from his own family. He had a passion for music, but his entire family was made up of shoemakers who banned music from their lives. He began to wonder about his ancestor who was a musician and what the real reason was that his family would not listen to music. And so, he set off on a journey to the Land of the Dead to seek out his mysterious relative.
Inspired by the story of Coco, I found the Rivera family tree on Ancestry.com, where you can learn more about Miguel’s ancestors. As I clicked through the descriptions of each family member, going back to Miguel’s great-great-grandmother Mama Imelda, I found myself wanting to learn more about my own heritage, as well.
So with the help of Ancestry.com and the AncestryDNA test, I am slowly piecing together my own family tree — and learning so much about myself and my daughter in the process. Through DNA matches, I’ve found cousins in other countries and even some adopted second cousins who are just as eager as I am to fill in the blanks of our family.
One big blank we learned quickly.
While we had been told that my father passed away, we didn’t know exactly when he died. After finding his death certificate on Ancestry.com, we learned that he actually passed in July 2005 — not late 2006 like we had been told. I know it is only a year, but to me it meant a lot because I often wondered if I should have tried to contact my dad to let him know that he was about to have a granddaughter. I felt guilt for some time thinking I had denied him that. So, in a way, finding that death certificate and knowing now that he passed long before my daughter was born, allowed me to say goodbye without guilt and without wondering, what if?
But my father’s death isn’t the only big mystery that Ancestry.com has helped me solve. I’ve always been curious about my Mexican side because no one really knew what region my dad’s family may have been from. The AncestryDNA Migrations feature showed that the region I am most linked to is the Jalisco, Aguascalientes, Guanajuato, and Michoacán area, which has been incredibly helpful.
My husband and I have always toyed with the idea of traveling to the countries of our heritage, but I never knew where in Mexico to visit. Now that I know where exactly my father’s family is from, I can plan a trip that will allow us to immerse ourselves in the beautiful culture of my ancestors. I can’t wait to discover more, and eventually, see all the places my family once called home.
Throughout this entire experience, perhaps the most surprising information I’ve learned is that I have British and Irish ancestry! Approximately 5 percent of my ancestry is from Great Britain, and 3 percent is from Ireland, Scotland, or Wales. All my life I thought I was 50 percent Mexican and 50 percent Peruvian, so this discovery has been eye-opening — and so much fun to tell my daughter about.
I may not have all the answers yet, but I am excited to uncover more about my family’s past. That way, when my daughter comes to me and asks where her freckles come from or why she loves writing songs so much, I may be able to tell her.