Reconnecting With My Southwest Roots: A Coming Home Story

If you follow my writing, you know that I have recently spent a considerable amount of time traveling around the Southwest over the past few years. While it’s true I spent my childhood summers in Colorado and New Mexico to see family — miles away from where I grew up in Western Canada — to visit my wonderful Grandmother and family friends, but did not understand how deep our roots went here — and in America — until research and genetic revelations much later in adulthood. It’s funny how some places have always felt so familiar, without logical explanation.

Today is Mother’s Day, and it is not lost on me that this story is tied to her and her genetic lineage, and the many mysteries that have unraveled on this quest. It is also with the respect that I don’t share too many details per her wishes, that I am fully on board with that. Adoption can be a wonderful yet complicated piece of someone’s life story and that is a private factor for the individual in question.

Like most of us with multiple generations of North American rooted family — Canada, America, Mexico — there is a fascinating web of stories, movement and borders. Growing up in Canada and the United States has certainly been interesting in the many subtle differences that would otherwise go unnoticed unless you have spent significant time in both — and believe me, there are many. My parents had met in college In Boulder, but could not have less in common, from sensibilities to family backgrounds, and I wished I had asked more questions sooner but I was too young to really notice or see beyond my selfish self. It was clear looking at my dad’s side of the family — long time residents of Ontario — that we descended from lines of British and Irish ancestors. Yet those blue eyes and blond hair I did not inherit. In fact, in our largely white, bland suburban neighborhood, my mother’s beauty, and cultural preferences stood out. Olive skin, dark eyes and hair, higher cheekbones, and the many Mexican influences of food and design she infused into our home. Bring adopted, she was unsure of her background and never really cared to know, and she had the most phenomenal parents, sharing a deep love and family dynamic so many people would long to have. Add to that that my Grandmother was a real trailblazer — and beautiful, brilliant & independent artist — who was born in Kentucky and left her difficult childhood home as soon as she could, landing in Colorado and becoming a mentor and compassionate confidant to everyone she met. She often worked with New Mexican and Mexican artists, which resulted in my mother’s influences growing up. I just remember we were the only people in our neighborhood with a beautiful and warm home full of color and art, spice-infused meals, pinatas at birthday parties, and a mom who brought homemade sopapillas for ‘cultural celebration’ day in my elementary school. Living in California now, this may seem commonplace, but living in a generic town in Alberta growing up, it was not. And looking back, I am filled with gratitude for those influences and experiences and the fact that so many others were drawn to our home as a beacon of love and light. I would not be who I am today without them, and the endless inspiration from my mother Marie and Grandmother Lucy.

After spending over a decade living in New York City, I eventually moved west for work and to be closer to family, but it became an increasingly strong pull to explore and reconnect with the entire Southwest region and reconcile many of my muddled memories, wanting to see everything through fresh eyes. All of this lead up to the moment I felt compelled to connect the dots, and as someone who often takes the initiative, I knew it was up to me on behalf of my family. I would not overstep my mom’s wishes by digging too far into her past, but at the same time I wanted to solve the genealogical story on her side — we knew she had to be Latina — regardless of what people had told her in the past, considering her early years were spent in an orphanage (her records were messy) and she was often discriminated against for the color of her skin in a very white 1940/50’s Colorado — and understand the history of how our ancestors got from here and about our health. The fact that any of us are here at all is endlessly fascinating to me, and that everyone before you survived and has a story, is worthy of our attention. So in a joint effort, my mother agreed to get her birth record — which was a simple one-page document without much detail, and one parent missing — that led me down a research rabbit hole (Hello 23andme and Ancestry.com). With her birth name a dead giveaway on which way her heritage leaned, we both completed our DNA test and were off to the races. In the wonder that is modern technology, it took me about a week of reading up on our results (which turned out to be a rare haplogroup-specific to New Mexico), research the paper trail (census, birth, wedding and newspaper records are an amazing resource), and accidentally connect with ‘new’ extended family on the 23andme (which confirmed all of my research, but I had to draw the line at too much further contact). I also made the decision to research the adopted family lineage in an effort to confirm the many stories that had been passed down over the years, largely missing details, and in some cases, truth. In an interesting twist, both sides of the family had deep roots in the great state of Colorado and had both been in America from before the revolutionary war (!!!). It just turns out that my mom’s ancestors had absolutely come from Spain & Southern Europe, and settled in New Mexico (‘New Spain’, well before it joined the union) as early as 1640, sharing places and people with those from Northern Mexico. It’s amazing how these things all come together, and were not even a surprise because we just knew and had always been celebrating this part of our cultural background. One does not need confirmation to do so, but it was powerful information nonetheless in that we grew up with so many details of only one side of our family, and this completed the story circle.

I like to think that my findings were valuable to my mom on some level, and I shared with her only part of what I found, allowing her to process as she wished, knowing that I had more information if and when she was ready for it.

Whether this is right for you or not, is, of course, a personal question, and something we waited to pursue until later down the line. For us, it felt like our approach honored all sides of our family lineage, and it is something we can pass on to my little niece and nephew, who have now enriched out family with my sister-in-law’s own incredible family legacy. May we all embrace the many facets of ourselves, and celebrate the mosaic of culture that brings the entire world together in this crazy human experience.

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