“When you look in the mirror you see not just your face but a museum. Although your face, in one sense, is your own, it is composed of a collage of features you have inherited from your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on. The lips and eyes that either bother or please you are not yours alone but are also features of your ancestor, long dead perhaps as individuals but still very much alive as fragments in you. Even complex qualities such as your sense of balance, musical abilities, shyness in crowds, or susceptibility to sickness have been lived before. We carry the past around with us all the time, and not just in our bodies. It also lives in our customs, including the way we speak. The past is a set of invisible lenses we were constantly, and through these we perceive the world and the world perceives us. We stand always on the shoulders of our ancestors, whether or not we look down to acknowledge them.” – The Horse, the Wheel, and Language by David w. Anthony
I’ve graduated law school, found a job I love, met a wonderful man, fell in love, planned a wedding, got married, settled into our temporary home, adopted a furry baby, learned about cruelty free cosmetics and made the switch, researched food labeling and conscious producers and made that switch, educated myself on improving my financial management and opened a retirement account, and then ran out of projects. And politics? Well, let’s just not talk about that. What could I possible put all of my extra mental energy into? Genealogy.
On and off I’ve delved into family history throughout the years. I collected lots of information last time my paternal grandmother visited the U.S. over a decade ago and since then I have added bits here and there, but never really took the time to take it any further. I am not sure when the world became so fascinated with genealogy and websites like Ancestry, Family Search, My Heritage, and Geni started popping up, but by the time I joined the trend there was a wealth of information out there. I was able to fill in a lot of blanks, find reference documents and connect to unknown family members with ease.
Then, genetic genealogy caught my attention. Sending off a sample of my DNA to Family Tree DNA, Ancestry or 23 and Me could not only genetically match me to remote family, but could also provide some insight into where I am from, geographically. I was hooked. Now, I know, it’s scary to send off your DNA and have it stored forever by some company. The term and conditions you must consent to are complicated and all vary – some won’t sell, some will sell, some will release your genetic information without your personal information for medical research, some will provide some of your personal information. Add to that the lack of certainty in the geographic results, although the continent matches are probably pretty solid anything more specific is a little iffy, and the fact that these results are constantly being updated as the companies get new data and make internal changes. You may reasonably ask, what’s the point? Personally, I found it simply fascinating, innovative, and valuable and I did not care about any of the other stuff. My parents, grandfather and I were all tested with Family Tree DNA. I chose Family Tree because they had great reviews as to the certainty of their geographic estimates, good terms and conditions and were having a holiday sale.
We received our initial results before the 2017 update and were all generally surprised, especially my mother (who happened to have traces of British Islander and Native American DNA). After that, I threw all caution to the wind. I ordered the Ancestry DNA tests for my mother and I (results still pending ) and uploaded our raw DNA information to Gedmatch, DNA Land and My Heritage (I can say their Terms and Conditions are fair and you do not have to agree to the Consent Agreement, I also like that they changed their Terms and Conditions after their users complained about certain terms). With the DNA results I have also been able to connect to people, although our actual relationships are still a mystery. I am somehow related to a doctor who lives in California, a programmer/analyst at UCLA, and a perhaps distant cousin who lives in Virginia.
Before taking the DNA test I had also made some great connections through Ancestry. Using their “hints” I met a cousin from a side of the family that had lost contact a couple of generations ago and we have become very close primas. I highly recommend Ancestry if you want a place to start. It’s not cheap, but they do offer a free trial and their website is the best; it’s got the most resources and it is the most user friendly. Less user friendly, but with vast resources and free is Family Search, it’s actually the site where I began my research more than a year ago.
The highlight of this process was probably hiring a genealogist in Cuba who amazes me every day. With limited resources (and unbeatable prices) she’s truly helped me expand and deepen my knowledge of my family’s history. In this process I have learned that my maternal second great grandmother attended Harvard for a summer in 1900 as part of a special session hosted for about 1,500 Cuban schoolteachers to train in American style education after the Spanish-American war. On my paternal side I have learned that my great grandfather was born in Key West while his father was working for Jose Marti and the freedom of Cuba. His family eventually returned to the Island and one of my great uncles went on to be a writer.
If you choose to begin your own genealogy journey, be prepared for anything; be prepared to be disappointed, frustrated, and confused. Be open-minded about what you may find. A lot of what you may have been told or believe about your family history may be wrong. Be open to the possibilities and the history, try not to impose your modern views and believes into the lives of your ancestors. So far I have more questions than answers. I have hit countless walls and made many mistakes. Every time I learn something new it creates a myriad of questions in mind. I still struggle with the idea that I won’t ever know everything about everyone and that some ancestors will always remain a mystery and their stories, sadly, died with them. But I have learned so much about myself in the process and I have fallen in love with each story, with each person. Every minute devoted to this task has been worthwhile and it feels quite exceptional to find human stories lost to time and bring them back for posterity. I think my personal project can turn out to be a lot more than that in the future.