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Growing up in the Rio Grande Valley, Danny Villarreal had heard the stories from his grandparents. His ancestors, it was whispered, had come to Mexico from Spain under something of a cloud. Apparently, they were not purebred Castilian Spaniards, but members of a persecuted minority -- namely, Jews who had converted to Catholicism on pain of death at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition.
Villarreal was intrigued. As he grew older, he took up genealogy as a hobby. "It's turned into a pretty big thing," he says. Villarreal discovered a paper trail to back up the stories of his family's elders. In Saltillo, Mexico, he found a 380-year-old document that concerned one ancestor of his -- Diego de Villarreal -- who had gotten a little too full of himself for the local padre's liking. "One of the documents out of Saltillo was the parish priest complaining to the Inquisition about this guy Diego de Villarreal, who had some silver mines and was a captain in the military," Villarreal says. "The complaint was that he would come into town wearing silk clothing and jewelry, and he was allowed to bear arms. People who were 'New Christians' " -- recently converted Jews -- "were not allowed to do those things. It was all political, he had a lot of power, he had his own little army. I guess the Church didn't like that."
In the end, nothing came of the priest's tattling letter. The Inquisition's enforcers weren't about to leave their comfortable offices in Mexico City and sully their long black robes in the Nuevo Leon dust, not to mention risk their scalps at the hands of the Apaches and Comanches then raiding along the route, and the local authorities swept the affair under the rug. For good reasons: "The thing was that the people who were ruling northern Mexico during that time were all descendants of Jews, so this priest didn't have the political power to be able to get him out," Villarreal says.
At least that's the theory. And as far as the case of Diego de Villarreal goes, it would seem that in the 17th century, northern Mexico -- which included Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California -- was run and in no small part populated by crypto-Jews. But was there anything to back up this idea other than legends and moldering documents in Mexican archives? Couldn't it be that the priest had been motivated to denounce de Villarreal as an uppity New Christian by simple jealousy? Or maybe de Villarreal had insulted the priest. Who knows?
The long and the short of it is this: Sometimes documents tell lies, but DNA never does, at least if you conduct your tests in a competently run lab. Danny Villarreal, now a partner in a Harlingen architectural firm, discovered a Houston company, Family Tree DNA, that conducts DNA tests for genealogical purposes. He ordered a kit, swabbed some genetic material from the inside of his cheek and mailed it back to Houston. FTDNA sent the test off to a genetics lab at the University of Arizona, and a few weeks later Villarreal got his results back. Although the company didn't find that he was related to anyone then in its database, it did have a few surprises for him.
First, there was his haplogroup -- the genetic marker that goes back on his Y chromosome for tens of thousands of years. All humanity is divided into 18 of these, and Mexicans of European descent would likely be in either haplogroup R-1A or R-1B, the most common groups in Western Europe, or if they were primarily of Native American descent, Q or Q-3. Villarreal's was E-3B, which is a Semitic haplogroup that evolved in East Africa and then spread around the Mediterranean and is most common today in the Middle East and in North and East Africa. Then there were his closest genetic matches. All three of them were to Jews in places like Hungary, Belarus and Poland. It appeared that the parish priest back in Saltillo had not been lying after all.
On discovering his Jewish ancestry, Villarreal says, his reaction was mixed. "I was kinda surprised. I didn't know how to react," he says. "I'm a good ol' Catholic boy -- I went to Catholic schools and everything. It's not gonna change my religion or anything like that, but it was kind of interesting."
It turns out that Villarreal is far from alone. There are plenty of genetic Jews among the Hispanics of South Texas, the American Southwest and northern Mexico. Companies like FTDNA are turning them up all the time -- not to mention establishing kinships where none were known to exist, solving history's mysteries and answering questions people have about themselves that until now had no answers.
"History Unearthed Daily" is the motto of FTDNA, and stories like Villarreal's are fairly common, says company president and CEO Bennett Greenspan. Companies like FTDNA and its competitors Relative Genetics, DNA Heritage, DNA Consulting and African Ancestry (which specializes in the genes of black Americans) all can help you answer some compelling questions. Maybe you're a member of a certain Indian tribe, and you've just been granted a casino license. Suddenly you have kinfolk coming out of the woodwork. These tests can help separate the real Native Americans from the fakes. Or maybe you were adopted, and you don't have a clue about your past. These companies -- or at least the responsible ones -- can't guarantee that they will find your parents, or even anyone you're related to, but they can tell you your haplogroup, which could be vital information. For example, perhaps people of your ancestry suffer from certain genetic ailments; knowing this could save your life.