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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.
So even if they can't prove that you are a direct descendant of Napoleon Bonaparte, they could tell you that you and he had an ancestor in common at some point. Greenspan warns that this distinction is often misunderstood. "It's real important that people understand what DNA testing can't do. For example, say you and another Lomax man who you'd never met come up as an exact match; we cannot ever tell you that the two of you's oldest known ancestors were brothers or first cousins. What it will tell you conclusively is if they come from a common male ancestor at some point in time."
Greenspan also warns about companies that claim to be able to detect too much using too little. One such, he says, is African Ancestry, which was founded by Rick Kittles, a co-director of Molecular Genetics at the National Human Genome Center at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Earlier this year, syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts used Kittles's tests to determine that his father's ancestors were Songhai from Niger and his mother's Mende from Sierra Leone. "Knowing that gave me a gladness that's hard to articulate," wrote Pitts at the time. "Like finding the jigsaw's missing piece. I felt a quiet joy. It made me want to know more. Made me want to go there."
Greenspan is skeptical of Kittles's findings, in this and many other cases. "I think the only scientist who says you can use as few markers as Kittles uses and be able to predict somebody back to a tribal level is Dr. Kittles," Greenspan says. "In other words, I don't think it's been independently verified. If you talk to Native American experts in this country, they'll tell you that with our mtDNA test they could put somebody back to a region of a country -- like the southeastern U.S. -- and that's hundreds of thousands of square miles you're looking at right there. And Kittles is trying to tell people that they can put you back to a single tribe out of hundreds. That may be a little bit overselling. Maybe they can do that, but you're not gonna see another scientist saying, 'Oh, that clearly works, and we're absolutely confident in it.' As for me, I think it's prudent to undersell and overdeliver."
But if Kittles is in fact selling too much sizzle with his steaks, it points out what a great opportunity this would be for someone to prey on the vulnerable. Because of the manner in which they were systematically stripped of their heritage, black Americans would be vulnerable to someone who says he can crack open the lockbox of the past. And in some ways, this field has the potential to become something like the opposite of the fortune-telling racket, the difference being that these shady operators would peddle you a bogus past rather than a fake future.
"I think Abe Lincoln answered that question best," Greenspan says. "I don't feel that any of us who test are providing inaccurate data, but the interpretation is sometimes fast and loose. That is why I would only buy from a company that is supported by a reputable university science team."
But when interpreted with scientific rigor, genetic genealogy can bring hard science to genealogy's imprecise and, at times, incorrect methods. FTDNA and companies like it have the potential to revolutionize genealogy. In fact, the company brands its stock-in-trade as "anthrogenealogy," which it defines as "the science of genealogy by genetics; especially: utilizing molecular biology to trace a lineage beyond the limits of historical records."
Greenspan says his company's services help give genealogy -- a soft science, at best -- a much firmer footing in hard science. "Because there's evidence, and there's a preponderance of evidence," he says.
FTDNA also can answer the ultimate genealogical poser: If you're a male, and thus the owner of a Y chromosome, it literally can tell you where your ancestors were in prehistoric times. (Women who want to test can find out their haplogroup by testing their mitochondrial DNA; if they want to test their male ancestry, they have to persuade a male relative to take the test.) "I can tell that your deep ancestry comes from Western Europe, Eastern Europe, whether his father's father's father was African, or a Semite," says Greenspan. "In other words, I can tell if someone is descended from the Neolithic farmers who came to Europe 9,500 years ago, or I can tell someone that in all probability they are a -- how can I put this -- an ethnic Jew."
Which brings up another potential dark side. During the holocaust, Hitler relied on traditional genealogy to dispatch millions to the death camps. One Jewish grandparent was all it took. A modern-day Hitler would have much more sophisticated tools at his disposal. Greenspan -- who is Jewish himself -- doesn't dispute it. "The fact of the matter is, anything that has power can cut both ways," he says. "And this is powerful. If there was some tyrannical maniac who came along and said, 'I'm gonna kill everyone who has Viking ancestry,' then I think the technology in general would be dangerous. I don't know how you could put the genie back in the bottle on this."
Villarreal had some uncomfortable moments after revealing his distant Jewish ancestry on his Web site. "I get a lot of hate mail from people all the time," he says. "I never realized there was so much hatred of Jews -- I mean I got some pretty bad e-mails. So bad that I have to take 'em off my Web site and block the senders. Stuff like, 'If I had Jewish blood running in my veins, I wouldn't admit it to anybody,' stuff like that. Some of it comes from people who I know are Hispanic and who also know about the history of the Sephardic Jews and stuff like that."
Thankfully, now, most often the worst outcomes of this technology reveal nothing more serious than illicit dalliances. Greenspan doesn't want his company to be viewed as a mere paternity-testing concern, but sometimes it does turn up genetic bombshells. Supposedly, about one in 20 children is in the dark about the identity of his biological father. "I've heard numbers bandied around between 5 and 10" percent, Greenspan says. "I don't know if we have that kind of numbers, but anytime I do a project that involves around 20 people, we do find an oops."
Also surprising is the zeal with which some people go about collecting DNA. At the first ever FTDNA conference, at a Houston hotel, a grandmotherly woman from Dallas grabbed this reporter by the arm and shared with him her dilemma: A relative was semiconscious and in an oxygen tent. How would she go about harvesting his genes?
"I certainly wouldn't feel guilty about that," says Greenspan. "I don't think many of our folks do. I think a lot of them would feel bad that the person is in such bad shape, that they may be breathing their last breath when they are giving a DNA sample, but really it's a living legacy."
Greenspan says they have accepted samples from the recently deceased, and even newly embalmed cadavers, but they will not accept materials from people who have been dead for more than a few days. People have sent him old hair and toothbrushes, and one poster on FTDNA's message board wanted to exhume an ancestor who had died in 1945. Greenspan says they have a policy against that sort of thing, and even if they didn't, the Y-DNA, which decays exponentially faster than mitochondrial DNA, from stuff like that is generally unusable.
In other words, they'll take it from the cradle to the grave, but no further.
Local musician and attorney Graham Guest has spent the first 30 years of his life on a quest for his identity. Guest was adopted privately in 1967 -- he has never known a thing about his biological parents. Ever since, he's wondered -- not just about who they were and who he was when he was born, but about life in general. In college, he earned a master's degree in philosophy -- the ultimate "Who am I?" course of study -- and today thinks of returning to get his Ph.D. And then there's the whole duality of the lawyer-rocker life he has lived the past ten or so years: analyzing and writing fine print by day and leading his band, Moses Guest (which takes its name from an ancestor of his adoptive father), through the Southern rock/jamming boogie paces by night.
By 2002, on the occasion of the release of his self-published novel, Love Letters from Waterville, Guest had pretty much given up looking for his biological parents. He had tried for a while, when he first got the Internet, but then his life got in the way. And there was some part of him that wanted to be found rather than be the one doing the finding: "You have to be looked for, too It's a pretty big sense of rejection to fish and get nothing," he said then. "It's like, 'Why'd you even bother having me in the first place?' I wish somehow I could have been born a little bit later so I could have more access, but as it is I've got my projects, I've got a great wife, and my adoptive parents are good folks, so I'm not freaking out too bad. It's just hard not knowing the faces and getting that genetic, biological bond. At least to know something, but to have it be a complete abyss is pretty difficult."
Greenspan was skeptical that his firm could solve Guest's puzzle. He said that a lot of adopted children try to find relatives with his company, but that Guest's quest would be just a shot in the dark. Nevertheless, Guest took several of the company's tests -- he started with the 12-marker Y-chromosome test and then took the far more detailed 37-marker test and also the mitochondrial DNA test.
Jackpot. He found his biological father, his birth surname and some of his ethnic origins. Immediately after finding out the location of his dad, he registered with TxCARE, a group that uses its Web site (www.txcare.org) to reunite parents and their long-lost children. "I just went on there and put in my info," he says. "Thirty minutes later, I had three e-mails from these ladies called Search Angels, who I guess are just good-hearted ladies out there searching, and they've got access to some shit and I'm not sure that it's all legal. 'Cause they came piling back with all kinds of stuff, like my birth certificate number, which kind of freaked me out."
His mother had been waiting there for him to find her. "And it turns out that my mom had put my information on the Texas birth registry, too," he says. "I think she let herself be known, should I want to know her. So as soon as I put my stuff on there, it was a match."
The Search Angels told Guest his mother's name (which Guest doesn't want the Press to divulge yet) and that she was alive and well in Michigan. She married a few years after she gave birth to Guest and has three girls, including a set of twins. "That's good to know, because now my wife and I might not have kids," Guest quips. "And that's exactly what we're thinking of, so it's very good to know."
The Search Angels also gave him her e-mail address, and so the mother and son had their first conversation via a series of e-mails. "I wasn't ready for a phone call or a plane trip yet," says Guest, just a couple of days after he met his mother electronically. The two had only exchanged thumbnail bios. "It's weird," he says. "It's almost like a love affair that never got to happen, and now it gets to happen, but not in a gross way. But it is kind of like that. Sometime this summer I'm gonna fly up there and spend the weekend -- I don't want to go up there now. It's, you know, Michigan."
Here is what Guest has learned about his birth: "She was 17 or something like that and about to go to college, and that was when she met my dad. And they screwed up and got pregnant. There weren't a whole lot of abortions going on up there in the Midwest at that time. So her family sent her away to have the kid so she could do it in private. So she came down here and stayed at a hostel of some kind and had some doctor who her family knew."
His mother's whole life unraveled during that time. "I guess my dad didn't want anything to do with this," Guest continues. "So he took off, and she has mentioned that it is a long story and an interesting one, but I don't have it yet." And it is one that doesn't reflect well on his father. Based on what his birth mother has told him, Guest says, he does not want to meet him yet, and when he does meet him, he imagines that it will be more of a confrontation than a reunion.
"Anyway," says Guest, "they went their separate ways when it was established that she was pregnant, and she hasn't seen him since. He is aware of my existence, though. She came down here to have me -- and this is really sad -- but a month before I was born, her dad died of a massive heart attack. So one month before she's about to have this baby she's gonna have to give up, her dad blows it.
"And just as you might think, it was very difficult for her to let me go, and then she had to do it, and just...went back home. And she says that no day has passed since that she doesn't think about it. I guess if you were a mom, that's what would happen. Within a couple of years she had gotten married, she finished college in Michigan, and she taught school for a couple of years, and she's been a full-time mom ever since. She has three daughters. This whole thing has almost been like that damn TV show, Who's Your Daddy?"
And just like on the weeper of an Only Fox Would Dare Do This reality special, there's a happy ending. Guest is elated. "I'm 37 years old and just entering what is basically the second half of my life," he says. "So I'm sort of ecstatic about it basically. There's no problem here. This is what I've always wanted, and I'm in shock. Not car-accident shock, but psychological shock in a good way. I'm spinning a little bit, but mostly overflowing with happiness. This is the best thing that I thought would never happen."
Greenspan likes to say that FTDNA is like the Hair Club for Men -- not only is he the CEO, he's also a customer. A real estate developer and entrepreneur, Greenspan has been interested in genealogy since his preteen days. He recalls drawing up his first family tree at age 11 or 12. "I was just interested in it," he says. "I was the only one in the family who was interested in it. My parents didn't understand -- but it was great because it gave me an excuse to talk to my grandparents and great-aunts, and of course they loved that. They would say things like, 'Oh, he's such an interesting young boy.' "
Like many genealogists, Greenspan hit some dead ends. In the mid-'90s, he discovered another Greenspan living in Argentina who grew up ten miles from his grandfather in Ukraine and whose family was in the same business as his. He had a hunch that they were related, but there were no documents to back it up. He wanted to do a DNA test, but no company did DNA testing for genealogical purposes back then. "I searched everywhere, and I was talking to a genetics professor at the University of Arizona, and he said somebody should start a company doing something like this, because he got phone calls from genealogists all the time," he says. "And sure enough, it took me a while, but eventually I convinced him at the University of Arizona to do the testing, and the rest is history. We really are the first company in the world to offer this service."
The Arizona genetics professor is Michael Hammer, who made waves in the '90s by discovering the Cohanim gene in Jews. By tradition, Cohanim are Judaism's priestly caste, said to be descended from Moses's brother Aaron. Hammer conducted a study and proved that a statistically significant percentage of Jewish men who claimed to be Cohanim did in fact share a genetic signature. Today, Hammer's lab does FTDNA's tests on a for-profit basis, and Greenspan's Houston office runs the operations.
And the business is doing well. The first anthrogenealogy conference, held in Houston late last year, was a success. Greenspan was treated as a rock star by the mostly aging genealogists who attended. The future of this young hybrid science was a hot topic. Greenspan believes his company will do nothing less than help to revolutionize the whole concept of the family tree. "Think of it this way: Think of the anthropological side as the branches and the limbs of a tree. Think of the genealogical side as the leaves. Right now we're probably missing the twigs -- in other words, I can tell a man by looking at his leaves what branch of the tree and maybe even what limb of the tree, but I can't tell him what twig he is on. Yet at the same time I can look at the leaves and make a comparison of them and get an idea of who is related. I think in the next few years many of those branches are gonna get fleshed out in such a way that we'll be able to do the whole branch-limb-twig-leaf deal.
"In the next ten years, every single surname is going to have a DNA surname project," he says. "That is literally inevitable."