Tag Archives: ethnicity

My ancestry

For Christmas a few years ago, Al got me a 23andMe genetic testing kit. I let it languish on the shelf until this past Christmas when I was back in San Francisco, when I finally got up the nerve to spit into a container and send it in to their lab. I had been avoiding it because I had convinced myself that the results would state clearly that I was a genetic ticking timebomb and then I’d never be able to unsee all the weird diseases I was no doubt carrying. (Some say that I have a bit of a tendency toward hypochondria, but let me go check WebMD). Several months later, I finally got the results of my genetic testing, which have been absolutely fascinating.

In case you’re not familiar, 23andMe is a company that does personal DNA mapping. For about $100, you can have all 23 of your chromosomes mapped and receive a wealth of information about your ancestry and your health (traits, risks, and so on). However, recently the FDA passed a totally BS ruling that prevents 23andMe from distributing health reports to its customers, so if you buy a kit now, you won’t receive detailed health reports, only ancestry information. The FDA decision didn’t apply to me since Al had gotten me the kit before the decision came down, so I got both detailed health reports and information about my ancestry.

While the health stuff was interesting for me (and a big relief, since I’m not a carrier for any of the horrifying genetic disorders they test for, despite my fatalistic attitude), the ancestry information was much more surprising. Here are some of the most jaw-dropping things I’ve learned about my genes.


1. I’m 5.8% East Asian/Native American. Within that breakdown, 4.1% is Native American, and 1.7% is “nonspecific East Asian and Native American.” The Native American bit is actually Native Mexican, since my grandfather was Mexican-American. However, while I knew intellectually that Pop had Aztec blood, I didn’t realize how much; according to these numbers, a quarter of his genes must have been ethnically indigenous. Wow!

My great-aunt, Mary Rivero, 1915. This photo probably should have been my first clue that I had some Native American ancestry.

My great-aunt, Mary Rivero, 1915. This photo probably should have been my first clue that I had some Native American ancestry.

It’s funny; I feel like every American wants to be part Native American (there was a great Happy Endings episode about this where Dave discovers he’s 1/16 Navajo and starts wearing a fringed jacket out of respect). But personally, I think it’s pretty badass to be part Aztec. My people were ripping still-beating hearts out of chests before it was cool. Also, they built huge temples and invented face knives, so, you know, that’s pretty sweet.

2. I’m .3% Sub-Saharan African, .2% of which is specifically West-African. This is a real head-scratcher. My dad, my husband, and I all came up with theories about where this Sub-Saharan ancestry is coming from, but we actually have NO idea, given what we know about my family history. To my knowledge, there weren’t a lot of Sub-Saharan Africans hanging around in Ireland, Mexico, or Italy, the places where my genes most recently hail from. For a second, we thought maybe it had to do with the Moors conquering Spain and then the Spanish going on to Mexico, but the genetic report is pretty clear that I have no North African or Middle Eastern ancestry, so that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Now, obviously, I want both of my parents to map their genes so we can see whether the African blood is coming from my dad or my mom’s side. Given my parents’ respective melanin content, I’m gonna take a wild stab and guess it’s coming from my mom’s side, but one never knows.

My mom IS super tan.

My mom IS super tan.

3. I’m 87.6% European, 40.7% of which is Northern European, 12.1% is Southern European, and 34.9% of which is “nonspecific European.” The European piece of my ancestry isn’t that surprising (especially considering that I have two European-born grandparents) but the more specific breakdown of the ancestry is kind of interesting, because even though my dad’s mom is from Abruzzo, Italy, only 2.5% of my genes are Italian. I guess this means that my Italian grandmother wasn’t purely ethnically Italian, which makes sense given Italy’s history and demographics. Guess I can stop taking credit for all of those Roman aqueducts now.

4. I’m 2.9% Neanderthal. And yes, that’s on the high end (80th percentile, to be exact). My husband is gleeful about the fact that I am, as he puts it, “2.9% beast,” but I find it a bit unsettling. According to 23andMe, “traces of [Neanderthal] DNA — between 1 percent and 4 percent — are found in all modern humans outside of Africa.” At least I’m not 4% Neanderthal. I told my husband that, given my ethnic background and now this Neanderthal business, I could have fared MUCH worse in the body hair department. And I have no noticeable brow ridge!

So, this has all been very interesting for me. Have you done DNA testing or genetic mapping? Did you find out anything cool?


On ethnicity, curiosity, and idiocy

I’m a member of the website Quora, which I’ve been told is now used primarily by stoner college students who want to get “deep” and ponder life, man, but is actually sometimes also used by lame, non-stoner, old people like me. The premise of the site is that people ask questions and other people answer them, and then the best/most popular answers get voted up the chain. So it’s like a smarter version of Ask.com and a less weird version of Ask Metafilter.

I don’t go on Quora often — I have asked a total of one question, and it was about whether earthquakes can cause headaches, and only one person answered it, and the answer was no — but sometimes I see a question that strikes my fancy and I decide to answer it.

The other day, I saw this question: “Is it racist for someone to ask ‘where are you from originally?'”

My original answer was the following:

Not racist, necessarily, but perhaps (probably) ignorant. I’m a vaguely ethnic looking lady from Michigan. I’ve been asked COUNTLESS times where I’m from “originally.” Um. Michigan. (Well, I was born in Baltimore…) Another one I get asked is, “Where are your parents from?” California and Pennsylvania. Is that what you really want to know? No. What people who ask these questions really want to know is, “What ethnicity are you?” And these people don’t tend to take my honest answers to their questions — Michigan, California, Pennsylvania — at face value. They don’t believe that someone with my looks could NOT have immigrant parents. It’s bizarre. Like, hi, welcome to America: lots of us have brown hair and brown eyes, turns out.

Anyway, if you’re so curious about my ethnicity, go ahead and ask about it: that doesn’t bother me. (For the record: Irish-Mexican-Italian). But asking where I’m from “originally,” as if that’s a more subtle or polite way to get at my race or ethnicity, is just stupid. So stop doing it and just ask the question you want to ask.

This face confuses people.

This face confuses people.

My answer sparked a bit of a debate on Facebook, with some of my friends arguing that it is, in fact, inherently racist to ask where someone’s from originally, because it implies that an Asian American person, for instance, is not actually American, and with other friends arguing that it’s a harmless, if stupid, question, and just shows curiosity and an intent to strike up a conversation about the wonderful melting pot that is these United States.

I’ve thought about it a bit more and I’m sticking with my original answer, which is that the question itself is not racist, necessarily, but it is ignorant and should go the way of the dodo. Here’s the thing: in today’s America, do people really not recognize that someone belonging to a minority racial or ethnic group can actually be FROM America? How is that news? Take my dearly departed grandfather, Mark Rivero, as an example. He was born in San Francisco in 1920. He was Mexican-American (and his father was born in Mexico), but Pop, my grandfather, was originally from San Francisco, which is located in America, contrary to what some might think.

This man is from San Francisco, originally. But is that what you wanted to know?

This man was from San Francisco, originally, despite being ethnic.

So if a person were to ask Pop, “Where are you from originally?”, he would say, “San Francisco, California.” And then if this person kept questioning him, like, “No, but originally, where are you from?”, Pop might smack him upside the head. And he’d deserve it, because that’s a stupid way to get at someone’s ethnicity.

People still try to tiptoe around the question of race and ethnicity by asking this question. I, myself, have been asked many times where I’m from “originally,” and even when I know what the question-asker is driving at, I won’t volunteer my ethnicity. Just ask what my ethnic background is if you really want to know.

To be fair, the “where are you from” conversation has happened to me more in Latin America than it has in the United States. Whenever I’m in Argentina, or Brazil, or anywhere else south of Tallahassee, people are always asking me where I’m from originally. If I say the United States, they ask where my parents are from. If I answer that both my parents are from the United States, they ask where my grandparents are from. Finally, when I say that my grandfather was Mexican-American, they go, “Aaaah, I knew you had some Latin blood in you.” A trip to Latin America never feels complete until my sangre latina is brought up at least once by a cab driver.

Normally, I am not offended by someone asking me about my ethnic background, because most of the time, people are just curious. Most people, especially Americans, myself included, find ethnicity and racial background interesting. It’s fun to find out where people’s grandparents were from, and how people of different backgrounds found each other to produce the DNA cocktails we’re walking around with. Like, how many other Mexican-Irish-Italian-Americans do you know, besides me? Don’t you kind of want to know how that mess happened? (Answer: long story, but mostly, strict Catholicism brings people together in surprising ways). I find these types of conversations fun and innocent, for the most part. Once in a while, though, you do get the creepster who is interested in fetishizing a certain race or ethnicity, and that is no good. No good, at all. [Note: I am only speaking for myself, here, by the way, when I say “once in a while.” I’m sure that ladies (and gents) of other, more immediately recognizable ethnic groups may get the creepsters on a much more regular basis (looking at you, Asian ladies).]

And sometimes, you get people who are just plain ignorant. I was at a party in Boston once where this girl was going on about, among other things, how Mexicans typically have “heavy brows” and “slicked back, greasy hair.” I was with Al, and we looked at each other in horror/delight, because this woman was so terrible/ridiculous, but I didn’t feel like jumping into the spray of her ignorance fire-hose to let her know that she was being offensive. This same woman, shockingly, was very interested in my ethnic background, and so, being the evil person I am, when she asked me about it, I told her to guess. She guessed Persian because, apparently, I have “Persian eyebrows.” (Believe it or not, this is not the only time someone has guessed I was Persian. Years ago, a hot-dog seller in Paris asked Al, right in front of me, “Where’s she from?” Al said I was American, and then the hot-dog lady insisted that I looked like a Persian Jew, which is both very wrong and very specific.)

The point of all of this is that people can be dumb. But the secondary point is that it’s just easier to ask someone in a straightforward way what his or her ethnic or racial background is, if you’re dying to know, rather than trying to get at it in some roundabout way, such as asking where he or she is from “originally.” I mean, originally, we’re all from Africa, right? Maybe I should just start saying that.

Idiot: “Where are you from, like, originally?”

Me: “Oh, originally? East Africa. Near modern-day Ethiopia.”

That might just create more problems, now that I think about it.

Anyway. Can we put the “where are you from originally” question to bed, once and for all? Please? I’m tired of people guessing where my eyebrows are from.