Does Our Genetic Heritage Define Us?

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I admit that I got bullied into it.

Yes, friends and relatives had raved to me about discovering their genetic heritage, but it all seemed a bit silly. As I understood it, you send your DNA sample to a lab, and a few months later, you find out that you’re 10 percent French and have a fourth cousin in Pennsylvania.

After I received a DNA kit for my birthday—really, how random is that?—I went ahead and did the cheek swab. Recently, I received my test results, and they were intriguing. 

According to the testing company, my DNA is mostly from (in order) Central America, Italy, and the United Kingdom, which I knew already. 

But the surprise is that I am eight percent African and two percent Persian. OK, I did not expect that.

The testing company says that while the ethnicities are accurate, the exact percentages are an educated guess. And indeed, the percentages could not possibly be precise, because my mother’s heritage accounts for less than half of the total on my chart. This is biologically impossible.

Perhaps this is the main reason that my DNA is, according to the testing company, just 29 percent Central American. Let’s be generous and add in the six percent Spanish blood (my last name originated in Spain) and assume that all of my African DNA is via the diaspora. Even combining all that, I am just 43 percent Hispanic.

That’s a bit disconcerting.

After all, my earliest perceptions of self-identity involved being Latino. Certainly, every white kid who taunted me on the playground knew that I was Hispanic. I was one of the few Latino teens in my high school, and even at my college. And as an adult, I’ve written almost 1,000 articles based on the Latino perspective. 

And now you’re going to tell me that I am 57 percent white guy? 

No, actually. Because as I’ve stated, the percentages are not exact. Also, and much more important, the specific breakdown of your DNA tells us only so much about you. For example, take one look at my very Hispanic family of loud cousins, and you can tell that we’re Latinos. Just because I have distant family in Dublin doesn’t erase my upbringing or environment.

And speaking of the U.K. connection, please note that my paternal grandfather came from Ireland. He died before I was born, so I never heard his supposedly thick Irish brough. However, this theoretical lineage made me the only Latino I knew who could get smug on St. Patrick’s Day (“I’m not fake Irish just for today. I’m authentic.”).

But my DNA implies that I am actually more English than Irish. It appears that my English ancestors lived in Ireland so long that they considered themselves natives of the Emerald Isle. 

This raises an interesting question: When does your homeland become your heritage? We see this in the United States, where people whose families have lived in Texas or Arizona for generations are perpetual immigrants because of their Mexican roots. Again, your ethnic ancestry has only so much impact on the land you call home.

Looking at one of the more surprising results of my DNA test, I discovered that I have an ancestor from Senegal. Does this mean that I can refer to myself as Afro-Latino? If you are a stickler for DNA, then yes. But common sense, and respect for marginalized people, tells us otherwise. I clearly benefit from being a lighter-skinned Latino—although I am far short of full-fledged white privilege—and we should all be sick of people who claim kinship with an ethnic minority but do not have to endure any of the cultural disadvantages. 

It’s interesting to note, however, that under Jim Crow, where the one-drop rule meant that you were Black, I would’ve been forbidden from voting. 

Good thing such oppressive laws no longer exist. Nope.

In any case, my appearance is definitely Latino, which gets into the whole concept of genotypes and phenotypes (you remember high school biology class, right?). Basically, phenotype addresses what you actually look like, and whether we agree or not, our appearance is intrinsic to our racial identity. For example, Eminem may be culturally Black, but he will always be a white guy. Similarly, no matter how hard Clarence Thomas supports white supremacy, he will always be a self-loathing Black guy.

Because of my phenotype, I look Hispanic, even though a perplexing number of people over the years have assumed that I am Japanese or Korean. The joke’s on them because I am not the slightest bit Asian. The closest I get to Asia is that aforementioned Persian connection, which I assume comes from my Italian lineage. Most likely, some Marco Polo type was traveling the Silk Road centuries ago, when he encountered a good-looking Iranian woman. He probably said, “Hey girl, let me tell you all about Naples, and by the way, I know da Vinci personally and can introduce you.”

It all sounds very smooth in Italian.

So let’s paraphrase my original question before I took this DNA test: What good is this knowledge? Well, it’s certainly interesting. And it gives me a new appreciation for multiculturalism, because I wouldn’t exist without it.

But ultimately, it doesn’t change my perspective—I’m Latino. 

And when it comes to your identity, there is your biology and there is your culture.

And then there is you.


Featured image: DNA rendering (ynse/CC BY-SA 2.0)

So who is Daniel Cubias, a.k.a. the 'Hispanic Fanatic'? Simply put, he has an IQ of 380, the strength of 12 men, and can change the seasons just by waving his hand. Despite these powers, however, he remains a struggling writer. For the demographically interested, the Hispanic Fanatic is a Latino male who lives in California, where he works as a business writer. He was raised in the Midwest, but he has also lived in New York. He is the author of the novels 'Barrio Imbroglio' and 'Zombie President.' He blogs because he must.

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