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Solving Family Mysteries Through Genealogy

A quest to authenticate the oldest oral traditions

Still, the document reconfirmed that Pilarcita’s surnames were Serrano and the English-sounding Philpot. Was at least part of the elopement tale true? Answers began to arrive after I again called Aunt Mayita in Cuba. She found Ramón’s baptism certificate. His maternal grandparents—Pilarcita’s mom and dad—were Ramón Serrano Rodríguez, a “doctor en medicina” born in Spain, and Serafina Philpot Henderson, born in England.

A few days later there was more from Mayra’s researcher. Pilarcita’s birth certificate also said Serafina was English-born, and listed her parents: Juan (which must have been “John”) Philpot and Serafina Dreeque (but nothing on Henderson). It also named the physician’s hometown, La Coruña in Galicia, as well as his parents, Antonio Serrano and Vicenta de Ocal.I still do not know why a Spanish doctor and an Englishwoman had a daughter who grew up in Cuba and gave birth to my grandfather (possibly with a Chinese man). But now I have names to follow my Serrano branch to its gallego home. Next goal: track down the Philpot hometown in England.

As for the Chinese connection, I was still stumped. So I turned to genetic genealogy.

It’s in the Genes

I had read in National Geographic magazine about a project to help people find their “deep ancestry.” For about $100 you get a kit with a plastic cheek-scraper and a small screw-top tube in which to preserve your DNA. Then you send it in for testing.

The idea is that when humanity split into different branches that spread across the globe tens of thousands of years ago, the migrating populations were small enough to have genetic mutations shared by all members of each group, and only members of each group. Those distinct “markers” were passed to every living person today. All 6 billion humans belong to identifiable prehistoric “haplogroups,” geneticists say.

The test showed my patrilienal Y-DNA carries the markers that define Haplogroup O2—more specifically, its M95 line, exclusive to Southeast Asia. Genetics proved rumor right: I have Chinese ancestors. Perhaps Manuel Hernández Arencibia was only Pilarcita’s first husband, not my grandfather Ramón’s dad; so maybe Ramón was Pilarcita’s son with a Chinese man who resigned himself to registering his boy as the child of Manuel, the white Cuban with more social prestige.

That wasn’t my only surprise. I paid another $100 for Family Tree DNA, which conducted the tests for National Geographic, to also check matrilineal ancestry—my mother, her mother Emelina, Emelina’s mother Bitita, and Bitita’s mother Felipa Fuentes.

The result: Haplogroup L1, with origins in Africa. I asked my father to have his own mitochondrial DNA tested, the female lineage that includes Rafaelita, Severina, and Severina’s unknown mother (my own DNA would not work, because individuals can only test direct patrilineal  and matrilineal descent). It too came back as having origins in Africa.

Neither Rafaelita (whom I remember), nor Bitita (to judge from one photo), looked like they were of African descent. But DNA does not lie. Maybe Severina’s part-African ancestry explains her daughter Rafaelita’s mistreatment by the stepsister. Whatever the case, I now know that somewhere several generations back, two Africans enslaved in Cuba became my ancestors.

It all bespeaks of the history of Cuba, with its Spanish, black, and Chinese heritage, plus a bit of the culture brought by immigrants from elsewhere—Italy and England, in my case. With more than a million Cubans in the United States, it also bespeaks of American history.

But that is more recent history. Go back a little more than half a century. My father left Cárdenas to study law at Havana University, and my mother left Manzanillo when her father found a better job in Havana. It was in the Cuban capital that Roger and Mabel met, married, and had me as a child. Their lives were disrupted by the Castro revolution four years after I was born, and in 1964 they uprooted their family to search for freedom in the United States.

And here I remain—after wars and thousands of miles, after reconstructing the history of six generations of my family through Cuba, Spain, China, Africa, England, Italy. Now a seventh generation, my children, is heir to that legacy and to their mother’s Jewish heritage. In the United States. It took me until I turned 50 to realize my American life is part of history too.

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