A Series of Justifications

A few months back, I said to my mom that all I wanted for Christmas was a 23andMe test. She delivered. My desire to learn about my ancestral heritage likely stems from the frequently heard question: are you adopted? Although the adoption question comes from an ignorance around the racial diversity of Mexican people, it didn’t stop me from considering the infamous what if. My older sister is my opposite: white, blue-eyed, blonde. I look like your favourite racially ambiguous exchange student. In other words, I’m not quite white but I’m not quite brown, either.

My ability to pass off as white depends on the season of the year and whether or not I dismiss the fact that I’m indeed not a lizard when we go to Mexico to visit family in the summer months. Whereas a lot of my brown friends avoid the sun out of fear of becoming darker, I thrive to bathe in the sun and see my skin tone go from hazelnut to an almost purplish dark brown. Of course, my education, social class, and racial ambiguity give me the privilege to do so. I’ve never felt discriminated against because of the colour of my skin in the same way.

The melanin in my skin has meant freedom for me, more often than not. When I go on vacation, I can stay out in the pool from afternoon till dusk, carefree and careless about sun protection. My sister, on the other hand, has to sit under the shade of a resort umbrella with layers of sunscreen on her cherry burnt skin. If nothing else, I can depend on her to hourly ask me, “Can you put sunscreen on my back?” When my white friends ask me to put sunscreen on their backs, they often compliment the thoroughness of my application. “Wow! You even go under the straps!” I explain that before I was a prodigy, I was a sunscreen applicator.

The skin tones of my family members range from almost white to deep brown. So when I was first asked in the school parking lot if I was adopted because my features and colour were different from my sister’s, I was immediately confused. “What do you mean? What makes you think I’m adopted?” Whereas I saw my sister, they saw difference. From then on, I quickly understood what it meant to be a racialized person not in my own eyes but the eyes of others.

While I waited for the sight of my mom’s silver Camry, I pondered about my imaginary life as an adoptee. Was it tragic? Where was I really from? Before I could fully consider it, my mom was there, and my fourteen-year-old self, ready to interrogate the story of my existence like an immigration officer.

“Mom, Matt just asked me if I was adopted.”

“Que? Adopted? Como crees,” she laughs. “I have evidence to prove you’re mine.”

These are the words I’d hear time and time again whenever the subject of my blood relation to my family came up. I never wanted to know the details of this proof as I’m not sure what would be more traumatizing: my birth video (aka her “evidence”) or finding out that I was actually adopted. The process of spitting, sealing, and shipping my saliva to an unknown lab in a plastic tube was for me, the most preferable, less injurious solution.

Growing up, my family and I would frequently drive from our home on the outskirts of Vancouver across the border to the United States. This was pre-Trump, a time when Mexican immigrants and borders were on friendlier terms. The first time my parents crossed this border was right before my third birthday, in a U-Haul truck with all of their possessions bound nowhere from Texas.

This border was familiar but not comfortable. I could measure the approximate wait time by how far or close our car was to the Peace Arch monument. My sister and I could expect an instruction from our parents in the moments that led up to the officer’s booth. “If they ask you why you were born in the US, just explain how your dad worked for a Mexican-American company.” They could expect our murmured agreement from the back seats.

As a child, I never really understood the reason behind my parents’ paranoid instructions, and an explanation was not offered. Their tone spoke for itself. Like many children of immigrant parents, I grew up with implicit instructions. In other words, the expectations and rules of my parents weren’t plainly expressed or explained, but you knew. You knew that a curfew existed despite the absence of one. You knew that to become a lawyer, engineer, or doctor was the standard, not the exception. You knew to stay silent when asked by the officer to “take this paper and your passports and pull over to the left to see border security.”

The process inside the border security building is familiar but not comfortable. A white male officer proceeds to ask interrogation questions whose nature is well-known to the immigrant and to me. With the anxious demeanour of an eight-year-old, I provide my well-scripted, concise answers. But this time, the words that follow my answers differ. They’re a conclusion, not a response. “Hah, so you’re an anchor baby.”

My elementary vocabulary is unfamiliar with this term, so I feel it out in my mouth like I learned to in ESL. “aNG-Ker-BaeBe.” The heaviness of the consonants on my small, flesh-pink tongue. I make observations of what I know. I know what the words mean on their own and that their expressions are neutral. And like the Mexican daughter that I am, I also listen for the nuances of his tone and search for a camouflaged meaning because no explanation is given. As I do, a sense of shame projects onto me and follows me out.

This is what it means to be a Mexican daughter, but also a child of immigrants. This well-known sense of dislocation and erasure as I habitually replace my outspoken tendency with the safety of silence and say: “Yes, officer.” Whenever I cross this border, I imagine my words are a buoy tied to me, always within reach, lingering. “Would you not do the same to offer your kids a safer, better life?” “I’m not an anchor baby. I’m beloved. I’m strong. I’m intelligent.” But I know that I’ll never say these to an officer; they’re only there to help me stay afloat.

When my results came in a month later, the excitement of 23andMe became an obsession. What was supposed to be a relaxing winter break soon became a frantic Sherlock Holmes moment with late nights and hundreds of WhatsApp messages sent to a family group chat. I desperately tried to locate members of my family tree and the digital archives that would eventually enable me to trace back my ancestry five generations. My fourth cousin in middle-of-nowhere Mexico suddenly felt like a long-lost sibling.

But what is a 23andMe test without a subsequent identity crisis? My desire to locate my indefinite self within definite racial categories was suddenly being dictated by a website and a precarious database. I longed for racial exactness as I shifted the “confidence level” of my ancestry composition from “speculative” (50%) to “conservative” (90%) and witnessed the percentages on the screen casually alter my DNA. The moment felt all too colonial. My “European” ancestry was on the rise, dominating — to my dismay — my “East Asian & Native American” ancestry.

For those unfamiliar with ancestry tests like 23andMe, the report predicts the ancestral origin of different parts of your DNA by comparing them to reference populations, i.e., their database. On the 23andMe website, it states that, by default, their confidence in a prediction must be greater than 50% to report it. At a confidence level of 50%, only 1.1% of my DNA was unassigned, meaning their algorithm couldn’t match a region of my DNA to a specific population with confidence. At a confidence level of 90%, that number increased to 13.5%.

As I compared the unstable percentages on the screen before me, I considered their value. The statistical gaps and parts of my chromosomes unaccounted for and what they reflected at the level of identity. I imagined myself telling people that I was part European, part Native American, part Unassigned. Maybe that would stop them from asking me where I was really from. To an extent, the high percentage of unassigned data at the conservative confidence level made sense. As a person who identifies as mixed-race, ambiguity and unknowns are familiar territory. Nonetheless, the drastic leap from 1.1% to 13.5% startled me. Did my mom really just pay nearly $150 for a faulty ancestry test? I imagined my unassigned chromosomes as melancholic lovers, perpetually dancing in a database of millions with no clear match.

Beneath the statistical numbers and chromosome paintings, I had to ask myself what it all meant. What was I to do with this information? What did it tell me about myself, and what did it not? According to the screen in front of me, I was primarily white. Ask me if I identify as white, and I will laugh, politely say no. Not simply because of my skin tone, but because of all of the other things that make up my identity: the traditions, culture, food, and language that I was born into. Although these are the parts of myself that I value most, I suddenly felt threatened by the looming 79.5% signifying my whiteness. Just like I had to justify my nationality and blood relation to my parents, I now felt that I needed to justify my identification as Mexican — as not white.

If I had to describe my mixed-race experience, I would describe it as a series of justifications. This seems inevitable when you’re “liminal” by definition and not in the sexy, mysterious sense. Whether it’s the border officer, the kid at school, or the numbers on a screen, you strive to make sense for yourself and others the differences between the ancestral and cultural, race and identity. That yes, you can exist both within and outside of the containers of white or brown. That yes, you can identify as mixed-race and have a sister who identifies as white despite both of you sharing the same parents.

And in a sense, the process of 23andMe — despite the temporary identity crisis — solidified these truths for me. There are certain things that don’t neatly translate into statistics and numbers. My chromosome map couldn’t tell me that I now struggle to speak in my mother tongue or that I’m in the process of rediscovering my Latinx pride. Once the thrill of my detective work faded, I quickly noticed that the fluctuating, unassigned percentages exposed the limitations of the science of genome testing rather than their competencies. Their incompleteness pushed me to interpret the numbers as not a culmination of who or what I am but just a small representation of my ancestors’ stories. Stories that I can now carry forward thanks to sleepless nights and an indeterminate ancestry test.