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Monday, June 24, 2013

My DNA surprise: A journey of genetic self-discovery

Last year I started watching a show on NBC called, “Who Do You Think You Are?” which highlighted real-life stories of celebrities tracing their roots through a DNA test. I was intrigued. So much so, that about six weeks ago, I purchased a do-it-yourself kit from You may wonder how involved it is, because I was very curious. It’s actually very simple. You put some of your saliva into a little vial, and ship it off in a special pouch with a control number on it. 

Needless to say, it was very exciting, even though I was pretty sure, or so I thought, what the results would yield. My ethnic/cultural background seemed clear. My father is Cuban, my mother is German. They both came to the United States in the late 1950s. My father said as far as he knew his ethnic background was from Spain and the Canary Islands.

My mother said her family was German, with the slim possibility of some Scandinavian. In my opinion, nothing very exotic or diverse. I had thought perhaps there was something else, so the idea of the test was very intriguing. Little did I know how surprising it would turn out. But I am not there quite yet. Patience, I’m getting there!

So I ordered the test, which took a few weeks to arrive. I opened the test the day it arrived, submitted the sample, and rushed to the post office so that it would go out that very day. Now the hard part! The wait!!!! In the meantime, I started to compile my family tree on the Ancestry website. Not an easy task for a first generation American with little access to family documents from the “mother lands” at my disposal. My father’s family tree is especially challenging, as the government of Cuba is not exactly in the modern age right now and few, if any, people are registered on the site. 

In the meantime, I was dreaming and wondering about what might turn up. I had visions of finding out something really amazing, like links to a culture we hadn’t imagined. Perhaps my father’s line had Middle Eastern blood. That would be kind of cool. My mother’s last name is Ullmann, which in Germany has some Jewish ties. Maybe I was part Jewish! That would be pretty cool, and unexpected. So many possibilities! What if I were part Asian, or African? It was like a genetic lottery, and I was wondering what I was about to win!!! But the waiting was so hard.

And then it came. The email with the results and the answer to the puzzle. But wait? What? How can this be??? 

Okay, I won’t make you wait any longer. Here is what I saw.
About your ethnicity
Your genetic ethnicity reveals where your ancestors lived hundreds—perhaps even thousands—of years ago. This may update over time as new genetic signatures are discovered.

It was truly astonishing and unexpected. From what this test is telling me, my mother is NOT Germanic. Surprising, to say the least. I wonder how I am going to break this to my relatives. And then I started thinking about how place of birth, your country of origin, and your cultural identity often have absolutely nothing to do with your DNA.

Living in the U.S. it is easy for a person to rely on place of birth as the indicator of a person’s ethnicity because we are a melting pot of races, religion, cultures, and ethnic groups. Most people self-describe by their race, but there is more to the story.

Because I am part Cuban, I self-describe as Latino or Hispanic. There is no Latino or Hispanic race. The word, “Hispanic” is defined by one source as ‘A Spanish-speaking person living in the U.S., especially one of Latin American descent.’ Another source is much more involved- ‘
the term as a broad catch all to refer to persons with a historical and cultural relationship either with Spain and Portugal or only with Spain, regardless of race. However, in the eyes of the U.S. Census Bureau, Hispanics or Latinos can be of any race, any ancestry, or any country of origin.’  Confusing, isn't it.

The DNA test confirmed what I suspected on my father’s side.

 46% Southern European. That means:

Modern Day Location

Italy, Spain, Portugal

About Your Region

If you had to choose one region of Europe that has wielded the most influence over the course of western history, a strong candidate would be the land of your ancestors—an area that includes modern day Italy, Spain, and Portugal.

Migrations into this region

Southern Europe shares a substantial amount of genetic affinity with North Africa. This is mostly because the Iberian Peninsula was conquered by Moorish (Berber) invaders, from present-day Morocco, in about 711 C.E. Their legacy can still be seen in Spain and Portugal, ranging up to 15% in some individuals.

Migrations from this region

During the Last Glacial Period, beginning about 21,000 years ago, glaciers and windswept tundra made much of northern and central Europe uninhabitable. Populations retreated into the southern glacial refugia of Spain and Italy. Then as the climate warmed, these Mesolithic people expanded out of southern Europe to occupy the entire continent, as far north as present-day Finland. The south-to-north pattern of genetic differences in Europe is attributed to this post-glacial expansion. Additionally, Iberia was the historic source of migration into the Americas. Populations throughout the Caribbean, Latin America, southern USA and South America can trace their lineages back to Spain and Portugal, usually through their paternal side.

My German side seemed easier. Or so I thought. As it turns out, the DNA from my mother’s side is 21% “Uncertain.”

This means 21%
of my segments, that are used in the ethnicity results, match more than one of their reference groups; but none of those matches are high enough to cross whatever threshold they are using to assigning segments to a particular ethnicity. Got all that? 

Other than that, my DNA results say  27% British Isles and 6% Finnish-Volga Ural. 

SHOCKER! Completely unsuspected. You can hardly imagine my dismay.

About British Isles Ethnicity

Modern Day Location

England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales

About Your Region

You're from North-Western Europe, an area including the modern-day United Kingdom and Ireland. It is a group of islands separated from France and the rest of continental Europe by the narrow English Channel. It is the rolling, emerald-green hills of Ireland, the craggy, weathered peaks of Wales, the rich history of the city on the Thames, and the deep, mysterious lochs of Scotland.
The history of the region is one of periodic invasions and settlements by various groups including the Angles and Saxons from Germany, the Jutes from Denmark, the Vikings, the Normans from northern France and, of course, the Romans. English, a Germanic language brought by the Angles, is obviously the primary language spoken. But a few of the older languages spoken by the ancient Celts still exist—a rarity in post-Roman Europe.

Migrations into this region

Despite being a cluster of islands separated from continental Europe, Great Britain and Ireland haven’t been insulated from outsiders. Although they weren’t the first, the Celts from central Europe spread throughout the Northwest Isles about 2500 years ago. Then, as with everywhere else, the Romans came. After the Romans withdrew from the area, tribes from northern Germany and Denmark (the Angles, Saxons and Jutes) came to conquer much of what is now England. About this same time, the mighty Vikings also left their imprint, particularly in southern Scotland, Ireland and western England.

Migrations from this region

Religious and political upheaval in 17th and 18th century England played a critical role in establishing and defining early American history. Called the Great Migration, religious dissidents including the Pilgrims, Quakers, and Puritans left England seeking religious freedom and a new way of life. Although the migration was not large in overall numbers, it laid the foundation for American culture, including the concepts of church-state separation and religious tolerance.

About Finnish/Volga-Ural Ethnicity

Modern Day Location

Russia, Finland

About Your Region

You have a genetic signature that is found in people of far northeastern Europe, which includes modern-day Finland and western Russia. The region includes the broad Volga River basin, its eastern boundary being the Ural mountains, generally considered the border between the European and Asian continents. Like most of Europe, it is a region of diverse ethnic and linguistic groups. Bordering the Baltic Sea, it has a long, entangled history with Scandinavia, while the vast Eurasian steppe to the south has brought many waves of invaders and settlers including Huns, Turks, and Mongolians.

It is believed that around six thousand years ago the people of the Pontic Steppe domesticated the horse. Archeological evidence includes ancient burial grounds containing elaborate jewelry depicting horses as well as horse bones found buried with chariots. Horses were then introduced to the Middle East and Europe and revolutionized for both pastoral culture and warfare.

The Finnic and Ugric tribes of the far north are some of the most ancient inhabitants of the region. Many modern-day languages such as Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, and Erzya and Moksha, spoken by the Mordvins of the Volga region, are part of a common Uralic language group. Nomadic tribes of Turkic origin, such as the Khazars, Chuvash, and Bulgars arrived from central and eastern Asia and settled the region. In the Middle Ages, Mongol tribes, including the Golden Horde, controlled the southern areas and Slavic tribes from eastern Europe began expanding north and east into the Volga region.
Although it's disputed, historical accounts claim that several of these Slavic tribes were ruled by a group of Vikings known as the Varangians. The rulers became culturally assimilated with their subjects and this Slavic people began to be called the Rus, with major trade centers in Novgorod and Kiev. Eventually, they would form the foundation of the state of Russia.

Finland has been politically controlled by Sweden and Russia throughout much of its medieval and recent history, but was briefly captured by Germany in World War I. After Germany's defeat, the Finns were able to declare independence.

Migrations from this region

There are linguistic and genetic similarities between the people of northeastern Europe and the Volga-Ural peoples suggesting movement of people from this region to Europe. Sometime within the last 12,000 years there appears to be a migration from the Volga-Ural area towards the Baltic and Scandinavian Peninsula. About 2,000-3,000 years ago, the ancestors of Magyars migrated from the Ural Mountains toward present-day Hungary. Though they contributed their unique language to the region, their genetic impact may have been small.

Migrations into this region

After the last glacial period 15,000 years ago, populations expanded among the Ural steppes and mountains as ice and tundra retreated. Around the beginning of the thirteenth century, Mongolian nomads associated with the descendants of Genghis Khan began to conquer local tribes and take control of the Volga-Ural region as part of their Mongolian empire. Then about 500 years ago, Slavic Russians from eastern Europe conquered the Volga River Basin, followed by the Ural Mountains.

Isn't it funny how you think you know something about yourself and it turns out to be very different? So what does it mean? I’m still skeptical. It’s hard to believe something you've believed all your life is suddenly different. It’s kind of like finding out you were adopted. I've always believed I was “German” and now I realize that genetically I am not. My mother may identify as German, but genetically speaking, she really isn't  I don’t have the heart to tell her. I don’t think she would believe it anyway.

The DNA test I took was a very inexpensive and rudimentary one. I don’t know if I am English, Irish, Scottish, or Welsh. I don’t know what part of Spain, Italy, or Portugal. Genetics aren't about land or property borders. It is much more basic. There are genetic markers which give an indication of a place in the world where my ancestors originated. Some people are skeptical about the tests, but I heard this one was reliable.

So are we nature or nurture? I think we are a combination of all factors. We are an accumulation of our family of origin, our nation of origin, our religion, our race, our environment, and our own personality. There is a great deal more to what we are than our genes or where we live. It is a magical and mystical combination of it all!



Sunday, June 9, 2013

Happy 2nd Birthday to my blog: Thoughts on blogging

It is very hard to believe that I have been writing this blog for two years. It’s been an amazing adventure and a true labor of love.

When I started writing in June of 2011, I was unsure of where this idea, project, whatever you want to call it, would take me. Beginnings are almost always the most difficult part of projects. This blog experience has had its highs and lows and in-betweens. 

Google Analytics is a daily reminder of those highs and lows. There have been months where I hardly had time to do my “real” job and balance all the other duties and commitments I have, let alone think of something to write about. Actually, I have plenty of topics. A whole BOOK of them I have jotted down over the past two years. It is often a matter of find the time and energy to commit the thoughts, and there are MANY, to paper.

I regularly receive requests for advice about writing a blog. It can be frustrating because it isn’t a formula. What works for some people, may not work for others.  I can only give my own experiences and thoughts on the topic. There are plenty of books and articles about the practice and methodology of writing blogs, books, whatever. From my own perception and experience, I will give the following advice.

Write what you know: In the words of one of my favorite female general officers, “Don’t make shit up.”

Think before you write. Don’t write for the sake of writing.

Be true to yourself. Copying or mimicking other people’s work is never cool.

Take your time. Better to do three terrific blog posts a month than ten mediocre ones.

Blogging isn’t for everyone. Make an honest assessment of your writing abilities. If they are lacking, better to write a journal.

Write with passion, enthusiasm, and integrity. But realize that you will be judged and scrutinized on what you write. If you aren’t willing to take chances and face criticism, blogging isn’t for you.

And last but not least, remember:

Blogging is an on-going learning experience and an evolution. If you do it right, your writing SHOULD improve. Look at your work, take advice from others, and hone your craft.

So, here’s to another year! I look forward to sharing my journey with you all! 
THANK YOU for your support, encouragement, and helping to share the blog with others!!! I couldn’t do this without all of you.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Assumption advice: Think before you speak, and err on the side of civility

What can I say about assumptions that aren’t already obvious to most thoughtful people?  Oh, wait. I am assuming that most people are thoughtful. There I go, making an assumption. It’s easy to see how a person could get into the habit of making gross assumptions. We all do it! Some of us more egregiously, and rudely, than others. 

Top 10 MAJOR assumption faux pas:

  1. Don’t assume a married woman has taken her husband’s last name. (Ahem!)
  2. Don’t assume someone is (Fill in the blank religion). Right, Wolf Blitzer?
  3. Don’t assume someone is (Fill in the blank ethnicity) because of how they look. (Ahem, again!)
  4. Don’t assume someone’s (Fill in the blank political party) because of some of the issues they support.
  5. Don’t assume everyone you meet has children, or even wants them.
  6. Don’t assume all families are the same as yours.
  7. Don’t assume a person is financially successful/unsuccessful because of the car they drive or the house they live in.
  8. Don’t assume every married couple is happily married.
  9. Don’t assume people are as happy as they seem.
  10. Don’t assume someone is as healthy as they appear.

This list is the tip of the iceberg of assumptions. Listing every example is beyond the point I am trying to make.

When you get down to it, assumptions often come from ignorance, lack of experience, laziness, and arrogance. Again, we all are guilty of these things, but assumptions can become knee-jerk reactions and responses which severely limit proper analysis of situations to the extent that the person doing the assuming becomes narrow-minded and intolerant.

 It doesn’t matter what race, religion, or political persuasion you lean towards. Assumptions are universal and the people making them come from all walks of life and every corner of the Earth.

Many people like assumptions because they don’t challenge them to consider other points of view or opinions. That’s where arrogance comes into play, and the defenses come up. 

For instance, in the first major assumption I listed about people assuming that a wife has the same last name as her husband, the person making the assumption will defend their error by saying, “Well, of course I assumed her last name was Smith because her husband’s name is John Smith and they seem like a traditional family.”

Aha! They SEEM like a “traditional” family. So, because they seem like something, the assumption is that’s what they must be! Eureka. Not so fast. There are many reasons why a woman might choose to keep her own last name after marriage. Frankly, it’s no one’s business, and she should have to defend it. 

A recent, glaring, example of a serious assumption blunder was when Wolf Blitzer- an educated and seasoned reporter- made a seriously erroneous assumption when speaking to a woman in Oklahoma after the devastating tornado hit her town.

‘He asked if she thanked the Lord for guiding a split-second decision that saved her life during the disaster. Rebecca paused. Smiled. Then admitted: "I'm actually an atheist." ‘

Ouch! That had to hurt. Many detractors were horrified that Wolf would be criticized because he was well-meaning, but in reality he was being thoughtless and inconsiderate. He could have broached the topic in a completely neutral way which would not have assumed that the woman was a spiritual believer. He obviously wasn’t trying to be malicious, and he ended up looking foolish. I will bet good money he never makes THAT mistake again. 

Sometimes it is important to take a step back from the situation and use some extra time to THINK before speaking. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and err on the side of courtesy.

Taking a moment to ponder and assess a situation is so much wiser, kinder, and polite than blurting out the first thing that comes to mind. Thinking before acting on preconceived notions or perceptions is not only civilized, it helps you from looking like an idiot. Trust me, I have made enough assumptions in my life to write a book. I am far from perfect in this department. 
If you come away from this blog post with anything, let it be this- We ALL make assumptions. Try to minimize them. You may have to get off your high horse and open your mind a bit, but in the end, it may help you save some relationships and your credibility.