The Family History Detectives® team has been a half-century in the making. One of our three foundational stories has been cooking at a slow simmer for 24 years.
Once upon a time there was a precious little girl named Isabel-Victoria…
In 1995, when my daughter Isabel was born, her father and I found ourselves spending time wide awake every night during the wee hours of the morning dealing with her colic. We soon began talking about his missing family.
You see, Baby Daddy – I hate the term “ex” – was adopted at birth in Mexico in the 1950’s by an American family. By the time we were married his family was all deceased. And he’d really never given “biological” family aside from the one we were building together much thought…but I did.
After all – his story would be our children’s story.
I had built a family tree for myself over the years, and I loved researching my own ancestors. I wanted our children to have the same sense of who they were and where they came from. Little did I know then what a decades-long odyssey it would be to connect with his biological family. For both of us.
It’s even more interesting that we were successful in finding his family together more than 20 years after we were divorced. Long after those wee hour feeding times. Our success was driven by my dogged determination not to give up as well as by our mutual love for our children. And it came through the use of a powerful combination of genealogy, DNA, historical research, and social media.
Let’s start at the beginning…
We began almost immediately after those middle of the night whispers around the rocking chair. Once we started looking it was fairly easy to get the records we needed before more stringent Mexican privacy laws went into effect. We were able to send a private investigator to the town where he was born and receive a copy of his actual Mexican birth certificate. They asked us if we wanted his adoption papers, so we said “sure” and were rewarded with the adoption hearing transcript – complete with his mother’s signature!
This sent us to her birthplace to learn more about her. Remember it was 1995 – the pre-internet days. So it took a week at a time between phone calls to a caseta in his biological mother’s village (think “community phone booth” aka internet cafe before the internet) to get information. We would call, a random helpful person would answer, “Si, si, call back in a week, we will send someone to the Registro Civil for you.”
Of course the documents these international phone calls generated were precious to us, but they didn’t take us any closer to finding living family members. In all of Mexico we had no idea where to look more than 40 years after his birth. It took another two decades for digital technology to catch up with our family’s quest.
Fast forward 20 years after receiving his mother’s name and her parents’ names and Ancestry began nudging me that Mexican records were now online. I was getting little leaf hints all over the place on his mother and grandparents. This led to my creating a 400-year family tree, the discovery of his deeper ancestral history, and a decision to do DNA testing to learn even more.
At one point, I thought this beautiful extended family tree would be the sum total of my gift to my children.
Thankfully I was wrong. The continued stream of discoveries didn’t disappoint. One of the most interesting things that we gained was the fact that the surname we chose at random when their father and I married was actually an old family name!
Several months into this research, I began to get better at finding information in Mexico. Being such a history nut and relentless researcher helped me come to understand the region his ancestors lived in, as well as their migration and marriage patterns. I began to imagine what their lives were like. It’s important in Mexican research to understand how usage of the surnames changed over time. For instance, at one point in the last 100 years women began using their grandmothers’ maiden names instead of their mother’s. That one confused me for a minute!
I finally identified the major Mexican city that Baby Daddy’s biological mother had moved to after finding one of her relative’s death record. This led to a very fruitful search of digitized newspaper archives in that city. More discoveries were made matching newspaper records with Facebook profiles.
Intuition and open mindedness come in handy. So does determination.
Yet knowing that family members exist on Facebook and beginning potentially awkward conversations with them in another language isn’t easy. A cousin in one of our early Messenger encounters thought we were scammers. Synchronicity being high in our lives means that soon the perfect collaborators showed up and helped us to have those conversations compassionately.
So this is how it happened that in 2017, after decades of wondering if my kids and their dad would ever know his biological family, I had the privilege of sitting next to Baby Daddy as he spent an hour on the phone with a newly discovered younger half brother in Mexico. Two years later I got to comfort him as his 87 year-old aunt, his mother’s only living sibling, cried for five minutes upon hearing that her 65 year-old suspicion that her sister had another child was actually true.
A week after this emotional reunion and after years of inactivity on his DNA account, he had a sudden close relative match that yielded another biological sibling – and more importantly, his father’s identity. Due to the gift of a family friend, quite suddenly a 77 year-old man who thought for his entire life that he was an only child told us he is thrilled to have a new “little brother.”
So Isabel and her brother, Nicholas and their dad have a complete family story now. A story full of love and welcome. A story rich with cultural history. A story full of blessings. A story full of new extended family. And a story full of potential to grow deeper.
I even get to claim the new primos (cousins) due to their gratitude! One of them recently surprised us with a much longed for photo of the family patriarch and matriarch.
This precious fuzzy iPhone photo of an antique image of Izzy’s great grandparents is a treasure that took us 20 years to find. Don Gumercindo and his wife Magdalena, circa about 1950.
Isabel and Nicholas’ great grandparents Gumercindo and Magdalena had been vivid characters in my driving motivation and imagination for two decades. In fact, after finding their names on documents before we ever thought we’d find living family, we had planned on naming our second child Magdalena. The fact that he was decidedly a boy by the time of my ultrasound means we had to give that up; however, this doesn’t keep his sister from calling Nicholas “Maggie” to this day!
To finally be able to see their precious faces is a blessing for our family.
Darling Mother has urged me for years and years to “do your family research as a business.” It’s easy to discount a mom’s advice. But when no less than 6 or 7 of Baby Daddy’s siblings and cousins thanked me for never giving up, for sticking with it for so many years, and for blessing their family by making it whole, I just knew.
The clincher and the statement that crystallized my intention to found a new company to help others in their journeys came from one of his cousins. After chatting to get to know each other a bit he told me something that moved me out of dreaming and into doing. He said that he learned more about his own father talking to me about what my research had shown me about his family than he did living with him for his entire life. He thanked me for reconnecting the cousins, some of whom hadn’t spoken in years, and for the special feeling remembering his father’s family.
“You did this for our family. You didn’t give up,” he said.
No, I didn’t.