Why 26 Million People Have Mailed Their Spit and Why You Should Too

By Cassie Nguyen

When Molly’s mom passed on decades worth of research about their family to her in 1984, she wasn’t quite sure where to start. Although she was only a recent college graduate and had little experience in how to do genealogical research, she tried to dig deeper. Unfortunately, the Donovan family research went only so far back before hitting what experts in the field appropriately call a ‘brick wall’.

Of course, Molly was determined to break down this wall. “During that time, there weren’t accessible computers to the average person, so you had to go to libraries and contact genealogical societies, historical societies, and request records in writing by mail, snail mail, you know, and pay for the copies of the records. Somehow, I managed to find a marriage record for an ancestor that had been a brick wall for my mom. It turned out that his name was misspelled on a death record… And just the fact that I found something important in this line of research was really exciting. And my mom was really impressed.”

Molly attributes new technology, easy access, and the abundance of free time due to the Covid-19 pandemic for sparking her interest in genealogy again. Although she could not go through all 64 pages of her meticulously kept notes of her research and discoveries, Molly points out that she has spent a considerable amount of time on the Donovan family line. “I knew that my great grandfather, Jeremiah Joseph Donovan, was from Mobile, Alabama, so I started my research with him.” Not long after, Molly was able to discover that Jeremiah owned a saloon on Dauphin Street and eventually came across his obituary which reads “The deceased came to Mobile from New Orleans about fifteen years ago and has resided here continually. In the Crescent City he was a sergeant at the harbor police precinct and during the mafia troubles did efficient work.”

Having lived her whole life in California, Molly was ecstatic to find that she has roots in a city like New Orleans, and in the South in general. “At this point, I contacted the Archdiocese of New Orleans and asked them to search the sacramental books for the baptism for Jeremiah Joseph Donovan, and a marriage record for his parents, Patrick Donovan and Catherine Hays. She located Patrick’s burial record – he died of yellow fever and was buried in St. Patrick Cemetery in New Orleans.”

Being an avid traveler, Molly, joined by her husband, decided to visit Mobile and New Orleans and see the history with her own eyes. “The highlight of my trip to Mobile was visiting 453 Dauphin Street, where my great grandfather’s saloon was located and where he lived on the second floor above the saloon. In New Orleans we stopped at St. Patrick Cemetery No.1 and St. Mary’s Assumption Catholic Church, where Jeremiah was baptized… We took a tour of the neighborhood and I was able to see where my immigrant ancestors lived 170 years ago!”

However, not all genealogical journey’s end in fascinating historical discoveries and exciting trips. As we’ve seen through Molly’s extensive research, this hobby is excruciatingly meticulous and time intensive, and weeks’ worth of research may disappointingly lead to eventual dead ends. Additionally, you may find things you wish you hadn’t.

Jari Honora, an employee at the Historic New Orleans Collection, was only 10 years old when he started asking his grandmother questions about their family. Years later, Jari sits inside the historic building located in the French Quarter, working to answer these questions not only for himself, but for people all over the world who inquire for his help.

Jari attributes the recent rise in interest for genealogy partly to the invention of at-home genetic ancestry tests. One only needs to swab their cheek or provide spit in a vial and mail it in order to enter nationwide databases, making DNA matching more accessible than ever. As a result, more people, especially the younger generation, are questioning who they are and where their ancestors came from.

The discussion of ethnic and racial identities and their significance are becoming more pertinent in the general conversation. Decades of experience in the field of genealogy has allowed Jari to make a deduction about the recent surge in popularity. “The pendulum sort of swings back and forth in this country, between periods of time where people are very interested in their origins and ethnic identity of the past, and then other times when maybe people are more focused on the future, or new advancements, new technology… And I think we are in one of those waves where people are focused on the past.”

And while, the ease of testing and accessibility to databases can be great for genealogy research, it is much like Pandora’s box. Completing one of these tests can lead to fascinating discoveries, but it also may lead to the uncovering of shameful histories or even family scandals. Jari experienced this first hand.

“I have a paternal aunt, who just on a whim, purchased and took an Ancestry DNA test, and didn’t tell me. She probably didn’t even think to tell me. But her results came in… And lo and behold, the number of Centimorgans, the unit of measure for DNA, that we shared was only enough for her to be my half aunt. Meaning she was only my dad’s, half-sister.” The man that Jari thought was his biological grandfather was not actually related to him, indicating that his father may have been the product of an affair.

Jari has assisted countless people who have reached out to the Historic New Orleans Collections to learn more about their family history in New Orleans and Louisiana in general. Throughout his many inquiries, he has observed a great variety of reasons for why people seek to get their genealogy questions answered.

“A lot of people that I know find it to be a real source of strength to uncover the stories of their ancestors and to find out the challenges that they have overcome. For some people, it gives them a better appreciation for history… If you can sort of tie those stories into how something that Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson did impacted your family, then it becomes more personal. So I think they sometimes look for that connection to American history.”

With the current climate and emphasis of how race, ethnicity, and family history have played into our identities and have affected our opportunities and the trajectory of our lives, Jari says that “a lot of people are looking for ways to validate their families, and validate their connections to a particular place or culture. It means something when you can say, wait a minute, I belong in this place, just as much as you do. My family’s been here since 1858 or whatever. It gives them that foundation to stand on.”

As I sat across from Molly and Jari, fascinated by the stories they told and by their passion, I couldn’t help but think about my own background and what this journey would look like for myself. I am in a unique position where I could experience two very different ends of the spectrum when it comes to genealogy. I figured the best way to really understand the struggles and drives that Molly and Jari speak of, is to do it myself.

Both of my parents are immigrants. My mother and her family are from Mexico and Spain, and my father immigrated from Vietnam in the early 1980’s. When it comes to record keeping and emphasis on family history, the dichotomy between these two cultures is dramatically different.

My mom has extensive records of her family history, partly due to strict record keeping that inherently comes with being a member of the Catholic church, but mostly because of the cultural emphasis on the importance of family history in Mexico. When I asked my mom to tell me more about our family, she pulled out a dusty box and rolled out a 10 foot long printed family tree of her maternal side of the family with the oldest member going as far back as the early 1700’s.

In 2019, I did one of the genetic testing kits and discovered that I was about 8% “New World” which indicates that I am descended from someone native to the Americas. Until now, I didn’t know where that came from. My mom told me the story of her maternal great grandfather falling in love and marrying a Cuyetaco Indian woman, native to the present day city-state of Jalisco, Mexico. As someone who has identified myself my entire life as the daughter of two immigrants, the fact that one of my ancestors is actually native to the Americas and probably was on this continent well before most people, was quite transformative to my personal and ethnic identity.

My mom also recounted finding a long lost relative in the early 2000’s. She explained that when she married my dad after meeting him during a job training that was only supposed to last one year and subsequently moved to the United States, she felt isolated and lonely while her entire immediate and extended family resided in Mexico. She longed to find familial connections nearby. Eventually she discovered that there was someone living in Los Angeles matching the name of someone on her family tree. After looking him up in the phone book, she called Jose Maria Miyar, the son of her grandfather’s brother. My mom’s grandfather left Cuba with a Mexican Visa, but Jose’s father was never granted one, and thus they lost touch and never spoke again. This was the first time that Jose Maria encountered a paternal family member, and he wept when he realized who he was talking to.

My mom told story after story, explaining how her great grandfather and his brothers got separated in Cuba, and told of the brutal robbery turned murder of her grandfather in Mexico, and then how her widowed grandmother relied on the community church to raise her children. As I listened, I realized how lucky I was to have ancestors and family who care so much about passing on and preserving their history so that I could hear about it today. And truthfully, I felt ashamed that I hadn’t asked about it before.

My dad laughed at me before I could even ask my first question. “This is going to be a short conversation, sorry Cassie.”

My dad immigrated to the United States by boat under a refugee status due to the poverty caused by the Vietnam War. He was searching for a better life and hoping to make enough money to pay for the rest of his family to join him. As a child, he and his seven siblings and parents lived in a small village just outside of Hanoi, Vietnam. For them, the priorities are different from my mom’s family, and included putting food on the table and, thanks to my grandmother, educating the kids in hopes for a better future. The focus was not to dwell on their past and their hardships, but to forget it and move on to greener pastures.

My family celebrated my grandparent’s birthdays together, generally sometime in June, which was arbitrarily selected when they moved to the states. See, my grandmother, Nguyễn Thị Hoà, and grandfather, Nguyễn Danh Trân, do not have birth certificates from Vietnam. Records of them only exist from their visas and immigration here. My dad never met his grandparents, and they were never really talked about. And that’s pretty much where the history ends as far as records go. Talk about hitting a brick wall.

In my short journey of learning about my families, and in observing how inherently different they are, I am already beginning to understand why genealogy has captivated so many people. For me, I have always acknowledged my privilege, especially being the daughter of two immigrants, and I have never taken for granted the sacrifices that my parents have made for me. Frankly, this has been a huge part of my identity and motivates me in all aspects of my life. Learning more about my family has humbled me even more as I realize that ultimately, who I am and what I have been able to accomplish is not just a product of my parents and what they have done for me, but also their parents and what they have done, and their parents, and so on. I mean, how can I truly appreciate what I have if I do not even know about the people and journeys that have eventually led me to be where I am. That is my answer to the great “why”, and also the reason why I’ll continue asking questions and hopefully, one day, make my own discoveries.

As Molly puts it, “Who knows what you might find when you start researching your family history. It could simply provide interesting anecdotes and conversation starters, or I don’t know, it might change your life.”

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