A name, a letter, and a necklace, that’s all Julia had of her birth mother for 22 years.
“Those always have been my only connection to my roots,” Julia said.
A social worker told her that her birth mother had returned to El Salvador, and Julia didn’t ever have much hope of learning more.
A Turning Point
That all changed late last year after Julia used 23andMe, first connecting with an older brother she didn’t know. Although she knew that her birth mother had two other children, a boy and a girl, Julia was initially skeptical that he was indeed her brother. They exchanged some messages. Julia learned the person who matched as a potential half-brother was also from a town just 20 minutes from her own, so it didn’t quite mesh with what she thought she knew about her birth family.
“Then he said, ‘do you still have the necklace that our mother gave you?'”
It was something no one else would have known about; it immediately stirred something deep in Julia. She began to cry.
It all happened very quickly after that. Julia met her birth mother and four other siblings through her newfound older brother, Melvin.
“That’s a huge turning point as an adopted kid,” said Julia, something she’d hoped for but never expected would happen.
It might have never taken place if Julia hadn’t used 23andMe, which had only happened because of a class project she was working on at college and the help of her instructor.
For years her connection to her birth family, and roots, was the necklace and the letter and the little things she knew about her birth mother, her name, Elsy. She even had an old photo of her birth mom, sitting with Julia’s parents.
The letter is folded carefully in an envelope Julia keeps in a little box laminated with a 10-colon Salvadorian banknote. In neatly worded Spanish, Julia’s birth mom, just 20 at the time, tried to explain why she’d given up her daughter. She didn’t know what else to do.
“My child, first off, I want to tell you that I love you. I love you so much,” the letter says. “I looked for other ways but could not find any. My love, I am a poor woman without luck. It’s always gone bad for me. I wish that you can forgive me one day, I may not be able to forgive myself.”
Family is Family
Mastering Spanish and learning about El Salvador had been a way for Julia to connect to her birth family and her roots. It was something that her parents encouraged.
Julia always knew she’d been adopted because her parents never hid that from her. Her parents, Matt and Kristen, couldn’t have children “the natural way,” as Kristen says. So, they decided to adopt. Julia’s sister, Audrey, was also adopted. So, there was never a time that Julia or her sister didn’t know.
But being adopted didn’t change how Julia felt about her sister or her parents.
“My family is just my family,” Julia says.
It’s not just her parents and her sister, Julia is bonded with the sprawling collection of her cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Of course, this is her family, but she was always curious about where she came from.
Julia was just nine days old when she was adopted. And Matt and Kristen had made a point of meeting Julia’s birth mom. They even have a photo of them together on Julia’s adoption day. The idea was that they would maintain that connection. They’d hoped that Elsy would be able to remain in Julia’s life, but it didn’t work out that way. After the adoption agency closed, they were told that Elsy had returned to El Salvador. They lost that connection.
In its place, Matt and Kristen ensured that Julia understood her Salvadorian roots, and encouraged her to learn more about the culture and the language.
“She embraced the culture a lot more and was in tune with it… as she got older, it became important to her to find her birth family,” her dad said.
But Julia was always curious to find out more.
Barely Contained Excitement
Julia had twice tried to learn more.
First when she was 16 and then again at 18.
Both times she’d learned little of anything new. Finally, at 18 she’d reached out to the social worker and was given some minor details about her mother and her mother’s circumstances at the time of the adoption. There was nothing more than that.
Julia sought connection through understanding more about El Salvador. But she was equally taken with other cultures. She’s part of a Bollywood dance team and connects with India. Being a Latina in a predominantly white suburb, she looked for and found connections and community in many different ways, whether it was dance, music, or friend groups.
As part of one of her classes at Suffolk University, taught by the Emmy-award-winning documentary filmmaker Jeremy Levine, Julia decided to create a video project around her adoption journey. Professor Levine suggested Julia do a DNA test as part of the project. So she did, but she thought what she’d learn would be more about her ethnicity.
It all happened very quickly after she sent off her test in November. A day after Thanksgiving, Julia got an email that her reports were in. Again, she thought the reports would tell her the mix of her ancestry. Instead, she was stunned by what she learned.
“I thought I knew what it was going to be, but it was for the project, so I videoed myself opening the (reports),” she said.
In the video, she says she hadn’t expected to get her reports so quickly.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen for another two weeks so I’m not prepared at all. I set the camera up as fast as I could,” she said.
She rattles off the percentages of her Ancestry Composition, “42 percent Southern European, 35 percent Indigenous, 16 percent Sub-Saharan African.”
And then she notes with interest her increased likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes.
Then with a sort of “ah ha” expression, she says, “increased likelihood to weigh less than average.” And with that, she encircles her skinny wrist and shows it to the camera.
“Likely blue or green eyes,” she says. “And I have green eyes.”
“Ooh oo wait,” she says, shaking her head with emotion. She gasps and puts her hands on her face taking in a breath.
“I have… Oh my God, I’m shaking,” she starts crying.
the world is so small
It all was so unexpected. It was, as Julia said, “getting deeper than I thought it would.”
Not only did she have an older half-brother, Melvin, but he was in Massachusetts, and he lived in a small town only about 30 minutes away.
She’d contacted him within an hour of finding the match, and they exchanged messages.
How close they’d been to each other all this time. Julia said her life has always felt like it was filled with coincidences and synchronicity. For example, until a year ago, she’d never worn the necklace her birth mother had given her out of fear that she might lose it, but then all of a sudden had the urge to wear it all the time.
Her first communication from her brother, Melvin, was through 23andMe: “Hi! I can’t believe this has happened. I think I know who you are. Yes, I’d love to get to know you too. This world is so small.”
Julia marveled at how close he and her birth mother had been all this time, they live in small towns in Massachusetts that are about 30 minutes from each other. He worked at the same hospital as Julia’s adopted mom, and one of her half-sisters, Nansy, also works there. Her birth mom works at a sandwich shop that Julia and her family have been to many times. Her older half-brother went to the school that Julia’s father once taught at although he attended class there a year or two after her dad went to teach somewhere else.
She wonders how many times they have crossed paths.
“Maybe it happened all the time, and we never even realized it,” she said.
Soon thereafter, they made plans to meet at a mall.
“I’m about to meet my brother who grew up with my birth mother and five other siblings,” Julia said in the video she made as she prepared to meet her brother for the first time.
And after meeting him, Julia met her birth mom along two of her five other half siblings. Along with her older brother Melvin and older sister Nansy, are sister Dariana, and two younger brothers Jacob and Levi. At their first meeting Julia and Elsy hugged and cried and looked deep into each other’s faces. Julia, her newfound siblings, and her birth mom, are now trying to build a relationship. Her adoptive parents are equally emotional about the fact that Julia has made this connection. They cried at the news when she told them that she’d found her birth mom.
“Now it’s like I have closure about how I came into this world and who I am as a person… not just my own family, but my own identity as well,” Julia said, trying to put into words the complicated feelings she has. “Overall, most insane and incredible life-altering thing in the world.”