Jen Santoro Rotty is a Reporters Inc. Board Member. You can read more about her on our “Team” page. Photo by Sarah Morreim

Jen Santoro Rotty at age 13 (left) in 1980, age three in 1970, and at 26 in 1993.

Who am I? Where do I belong?

My search for identity leads to racial and ethnic shock waves

Jen Santoro Rotty at age 13 (left) in 1980, age three in 1970, and at 26 in 1993.

March 2024

BY JEN SANTORO ROTTY (as told to Kim Whiting)

Growing up a White (as far as I knew) girl, in a predominantly White suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota I had the luxury—as so many in the White majority do—of not having to give much thought to ethnicity.

Not having to factor in the complexities of race into my identity allowed me to focus on who I was as a person, as a human; I’d describe myself back then as fun-loving, outgoing, and highly creative, among other attributes. (I still do!) I was someone who loved people, school, and to laugh.

Yet as I got older, issues surrounding ethnicity came increasingly to the forefront. Because I was an adopted child, already unsure of exactly where and who I came from, questions like “Who am I, really?” and “Where do I truly belong?” started becoming central themes in my life.

In adulthood, I set out to find out the truth. At one point, I thought I had the answers, only to learn—in middle age—that I was wrong. Very wrong.

Omitting race from the equation of my identity during my formative years left me completely unprepared for the startling revelations that would shake my world decades later—and continue to do so.

 

“Slightly darker complexion”

 

Through the agency Catholic Charities, I was adopted at just three-months-old by Mike and Barb Santoro. This was in 1967, when it was common for adoption agencies to match the coloring of a baby with that of the adoptive parents. At least that’s what the Santoros say they were told. Catholic Charities explained to them that this kind of “color matching” helped a child to assimilate and feel more like they “belonged” in their adoptive family.

I had dark curly hair and a slightly darker complexion, just like my father Mike who was Italian. My mother Barb was blonde with fair skin, but that apparently didn’t give Catholic Charities pause.

 

Four-year-old Jen Santoro with her father, Mike, in 1971 (above), and at age three with her mother, Barb, in 1970 (below).

 

As was typical back then, my entire adoption process was conducted without any contact between my adoptive and biological parents. The contract was “closed,” meaning that neither the biological parents nor the biological child would ever be allowed contact with the other, and information shared in my file about my biological parents was minimal.

This too, was a common process back then. Adoption agencies feared that keeping a connection with the birth family could potentially make children’s transitions into their new homes more difficult. They also felt that a clean break would quell any fears the adoptive parents might have of the birth parents changing their minds, and wanting their child back.

I was told by my parents, the Santoros, that my adoption documents listed my ethnic background as French and Irish. The file (which I’ve never actually seen or read myself) apparently indicated that my birth parents had dated for “an extensive” time period, and would have stayed together had there not been an issue of religious differences. My birth mother was Catholic, but my birth father was Jewish. Both parents were reported to be students at the University of Minnesota at the time of my birth.

A couple decades later, I would learn that this origin story of me as a half-Jewish, half-Christian European was a glossy half-truth. A couple decades after that, I was shocked to discover an almost completely different reality.

 

“I always knew I was adopted”

 

I grew up in the 1970s feeling generally happy and secure. My parents, the Santoros,  referred to me as their “angel” and backed up this affectionate nickname with frequent “I love yous.” Their only other child, a biological girl (my sister) was 12 when they adopted me, and our age difference practically ensured that, despite the supposed bond of sisterhood, we were never particularly close.

 

Three-year-old Jen Santoro in 1970 with her 15-year-old sister (above), and at age nine with her parents (and a new friend) on vacation at a theme park in 1976 (below).

 

That aside, I’m certain that my sister resented me. Watching a new baby become the center of our parents’ affection more than annoyed her. As the years went on, they probably overcompensated for any lack of belonging I might have felt being adopted by showering me with a kind of special attention that my sister never received. Because my parents were better off financially by the time I came along, I was, I admit, spoiled. Even more so than my sister had been as an only child before my arrival.

From as far back as I can remember, I always knew I was adopted. I don’t recall a big sit-down or reveal with my parents. They just always talked about it as though it made me unique. “You’re special because we were able to choose you,” they’d often say. Although I didn’t really feel any different being adopted, they spent a lot of effort telling me I was—in the best way possible.

My father was my champion. He supported me in pursuing a theater career and being a music major. He’d been a pro baseball player, so he understood the importance of following a passion—and that dreams can come true. My dad was always there for me, always accepting of who I was.

I believe it was my father who had pushed for my adoption. My mom couldn’t have children of her own after my sister’s birth. She was a good parent in a caretaking sense, but when I developed a mind of my own and my interests proved to be very different from hers, she began to criticize and judge me. She never really accepted—and certainly didn’t celebrate—who I was. She was outwardly “proud” of me to other people, but behind closed doors, it felt like I was never good enough.

In early adulthood, she told me a story about how she had wanted to “give me back” as a toddler. I had many allergies as a child and antihistamines made me jumpy and hyper, which she said made parenting me more challenging. She told this to me as though it were a “funny” story, but the more I learned about how she struggled with the very notion of adoption, I realized that it was probably one of many moments in which she really may have had regrets.

Needless to say, our relationship was always strained, up until her death two years ago.

 

Jen Santoro Rotty with her father, Mike, in 2014 (above). Mike died in 2017. Her mother, Barb (below), later moved from Minnesota to Nevada. She died in 2021, three months after this photo was taken.

 

“Searching for a place to belong”

 

Having been adopted, acceptance by others seemed to always be of utmost importance to me. The stakes felt higher and I was always searching for a place to fit in.

My first true feeling of belonging occurred in the fifth grade, when I was cast in a local revue in which we performed songs from the Broadway musical Annie. I won the role of the lead character, that adorable singing and dancing orphan, and from that time forward, I considered myself to be a performer—an “artist,” if you will. This became the only solid label I attached to myself until adulthood. Singers and actors and artists were my people.

Not long after Annie, a neighborhood bully called me an orphan. I’m not even sure if he knew I was adopted but I took his taunt to mean that I didn’t really belong to the family that was raising me. Apart from the solid love and acceptance I received from my father, this had sadly begun to feel somewhat true.

 

Jen Santoro, performing as “Annie” in a 1977 production when she was 10.

 

I really identified with the song “Maybe” from Annie. Annie sings about what her biological parents might be like; the lyrics mirrored the questions I had about my birth parents.

Betcha they’re young
Betcha they’re smart
Bet they collect things
Like ashtrays and art
Betcha they’re good
Why shouldn’t they be?
Their one mistake
Was giving up me

Like Annie, I longed to know more about the parents who gave me up, and why. Years later, even when I did discover the supposed details of my identity, they were only temporarily comforting.

That’s because, to this day, uncovering the full truth has proven to be elusive.

 

“Generically ethnic roles”

 

I first became aware that others might not see me as I saw myself—meaning Caucasian—when I started on-camera acting in the early 1990s and was regularly cast in what I like to call “generically ethnic roles.” I was landing a lot of commercials, training and industrial videos, and print ads. I seemed to be cast as almost anything—Hispanic, mixed race, Jewish, Italian, Middle Eastern, etc.

Career wise, the on-camera world felt pretty good even if I didn’t necessarily see what they saw in me. I just rode the wave!

What’s more, makeup artists used foundation on me that was significantly darker than I perceived my skin to be. “What are you?” (meaning “What ethnicity?”) was a question I was asked almost daily at that point.

 

Jen Santoro in a print ad campaign in 1995 (above) and performing as Italian bride “Tina” in a production of  Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding in the early 1990s (below). 

 

I also began to notice that, once I’d moved from the mainly White suburb and schools of my youth, Blacks and Latinos gravitated toward me for friendship. Race was never discussed, but they seemed to feel comfortable with me, which led me to believe that they saw something in me they could relate to or saw me as being of the same ethnicity.

This left me confused and a little uncomfortable, but I so believed the story of my Irish and French heritage that I still didn’t question my ethnicity. I was simply confounded that others saw me as something other than White.

I never discussed this confusion with my (adoptive) parents; I just decided that my slightly darker coloring was due to my birth father’s Jewish heritage and continued to see myself as Caucasian. I then came to realize that my rather unique complexion and features checked-off more boxes than most people, in terms of roles that I could play, so the discomfort I felt was balanced by the fact that I landed more parts and got more work than many of my peers.

 

“My birth parents were looking for me”

 

During my senior year of college in 1989, Catholic Charities called to say that my birth parents were looking for me. Unbeknownst to me, the laws involving closed adoptions had changed, allowing birth parents to contact a child they gave up—as long as the child was 19 years of age or older—without having to go through the adoptive parents. Reciprocally, adopted children could now contact a birth parent upon turning 19, without getting their adoptive parents’ permission.

The Santoros weren’t prepared for this. They’d counted on a forever-closed adoption and were threatened even by the idea of the potential new relationships I might form with my birth parents. I assured them that I hadn’t initiated the search and that no matter what transpired, they would always be my parents.

Truth be told, if my birth parents hadn’t reached out to me, I probably wouldn’t have searched for them until after the Santoros’ deaths, to spare them the kind of worry, hurt and insecurity that my birth parents’ search for me caused them. (My dad, Mike Santoro, died in 2017.)

That said, I did go ahead and let the adoption agency know I was open to pursuing contact with my birth parents. This was an opportunity for me to finally get some answers about my identity, answers that I’d been longing for since grade school—since Annie.

So maybe now it’s time
And maybe when I wake
They’ll be there calling me “baby”
Maybe

It was difficult navigating a situation in which I felt only excitement while my (adoptive) parents felt only upset and dread, but it was something I needed to do. I needed to know who I looked like. I’d never known a “blood” relative and really wanted to see what genetic traits were passed on to me.

I wanted to know my “tribe,” and feel the belonging that comes with shared characteristics. Unfortunately, my decision to get to know my birth parents put a strain on my relationship with the Santoros for a very long time, especally with my mom.

It turned out that my birth father (who I’ll call “Joe”) was the one who initially pushed to meet me. Yet because he wasn’t listed on my original birth certificate, he first had to find my birth mother (who I’ll call “Jane”) and get permission to legally look for me. Side note: I’ve always called Joe and Jane by their first names, never “Mom” and “Dad.”

Once Jane confirmed with Catholic Charities that Joe was the birth father, he was free to pursue the search. Joe then asked Jane if she wanted to join him, and she agreed. They hadn’t been in contact since she told him she was pregnant—since they were both 19-years-old. Nearly 23 years had passed.

Joe and Jane visited with one another as they were searching for me but there was no “unrequited love” kind of connection. He was preoccupied with his second divorce at the time, and while I think she might have been hoping they could rekindle something, I also think the fact that he was wealthy was the bigger draw for her. I do remember they had some kind of falling out during the time they searched for me and I think it might have been because she asked him for money. (I ultimately met each birth parent separately and never once spent time with them together.)

Once I agreed to be contacted, the adoption agency allowed my birth parents and me to begin to get to know each other gradually. At first, it was solely through letters that we wrote to one another. The agency would vet the correspondence, making sure we didn’t ask for or provide information that identified our location or other ways to reach the other outside Catholic Charities’ purview. We went back and forth with letters for a year.

I had to pull back the reins on Joe during this phase because he wanted to immediately have some kind of father-daughter relationship with me, and I just wasn’t ready for that. I already had a dad, so trying to figure out how my birth father fit into my life was daunting. Although he was anxious to meet me in person, I needed more time to get my head wrapped around what was happening.

I learned that Joe had three other children, with two different women—essentially giving me three paternal half-siblings. At that time, they ranged in age from two- to 17-years old. Finding out there were other people with whom I was genetically related was exciting. I looked forward to getting to know all of them when we felt ready. (Joe would later go on to father two more children with his third wife, bringing my half-sibling count on his side to five.)

 

“This is weird. Where do we begin?”

 

I met my birth mother first, about a year after our initial correspondence. Jane lived in Austin, Texas, but happened to be in Minnesota to see relatives, so we decided to connect. We met at a local amusement park where I was performing. She brought along her daughter, my half-sister, who is three years younger than me and who, coincidentally, is also named Jennifer. We also both prefer to go by Jen. She is Jane’s only other child.

I was completely overwhelmed by it. After all, until a year prior, I hadn’t even considered that I’d ever meet my birth parents or any members of my birth family. Was I supposed to run up and hug them and jump for joy, as I’d seen people act in these types of reunions on TV talk shows? But Jane and Jen were strangers to me and instead I just quietly said something like, “This is weird. Where do we begin?”

Jen and I hit it off immediately. She was easy to talk to, had been aware of my existence for about five years, and was eager to meet me because she didn’t have any other siblings. I felt the same way, given my rather frosty relationship with my (adoptive) sister.

 

Jen Santoro Rotty and her birth sister–also named Jen–in 2016 (above) and Jen’s birth mother, “Jane,” in 2013 (below). 

 

I’d envisioned Jane being happier to see me than she actually was. She was pleasant, but not nearly as excited as Jen. I later learned she was guarded because she thought I might be resentful that she chose not to keep me, or that I’d blame her for any kind of suffering the adoption might have caused me.

In the years since, I’ve repeatedly reassured Jane that I had a happy upbringing, and that I hold no ill feelings toward her for giving me up. It’s the truth. Even with the difficulties I had with my mom and sister, I just know that I was meant to be adopted. That aside, I think the trauma Jane associated with her pregnancy and my birth has always gotten in the way of us having a strong bond. More on that in a moment.

Jane’s five siblings (my “new” aunts and uncles), however, welcomed me with open arms. While I didn’t see any obvious physical resemblances with them (except maybe body type) I found that we shared similar personalities and preferences; for example, we’d walk into a store and inexplicably pick out the exact same item. I fit in well with them and they quickly felt like family. One aunt—her name was Tonie— was especially relatable, and we became very close, partly because we both lived in Minnesota. She became a strong female role model in my life, who accepted me no matter what.

 

Jen Santoro Rotty and her birth mother’s sister, Tonie, in 2016.

 

I’ve always seen myself as having a loving and accepting nature, and I came to believe that I somehow inherited this great trait from my birth mother’s side of the family.

I met my biological father, Joe, and my then two-year-old half-sister about six months after the first meeting with Jane. I was happy to see that I shared (or so it seemed) physical characteristics with him, such as our dark curly hair, darker complexion, and brown eyes.

I would eventually meet and get know my other half-siblings from Joe but, unlike the immediate bond I felt with Jen and the other relatives on my birth mom’s side, I didn’t really relate to or bond with Joe’s other kids. I never felt that they were particularly happy I was around; of course, they had different moms, and I don’t think they relished sharing their father’s attention with yet another sibling from another mother.

My birth parents disclosed that I’d been conceived during a summer “relationship.” I never actually asked them if it was serious (as my adoption papers supposedly indicated) or was just a fling, but in time I concluded that it hadn’t meant that much to either of them.

The fact that Joe simply “took off” when he learned that Jane was pregnant (something they both confirmed), leaving her to fend for herself, further solidified my belief that their relationship wasn’t ever headed to the altar. Their actual affair wasn’t the romantically-tortured tale supposedly detailed in my Catholic Charities file; again, I’d been led to believe that Joe and Jane would have lived happily ever after had it not been for those forbidden religious differences.

Joe admitted that he didn’t even know if I was a boy or a girl when he started to look for me all those years later. I learned that he came from an incredibly dysfunctional home. He had an overbearing dad and a mother who didn’t or wouldn’t show any affection. He told me that she didn’t even like holding him when he was a baby. As a result, Joe said he had no idea how to have a “normal” relationship and essentially panicked, at age 19, when he learned Jane was pregnant. He told me that his desire to find me was rooted in both guilt and regret that he’d abandoned me, as well as a sense of obligation.

I must admit that I felt somewhat betrayed by the story in my adoption file.

 

“I’ve visited my birth mother four times”

 

Jane is the eldest of six children. Her mother died when she was just 11, leaving her father alone to care for them. She says her dad (my biological grandfather) had returned “damaged” from the Korean war and became an abusive alcoholic; the loss of his wife and the stress of raising six kids caused him to become even more emotionally volatile and abusive.

When Jane’s father found out that she was pregnant, he (being a staunch Catholic and this being 1966) warned her that if she ever told her siblings about the pregnancy, she’d be disowned. Before her pregnancy became noticeable, Jane says her father forced her to move into a “wage home,” a residence in which an unwed pregnant woman was given room and board in exchange for light housework. Wage homes were known for “hiding” these women from their family and social circles. Jane’s father made it clear that once she gave birth, she was to immediately give the baby (me) up for adoption.

 

Jen Santoro Rotty, three-months-old, in 1967.

 

Immediately afterwards, Jane left Texas and moved to California, joining a commune. She was a self-professed hippie. The commune gave her work and a place to live, and its members gave her love and support that she says she didn’t have at home. Only later would she learn that her siblings found out about her pregnancy and the adoption but were forbidden from contacting her.

I’ve visited my birth mother four times since our first meeting in 1990; during those visits, however, I spent far more time with Jen, my half-sister. All these years later, Jen and I don’t talk often but when we do, we speak openly and freely, and always seem to pick up right where we left off.

Sadly, it’s a far different story with Jane. As I mentioned, we’ve never formed anything close to a mother-child bond. For a time, she seemed to be silently seething with inexplicable anger towards me, which made me incredibly uncomfortable. She eventually explained that being with me became a constant reminder of the anger she felt for her father, and his forcing her from her home and her siblings when she became pregnant. Knowing her issues weren’t about me (at least directly), I let her be. Still, this created a rift between us, lasting about eight years.I told her to come back to the relationship when she was ready. Jen never got in the middle of it. She understood Jane’s pain and yet was also very supportive of me.

Jane decided to go to counseling and, eventually, she was able to let go of much of the anger. But by the time she resumed contact with me, I was a busy wife and mother with my own family. My aunt Tonie in Minnesota, Jane’s sister, was the main thread of connection between Jane and me. But after Tonie died five years ago, Jane and I have rarely spoken.

 

Jen Santoro Rotty, her husband Kevin, and her daughters Liza (left) and Arianna, in 2007.

 

I’m disappointed that we couldn’t, or haven’t been able to, develop a better relationship. I held out hope for a long time that things would change but they just never did, or have. Given the struggle for acceptance I had with my (adoptive) mother, I just can’t handle another dysfunctional parental relationship.

 

“A DNA test, just for fun”

 

My birth father, Joe, is wealthy and he regularly paid to fly me (sometimes along with my husband and/or children) to his homes in California and Florida. When we visited, we always had a nice time, chatting, catching up—as most families do. For the most part, I enjoyed his company.

I’d become comfortable in my skin, finally knowing who “my people” were. I was comfortable being the half-Jewish, half-Catholic biological daughter of Joe and Jane. It felt good to better understand my ethnicity, to look in the mirror and comprehend why I looked the way I looked.

Fun while it lasted.

 

Jen Santoro Rotty and her birth father, “Joe,” at Jen’s wedding in 1993. 

 

We’d been family to each other for more than 20 years when, in 2012, I decided to take a DNA test, just for kicks.

Curiously, for someone of supposed Jewish descent, someone who was half-Jewish, the daughter of a Jewish father—my results failed to vouch for that presumed heritage. I was Jewish alright, but just 1 percent Jewish.

Just 1 percent.

My results so alarmed Joe that he immediately took his own DNA test. His results indicated that he, too, was Jewish. A whole lot more Jewish, it turns out, than me.

Joe’s DNA exam showed him to be 98 percent European Jewish heritage.

98 percent.

Skeptical, Joe took a second test, with a different DNA company. The results were the same.

I was shocked. Just when I’d figured out the how and why of who I truly was, the genetically-settled carpet was being yanked out from under me. I couldn’t, and didn’t want to, believe that Joe might not be my birth father.

I ordered a paternity test.

Once again, shock.

Both of us were floored. This man who I had come to know as my biological father, for more than two decades, was clearly not. Joe’s DNA and my DNA weren’t even remotely related.

But how could this be?

The rest of my DNA results filled in some of the blanks—yet none of them made any sense.

Not only was I definitely not very Jewish, I also wasn’t nearly as Caucasian as I’d presumed. Not nearly as White.

Instead, my test revealed I was a virtual color wheel of ethnicities.

 

 

Yes, some of the largest countries and regions of origin in my results did include plenty in Europe: Germanic Europe, Spain and Ireland at 16 percent each, England and Northwestern Europe at 12 percent, Sweden and Denmark at 8 percent, Wales at 3 percent, and Norway and the Basque region of Spain at 2 percent.

But then there were the African regions and countries: Senegal at 6 percent, Cameroon, Congo and Western Bantu Peoples at 4 percent, Northern Africa at 3 percent, Mali at 1 percent, Ivory Coast and Ghana at 1 percent, and Nigeria at 2 percent.

My DNA make up also includes Central and South American regions, including Indigenous Venezuela and Colombia at 5 percent, Indigenous Panama and Costa Rica at 1 percent, and Indigenous Eastern South America at 1 percent,

Doing the math breakdown, I was stunned to learn that my total African heritage was 17 percent and my total Latino heritage (including indigenous peoples and Spain) was 25 percent.

Yes, I was still White, but just White-ish. These revelations created an identity whiplash. My settled search for belonging was uncomfortably unsettled once again.

 

“He almost seemed relieved to be rid of me”

 

It was a huge loss—this loss of a man and his family who I thought were mine. This loss of my Jewish identity, which I’d incorporated into my cultural identity, even though I hadn’t pursued the faith. I no longer belonged to it or to them.

The paternity test results couldn’t have come at a worse time. They arrived the day before a long-planned excursion with Joe—to Israel. I went ahead with it, but my time there with Joe was strained and awkward.

I was hoping he’d say something to me like, “We’ve been family for this long, this doesn’t change the way I feel about you.” Instead, he almost seemed relieved to be getting rid of me, or at least that was my perception.

I felt rejected yet again.

Joe really disengaged after that trip. He would occasionally wish me a happy birthday, but otherwise, no communication. None of Joe’s five children, the people I called my half-siblings, reached out to me after the paternity test. None wanted to continue a relationship with me; as a non-relative now, I was no longer relevant. I’ve not spoken to Joe or any of them in nearly 10 years.

My sense of belonging after the paternity revelation fell to an all-time low. I began to realize that, except for my (adoptive) father, all of my parental figures had been much more focused on how my adoption affected them, as opposed to me. This made me feel even less wanted.

At one point I felt like I had four parents. But by the late 2000s, I felt like an orphan. I felt I had none.

Betcha he reads
Betcha she sews
Maybe she’s made me a closet of clothes
Maybe they’re strict
As straight as a line
Don’t really care
As long as they’re mine

 

“He had billed himself as Jamaican”

 

So, if Joe wasn’t my biological father, who was?

When I told Jane about my DNA test results and the negative paternity test, she too was shocked. It did seem that she truly believed Joe was my birth father.

But then she admitted that she’d had a one-night stand during the time she was in her relationship with Joe (again, it was the late ‘60s, the era of “free love”) and she now assumed it must be this “other man” who was my true birth father.

One of the reasons why she’d been so certain Joe was the father, she explained, was because at the time of this one-night dalliance, she thought she was already pregnant (by Joe)! Quite the story, I know, but I chose to believe her. I didn’t fault her for the decisions of her youth.

Jane didn’t recall much about this mysterious lover, not even a first name. But she did say he was in grad school at the University of Minnesota at the time, in the literature department, and at least four years older than she. Oh, and that he had “billed himself as Jamaican.”

So, my birth father was/is Black?

I only talked with Jane about this once, as it was a very difficult revelation for her to discuss. I haven’t been able to broach this subject with her again.

With so little to go on, I still decided to look through U of M yearbooks from 1966 and 1967, in search of Black or mixed race students who might—might—bear even a passing resemblance to me. But I saw very few people of color in general.

 

 

If this man truly was/is of Jamaican descent, that potentially tracks with my DNA test results, because they seem to loosely follow part of the history of the slave trade: Europeans forcibly transporting Africans to work on Caribbean and Latin American plantations of sugar cane and other crops. Of course, that’s just a theory I’ve pondered. I have no actual proof of anything.

I ended my search fairly quickly. Yes, I wanted to know more about this potential new birth father, but I wasn’t sure that I could bear to go through the process all over again. The possibility of further rejection and trauma held me back.

Furthermore, if or when I ever did find him, I wasn’t sure how I’d even approach the subject. I mean, starting a conversation with “Hey, remember that one-night stand you had back in ’67? No? Well, I’m here to jog your memory” doesn’t necessarily sound like a good opener.

If he’s still alive, this man undoubtedly went on to create a life of his own, probably has an established family, a wife and kids maybe, and the introduction of me into the picture might not be a welcome one. Would it be fair, or right, for me to shake up his world after all these years?

Maybe far away
Or maybe real nearby
He may be pouring her coffee
She may be straightening his tie
Maybe in a house
All hidden by a hill
She’s sitting playing piano
He’s sitting paying a bill

 

 “Am I just taking up space?”

 

My DNA test results also brought up other weighty questions about identity and belonging, such as “Is it OK for me to claim to be a part of a particular ethnic or racial group when I’m actually only partially a member of that group?”

And: “Am I wrongly just ‘taking up space’ if I make that claim?”

Maybe the hardest questions of them all: “I might look Latino or Black, but these aren’t my cultures, so do I still belong in them? And if so, how?”

Five years after getting the DNA results, I was cast in the musical In the Heights at the Ordway Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota. The story involves mainly Dominican Americans who live in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City’s Manhattan borough. It was marketed as “an all-Latinx cast” and I wondered if I could call myself Latinx, when I was genetically only partially Latina, and had no upbringing whatsoever in that culture. I discovered, however, that many of my fellow cast members identified the same way, and this made me feel less alone.

I’m now 56-years-old and still identify, first and foremost, as an artist—and as the happy, social and enthusiastic person that I was as a child. I do not, however, identify as White—or at least not merely White. These days, “Mixed race” or “Other” are the boxes that I check off on forms.

In terms of ethnic identity and sense of belonging, I’m on more solid ground than I’ve ever been, and attribute much of my sense of security to my husband Kevin, who has always accepted me just as I am. Like me, he was shocked by my DNA results but he helped me change my belief that I didn’t completely fit in anywhere. He countered with the idea that, because I seem to be able to easily interact with multiple “worlds,” I serve as a bridge of sorts between them.

He was right. I’ve always been able to move almost effortlessly between disparate racial, ethnic and religious groups, almost unknowingly helping each better understand the other. I’ve grown now to see this as a truly meaningful ability and beautiful gift.

In addition, as my children have grown (I have two daughters: Arianna, now 25 and Liza, now 22) I’ve been able to see my physical characteristics mirrored in them, creating a new tribe of belonging among us. Liza, more than Arianna, identifies as mixed race and checked that box on her college application. It led to opportunities to mentor and speak with college groups on the subject of identity. Both girls have been so supportive of my journey and are fiercely proud of our eclectic DNA make ups.

 

Jen Santoro Rotty and her husband Kevin, Christmas 2023 (above) and (below) with her daughters Liza (left) and Arianna in 2019. Photo by Eric Mueller

 

And now, 12 years after getting those DNA test results, I’ve finally started to look at the “matches” that Ancestry.com occasionally provides—genetic matches to people on my paternal side. These potential relatives and ancestors are a rainbow of humanity; they’re White, Black and Latino presenting, and everything in between.

And I am all of them, rolled into one.

With time and space and much contemplation, I now feel ready, once again, to start searching for, finding, and ultimately even meeting people on my paternal side. I’d like to know more about my history and the other cultures that might be connected to it. I want to put together the last puzzle pieces of my identity and get my remaining questions answered. I’m ready to dive in, even if it ends in more rejection.

Most importantly, I’m now accepting of all that I am, and I’ve come to believe that I most definitely belong in Black and Latino spaces. Although they aren’t my culture, I’m not taking-up someone else’s space. In fact, I’m open to the possibility that I actually might be adding something to it.

It’s taken years, decades in fact, but I’ve gone from feeling like I don’t fit in anywhere culturally to feeling more like I fit in everywhere. It’s a sense of belonging that just might be the best kind of feeling ever.

So maybe now this prayer

is the last one of its kind  

Won’t you please come get your “baby”

Maybe

 

Jen Santoro Rotty is a Reporters Inc. Board Member. You can read more about her here on our Team page.  Jen can be reached at

 

 

COMMENTS

5 people commented on "Who am I? Where do I belong?"
Feel free to join the conversation and leave a comment as well.

  • Craig says:

    Great story Jen and Mark! Another Reporters success.

  • Drew Jansen says:

    Oh, Jen! Thank you for sharing your story. Jimmy and I are honored to call you and Kevin dear friends.

  • Kristine Keesler says:

    Jen! I never knew you were adopted! I am too!! How did we never discover this going to college together?! So much I relate to in your story/saga! Love you and I’m blessed to know you!

  • Susan says:

    Thank you for sharing your story! My dad was in an orphanage that went broke during the Great Depression in the early 1930’s. He & his 4 other siblings grew up in different homes but managed to find each other in late teens & early adulthood. I studied child development & human development mostly because growing up I could see the long-range results of so many negative & some positive influences in my dad’s early life. You & your husband created a beautiful family of your own–I love your husband’s words of encouragement to you & the way you really represent those words in your life! Thanks for being a voice that needs to be heard–maybe we can all learn from both the good practices & the sad, often accidental, negativity that surround children.

  • Krisha Crabtree says:

    Thank you for sharing your beautiful and vulnerable story!

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