Most mysteries begin with fingerprints, a locked room, a secret. This one begins with a DNA test.
Writer and animal advocate Carlyn Montes De Oca lived 57 years before she found out she’d been adopted. But almost as soon as she did, she knew she had to metabolize that experience through writing. So began a forensic investigation into her own past, an unraveling of clues—interviews with siblings and cousins (all of whom seemed to know more about her than she knew about herself), old photographs and the delusive evidence of memory. The result was Montes De Oca’s new book, Junkyard Girl: A Memoir of Ancestry, Family Secrets and Second Chances (Goose Hill Press, Nov. 2).
One of four books from the author, Junkyard Girl tells the story of a seismic shift in Montes De Oca’s identity. She’d spent her life believing she belonged to a family of six—her parents were Mexican immigrants, and her sister and brothers were first-generation American citizens—who lived in Carpenteria, California. Still, though she always believed she was tied to the family by blood, she had the sense something was missing. Something about her was different, and it kept her at a distance. When a DNA test revealed she shared scant genetic material with her presumptive family, her sister decided to break the promise she’d made to her parents to keep Montes De Oca’s adoption a secret.
The process of unspooling the mystery and getting it on the page was painful, Montes De Oca tells SFR.
“It’s like a wrecking ball hitting the foundation of your identity,” she says. “But the way I understand the world is through writing, and I knew I had to somehow put it into words to make sense of it all.”
Her craft shines in her descriptions of family—astute, glowing renderings of their complex relationships bring to life the conflict she felt when she learned they weren’t related by blood. She illustrates her mother particularly vividly: the details of her beautician’s uniform, her terse, commanding patterns of speech. Yet those parts were the most difficult to write, Montes De Oca says.
“I loved her and I had great respect for her, but I didn’t really understand her when I was growing up,” she says. “This book allowed me to understand her in a new way.”
That understanding is one of many revelations Montes De Oca experienced while writing the book. Another was gaining a new sense of community.
“For two years I pretty much dealt with this topic by myself,” she explains. “I didn’t realize that there are a lot of other people who have gone through a similar situation—taking a DNA test for fun and suddenly discovering, ‘Holy cow, I’m adopted. I have a sister, I have a brother. This isn’t my parent.’”
The experience is relatively rare—only 3% of adopted children in the US aren’t told they’re adopted, a study by the Federal Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation finds. Montes De Oca hopes Junkyard Girl helps others in that situation find their own communities more easily than she did.
“It’s like a baby deer being born,” she says, “and suddenly they can’t stand on their legs—wobbling everywhere, trying to figure it out.”
While Montes De Oca’s experience is unusual, the insights she gains about what makes a family have more universal applications. When she learned she was adopted, she says, she was faced with a choice:
“The tethers that bound me to my family, the family I grew up with, in some ways were cut,” she says. “There was a sadness with that, a loss—but also a freedom. It allowed me to stand on my own and to choose what family means to me.”
Junkyard Girl opens with an epigraph: “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.” This, Montes De Oca says, is the actual rendering of a commonly misinterpreted aphorism, “blood is thicker than water.” Usually taken to mean birth family is the strongest tie, the ultimate responsibility, Montes De Oca gleans something different from the full proverb. She did meet her birth sister, aunt and mother, but hasn’t maintained a strong relationship with her bio family.
“For me, it was the family that was not really mine by birth—the water of the womb—but the family I spent my life, my culture, my experiences and love with,” she tells SFR. “That’s the blood of the covenant.”
By that logic, we choose our families through what we share with them, even if it isn’t blood.
“There’s so much division in families with the state of our world, and in some ways it allows all of us to choose what family is,” Montes De Oca says. “I love the expansiveness of being able to choose your family.”
For her, it’s the family she grew up with, her close friends, her husband,and the animals she chooses to spend her life with. In this, she finds a parallel with her life’s work. Montes De Oca now lives outside Santa Fe with her husband and rescue dog, Grace, where she works as an animal advocate. She’s also the founder of The Animal-Human Health Connection, which highlights the health imapacts of having pets at home.
“As an animal advocate, here I am always telling people, ‘Adopt, adopt.’ Then suddenly, I realize I’m adopted.”
Junkyard Girl Release and Conversation: 1 pm Saturday, Nov. 5. Free. The Agora, 7 Avenida Vista Grande, Eldorado, (505) 466-2602