GATES: I'm Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Welcome to "Finding Your Roots."
In this episode, we'll meet talk show host Mario Lopez and comedian Melissa Villaseñor.
Two people who are about to uncover the long-lost stories of their Mexican ancestors... LOPEZ: That's crazy when you just think about it in and of itself.
You're going to these lands; you have no idea what's there.
Isn't that crazy just to think about.
GATES: They didn't even know if they were going to fall off the earth.
GATES: You ever think of yourself as an indigenous woman?
VILLASEÑOR: But, but I, I love that.
GATES: To uncover their roots, we've used every tool available... genealogists combed through the paper trail their ancestors left behind, while DNA experts utilized the latest advances in genetic analysis to reveal secrets hundreds of years old.
GATES: And we've compiled everything into a book of life... VILLASEÑOR: I'm nervous.
GATES: A record of all of our discoveries... LOPEZ: Oh wow!
GATES: And a window into the hidden past... GATES: So, did you ever think of your ancestors as refugees fleeing a war?
GATES: But they did.
LOPEZ: That's kind of cool.
GATES: It's very cool.
It's not what we think of Mexican immigration, right?
LOPEZ: No, I'm blown away.
VILLASEÑOR: It's, it's wild to see this.
VILLASEÑOR: This is making me emotional.
GATES: My two guests have roots that crisscross Mexico, Spain and California...
In this episode, they'll see what makes their family experiences unique...
Exploring the sacrifices their ancestors made in coming to this country and the hardships they faced, and overcame, once they arrived.
(theme music plays).
♪ ♪ GATES: Mario Lopez is a multi-talented, multi-media phenomenon.
Over the last three decades, the actor, producer, Emmy-award-winning host, and best-selling author has become a fixture of American popular culture... And his story is a quintessential example of the American dream.
When Mario was just ten years old, he was cast in "A.K.A.
Pablo" an ABC sitcom from the legendary producer, Norman Lear, about a Mexican American family in southern California.
Mario got the role, in part, because his character's background was so similar to his own...
Both of his parents were born in Mexico, and Mario grew up in Chula Vista, California... just a few miles north of the border.
The experience would shape him in ways both obvious and surprising.
LOPEZ: It wasn't necessarily the most, uh, upscale neighborhood and, and the potential for a lot of trouble to get into.
So, you know, my mom, kept me busy and with a lot of different activities.
So, I was the only dancing, theater, wrestling, karate kid I knew, because I usually had an activity after, after school.
So, I was busy, and I... And it worked.
I was so busy, I never had time to really get in any kind of trouble.
GATES: But how does a ten-year-old land a Norman Lear sitcom?
LOPEZ: When my mom got me into dancing, there was a local talent agent in San Diego that, uh, saw me dance and approached her and said, "Hey, have you ever thought about getting your kids into commercials and print work?"
And my mom was like, "Well, he reads well, and he doesn't shut up, and he's not shy, so I, I don't know, let me ask him."
Pablo" was not a hit, but Mario was just getting started.
Soon he landed a lead role in "Saved by the Bell" a show that made him a household name and launched his career... And even though he spent much of his childhood in front of the camera, Mario kept his head by staying close to his parents, who were not the types to be dazzled by fame.
LOPEZ: Oftentimes, a lot of these parents want to live vicariously through their kids, and that wasn't the case with my parents.
They obviously didn't know anything about it, had no, uh, history or background in the entertainment field.
But, um, they were just supportive.
And if it worked out, great.
If it didn't, that's fine, but you know, to this day, I'm, I'm always so appreciative of my mom, uh, and my dad for driving me up a few hours every day for an audition that maybe was five minutes and then come right back.
And uh like, every reaction, whenever I did land something, it'd always be like, "Oh, that's nice, mijo."
No one ever got too excited.
LOPEZ: Like my dad always says, uh, "You still have never had a real job."
GATES: This sense of perspective, and humor, would serve Mario well as he grew into adulthood, helping him plot a successful career path... an accomplishment that eludes many child stars.
A key moment came when Mario met Dick Clark, the iconic television host, who saw something of himself in the younger man.
LOPEZ: We really hit it off, and he became a friend and mentor.
And he said, "Mario, you've got a personality for hosting."
Because I do like to host, whether it's hosting game night at my house or having people over.
I love to entertain.
LOPEZ: I love to make sure people have a good time.
LOPEZ: I love to make sure everyone's having fun and, and, uh, and, and just kind of, uh, be the host of the party.
And that's essentially what you're doing on TV.
So, Dick Clark sort of opened my eyes to this world, and he goes, "You want to be on TV for the next 50 years, I'm telling you, you have the personality, you should look into doing some hosting, be a host."
And it kind of like light bulb went off, and I'm like I want to be the Latino, Dick Clark.
GATES: That's great.
LOPEZ: And that, that was my, and that was my new plan.
GATES: My second guest is comedian Melissa Villaseñor, one of the leading lights of "Saturday Night Live" since 2016, and a mainstay of the comedy circuit for more than a decade.
VILLASEÑOR: It stinks, cause once guys find out, "Oh, Melissa does voices."
"Well, do the hot voice."
But I can't help it if, like, a little bit of me pops out.
"What do you want to do tonight, babe?"
(sultry) Um, how about a bath or something?
(normal) How about, let's make some popcorn?
"What did I say about the voice?!"
GATES: Like Mario, Melissa grew up in a Mexican American community in southern California.
But while Mario got his start on the set of a Norman Lear sitcom, Melissa found her calling in a less auspicious venue... As a sophomore in high school, she got on stage for a talent show, tried out some celebrity impressions, and discovered that she had a special gift.
VILLASEÑOR: I did Britney Spears... "Oh, yeah."
A little Christina Aguilera... "Oh, oh, oh, oh!"
GATES: What was the reaction?
VILLASEÑOR: Oh, it was amazing, a lot of people stood up, clapped, and, and, and everyone was laughing and I felt like there was this fire in my chest that just lit up and I woke up in a way of, like, "This is what I'm doing for my life."
GATES: What did your parents think when they heard that you had, you know, blown the roof off?
VILLASEÑOR: I think they thought, "Oh, that's cute.
But go to college."
(laughter) GATES: Melissa would follow her parent's advice and enroll in a local community college.
But, at the same time, she was also following her passion for comedy, and the classroom simply couldn't compare, causing Melissa a great deal of sorrow.
VILLASEÑOR: I went, but I didn't show up.
I, I didn't like it.
And I always felt like the sadness was a clear sign that I needed to be on stage.
Every time I avoided, like, oh maybe I shouldn't be a comedian, it's not working out.
Like, I, you know I auditioned for "SNL" when I was 21, I didn't get it.
I was like, "Maybe it's not working out.
Maybe..." You know, I mean, obviously, I was so young then, I shouldn't have got it.
But, but I, uh, I think when I...
When I tried to avoid it, there was always a feeling like, something is off, something is not right, and it's because I'm supposed to be performing.
GATES: When Melissa finally accepted her calling, she faced another challenge: Stand-up comedy is grueling work.
VILLASEÑOR (impersonating): Hi, I'm Sara Silverman and um Oh, my God.
GATES: She spent almost a decade trying to break in, taking her act to talent shows and small venues across the country, all the while living at home with her parents.
In the end, her determination paid off.
After submitting audition tapes every year for seven years, she finally won over "Saturday Night Live's" executive producer Lorne Michaels, landing her dream job.
How did your parents react when you told them, uh, that Lorne had called?
VILLASEÑOR: Well, this is how this is how lovely my parents are.
So, they were actually in New York still when I got the call.
So, what happened was, that week I flew out for meetings with, to meet Lorne and the writers on the show.
They wanted to meet me and just chat.
Uh, and my parents surprised me.
They flew out.
VILLASEÑOR: Just to be there in support of me.
GATES: Oh, well that's great.
VILLASEÑOR: Yeah, I called them, I said, "Put, put this on speaker.
You all need to hear."
And they're like, "What?"
I was like, "I'm on Saturday, I got Saturday Night Live.
I'm going to be on the cast."
And they're screaming, they're crying, they're hugging each other.
It was unreal.
It felt magical because they are all a part of the journey.
My parents, since day one they would drive me to comedy clubs and improv classes, or, you know... GATES: You're lucky.
VILLASEÑOR: Very, very lucky.
GATES: Meeting my guests, it was clear that both are the products of tight-knit families, but as the descendants of recent immigrants, they also had fundamental questions about how those families had been shaped.
It was time to provide them with some answers.
I started with Mario, and his paternal grandfather, Luciano Lopez-Burgos.
Luciano was born in Mexico in 1926, and ended up in San Diego, California, supporting eight children as a laborer.
Along the way, he earned a reputation for hard work that awed his entire family... GATES: Your father said that for your grandfather, quote, "Every day was work, work, work."
GATES: Uh, is that how you remember?
LOPEZ: Yeah, he was always working, even until his late years.
LOPEZ: I remember that, but that kind of, you know, it kept him going and stuff, and so, yeah.
GATES: As you got older, did your grandfather's work ethic make sense to you?
I appreciated it, and then, even when all my... His kids were old enough and had their own families and were doing their own thing, he continued that strong work ethic, and I, it was just sort of instilled in me.
I never had friends spend the night more than one night because my dad would put them to work.
He would hate to just see us laying on the couch, watching TV.
He'd get up and make me do something.
GATES: While Mario proudly celebrates all that Luciano did to plant roots in the United States, he had no idea about the efforts that his grandfather had made simply to get into this country...
The story begins with a document that Luciano filed in March of 1957... GATES: Would you please read the title at the top of the page?
LOPEZ: "Application for permission to reapply, Tijuana, Mexico, 1957."
GATES: The keyword in that sentence is "reapply."
GATES: Have you ever heard anything about this?
GATES: Look at the transcribed section at the bottom.
LOPEZ: "Removed from the United States on or about 1952 to Mexico from the port of San Ysidro, California, I resided in the United States for a period of approximately one month.
At the time of removal, I was living in Hanford, California."
GATES: Do you know what's happening here?
Did you ever hear this story?
GATES: Luciano's "story" is a classic example of the struggles faced by migrant workers of his day, in 1952, when he was about 26 years old, he sought work in farm country north of Los Angeles.
Lacking a visa, he was here illegally, and soon that caught up with him... After roughly one month, Luciano was detained by immigration officials and returned to Mexico via what was known as a "voluntary departure", meaning no arrest warrant was issued and no legal record of the incident was preserved.
In theory, this should have made it easier for him to re-enter the United States, as he attempted to do in 1957, but, in the intervening years, the United States had become considerably more hostile toward Mexican migration.
LOPEZ: Oh wow.
GATES: Please read the transcribed section?
"Wetbacks herded at Nogales Camp; these unwitting victims of the US Operation Wetback milled around today for six hot, miserable hours in the process of being loaded aboard a 15-car special train for the final leg of their unwilling journey back into their native Mexico.
This is the end product of the sweeping campaign launched by the US Immigration to clear the nation of its illegal aliens."
So, wetback was a, an actual, literal term?
It wasn't just a derogatory, I thought it was just a derogatory, uh, term used.
I didn't know that they actually printed it.
GATES: They are using it because the United States government, in 1954, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service launched a program officially known, governmentally, as...
BOTH: "Operation Wetback".
LOPEZ: Oh my god.
GATES: Can you believe that?
GATES: Can you believe the name?
They didn't even think anything about it.
GATES: "Operation wetback" was the cynical meeting ground of xenophobia, racism, and economics... During World War II, the United States created a guest visa program that allowed Mexican workers to find temporary employment with American farmers.
The program helped alleviate the enormous labor shortages caused by the war.
But by 1954, the war was long over, and some Americans were becoming increasingly concerned that Mexican workers were undercutting their wages.
In response, the United States government launched the largest deportation effort it had ever undertaken, using military tactics to detain suspected migrants in holding camps before shipping them across the border.
GATES: They went around just rounding up people and throwing them out of the country.
GATES: You wanna hear the numbers?
In 1954, there were 1.1 million removals.
LOPEZ: That's unbelievable.
GATES: That's unbelievable.
LOPEZ: That, wow.
GATES: Can you imagine just how perilous your life was?
I mean, you're living in terror, and you can just be swept up... LOPEZ: It's eye-opening, I mean... My grandfather was a tough guy, but I, I regret not being aware of this and, and talking to him about it when he was alive.
GATES: Why do you think he never talked about it?
LOPEZ: Maybe he just didn't want to go there and put it behind him and, and might make us angry.
Or hurt, and... LOPEZ: Or hurt, yeah.
GATES: I mean, what kind of person wants to inflict pain on their grandchild, you know?
GATES: Mario's grandfather may have been angry about the obstacles placed in front of him.
But he was also doggedly determined and soon he set out for the United States yet again, embarking on a remarkable journey... We found the details of that journey in the national archives, set down in a record dated July 3rd, 1969... LOPEZ: "My full, true, and correct name is Lucian Lopez Burgos.
My present place of residence is 3019 18th St., National City, San Diego, California.
I was born January 7, 1925 in Ranchitos, Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mexico.
Lawful admission for permanent residence in the United States was at San Ysidro, California under the name of Lucian Lopez-Burgos on September 10, 1957."
GATES: You're looking at the moment that your grandfather declared his intention to become a citizen of the United States of America.
LOPEZ: That's awesome.
LOPEZ: That's very cool.
I love it.
GATES: And if you look at it closely again, you'll see that Luciano legally entered the United States on September 10, 1957, on foot.
Can you imagine?
He walked, that's crazy.
GATES: He was living in Tijuana at the time, so he likely crossed into the United States through, the California border town, San Ysidro, and by the time he swore his oath of allegiance he'd been living in the city for 12 years.
LOPEZ: Oh wow.
GATES: And you can see the photo he submitted with his application there on your left.
Does he look like the guy you remember?
I can't wait to show my dad.
GATES: Do you feel grateful to your grandfather?
If he hadn't tried so hard to immigrate, you, of course, might not be here.
LOPEZ: Of course.
No, I, I appreciate, and I just feel like going, uh, uh, down rabbit holes, just to kind of, uh, even learn more, and-and anxious to show the family, you know?
But it does, you know, makes you kind of proud.
GATES: We now wanted to see what we could learn about the history that Mario's family left behind when they immigrated.
Turning from Luciano to his wife, Mario's grandmother Alejandra Perez, we got more than we bargained for.
We were able to trace Alejandra's roots back four generations in one area: The Mexican state of Zacatecas, uncovering a baptismal record from the year 1817... LOPEZ: Wow.
GATES: Would you be kind enough to read the translated section?
LOPEZ: How'd you get that?
"Solemnly baptized a Spaniard of 7 days, Jose Prudenciano, born in Los Castañedas, legitimate son of Jose Maria Perez and Maria Gertrudis Bañuelos, GATES: Any idea what you're looking at?
LOPEZ: That my great-great-great-great- grandfather's birth certificate?
GATES: That is his baptismal record.
LOPEZ: Oh, and his baptism.
So, wait, why are they referring to him as a Spaniard?
GATES: Would you please turn the page?
LOPEZ: Not a Mexican, but a Spaniard.
They didn't list you as Mexican.
They either were Spaniard or Native?
GATES: Well, more complicated than that.
GATES: You ever seen one of these?
GATES: This is what was called a Casta painting.
GATES: Mario, it's a depiction of the racial designation system instituted by the Spanish in Colonial Mexico beginning in the 16th century.
LOPEZ: So, they would look at you and see where you fell into...?
GATES: Casta paintings may seem shocking to modern eyes, but they provide a revealing window onto the past, they were used to illustrate the many ostensible "racial" differences among colonial Mexicans, differences that were the essential components of an emerging social order in a land where Spanish, native, and African populations were mingling... GATES: This particular illustration shows and ranks subcategories within the caste system that were created as a result of intermarriage... Intermarriage also meaning just inter sexual relations, ranging from rape to actual, you know, love and marriage.
LOPEZ: Yeah, whoa.
GATES: And it produced a mixed-race population.
GATES: That was a lot more complicated than just someone who looked like they had been born in Madrid and someone who looked like they'd been born in Zacatecas.
GATES: So, the Casta System had 16 categories of racial mixture.
That means 16 shades of Blackness or brownness.
GATES: Isn't that crazy?
GATES: The three main categories were, one, Spaniards, like your third great-grandfather, Indios, who were the Indigenous people of the Americas... LOPEZ: Yeah.
GATES: And Negros, who were the Black people from Africa.
And you could see the various color mixtures.
GATES: it was such a crazy system, and they illustrated it so that you could, like, I could look at you, and I go, "Mario, you're in the, this caste."
I'd fall in about number five, right?
GATES: Isn't that?
LOPEZ: That's a trip.
GATES: It is horrible, man.
LOPEZ: And that was important why?
GATES: Because of racial purity.
LOPEZ: They just wanted to?
GATES: Caste was class.
GATES: A color was caste.
Who was on top, who was on bottom, just the nature of exploitation.
LOPEZ: Unbelievable, yeah.
GATES: Mario wondered how his ancestors had ended up within this system in the first place.
The answer would transport us back into some terrible history...
In 1546, Spanish explorers discovered silver ore in the mountains surrounding Zacatecas.
Soon, merchants and miners were flocking to the region, and they would need military force to subdue the native Americans who had lived there for centuries.
Mario's eleventh great-grandfather, a Spaniard named Baltasar Temiño de Bañuelos, was a part of that force... Baltasar likely arrived in Mexico as a teenager, and ended up serving, as a soldier of fortune in a brutal new economy.
So, you raise the forces, you go get the silver, subdue the Native Americans, you keep the money.
You know, it was kind of like that.
How did they raise the money?
GATES: This is the bad part.
GATES: Many used their personal funds, of course, supplemented by capturing and selling Indigenous people.
LOPEZ: So, the Indigenous people are, just get taken and they're?
GATES: They get taken and, yeah.
GATES: At the same time, Europe is quote-unquote "discovering" Africa and enslaving Africans and then bringing them over.
LOPEZ: Got it.
GATES: One of the reasons... LOPEZ: So, it was like almost simultaneous?
LOPEZ: Got it.
GATES: And it was all driven by... LOPEZ: Sure... GATES: I mean, it was a really ugly business.
LOPEZ: Yeah, I'd say.
GATES: Baltasar was involved in many "ugly" businesses, in addition to the military, he also ran silver mines, and owned at least two mills, as well as a silver ore refining plant.
And that wasn't all he owned... GATES: Your ancestor, I'm sorry to say, was one of the largest slaveholder's in Zacatecas, he owned between 20 to 40 Indigenous Native American enslaved people... LOPEZ: Damn.
GATES: And ten to 15 African enslaved people.
How does learning that make you feel?
LOPEZ: I'm kind of speechless.
I, I didn't, uh, obviously, I had no idea, but oh my god.
GATES: It was horrible, man.
LOPEZ: Can you imagine being born during that time?
GATES: Oh yeah.
LOPEZ: Oh my god.
Oh my god.
We're so, that's unbelievable.
GATES: No, imagine minding your business in Zacatecas, and you look up, and there are these white guys.
You go, "Hey, should we invite them to dinner?"
GATES: You're like no.
GATES: Baltasar died sometime around the year 1600, but his memory lived on.
When the Spanish crown recognized what would become the state of Zacatecas by granting it a coat of arms, the design featured a crowned female figure, flanked by the four men who were thought to be the founders of the original Spanish settlement.
One of the four, the man on the far left, is Mario's eleventh great-grandfather... GATES: What do you make of your ancestor?
I mean, he was not Abraham Lincoln.
I mean, you know, it's... That's oof.
It, I, it just...
It's, it's hard to kind of process all of it, and you know, there's no justifying it other than that, I mean, that just, it is what it was, right, during that time, and so, you know?
LOPEZ: It's, it's just awful to hear.
GATES: Oh, yeah.
LOPEZ: It's just so...
When you take it back, you're like, "Oh my god, what an, what an awful era in history."
GATES: An awful era.
LOPEZ: You know?
It's just like what an incredible, like, how did people, how did, how did, how did society just go about living?
It was just so ruthless.
Man, I'm just blessed to be born when I was.
GATES: Like Mario, Melissa Villaseñor came to me knowing that she had deep roots in Mexico but wondering how her ancestors had made the journey north.
On her father's side, our research soon focused on her great-grandmother, a woman named Mercedes Muro.
Mercedes was familiar to Melissa because she's the mother of her grandmother Carmen, who's been a constant, joyous presence in Melissa's life...
Yet Carmen never spoke about her mother...
In effect: Mercedes' story had been lost.
We set out to recover it...
Starting with a birth record from the year 1908... VILLASEÑOR: "In Aguascalientes, the fifth of October.
Mr. Leobardo Muro, married, 28 years old, farmer, presented a child born the 29th of the previous month given the name Maria Merced Muro, legitimate child of the appearing party and of Maria de la Torre, 20 years old."
GATES: This is the birth record of your great-grandmother Mercedes.
VILLASEÑOR: Oh, whoa.
GATES: That is Mercedes' birth record.
GATES: Isn't that cool?
GATES: From 1908.
What's it like to see that?
VILLASEÑOR: That's crazy.
(sighs) It's wild.
That's making me emotional.
GATES: This record indicates that Mercedes' father, Leobardo Muro, was a farmer and we believe that her mother, Maria de la Torre, came from a farming family as well.
We know little about their life together in Mexico, but it cannot have been easy...
Most farmers in their region ran small operations, leaving them at the mercy of fluctuating prices not to mention the vagaries of the weather, making each year a struggle simply to survive.
Sometime after 1910, the Muros decided to abandon this struggle and moved to El Paso, Texas, where wages were higher.
Tragically, they were soon confronted by a challenge even greater than the lack of money... VILLASEÑOR: "Full name, Maria de La Torre de Muro.
Date of death, June 17, 1914.
VILLASEÑOR: Oh, gosh.
GATES: That's a death record for Mercedes' mother, your great-great-grandmother Maria.
She died of cancer in El Paso when she was just 27 years old.
GATES: Your great-grandmother Mercedes was five years old when she lost her mother.
Did you have any idea?
GATES: Can you imagine?
VILLASEÑOR: Poor girl.
That's so sad.
GATES: Mercedes' troubles would soon be compounded.
In 1917, her father remarried and left her to be raised by her grandmother.
She wasn't even ten years old and effectively she'd lost both of her parents.
Many people would have been broken by the experience, but not Mercedes... We found her in the 1930 census for Arizona, starting a family with Melissa's great-grandfather, Jesus de la Torre, a railroad engineer...
Unfortunately, their happiness didn't last.
Arizona was hit hard by the great depression, and Mexican workers were often the first fired as employers battled to keep their businesses afloat.
By the early 1930s, Mercedes and Jesus had returned to Mexico, along with their three children.
Then tragedy struck yet again.
In November of 1934, Jesus was shot dead, after standing up for a friend at a party... VILLASEÑOR: "We were all in a good mood when Heriberto arrived.
He was wearing his gun in plain sight, stuck into his belt.
He started in on one of my friends trying to humiliate him.
That's when Jesus Maria stepped in.
Jesus Maria took three steps toward him, ready for a fistfight.
Heriberto surprised everyone by pulling out the gun and making the first shot at Jesus Maria's feet as a warning, but he didn't back off and when he took the next step, Jesus got a bullet to the thorax.
And when he buckled over, took two more in the back.
There was nothing that could be done."
GATES: How do you think your great-great-grandmother coped with so much loss in her life at that age with three kids?
VILLASEÑOR: I don't know, but I'd be, I'd be a mess.
GATES: Mercedes was 26 at the time of the murder.
Her youngest daughter Carmen, Melissa's grandmother, was just an infant.
It's difficult even to imagine how the family carried on, but it seems that carrying on was Mercedes specialty.
Mercedes would never remarry.
Instead, she'd focus her efforts on supporting her children, which, to her, meant leaving her homeland once more... VILLASEÑOR: "Mercedes Muro de la Torre.
Passage paid by self.
Purpose, reside permanently."
GATES: In 1947 when she was 38 years old, Mercedes decided to move permanently to the United States.
GATES: She settled in LA where her daughter Teresa lived and where we believe your grandmother Carmen was also living.
GATES: We think Mercedes brought Carmen into the United States sometime around 1944.
VILLASEÑOR: That's awesome.
I like seeing that.
GATES: Yeah, me too.
I've got something else cool to show you.
Please turn the page.
"Mercedes de La Torre was admitted as a citizen of the United States of America this seventh day of December in the year of our lord 1962."
Like, that, that was everything for them.
Like, for her to get this probably was like the biggest... GATES: Totally.
GATES: She became a citizen of the United States of America on December 7, 1962, 47 years after she first came to this country, VILLASEÑOR: Mmm.
GATES: And look at that photograph.
VILLASEÑOR: I know.
I feel like she's, like, giving a Mona Lisa-type smile where she wants to smile but she's trying to keep her excitement in.
GATES: In California, Mercedes found work as a nurse's assistant at a catholic hospital, and lived the rest of her life, surrounded by family, in Los Angeles... Learning her story drew Melissa closer to her grandmother Carmen, allowing her to appreciate that Carmen, too, had endured a great deal and had found a way to do more than simply survive.
VILLASEÑOR: I feel like with my grandma it's, she does anything for us, for us grand kids.
Like, she lets us have all the fun.
I don't know.
I feel like maybe giving extra love because of what she went through, saw her mom go through.
GATES: I'll bet.
GATES: What do you think all these people would have made of you?
VILLASEÑOR: First, I think they'd be like, "Oh, look at this loony."
But then, uh, but I hope they're all watching and being and proud and, um, know that I'm very grateful for them for carving such a great path for me.
GATES: We'd already traced Mario Lopez's paternal roots back five centuries, from southern California to Mexico to Spain, a progression that is not uncommon in Mexican American families.
Now, turning to Mario's mother's ancestry, we would find ourselves tracing a far more unusual journey.
It began in Mario's childhood home, with his great-grandmother, Soledad Alatorre, a beloved figure in his life... LOPEZ: She was awesome.
She used to, okay, so she had a little bedroom, uh, that she, I don't know where she kept her clothes, actually, because she took the closet and converted it into like a little store because she used to run a little store, I guess, back in Mexico.
And she used to sell candies and sodas and stuff outside of her window.
GATES: Oh yeah?
LOPEZ: Out of her chair, yeah, to all the kids in the neighborhood.
So, she was like a little businesswoman, and so... GATES: Oh, that's great.
GATES: Hey, come on, come on.
All the kids would just line up, and after school, they'd know, and so, she'd have, she'd have uh, you know, sodas or candy and all that.
I remember that specifically.
GATES: Oh, I think that's cool.
GATES: That's great.
That was great.
She was a little hustler.
GATES: Mario knew that Soledad had immigrated to the United States in the 1950s along with her son, Mario's grandfather Rafael, and he knew that the two came from Baja California Sur, the northernmost state in Mexico.
But beyond that, this part of Mario's family tree was a blank slate.
We began to fill it in, starting with a man named Salomé Trasviña, Rafael's father, and, for a time, Soledad's partner... LOPEZ: "In the City of La Paz, Salomé Trasviña, of 27 years of age, single, carpenter, native to this district, presented a child born the day 24th of last October, who he named Rafael Trasviña, first natural son he has had with his partner, Soledad Alatorre."
GATES: That's your grandfather's birth record.
GATES: And as you can see, Rafael was a natural child.
You know what a natural child is?
What is it?
GATES: Out of wedlock.
LOPEZ: Oh, so natural child means out of wedlock?
GATES: Salomé and Soledad were not married when he was born.
LOPEZ: Got it.
First, oh,that's a, that's a, that's a kind way to put it.
GATES: Yeah, a natural child.
LOPEZ: Oh, so they say natural child.
Has, is that a term used just in Mexico or all over?
No, all over.
There are, there are different euphemisms in different countries, at different times.
LOPEZ: Because they did say bastard at some point, right, which is much more harsh.
GATES: Yeah, but they wouldn't have probably put that on a legal document, right?
LOPEZ: Got it.
Well, never, never did I think they'd put wetback, either, but so... GATES: No, no, that's true, that's true.
But Salomé and uh Soledad weren't married when, uh, Rafael was born, and in fact, they eventually, they split up.
LOPEZ: Oh wow.
I had no idea.
GATES: As it turns out, when Salomé left Soledad, he erased an entire branch of Mario's family tree and, along with it, a fascinating story... That story begins in 1917, five years before Rafael's birth, with the arrival of a ship in the port of San Francisco... on board was Salomé, and he wasn't traveling alone... LOPEZ: "Salomé Trasviña, 22, carpenter, last permanent residence, La Paz, Mexico, Rodolfo Trasviña, 16, student, Leonor Trasviña, 21, student."
Who are those guys?
GATES: There's your great-grandfather, Salomé, landing in the United States with his younger siblings.
LOPEZ: Oh, those are his siblings?
GATES: Yes, Rodolfo and Leonor.
Did you have any idea that your great-grandfather had been to the United States?
That's so random.
How and why?
GATES: Your great... LOPEZ: And why didn't he stay?
When Salomé and his siblings arrived in San Francisco, the city was in need of skilled laborers, but there was likely another factor that had drawn them north: War.
In 1910, a revolution erupted in Mexico challenging the regime of dictator Porfirio Díaz.
The fighting intensified over the following years, as various factions battled for control.
At its height, the war stretched from coast to coast, and likely killed more than half a million people...
Many of them civilians.
The unrest triggered a mass migration, as about a quarter of a million Mexicans sought refuge in the United States... Mario's ancestors were among them.
Salomé traveled for nine days from La Paz to get to San Francisco, more than 1,000 miles.
GATES: According to a scholar we consulted, they likely traveled by ship to avoid danger throughout Mexico.
LOPEZ: Oh wow.
GATES: And they arrived in San Francisco well before most of the fighting ended in 1920.
LOPEZ: Got it.
GATES: So, did you ever think of your ancestors as refugees, fleeing a war?
GATES: But they did.
LOPEZ: That's kind of cool.
GATES: It is very cool.
It's not what we think of Mexican immigration, right?
In fact, I'm blown away.
GATES: We believe Salomé and his siblings were not just looking for work in San Francisco, but rather a safe place to settle, partly because soon after they arrived, they did something unusual: They sent for their parents.
Indeed, within a month, Mario's great-great-grandparents Epigmenio and Jesus Trasviña followed their children to the city and, to all appearances, started to put down roots... GATES: Ever see that picture before?
LOPEZ: Never in my life.
What am I looking at?
GATES: That is the Trasviña family.
LOPEZ: That's the Trasviñas?
That's your great-grandfather Salomé and his parents.
LOPEZ: Oh wow.
Oh my gosh.
I can tell, wow, this is, this is a trip.
This is so cool.
There's a dog there, even.
GATES: The Trasviña family may well have flourished in San Francisco, but their story was about to take another twist...
Within a decade, they would all be back in Mexico...
Driven, yet again, by forces beyond their control...
In 1918, a recession hit the United States.
The unemployment rate soared, and newcomers were hit especially hard... GATES: About 20% of the immigrants enumerated in the 1920 census subsequently lost their jobs.
LOPEZ: Got it.
GATES: So, meanwhile, Mexico, ironically, was in the midst of economic growth.
So, they went back.
You don't hear that often.
LOPEZ: You know?
Uh... GATES: No.
It's a one-way ticket.
And then and then, obviously, my grandfather came back.
LOPEZ: So, yeah, that's a trip.
GATES: Constructing your family tree, you have Spanish heritage that comes to Mexico 500 years ago, and then, they live in Mexico for 500 years, right?
GATES: Then they come to the United States.
So, what does being a Mexican American mean to you now?
LOPEZ: That's a good question.
I mean, I've always been proud of my roots and my ethnicity, and, and, uh, I don't think that that changes.
But I love the knowledge that I now have.
GATES: Oh, that's good.
LOPEZ: It's so incredibly cool to get all this history.
It makes me what to rush home and tell my family, which I'm going to do.
You know, I can't appreciate it enough.
And it makes me swell with even more pride.
GATES: We'd already traced Melissa Villaseñor's paternal roots back to her great-grandmother Mercedes, who spent decades crisscrossing the border between the United States and Mexico, enduring tumult and tragedy.
Now, following another line of her father's family, we came to an ancestor who made a very different kind of journey...
The story concerns Diego Ochoa Garibay, a man who died around the year 1620 in Zamora, a city in western Mexico... GATES: You have never heard of this guy.
GATES: You just met your 12th great-grandfather.
VILLASEÑOR: Geez... GATES: Your great-great-great-great-great- great-great-great-great-great- great-great-grandfather.
Did you ever in your wildest dreams think we could go back this far?
GATES: And look at that map on your left.
That is Zamora.
GATES: Melissa, your roots there go back at least 392 years.
VILLASEÑOR: This is, this is amazing.
GATES: According to records held by the Catholic church in Zamora, Melissa's 12th great-grandfather Diego came from a family of low-level nobility, a family that originally hailed from what was known as "the lordship of Biscay", which is now part of the Basque region of Spain... VILLASEÑOR: Basque Country.
That is where your Spanish ancestors, I mean, have you ever wondered where in Spain you came from?
GATES: That's where you come from.
VILLASEÑOR: I'm Basque, baby.
I, I want to shout it from the mountaintops.
GATES: Well, there are a lot of mountains up there too, to shout from.
VILLASEÑOR: That's so cool.
GATES: We know nothing about the circumstances of Diego's birth, but we have a very good idea of how he ended up in Zamora.
Just as we'd seen on Mario's family's tree, Melissa's ancestor came to conquer... Records place him in western Mexico around the year 1570.
At the time, of course, the land belonged to its indigenous owners, but their numbers were dropping precipitously as the Spanish engaged in what they called "pacification" a polite term for genocidal war.
It is estimated that over 6 million native people were living in Mexico in 1545...
But by 1570, more than half of them would be dead.
GATES: So... VILLASEÑOR: That's a lot of battles.
GATES: That's what "pacification" meant.
You know, brutal warfare against the Native Americans.
VILLASEÑOR: Oh, now I feel bad.
GATES: Guilt is not heritable.
What your ancestors did is not on you, but it's important to find out what they did, right?
GATES: Would you please turn the page?
GATES: Would you please read the translated section?
"Captain Diego Ochoa Garibay..." GATES: Mm-hmm.
VILLASEÑOR: "Who did render great and considerable services to his Majesty, subduing the Chichimeca..." GATES: Yeah.
VILLASEÑOR: "Indians, bringing them to the light of our Holy Faith, having a great many of them baptized and administering to them the Holy Sacraments, whose zeal was notorious, and among the many services Diego rendered at his own expense and at risk of his life was an occasion when the Chichimeca Indians, having robbed the Cathedral of Guadalajara and not left behind a single ornament or item of silver, he chased after them and recovered everything stolen from the said church with which action His Majesty was well pleased."
GATES: So, Spain was sending the Roman Catholic Church and conquistadors with guns and superior arms to claim this land for Spain because they had a lot of gold and silver.
GATES: They used as an excuse the fact that the Native Americans didn't believe in Christianity.
And they said, "Well, these are heathens, they're savages, so we're going to conquer them and Christianize them, we're going to civilize them."
GATES: But in civilizing them, quote-unquote... VILLASEÑOR: Meant kill.
GATES: It meant killing them, subduing them, converting them, taking them away from their traditional culture.
GATES: And their ownership of their own gold and silver mines.
VILLASEÑOR: That's a lot.
GATES: We believe that Melissa's 12th great-grandfather participated in what is known as the Chichimeca War, an intensely violent conflict that lasted for roughly 40 years and ended with Spain in control of much of north and west-central Mexico.
After the war, Diego settled in Zamora, where we uncovered another discomfiting detail about his life: A baptismal record for the son of a woman named Maria, who was one of Diego's African slaves... VILLASEÑOR: Ohhh... GATES: So, Diego is not only a conquistador, he was also a slave owner.
(groans and sighs).
GATES: Most Americans, I would say, don't know that lots of Africans were brought to Mexico by the Spanish in the slave trade.
GATES: And your twelfth great-grandfather owned a black woman named Maria.
GATES: Did you ever imagine?
GATES: Diego's life is sobering to contemplate, but he is by no means the only member of Melissa's family who lived through these awful years.
She has dozens of ancestors who witnessed the Spanish conquest, and not all of them were from Spain...
The evidence for this lies in Melissa's own chromosomes: We gave her an admixture test, which reveals a person's ancestry over approximately the last 500 years, broken down into percentages based on the broad regions where their ancestors lived... GATES: Can you read out your percentages?
Okay, 64% European.
VILLASEÑOR: 34% Indigenous Mexican.
GATES: How 'bout that?
You have a lot of Native American ancestry, Melissa.
VILLASEÑOR: Hell, yeah.
GATES: A lot.
GATES: You know, you are a third indigenous, a third Native American.
GATES: You ever think of yourself as an indigenous woman?
VILLASEÑOR: But, but I, I love that.
GATES: Melissa's DNA also revealed that she is 2% sub-Saharan African, reflecting yet another dimension of Mexico's complex past... And turning from her DNA to Mario's, we wondered if we would see the same level of diversity... We were not disappointed.
Mario is 56% European, 41% indigenous American, and 3% sub-Saharan African.
LOPEZ: Look at that!
GATES: So, your paper trail told us you descend from Spaniards who conquered, uh, Native Americans in Mexico.
GATES: And your DNA is telling us that you also descend from the people whom they conquered.
So, there was intermixing.
LOPEZ: So, they hooked up?
So, they hooked up.
GATES: Look, most of the conquistadors were men.
GATES: So, in any society, when there are a lot of men, they will take as wives... LOPEZ: Yeah.
GATES: First of all, there's, there's rape.
I don't want to romanticize this.
GATES: From war and conquest.
GATES: But there would be stable relationships, as well, between people of European descent and Native American women.
LOPEZ: Got it.
All this, it's, it's sort of mind-blowing actually.
GATES: We were now nearing the end of our journey with Mario and Melissa.
It was time to give them their full family trees... LOPEZ: This is the coolest thing ever.
This is the best gift ever.
Thank you so much.
GATES: Revealing how their roots, both in Mexico and in Spain, stretch back centuries... (sighs).
GATES: Melissa, this is your family tree.
VILLASEÑOR: Oh my gosh.
Oh, that's so cool.
I don't know why I'm in tears, but this is just, it's just crazy to see them all here.
This is, this has been a beautiful day.
GATES: That's the end of our search for the ancestors of Mario Lopez and Melissa Villaseñor.
Join me next time as we unlock the secrets of the past for new guests on another episode of "Finding Your Roots".