“The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess: Race, Religion, and DNA” by Jeff Wheelwright (W.W. Norton)

Review by Richard B. Edwards

This is a story of a real-life family – the Medinas. It takes place in the San Luis Valley of Colorado, on the northern border of Taos County, New Mexico where the family resides.

The central character is Shonnie Medina, born in 1970 to parents who are surnamed Medina and Martinez and who trace their ancestry to Spain and the admixture of Native American blood since the 16th century.

But Shonnie Medina discovers more about her heritage after witnessing the frequently recurring incidents of breast cancer in her isolated valley. Genetic counselors took note and subsequent DNA testing found that the gene  BRCA1.185 delAG was the culprit.

At the same time, it was determined that this very same gene was found to be  prevalent in Sephardic Jews. Many of those Jews had been expelled from Spain in 1492 or were victims of forced conversion by the Spanish Inquisition.

As a surprising result, Shonnie Medina’s family and other members of the San Luis  Valley Hispanic community discovered their Jewish heritage.

Because of this startling discovery, the last four centuries of traditional Roman Catholicism were upended for them. Understandably, many were left uncertain about their religious moorings. Some congregants in the valley left the church. There were those who embraced the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormonism.

Not incidentally, historic racial and cultural discrimination also play an important of this somber but fascinating story.

The author’s descriptions of the San Luis Valley are hauntingly beautiful, especially for those who have fly-fished that area.

Author Jeff Wheelwright is a science writer and editor.

Reviewer Richard B. Edwards is a longtime Albuquerque resident and polyglot.

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