The Big Reveal, Thoughts on The Social Life of DNA

I read Alondra Nelson’s powerful book in Buenos Aires, a pinnacle example of the use of DNA testing for political restitution, where I was surprised to read that the front-page news case of the adopted children of the Clarín newspaper owners was finally settled. Adopted during the height of Argentina’s political dictatorship, the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo had long insisted they be tested, suspecting they were one of the many children appropriated from disappeared families, the same process that had led to the discovery of over one hundred disappeared children. The grown adopted children, however, had vehemently refused the test, engaging in a long dispute that I was surprised to see announced as “settled.” After a battle that dragged on for over a decade, the forced DNA test had finally settled the issue: the Clarín children lacked linkages with living disappeared relatives and were thereby legitimately adopted by their parents. Yet I place “settled” in parenthesis because, as Alondra Nelson observes concerning DNA, while a lot may be revealed, little is ever settled.

This is because DNA is always about politics. The Clarín children’s case was all the more political because it evoked the similarly long struggle between Cristina Kirchner’s more socialist Peronist policies and Clarín, the newspaper most aligned with the country’s pro-capital right-wing elites. The fact that the judge’s “settlement” was announced a month into the Presidency of Mauricio Macri, the unabashedly pro-business, neoliberal new president-elect, was also very political. It represented a “win” for Clarín, and for Argentina’s right, and a devaluation of the political integrity and work of the “Madres de Plaza de Mayo,” which Cristina Kirchner had patronized and, some argued, exploited for political means. That the test was conducted by Banco Nacional de Datos Genéticos, the only institution carrying out genetic testing in the country, also raised many questions about the accuracy of the tests, and the intersection of DNA and contemporary politics.

It is these kinds of questions that are triggered by Nelson’s book, and, in relation to the Clarín children’s case, questions about those who don’t want to be found, tested, and revealed. In particular, I kept thinking about the implications of the popularization of a technology, that while limited and highly speculative, has become the ultimate “big data,” the ultimate truth. This to me is one of the most powerful issues raised by Nelson’s book – the way in which the popularization of DNA has made it almost impossible to evade questions of heritage – and the violence, terror, and racist past that almost always lies beneath such questions.

Ads for genealogy testing companies like promise the discovery of instant social communities. Viewers are urged, “Come find me,” “I clicked and there you were,” “Just one leaf will lead you,” while the website’s soft music and similarly softly colored background promote ease, harmony, and discovery, and an instant solution to loneliness and meaninglessness. But the fact is that few ancestry reveals will yield happy endings; one click could be the determining “big reveal.” This is perhaps why scores of Puerto Rican families, my mother included, refused to recall their ancestry to their children, leading generations to wonder “Y Tu Abuela, Dónde Está?” This popular reckoning of “where is your grandmother” was a vernacular response to a legacy of racist blanqueamiento policies and the ensuing cultural amnesia over matters of race on an island where everyone recalled their Spanish forebears, but never their Taino or African ones, and where many people forgot, because few could don “Spanish” forebears.

Nelson’s book brings these matters to the forefront, urging that the popularization of DNA testing cannot be analyzed in isolation of the social and political economic contexts that force histories to be covert, and populations historically displaced, whether through slavery, genocide, colonization or everyday forms of empire. Nor can the social impact of DNA be gauged without accounting for the ideologies of race, nation and empire – from blanqueamiento to mestizaje to contemporary pluralism – that forge cultural amnesia. In a similar manner, Nelson carefully establishes that the social life of DNA is always about politics, and its big reveal will always be similarly political: whether it is the terror of the disappeared, as in the Clarín children’s case in Argentina, or the politics of race in Puerto Rico and elsewhere across the Americas.

For sure, Nelson cautions us that DNA’s currency can lead to the racialization of culture, through the tendency to assign “racial” and cultural value to rediscovered bits of one’s heritage. I’m thinking here of a friend’s “DNA cousin” (an Irish born and raised women) who discovered her “musical rhythm” upon learning she had Puerto Rican ancestry. But readers of The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome will have a lot more to think about upon reading this book. Especially if we follow Nelson’s provocation to think about DNA matters in terms of today’s politics, exploring its different social uses and politics to uncover its multiple big reveals.


Arlene Dávila is Professor of Anthropology and American Studies at NYU.  She writes about Latino/Latin American studies and has published widely on matters of media, urban studies and comparative racial politics. Her latest book, El Mall: The Spatial and Class Politics of Shopping Malls in Latin America was published in early 2016 by University of California Press. 

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