Appeal tribune. (Silverton, Or.) 1999-current, February 16, 2022, Page 7, Image 7

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DNA testing helps
Salem man find his
biological father
Dianne Lugo
Salem Statesman Journal | USA TODAY NETWORK
evin Peña had reached a point in
his life where he accepted that the
odds of ever finding his biological
dad were slim. h A connection on
23andMe, an at-home DNA testing service, in
March changed everything. h Peña was born
in Guadalajara, Jalisco. His parents were very
young, just 18 and 19 when they met. By the
time his mother found out she was pregnant,
she had no way of contacting Peña’s biologi-
cal father. h He had no clues to help identify
his father.
Peña actively searched for him for years, asking
and doing anything to try and connect pieces that
didn’t exist. He interviewed his aunts to see if they
remembered anything about the man his mother had
met years ago like a school, a job, or if he had men-
tioned where he was going next. He searched
through schoolbooks to see if there was anyone that
resembled him.
“There was a point where I kind of thought, I’m
probably not going to find him and that’s OK,” he
Journey back to the United States
He spent his childhood in the United States,
raised in Albany and graduating from high school in
Scio. But Peña was unable to do what the rest of his
peers were doing after receiving their diplomas be-
cause he was undocumented.
Former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Ac-
tion for Childhood Arrivals, an immigration policy
that protects undocumented immigrants who ar-
rived in the United States as children from deporta-
tion, did not exist at the time. Without many op-
tions, Peña voluntarily left the country.
He first flew to Denmark where some family lived
and was accepted to a local university. In order to re-
ceive a student visa, the country required proof that
Pena would be able to sustain himself without need-
ing to work. He needed at least $25,000 in his bank
account, he said.
It was an impossible sum. He flew back to Mexico,
where he lived from 2009 to 2016.
Peña began working in casinos. The industry was
booming at the time because Mexican officials had
just begun granting live-game permits. Peña made a
lucky connection with an owner from Las Vegas. He
was quickly promoted to a rotating pit boss, manag-
ing pits in different casinos in Mexico.
Federal corruption put an end to the boom and
live-game permits were pulled, but another lucky
connection changed Peña’s career path.
He was hired to help in a political campaign for
Aristoteles Sandoval Diaz, a candidate for governor
in Jalisco. Diaz won and Peña continued his career in
politics, eventually being promoted to the second
assistant to the Governor.
“I felt comfortable enough to ask him for a letter of
recommendation to the U.S. consulate,” Peña said.
His applications for a tourist visa had already
been denied twice. With Diaz’s recommendation, his
third attempt was accepted.
In August of 2015, Peña surprised his mom, seeing
her in person for the first time in six years. He greet-
ed her at her job in Corvallis with six dozen roses in
his arms, a dozen for each year he’d been absent.
“She just freaks out,” he remembered.
Peña was still on a tourist visa and returned to
Mexico. He once again asked Diaz for help in return-
ing to the United States, this time permanently. With
his assistance, thousands of dollars he had saved
and an acceptance from Linn-Benton Community
College, Peña returned to the United States.
It was at LBCC that he met Brittany, his future
wife. The two married in 2017 and bought a house in
Salem in 2019, where they’ve lived since with their
son, Niko.
Final piece of the puzzle
Brittany was aware of Peña’s dream to meet his
It was the last piece of the puzzle in his life.
“We have a kid, I’m happy. We don’t need anything
in life, but if there’s a miracle out there, this is it, it’s
finding my dad,” he remembered telling her.
One birthday, his wife bought him an Ancestry-
.com DNA kit. In 2019, she bought him a 23andMe
kit. Peña matched with many other people but no
one had a direct connection.
Suddenly in March 2021, a woman named Marcela
Gomez Espana matched and reached out. The
23andMe DNA relatives feature suggested she was
likely his aunt.
Peña never messaged her back.
“For some reason, I thought she was from my
mom’s side of the family,” Peña admitted. “I thought
that my grandpa had had a fling and I had another
aunt out there.”
Marcela messaged him again in April and Peña, at
the urging of his wife, messaged her back.
Peña didn’t know it at the time but Marcela was
visiting her brother, Javier Gomez Espana, in Napa,
Calif., at the time. She began showing her brother’s
wife, Mary, pictures of Kevin.
“She told her, ‘Look at this guy I connected with on
23andMe. Who do you think he looks like?’” Peña
said. “They’re like, ‘Well…’ and call Javier over and
he’s like, ‘No way. No way.’”
Javier had not known Peña existed.
On Javier’s behalf, Mary sent a message to Peña
on Instagram on April 28.
“Hi Kevin, my name is Mary Gomez Espana. My
sister-in-law Marcela shared her 23andMe DNA re-
sults with her brother Javier, who is my husband,
Kevin Peña made a connection through 23andMe that lead him to his biological father. ABIGAIL DOLLINS /
Kevin Peña, right, talks with his biological father, Javier Gomez Espana, on FaceTime at Bush’s Pasture Park
on Tuesday. Peña had never known who his dad was until a connection was made last year through 23andMe.
and me yesterday. It is without a doubt that you are
closely related to both of them. Javier asked me to
reach out to you because he is unsure how to ap-
proach this and I must admit I too am a bit unsure as I
do not want to overstep or share anything with you
that you’re not looking for or do not want to know.
But we are quite sure we have figured out how you all
are related. Please let me know if you would like me
to share what we think or why and also take a look at
my Instagram page and feel free to follow me if you
would like and also Javier’s. He’s made his account
public today just in case you wanted to go look at it
without the obligation of following him but also feel
free to follow him and he will follow you back. He’s
also on Facebook, you can reply to me here or you can
call or text me anytime, or email.”
Peña immediately called her.
“Well, we think Javier, my husband, is your dad.
Have you had a chance to look at his Instagram?” he
remembers her saying.
Looking at their photos, it is undeniable the two
are related.
Javier and Peña spoke for over two hours that
Peña’s wife posted a video of their first time meet-
ing on Instagram. The video received more than
150,000 likes on Instagram. It was a surprise orga-
nized between Javier and Brittany.
The plan was originally to meet in California in
June on Javier’s 50th birthday. The date was six
weeks away. It was too much time for Javier.
“I have a son. I’ve gotta see him,” he told Brittany.
Peña rewatches the video frequently. He’s
amazed by all the comments and messages he has
received from people who have also found their fam-
ily through DNA testing or who are trying to.
Peña and his dad speak on the phone daily. Peña is
now one of five children, gaining two new siblings
from his dad’s side. Peña made Javier a grandfather
for the first time. He goes by ‘Peepaw.’
It’s “crazy” how natural everything feels, Peña
He spent Thanksgiving with his dad’s family and
is grateful for how easily his new brother and sister
accepted him into their lives.
His new sister, Eva, decided to attend the Univer-
sity of Oregon and Peña tries to visit frequently.
“Already, we’ve made so many memories and we
connected in such a beautiful way and it’s just that
missing piece,” he said. “You know, you finally find it
and I think it makes you whole in a way.”
He said he grew up looking in the mirror, always
looking for his roots and where he came from.
“There’s a lot of self-reflection that happens when
you look in the mirror,” he said.
But half of himself was a mystery.
“And when you find your dad or find the person
that was missing … you start understanding who you
are and why you are the way you are. And then for
him to look as much as he does to me or vice versa is
just super freaky because I feel like, it’s weird to say,
but I feel like I see myself in a different way in the
mirror now that I know my dad and now that I know
all that was missing,” he said.
Dianne Lugo is a reporter at the Statesman Jour-
nal covering equity and social justice. You can reach
her at, 503-936-4811
or on Twitter @DianneLugo.
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