Carmen: Everything Was A Lie

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Carmen Rita Wong always had a big family, but she never thought it was the kind to have big secrets. Yet by adulthood, multiple bombshells would drop and transform her entire understanding of her parents, her origins, and her identity. Carmen takes Stephanie on this wild ride of genealogy, earth-shattering discoveries, and what it ultimately means to her now, as a parent, to know just how much her own endured.

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To follow along with a transcript, go to shortly after the air date.



Carmen, Stephanie Wittels Wachs

Carmen  00:00

If we don’t want to feel or know that our parents are liars, we don’t want our worlds to be rocked. We don’t want someone to tell us Oh, your whole life up until this day giant lie. Oh, you know, we don’t want to lose our parents as awful as they can be. I didn’t want to lose my parents. I didn’t want to lose my heritage. I didn’t want to lose the whole story. I was right. It’s who I am. Like, it’s how could I? No one wants that.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  00:36

We all have a story we tell ourselves about who we are, like our ancestry, our race, our place of origin, our traditions. But Carmen Rita Wong, she realized one day that this story is sometimes just that a story and that ultimately, it’s on you to figure out what’s actually true.

Carmen  01:00

I could not believe what I was hearing.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  01:15

This is LAST DAY, a show about the moments that change us. I’m your host, Stephanie Wittels Wachs. Today, a story of shifting identity, one woman’s lifelong search to figure out who she is by understanding where she came from. Carme, Rita Wong has held many titles throughout her life. And the most recent one is author of a memoir, which is called Why didn’t you tell me that question? Why didn’t you tell me is primarily aimed at her mother, who was a complicated person, to say the least but one that Carmen thought she understood. As it turns out, there was way more beneath the surface secrets past lives and a lot of information that directly impacted Carmen’s understanding of her own identity. But before all that, before, Carmen’s mother was Carmen’s mother. She was a young woman named Guadalupe Lupe, two loved ones, and she had a life of her own.

Carmen  02:37

Guadalupe came here when she was 15. Not her of her own volition, of course, Willow, my grandfather, was a Dominican revolutionary and had to escape the country with a family and they landed an Uptown Manhattan. And she was the eldest daughter, and then had a sister brother. And it was a pretty brutal upbringing. Violence was a regular thing. Abuela was an alcoholic. My grandmother was a seamstress for Oscar de la Renta here as well as my mother because Oscar was a Dominican American and he brought into his studio, a lot of Dominican women who are fleeing for the revolution.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  03:24

From the start, there was only a very narrow path, Lupe could walk because as a young immigrant woman in the 1960s, she had very few options.

Carmen  03:35

She was a very smart person, like very intelligent, like this was a woman had she been born now or even my generation would have excelled like crazy, and she couldn’t do that she wasn’t given that choice. My grandfather married her off to help with the documentation for immigration. Do her and her sister off to Chinese gangsters. My Poppy was Poppy Wong as I call him. And that’s why I’m along. And she didn’t have a choice in that.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  04:11

Carmen grew up with these two very different characters as parents, Lupe, the young whip smart woman whose resources were limited, and Poppy, the older wealthier man who to an immigrant family opened up a whole world of opportunity. Together they had two kids, Carmen and her older brother Alex, but they were hardly a couple. There was little connection between Lupe and poppy Wong from the start, and they lead largely separate lives. Carmen says she and her brother would be shuttled around the city by Poppy Huang and big cars and they’d go to extravagant dinners in Chinatown. He led a mysterious life working mysterious jobs and he always made sure to pamper his kids. Then he dropped them off with Blue Bay were extended Emily was constantly coming and going and there was always homemade Dominican food on the table. And Carmen’s memories of this colorful, busy time, Lupe was like a ghost almost fading into the background as this life played out around her. Even if Carmen couldn’t put words to it, she could sense that her mom was yearning for something different, that she wanted more for herself.

Carmen  05:28

She was young, she was ambitious. She was going crazy, I’m sure. So let’s just say she had fun. And she ended up divorcing, Poppy, and remarrying Anglo American gentleman who was in graduate school at Columbia, which was in our neighborhood, Columbia University, and moved us to New Hampshire. And I can’t even explain to you Stephanie, what that was like, for Dominican Chinese children to move to New Hampshire, as I was in New Hampshire, in Dominican, back in the 70s, the late 70s. It was like being in a zoo, right? I was a zoo animal. So it was very much kind of performed for me, you know, oh, you speak Chinese? You know, say something to Chinese? Oh, you speak Spanish? Do you celebrate these holidays? Do you eat this? Or why is your hair like that? Or why? Why are your thigh so thick? Why are you? Why? Why? Why? You know, just constant questioning, staring. Exclusion. And of course, the world around us, like didn’t exactly reflect back on me that you know, that I was worth anything. So there was that. But you know, I tell a story. In the book about one of the first few weeks we first moved to New Hampshire. And my stepfather was trying to teach my mother Lupe how to drive. Because of course, we’re out in the middle of Southern New Hampshire, like he had to drive to get anywhere. And my brother and I were in the backseat because it was after work was after he got back from work and it was dark. And we get stopped by the cops on our street. And the cop says that the neighbors had reported Puerto Ricans casing the neighborhood. And my stepfather had to be like, you see that house down there? Yeah, that’s where we live. And he had to produce a license, you know, the license and the registration and prove that we live there and stuff. And I just remember being that little kid. I’ll never forget, like the flashlight thing is anybody else who’s also you know, weary of being stopped that flashlight man, that’ll just your life flashes before your eyes. And I was a little kid and I just and I didn’t even understand like, I was like, Well, we know Puerto we love Puerto Rico. What? Why is that bad? And it’s like, I had to have them explain. I asked the question Why Why is that bad? Like, are Puerto Ricans bad? You know? And then I was like, well, they’re not. That mean, Dominican is bad, but we’re not. And is that mean that living in this place? means people thinking we’re bad.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  08:04

Carmen and Alex never really talked to their mom about this. So they’re mostly on their own as they navigate this scary new world where they’re treated like a liability or criminals or worse. And then watch Lupe do the same. She puts her head down and just goes through the motions.

Carmen  08:25

She was doing what was very much the pressure then, which was absolute assimilation. So she saw that the way to make it in this country was education and assimilation. And she married this white man, and moved us to New Hampshire. And he built her house, you know, the American dream house. And she became this American domesticated housewife and had four more children. No Spanish in the house. No Spanish food, no Latin, no Chinese, no, nothing except everything was American. We’re Americans. That was it. She couldn’t wear her hair this the way she wanted to, which was natural, because we’re Afro Dominicans, so of African descent. She had textured hair. She couldn’t dress the way she did in the city, which was you know, I mean, it was stylish, but it was Dominican, you know. And education was paramount for us. That’s all she wanted. And she very much lived through my brother and I, and getting us to succeed. But it was like being a slug in a slow cooking pressure cooker. In that house. Oh, my gosh, she came through so much. It could have been a lot worse. I think I got very lucky. Yeah. as brutal as it was for me to that she passed us all down, and pretty incapable of loving and incapable of having a true relationship with me. And I only speak for myself by the way like I don’t speak for my siblings or and, you know, for me was it was tough, and she was tough, but I feel for her so much. Like, like my heart kind of hurts.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  09:55

Yeah. That kind of empathy is just It’s hard. It’s hard won. It’s hard earned hard won. It takes a lot of work to get to where you have gotten.

Carmen  10:06

A lot of work. I ain’t gonna lie. I wasn’t gonna lie. It took so much work because I was like, I’m so angry. I’m so angry. I was angry at her angry at the world angry at everybody. And angry because I hadn’t been loved.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  10:20

Yeah. When you say you weren’t loved? Yeah. What did you want? That you weren’t getting? Like when you envisioned what you wanted out of a mother, when you envisioned the way that you would want to be loved if you were painting the picture of it, like what was exactly missing?

Carmen  10:40

A couple important things that I hope many provide and or get, which is to be seen as a person. I was loved. When I achieved. I was loved when I was perfect. I was loved when I obeyed. I was loved when I did what I was told I was loved when and only when I say when I was I was loved. What I’m saying is I was allowed to exist without being yelled at or berated or whatever. I wasn’t allowed to cry. I wasn’t allowed to complain. I wasn’t I mean, it was my feelings and emotions weren’t my needs were not met at all and she was not for you know what people think is the stereotypical Latin mother she was not affectionate. She was not it was like hugging her. You know what I used to say with my siblings sometimes like hugging just it felt painful, so like prickling and hugging a porcupine.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  11:40

When then in this time to do start to notice the distance widening between you and your mom. I mean, it seems like there was more than just teenage angst like she was really going through her own turmoil as you reached preteen and teen years and she would take money from you and go through your drawers and what what was going on there? What was all that about?

Carmen  12:03

Control. Control no boundaries. What was mine was hers. She was terrified I was gonna get pregnant or get on drugs. I like she, she I was the vessel that she poured so much into because I really feel like she was trying to get me to have the life she couldn’t have.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  12:29

Over the years, Lupe attempts to pursue a career of her own. She tries things like selling Mary Kay Cosmetics from home but she doesn’t have the time or the resources to make it happen. So she’s quickly back to cooking, cleaning and disciplining her growing family. For the most part though, Lupis Iron Fist keeps her children’s lives on track. Carmen’s brother Alex graduates high school and goes to Georgetown. Carmen herself is getting great grades, even though the pressure is near unbearable. She also has these four younger siblings between her mom and her stepdad, Marty and she’s often stepping in as a de facto parent on top of work and school. What’s important to note is that for Carmen, work is a must. Marty had made clear that he wasn’t going to help Carmen or Alex pay for college since they were his stepkids. That was Poppy Wong’s job. And as Carmen approaches college to follow in her brother’s footsteps, poppies financial promise goes down the drain.

Carmen  13:33

So Poppy Wong was able to send money to help my brother education to pay for his education. But Poppy II got nabbed in a big takedown of a triad drug running organization. He got nabbed when I was 16. And there the money flow was gone for me. And so he was put away and I was left to my own to make it.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  14:04

It must have been a major shock. I get a sense that it all sort of started to fall into place once you found out but what was all of that like? And then of course, yeah, the education off the table suddenly.

Carmen  14:18

Yeah, well, I was gonna make sure that education was on the table. My mother and I were going to make sure but it was shocking, mostly because I was scared for my brother who had been picked up with him because my brother did not know what was in those boxes. Because my father’s front was costume jewelry. Like you see it like Macy’s and all that stuff, you know that? So he asked, he had that business and that was his front and that’s what my brother thought he was doing because the top of the boxes had that at the top. And so he got picked up and he just graduated from college first in the family to go to college and he went to Georgetown, like jolla paranoid like he was We were all so proud of him. So I was just terrified for him. And the first thing I said was like, how’s that looks? How’s he doing? See, okay, well, so he got out of it because the cops would realize he didn’t know anything about this. And once I realized that all I do is Panic was about the money, like, what was I going to do? How was I going to get through college like I had to go to college? Look, this was my father. This was my father, right. And my Chinese heritage too, like there was so much tied up in him.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  15:28

With Poppy in jail and Lupe holding her kids at arm’s length, Carmen has to really fend for herself. She goes away to college, and eventually moves back to New York, which she’d been dreaming of returning to. Sure, she has a ton of debt. But at least she has some freedom. She says that with this distance from her family, she starts thinking more critically about where she came from about her parents and herself. And she doesn’t like the thoughts that start to cross her mind.

Carmen  15:59

I think there was something about the fact that I didn’t feel I never felt that I belonged in that family. I always felt just way too different. And it started getting the feeling the gut feeling just started getting worse and worse, as the years went by. And I would say to my brother of like, you’re so much like Poppy. I’m kinda like, mom, but there’s something missing. Like, why don’t I have any puppy. And obviously, you look at me and you’re like fino typically, I don’t look Asian, however, and mixed families, you could come out all sorts of ways. So that was normal. In my house, my cousin was also Dominican Chinese, and she came out completely Asian. No one believes she’s Dominican. So this was a very common thing. So I never questioned really, but it was more so not only my face, but like who I am as a person. You know, our personalities, our likes or dislikes, or this that it just became too salient, but I was never what was I gonna do about it?

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  17:08

That’s interesting. You had a gut feeling?

Carmen  17:11

I just wasn’t I was just different. And not just different in the sense of like, living in New Hampshire. I’m different all the time, like, different. I felt very much in my soul that I was a very different person than the rest of the family. And I could not, it wouldn’t go away.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  17:28

Did you express that to anyone did? Did you talk to Alex about it? Or it was just an internal voice?

Carmen  17:35

I would say stuff to him. Like, so weird. Like, you’re so much like poppy. But that was it? Because Because guess what? We don’t want to feel or know that our parents are liars. We don’t want our worlds to be rocked. We don’t want someone to tell us. Oh, your whole life up until this day giant lie. Oh, you know, we don’t want to lose our parents as awful as they can be. I didn’t want to lose my parents. I didn’t want to lose my heritage. I didn’t want to lose the whole story. I was right. It’s who I am. Like, it’s how could I, no one wants that.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  18:32

We’re back. It is 2002 and Carmen is drifting away. But the past few years, she hasn’t been able to escape the feeling that she doesn’t belong in her family. Even if she can’t quite place where this feeling is coming from. There’s also a tremendous amount of distance between them at this point. Poppy Wong is still in jail. And it’s been years since Carmen has spoken to her mother. After moving out, she cut the relationship off as best she could to escape the relentless control and criticism. At this point, Lupe is also divorced Marty Carmen stepdad and the father of the youngest four kids. And then Carmen gets even more bad news.

Carmen  19:18

I was sitting in the back of a cab a yellow cab at night, having just got off the Amtrak from a business event in Boston. I was in the magazine business at that point, and I hadn’t spoken to my mother in about two years. Wow. And one of my sisters call me one of my sisters, the middle of the middle sisters who you know, we’re not as close so if she calls I pick up the phone right away because it’s like an emergency. And I said, What’s wrong? You know what’s wrong? Why are you calling me? I’m in the hospital with mom. And I just like what she’s like she’s got tumors all over her body. I said, What do you mean all over her body? They took off her clothes and you could see them all over. I had seen pictures of her, they said she was fine. My mother was very good at hiding, obviously. She had been piling on clothes, you know, on to kind of hide things. And she had also had gross on her heads that she had been pulling her hair back over them. And she didn’t tell anybody. She was sick. That’s another thing is that she never told us when something was happening, you know, she came home with a patch on one of her eyes. And we were like, What the hell? And she’s like, Oh, I had cataract, cataract, you know, stuff like that. That’s how she did she could show up with like, losing a limb. And she’d be like, oh, yeah, I just you know. So that was her. And that was the phone call. And that was that things really took a big turn from that night.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  20:56

Took a big turn, because in this moment of reconnection, some things start to come to the surface. You see, Carmen has played the role of parent before it’s natural to her. So she springs into action, making phone calls and appointments, just like she done for her siblings when she was way too young to be in charge. She just does it mostly from a distance this time. But it’s during this period of her mom being sick that Carmen stepdad, Marty reappears.

Carmen  21:28

What had happened was, is that my stepfather called me saying He urgently needed to see me now, we didn’t really have that kind of relationship. Or I could just be like, drive up. I was in the city. He was, you know, in New England, oh, I’m gonna drive up and relocate what what’s going on? Like, why? And he’s, you know, he’s the one who told me, which I always equated to, and whenever I say it, I cannot get the image of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker out of my head, because I was the biggest Star Wars fan. So he sits me down and just like Darth Vader, and Luke Skywalker, he says, I am your father. I could not believe what I was hearing. And the absolute soul gut punch was what the book like, Am I that means you all I thought about was my brother. Yeah, my brother and I were so close. We were the Wonder Twins. In you know, superhero lore. We were the one to twins. Even though we weren’t twins. We were that close. And for me not to be his full sister. I couldn’t even imagine it. And that was just huge gut punch. And I loved Papi, as messed up as he was. And he loved me. He claimed me as his daughter. Like, I never doubted that. And here was this man who I lived with, and, and called him dad, by the time I was six, I think because I so badly wanted to be part of the family. He was building with my mother and my little sisters. Here was this man, quite so wanted to be my father sitting there across the table telling me he was that whole time. Girl, you know, I was mad.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  23:16

I mean, the whole tears.

Carmen  23:20

The anguish, the absolute pain. I was just like you selfish sons of bitches.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  23:28

So you’re basically I mean, you’re told Poppy Juan, who you believed was your father? Your biological father? Yeah, in fact, is not your biological father. And that this new man, Marty, who you grew up with, who refused to support you financially, because you weren’t technically his child?

Carmen  23:50

Well, Lupe made him stick to that. But yes, he didn’t fire on it.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  23:55

Like, for a charade that your mom created and required everyone to uphold, you know?

Carmen  24:02

He was still an adult with his own freewill. So then, of course, I have to see my mother, I haven’t seen my mother in two years. And she’s sick, right. And I get updates through the phone through my siblings, right. And I’ve got two of my sisters who are close by her. So you know, I call this council of me two of my sisters, the youngest and the oldest, who I’m closest with, and my mother. And we sit down with her and I’m there to confront her first I see her and shockingly, as anyone who’s known who has had to deal with cancer, just how transformative it is physically. absolutely shocking to see her and hug her tiny, tiny frame. And we’re sitting at the table. And she’s like, Oh, I’m so happy. We’re crying. I’m so happy to see you will have blown we’re seeing the table and then I get serious and I’m just like so my body tells me something. I’m not Poppy’s kid

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  25:02

Lupe is stunned. She feels angry and betrayed by Marty. But she also realizes that she has to say something to satisfy her upset daughter. So she starts to fill in the gaps theatrically and with lots of twists and turns, says Carmen.

Carmen  25:20

She was married to Poppy and he was abusive, and he gambled away all the money, which is true and true, fine. And how you know, she met Marty. And you know, he was going to give her a whole new life but then she was pregnant with me, but still married and ashamed. But Marty central all these love letters. Oh, these love letters. But he wanted me aboard it, Marty. And that’s why she says she raised me as Poppy Hwang’s because Poppy when he discovered that she was pregnant, she couldn’t hide it anymore. He said, This one’s mine. This one’s mine. Don’t have an abortion, even though they were breaking up and whatever. He was just like, No, this was my I don’t have an abortion. This is my baby. This is my baby. But Marty had wanted me aborted. Even though he knew that it was his that was his. So that’s the story that she told me as to why I’m along. Why she never let Marty pay for anything for me why she never let him adopt me. So that’s the story. That’s the story. Another story she gave me.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  26:37

About two years after this revelation, Lupe dies from cancer. When she passes, Carmen is now without a mother. And papi is still incarcerated. The Carmen can at least say she has one parent in her life since she now has this gift of information, the story that Marty is her biological father. And how long were you able to carry that story with you until that house of cards fell down?

Carmen  27:12

I was 31. When I found out the you know this truth. And then the advent of DNA testing, which is now all storytellers, best friend or worst enemy. I was Oh, my goodness, I was in my 40s late 40s. So it was 16 years in between.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  27:33

16 years is a long time. Carmen and her brother Alex are in a totally different stage of life by now. By 2018. Alex is married with three kids. Carmen herself has been married and divorced. And she’s now raising a kid on her own. A teenage daughter named Bianca. Their families also live in separate states now. So they figure what better way to feel connected than to do 23 and me.

Carmen  28:01

Partially because of who we are as a family. So mixed, right? And I’m a science nerd, my brother’s a science nerd. And we decided to take this test. And one Christmas there was a sale. So being savvy financial people, we were like, let’s just let’s let’s all get tests. Let’s look at these tests. What fun people you never know, Pandora’s box. We took the tests, it said strange things. It said strange things. Things that we knew, like, for example, that we were a quarter African descent, then European. But mine didn’t say what Marty’s heritage was which was Italian. Mindset Spanish, Portuguese. And I was like, are Record scratch? Yeah. And then my brother was like, Well, maybe it’s like, I don’t know, maybe it’s sort of they’re all close to each other. My murmur. So my sis, I asked my sister to take it as well. And then we, it was just a few days a few weeks later, we were all on a zoom with my brother’s family. And we’re all on this zoom together. And we’re like, Okay, now, we can match up. Let’s see what happens when we connect each other because that’ll show our relationship. I expected to match up with my sister as full sibling. Right? That was the expectation for 16 years. And boop, you press that button. And it was all of a sudden, everyone was a half sibling. And my brother had just Oh, like all the air got sick. And then all the nieces, you know, they’re like they’re all teenagers. They’ve got like, what’s going on? What’s what’s going on? What’s going on? And they look at the screen because we’re sharing screens, and they’re like, What does it say? half siblings, half siblings all down the row. And we were just going oh, And then how and I couldn’t even breathe. And that was the day I found out that it wasn’t daddy number one. It wasn’t daddy number two, there was a daddy number three.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  30:25

We’re back. 16 years earlier, Carmen found out that Poppy Wong wasn’t her biological father. That was apparently her stepdad, Marty. Now, thanks to the innovation of DNA testing, she found out that her stepdad Marty isn’t her biological father, either. The big reveal that he was had been a big lie. Carmen’s mom is gone. The window has closed to ask her what the fuck this all means, or to get her to own up to lying twice or to, I don’t know, tell Carmen who her father is?

Carmen  31:05

A ghost, a complete ghost. Yeah, I don’t know who this person is. I know, you know, those tests get better over time. But at that period of time, I was not connected to anybody. Beyond a fourth cousin there was I hired genealogists, I professional genealogists. I did tons of research, I took my brother to visit family. I reconnected with my godmother, who I hadn’t spoken to, in decades, who had been my mother’s best friend who used to babysit me when I was a little kid to see what she would say. And of course, she was not reveal anything. I mean, she would tell stories. Again, I wish we had more stories. And then the dark thoughts came in. She was a young woman in these professional environments, was she raped? Was this coercion was this assault? Like, what was this? So that’s it left a lot of mysteries. But you know, look, I’m a former journalist. You know how we do? I’m a detective. I’m like, I am a detective. I can find anything. And, you know, but even that two years of that, I was stymied. Because in the end, it’s one of those things where if people are not alive to tell the stories, or they don’t want to, and they’ll take it to their grave, and they’ve kept those promises want to keep them. And there’s no digital trail. All you got to do is wait.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  32:39

So how did you finally get to it? Like after being stymied? How did you get a break in the case?

Carmen  32:45

Well, so this book, my first draft was handed in under contract because the point of the book isn’t to like, find, that wasn’t the point like, Oh, I found like, no, the point is, who was who was this person? My mother? Why the hell would somebody do something like this to somebody? And what does that say about this country and how it deals with women, and treats women and women of color and immigrants and all this sort of stuff. It had all these themes in it. So I was like this one hour, it’s about. But of course, I was frustrated. Of course, a few weeks after I handed in my first draft. I hadn’t opened up the DNA sites in months. And that was from a time when I was like, like Whack a Mole with my computer, refreshing my page multiple times a day. Yeah. Because I was like somebody, somebody take the test, somebody take the test, somebody take the test. And I had it for a few months. And I was like, You know what? Just let me just hit refresh. And there she popped up. My niece.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  33:59

Her niece, as in the daughter of another sibling, a new sibling one she didn’t know yet, but once she shared with her actual biological father.

Carmen  34:11

I could not believe it. I just in my heart would die and I scream from the other room like I was in in my my daughter was in the other room and his middle summer, we were kind of relaxing August and she was on break, and it was and I was like back oh my god. And she was just like, why? She couldn’t even understand but it hurt. She had such whiplash. Trust me. That girl went right back to her video game. She was like, okay, Mom, let me know when something. Let me know when somebody shows up, you know. And I called my sister in law, because the sad thing was, is that it was too late to tell my brother. My brother had passed away. So he wasn’t there for the big reveal. He helped me try to find him. He was diagnosed with non smoking lung cancer, it was a genetic cancer actually an Asian gene that they have discovered, that kind of a switch just flips, and you got it. And there’s very, very low survival rate. And they caught it too late. And he was only 53. So just a year older than I am now. But my sister in law are very close. So she’s my big sister. So I called her right away. And I drafted up in a note to this person this nice. And of course, was like, I know, you’re probably not expecting to see me, just as I wasn’t expecting to see you. But here we are. And you may not want to talk to me, you may not want a relationship with me. But I want to let you know that I’ve been looking, and I have a book coming out. So just wanna let you know, she responded within an hour. Wow. And but she responded with? Yes, I’m your niece. My mother knows about you. Your father’s not here, he passed away. And I gave her your information to contact now when I read the words that he had passed away. It was a death. It was a death. I cried for 24 straight hours. I lost the father I found a father I lost a father. The fact that I never I found him but I never got to know him. Even though I’ve come to find out he wasn’t exactly a nice person either. But he did live right up the street. From where we lived in the city. Wow. And my sister knew about me she was told when she was 21 years old, she was told that there was a sister out there.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  36:55

And did she want to have any sort of relationship with you? Or did you?

Carmen  37:00

She did but they did not want to he refused to tell her and then said that they didn’t know where I was. They didn’t know who I was or where I was. So she had no real way of finding me either. But she had been waiting.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  37:13

So did you reconnect with her, eventually?

Carmen  37:15

Yes, I did. The second phone call I made was to my publisher and my editor who I adore and I was like Malika I’m so I have to write an epilogue. Can you give me a month like because I gotta meet this person? I gotta write it epilogue.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  37:37

So Carmen meets this half sister, this sibling she shares with her late mystery father. She learns that he was one of 11 kids all from the Canary Islands off the coast of Morocco. That’s where the Spanish Portuguese lineage comes in. He was short and bearded and looked so much like Marty that it probably wasn’t hard to pretend Marty was Carmen’s father once that became the whole ruse. This man had had an affair with Lupe outside of his marriage, just like Lupe had done with hers. He’d worked at a seminary just up the street in Manhattan. He’d smoked a pack and a half a day. And he died from emphysema. A whole human being full of mistakes and infidelity and history and half of Carmen’s jeans just gone, lost to time. How do you think about identity today? Like after you’ve done all this work, and you’ve written all of these pages, and you’ve gone to all this therapy and the identity piece was something that was so missed, so So mismatched for you growing up and you feeling like you didn’t belong or fit in? And how do you think about identity today after all of this the end of this story?

Carmen  39:01

I definitely have always felt Latina. That’s never changed at all. That’s that’s a constant in my life that does not go away. And I’ve always hold Afro Latina. Like I’ve known I’m of African descent. I know I’m a black woman too. I think people will always tell me what they think I look like what they think I sound like what they think I should be. I don’t pay attention anymore. Because I it’s not like I’m not like Rachel Dausa like you don’t see me up here who you know, pretending to be anything. But you don’t erase 31 years of being Chinese. And I don’t erase the fact that that was my father. That’s not going away. So when people say Oh, but you found out you were blank. Well, but that doesn’t erase what I was raised as I think that when it comes to identity is that the sad part about the conversation about identity in this country is it is it is so full guest on phenotype, this the expression the outward expression of your genes which you have no control over. And there’s so little understanding of how complicated that can be. Also the fact that, for example, my daughter presents as white. But she considers herself very much a Latina. But she also speaks Mandarin. She said six years of Mandarin and spoke to her Chinese grandfather, and he was in her life. So what does that make her? Right? And her cousins are all black. And they’re like, sisters. So what does that make her? So I think that the conversation unfortunately, I can’t give you sound bites on it. i What is what I think of identity. Now, it’s as complicated as it’s been since the day I was born. And they moved me to New Hampshire. And I came smack in the face with the fact that this country talks about race a lot. And it matters a lot. And it determines much too much of your life. Because it has been something I’ve had to wrangle with my whole life, not just on who my father was. But in my professional, even just walking out the door, I haven’t been able to stop, I can’t stop thinking about identity, because it hits me in the face when I walk out of my Tribeca apartment. When the neighbor new neighbor across the hall asked me, what do you do? AKA, what are you doing in this building? Identity is something we need to talk about if we want to, and talk about it deeply. Because we have complicated families, as we all kind of been finding out.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  41:38

You know, it’s funny, because we were joking about like you cracking the case. But really, like you said, this, this book is about the cases your mother, right, like that’s what you’re trying to make sense of with the book and, and how her motivations for making the choices that she made, and to have an affair to create a false narrative about it. You say it in the book that she kept an enforced a lie, right? And I’m curious about what you’ve squared away in the writing of this and the therapy you’ve done? And what are the things that you have taken away about why your mother did what she did?

Carmen  42:19

Well, I did crack the case, because what I was doing initially, the first seeds of the book was, you know, 20 odd years ago, and what I was doing was trying to crack myself, I was trying to figure out who I was and why it was and how i Wow, can I can be better, a better person and hurt less. And in that I had to figure out who my mother was. Because understanding who she was, is an explanation. It means I am lovable. Girl, don’t make me cry, um, to figure out who she was to explain why she didn’t mother me as she should have, and be honest and truthful with me. To figure that out, means I’m okay. So I had to do that. And that’s what I did. And the pride I have in the book is figuring that out and seeing her and I tell people, people say, Oh, will you forgiven her? No, I have not forgiven her. Forgiveness for me, I need an apology. And I need an acknowledgement of the pain you have caused. And guess what none of the adults in my life have done that. Marty hasn’t. So our relationship is, I don’t know if it’s beyond repair, but it’s not there. And my mother, I gave her a couple of opportunities before she passed, and she didn’t. But now I understand why. I understand why my mother was the odds are so against her, it was quite obscene. The other thing is understanding that and the response I’ve been getting by telling her stories just been tremendous, especially by a lot of kids with immigrant parents or, you know, parents who have struggled so dramatically with violence or you know, poverty. And all of that is you know, as a once you’re that generation, who’s grown up, you can say, I get you remember how I said it’s like, I want someone to see me. I can look at her and I can say I mean I forgive you, but I see you. I see you and that means I love you. Like truly love you ma.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  44:52

Some full circle shit right there.

Carmen  44:54

Right? And the thing is, too is that what was such my biggest catalyst for continuing to You kind of discover myself or be curious about myself, as my therapist would say, is to be a better mother to my daughter. Because I swore that when I had kids, and of course, you know, all the, all the kids like grow up and go, when I’m a parent, I’m not gonna be anything like you. When I’m a parent, I’m going to, I was like, I cannot put my child through this. So I better fix myself. I want her to feel loved. I want her to feel seen. I couldn’t give her a father that I wish I could have given her. But I gave her room and space to be herself. I keep trying.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  45:42

That’s, I mean, that was what I was going to ask you is like, having a daughter in the shadow of a very complex relationship with your own mother. Yeah. You know, it must come into play in so many ways.

Carmen  45:58

I was scared. I was so scared. Stephanie. I wanted a boy so bad. Oh, because I was terrified of being a mother to a daughter. Yeah. And then when I found out that she was going to be a girl, and she was I had so much relief, because I mothered my four little sisters. I mean, I kind of sort of fucked that up. But I was a kid. But at least I know how to take care of girls. So like, at least I know. And now I realized, like, just what a gift it has been to have. But I wanted to just make sure that we did not have that relationship that I had with my mother. I want my kid to respect me, but I respect her. Yeah. And we are still very close, because of course COVID And she’s had long COVID for years. She’s gotten much better. But she had a lot of damage from the virus. So she ended up having to depend on me. Like, baby again for two years. And now she’s doing great. And she’s like, You know what, my, the silver lining? She’s like, I hate to say it, but the silver lining is our relationship. Wow. You know, we’re close.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  47:14

Yeah, I mean, and I think one of the most profound and sad things that I heard you say today was how hugging your own mother felt like porcupine like felt, you know, and I’m, do you hug your daughter? Do you? Are you kidding? Like, yeah.

Carmen  47:30

I still eat her arms like you don’t you take baby arms […] I’m like, I’ll still do that. Not in public. But I’ll still do that. She’s like, my, oh my god, stop. Let me tell you this girl knows she is adored and loved. And and, yes, there’s discipline and there also that but you know what? I don’t even have to do that that much. No, that’s right. She has when your kid knows that they are loved like she has. Of course she’s got issues because her dad’s not here, of course. But she knows. I’m there. And we we just went on a vacation together. And just so much fun. You know? Yeah, we did the beach and the pool and all that stuff. But you know, we read books to get by, you know, side by side. Like a couple nerds. We are. You know, every night after we went out to dinner, we watched Doctor Who like you know, just, there’s nothing like it. So that is the beauty. I think of anyone who has a difficult relationship with their, you know, with their parents or wanting to be a better parent. It’s like, instead of just looking down like towards the next generation, a lot of is just examine what’s come before you Yeah. And hopefully we can make changes and hopefully it gets better.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  48:56

There’s even more LAST with Apple premium subscribers get exclusive access to content like behind the scenes chats with the producers of the show, diving deeper into episodes. Sign up now on Apple podcasts. LAST DAY is a production of Lemonada Media. The show is produced by Kegan Zema, Aria Bracci, and Tiffany Bui. Our engineer is Brian Castillo. Music is by Hannis Brown. Steve Nelson is our Vice President of weekly content and production and Jackie Danziger is our Vice President of narrative content and production. Executive Producers are Jessica Cordova Kramer and me Stephanie Wittels Wachs. If you’d like what you heard today, we have three other seasons that you can check out. Have a story you’d like to share, head to, or click the link in the show notes to fill out our confidential Google Form. follow and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts or listen ad free on Amazon music with your Prime membership. You can find us online at @LemonadaMedia and you can find me at @WittelStephanie. Thank you for listening, we will see you next week.


love books and I love audio. That is why I am so excited that limonada media and Apple books have teamed up to create the limonada book club, a first of its kind audio book club. This month’s book of the month selection is a juicy one it is thicker than water by the one and only Kerry Washington. In this intimate memoir Carrie details her journey to stardom through challenges and trauma. Along the way she discovers her truest self and with it a deeper sense of belonging. You can listen to a sample of Kerry’s book and get copies of all of our other limonada book club selections by heading over to Apple books or using the link provided in this episode Description.

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