Actor Danny Trejo grew up without a mother for most of his childhood, so he never knew much about her side of the family. And what he knew about his father’s side of the family didn’t give him much hope for his future.
So when the actor made a surprising discovery about his family’s ancestry on the Jan. 23 episode of PBS’s “Finding Your Roots,” he couldn’t help but wonder how it might have affected his life’s trajectory.
Speaking to host Henry Louis Gates Jr., the 78-year-old says he grew up in Los Angeles surrounded by what he describes as toxic machismo. As a child, he felt that his career options were quite limited.
“The biggest problem I had growing up was that in my family all the men did some kind of construction work, and they were always complaining about their work. And they were always angry,” he tells the show’s host, Henry Louis Gates Jr.
The actor, who was never close to his father, instantly felt a kinship with one of his uncles.
“My uncle Gilbert, who was, for lack of a better word, a drug dealer, he never complained, so I was kind of drawn to that,” Trejo says.
At the age of 7, the future actor was dealing drugs. At 12, he used heroin and committed robbery as a member of a gang. Gilbert died young and Trejo could have easily followed the same path if he had continued his life of crime.
But after a decade in and out of prison, he sobered up and embarked on an acting career, thanks to an unlikely visit to a Hollywood set where he spotted a casting agent.
Speaking to Gates, Trejo says he doesn’t know much about his family’s roots, other than their ancestry. With the help of Gates, he finds out that his great-grandfather Cirilo Garay moved to America in 1918 with his family.
Garay worked on a farm in Texas for low wages under harsh living conditions. Trejo says he never knew this piece of family history and calls the revelation “heavy.” But Garay’s story continues: Two years later, Garay resettled in San Antonio, Texas, and his wife died. By 1930 he had remarried and owned both a home and a grocery store.
Trejo says he feels “proud” to hear the news and takes a moment to express his gratitude to his ancestor.
“Thank you for giving us all a chance,” he says. “I know a lot of people who fell in the road just to get to California, so (our family) had a head start.”
But that’s not the biggest piece of family history the actor discovers during his session with Gates.
Next, the actor learns about his mother’s side of the family and discovers that his maternal grandmother, Josefa Garcia, came to the United States from Mexico in 1904 and eventually became a citizen.
“It’s just amazing. I have history!” he says.
Josefa Garcia was born on a ranch in San José del Cabo, what is now a tourist beach region in Mexico’s Baja California region. Her family ended up in the area after Trejo’s fourth great-grandfather, Luciano Agundez, was granted a large amount of land — 4,337 acres, to be exact. Agundez started his own ranch. “He was a serious landowner,” Gates says.
Hearing the news of his family’s landowning past brings joy to the actor.
“I’m just overwhelmed. You have to understand, growing up, I had three alternatives. I could either be a worker or a gangster or an informant,” he says. “So to learn this, I honestly think I think this story could have changed my whole family’s life.”
Trejo, who has always loved Cabo as a vacation spot, can’t help but wonder that he’s always had ancestors from the place. “Just knowing when I went down to Cabo San Lucas, my family owned some of that country…” he says.
After reflecting on his “Finding your roots” experience, the 78-year-old says he feels proud.
“I think it’s shed a light on who I am, where I’m from and who I’m coming from,” he says. “I’m really proud of the whole deal.”