Aaron Salles Torres is an administrator for the I-M253, I-M223, and the Iberian I1 haplogroup projects as well as the Gonzalez DNA Surname Project and the BEMIS Y-Chromosome DNA Surname Project at Family Tree DNA. An avid genealogist, he is also a TV director, author, and animal rights advocate.

Aaron Salles Torres

Aaron Salles Torres

Question: Please tell me about yourself. What do you do for a living?

Answer: I am a Brazilian writer and Film/TV/Advertising director based in Rio de Janeiro. I hold a BFA in Film, Video and New Media from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an MBA in Integrated Marketing Communications from Loyola University Chicago. I lived in Chicago for 10 years and have been back in Brazil since 2011. Here I co-direct a sitcom called Vai que Cola, which is the most watched show in the history of Brazilian cable TV. I also serve as a writing coördinator for the show and I’m the author of two published novels.

Question: What are your other hobbies and interests apart from genealogy?

Answer: For me, it’s hard to differentiate between my work and fun. I think that most of us who work with fiction, especially in the Film/TV industry, are children that have never fully grown up. So it’s not only work; it’s also play. Writing and directing to me are fun.

Music is another passion of mine, and I have over 6,000 songs on my iPhone. My broad taste in music has influenced the appeal of the show, where we play with references to popular culture all the time, from the most well-known to the most obscure performers of all music genres.

I’m also an avid people watcher and love the movies, but those are almost my job requirements. I enjoy history, languages, architecture, doing research, traveling, and nature. I’ve also always been an environmentalist and human and animal rights activist. I have done volunteer work with animals ever since I was a child.

Fitness is a way of life – every other day you’ll see me running late at night from the beginning of Leblon beach to the end of Ipanema, and back. It is about 5 miles. I have music playing in my headphones the entire time. Unless it’s so late and quiet out, all I can hear is the waves. That’s how I get fresh oxygen in my brain and clear my mind.

Question: What brought you to genealogy? What is your favorite part?

Answer: My paternal grandfather’s side of the family has always been veiled in mystery. When I was 15 years old and my grandfather was deathly ill –he was only 75, but a smoker– I interviewed him about his origins and took all the notes I could. He told me some things I didn’t yet know, but mostly I remember being surprised at how little he knew about his own background.

In 1930, my grandfather was only 6 years old when Brazil was overtaken by a coup d’état, and his father was one of the leaders of the resistance against the coup in the northeastern city of Alagoinhas, Bahia. It was one of the largest resistances in Brazil. There, around 1,500 men took up arms and fought against the Brazilian army. They surrounded the city with over 6,500 soldiers armed with heavy weaponry. Eventually, the army invaded the city, and the loyalists led by my great-grandfather lost.

My great-grandfather’s house was burned to the ground and he had to flee in the middle of the night with his two children –my grandfather, aged 6 and his brother, aged 7. During the confusion, they even lost sight of my great-grandmother –she would only find her children 55 years later and saw them again just a few months before she passed away.

In 1932, then living in the city of Bauru, São Paulo, just two years after leading the loyalists, my great-grandfather died of depression-related pneumonia. That left my grandfather and his brother under the care of friends. As a result, my grandfather never knew much about his family –he had to have a second birth certificate produced, which didn’t even mention the name of his grandparents, as they were unknown to him.

For ten years, I paid researchers to comb through all sorts of registries from the city of Alagoinhas and Bahia state looking for documents related to my grandfather and his family, with no success. By then, I was living in the US. I spent tireless hours at a nearby Family History Center looking at church and notary records, also to no avail: all documents relating to my family had been purposefully burned or destroyed. Finally, I learned of genetic genealogy, and decided to give it a try to find my grandfather’s missing family. I tested myself, as I represent my great-grandfather’s direct male line. It turned out that my haplogroup/haplotype combination was pretty rare, and I had no close matches.

However, a few weeks after my DNA results were posted, a researcher that was working for me in the capital city of Salvador, Bahia, discovered the intestacy of a cousin of my great-grandfather’s, who was a lawyer in Salvador and had died with no heirs. The intestacy process had been made possible with the help of my great-grandfather and his brother. They had written to their aunts in Portugal requesting all sorts of records proving their connection to the dead lawyer. My great-great-great-aunts were very organized and provided over a century’s worth of family documents. And so, with those documents and with the skills I had gathered looking at family history records for so long, I was able to uncover 300 years of my great-grandfather’s genealogy in a little over a week. I was so excited.

A couple of months later, I had a paper trail of his direct male line dating back to the mid 1400’s in Mariz, Braga, where my oldest known direct male ancestor, Rui Dias, was the administrator of the estate the Catholic Church in northern Portugal. One of the early inhabitants of the town had been Afonso Nunes de Mariz, a direct male line descendant of Robert de Montgomery and so of his father Roger de Montgomery, from Normandy. Roger de Montgomery’s other son was one of William the Conqueror’s principal counselors. Throughout the centuries, my family changed its surname a few times as alliances and marriages affected the equilibrium of power and wealth, until they adopted Torres, after a tower they inhabited for generations in Braga, Portugal.

Less than a year after I solved my paternal grandfather’s family puzzle, I was also involved in the research for a book commissioned by the Brazilian Institute of History and Geography about my mother’s side of the family, the Garcia Leal, for their historical role in developing the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. The “bandeirantes,” as those pioneers were called, arrived in Brazil starting in the 1500’s and were Protestants, Jews and not-so-affluent Catholics from France, Belgium, Spain and Portugal who made their new home in São Paulo. They used that city as a hub to colonize western Brazil (They were also annihilated many Native American tribes.). These descendants of Raposo Tavares, Fernão Dias and the Borba Gato’s, among others, now represent some of the oldest families in Brazil, and are called the four hundred year-old families (now five hundred years old). The Garcia Leal family, to which my maternal great-grandmother belonged, broke new ground in the states of Minas Gerais and Goiás, in addition to Mato Grosso do Sul.

I always think of myself as a sum of the pieces of each of my ancestors. So for me, genealogy is about understanding where each piece of me was at a certain point in history. It’s an existential search for references that I can use in my present life.

Question: How did you become involved in genetic genealogy?

Answer: Once I got tested at Family Tree DNA in 2009, I was hooked on genetic genealogy. Even though my first and most important developments were made with the use of traditional genealogy and paper trail documentation, I was thrilled to play a part in an expanding field where people of diverse backgrounds like me were able to make real scientific discoveries. I have also made some great friends across the globe and was happy to see how common scientific goals can fill in generational gaps –when I started, I was 25 years old– working with many older genealogists. But the boldness and impatience of my young age allowed me to communicate a sense of urgency to my wiser colleagues, so we could join forces to sponsor broader research and make more discoveries faster.

As such, through the various projects I manage, I was an early enthusiast of the Walk the Y (WTY) and Big Y programs, among others. I have specifically focused on the I1 (I1-Z58 and I1-Z63) and old I2b1 (I-M223) haplogroups, as both my grandfathers happened to be I1 and a great-great-uncle was I-M223. I also devoted some work to the R1b haplogroup, to which other ancestral lines belong. I was amazed to see how the haplogroup trees grew exponentially fast with some strong teamwork, crowdfunding, and serious dedication. I am proud to have been involved in some of the most successful crowdfunding campaigns in the field of genetic genealogy and we have benefited the community as a whole, as well as generations of researchers to come.

So much of what we do is useful not only to genealogy, but also to genetics. Because of genetic genealogy, our knowledge of Y DNA and mt DNA is light years away from where it would have been if we were to rely solely on public institutions and academia. We have made a real impact.

In the end, understanding that I was contributing to creation greater knowledge for humanity was key to my long-term involvement in genetic genealogy. I probably would not have been so committed for such a long time, and would not have had such a pleasurable experience if what I were doing was useful to my immediate family only. That is not to say that I haven’t made serious advances in my knowledge of my own ancestral lines, both male and female.

Question: The need for consumer genetic testing standards has been a topic for years now. To what extent do you think government regulation is needed? Do you feel that the responsibility for consumer education lies with the testing companies, the citizen science community, or the consumer?

Answer: I do not believe in government interference in private matters. If one is willing to take any kind of test, the person should inform him or herself and be responsible for that choice, as well as be ready for what the results could bring.

Question: What DNA tests have you taken?

Answer: I have taken all Y-DNA, mt-DNA and at-DNA tests available commercially.

Question: Have you tested your family?

Answer: After I tested myself, my second step was to test my parents. I also tested my surviving paternal grandmother and a maternal uncle who represents my maternal grandfather’s line. I then tested a paternal great-great-uncle who was 93 at the time, as well as the remaining direct-line descendants of all 8 of my great-great-grandparents. I proceeded to identify and test remaining direct descendants of 13 of my 16 great-great-great-grandparents including a 102 year-old cousin of my great-great-grandmother, and additional direct-line representatives of a couple generations above that, which represented brick walls to my traditional research.

Finally, I have tested my two brothers and I am in the process of comparing their Y-DNA results to my father’s and mine, in an experiment to understand what changes can happen in one generation of three siblings. I may eventually test my father’s brothers as well so as to have two generations of siblings for comparison.

Question: Have your or your family’s test results ever been a surprise?

Answer: Quite to the contrary, in all of my ancestral lines tested, the results have supported oral family traditions. In that aspect, it’s very interesting to see how accurate oral family history can be.

I have two good examples. One is the oral history about my paternal great-grandfather’s line. I was told, since I was a little kid, that his family came from a wine-producing region in Portugal. And in fact, both the DNA results and the paper trail I uncovered pointed to the Northern region of Portugal by the Cávado River, known for its production of Vinho Verde (Green Wine).

The second example regards one of my Jewish ancestral lines. My paternal grandmother always told me of Jewish ancestry on her mother’s side of the family. Indeed, her maternal grandfather’s line has Jewish origins as proved by Y-DNA results.

I am sometimes amazed by how old this oral family history is and by how individuals in a family are able to keep history alive simply by telling it to their descendants for hundreds of years…

Question: Has genetic genealogy helped you break through any of your brick walls or solve a family mystery?

Answer: Up until now, genetic genealogy has only supported the paper trail that I have. Both in Portugal and in Brazil, DNA testing is still not so widespread so as to allow one to solve mysteries. But all of my lines’ results are public and available, waiting for individuals that have yet to get tested. As I have a lot of documented information, I am more likely to help them solve their mysteries than the opposite.

One mystery I have yet to solve regards my maternal grandfather’s Y-DNA line. Oral family history has it that this line came from Portugal, but I have yet to prove that. The Y-DNA results, however, point to a relative proximity to Russian lines, which is very interesting to me.

Question: Do you have advice for someone starting out in genealogy or genetic genealogy DNA?

Answer: The most common mistake I see beginners make is to think that once their results are published all of their family mysteries will be immediately solved by the testing company or by surname project administrators. That is not the case. A lot of work and dedication is required from each individual.

Do a lot of reading and research, and don’t expect this to be easy. There is a steep learning curve, but once one becomes familiar with the concept, logic, terms and calculations, there is much knowledge to be uncovered. Only then can one exchange that knowledge with other researchers and project administrators so that something solid can be built.

Finally, do not give up on your paper trail research just because you have gotten tested. Genetic genealogy and traditional genealogy research complement one another.

Question: What do you think the future holds for genetic genealogy?

Answer: We already have a large pool of tested individuals. As Y-SNP testing has become more widely available and as technology allows for a massive number of haplogroup SNP’s to be tested at once for a low price, the pace of discoveries has become hectic. It will increase even more as the pool of tested individuals grow.

I expect that in the next few years many family lines will have their own tagging SNP’s, so paper trail research will be made much easier.

Most importantly, the knowledge that has been generated with regards to the geographical location of sub-haplogroups should soon be applied to the research of population migrations, allowing for a much deeper understanding of our human history from ancient times through the Middle Ages to our present day in all continents.