A silence, then a question from a young woman in her 20s: "Can't a healthy lifestyle help? Do you have to have your ovaries out at 35?"
"Taking them out will decrease your risk but not eliminate it," Castellano said. Looking for support for this harsh measure, she smiled down the table at Angelita Valdez Armenta. Angelita had undergone the operation, called an oophorectomy. "Angie is a great example of how someone here is going to get old!" Months after the meeting, Angelita had her DNA tested and learned she was indeed a carrier of 185delAG.
The point of the meeting, which Castellano came to quickly enough, was to encourage family members to sign up for the DNA test. "Do you have to be tested?" she said. "No. But then you have to pretend you're positive and be more proactive about your health and your screening." Noting that the men were also at some risk of breast cancer, Castellano urged them to check themselves by inverting the nipple and feeling for a pea-sized lump.
Shalee Valdez, a teenager videotaping the session, put down her camera. "If you have the mutation," she wanted to know, "can you donate blood?" Yes. "Can it get into other people?" No, you had to inherit it. Shalee looked pleased. Castellano looked satisfied. As of this writing 15 additional Valdezes have undergone testing for the 185delAG mutation, with six of them testing positive.
Even Stanley Hordes, whose two decades of historical research has been bolstered by the 185delAG findings, says that the greatest value of the genetic information in New Mexico and Colorado is that it "identified a population at risk for contracting potentially fatal diseases, thus providing the opportunity for early detection and treatment." In other words, genes are rich in information, but the information that matters most is about life and death.
As she prepared for the Valdez family meeting, Castellano recalled, she wondered how the group would respond to what she had to tell them about their medical history. Then she plunged into her account of how 185delAG originated in the Middle East and traveled to New Mexico. The revelation that the Valdezes were related to Spanish Jews prompted quizzical looks. But, later, Elsie Valdez Vigil, at 68 the oldest family member there, said she wasn't bothered by the information. "Jesus was Jewish," she said.
Jeff Wheelwright, who lives in Morro Bay, California, is working on a book about the 185delAG breast cancer mutation.
Photographer Scott S. Warren is based in Durango, Colorado.
*Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly translated 'We were Jews' as 'Erasmos judios.' Smithsonian apologizes for the error.