100+ Years Later, a Family That Exchanged Photos to Keep In Touch Across Continents Is Reunited

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When 32-year-old Gonzalo Alexis Luengo Orellana of Chillán, Chile was a teenager, he received a package from his grandmother that would define the course of his future. His journey culminated in a DNA match through MyHeritage that solved a family mystery he’d been pursuing his entire adult life, and reunited a family torn apart by emigration 100 years after they lost touch with each other.

Gonzalo’s incredible story begins in the year 2000, when he was about 13. His mother was widowed not long before, and her mother — Gonzalo’s grandmother — sent them care packages every now and then, containing food and other items to help the struggling family. One time, she sent a set of old photographs that Gonzalo and his mother didn’t recognize. Some contained inscriptions that identified the people in the photos by name. One of them was Gonzalo’s great-great-grandfather.

Gonzalo’s great-great-grandfather Antonio De Filippi Montaldo, 1866.

“Seeing my great-great-grandfather’s face changed my life,” says Gonzalo. “It seemed unfair to me that I could see it, while my cousins and distant relatives could not.”

He decided then and there that he would do everything he could to find the other descendants of his great-great-grandfather and share this precious photograph with them. “Using phone books and the Civil Registry, I searched for my relatives so I could contact them and send them the photos, which I scanned in the library of the university where I studied.”

Gonzalo went on to become a teacher and a professional genealogist. “I have found that many of my friends are related to me,” he says. “When I find that connection, I get the same feeling you get when you welcome a new baby into your family.”

Though he found many relatives with whom to share the photo of his great-great-grandfather, he always wondered about the unidentified individuals in the other photos his grandmother had sent. The photos had been mailed to Gonzalo’s great-grandfather from Italy until the 1920s. “My great-grandparents died, and the contact with these Italian relatives died with them,” Gonzalo explains. One of these unidentified relatives was a woman named Rosa Ballestrero.

There was also a negative among the photographs, featuring Gonzalo’s grandmother and great-aunt Lilia, but the original photograph developed from the negative was nowhere to be found.

A few years ago, Gonzalo received a DNA kit as a gift and uploaded his results to MyHeritage. Every so often, he received alerts about new DNA matches, but none led to any amazing discoveries… until February 2018.

He was sitting at the computer at the Family History Center where he frequently conducts his research, reviewing a new match he’d just received with a man named Pietro Scattina from Italy. He took a look at Pietro’s family tree and was blown away: Pietro’s mother’s name was Rosa Ballestrero. As he perused the tree, more names jumped out at him that he recognized — and then he found Pietro De Fillipi, his own 3rd-great-grandfather… and great-grandfather of Pietro Scattina!

Pietro Scattina, the son of Rosa Ballestrero.

Within 24 hours, Gonzalo had written to Pietro’s daughter, Ila Scattina, and sent her the photos of her ancestors that he had scanned almost 20 years before. He was delighted when Ila recognized her grandmother right away in the photographs.

But that’s not even the best part. It turned out that Ila’s ancestors were not the only ones sending photographs. Gonzalo’s ancestors had sent photographs to Ila’s family too, more than a hundred years ago! And just like Gonzalo, Ila’s relatives had been wondering about the identities of the mysterious individuals in these photographs their ancestors had kept from Chile. Ila sent the photographs to Gonzalo right away.

“I couldn’t believe it,” says Gonzalo. “Perfectly preserved photos, clearly inscribed in Spanish by my grandma when she was 11 years old, by her siblings, by my own great-grandparents. By my great-great-grandfather. The research I’d done on my family made it possible for me to recognize all of their handwriting immediately. Truly incredible photos we had never seen. I went straight to my mother to show them to her. You have no idea how tears filled her eyes to see that, among the photos they sent us, was the original photo of the negative we had of my grandmother and great-aunt Lilia: they had sent the photo to their relatives, and my grandmother wrote a message on the back.”

The missing photograph — found with the Scattina family in Italy — that was developed from the negative Gonzalo’s grandmother had given him

Almost 20 years after Gonzalo had decided to dedicate his life to finding relatives with whom to share the photo of his great-great-grandfather, he received a gift from the universe in kind: priceless photos of his ancestors that he never knew existed. In so doing, he closed a circle from more than a hundred years ago: a family divided across continents, sending photographs across the ocean to try and maintain a presence in each other’s lives, eventually falling out of touch due to the distance… but finally brought back together thanks to the wonders of modern technology on MyHeritage.

Gonzalo says he cried to receive these beautiful testaments of his ancestors’ love for each other. “More than a hundred years later, the ocean and continents don’t stand in the way,” he says.

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