LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Josephine Herrera didn’t know growing up that her family was fractured, but she witnessed sudden bouts of sadness that sometimes overtook her mother.
They were clues something was missing.
“I remember, you know, growing up, and I would see my mom cry, and I never really understood why,” she said. “I’m a little girl, six, seven years old, and I’d find my mother sitting at the kitchen table, crying.”
Magdalena Cortez had six children, the first when she was 15. She raised just two of them, Josephine and her brother Philip Herrera. The other four were taken from her by the state and later adopted, the Lansing State Journal reports.
Their absence haunted Magdalena, who never forgot their birthdays and the songs she played for them when they were babies.
“My mom had memories of her kids,” Josephine said. “She tried to go on with her life, but she still remembered them.”
Cortez, who never graduated from high school and spent years working to support Josephine and Philip as a single mother, always wanted to find her other children, but she never had the means to search for them.
She died in 2015 at age 59.
Josephine, 39, has been looking for her siblings ever since.
This year she found all but one. Josephine and Philip have spent the last few months getting to know Martin McCallum, Jerry Gray and Maria Gray.
All three were adopted by mid-Michigan families and live in Greater Lansing. Now they’ve all joined in the effort to find their mother’s oldest daughter. Born Janie Lou Salinas, she would be 51 today.
“That’s what my mom wanted, for all of her babies to be together,” McCallum, 45, said. “It’s not an easy process. It takes a lot of time, but we’ve come this far. All we need is a little spark.”
Until this spring, Maria Gray, 48, of Holt thought she had two biological siblings, Jerry and Martin. Maria and Martin lived with the same foster family after she was taken from her mother at age 3.
Maria then went to live with Jerry and his adoptive parents when she was 6.
She said she’d been looking to reunite Martin “ever since I learned how to use a computer.”
She contacted adoption agencies and searched online for years. Then last summer she took a DNA test through ancestry.com.
Josephine joined the genealogy website this March. Her DNA results linking her to Maria came back in May, right around the same time that Maria saw a video Josephine had posted to TikTok.
“This is my mother, Magdalena,” reads the caption at the beginning of the video. What followed was a slideshow of old photos — Josephine, her mother and her siblings.
“I want to find them for my mother, ” Josephine wrote in a caption. “It was her lifelong wish to find her children & I still want to make it happen for her even though she isn’t here.”
Maria, who had a small black and white photo of her birth mother she’d kept since childhood, recognized Magdalena, then herself.
“I’m right here sis ...” Maria wrote in a TikTok comment.
“It’s been unreal,” Maria said. “It’s just crazy that my whole family has been right here in Lansing this whole time.”
Josephine, Philip, Maria and Jerry connected in the weeks that followed. Then they turned their attention to finding Martin.
Martin McCallum never felt compelled to seek out his birth family.
The foster family who took him in as a baby, Ken and Veronna McCallum of DeWitt, later adopted him.
He grew up their son, with their birth daughter Kelli.
Martin had no memory of Maria, he said, and his childhood in DeWitt was a happy one.
“I knew I was different,” he said. “I knew I looked different, but I was so loved and cared for it didn’t make me want to reach out and ask what happened, or to ask, ‘Where are the people who look like me?’”
Then on July 13, one day after the 17th anniversary of his adopted mother’s death, Josephine left him a voicemail message, with the news that four of his siblings had been searching for him.
“That night I learned what my name was, I saw a picture of my mom for the first time, a picture of my dad for the first time,” Martin said. “It was a lot to take on.”
“You have to give me some time on this,” he told Josephine. “It’s pretty heavy.”
Martin agreed to meet them all soon after. In August he introduced Kelli to his newfound family.
It’s been rewarding, he said.
“I had a great family before,” Martin said. “Now I have a great big family. I tell people I understand the saying, ‘I’m home.’ To me, home is not a place. It’s a feeling and around them, I feel that. I feel at home.”
Finding their eldest sister, Janie Lou, would fill the cracks in Josephine’s fractured family, she said.
And it would fulfill Magdalena’s greatest wish — for all of them to be together.
“At this point, I feel like we are all we have left of my mother,” Josephine said.
They have no photographs of Janie Lou, she said, but are considering next steps, including hiring a private investigator.
Maria spends a few hours every night scouring the internet looking for Janie Lou. She feels like they’re close to finding her.
“We’re determined to find her,” she said. “I’m hoping we complete the circle soon.”