The Doc Project

She was being raised as a white child in Texas while her Haitian father was fighting racism in Montreal

Rhonda Fils-Aimé was adopted by a white family as a baby, and her biological father, Philippe, had no idea. But now, 50 years later, they're making up for lost time.

Rhonda Fils-Aimé was adopted by a white family as a baby, and her biological father, Philippe, had no idea

Rhonda Fils-Aimé and her father, Philippe, at a family gathering this year in Braunfels, Texas. (Submitted by Rhonda Fils-Aimé)
Listen to the full episode28:31

Until she was 49 years old, the only information Rhonda Lux had about her family background was that she was German, French and Indian. That's what her adoptive mother had told her, and for most of her life, Rhonda didn't question it. 

Rhonda was born in San Antonio, Texas in 1968 and was left in a children's shelter.

"I was adopted by a white family and raised in a white community," she said.

Only recently, in 2017, did Rhonda discover the truth about her racial heritage and manage to find her father, Philippe — who she learned had been part of an historic protest against racism in Montreal.

Dealing with difference

Rhonda said she was treated differently from the siblings in her adoptive family.

"I never understood why it was so important to keep my hair straight, to keep my sunscreen on me," Rhonda recalled.

Her relationship with her adoptive mother's second husband was especially difficult. Rhonda says she always tried, but failed, to earn his love. After his death her adoptive mother explained why.

"She finally said, 'He could never get past your skin colour,'" Rhonda said.

Rhonda in San Antonio around the time her father Philippe was in Montreal taking part in The Sir George Williams Affair, a huge anti-racism protest at what is now Concordia University. (Submitted by Rhonda Fils-Aimé)

As a young adult, Rhonda didn't reflect much on her background. That changed in 1990, when her first child was born. Rhonda says she realized it was the first time she was looking at someone who looked just like her.

Suddenly, she wanted to know more about her roots, and tracked down her adoption record. The documents listed first names of birth parents along with her mother's birth date and the fact her mother was a twin.

But Rhonda was so busy with her baby son and an impending move overseas — her husband was in the military — that her search stalled for more than 25 years.

DNA discoveries

By 2017, Rhonda was 49 and had three grown children — her son and twin daughters.  A persuasive friend convinced her to try out a new trend: home DNA kits.

Rhonda with her son Trevor and twin daughters Chloe and Chelsea in the mid-1990s. (Submitted by Rhonda Fils-Aimé)

"She kept saying, 'I know that you are part black, and you need to find out where you come from,' and she actually ordered the kit," Rhonda said.

The results confirmed what Rhonda and her friend suspected.

"I said to my kids, 'I was right! I knew it!'" 

The DNA results also provided names of relatives, so Rhonda started looking them up on social media. First she found relatives from her birth mother's side of the family, who were all white. Her birth mother had died years earlier.

A photo of Rhonda's late birth mother, Jo Nan Head. (Submitted by Rhonda Fils-Aimé)

Rhonda continued searching for her father by contacting people named in the DNA results. She narrowed her search to a family in Haiti — the Fils-Aimés — after one relative remarked that she resembled them. 

Eventually Rhonda found Philippe Fils-Aimé, who had spent time in San Antonio in the late 1960s and had met a woman who was a twin. Rhonda had a strong feeling she'd found her father but wanted a DNA test to prove it.

At this time, Philippe was living in Haiti with Yva, his wife of 20 years, and their two daughters. He was not convinced he was Rhonda's father, but he agreed to be tested.

When the results arrived, Rhonda was overwhelmed.

"I started crying and had to sit there for awhile," she said. "I would just say out loud, 'You found your dad.'"

Rhonda Lux soon became known as Rhonda Fils-Aimé.

Philippe Fils-Aimé's Facebook profile photo. (Submitted by Philippe Fils-Aimé)

Philippe was surprised but says he loves having Rhonda as a daughter.

"I never would imagine that I would have a child in Texas," he said.

 Rhonda's experiences growing up are less surprising to Philippe. 

"If you are black, you better expect that you will deal with racism and rejection and hypocrisy," he said. 

When he met Rhonda's birth mother, Philippe lived with an uncle in New York State and had been exploring the U.S. Soon after, he moved to Montreal to avoid being drafted.

A young activist

Philippe was working as a photo technician at a print shop in February 1969 when he decided to support students protesting at Sir George Williams — now Concordia University.

Students had complained that a professor was racist. The mishandling of that complaint led to a protest that made headlines around the world.

Philippe took part in a 13-day occupation of a computer room on the ninth floor of the Hall Building. Riot police were called in; there was a fire and dozens of arrests.

The incident began over allegations of racism levied by a group of six West Indian students against their biology lecturer. (Radio-Canada Archives)

He had no idea he had a one-year-old daughter in Texas, about to face years of her own experiences with racism.

In 2019, Concordia University marked the 50th anniversary of the Sir George Williams Affair and invited Philippe to speak on various panels. For Rhonda, it was an opportunity to visit Montreal for the first time and to learn about her father's activism.

He's "just as passionate today as he was 50 years ago. He really wants to see society continue to grow and change," she said.

A bigger family, deeper roots

In Montreal, Rhonda stayed with her brother — Amilcar Delacraisonnière, Philippe's son from another relationship.

Rhonda Fils-Aimé and her brother, Amilcar Delacraisonnière, in Montreal. (Submitted by Rhonda Fils-Aimé)

Despite very different upbringings, Rhonda says she and Amilcar have much in common.

Rhonda has since met up with many Fils-Aimés at family gatherings in Montreal, Texas and Haiti.

Rhonda says she and her adult children now have a sense of heritage.

"I raised my children [saying] that I was the roots, they were the trunk, and their children will be our branches," said Rhonda. 

"Now for all of us we get to have a deeper roots — I no longer have to be the roots."

 
A September 2019 family gathering in Braunfels, Texas, where Philippe spent time with Rhonda and her son Trevor, 29 and her twin daughters, Chloe and Chelsea, 26. (Submitted by Rhonda Fils-Aimé)

To hear the full documentary, tap or click the Listen link at the top of this page. 



About the Producer

Shari Okeke shares stories about the people she meets in and around Montreal on the morning show, Daybreak, on CBC Radio. Born and raised in Montreal, Shari started her career as a reporter at The London Free Press before joining CBC Television in Toronto. She subsequently moved back to Montreal, and since then her work has aired nationally and locally on CBC Radio and TV.

Shari loves baking with her two daughters but refuses to share her famous brownie recipe! She also loves spending time in Prince Edward County, a very special place for her for more than three decades, full of family memories.

You can follow her on Twitter @ShariOkeke

This documentary was edited by Alison Cook.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.