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Uniting Their Family Tree's Many Branches : Ordonez Picnic Draws 350 With Common Ancestor


SOUTHEAST AREA — It sounded like a bad pickup line, but the most common icebreaker at a recent barbecue was: "So who was your grandfather?"

In fact, it was a logical question for the 350 or so members of the far-flung Ordonez family as they gathered from across California, the Southwestern United States and Mexico to trace the family's roots and meet relatives from other branches of the family tree.

Most had no idea there were so many relatives until a couple of enterprising Ordonezes began puzzling over family ties a year ago.

"Me and my first cousins kept saying, 'You know, we shouldn't be meeting like this just at funerals,' " said Armando Rodriguez de Ordonez of Montclair, one of the family's genealogists. So, last summer, he and George Allen of Norwalk, another family genealogist, helped organize the first Ordonez family picnic.

It was so successful that a 12-member organizing committee this year printed reunion T-shirts and picture books of last year's event to sell for $10 each--and tried to reach relatives living in Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. In the process, the reunion became more than just a party with some cousins; it became an introspective search for the family's roots.

"There's a feeling here among everyone I talk to, a genuine want to be connected," Rodriguez de Ordonez said as he dodged young cousins carrying plates of chili, grilled chicken and pork tamales at Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area.

"Your children, your grandchildren have an opportunity to know where they came from. And I think that will help them in their futures."

Curious family members, most of whom were meeting each other for the first time, gathered around an elaborate family tree that drooped off the ends of a picnic table, searching for their niches in the family history.

For Allen, the reunion was a gold mine of information. Seated at his IBM computer next to the smoking barbecues, he printed out miniature family trees and asked relatives about everything from personality quirks to incidents of heart disease and diabetes, which he put into his database. He and several cousins hope to spend a few weeks in Chihuahua next spring researching the family's origins.

"My only consternation is that I didn't ask all these questions that I have now while my grandmother and aunts and mother were alive," Allen said. "All of us want to know what our roots are, where we come from, what's our history."

The family traces back to Salvador Ordonez, who left Spain as a young man in 1678 and went to work in the silver mines of Los Ranchos de Santiago in present-day Chihuahua, Mex. Salvador had five children; one of his grandsons sired 21 children, another sired 14. Thus the descendants who mingled at the barbecue--the youngest being nine generations removed from the legendary Salvador--are only the tip of the Ordonez iceberg.

Members of the Ordonez clan began trickling into the United States in the early 20th Century, fleeing the warring bands of Pancho Villa and los federales.

"These were guys that were free enterprising. They weren't interested in politics; they were interested in making money," said Roberto Ordonez Villalobos of South Whittier.

They went to work in the mines and railroads of Las Cruces and Silver City, N.M., before moving along to cities such as El Paso, Albuquerque, Denver and Chicago. Some moved to Oxnard, where they worked the lemon and sugar beet harvests, and a large contingent settled in East Los Angeles at the time of the Depression. Time, distance and the sheer number of family members caused many branches to lose touch.

"There's a good half-dozen arms of the family that have never crossed paths before, and today they're crossing paths," said Danny Ayala, who brought equipment from his entertainment company in Orange and was serving as the reunion's disc jockey. "You'll see people that have never met, that have never seen each other, and they look exactly alike."

Sometimes, these encounters can be humorous. At last year's reunion, Ordonez Villalobos ran into a friend he had worked with for 20 years. "What are you doing here?" they asked each other. They had never known they were related.

One of this year's discoveries turned bitter. A young family member knew that her boyfriend was seeing someone else. She did not realize--until she saw the woman's name on the invitation list--that the other woman was her cousin.

But most members were happy with what they learned about the family.

"I wanted to see if I had cousins my age and if I had a good-looking family," said Athena Ordonez Abbotte, 17, who flew down for the day from Santa Clara. Her conclusion? "They all have a good sense of humor," she said.

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