ROMITA, Mexico — Behind the colonial church where her father was baptized nearly a century ago, Teresa Maldonado Parker on Tuesday celebrated her first Mexican Christmas.
Under streams of colorful banners on Auza Street in this small agricultural community, dozens of neighborhood children and distant cousins lit candles and sparklers and rocked baby Jesus in blankets on Christmas Eve. They shared sweets and punch. There were no gifts, no trees, no Santa Claus. The festivities were about Jesus, and about a family united.
These merrymakers were once just names on Maldonado Parker's family tree. From her Orange County home, she had traveled this holiday to meet them and cap a genealogical journey that has consumed her for nearly two years.
Thousands of Mexican Americans such as Maldonado Parker are searching for their personal histories, crossing an emotional border that once separated them from Mexico. With the Internet and local genealogical groups making research easier than ever, they are trying to reclaim a past shelved for decades. In the process, they are learning as much as they can about roots their families long tried to distance themselves from in the name of assimilation.
Maldonado Parker's father, Agustin, rarely talked about Romita. He told his daughter the family should focus on their lives in the United States, not dwell on the past.
She didn't question her father's silence on the subject of his family. But in recent years, the 54-year-old became fascinated with Mexican culture and customs, and took part in a Mexican heritage event in her hometown of Santa Ana. She began to wonder about her own family tree--although her father had never even told her the name of her grandparents.
"I wanted to walk where my parents walked. I wanted to know the place where they came from," she said. "This is like uncovering stones, the stones of your life. You have to know where you came from to know where you are going. And all this time, I have not known."
On her holiday trip, she is discovering much she never knew. At the Christmas dinner of tamales and sweet bread, she raised a glass of sidra, the traditional sparkling holiday wine, and told two dozen distant cousins: "Now, you are not just names, you are people I know. You are family."
Many Latinos say genealogical research changes their perspective and, in some cases, redirects their lives.
American-born Maldonado Parker is considering applying for dual nationality and retiring in Mexico.
Touring her family's farmland where her father lived until he moved to the United States at 6, she imagined him a small boy romping through the blankets of crops, playing with the chickens and cows, and picking a ripe papaya off a tree.
"A lot of Mexican parents didn't want to talk about Mexico, to tell their children where they come from," said Maldonado Parker, who works as an assistant at the Orange County district attorney's office. "They wanted to forget, to run away from the negative stereotypes. I did too."
She began her investigation by reaching distant cousins in California, who provided the first clues about Romita. Both of her parents came from the town of 8,000 in central Guanajuato state, home of Mexican President Vicente Fox.
The major turning point came when she met Mimi Lozano, creator of a Southern California Latino genealogical organization. Somos Primos (We Are Cousins) is a nonprofit group that helps people create family trees. The group hit the Internet two years ago and now attracts 3,000 followers from as far away as the Philippines.
"There is an increasing interest in genealogy among Latinos," Lozano said. "The Internet has made it easier for everyone to find their ancestors. Too many people have shrugged it aside for too long. If you are in a country that is against what you are, you do that. You assimilate to get along."
When Mexican Americans do get into genealogy, many focus on Spanish rather than Mexican roots, experts said.
"Our oldest members do not like to think of themselves as from Mexico," said Maurice Bandy, president of Los Californianos, one of the oldest genealogical groups that admits only those who can trace their families to California before the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe. "They think their people came from Spain to California. . . . It can't be, but that's what they say."
Older Mexican Americans may have historical reasons for thinking that way, said Howard Shore, an instructor of U.S. history at Clackamas Community College in Oregon City, Ore.
"There was a lot of marginalization," said Shore, who used to teach genealogy classes at Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles' Boyle Heights. "Some people just wanted to turn their back on where they come from, often because of the poverty."
For younger generations, getting in touch with the difficult lives of family in Mexico can bring its own satisfaction.