When the Census 2010 form arrived in the Juarez family's mailbox a couple of months ago, Michelle Juarez had to stop and think before filling out the ethnicity section for her husband, Ralph, and their seven children.
It used to be a snap. She's of Norwegian heritage. Ralph and the kids are Latinos. Or at least they thought they were.
That all changed in December, when Ralph Juarez received a report from a genealogy research firm.
He'd always known he'd been adopted. Alfred and Clarissa Juarez became his legal parents shortly after he was born in October 1963.
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"I was raised as a person of Mexican heritage," he said.
The mirror suggested his biological parents were Latinos, too.
"I assumed they were," he said. "I'm dark (skinned) and from California, and it just made sense."
Juarez graduated from Santa Clara University and is now a partner in a successful accounting firm in Modesto. Dedicated to helping other Latinos, he founded the Latino Business Association and supports educational opportunities for Latino youths, and in 2006 received a Champions of the American Dream Award.
But like so many others who were adopted, grew up in foster homes or otherwise were separated from their biological families, Juarez always wondered: What about his mother? His father? Did he have any brothers or sisters?
Out of respect, he waited until Clarissa Juarez died before hiring the firm last year to research his lineage.
The results? He's not Mexican-American. Not even close.
He's an American Indian from the Lummi tribe that migrated from Asia, crossed the Bering Straight land bridge and settled more than 12,000 years ago on the San Juan Islands in what is now Washington state.
That, of course, makes him as American as he can possibly be when you consider that other tribes didn't reach lower continental America until about 8,000 B.C. The Vikings landed at Newfoundland about A.D. 1,000 and Columbus "discovered America" 492 years after that, ultimately triggering the European invasion.
"I thought it was a mistake," Juarez said. "I asked the company that did the search, 'How can this be?' These people (Lummis) aren't from the Bay Area. They have a different culture and speak a different language."
The researchers found that a woman named Kristine Carol Brudevold gave birth to him in San Francisco on Oct. 29, 1963. Like most other American Indian teens at the time, she was forced to leave her reservation when she turned 18. Many of them came to a cultural center in the Bay Area, where they met members of other American Indian tribes and nations.
Juarez suspects his biological father -- whose name he does not know -- was an American Indian his mother might have met at the cultural center.
"They were very clannish," Juarez said. "The only relationships you had outside of the reservation were at the cultural center."
Soon after his birth -- given the name Hal Benedict Todd -- the Juarezes adopted him. Brudevold returned to the Lummi reservation shortly after giving birth. She later married, had three children and now is deceased.
Since learning about his "new" heritage, Ralph Juarez has gotten in touch with his two half-brothers, his half-sister, and their father -- the man who married Brudevold after she returned to the reservation in 1963.
"He is not my biological dad," Juarez said.
His recent visit to the Lummi reservation near Bellingham made him appreciate the life the Juarezes provided for him and his adopted sister, Sandra Juarez.
"I was so thankful I was adopted," he said. "I loved seeing my biological family, but looking at the culture, I didn't understand how dysfunctional the Indian culture is, with the drug problems, alcoholism and unemployment."
For thousands of years, the tribe survived on salmon fishing. But as the whites came in and established government regulations, the Lummis were squeezed out of commercial fishing because the law required U.S. citizenship. And even though American Indians became citizens in 1924, state regulations prohibited them from fishing. The tribe fell into poverty, dependent upon the government for subsistence. Now the reservation has its own salmon hatchery, but the damage done by decades of oppression and reliance on the government lingers.
So, as he has done with the Latino community in the valley, Juarez is stepping up to help the Lummi tribe, as well. Leaving May 31, he and son Zachary, a junior at Central Catholic High, will bicycle 1,010 miles from Modesto to the reservation. He's soliciting sponsorships that will go toward scholarships at Northwest Indian College in Bellingham, which is the only accredited tribal college in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. His adoptive dad, Alfred, wrote a check when he heard about the benefit ride.
Juarez will pay for all expenses incurred during the ride and forward donations to the college in the name of his biological mom, Kristine Brudevold. And he'll time their arrival to coincide with the tribe's Stommish, which is an annual get-together.
"I will have the opportunity to meet most of my extended biological family," Juarez said. "I am also in the process of joining the Lummi tribe. (I'll) have a better understanding of the culture. (Lummi kin) said, 'You might have feelings inside you don't understand, that you'll understand now.' "
Like being a man of two heritages: the one he was born with, and the one he grew up with.
"I'm still Mexican," he said. "Nothing can take that out of you. I've been that way for 46 years."
But come census time, the Juarezes now check a different box.
To support Juarez's effort, make a check payable to Northwest Indian College Foundation and designate it to the Kristine Carol Brudevold Scholarship Fund. Send it to Juarez, Zarate & Co., CPAs, 1110 Tully Road, Suite A, Modesto 95350. Contact the firm at 522-1192 to get the foundation's tax ID number.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or firstname.lastname@example.org