Students find out who they think they are

University Studies student Kavnit Bhatti with two classmates during a class luncheon. They delved into their family histories and learned about themselves.
University Studies student Kavnit Bhatti with two classmates during a class luncheon. They delved into their family histories and learned about themselves.

July 12, 2011
By Darla Martin Tucker

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – ( Magali Oliver traded emails with her estranged father around the time of her high school graduation in May 2010. The awkward interaction was the first time she had connected with her dad who hadn’t seen Oliver since she was an infant. Following that cyberspace encounter, however, Oliver was uncertain whether she’d be able to talk her father or fulfill her desire to meet him.

Then she enrolled in a two-quarter University Studies genealogy class for freshmen at La Sierra University and a door of opportunity opened. The concept for the class, created by associate art professor Susan Patt, derived from the NBC television reality show “Who Do You Think You Are?” It aimed to help students dig into their family histories and uncover the wide-ranging, often poignant and life-changing experiences of family members and ancestors whose choices ultimately brought the students together at La Sierra.

The course, which ran through the winter and spring, attracted a broad mix of students of various nationalities and religious backgrounds. Their ancestry is tied to a cornucopia of nations including Mexico, Japan, India, Indonesia, Cambodia, Taiwan, Salvador, Ukraine, Scotland, Germany and France. Many are first generation Americans.

Following their two-quarter class, the students gave final presentations, many showing old photos of long-ago relatives and copies of documents. They touched on the numerous stories of their family members’ travels, trials and triumphs as told to them by parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. In many cases they shored up their family stories with data mined from ship manifestos, birth, death and marriage records and other public documents. “Students are buying phone cards to call India. Others are calling Japan, Mexico and El Salvador plus family members throughout the United States,” Patt said toward the end of the course. “Some students have been extremely challenged to learn anything at all so they have had to be creative in researching. We have turned up ship manifests that show German, Armenian and Ukrainian ancestors coming through Ellis Island and other ports.”

University Studies professor Susan Patt enjoys a luncheon with members of a class that studied family histories. The course ran two quarters.
University Studies professor Susan Patt enjoys a luncheon with members of a class that studied family histories. The course ran two quarters.

Oliver’s research into her mother’s family revealed that her mother, Martha Guiterrez, arrived in the United States at age 20 from Guerrero, Mexico where she grew up. Guiterrez was raised in a large family of 12 children. Of those, six came to the United States where currently three live in California and three in Utah.

Since the age of one Oliver was raised in Fontana by her mother and her stepfather, Antonio Garcia. She has one sister and two brothers. Her extended family includes 10 younger cousins. But she never met her biological father and only learned of his existence at the age of 15. The news put her into a tailspin for awhile, she said.

Finally, when Guiterrez graduated from Henry J. Kaiser High School in Fontana last year, she and her father communicated by email. Oliver’s father had last seen his daughter when she was six months old.

For the La Sierra University class project, Oliver contacted her father’s sister, Azalia Oliver, in Los Angeles for family history information but her aunt could only provide the names of paternal grandparents and their parents who were natives of Michoacán, Mexico. Magali Oliver also decided to try to reach her father again, not only to re-establish and strengthen their relationship, but to delve further into her family’s ancestry. On his birthday she worked up the nerve to call him for a first telephone conversation. “He didn’t answer,” she said, and she didn’t leave a message. “I just go so nervous. I just have that fear of, I don’t know what to say.” However she maintains hope for future contact.

Other students recounted stories of their families’ travels between countries and ultimately to the United States and the North American continent, usually seeking better wages, educational and living opportunities. Some ended up in North America for other reasons.

In the 1800s, John Demarbiex, student Corrie Demarbiex’s great grandfather, traveled from France to Mexico to fight as a dragoon with Mexico’s Emperor Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph who was selected to lead a second Mexican monarchy. The effort was backed by France’s Napoleon III. Frank and John, two of John Demarbiex’s children, owned ranches and gold mines, including the Red Rover mine which is currently operational. Frank also fought for the Mexican monarchy as a dragoon. He eventually settled in Scottsdale, Arizona. He married a woman named Ramona and had five children. Corrie Demarbiex discovered that Frank, a lover of trotter horses, died at the age of 34 from pneumonia. He acquired the illness after getting chilled in the rain while caring for a sick horse. She also discovered various spellings of her family’s name over the years including that of Demarbiuex, John and Frank’s last name.

Jackie Palinka, of Ukrainian ancestry, discovered the ship records documenting the immigration of her paternal great-grandfather, his wife and three children from Galicia in Spain, to Canada. The farming family purchased homesteads and eventually passed the land to Palinka’s father who in turn bequeathed it to one of her uncles.

Student Julian Elliott, of Scottish and Cambodian ancestry, discovered few official records of his family’s past. In his class paper, however, he discussed the cultural richness of his life celebrating both American and Khmer New Year events in January and April, eating an abundance of American and Cambodian foods and participating in Christian and Buddhist religious services. His Christian father of Scottish heritage met his Cambodian mother by unlikely coincidence when his mother was 18. She was a refugee and spoke no English, but somehow the two managed to get along, he wrote. Elliott enjoys busy holidays with a large group of aunts, uncles and cousins. His varied background has also produced in him an openness and respect for others, he said.


University Studies student Julian Elliott talks with a classmate. Elliott is of Scottish and Cambodian ancestry.
University Studies student Julian Elliott talks with a classmate. Elliott is of Scottish and Cambodian ancestry.


Kavnit Bhatti, a pre-dentistry major, through interviews with her parents and relatives, learned of her grandparents’ difficult journey on foot with two sons from Lahore in Pakistan to India’s Punjab province after Pakistan was carved out of the Indian nation in 1947. “It just opened up our history,” Bhatti said. “It was something I never really thought about. It brought us closer as a family. As a whole we learned a lot about ourselves.”

Her grandparents on her father’s side and their children settled in India after crossing the border from the new Pakistan. Her father later traveled to Germany and Italy “to make something of himself,” Bhatti said. Her father obtained a job in a restaurant in Italy and learned the business. Later he and his wife, Harinder Kaur Bhatti, immigrated to the United States from Northern India with two suitcases, $20 and their Indian culture, traditions and Sikh religion. Kavnit Bhatti’s father eventually became the owner of two businesses including Napoli, an Italian cuisine restaurant in Loma Linda where the couple lives with their children Kavnit and her two brothers. The couple passes down culture and tradition by speaking only Punjabi at home with their children, teaching them Indian dances, celebrations, religion and history.

Since Kavnit Bhatti did not have access to documents delineating her family’s history, she relied entirely on oral accounts. Her father, the second youngest of seven siblings helped Bhatti by calling one of his older brothers in northern India seeking information about family history. Bhatti’s grandfather, Kartar Singh, her father’s father, lived to the age of 100. He passed away in 2007. Her mother’s family members were born and raised in northern India. Her mother’s mother, Nirmal Kaur Rupra, helped supply information for Bhatti’s report. But data acquisition overall was difficult without records and with limited family knowledge. “There were a lot of brick walls,” Bhatti said. Her brothers were very interested in the family history she turned up—“they wanted to know everything,” she said--and she and a cousin are now working on a computer-based family tree using the information Bhatti was able to glean for her class. “It’s really valuable information,” she said.


PR Contact: Larry Becker
Executive Director of University Relations
La Sierra University
Riverside, California
951.785.2460 (voice)

  • Last update on  August 11, 2011