For Orfa Salinas of Las Vegas, N.M., sweet treats known as buos provided the first clue to her Jewish roots. Four years ago, she read an article on Hanukkah that mentioned the crunchy delicacies, sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, as one Sephardic Jews prepared for the holiday. The dessert also was special in her family, eaten during the same time of year, though Hanukkah was never mentioned.
Ms. Salinas began to dig into her family history and that all four of her grandparents had family names with ties to Sephardic Jews. She traced her ancestors' migration from Spain to Mexico and ultimately to South Texas, where she grew up.
After months of research, she went home and shared what she had learned with her mother, a born-again Christian. Her mother and an aunt became defensive as they let Ms. Salinas in on the family secret.
"That's when I found out that they knew that we were Jewish and wanted me to drop it," said Ms. Salinas, a postal worker. "When I found out, a lot of things in my life came together. It made sense."
Growing up in the town of Alice, in a tightly knit community of about 60 families, Ms. Salinas said she always felt there was a "them" and an "us." There was an unwritten rule not to associate with outsiders. Everyone she knew belonged to the same church, a Baptist congregation she says was run a lot like a synagogue.
By age 13, children were expected to have mastered reading and writing skills in Spanish, using the Bible as their guide. They then had to read aloud from the Bible during a special service, similar to the way Jewish teens read from the Torah for their bar or bat mitzvah.
"We were Hispanic, but we weren't like other Hispanics," Ms. Salinas said. "On New Year's Eve, we would spend the evening at the church, praying, like many Jews do for Yom Kippur."
Though it's still a sensitive topic for her family, Ms. Salinas says her newfound Jewish faith has filled a void. She believes she has a "Jewish soul."
"For me, it's brought closure," she said. "It's been a fascinating journey."