By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
bartesaghi@montclairlocal.news

Barbara Clarke Ruiz’s cousin, Franklin Clarke, had been researching their family’s history for years. She never expected that effort would change her life profoundly.

About a year and a half ago, Franklin Clarke sent a DNA sample to 23andMe, the popular genetic testing company that, the company says, can tell you about things ranging from your ancestry to what health conditions you may have. He was stunned by the findings.

“Hey Barbara, you want to sit down,” Clarke Ruiz, an Essex County resident, recalled her cousin saying. She wasn’t sure exactly what results her cousin had seen, but they seemed to indicate someone in the family had a half-sister — and he suspected it was Clarke Ruiz. Another surprise: Though Clarke Ruiz is Black, her possible half-sister was Korean. 

Clarke Ruiz’s late father fought in the Korean War, and she believed that he might have had a relationship while he was deployed there. Family members in Virginia have a photograph of her father with a Korean woman holding a baby. 

Family members don’t know if the baby was Lupe Ibarra — the woman whose DNA profile showed a match for Clarke Ruiz’s family. 

Ibarra, who lives in California, was born in Seoul, South Korea, and was put up for adoption at an early age. She was adopted by a Mexican American and African American couple and brought to America at the age of 4. She’d had her own journey of trying to track down her ancestry — even traveling at one point to South Korea and speaking with people at an adoption center there. 

“I kind of let that fall through the cracks when they told me that the chances of trying to find my mother or any information was going to be kind of difficult,” Ibarra said. “Because it was right after the Korean War days, and a lot of that information wasn’t kept.” 

Ibarra said she hadn’t known of any extended family, only her immediate family, which she adores — her three children and grandchildren. Her youngest son, David, wanted to find out more information about Ibarra’s background. He also submitted samples to 23andMe, in 2018.

“My mother only told me that my biological mom was Korean and my biological father was a soldier,” Ibarra said. “That’s all I knew. So, I decided to go ahead and do the 23andMe to pacify my children.” 

Ibarra received a notification through the website saying a first cousin wanted to contact her early this year. 

“I was shocked because all of this time there was no contact,” she said. “My son ended up making contact with my first cousin, Franklin, and he got all the information.”

Around the time Franklin Clarke was contacting Ibarra, Clarke Ruiz took the 23andMe test herself, as did her brother, Michael. Her results showed a 27.3% match for Ibarra — enough to indicate a half-sibling. 

Clarke Ruiz and Ibarra met through Zoom around September of last year, and made plans to meet face-to-face a few weeks ago, in Washington, D.C. Ibarra then spent a few weeks staying with Clarke Ruiz in New Jersey.

Clarke Ruiz only had brothers growing up. She had girlfriends she’d call “sister,” but she said it wasn’t the same. 

“It was just so much fun. It was like when you meet somebody, you just feel that you’ve known them for a really long time,” she said. “It was this instant comfort, like she is my big sister.” 

Even though the two had spoken on Zoom and texted, Ibarra said meeting her half-sister face-to-face was a little nerve-wracking. 

“But she easily made me feel comfortable when we first met, and she just came up and gave me a great big hug,” she said. “It was like, ‘OK, we’re good. We’re OK.’”

Ibarra’s plan was to stay for a couple of days, but that extended to weeks. Clarke Ruiz met Ibarra’s children. The two women’s husbands, who are both Latino, bonded through Spanish. Ibarra met the extended family from Virginia. Clarke Ruiz and Ibarra talked for hours during those days, catching up on everything and sharing their love for their favorite candy: cinnamon Jolly Ranchers. 

“She handed me a candy bag with my favorites, butterscotch and cinnamon Jolly Ranchers,” Clarke Ruiz said. “How could she have gotten this? It was just crazy.” 

“I carry that in my purse all the time,” Ibarra said. 

The half-sisters continue texting and calling each other every day. Clarke Ruiz wants to visit Ibarra on the West Coast, and Ibarra wants to continue learning more about her family in South Korea. 

“Maybe one day we would like to figure out where we could do a big family reunion with the cousins and everyone,” Ibarra said. “I think we would all love that.”