Bolivian Family Searching

by Atamhi Cawayu, doctoral researcher at Ghent University (Belgium) and the Bolivian Catholic University ‘San Pablo’ (Bolivia). Together with Vicente Mollestad and Teresa Norman, they run Network of Bolivian Adoptees.

This blogpost was initially posted on Atamhi’s Facebook profile and Instagram-account @displaced.alteño

Searching for first family and adoptee activism: Some reflections

In 1993 I got displaced/adopted to Belgium when I was six-month-old. According to my papers, I was found as a new-born in the city of El Alto in Bolivia. Since my twenties, I started to return and reconnect with Bolivia. In the past two years I live more in Bolivia than in Belgium and I consider myself ‘based in Bolivia’. In all these years, I have attempted to search for information about my pre-adoptive past. Since June, together with a fellow Bolivian adoptee friend, we started our search here in Bolivia by starting a big campaign to make ourselves visible.

Reflection 1: Putting up posters in the city

In June 2020, my friend and I started to prepare our searches for our Bolivian relatives by designing posters and putting them in various streets and neighbourhoods in the cities of La Paz and El Alto. It’s not the first time I engage in searching for first families, in the past years I have completed searches for other Bolivian adoptees, which sometimes led to reunions. However, searching is challenging, especially when you don’t have names, places or anything that might lead to our families. 

In Bolivia there is a central authority responsible for international adoption, yet there is no support from organisations or institutions who can really help us. In our cases, we have limited information, but other adoptees have the full name of their mother, or names of family members. Even in their cases it’s often a bureaucratic journey to obtain more information. In addition, most of us don’t know the language, are not familiar with the system, and do not always have the time to search. 

When I started to do my PhD on this topic, my goal has always been to have not only a better insight into the adoption system in Bolivia but also to ‘crack’ the system and understand which clues are necessary in finding one’s family. Besides I think it’s important to document the stories of the first parents and take their experiences into account if we really want to make an honest evaluation of the system of adoption. 

When preparing the posters, making the design, paying the prints, I could only think of one thing: we as adult adoptees have the resources to start this search and do it in an almost professional way. Our parents probably didn’t have the same amount of resources, and even if they did, their stories were regarded as less interesting than ours right now.

Reflection 2: Engaging with TV media

After our first round of posters, we received a message from a journalist from a Bolivian TV channel who was interested in our stories. A few days later they interviewed us, and it was broadcasted one day later. Since then our story was covered by national TV media in Bolivia and it received lots of attention. The media is a necessary evil. It helped a lot in having our cases visible, yet it’s hard to control the questions. They also have their own narrative they want to show.

These experiences made me reflect about several things. Our stories were largely framed as ‘abandoned babies’ returning to Bolivia, after being adopted internationally, however this narrative already makes a lot of assumptions of our mothers abandoning us. When reading the comment section (I know I should not do this) a big part of the viewers didn’t understand why we would search for someone ‘that doesn’t look for us’. However, it’s so much more complex… 

In my case I was found, but I don’t know what really happened. It’s easy to assume I was ‘abandoned’ by one of my parents, but I don’t know. In my research on first parents, I have encountered several parents who never gave up their child to adoption, did it in vulnerable circumstances, or were even pressured by intermediaries (and I’m not even talking about kidnap and illegal adoption). Yet, in many cases they were interested to know what happened to their children, if they were still alive, if they ended up well, etc. Part of our activism is also to speak about this other side of adoption. It’s not always a fairy-tale as many people think. We are part of system that exploits global inequalities, displaces poor brown/indigenous bodies from South to North, and prefers parenthood from the Global North over parenthood of the Global South. 

It is irritating people don’t understand the complexity and violence relinquishment and adoption can entail. Even if our parents wanted to look for us, they wouldn’t be able to find us as we have been relocated and displaced to other continents. When I search for my ‘family’, it is to make myself findable, so they know I am here in Bolivia and willing to be in touch with them. 

Reflection 3: The violence of international adoption

In the days after our first interview, various Bolivian TV channels called us for an interview. Our story was spread nationwide by radio, TV, newspaper. We tried to take advantage of this moment to open the discussion on transnational adoption.

During the interviews we tried to mention that for us adoptees there is no assistance for adoptees to search. Not in our adoptive countries, nor in Bolivia. We have to do almost everything by ourselves, and then I am not even talking about learning the language, understanding the documents, being familiar with the city. As my friend mentioned in several interviews, “searching is something political”. For me searching is doing something you were not supposed to do. It’s opening up histories that were meant to be hidden, it’s doing something within a system that tried to erase everything of your being.

Moreover, another dominant idea is to be lucky and fortunate when being adopted transnationally. One of the journalists said to me “you must be very fortunate”, “many people here would love to be in your shoes”. Throughout the years I have met many people, especially here in Bolivia, who told me I must have been lucky to be have been saved from my ‘miserable future’ in Bolivia and to have a ‘wealthy’ life in Europe. It’s like people think we only ‘won’ by being adopted internationally, but they often forget we have lost many things. I consider all the opportunities I have because of growing up in Europe as compensation for everything I have lost, and I have lost everything.

From my personal perspective, the violence implicit in transnational adoption is to be involuntary transcontinentally displaced, completely severed from our genetic ancestors, disconnected from our community, culture, language, nation, continent, and without any possibility to find our families ever again. For most of us Bolivia will become a country we once lived in. In addition, all our former identities are erased so we can be reborn, renamed, Christianised and assimilated with our adoptive countries. We grow up with complete strangers we are expected to love and call family. We are being brought into a society that doesn’t want us, that racialises us and discriminates us, without any community that provides shelter or understanding. This so-called child protection system – mostly in the benefit of well-off Western adoptive parents who wants to fulfil their heteronormative parental dream – erases everything from us. It is not the first time in colonial history child welfare systems are used to shape, control and erase indigenous children’s identities, and most children adopted from Bolivia have an indigenous background, be it Aymara or Quechua. Transnational adoption is for me an ongoing colonial project of civilising, controlling and managing children from the Global South, transforming them from ‘savages’ to ’civilised’ citizens in the benefit of the capitalist machine of the North. Transnational adoption would not have been possible without a history of colonialism and its ongoing colonial gaze towards countries in the South such as Bolivia.

The adoptee experience is something very diverse. I know some adoptees might disagree on this and that’s fine. I also know other adoptees might recognise themselves in what I write. Every experience is valid. However, my fight and activism are structural against a system that has caused a lot of injustices and is not in the benefit of first parents and adult adoptees. As another adoptee once told me: our parents maybe didn’t have the resources to fight for their rights, but we have, and we will fight for them.

Further Reading

Atamhi’s latest research paper: From Primal to Colonial Wound – Bolivian adoptees reclaiming the narrative of healing

The Truth About Intercountry Adoption

The first part of this article, is written by Jessica Davis, adoptive mother in the USA who adopted from Uganda. She wrote recently and I wanted to share my thoughts in response to hers.

Namata

by Jessica Davis

A mother with no available options doesn’t actually have a choice when it comes to letting her daughter go on an “education program”.

Her child getting “adopted” while on the education program was the result of desperation, greed, ignorance and corruption.

A greedy adoption agency that chose to look the other way as to how children were coming into the system for adoption.

Ignorant adoptive parents who didn’t fully understand the problem at hand before trying to “help”.

A desperate middleman who chose to “bend” the truth and exploit vulnerable Ugandan families in order to put food on the table.

Corrupt judges and other government officials that cared more about lining their pockets than the well being of a child.

The misguided notion of “a better life” led everyone involved down a path that contributed to almost erasing a child’s identity, culture and ties to her family.

Adoptive parents’ love that wasn’t based solely on a child being part of their family helped them see beyond the lies and help her get home.

A child’s bravery in speaking out enabled the truth to be understood.

Continuing to allow children with families to be needlessly adopted and subjected to a lifetime of trauma and loss as a result of being separated from everything and everyone they have ever known and loved — from their identity within that family unit is inhumane.

Every time I get to visit with Namata and her family these are the things that run through my mind.

All that was ALMOST lost and erased.

4 out 5 children living in institutions worldwide have families that they could go home to.

Ignoring this family separation crisis will only continue to ensure that 4 out 5 times children like Namata will be needlessly adopted and separated from their families.

Subjected to a lifetime of trauma and loss NEEDLESSLY.

If adoption is about the well being of the child, why do we only care about their well being to the extent that they end up in a new family?

Adoptees are 4 times more likely to attempt taking their own life, so who’s well being is being prioritised when we knowingly ignore the truth and continue with intercountry adoption the way it is today?

Know better. Do better.

Jessica Davis

Lynelle’s response to Jessica:

As an intercountry adoptee separated forever from my family, these photos bring tears to my eyes. Last night I dreamed of my biological father – it was the first time he’s ever been present in my dreams. Usually it’s my mother. Seeing your daughter surrounded by people who mirror her, are her clan and having her place of belonging is just so beautiful! I know how much heartbreak, unspoken loss and grief, misplacement and longing you have prevented for her!

Your grief every day is the grief she would have lived with her whole life if she’d remained adopted.

Lynelle Long

Thankyou for being a mum who’s done what is in her best interest! What a gift you gave her to stop that unnecessary pain! I’m just sorry you feel yours and it’s the first time I’ve really comprehended how painful it must be for you and the rest of your family.

I wish other adoptive parents could understand this. It’s either your pain or ours that exists with intercountry adoption but so many choose to save themselves from the pain, instead of the child. You are one of the rare few I know who chose to accept it for yourself and do what’s right and ethical!

She’s just beautiful and deserves to be where she belongs!

Shared with Serena & Namata’s permission.

The Anti – Pro Adoption Labels

It bothers me a lot less nowadays that people feel the need to judge where I or ICAV sits on adoption discussions as being only either “anti” or “pro” — as if adoption can be classified on some linear adoption spectrum!

Yes, I like to, and I encourage my peers, to call out and speak openly on the complexities and call an end to the unethical practices, the trafficking, the deportation, the rehoming, the abuse .. but the reality is, usually when adoptees talk about these issues from these angles, we can so easily get labeled and shut down!

Personally, I feel there are so many shades within the adoption arena. Like if I support simple adoption in theory over plenary adoption – does that make me “anti” or “pro”? If I prefer kinship care and guardianship to either of those, am I “anti “or “pro”? If I prefer children to be kept in their country of birth, am I “anti” or “pro”? If I prefer children to stay within their nuclear and extended family or community, am I “anti” or “pro”? If I want to prioritise a child’s safety, am I “anti” or “pro”? If I want a mother to retain a choice, am I “anti” or”pro?

Isn’t it a bit simplistic to overlay such a narrow linear spectrum on our views for such a complex topic? And what happens when we consider domestic adoption with intercountry adoption? Or transracial domestic adoption with transracial intercountry adoption? The discussions will always be so complex with so many differences but also, so many similarities!

At the end of the day, transracial adoption, local adoption, intercountry adoption, foster care, guardianship, kinship care are all options for complicated situations in child welfare. What should we do about children who are vulnerable and need care? How can we ensure they have long term stability within loving and supportive structures for their life long journey? The answers to these questions moves us way beyond a simple “anti” and “pro” discussion. Simplifying these discussions to that type of focus really doesn’t get us anywhere except to divide us.

When we oversimplify complex situations it dumbs down the mindscope and limits the possible solutions.

When considering intercountry adoption, I support safety of the child and respect for families, ethnicities and cultures . This should always be first and foremost in our priorities when considering solutions for the child. I’m not anti or pro – I’m all about encouraging open and healthy discussion on complex issues that have not ONE single solution for all, but should be discussed on a case by case basis! I would love if governments could put more money and focus into helping keep families together where possible! I also recognise, that not all families chose to stay together and women should have choices. So my point is, we cannot overlay ONE solution over a whole spectrum of complex situations. Each and every child with their parents and kin needs to have their situation considered by its own merits. And let’s not forget, we must acknowledge that the solution(s) might need to change over time.

The biggest impact plenary adoption creates, is that it is a permanent solution for what is often a temporary or shorter term crisis. For some, staying together will hopefully be the preference and governments need to offer enough social supports to make this possible. For others, if they insist on not parenting their children nor having kin take on guardianship, I would hope we could move to a better model like simple adoption which ensures original identity remains intact and connection to kin legally preserved. I strongly dislike the way plenary adoption has inadvertently layered on more trauma than it’s supposed to help. People are human, we change over time. Why do we continue to place permanent life altering legal changes onto children as solutions that are difficult to change when in fact, maybe a better way would be to take into account that situations and people change and allow more flexible solutions?

Using simplistic linear labels like “anti” and “pro” to discuss intercountry adoption can be counterproductive. How much do we miss when we limit ourselves to such linear discussions?

Lived Experience Suggestions for Responses to Illicit Adoptions

On 8-10 July, ICAV was invited as an Observer at the HCCH Working Group on Preventing and Addressing Illicit Practices in Intercountry Adoption.

Attached is our latest Perspective Paper that provides our lived experience input on suggestions for How Authorities and Bodies could Respond to Illicit Adoptions in English and French.

Huge thanks to all our 60+ participating adoptees and adoptee organisations, 10 adoptive parents & adoptive parent organisations, and first family representation!

Extra special thanks and mention to two amazing people:
Nicholas Beaufour who gave a huge amount of time to translate the entire English document into French!
Coline Fanon who assisted our one and only first family member to contribute! We so need to hear more often from the voices of our first families!

I am ME

by Ebony Hickey, born in Haiti, raised in Australia; currently studying a Master of Contemporary Art at Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne, Australia.
Instagram ebony.hickey.7

I am ME (2019)

Acrylic paint, texstas, hot glue, cardboard.

I am ME is a colourfully and expressive work that is a celebration of sexuality, queer visibility and acceptance. 

Ebony is a Haitian born, Australian contemporary artist with an interest in interrogating concepts of individuality, adoption, sexuality, queerness and black identity. Ebony draws on her life experience to inform the creation of her expressive sculptural forms, employing a diverse assortment of materials to compose her work. Performance is also an important element of her creative practice. In 2000, Ebony created the drag personality Koko Mass. Koko loves to perform songs with soul and is a bit of a badass who always speaks up and is honest about issues they face in society. Koko challenges perceptions head on whilst also having fun with their audience. Ebony’s practice is bold and politically engaged, responding to issues that affect her communities with a strong visual language she continues to explore.

Dear White Parents

by Laney Allison, adopted from China to the USA.

Hi. I’m Laney Allison, adopted from Ma’Anshan, Anhui Province, China in August of 1994 by a single mom. I was raised in Dallas, TX and I now live/work in Washington, DC, USA.
I am a co-founder/co-president of China’s Children International.

You can reach me @Lane_Xue on instagram and follow the CCI instagram @cci_adoptees

Born both ways

by Ebony Hickey, born in Haiti, raised in Australia; currently studying a Master of Contemporary Art at Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne, Australia.
Instagram ebony.hickey.7

Born both ways (2019)

Sand, filler foam, hot glue, caulk, wire.

The artwork Born both ways reflects Ebony’s life being adopted into a bi-racial family from Haiti to Australia and the experience of feeling in-between both worlds.

Ebony is a Haitian born, Australian contemporary artist with an interest in interrogating concepts of individuality, adoption, sexuality, queerness and black identity. Ebony draws on her life experience to inform the creation of her expressive sculptural forms, employing a diverse assortment of materials to compose her work. Performance is also an important element of her creative practice. In 2000, Ebony created the drag personality Koko Mass. Koko loves to perform songs with soul and is a bit of a badass who always speaks up and is honest about issues they face in society. Koko challenges perceptions head on whilst also having fun with their audience. Ebony’s practice is bold and politically engaged, responding to issues that affect her communities with a strong visual language she continues to explore.

Self Portrait by Alessia

by Alessia Petrolito, born in the USA and adopted to Italy. Founder of ArP Adoptic and AdoptCLOUD.

Past Present Future

Oil on canvas

2011

cm 100 x 80 x 4.5

Petrolito Alessia, Past Present and Future – Scheda di dettaglio

This depiction is a self-portrait of my past and my American roots at my back and the unknown future in front of me. Though it may occur that this portrait is not completed, it is. In the original collage, under my chin, there was a picture of the city where I have lived, Santena. But then when I started to paint it I felt like it needed more space, so I covered that part with the white paint.

self portrait by kimura

by kimura byol-nathalie lemoine, born in south korea; creator of adoptee cultural archives

as a trained graphic designer but especially and artist and activist, poster-like images are made as punchy, few words, simple photoshopped images and the message is easier to catch. the fact we can NOT easily read yellow words on the white space is how asians navigate into the white world. many asians, aboriginals, autochtones adoptees have been mainly adopted to white families and believed for very long they were white themselves, that’s how we grew up, that’s how we survived racism (sometimes at home, often at family gathering – at school, at jobs). it represents layers of ready life … displaced and stolen but a life we made it, of scars, loss and longing for understand …