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

I Killed My Vietnamese Parents

by Mark Erickson, adopted from Vietnam to the USA.

Sharing this to process feelings about my birth family, trying to write down some difficult things.

I have a confession to make: I killed my Vietnamese parents. I don’t know when I did it or how I did it, but I did. Actually, what I did was worse. In order to kill them, I would have actually had to know them, acknowledge their existence, and forget them. Instead, I fully erased them: no names, no memories, no feelings.

No one specifically told me to do it, but the message was loud and clear. Let’s play pretend. Your Vietnamese parents are never to be acknowledged or mentioned. We are your real parents. You were born in our hearts.

If there was a part of my young self that ever believed that my Vietnamese parents were still alive, then the burden of carrying that hope was too much for me. So I stopped. I was not Oliver Twist. I was not Little Orphan Annie. Instead, I became a twisted three-headed Scarecrow-Tin Man-Lion: unable to question my experience, disconnected from my feelings, and non-confrontational to a fault.

What I didn’t count on was that this matricide-patricide was actually a double homicide-suicide. In order to erase them, I also had to erase a part of myself. I self-medicated. But instead of self-medicating with substances like others in my immediate circle, I became a compulsive over-achiever.

This worked for many years. But my Vietnamese parents wouldn’t play along and stay erased. Instead, they haunted my nightmares and later my day dreams. When I looked in the mirror, was I looking at the image of my creators?

Check out Mark’s photography and book of Vietnam or follow him on Instagram.

COVID-19 Makes Me Rethink My Birth Country

East vs West

Most of my life, until I returned and had a chance to reintegrate my Vietnamese identity with my adoptive identity, I thought of Vietnam as a backward Communist country. I absorbed the mentality I heard from my privileged white western adoptive country. Emotionally, I felt compelled by the assumptions I absorbed, to question how anything good could exist in a country where they couldn’t look after their own children. I was raised to think negatively about my homeland and I was always told how “lucky” I was to be adopted to Australia. Being lucky usually implied “Australia is better”.

Most times, when people make comments about my adopted status, being “lucky” refers to material gains – plenty of food, shelter and clothing; a good education; and plenty of opportunities. Yes, I have had all that for which I am thankful! But having spent over a decade trying to integrate my lost identity after being in the fog about the lifelong consequences of being separated from my birth land, culture, and people — I speak out now to help others realise there is more to being adopted than the material gains in my adoptive country.

COVID-19 has further challenged my beliefs about my birth country compared to my adoptive country. It has been the first time I’ve read something in mainstream media to highlight a positive about my homeland over my adoptive country. Here’s the recent article on Vietnam’s response to the coronavirus. I’ve seen more about other birth countries being held in high regard (see Taiwan and South Korea). It’s an unprecedented time to see some of our birth lands viewed with pride in mainstream media. In contrast, is the wealthiest, first world democratic country America and how it is responding to COVID-19. Right now, with the media coverage, I imagine the whole world is questioning whether America is better than anywhere else. From an adoption perspective, American intercountry adoptees have been trying to voice for some time that not granting automatic citizenship and actively deporting intercountry adoptees back, after 40 years, is completely unethical, unfair, and wrong. No other adoptive country does this yet America has still been upheld by most birth countries as the land to send children. Perhaps now, after seeing how America handles COVID-19, birth countries might think twice about sending children to America? Maybe the rose coloured glasses might fall away?

COVID-19 has made it quite apparent that our birth countries aren’t all backwards! They are different, but not less. Seeing our countries portrayed positively in mainstream media is novel for me. I wonder how many South Korean, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese intercountry adoptees in America might be, for the first time, wondering why they believed the mantra about how “better off” they are compared to being raised in their birth countries? This COVID-19 is impacting far more American adoptees than those impacted by non-citizenship or deportation! And with racism towards Asians at an all time high in so many of our adoptive countries, there’s a lot that COVID-19 raises in our minds.

Right now, the whole world is re-evaluating many things but what it does for me as an intercountry adoptee, is it encourages me to look critically at how our countries are portrayed and challenges me to re-evaluate how I regard my birth land and people. I rarely see any birth country portrayed in a way where other democratic first world governments might look to them as an ideal. I’m sure I’m not the only intercountry adoptee to notice these changes and ponder what it means. This period in time adds yet another layer to consider what it means to be intercountry adopted.

Collateral Beauty in Adoption

Image result for beauty in pain

There’s a pain that never leaves my heart
of not knowing who my family are
being removed from my country, culture and people
but I can acknowledge,

there’s been a collateral beauty
in everything that’s happened.

It doesn’t make up for 
it just simply is
my children would not be here
if it weren’t for all my losses.

Life is a strange thing
the griefs are so deep
the struggles sometimes so intense
the moments of gain so valuable.

I chose to consciously live
and accept that it all coexists.

Inspired from watching the film, Collateral Beauty.

Image result for collateral beauty

About Lynelle Long

Adoption is Complicated

By Aaron Dechter, adopted from Colombia to America.

Both my mum’s and I.

45 years ago today, I was adopted and arrived in Boston, USA. This day is hard: three sides to the coin. Deep sadness for Mamá and my Colombian family for the son who was stolen and taken from them. Happiness for my mom and dad and my American family for what was the most important day for them. So that leaves me.

Like many other adoptees who are torn internally into a million pieces, at my age now, I’ve come to accept the ups and downs, the happy and sadness as the pendulum swings each day.

My younger sister tells me, “The pain and suffering of Mamá and the entire family will never heal”. My older sister tells me, “Take it as a gift of life for having two families that love me, for caring for me and allowing my to return home”. Brenna and Gabriella say, “This was a happy day, now knowing that truth it’s different. It’s tough, it’s still a special day but it feels tainted”. All opinions are justified.

So here I am, representing the triad of adoption. I represent Mamá and Colombia family. I represent my parents and American family. I represent Brenna and Gabriella and myself. I can’t wash the adoption off but it made me who I am today.

The path to healing continues but I’m still here fighting the cause for Mamá, my parents and me.