by Charisse Maria Diaz, born as Mary Pike Law, cross cultural adoptee born in Puerto Rico
Pote de leche are Spanish words for “milk bottle”. Where I was born, this is how someone is described when they are too white. Yes, too white. That is what I was called at school when bullied. In my teens, I spent many Sundays sunbathing in the backyard of our home. This was one of the many ways I tried to fit in.
My tendency has been to consider myself a transcultural adoptee and not a transracial adoptee, because my adoptive parents were Caucasian like me. Recently, I realized their looks do not make my experience too different from the experience of any transracial adoptee. I was born in Puerto Rico from an American mother and English father and adopted by a Puerto Rican couple. Puerto Ricans have a mix of Native Taino, European and African genes, our skin colors are as varied as the colors of a rainbow. The most common skin tones go from golden honey to cinnamon. For some, I looked like a little milk-colored ghost.
My adoptive mother told me that an effort was made by the Social Services Department, which oversaw my adoption process, to make the closest match possible. She said the only things that did not “match” with her and my adoptive father were my red hair and my parents’ (actually, my natural father’s) religion. I was supposed to be an Anglican but was going to be raised as a Catholic. This was part of the brief information she gave me about my parents, when she confessed that they were not dead as I had been told at 7 years old. She also admitted that I was not born in Quebec, which they also made me believe. I was born in Ponce, the biggest city on the southern shore of the island. She gave me this information when I was 21 years old.
So, at 21 years of age, I discovered that I was a legitimate Puerto Rican born in the island, and also that my natural father was an English engineer and my natural mother was Canadian. I was happy about the first fact and astonished about the rest. Suddenly, I was half English and half Canadian. At 48 years old I found my original family on my mother’s side. Then I discovered this was a misleading fact about my mother. She was an American who happened to be born in Ontario because my grandfather was working there by that time. I grew up believing I was a Québéquois, after that I spent more than two decades believing that I was half Canadian. All my life I had believed things about myself that were not true.
I learned another extremely important fact about my mother. She was an abstract-expressionist painter, a detail that was hidden by my adoptive family in spite of my obvious artistic talent. I started drawing on walls at 2 years old. My adoptive parents believed that art was to be nothing more than a hobby, it was not a worthy field for an intelligent girl who respected herself and that happened to be their daughter. This did not stop me, anyway. After a bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication and a short career as a copywriter, I became a full-time painter at the age of 30. To discover that my mother was a painter, years later, was mind-blowing.
Identity construction or identity formation is the process in which humans develop a clear and unique view of themselves, of who they are. According to Erik Erikson’s psychosocial stages of development, this process takes place during our teen years, where we explore many aspects of our identities. It concludes at 18 years old, or, as more recent research suggests, in the early twenties. By that age we should have developed a clear vision of the person we are. How was I supposed to reach a conclusion about who I was, when I lacked important information about myself?
My search for my original family started when there was no internet, and it took me more than 20 years to find them. I did not arrive in time to meet my mother. A lifelong smoker, she had died of lung cancer. I connected with my half-siblings, all of them older than me. They were born during her marriage previous to her relationship with my father. Two of them were old enough to remember her pregnancy. They had been enthusiastically waiting for the new baby, just to be told that I was stillborn, news that hurt them so much. Before she passed away, my mother confessed to my siblings that I was relinquished for adoption. Through them, I learned what a difficult choice it was for my mother to let me go.
During my search, well-known discrimination against Latinos in sectors of the American culture gave me an additional motive to fear rejection. I didn’t know I had nothing to worry about. My siblings welcomed me with open arms. Reconnecting with them has been such a heartwarming, comforting, life-changing experience. We are united not only by blood, but also by art, music, literature, and by ideas in common about so many things, including our rejection of racism. It was baffling to learn that my opinions about society and politics are so similar to my natural parents’ points of view, which were different, and sometimes even opposite to my adoptive parents’ beliefs.
My siblings remember my father, their stepfather, fondly. With their help I was able to confirm on the Internet that he had passed away too. His life was a mystery not only to me, but to them too. A few years later, I finally discovered his whereabouts. He lived many years in Australia and was a community broadcasting pioneer. A classical music lover, he helped to establish Sydney-based radio station 2MBS-FM and worked to promote the growth of the public broadcasting sector. His contributions granted him the distinction of being appointed OBE by the British government. My mind was blown away for a second time when I learned that he had dedicated his life to a field related to mass communication, which was my career of choice before painting. My eldest half-brother on his side was the first relative I was able to contact. “Quite a surprise!”, he wrote the day he found out that he had a new sister. Huge surprise, indeed. My father never told anyone about my existence. Now I got to know my half-siblings and other family members on his side too. They are a big family, and I am delighted to keep in touch with them.
With each new piece of information about my parents and my heritage, adjustments had to be made to the concept of who I am. To be an international, transcultural, transracial adoptee can be terribly disorienting. We grow up wondering not only about our original families, but also about our cultural roots. We grow up feeling we are different from everyone around us, in so many subtle and not so subtle ways… In my case, feeling I am Puerto Rican, but not completely Puerto Rican. Because I may consider myself a true Boricua (the Taino demonym after the original name of the island, Borikén), but in tourist areas people address me in English, and some are astonished to hear me answer in Spanish. More recently, I have pondered if my reserved nature, my formal demeanor, my cool reactions may be inherited English traits. And getting to know about my parents, even some of my tastes, like what I like to eat and the music I love, has made more sense. But in cultural terms I am not American or British enough to be able to wholly consider myself any of these. Where do I belong, then? And how can I achieve completion of my identity under these conditions? It is a natural human need to belong. Many times I have felt rootless. In limbo.
A great number of international adoptees have been adopted into Anglo-Saxon countries, mostly United States and Australia, and many of them come from places considered developing countries. The international adoptee community, which has found in social media a great tool to communicate, receive and give support, and get organized, encourages transracial and transcultural adoptees to connect with their roots. My case is a rare one, because it is the opposite of the majority. I was adopted from the Anglo-Saxon culture to a Latin American culture. I never imagined that this would put me in a delicate position.
Puerto Rico has a 500-year-old Hispanic culture. I am in love with the Spanish language, with its richness and infinite subtleties. I feel so honored and grateful to have this as my first language. We study the English language starting at first grade of elementary school, because we are a United States’ territory since 1898, as a result of the Spanish-American war. We are United States citizens since 1914. We have an independentist sector and an autonomist sector which are very protective of our culture. Historically, there has been a generalized resistance to learning English. In my case, I seem to have some ability with languages and made a conscious effort to achieve fluency, for practical reasons but also because it is the language of my parents and my ancestors.
In 2019 I traveled to Connecticut to meet my eldest half-brother on my mother’s side. That year, a close friend who knew about my reunion with natural family told me that someone in our circle had criticized the frequency of my social media posts in the English language. Now that I am in touch with my family, I have been posting more content in English, and it seems this makes some people uncomfortable. But the most surprising part is that even a member of my natural family has told me that I am a real Boricua and should be proud of it. I was astonished. Who says I am not proud? I have no doubt that this person had good intentions, but no one can do this for me. Who or what I am is for me to decide. But the point is some people seem to believe that connecting with my Anglo-Saxon roots implies a rejection of Puerto Rican culture or that I consider being Puerto Rican an inferior condition, something not far from racism. Nothing could be farther from the truth! I was born in Puerto Rico and love my culture.
Puerto Rico’s situation is complicated, in consequence my identity issues became complicated. I am aware of our island’s subordinated position to a Caucasian English-speaking country; that this circumstance has caused injustices against our people; that our uniqueness needs to be protected and celebrated. Being aware sometimes makes our lives more difficult, because we understand the deep implications of situations. There was a time when I felt torn by the awareness of my reality: being Puerto Rican and also being linked by my ancestry to two cultures which for centuries dedicated their efforts to Imperialism. I am even related through my father to Admiral Horatio Nelson, a historical character that embodies British imperialism. How to reconcile that to my island’s colonial history and situation? Where I was going to put my loyalty? To feel that I was being judged for reconnecting to my original cultures – something every international adoptee is encouraged to do – did not help me in the task of answering these difficult questions.
Even when they were not perfect and made mistakes, my natural parents were good people with qualities I admire. The more I get to know them, the more I love them. The more I know them, the more I see them in me. If I love them, I cannot reject where they came from, which is also a basic part of who I am. Therefore, I have concluded that I cannot exclude their cultures from my identity construction process.
To connect to these cultures until I feel they are also mine is a process. I am not sure if I will ever achieve this, but I am determined to go through this process without any feelings of guilt. To do so is a duty to myself, to be able to become whole and have a real, or at least a better sense of who I am. And it is not only a duty, it is also my right.