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

my inner borealis, mi boreal interior

from the first light
to the dying of the day
the shades of my life
find their way to the canvas
overflowing the palette
in their eagerness
to be

my inner borealis, these
they undulate through their tones
in constant attempt
to form
that i might have substance
evoking
that i might feel
being
that i might live

and so it is
that in the living
in this swirl of time
and attendant circumstance
the ebb and flow
remind me
that gifts golden
and despair dark
are all found in the flourish
of my hope-filled hand

my inner borealis, mi boreal interior
mi boreal interior collection
(c) j.alonso 2020
el pocico, españa

Poems by j.alonso may not be reproduced, copied or distributed without the written consent of the author.

staring at your stone, mirando fijamente a su piedra

seven years too late
but i came anyway
to stare at your stone
beneath my feet
it was all
i knew to do

i primped your dead flowers
saw my reflection
on your polished slate
the shadow of a name
cold
scrolled
i never knew

this stranger before me
whose blood
fills my feet
wordless
faceless
more consistent in death
than ever in life

yes
yes i am here
to curse you
and thank you
for the void
and for this life 

staring at your stone, mirando fijamente a su piedra
mi boreal interior collection
(c) j.alonso 2019
madrid, españa

Poems by j.alonso may not be reproduced, copied or distributed without the written consent of the author.

two lives, dos vidas

i am one person
and i am another
my insides are as busy
as the noisy street below
horns honk
buses of spanish lives
pass my window

people look funny at me
as i walk in the throng
i appear to be like them
my face castellano
but my clothes
and manner intrude

they speak to me
willing to believe
i am simply eccentric
a spanish ugly duckling
and i disappoint
with blank looks
embarrassed shrugs
an elephant
on the autovia

they are mine
but they flow around me
i risk pride on occasion
as i walk among them
i am like them
they are like me
after all!

i am an insider
on holiday
in a strange land
full of people who babble
my native tongue
to my deaf ears
my soul
doesn’t know which way to turn
in the tumult

so many waves
rock my little boat
no time
to absorb any one
before another
crashes against me
i am living two lives
before my wide open
speechless eyes

two lives, dos vidas
mi boreal interior collection
j. alonso granada, españa

(c) j.alonso 2019

Poems by j.alonso may not be reproduced, copied or distributed without the written consent of the author.    

When It’s Time to Go Home

In my first post, I stated my wish to share a couple of events experienced by few, if any, Greek adoptees. Finding my birthmother, Hariklea Voukelatos, when I was 30 was a gift beyond measure. Twelve years later Hariklea made a remarkable request that changed the lives of my family forever and makes my adoption story truly unique.

It was the summer of 2007, and I was glad to be back in Greece after two years away. My usual itinerary involved spending a couple of days in Athens with my cousins before I took the bus to Patras to stay with Hariklea, my birthmother. A phone call changed everything. When cousin Zoe phoned Hariklea to tell her I had arrived, I had an inkling something was up when their conversation lasted longer than what seemed necessary. Even so, I was not prepared for Zoe’s announcement: “Maria, Hariklea has made other plans for your weekend. She wants you to come to Patras today.” “Why today?” I asked. “Because Hariklea wants to go home to her village on Lefkada Island and you are going to take her there,” Zoe replied. Her comment was met with dead silence. Then everyone started talking at once and peppering Zoe with questions. She quieted everyone down and continued: “Hariklea left Nikolis 44 years ago as a frightened, pregnant, teenager. Now she is an old woman who wants to see her childhood home one last time before she dies. When you arrive in Patras, she will rent a car for the drive. You will stay with my parents, Thodoris and Marianna. Hariklea has even arranged for a translator for your visit. We sat in silence, each of us trying to get our heads around what this meant to the family when cousin Eve cut to the chase and stated, “Forty-four years ago your mother was forced to leave Nikolis because of you. Now 44 years later, she can return to Nikolis because of you.” In two short sentences, Eve had articulated the irony of Hariklea’s request. It was understandable and profound.

What a crazy morning! In two hours, I had gone from sipping coffee on the beach to a hard, wooden bench at a bus station. I had no idea what to expect, but the abrupt changes in my plans were small compared to the total transformation of my Greek family’s life. All these changes only heightened my anticipation of the upcoming trip.

I boarded the bus for Patras and settled into my seat. Looking out the window at the familiar countryside, memories of my first visit to Lefkada in 1996 returned. With God’s grace, a fork in the road and the letter “N,” Bev and I had found tiny Nikolis clinging to a steep mountainside on our first day of looking. My uncles were more than a little shocked to meet the child Hariklea was carrying when she left the island. Hearing the grown woman standing in front of them was their niece must have been like seeing a ghost from the past. We shared a meal that started with a bit of tension but ended with Thodoris welcoming me to the family.

Three hours later I arrived in Patras and took a taxi to Hariklea’s home. Parked out front was a funny, little, purple car with an anemic three-cylinder engine. Perfect for our trip, it suited the narrow roads and got good gas mileage. We stowed our bags and climbed in the car. Settled in, Hariklea looked at me and said, “Pame” (“Let’s go”).

Driving together for hours with an unavoidable language barrier made for a challenging trip. We managed to converse about simple things, and while there was not much said, a lot was communicated. Barreling down the road, I wondered what could be more reasonable than a mother and daughter driving home to visit the relatives. Nothing, except we were no ordinary mother and daughter, and the home had remained unseen for four decades. The significance of what we were doing was not lost on us at all.

Five hours and 15 hairpin-turns later we pulled into Uncle Thodoris’ driveway. There were hugs and kisses all around as he and Marianna came out to greet us. Once inside, we were introduced to our translator, Kalliopy, a friend of Thodoris. Hariklea and I got settled in our room before joining the others at the kitchen table. We stayed up for hours talking, laughing, and drinking Thodoris’ homemade krasi (wine). Around midnight Kalliopy returned home and we went to bed. Tomorrow was going to be a big day.

We were up the next morning sipping coffee when there was a knock at the door. I opened it to find a tiny, senior, man with his hands in his pockets, watery eyes, and trembling lips. He was shaking as he asked to come in. The minute he saw Hariklea, he shuffled to her as fast as he could, embraced her and sobbed. Kalliopi explained his name was Andreas Adipas, a childhood friend from Nikolis. They sat close together on kitchen chairs, holding one another like old friends do and sharing their news. The tender scene unfolding in front of us brought everyone to tears. How sad these two friends had lost out on a lifetime of friendship. Andreas was the first villager to welcome Hariklea home, and that meant the news had spread: Hariklea Voukelatos was back on Lefkada.

The excitement in the house was palpable as we changed clothes and prepared to leave for Nikolis. We were all expected for lunch with Nikos and Zahareena. There were five of us, so Thodoris and Marianna led the way in his truck with Hariklea, Kalliopi, and me following behind. The drive was short, but no one spoke along the way. I wanted Hariklea to have time to prepare herself as we drove over the steep, windy, roads she had not seen since she was a teenager. We passed the field where her mother’s dowry of nine olive trees still grew as well as the olive press our fathers had shared. I turned right at the sign that led travelers to Nikolis and within minutes parked in front of Hariklea’s old home.

Details about Hariklea’s return home after 44 years, can be found in my recently published book: Beyond the Third Door: Based on a True Story (Vancouver, WA, 2019)

About Maria

her name was maité, su nombre era maité

blossoming almond branch in glass by vincent van gogh

i have been told
of a sister
i have never met
she died at sixteen
in an accident
her name was maité

i dreamed of her
last night
soft, gentle
everything it seems
a sister might be
she was to me
through the night

i felt the feeling
one must feel
when they have such a one
as her
the not alone feeling
perfumey girl presence
it was a beautiful dream

she stayed with me today
in my waking hours
i smelled her
through the two thousand pesetas of
super
i pumped into my car

and when i worried about money
she reassured me
it will all work out
dear brother
she said

i stopped by the side of the road
on the way home
and picked her
a wildflower
that i know she’ll love
i’ll give it to her
tonight

her name was maité, su nombre era maité
mi boreal interior collection
j. alonso el pocico, españa
(c) j.alonso 2019

Poems by j.alonso may not be reproduced, copied or distributed without the written consent of the author.

 

prince of spain

i am a prince of spain
i stride across the land
in full view of the people
my identity not in question
the strength of it’s source
as sure as the continent
sits upon the sea

i am a prince of spain
i look through the eyes of ages
i obey the call of my heritage
she blows in my hair
like the june wind 
her song is a tide
throughout me each new day

i am a prince of spain
i am tall, like my king
the red and yellow waves
and my heart along with it
the riches, these wild expanses
adorn the good people
of which i am one
yes, i am one

 prince of spain
 (principe de españa) 
j. alonso
lubrin, españa 
(c) j.alonso 2019

Poems by j.alonso may not be reproduced, copied or distributed without the written consent of the author.

                                  

Embracing our Origins

As an intercountry adoptee from the early 70s era, I became so assimilated into my adoptive country’s white culture and value system that it wasn’t until I reached adulthood, that I became keenly aware of  being disconnected from my intrinsic and inherent origins and wanted to do something about reclaiming them back.

At various stages throughout my adult journey of adoption, I began to unravel and explore my origins which included exploring the language, the religions, the foods, the customs and value systems of my birth land. This can also include exploring and embracing the ways one’s birth culture celebrates certain milestones.

wedding ao dai.jpg
Traditional Vietnamese Wedding Dress

A huge change over time for me has been that when I married, I felt so totally Australian that I didn’t even consider embracing my Asian origins by wearing a traditional Vietnamese dress, the ao dai or by having my wedding embrace any of the traditional Vietnamese customs. Now, over a decade later and after returning to my birth country twice, I wish I had included elements of my Vietnamese origins into my wedding.

An Indian intercountry adoptee friend of mine, adopted to Sweden, is willing to share with you her thoughts about what it means to embrace her origins on her special wedding day. You can read Jessica’s thoughts here.

Hopefully, by sharing our thoughts we will help other intercountry adoptees feel positive about embracing and exploring their origins. It is totally normal for intercountry adoptees to want to do this even when we are happy in our adoptive lives. It is a healthy thing to want to explore who we are racially, where we come from, exploring the customs and traditions of our origins, embracing the cultural elements we connect to and displaying it in whatever ways we feel comfortable.