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.

My Mother

by My Huong Lé, Vietnamese adoptee raised in Australia, living in Vietnam. Co-Founder of Vietnam Family Search, an adoptee led organisation dedicated to helping reunite families in Vietnam.

A mother should not just be remembered for being special on Mother’s Day, but each and every day. Just over two years ago I was miraculously reunited with my mother. Every day with her since then has been amazing, but on this Mother’s Day I want to honour her in a special way.

My heart also goes out to mothers all over the world who have been separated from their child/children for whatever reason. Mothers you are never forgotten!

This is my mother’s story:

My eyes gazed upon my baby with love the moment she was born. As I held her the day she took her first breath, a feeling of immense joy leapt into your heart. 

She had no father as he left me when I was pregnant and returned abroad having finished his military service. Regardless, I decided from conception that I would cherish this child as a gift. 

As I held her close for the first time, I examined her. She had all her fingers and toes and with that relief came the realisation of her larger extended nose. 

Within moments everything turned into a blur as I bled profusely. As I lay unconscious the nurse forewarned my mother that I would die. However, hours later as I drifted in and out of unconsciousness, in a faint voice I whispered, “Where is My Huong?”. In response, I was told, “Two friends visited and took your baby to care for her.” 

With a sense of relief in my heart, I was grateful that my newborn was safe and as I lay in bed for weeks in a state of weakness, my thoughts drifted — longing to hold my cherished baby in my arms. 

After nearly two months of gaining enough strength, I slowly set off on foot to visit my friends to bring my daughter home ….. but they were not to be seen. The questions began to swirl in my head and a feeling of dread began to set like a stone in my chest as the search began.

The days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months and months into years. I ploughed the fields in the scorched golden sun. With a broken heart, I wept silently each night not knowing what had become of My Huong. I prayed for her safety and yearned that someday she would return. My only wish was to be able to see her face one time before dying.

Then in mid Feb 2018, I received a message to say that My Huong was seen on TV. My mind drifted back over all the years of longing and I wept a valley of tears. That night those tears were tears of relief — that the possibility of finding My Huong could now be real. 

My prayers were answered and two weeks later, you stood face to face with me – your daughter who had been cruelly stolen from you. After almost 48 long years of being apart, the overwhelming reality of having your daughter beside you made you want to faint. As you stroked her face and kissed her cheeks, she knew in that moment that you were her mother.

Mum, I don’t know how to express all you mean to me. Since our reunion two years ago, you have shown me that your love is never ending and you have brought immense joy into my life and filled my heart. You are the greatest gift and daily I am thankful to God for the miracle of giving you back to me. 

On this special Mother’s Day, I want to honour you. I am honoured and blessed to have you as my mother!

I love you with all my heart!
My Huong Lé

For so many years, I have hidden my deepest childhood traumas under a mask of smiles and perceived positivity. Now, I am being forced to face these past traumas and weaknesses, as well as the more recent trauma caused by the web of deception, which was unveiled when I was contacted by my true mother two years ago. Wounds from the fake mother and family are still deep, but daily I am healing and I am so thankful to now have my dear mother living with me. She is such a precious gift and I thank God for the miracle of having her in my life.

For those interested in my story you can read the following article which was written by Zoe Osborne.

when mothers and fathers run like water, cuando madres y padres corre como el agua

SickNotWeak on Twitter: "Hopelessness and loneliness are two ...

back and forth she runs
calls
day in, day out
though raggedly now
the months
have come and gone
her little one
has not returned

fretting the cobbles
disquieting the village
she calls out once more
my precious one!
mi vida!
hear me!
my little one
oh how i wish
everything impossible

how i wish
for mercy
in a world
with four seasons
sad new moons
dry leaves
winter songs

my life!
these breasts
they hardened
they pained me
for days
and weeks
in protest
as i searched
throughout the land
for you

now they hang
they mock me
in empty reproach
lines like grimaces
coursing purple and angry
run down
pointing to my uselessness

of if there
is a goodness remaining
in the wretchedness
of my ruin
where oh where
is my little one?

to all things holy
hear me
oh may providence protect
what i
could not

mi vida!
within the sound
of my voice
and the cry
of my soul
a small soul
hear me
precious one
where can you be
under this sky?

o mi vida
i am here!

when mothers and fathers run like water
(to the faithful mother cat in our village)
cuandro madres y padres corre como el agua
j.alonso
el pocico, easpaña

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

Immigrant Children Being Separated and Placed into U.S Foster Care

stop separating families.jpg
Since May, over 2,300 immigrant children have been forcibly separated from their parents at the Mexican border due to President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy. When I watched the news, I was speechless. I was terrified for the children being placed into foster care because they don’t belong there. These children belong to families, they are wanted and certainly aren’t in need of new care. And I believe foster care should never be used in this way–their services shouldn’t be used to house children who belong to families.

How was this even made possible? I wondered.

And another thought struck. Where is this leading to?

I read recent news to find out how the funding evolved. It looks like back in 2014, the Obama Administration created a network of foster care programs back when immigrants and unaccompanied minors were crossing the Mexican-United States border. Now, in the wake of Donald Trump’s recent “zero tolerance” immigration policy, these foster care facilities are being used to house the children who were forcibly separated from their families too.

This is what shocks me. Back in May, 2014, it looks like the federal U.S government gave a US$2.28 billion budget to help set up state-licensed shelters and foster care agencies around the country, for these unaccompanied minors. From this Newsweek article, I learned that the White House established a linked network of foster care programs to cater towards these immigrant children too. Thus, now presently, these foster care programs are funded in the same way that state or county laws and regulations govern domestic foster care.

Additionally, the news article states that the children who are removed from their parents by ICE are still legally considered “unaccompanied alien children.” Because of this technicality, these children could spend an average of 51 days in a temporary shelter before they are put into sponsor homes with relatives already living in the U.S — or be placed into the U.S foster care system. And this is where my horror turns into anger since the immigrant children at the border were accompanied by a parent or legal guardian.

I’m shocked because the U.S is not being truthful in its own administration–which from experience can be extremely damaging for these children in the future when they become adults. This detail is also destructively misleading, assisting children into dangerously enter the world of foster care and the adoption industry where so many risks are involved.

vulnerable families.jpg

My Personal Statement

As a Filipino-American adoptee, I was orphaned at birth because of destitute poverty. My birth family couldn’t take care of me. I was relinquished and had to live in an orphanage until I was two, then adopted in the U.S, where I grew up experiencing the hardships of my displacement and my adoption placement. I wouldn’t want to wish this on any child especially for those that aren’t a part of the intercountry adoptee realities.

I believe these immigrant children do not have the same qualities surrounding their displacement as intercountry adoptees.

These children belong to families who want them.

They had not been abandoned or relinquished and they should not be termed “unaccompanied” when they were accompanied. These children were forcibly separated by the U.S government, a traumatizing action which will need healing and repair for each family that this is impacting.

Shame on the U.S government for creating a funded system in place that would even begin the process of orphaning these immigrant children at the border. In my opinion, the U.S. government should be reprimanded for the mistreatment of children and for the flagrant misuse of today’s foster care system.

And, I think we should all care about this issue–because the misuse of the foster system and the systematic funding that allows this, especially in a leading developed country like the U.S, jeopardizes today’s foster care system and adoption industry on domestic and international levels.

My Plea

I urge spotlighted attention to be placed on the immigrant children being placed into foster care and shelters. I am asking journalists, writers, social media networkers, lawyers, caring citizens, adoptees, non-adoptees and everyone to watch the news and make sure that these children are being treated well and will not be placed for adoption. We need to see that these government funds will be used to reunite these children back to their families.

Discussion Prompt

Intercountry adoptees and adoptive families, what are your views? Do you have feedback, or ideas of what can be done or ways to keep an eye on each immigrant child that is placed in U.S foster care and shelters?