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 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

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 star- ted paint it I felt like it needed it 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 …

Life Lessons from an Adoptee – Part 7

This is a series written by Tamieka Small, adopted from Ethiopia to Australia.

Doubt yourself and you doubt everything you see. Judge ourselves and we see judges everywhere. But if you listen to the sound of your own voice you can see forever’ – Nancy Lopez

Your voice matters. Our voices as adoptees matter. When you’re a person of colour, an international adoptee, queer person or a woman we all experience unique aspects of oppression from society. Our experiences are valid, our trauma, our abuse are valid and real.

Quite often there are people who try to tear us down, discount marginalised groups and gas-light us into believing that our pains and hardships were just a figment of our imagination; that we’re overly sensitive, that we’re ‘snowflakes’, but we must not let them have power over us, and over our minds. We know deep down when something isn’t right, when we have experienced something we shouldn’t have.

You have a voice, don’t let anyone make you doubt yourself. Don’t let anyone repress your intuition. Stand up for yourself, call people out, speak from your heart because your voice matters, and you’ll be surprised just how many people will feel the same as you, who will resonate with you. You will always find someone trying to bring another person down but we cannot let that dictate our lives in any way.

Life Lessons from an Adoptee – Part 6

This is a series written by Tamieka Small, adopted from Ethiopia to Australia.

‘Be your own hero, be your own saviour, send all your suffering into the fire. Let no foot, mark your ground, let no hand, hold you down.’

Patrick Wolf

I don’t know about you but as a woman we are force fed the idea since we were little girls that a big strong man will come along and ‘save us’ from our troubles and fix all of our problems. And maybe not everyone believed that literally but I think you will find that especially for women the fantasy may linger in our subconscious more than we think. It can sometimes be a narrative we subconsciously place ourselves into, especially in relationships where all our inner fears and unhealthy beliefs are mirrored to us.  I also know especially for the younger generations that love is painted as this happily ever after where the partner will come along and solve all our problems if we just find the right one, when really it is no one else’s responsibility but our own to fix our problems.

Maybe that’s just the nativity that comes with youth and young love. And for me personally I believed that as a little girl and when I got older I thought that to an extent that my partner should be there to go through every battle with me, to hold me up, be a shoulder to cry on, to cheer me on, to be everything to me, and I went through an abusive 3 year co-dependent relationship to realise that is not love. Its co-dependency. And co-dependency tends to happen with people who haven’t worked on themselves and their unhealthy coping mechanisms to defence mechanisms to having an unhealthy definition of what love is.

With being adopted as a little girl in some way or another I would dream of getting a letter from my birth family to come in the mail and to come tell me everything as to why they abandoned me. To come and save me from my loneliness, from feeling like I don’t belong in this country or community. It felt like I was an alien that fell out of the sky with no history, no past, just a blank canvas. I remember watching films like ‘Lilo and Stitch’ and feeling like Stitch exactly; who was exactly an alien with no real parents and trying so hard to understand why he didn’t. I felt like every hero and heroine who had no back story, and would often fantasize about being suddenly whisked away on an adventure, where I would find out an epic story about my roots and my birth family and realise my place in the world.

Basically, I was waiting for someone to come save me, to help me understand my pain but no one ever came. And that was devastating.

What I realised growing up, and from having experiences in different relationships that I was the one who had to save myself. I was the woman who had to pick up the sword and fight my own battles, to find out my own truth, to wipe my own tears from my face. I had to be the hero in my own story. I had to be the one to unpack my trauma and unhealthy coping mechanisms, unhealthy definition of love, and heal myself because no one else was going to do that for me. And frankly it’s no one else’s responsibility but mine. I think as adoptees we need to realise that, take accountability in our pain and trauma and take the steps in unravelling that and healing ourselves.

Because honestly if we’re told since children or traumatized into a narrative where we have to rely on others for our happiness and our rescue from our pain or suffering; we rid ourselves of our own personal power to do so. We put ourselves into a narrative where we become even more powerless than we already imagined ourselves to be as orphans or children or adoptees. But we have a choice when we get to adulthood; we can choose what our narrative is, we have the power, the proverbial pen to our story in our hands.