Archive for January, 2011

Article in SD Reader: “All I Want Is My Birth Story”

Monday, January 31st, 2011

This excellent article by writer Elizabeth Salaam, All I Want Is My Birth Story, was published on January 26, 2011 in the San Diego Reader. In it, Salaam tells how she was adopted at four months by a family in Boise Idaho, and for most of her life, her story started then.

For a long time, I was content with the official “Gotcha Day” story of how my parents drove eight hours from Boise to Moscow, Idaho, in 20-below-zero weather to pick up their new little baby. I always loved the part about how I was wailing and howling in the social worker’s arms, how my mom said, “Give me that baby!” and how, once I’d been handed over, I immediately stopped crying. This sweet story made me special. Gotcha Day was like a second birthday, which neither of my two brothers had.

As she got older, though, Salaam wondered who she was before her adoptive mother said “Give me that baby!” At 22, she started a search for her birth parents, helped by “a careless judge who oversaw the finalization” of her adoption and let slip the name of her birth mother. Salaam paid a flat $35 fee to a non-profit organization called Search-Finders of Idaho, and on her 23rd birthday received the names and phone numbers of her birth parents.

The article goes on to describe Salaam’s first conversation with her birth mother (whom Salaam calls “T”), their first meeting, and some of the outcomes of that meeting. Here she describes their first phone call:

I don’t remember if  T cried right then. But I do remember her crying when she told me how alone she felt during her pregnancy. She found out she was pregnant when she left Atlanta to start college in Idaho. No one in her family knew, and she didn’t have anyone to talk to about what was happening to her. There was, she said, one graduate student who lived in her apartment complex, and he would check in on her every now and again to see if she needed anything from the store.

In the end, she walked to the hospital. She didn’t know she was in labor. All she knew was she was in pain. The graduate student came looking for her and stayed until I was born. She bit his hand during a particularly painful contraction.

That was all. She never held me. And to this day, no one in her family knows.

Within a year of our first conversation, I went to visit her in Tucson. She introduced me to her eight-year-old daughter as “Mommy’s friend.” We had dinner together. It was surreal. After so many years of wondering who she was and what she looked like and what it would be like to sit next to her, the reality didn’t feel…real. It was mind-boggling to feel such an affinity for someone I’d never met before. I felt the same way about my little sister.

We haven’t seen each other since.

Over the past 14 years, I’ve gone back and forth between anger and acceptance of my status as Big Secret in her life. Seven or 8 years ago, I asked why she couldn’t at least tell her daughter that she has a big sister. T said she feared that I’d disappear from their lives and that her daughter’s feelings would be hurt. I understood and accepted that answer, knowing I was too broke to travel back and forth between New York (where I lived at the time) and Tucson to play the role of big sister.

Salaam juxtaposes her relationship with her birth mother with that of a family involved in an open adoption. She wonders why her own birth mother chooses to keep Salaam a secret from the rest of her family. She poses the question to T via email. T responds:

“You incorrectly assume that I don’t want to talk and that you are a big secret,” T wrote. “My concerns are your expectations and motivations. Obviously, I am not living up to your expectations, so why do you think anyone else would?

“What are your expectations and what exactly do you want from us? Do you just want to meet all of my relatives? What if nobody else is interested because they have their own lives? I think the real problem is how one can expect to maintain a long-distance relationship with someone that you don’t know, may never see again, and have no history.

“I would love it if we lived closer together and we could visit and do things together and make a relationship. I guess I just don’t know how long distance relationships work or if this is even what you want.”

Salaam calls on her professional skills as a writer and seeks more information. She asks T how T felt when Salaam contacted her, whether it was a relief or disruption. How does T feel about Salaam now?

“When I first heard from you,” T wrote, “it was an unbelievably huge relief. Every day of my life up to that point, I would lay awake at night worrying about you. I could not sleep wondering where you were, if you were ok. I would lay awake thinking about how to find you so I could just check to see if you were okay. My mind was haunted by you.

“The day I heard from you, the haunting completely stopped. It was like a switch turned off in my brain. I felt great relief to know that you were ok and had a good mom and family. It was a bonus to know that you turned out so good. You were very kind, articulate, and thoughtful.”


The reason I love this article is because it shows there are no simple answers in adoption. Even when answers are available, they might not be the answers one is seeking. In the years I’ve been an adoptive mother, I’ve come to believe that adoption is the most complicated relationship faced by a human being. Much of a child’s energy is consumed by wondering about his biological roots. Much of a birth mother’s energy is consumed by worrying about the child she relinquished. That is why, I believe, it is vital for adoption records to be open and accessible. I also believe that adoptive parents should be open-minded when it comes to their child’s natural need to search.

In our family, involved in two international adoptions, we have done everything in our power to search for and develop relationships with our children’s birth families. Has that provoked questions and worries in our children and their birth families? On some level, yes it has. But on balance, I believe that the more information a child has about his life, the more solid he will feel at his core. 

The title of Elizabeth Salaam’s article states: “All I Want Is My Birth Story.” The truth is, we adoptive parents cannot always provide that for our children, no matter how strong our desire. But if we can, shouldn’t we at least try?


Suburban wildlife

Saturday, January 29th, 2011

We live in suburban Marin County, and in our yard, we’ve spotted possums, deer, rabbits, gophers, raccoons, and snakes, but never a fox, and never on the back deck–a destination that requires climbing some 20-odd steps. That’s why when I saw one peering in at me, I grabbed the camera and called to the kids, and why Mateo is so delighted in this photo. The silver-furred fox must have been tracking the mice who scamper through our tomato and strawberry beds, stringy and watery after a long winter. 

Our visit with the fox was short-lived. Once Mateo slid open the deck door, eager to play, I shooed the animal away, worried about the transmission of diseases. He trotted back down the deck steps, and disappeared into the stand of bamboo.

A few days later, I went outside to pick up the mail and was greeted by this: a male turkey leading a bevy of females on a trek across our front yard. As Olivia would say, “What the word?” How did they get here is what I want to know. And where are they going?

Such wildlife sightings may be common in your neighborhood, but not in ours. Tigers aren’t native to Marin, I hope.


ATM Advisory from U.S. Embassy in Guatemala

Friday, January 28th, 2011

The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala is advising U.S. travelers to Guatemala to stop using their ATM cards in Antigua. Reportedly, criminals are using cloned numbers to withdraw funds from unsuspecting travelers. Please read the entire alert here, dated January 27, 2011. Below is an excerpt:

Dear American Citizen:

The following is a Warden Message concerning ATMs information. Please share the following information with any other Americans you know, as soon as possible. It should be disseminated as widely as possible within the American citizen community.


Over the past few weeks there have been numerous reports of criminals in Antigua using cloned Automatic Teller Machine cards to withdraw money from the bank accounts of unsuspecting travelers. Customers using ATMs have lost thousands of dollars — often the entire balance of their ATM bank accounts. All ATMs can be subject to these attacks. We are working with the Guatemalan authorities to solve this serious problem. In the meantime, the U.S. Embassy advises against the use of ATMs in Antigua, if at all possible. As an alternative, citizens can withdraw money using a major credit card at banks that deal in foreign exchange or at foreign exchange offices. U.S.citizens with a Guatemalan bank account can also cash checks at their local bank.

ATMs located inside a bank may offer a greater degree of security. For those staying in hotels, hotel management might be willing to provide cash and charge the foreign exchange transaction to the room bill. 

I learned of this alert on a Guatemalan listserve to which I belong, posted by Caroline Tiffin.


Missouri Supreme Court rules in adoption case involving Guatemalan woman

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

A while back, I posted about a case in Missouri where the American-born child of a Guatemalan mother was adopted to a U.S. family. Here is an excerpt from the latest report by the Associated Press:

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that state adoption laws were not followed in terminating the parental rights of a Guatemalan woman who was caught up in a 2007 immigration raid and allowing her son to be adopted by an American couple.

But the decision doesn’t automatically return the now 4-year-old child to his birth mother, Encarnacion Bail Romero. The court instead ordered the completion of mandatory reports about Romero, the adoptive parents and the boy, and a new trial regarding Romero’s parental rights.

Judge Patricia Breckenridge, who wrote the majority opinion for the seven-member court, said another hearing would be required because the evidence in the case suggested abandonment. In a footnote, Breckenridge expressed concern about how the case played out, and three other judges indicated they would have reversed the adoption.

“Every member of this court agrees that this case is a travesty in its egregious procedural errors, its long duration and its impact on mother, adoptive parents and, most importantly, child,” Breckenridge wrote.

Romero was arrested during an immigration sweep at a poultry plant, and sentenced to two years in a federal prison after pleading guilty to aggravated identity theft. Since leaving prison in 2009, she has been seeking to regain custody of her son, Carlos, who has lived with Seth and Melinda Moser, of Carthage, since he was about 1 year old.


The case has generated widespread interest. The Guatemalan consulate, the American Civil Liberties Union and several other groups submitted written arguments to the state Supreme Court. Guatemala’s ambassador to the U.S., Francisco Villagran, watched the November oral arguments and sat near Romero in the courtroom. He said later that the dispute was the result of unclear American immigration rules.

I cannot imagine that the child Carlos will not be returned to his biological mother, who could not have predicted the eventual chain of events when she first asked relatives to care for Carlos while she was in jail. Adoption never seemed to be her intention. The AP article states:

Another couple who had been helping Romero’s family care for Carlos after his mother’s arrest had contacted the Mosers about adopting him. The boy was born in the U.S. and is a U.S. citizen. Romero was not immediately deported after serving her sentence so she could challenge the adoption, according to her attorneys.

If and when Carlos is returned to Encarnacion Romero, another layer of complexity will be added: As a child born in the U.S., Carlos is a U.S. citizen, while Romero is not. Presumably, they will both return to Guatemala. At this point, Carlos has spent three years with his adoptive family, the Mosers, and this duration will only increase with the new trial. I agree with Judge Breckenridge’s statement: “This case is a travesty… for its impact on mother, adoptive parents and, most importantly, child.”


Arrest of suspect in 1982 Guatemalan civil war massacre

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

This Associated Press article from January 24, 2011 reports that a Southern California martial arts instructor suspected of involvement in a 1982 massacre during Guatemala’s civil war was arrested in Canada while visiting his parents and is awaiting extradition to the U.S. 

[Suspect Jorge] Sosa, 52, was indicted in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana [California] in September after authorities said he lied about his role in the civil war when he applied for U.S. citizenship in 2008.

Sosa was granted citizenship, but it was revoked after the grand jury indictment. He lives in Moreno Valley.

In Guatemala, Sosa was a member of a special military unit called the “Kaibiles” and was the commanding officer of a unit assigned to find and arrest guerrillas who had stolen military weapons, according to court documents.

On Dec. 7, 1982, he and several dozen soldiers stormed the village of Dos Erres, near Las Cruces, and systematically killed the men, women and children, the government claims in the indictment. The unit is accused of slaughtering villagers with sledgehammers and throwing people into a well.


The civil war in Guatemala claimed at least 200,000 lives before it ended in 1996.

In 1982, the “Kaibiles” were tracking an armed insurgency by guerrillas opposed to the military government. The killings cited in the indictment were investigated by the Guatemalan government 12 years later, when a judge ordered the excavation of the site and 162 skeletons were recovered.

The killings qualified under the law as perverse brutality, Guatemalan authorities said, and a judge in that country ordered the arrest of the Kaibiles in 2000.

In September, another former Guatemalan soldier who came to the U.S. was sentenced in Florida to 10 years in U.S. prison for lying on citizenship forms about his military service and role in the incident.

Read the Associated Press article, titled “Guatemala massacre suspect faces charges in California,” here. For more information on the civil war, including information about declassified CIA documents that reveal U.S. involvement in the 1954 coup that set off decades of destabilization in Guatemala, read the Wikipedia entry for Guatemalan Civil War. To learn more, check out Daniel Wilkinson’s excellent book, Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror, Betrayal, and Forgetting in Guatemala.


Home and home

Monday, January 24th, 2011

I arrived back in California late on Saturday after a whirlwind Mamalita reading trip to the East coast. I’ve lived in California more than twenty years, but in many ways, the East coast still feels like home.

Today is a holiday for our school district, so Olivia and Mateo are here with me now as I post a few photos from my glorious journey to visit friends–Debbie Bower and Maria-Rose Contini from grammar and high school in New Jersey; and Susanne Donovan, Anne Maffia, Robin Wray, Sean Culkin, and Brian Doerner from college in Delaware. Susanne invited me to speak to her book group in Pennyslvania. I have to tell you, that reading almost made me want to transfer my base of operations to the Keystone State, those women were so much fun. The last photo is of fellow adoptive parents who, through the wonders of cyberspace, learned about my reading at Borders Books in Bryn Mawr.

It’s great to be back, fortified by my friends for life.


Reading at The Regulator and dinner at Sharon’s

Friday, January 21st, 2011

Wednesday night I had an amazing reading at The Regulator Bookshop in Durham, North Carolina. Amazing, first, because The Regulator is such a charming, friendly independent bookstore, with a huge inventory of books for readers of all ages. And second, because the audience was so insightful about adoption. Nearly everyone contributed at least one question or comment–on subjects ranging from the politics of name-changing, to media coverage about international adoption and how it affects our children, to the possibility of our children wanting to return to Guatemala permanently.

I’m grateful to my husband’s colleague, Neil Prose, and his wife, who invited me to Durham, and to fellow adoptive mother, Marcie Pachino and her daughter, for making me feel so welcome.

Last evening, Sharon McCarthy hosted a dinner for me with her book group at her home in Washington, DC. Sharon and I met the first day of high school, in homeroom, and have been friends ever since. The members of her book group are as fabulous as she is. Here are a few photos. Thank you, Sharon!

I just arrived in 30th Station Philadelphia via Amtrak. Tonight, I read at the Borders in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. The Mamalita Book Tour has turned out to be a great opportunity to reconnect with friends. What a bonus! More later~


To chicken bus or not to chicken bus

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

Chicken buses are arguably the most affordable mode of transportation in Guatemala. And I do love a bargain. Yet when people ask me about riding chicken buses, I caution ”It’s not worth the money you save. Don’t do it.” Now, after reading Ben Groundwater’s article– ”Nobody on board but us chickens“– I’m not so sure. Maybe riding chicken buses is fine outside of Guatemala City. Read Groundwater’s article and decide for yourself. He writes:

The first surprise about my chicken bus is that there aren’t any chickens on it. Guatemalan chicken buses don’t carry too many of their namesakes, apparently.


The second surprise about my chicken bus is it’s not really a bus. In the physical sense, it is; it was once an American school bus but has been resurrected with Guatemalan engineering and a glorious riot of red and green paint. But in the sense that it behaves how we Westerners know buses are supposed to behave, it definitely is not.

I’m forced onto it just beyond the Mexican border, told it is going in my general direction, if not where I really want to go. “Xela?” I ask.

“You change Reyu,” someone yells as they throw my backpack onto the roof.

Great. What’s Reyu?

From there, we make a tortuous journey to … nowhere. It soon becomes obvious we aren’t leaving until more passengers turn up. A lot more. Half an hour later, we hit half-capacity and it’s off to Reyu. Or something like that.

I loved this article. It made me realize that, when it comes to chicken buses, the perceived safety, or lack of it, could depend on who is doing the riding, and where. Admittedly, I’m more cautious than most. As a North American adoptive mother traveling with two English-speaking, yet obviously Guatemalan-born children, it’s hard for me to blend in anywhere in Guatemala. In general, we avoid large gatherings of people, which rules out riding a chicken bus. However, that doesn’t mean other folks don’t feel comfortable on board.

From now on, I’ll offer this modified position: If you feel safe riding a chicken bus, you should ride one. But I”ll stand by my advice not to ride a chicken bus in Guatemala City.


Happy MLK, Jr. Day; travel to Antigua; and the Mamalita book tour goes East.

Monday, January 17th, 2011

This morning Mateo said that if he lived “in the olden days,” he would have to go to a “little school with no playground.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Because my skin is dark,” Mateo said.

My son then wished me a Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I hugged him and wished him the same. Thank heavens for people like Dr. King and Rosa Parks, and the hundreds of heroes in our country’s history–known and unknown–who have stood up for what is right.

On an unrelated note, I found this article, “Top 10 Things to Do in Antigua, Guatemala” by Nancy Schretter – a list of “greatest hits” known to all who have visited there. But for anyone who hasn’t, the article presents a good overview of what to do in that beautifully restored colonial town, naming activities such as “See the Volcanoes,” “Explore the History,” “Drink the Coffee,” and “Shop for Handicrafts.” The article is geared toward cruise ship passengers disembarking in Guatemala, but presents info helpful to any first-time tourist. Read the article here.

We spent much of this past weekend in our garden, thatching the raspberry bushes and cleaning out the the tomato and strawberry beds. Getting muddy in the garden is one of my favorite activities–the kids run around while Tim and I work, and everyone is tired enough at the end of the day to eat a good dinner and sleep well.

Tomorrow, I leave for the East coast for three Mamalita readings. One in Durham, North Carolina; one at a friend’s home, with her book club; and finally, at the Borders Bookstore in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. I’ll miss my family here, of course, but am looking forward to visiting with old friends and making new ones, all while discussing my favorite subject, adoption. On Sunday, I’ll be back in California to read with other contributors to the West Marin Review, at the Red Barn in Point Reyes National Park.

Here are the dates and times:

Wednesday, January 19, 2011 at 7 p.m.
The Regulator Bookshop
720 Ninth St.
Durham, NC 27705

Friday, January 21, 2011 at 7 p.m.
Borders Books-Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania
Rosemont Shopping Center
1149 Lancaster Avenue
Bryn Mawr, PA 19010

Sunday, January 23, 2011; 1:00-4:00 pm
West Marin Review Book Release Party
Red Barn, Point Reyes National Seashore
I will be reading an excerpt from Mamalita with other contributors to Volume III of the West Marin Review. (The Red Barn is at the entrance to the Point Reyes National Seashore Headquarters on Bear Valley Road. Look for the sign to parking for the Red Barn Classroom.)


Book groups, a blog review, and conversations about motherhood

Friday, January 14th, 2011

If you belong to a book group, I hope you will consider choosing Mamalita: An Adoption Memoir as one of your selections. Here’s what two friends wrote about reactions from their membership:

Our Book Group started in October 1997…  We have now read 134 books, yours being the 134th.  We have read classics, non-fiction, contemporary works and books recently written by acquaintances.  Last night we had by far the most intense, intimate, lengthy discussion of a book – everyone loved it. 


Mamalita led to one of the best and most substantive book group discussions  we’ve had in our 10-year history – especially since everyone loved the book and there wasn’t anything to disagree about! It was amazing that the book seemed to resonate equally among the mothers, the adoptive mothers, and the non-mothers. And surprising how many people we all know who’ve been touched in some way by adoption.

If you loved the book, please suggest the title to your book club. Some sixty percent of Americans report being touched by adoption in some way. Chances are that some of those people are in your book group, and would also enjoy the read.

I’m pleased to link to this blog, Thighs & Offerings: Everyday Efforts at Embodied Spirituality, which reviewed Mamalita in terms of its theme of motherhood. Mamalita‘s first chapter opens with this sentence:  “I’ve never given birth, but I know the exact moment when I became a mother: 10 A.M., September 6, 2002.”  That was the day I met my daughter, the baby who would become Olivia, for the first time.

In her her blog post, Kate writes:

Mamalita is, according to Publishers Weekly, “[H]arrowing and moving…deftly handled.” And I agree. But as a young woman beginning to consider the possibility of one day becoming a mother myself, it is not only the enjoyment that I experience in reading a “deftly handled” memoir, but also the thought, conversation, and questions that such a memoir provokes that, to me, make O’Dwyer’s book worth reading. One such question has persisted, and has found its way into conversations even now, long after I finished the book. When, I have wondered time and time again, does a woman become a mother?

I’m a person who believes that we learn by asking questions and discussing. How wonderful that, for some people who have shared their views with me, reading Mamalita initiates that process.