Archive for February, 2011

Guatemala Part 7: Spanish School redux

Monday, February 28th, 2011

Several people have asked if I recommend studying Spanish in Guatemala. Absolutely, yes. Language schools exist throughout the country, but we only have studied in Antigua. Last August, we spent a month in Guatemala and I posted a blog about our experience at one school, San Jose El Viejo. I’m reposting the blog here. 

This summer at Latin American Heritage Camp, a panel of teen and adult adoptees dedicated a large percentage of their discussion to the importance of learning, speaking, and/or retaining the language of one’s birth country. The consensus was that language is critical if one wishes to interface with birth family, foster family, orphanage family, or, indeed, the culture at large, in a meaningful way. That’s true in my own life, as well: Speaking even elementary Spanish has allowed me to communicate with many more people in Guatemala than I would be able to otherwise.

Not that teaching a child a second language is easy. For my husband and me, it has been anything but that. Neither of us is fluent in Spanish, which is our biggest obstacle. And not only do we not employ a nanny who speaks Spanish, we rarely, if ever, hire a babysitter. Our local public school is not bilingual, and though we have a few Spanish-speaking friends, their children prefer to speak English while playing with our kids. This year, in third grade, Olivia will study Spanish. We’re lucky that it’s the second language taught in California schools. What about the kids adopted from Nepal or Russia or Ethiopia? How do they learn to communicate with others from their homeland?

The good news is that during this past trip to Guatemala, Olivia saw and understood the benefits of speaking Spanish. While listening to one conversation I carried on with someone, she said with admiration, “Mom, you speak a lot of Spanish!” Reader, believe me, I don’t. But you get the idea: In a real-life example, my daughter realized the efficacy of learning a second language. You can talk to people who don’t speak English!

Guatemala is renowned for its language schools. Here is link to a list of some of them. For the last weeks we were there, I managed to convince Olivia to attend morning classes while I posted my blog. She agreed that learning new vocabulary while drawing pictures and making figures with clay was a lot more fun than watching me wrestle with my USB flash drive at Conexion. The photo above is of her with her maestra.

For anyone who is considering Spanish school, I say “go.” Olivia attended San Jose El Viejo–because it was closest to our apartment and because the children of a woman I met through an adoption listserve were attending—and loved it. But I don’t think you can go wrong with any of them.

I’m not deluding myself into believing that Olivia speaks Spanish, or will retain any of the information that she learned. Now that she’s visited Guatemala, though, and attended school, she sees that speaking Spanish is an attainable goal, and one that multiplies her opportunities to communicate. That one outcome, to me,  makes the entire trip worthwhile.


Guatemala Part 6: Last day in Antigua

Saturday, February 26th, 2011

Today is our last day in Antigua. Tomorrow we go to the capital and fly home to California. Entonces, I have time only to post a few photos. Above, the front door of the casita where Olivia and I lived in 2003. The lovely woman with us is our dear friend Paola, known to readers of Mamalita: An Adoption Memoir by her real name. (One of the few names I didn’t change.) The home is owned and rented by Elizabeth Bell, founder of Antigua Tours and author of Antigua Guatemala: The City and Its Heritage, among other titles.

Below is the pool at Hotel Antigua, early this morning, and the wonderful new play structure, perhaps the grandest in all of Antigua.

The last photo I’m including for anyone who visited Antigua with their children in years past. Remember these original swings? Happily, they remain. 

My sister and daughter are waiting. Time to hit the calle. xo


Guatemala Part 5: Niños con Bendicíon

Friday, February 25th, 2011

On Wednesday after Spanish school, Patrice, Olivia, and I attended a folk dance performance by Niños con Bendicíon in nearby San Antonio Aguas Calientes. The dance troupe was founded and is led by Lesbi Chavez.

The children, ages 6 to 13 years old, dress in traditional outfits or traje from various parts of Guatemala. Each of the four dances they performed on Wednesday told a story from their Maya K’iche culture: Blessing of the Corn, Planting, The Corn God, and Dance of the K’iche King. The children accompanied themselves on traditional instruments, including marimba, drum, and flute.

Afterward, Lesbi demonstrated how to make tortillas, and we all got to try. As an absolute novice, I can tell you, it’s harder than it looks. Lesbi was very pleased to notice that Olivia, whose roots are Maya K’iche, was a natural at getting just the right ratio of water to pulverized corn paste. Above is a photo of our finished products, cooking on a traditional stove. Three guesses which tortillas were ours and which made by Lesbi.

The funds generated by the dance performances pay the school and living expenses of the children who participate in Niños con Bendicíon. For presentations, sponsorship, or more information, you may contact Lesbi Chavez (in Spanish) at or Nancy Hoffman (in English) of Guatemala Reservations at Learn more at

Olivia, Patrice, and I, and the other members of our group, really enjoyed the afternoon we spent with Lesbi and the dancers. The next time you’re in Antigua, consider adding this outing to your itinerary.


Guatemala Part 4: Antigua this morning

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

I’ve never visited Antigua during April, when the entire city celebrates Holy Week with sawdust carpets and parades through the streets. So I can’t say what that’s like. What I can say is that February is my favorite time to visit. The weather is warm and there are very few other tourists.

This morning, after I walked Olivia and Patrice to Spanish school, I took a few photos. Above, is my favorite view of the Square, taken from the second floor of the Municipalidad. The Cathedral is on the left, and Volcano Agua in the background. Antigua was just waking up; here, you can see why the city always looks so pretty. Every morning, men sweep the park. This month, they are also repairing the cobblestone streets.

As usual, a group of intrepid adventurers was queued up outside  Old Town Outfitters to climb Volcano Pacaya or go on a mountain bike ride. In the evening, backpackers often hang out in front of Cine Lounge La Sin Ventura. The theater is next door to Mono Loco, another popular night spot. The restaurant is famous for its gigantic plate of nachos, enormous bowls of chili, and outstanding French fries.

For Americans with children who will only eat at Mickey D’s, the one in Antigua has a lovely garden where your kids can run around and play. If your child, like mine, is a particular (read: finicky) eater, pizza restaurants such as El Macarone are a good alternative to black beans and rice.

Antigua boasts one of the largest “fancy” coffee shops in all of Guatemala. Located on the north side of the Square, Cafe Barista serves a range of lattes and cappuccinos extensive enough to keep any java nut happy. Olivia loves their vanilla cake. Cafe Barista’s prices are high, but (just between us), there are very few bargains to be had in Antigua. Think of it as a “charming experience tax.”

Time for me to get outside and enjoy this day! xoxo


Guatemala Part 3: Family

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

Anyone who has read my book, Mamalita: An Adoption Memoir, or anything else I’ve written, knows that I am an advocate for open adoption whenever possible. I believe that inside every person, at a very basic and profound level, is a need to know who they are and where they come from. And by that, I mean who they are biologically, who they are in their DNA. A person needs to know who shares her blood.

That need, in my opinion, in no way undermines my role as an adoptive mother. Rather, it acknowledges a life–and a biology–that existed before me.

That’s one reason why I am here with Olivia in Guatemala, so she can visit with her birth family. Are our visits straightforward and uncomplicated? Honestly, they aren’t, for any of us. Not only do we grapple with the complexity of adoption, but we also face the challenges of two vastly different cultures and lifestyles. Speaking elementary Spanish and no K’iche is the least of it.

Despite the challenges, though, these visits with family are the most important days of our year. I believe I can speak for everyone involved when I say we feel healing, and unity, and love. When we started Olivia’s adoption in 2002, never did I dream that nine years later, we would walk down the calle of Panajachel with her birth brother and sister, or drink Coca-Cola in the mercado and shop for hair barrettes and blue jeans. Nor did I imagine kneeling beside her birth mother and Abuela in church, offering prayers in each of our languages. But that’s the reality of our family. That is who we are, now and forever.

For anyone who has been to Guatemala, or hopes to visit, below are a few scenes from Panajachel. My enormous fruit cup at Hotel Kakchiquel, the  vendors, the bus to Solola, the church steps. This is a beautiful country. We feel lucky to be here.


Guatemala Part 2: Tecun Uman and the legacy of the quetzal

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

By fortunate accident, we were in Panajachel on Monday, February 20, the festival day of Tecun Uman, a national hero in Guatemala. The honor seems bittersweet: K’iche leader Tecun Uman was slain in battle by Spanish conquistador Don Pedro de Alvarado, who had allied himself with the native Kaqchikel, enemies of the K’iche people. Tecun Uman’s death signified the end of autonomous rule by indigenous peoples in Guatemala. Here’s a snip from the New World Encyclopedia.

Tecún Umán (Tecún Umaán, Tecúm Umán, Tecúm Umam, or Tekun Umam) (c. 1500 – December 20, 1524) was the last ruler and king of the K’iche-Maya people, in the highlands of what is now Guatemala. According to the Kaqchikel annals, he was slain by Spanish Conquistador Don Pedro de Alvarado while waging battle against the Spaniards in the grasslands of El Pinal (Valley of Olintepeque) on February 20 1524. Tecún Umán is considered the most representative of his people for his bravery and dignity because he fought to protect his land and his people.

In the middle of November of 1523, the Estremaduran captain Don Pedro de Alvarado y Contreras had been sent on an important mission by Hernán Cortés to discover and conquer the lands south of Mexico. For this journey, Alvarado was given three hundred soldiers, a hundred and twenty archers and gunmen, one hundred and thirty five horsemen, and several hundred Cholutec and Tlaxcaltec allies… Alvarado allied himself with the Kaqchikel, who had long been bitter rivals of the K’iche’ nation.


The legends say Tecún Umán entered battle adorned with precious quetzal feathers, and his nagual (animal spirit guide), also a quetzal bird, accompanied him during the battle. In the midst of the fray, both Alvarado and Tecún, warriors from worlds apart, met face to face, each with weapon in hand. Alvarado was clad in armor and mounted on his warhorse. As horses were not native to the Americas and peoples of Mesoamerica had no beasts of burden of their own, Tecún Umán assumed they were one being and killed Alvarado’s horse… He quickly realized his error and turned for a second attack but Alvarado’s spear pierced through his opponent’s chest and into his heart. It was then his nagual, filled with grief, landed on the fallen hero’s chest, staining its breast feathers red with blood, and thereafter died. From that day on, all male quetzals bear a scarlet breast and their song has not been heard since. Further, if one is to be placed in captivity, it would die, making the quetzal a symbol of liberty.

Tecún Umán was declared a National Hero of Guatemalan on March 22, 1960 and is celebrated annually on February 20…  He is also memorialized in a poem by Miguel Ángel Asturias that bears his name. In contrast to his popularity, he is at times rejected by Maya cultural activists who consider his status as a national hero a source of irony, considering the long history of mistreatment of Guatemala’s native population.

The children in one of the schools in Panajachel commemorated the day with a dance and parade, shown in the photos below. Here in Guatemala, so many indigenous people continue to struggle for basic sustenance–enough food, clean drinking water, a secure roof over their head, a permanent floor under their feet. The effects of Tecun Uman’s defeat linger.


Guatemala in February 2011

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

We’ve been here only two full days, but it feels like a week. So much happens. There’s so much to process. At some point, I want to talk about visiting with Olivia’s birth family because I sense that so many readers of this blog are interested in the subject—either because they visit their children’s birth families, too, or because it’s something they may consider in the future.  But to be honest, the experience is so intense, I’m not sure how to frame it. Not only because I’m sensitive to the family’s privacy, and to Olivia’s, but also because every visit is so emotional—happy and sad, intensely so, both, sometimes in the same moment.

It’s now 10:30 at night on Sunday, and thank goodness for Spanish-language Discovery Kids on PBS. Olivia and Patrice are brushing up on their Spanish with Chica Super-Sabia, Lazy Town, and Mister Maker while I write this. We’re all exhausted.

So I thought I would post some photos from the start of our trip. The new La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City—if you haven’t been back since 2004, you’d be amazed. The airport is finished, and it is beautiful. The photo at the top is of Olivia at the brand-spanking new luggage carousel. The photo below is of us at breakfast at the Camino Real with my sister and ace traveling companion, Tia Patrice.

Here we are in the lobby. The porter behind us has known Olivia since she was a baby.

I took the last photo on the road to Panajachel. A pit-stop in Tecpan at Katok is a must, even if you don’t take a detour to view the ruins at Iximche (and please do so if given the opportunity).  The photo here doesn’t do the place justice—you can’t smell the fragrant woodsmoke, or taste the delicious homemade pan integral and fresh berry jam. I wish you could.

Thanks for reading. Time to get some sleep. xoxo


Here in Guatemala; and an article on the country’s “Family Planning Frontier”

Saturday, February 19th, 2011

We arrived in Guatemala late on Friday–my sister Patrice, Olivia, and I–and checked into (where else?) the Camino Real, the hotel where I met Olivia for the first time. Saturday morning we woke for a great breakfast, followed by a quick swim for Olivia and me, and then we were off to Antigua to catch the shuttle to Panajachel.

Right here I’ll pause for a commercial endorsement to recommend my friend and travel agent, Nancy Hoffman, founder of Guatemala Reservations, who made our arrangements. With Nancy’s help, everything was set up in advance, which I find essential when traveling in Guatemala, especially with children.

The shuttle ride, as always, was an adventure. People who travel to Guatemala are happy to be here, and we love sharing stories about where we’ve been and where we are headed. This past summer, heavy rains caused devastating landslides on the road to Panajachel and in surrounding areas. The damage has been cleared, although piled-up boulders and heavy machinery remain as evidence. We arrived in Pana with enough daylight to wander around for a few hours; afterwards, we settled on a chicken-and-french fries dinner at a restaurant we like. As we sat eating, a woman selling handicrafts approached us at our table. She introduced herself as the mother of eight children. On her back, in a sling, she carried her youngest baby, fifteen days old.

We’ll be in-country for a week, and I’ll write more about the trip, but this seems like the perfect opportunity to link to a great PBS NewsBlog by Ray Suarez, “Reporter’s Notebook: The Family Planning Frontier in Guatemala.” As our experience tonight demonstrates, family planning is a complex, layered subject in Guatemala, not easily summarized. But this article gives an excellent overview.  Suarez writes:

…After two years on the global health beat, I sometimes shake my head in wonder at how some of the most beautiful places on the planet can also be the hardest places to live.

Guatemala has one of the fastest population growth rates in the Western Hemisphere, about 2.4 percent a year. The population is pushing 14 million, and there is not enough arable land to support the rate of growth.

Our team from the NewsHour visited villages where it has long been common to have 8 to 10 children per family. Women made their way along rural roads or up hillside paths with one baby on their backs, a toddler in hand, and a four-year-old pulling up the rear.

Children are valued and loved here. At the same time, big families exact a tremendous toll. The maternal mortality rate – 240 deaths for every 100,000 live births, according to the World Health Organization– is the highest in Latin America. Malnutrition is epidemic. In highland indigenous communities the tiny stature of children and adults is not solely hereditary. The short supply of food guarantees for now that Guatemala will not see the gains in height and weight, or the children towering over parents, seen in newly prosperous places like South Korea and China.

However, encouraging families to reconsider what the optimal number of children might be is more complicated than a quick lesson in microeconomics. To enter into the Guatemalan dialogue on family planning means taking history, gender relations, and religion seriously, and requires consideration of how each shapes the debate.

Guatemala is a deeply religious country. Even those who are not active church-goers grow up surrounded by Christian worldviews. No longer monolithically Catholic, the country has seen the grown of a vibrant, elbows-out Evangelical presence, which accounts for at least a quarter of the population. The Catholic Church, with its profound, 500-year old roots, and the energetic, emotional worship and deep cultural conservatism, make Guatemala’s consideration of family planning a far different one from that of North America or Europe.

Abortion is viewed as a terrible sin. Birth control pills, intra-uterine devices and diaphragms are suspected of causing illnesses in the women who use them. Implanted, slow-release contraceptive chemicals are catching on, but they are expensive and provide only limited-duration protection. Condoms are unpopular among men, and discouraged by the Catholic Church, which only advocates natural methods for family planning.

Women often begin having children as teenagers in Guatemala, and continue with regular pregnancies into their 40s. At one mobile clinic I met a mother with eight children ranging in age from 28 years to 16 months. She said the last few births had taken an escalating toll on her body, and her husband agreed with her decision not to bear any more children.

Accompanying her that day at the clinic was her daughter-in-law with an 18-month-old. Both women had bandaged upper arms, where contraceptive implants were just inserted. The young mother wanted more children down the road, she explained, but thought it best to give her first child the best possible start in life by spacing her next pregnancy.


We were told across the week that the acceptance of men was a vital part of making this all work. Big families confer status on proud fathers. That sense of pride discourages birth control, but contraception also has a darker side in the relations between men and women: When women try to get men to agree to their use of birth control methods, the men often accuse them of infidelity or promiscuity.

We visited the grave of a woman who died at 43 giving birth to what would have been her ninth child. Accompanying us to the graveside was the dead woman’s oldest daughter, Concepcion, and her husband, Diego. The couple said the death of the family matriarch did not cause them to reconsider their rejection of artificial birth control.

Please read the entire article here.


Guatemala900 on FOXFiles; and the group known as the Kyrgyz 65.

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

The TV segment on FOXFiles in St. Louis, Missouri begins like this:

Imagine adopting a baby, but not being able to bring him home. For several hundred couples across the county, it’s a sad reality that has been going on for years, including Carri and Jason Kern of Wentzville. “We were told it would take 4 to 6 months for him to come home,” said Carri Kern, adding “it has been over 3 1/2 years.”

The have named him Hudson. He is still living Guatemala, which is where he was born. For a long time, adoptions from Guatemala were quick and easy, but the system there had become so corrupt, in 2007 the Guatemalan government shut it down, agreeing to grandfather in hundreds of couples whose adoptions were already in progress. And one of them was Hudson’s. But because of that past corruption, adoption judges there are under now such scrutiny they have made the process cloudy, unpredictable, and long.

The Kerns have been to Guatemala for court dates 13 times. “It is a very emotional attachment, seeing him every time. You can’t let go and you can’t stop fighting,” said Jason Kern.Though Hudson has never seen his new home, he knows it is waiting for him. He already calls Carri and Jason mama and papa. They talk on Skype, and visit him in person on special occasions like Christmases, and birthdays.

Readers of this blog recognize the Kerns as belonging to the Guatemala900, families who have been waiting for their adoptions to be finalized since adoptions closed in December 2007. It’s heartbreaking to watch the TV segment and see the Kerns stand in the cozy but empty bedroom they have prepared for their son, filled with toys and books and mobiles, and to listen as they verbalize their grief. 

I’ve recently been made aware of another group, known as the “Kyrgyz 65,” who also wait for their children. Gabrielle Shimkus found me on the Mamalita Facebook page and wrote: 

We received our referral in Aug. 2008. A little boy, 2 months old, with a cleft lip and palate. He was as frail as could be. We had all of our paperwork here in the US approved and our dossier in Kyrgyzstan. We went for our first visit in November 2008, and spent 2 full weeks with him, loving him.

It was only supposed to be one more month before we returned to go to Kyrgyz court and take him home with us for good, but that didn’t happen. One day the Kyrgyz government heard rumblings of people forging paperwork. It turns out to be vaguely true, but of another country, not ours. That day they decided their adoption laws were too easy and in one fell swoop got rid of every law on the books. They did not consider that there were 65 families in the immediate pipeline to adopt—families, like ours, who were weeks away from that one court hearing that would have allowed us to take our kids home. Their government refused to allow our adoptions to go forward because they no longer had the laws to finish them.

Still they dangled the carrot in front of us. “Just give us a few months. 6 months we promise. You will have your kids by Christmas.” They then placed a moratorium on international adoptions.

After months of hanging by a thread, the country elected a new president, who was the first female Asian president. She heard our pleas, told us to be patient. Months more went by.  A new Parliament was elected and we were promised our legislation would be one of the first to go through. It didn’t happen. The US State Department has been involved all along, but provide us with no concrete answers.

We are now 2 1/2 years since this tragedy began. The 65 families have a forum where we keep in daily contact with each other. We have contacted every Senator, Congressman, and person of influence we can think of. Some of the families have dropped off. 2 of the children have died waiting. Yes, 2 children are dead because they succumbed to illnesses treatable here in the US. It is horrible, beyond words.

The crazy thing is that all along they have said we can have our kids. Very few people are against this. They just don’t have the know-how to finish our process. Crazy to still hold on to hope when everytime it gets ripped out from under us. Still, no one will tell us “NO YOU CAN’T HAVE YOUR KID.” Maybe if they did things would be different. Maybe some of the parents could heal and move on. But the carrot is still out there dangling. We get pictures every few months, and that is the closest we come.

How can you respond to an email like this one? Or to the TV segment about the Kerns? By sending positive thoughts and prayers and solidarity? The faithfulness of hopeful adoptive parents like Carri and Jason Kern and Gabrielle Shimkus and her husband, Frank, nearly flattens me. These are people dedicated to their children.


Korea Herald on international adoption

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

Article about adoption in the Korea Herald, dated February 13, 2011:

Despite a falling birth rate here, many Korean children are still finding their home abroad, a report found Sunday.

Of the total 2,439 children adopted in 2009, 1,125 were sent abroad, slightly down from 1,250 in 2008, the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs said.

Adoptions have declined here along with the country’s falling birth rate.

Over the past 10 years, the number of domestic adoptions has decreased from 1,726 in 1999 to 1,314 in 2009, while that of international adoptions has almost halved from 2,409 in 1999.

However, the ratio of international adoption still remains high despite the government’s efforts to encourage domestic adoption.


As reasons for hesitating to adopt a child, according to the institute, 32.1 percent of Koreans surveyed said that they are not sure whether they can love and raise the adopted child like their biological one, while 29.5 percent cited the nation’s family system based on blood ties.

Parents also pointed out financial difficulties (11.9 percent) and social prejudice toward adopted people (11.4 percent), the institute said.

Due to the still prevalent belief that a son carries on a family line, girls younger than three were most favored for adoption, while boys, older children and those with disabilities were less preferred.

Most parents who have adopted a child also said that a child’s health, gender and age were their priority to consider.

I find it interesting that nearly a third of Koreans polled said they are “not sure whether they can love and raise the adopted child like their biological one.” If a similar study were conducted in the United States, I wonder what that number would be.