Published on July 29th, 2020 | by Cheryl Klein0
“Tell It to Me Straight”: An Adoption Story Across Borders
The first time C.C. told me about Alice’s* adoption, she described it as “a Mexican adoption,” though it straddled the border. What that meant, I came to understand, was a casual arrangement within an extended family or community. In Alice’s case, there was no paperwork at all, a fact that would haunt her and, if she’d gone about obtaining her own birth certificate after 2016, instead of the 1990s, could have gotten her deported to a country she’d never lived in.
In his memoir The Boy Kings of Texas, Domingo Martinez writes: “Down on the border, it is quite common for a family to swap or trade children in a sort of biological ‘regifting’ program, usually when an unwanted issue has visited unexpectedly, and it is also used as a system of barter. If an indigent family cannot afford to feed yet another mouth…they might exchange [a baby] with a childless couple who is willing to swap.”
Alice is 73 now. I know her as a member of my partner’s family, a woman who decorates for every holiday, even St. Patrick’s Day, and makes the only potato salad I’ve ever liked. She plays with my son like she’s a kid herself, maybe because she didn’t always get to be one. She’s shared pieces of her past freely, but also sparingly, as if she’s not quite sure how they’ll be received.
“My Barbies would be ice cream sticks. The leaves were their dresses,” she says. “When I told my girls about that, they laughed–when they were little. Later they said, ‘Oh, poor Mom.’”
When she started talking about her mother, Silvia, who came to adopt three children in the late 1940s and early 1950s, I knew I wanted to write this piece. At the time, I was a marginally fertile queer white woman trying to become a mother. It seemed impossible until the moment it wasn’t, when we adopted our son. There’s a purple three-ring binder of paper to prove it.
As Alice tells it, Silvia always wanted to be a mother. Sometime in the 1940s, she got pregnant and miscarried. She bled enough to warrant a hospital trip, and wasn’t able to have biological children afterward. This strikes me as a blood-red flag. In 1927 Buck v. Bell birthed America’s ugly history of forced sterilizations, one third of which were performed in California, disproportionately on Latinas. Medical professionals routinely performed hysterectomies and tubal ligations on women after they gave birth, often taking advantage of language barriers to bypass consent. Silvia spoke English, but she couldn’t read or write. Maybe they treated her–a sometime farm worker who was bleeding profusely and mourning a much-wanted baby–just fine, and her subsequent fertility issues were coincidental. But maybe not.
Silvia, however, got herself some babies. This is her story, and Alice’s, and in a small and different way, my son’s. This is a family that came to exist because of tragedy, held together by love and chance and perseverance.
Cheryl: What were you told as a child about adoption?
Alice: I never knew anything about adoption or having other parents until I was seven or eight. We were going to Ensenada on vacation and we stopped at this family’s house. My dad got [talkative] when he was drinking and he said, “Alicia, this is your real dad.” All of a sudden there was another man that was supposed to be my dad. He said, “Go hug him, he’s your dad.” I started crying. They hadn’t explained to me why we were going.
Alice thinks she was born at home in Oxnard, California, a city north of Los Angeles and just south of my son’s birthplace. The “Oxnard Plain” still produces most of California’s celery crop, along with beans, strawberries, and leafy vegetables. Alice thinks this is probably where her birth parents met her adoptive parents, but like so many details of her lineage, she doesn’t know for sure.
My biological mother passed away when I was three. Someone told me that my biological parents came to visit my grandfather and my [adoptive] mom and dad. I don’t know how they knew each other. I learned this later.
My biological father was a fisherman. [After my biological mother died] he moved back to Ensenada. He left us alone with my brother in charge. My brother was only a year older than me. One day when my father came back, I had burns on my hands. We lived in a little house made out of cardboard with a dirt floor. When I went back to meet him, I saw his house and wondered “Did we live here?” He was very poor. So I guess he decided to adopt us [out] or give us away.
When [my biological sister] Patsy and I came [back to the U.S.], another couple and my parents, the ones who raised me, were there. I don’t remember that, but my mother told me about it. The other couple took my sister and wanted to take me too, but my mom said “No, the deal was you take one girl and I’ll take the other.”
In The Girls Who Went Away, author and adoptee Ann Fessler chronicles how adoption became industrialized in the mid-twentieth century, wrested from the hands of families and communities. Premarital sex was increasingly common, but abortion was not yet legal. Pregnant women were sequestered in maternity homes and coerced or forced to surrender their children to adoptive parents they didn’t choose or even meet. This is to say: Adding more professionals and white people to the mix did not make adoption any less traumatizing. Quite the opposite.
When did you meet your birth sister? You grew up down the street from her, right?
They didn’t really tell us we were sisters. It was other relatives who told us. They asked, “Don’t you ever see your sister? No, not [Rita, Alice’s adopted sister], the one who lives down the street.”
Writers Dani Shapiro and Carvell Wallace have both described growing up in homes where their biological histories were kept from them. But there were clues all around–things that made sense only in retrospect, like the answer key to a hidden-pictures puzzle. Shapiro, who chronicles her midlife discovery that she was the product of artificial insemination using donor sperm in Inheritance, talks about the “unthought known,” the truth a child holds but is not given language to fully conceptualize. On the podcast Mom and Dad are Fighting, Wallace said that being gaslit about the identity of his father made him a self-doubter for life.
Patsy’s mother did her best to keep us apart. But I wanted to play with her. And my mother did the same thing. What happened was, I mentioned [the rumors I’d heard] to another aunt who lived with us. She said “No, that’s not your sister” and she hit me on the head. But I really saw myself in Patsy. The way we talked, the way we giggle. The same interests.
So we got together on our own. When her and I get together, we laugh. We are the Giggle Sisters.
How did your mom come to adopt your siblings?
My brother Frankie, I remember how he became a member of our family. His mother was my mom’s cousin, so he was my second cousin. His mother got pregnant and told my mother she didn’t want the baby. My mom said, “Are you crazy? Give him to me! I would rather raise him than have you kill him.” My mom brought him home as a little baby; I don’t know how old he was. His bed was a drawer in a dresser. She took out the first drawer and put a pillow in it.
[My adopted sister] Rita’s mother is my aunt. That’s how that story goes. My Aunt Inez had a fever. The baby could come home [from the hospital], but not her. A month or three months later, my Aunt Inez went to pick up Rita, who had been [with Silvia] for a few months. My mom said, “Why don’t you just leave her here. She seems to be doing good.” And so she grew up with us.
I listened through a door once when my mom was talking to my cousin Raquel, who was Frankie’s real mother. They didn’t want him to know he had another mother. But he was looking for his birth certificate. I didn’t want to tell him what I did or didn’t know, but I told him he needed to talk to our mom.
There was some confusion about your citizenship, right?
It was difficult because I was never adopted. I was no one, and I was never registered. [As an adult in the 1990s, I needed an ID] when we were going to Puerto Vallarta on vacation. That’s when I found out that there was no paperwork. I had to get an affidavit so I could go on vacation. I asked my mother and aunt to be my witnesses to help me get a birth certificate.
I saw my biological dad twice in my life. We started talking about each other’s lives. He didn’t want to give us up because he was our father but he said, “I could not take care of you guys.” My mom said, “Of course he’s going to be hurt by having that conversation.” I think she was hurt, by the way she was talking. I did ask her why she and my dad didn’t take care of my birth certificate. My mom didn’t know how to read or write. My dad did. He was very smart. But he drank and he never took care of business.
You always describe Silvia fondly. What memories do you have of feeling loved as a child?
I would always save the dolls she got me for Christmas. I put them in the closet so Rita wouldn’t get them, but she got into everything. She was home Saturday, but she packed tomatoes and strawberries during the week. The happiest part was when my mom would take me to work with her. I played there. My Barbies would be ice cream sticks. The leaves were their dresses. My mom would say, “Alice, let’s go.” And I would hide my Barbies and say, “I’ll find you guys tomorrow.”
At eight or nine, I would make tortillas. My family would buy sacks of beans or flour. And that’s what we had. We had meat like once a week. I would make six dozen tortillas and my uncle would take three dozen and I would say, “Why are you taking so many tortillas?” And he would say, “Never you mind.”
[My Aunt Luisa lived with us], and she was very mean to me. She would say, “Get up and work” without having breakfast. At thirteen, I was fed up and ran away to another aunt’s house, who lived a few miles away. I figured I’d be safe. I was there for about three days. When I got home I remember my grandfather looking at me and saying, “Oh, you’re back!” like he was so happy to see me. No one else would talk to me. It took two weeks, little by little, before they would talk to me. Rita and I got in a big fight and she had me pinned and our neighbor pulled her off of me. My mom said, “You will never know how it feels until you have your own kids and they do the same thing to you.”
Alice’s husband, Phil, has been walking around in the background of our FaceTime call and interjects: “Your aunt was a very unhappy person and she picked on you. Because Rita was sort of treated like a queen because she was a family member. And Alice was like Cinderella. She had to stay home and clean things. And the other one didn’t do anything. They became the people they became because of the way they were treated.”
You had a pretty difficult childhood. Did you want your daughters to have a different kind of life?
I wanted to raise them a little different from me. I wanted them to have a lot of toys and clothes. I had clothes for four days for school and then I had to wash them. I put my fingers in one of those roller washing machines and I got so scared. I thought I was going to lose my fingers. Another time, there was a washing machine that dripped water, so I was under it, trying to catch the water, but my head got caught. I was electrocuted.
My daughters went to college, and when they came home, they were using all these big words. I said, “Just tell it to me straight.” Sometimes I think I’m weak, but I guess I am strong.
*Names have been changed.