International adoption is not always the unambiguous act of altruism it might seem. In Guatemala, it may be creating orphans.
Each Sunday the avenue that wends its way between the two whitewashed churches of Chichicastenango, Guatemala, becomes a maze of pole-and-plastic-tarp shops hung with brilliant tapestries, embroidered blouses, kaleidoscopic quilts. Within the haze of palo santo smoke, which wafts out of the larger of the two churches, are the flower sellers who sit under umbrellas. Across from them are the grain stands with burlap sacks overflowing with unmilled maize, or beans of different colors, or rice, or masa. At the heart of the market, and the reason foreigners ride the Saturday morning chicken bus to Chichicastenango, are the artisans who hold court behind their handiwork.
“¿Un recuerdo?” the vendors called as my friend and I meandered past, dazed—dazzled even—by sunlight filtering through to the weavings and embroideries, carved jades and hardwoods. “Something to remember Guatemala by?”
My friend fingered a carved turtle figurine.
“Real Guatemalan jade,” its keeper claimed. But we were not there to shop, only to take in color and sound and the rising warmth of a free Sunday.
When we reached the far church, my friend set off to take his surreptitious pictures and I wandered down another alley by myself. Not far in, I turned a corner and found myself face to wrong-way-up face with a little Mayan boy—I’d guess he was five or six—hanging upside down from the taut ropes that secured the tarp roof of an otherwise unattended textile stall.
“¿Que haces, monito?” I joked with him, tipping my own head sideways. What are you doing, little monkey?
He grinned at me, exposing the gap where he’d recently had two front baby teeth, and let go of the rope to dangle free.
As we giggled at one another, a young woman rushed over. She was tiny, dressed in a traditional Mayan blouse and a dark skirt patterned so that, had I known more about Guatemala, I might have known what village she came from. I opened my mouth to speak to her, but before I could conjugate, the woman snatched the boy’s arm and hauled him off his rope.
Just before she turned the first corner with her child in airborne tow, the woman turned back and our eyes locked. She was, I realized suddenly, running from me. She was afraid, or angry, or both. She thought I was stealing her son.
Rumors of women being pressured, paid, or forced to relinquish their children, and even of outright kidnapping, abound in Guatemala, leaving many fearful of foreigners. A few years prior to my time there, in 2000, a Japanese tourist and a tour bus driver were stoned to death in Todos Santos Cuchumatan by a mob that believed the foreigners were there to steal children.
While the idea of baby-hungry Americans or Japanese creeping around rural Guatemala in hopes of finding an unobserved cradle to rob may seem incredible, it is only the method that has been lost in translation in Guatemala: money, a lot of it, rather than creeping around, is how babies are acquired from Guatemala and other poor countries. But let me back up.
Since Guatemala’s civil war, a thirty-six year struggle that started in 1960 during which a quarter of a million people were killed or “disappeared,” Guatemalan children have been adopted abroad in steadily rising numbers. The few hundred brought to the U.S. annually in the mid-nineties, when that war ended, rose to nearly five thousand in 2006, or one baby out of every one hundred and ten births that year in Guatemala. The more than twenty-six thousand Guatemalan children adopted into the United States over the past decade are not orphans without families. If this were the case, one would have to ask what health or human rights catastrophe was underway in Guatemala. In fact, some are paper orphans, the children of unwed or destitute mothers who have “no choice but to give up their child,” as one adoption agency, aboutachild.org’s website puts it. Still others are the children of mothers who, because they are illiterate or misinformed or pressured, relinquish their babies against their will. Manuel Manrique, UNICEF’s representative in Guatemala, believes that some women may even produce babies specifically to supply the demands of international adoption.
Most adoptive parents seek to provide homes for children with no known families. But most babies surrendered or orphaned are not the healthy newborns and toddlers that prospective adoptive families generally seek out. According to UNICEF, 95 percent of actual orphans worldwide are older than five and live with their extended families. It’s the economic incentive created by the international adoption industry itself that supplies demand. “Remove cash from the adoption chain,” writes E. J. Graff, director of the Gender and Justice Project at Brandeis University, “and, outside of China, the number of healthy babies needing Western homes all but disappears.” This is to say that a significant portion of adoptable children in Guatemala do not have families because of adoption, that U.S. demand for orphaned babies may actually orphan babies.
The European Union forbids its citizens from adopting children from Guatemala and other countries that do not comply with the Hague’s 1993 Adoption Convention. This treaty—which the U.S. signed in 1994 but did not ratify or implement until 2008—recognizes the “necessity to take measures to ensure that intercountry adoptions are made in the best interests of the child and with respect for his or her fundamental rights, and to prevent the abduction, the sale of, or traffic in children,” and that “each State should take, as a matter of priority, appropriate measures to enable the child to remain in the care of his or her family of origin.” But Guatemala, the last holdout from the Hague Convention in the Western Hemisphere, had reason to remain so: rising U.S. demand for Guatemalan babies, compounded by rising adoption fees, rewarded the country well for its unregulated system.
At the time I was wandering through the market in Chichicastenango, listening to vendors hawking trinkets and flowers to foreigners who might hand over a few dollars’ worth of quetzals, adoption was a multi-million dollar industry in Guatemala. A single healthy baby could gross more than thirty thousand dollars, well over ten times Guatemala’s per capita GDP, in fees and expenses, depending on the agency and lawyer and the particular orphanage.
In some cases, the perfect storm of temptation and opportunity led to criminality. In 2006, a mother was drugged at a bus stop in Guatemala City and awoke to find her newborn missing. In 2007, also in Guatemala City, a mother was locked in a shoe store closet by armed men who kidnapped her baby. Both babies were eventually found in the adoption system—one about to leave for Indiana, the other already in the U.S. But other missing children never made headlines. Women who lacked the resources to search for their missing babies and mourned not in headlines but by word of mouth, fueled mothers’ fears across Guatemala.
Living outside the U.S.—in neighboring El Salvador—often made me look hard at who I was. But the insight that morning in the Chichicastenango market was the most visceral. It was as if that Mayan woman had held up a warped mirror: I was a foreigner, a twenty-something white woman well past the age of motherhood in Guatemala but without a child of my own in tow, a woman with a ticking biological clock, and a save-the-world, missionary bent: to her, I fit the bill for a kidnapper.
I realize that if I am going to empathize with the woman in the market, I should also consider more closely the families—my good friends among them—who go to the ends of the world, literally and figuratively, to adopt children, who shower love and security and American-made opportunities upon those who might otherwise have grown up to a more modest future selling rice by the scoop in a market like Chichicastenango’s. I should even confess that my friend and I would consider this route ourselves, one year after our stroll through Chichicastenango market, when I fell in love with a bright-eyed baby named Pedro in an orphanage where I worked in Ecuador.
But however much I admire people who adopt in general, and however much I still wonder about and long for Pedro in the particular, I can’t see adoption from another country as an act of unambiguous altruism. Doing so perpetuates the problem of children becoming commodities in what has evolved into a twisted free market. That Guatemalan woman may not have had the means to feed and clothe and educate her child to the levels upheld by the big-hearted mini-van set in America, but that dangling boy amidst her handiwork in the Chichicastenango market was her boy, woven with her cells and strung to her open heart, where she wears him still, will wear him always. That little boy was clearly not for sale.
Fortunately, Guatemala agrees with her. In 2009, adoptions to the U.S. from Guatemala plummeted to fewer than one thousand children. Investigations are underway to determine the legitimacy of adoptions currently pending, as well as many already completed. And Guatemala is writing laws to conform to the Hague Convention. If all goes well, and if Guatemala—a country rife with corruption—is able to enforce these new laws, the mother in the Chichicastenango market may now have reason to breathe more easily.
But the larger problem is far from solved. In the U.S., demand for babies remains high and the reduction in available children caused by the temporary crackdown in Guatemala has forced eager adopters to look elsewhere. Ethiopia, for example, has risen to fill this supply shortage—with a 300 percent increase in adoptions to the U.S. since Guatemala first announced its intentions to reform its system, according to the U.S. Department of State. Like Guatemala, Ethiopia is recovering from war and remains institutionally weak. Like Guatemala, Ethiopia is not party to the Hague Convention. Unsurprisingly, stories are beginning to emerge about questionable sourcing of children being put up for adoption.
In spite of Guatemala’s limited capacity to enforce its laws, I hold out hope that when the adoption hiatus ends, Guatemalan mothers, who struggle enough as it is, will have one less thing to fear. I also hold out hope that compliance with the Hague Convention will make the U.S. more cautious of exerting its destabilizing economic clout on the families of less-than-stable nations. More important, I hope that compassionate families in the U.S. will find ways to care for the children of the world without dismantling families to do so.
When my friend found me, I was standing in that alley of tapestries still staring after the vanished woman and her gap-toothed boy.
“Find anything you have to have?” he asked.
I flinched at the irony, but a seed had been planted. There was a Spanish word in my head, one that does not exist in English—comadre. Literally, it means co-mother, but it connotes not co-parent so much as co-woman, female friends who share gossip, work, and grief; members of a circle of women who sustain and support one another in a common struggle.
When Americans adopt children from abroad, they speak of providing that child education, opportunity, comfort, health, freedom from want, and so on. On an individual level, this is generous and kind. But on a grander scale, as a system, it does not promote human development; it does not help the next child, the next mother who finds her hands tied.
Regulation will curtail the supply of adoptable children around the world. Reports of exploitation and corruption within international adoption procedures will temper the eagerness of Americans to “rescue” children, undermining that myth and easing demand. But it is one thing not to buy rainforest hardwoods or elephant tusks that are illegally or unethically obtained, it is another to supplant poaching with opportunities for meaningful, legal work. International adoption is an economic problem, a problem rooted in global markets, but it will require a human solution. It will require the fostering not of individual children, but of civil society overall, with education and opportunity and strong social connections.
Standing in the market, I wondered how Americans inclined to care for someone like that Chichicastenango child might instead somehow affirm—as a globalized sort of comadre—that child’s fierce, loving mother.
**Molly Beer** has volunteered at orphanages in El Salvador and Ecuador, where she was also a WorldTeach volunteer. As a student in India, she lived with teachers at the Tibetan Children’s Village in Dharamsala. She is the co-author of Singing Out: An Oral History of America’s Folk Music Revivals, out this month from Oxford University Press. Links to more of her writing on culture clash in Latin America can be found on her website www.mollybeer.blogspot.com. She is currently preparing to move to Mexico with her family to begin a book about children and family.
For readers interested in contributing to organizations that work to keep families intact, UNICEF is a good starting place. Read UNICEF’s position on inter-country adoption here.
Statistics and country-specific alerts about inter-country adoptions as well as abridged and complete text of the Hague Adoption Convention are available through the U.S. Department of State.
For more information on corruption in international adoption in Guatemala and beyond, visit the Gender & Justice Project at Brandeis University’s Schuster Institute. Their interactive report, “Where Do Babies Come From (and Where Do They Go)?” is available online, along with an index of articles revealing irregularities in inter-country adoption practices.