El Salvador families seek adoption answers

For almost two decades Martina Torresendi lived the life of a normal Italian youngster, growing up as an only child, lovingly spoilt by her doting parents.

By Mike Lanchin

January 31, 2010 / BBC News

She always knew she had been adopted in faraway El Salvador, but knew little about the circumstances of her adoption, or of her birth family.

So when in 2003 she received a phone call from someone claiming to be her sister, living nearby in Rome, she could hardly believe her ears.

"I have a lovely family in Italy, and that has always been enough," said Martina, 28. "But I always dreamt of having a sister, or a brother. It's silly, but I wanted to know someone I looked like."

A meeting was arranged and Martina travelled from her home in Verona to the Italian capital to see a young woman who turned out to be her elder sister, Silvia. She had been adopted by another Italian family.

"It was the happiest moment of my life," Martina said. In the days and weeks following their reunion, the two young women spent hours avidly gazing at each other in the mirror, unable to believe their physical likeness.

But along with happiness came a series of uncomfortable questions, such as how could they have grown up in the same country unaware of each other's existence for so long? And what had become of their birth family in El Salvador?

In search of answers, Martina travelled back to the Central American nation of her birth in December 2009, for another emotional encounter, this time with her biological mother and large extended Salvadorean family.

"I feel like an angel from heaven has come, I just can't describe the joy I feel," Graciela, her biological mother, said, a huge grin on her face.

Sitting together in the San Salvador offices of the Asociacion Pro-Busqueda de Ninos Desaparecidos (the Association in Search of Missing Children) - the organisation that reunited them - mother and daughter laughed about their family likenesses, especially their broad forehead and round face.

"I'm lighter skinned than you, because it's so cold in Italy," Martina told the older woman in Spanish, spoken slowly with a strong Italian accent.

Another daughter, Flor de Maria, looked on, seemingly unable to believe the young European-looking woman was her long-lost sister.

Taking in the emotion of the encounter, Martina said: "I wanted them to see that I am okay, that my life has been happy. That's why I came back.

"If I hadn't come, then they'd have been left wondering what had happened to Martina and how she'd turned out."

Fleeing guerrillas

Baptised Janet Ruiz, Martina was just 18 months old when Graciela last saw her. It was 1982 and El Salvador was engulfed in a brutal civil war.

A year earlier, the family had been driven out of their village in the east of the country by left-wing guerrillas who had also killed Martina's father.

Left alone to bring up four young children, her mother did not know where to turn for help.

Then a brother mentioned a lawyer he knew who arranged adoptions abroad for Salvadorean children. At first Graciela refused to listen, but later acquiesced.

"It was the fear and the uncertainty that convinced me, that and the bombs," she said quietly. In August of that same year, she travelled to the capital to meet the lawyer and one of the Italian families.

In the lobby of an upmarket hotel, Graciela said farewell first to Silvia, then to Martina.

"The lawyer said they [the adoptive parents] would bring Martina and Silvia back every seven years and would send photos each year. After about a year, a year and a half, I heard nothing," she said.

Martina and Silvia, who has yet to travel back to El Salvador, are among several hundred young Salvadoreans located by the Asociacion Pro-Busqueda since it began work shortly after the civil war ended in 1992.

Many of them have been found with adoptive families in the US and Europe.

According to the group's lawyer, Leonor Arteaga, during the war Salvadorean lawyers would regularly scout the refugee camps or neighbourhoods where displaced people like Graciela were living, in search of children to adopt.

"Some adoptive foreign families told us they paid $10,000 or $20,000 to the lawyers - that was a lot of money in those days," she said.

On paper these had been legal adoptions, she said, but given the vulnerable situation of many of the biological parents, "they were not regular or fair adoptions".

And in many instances, the adoptive families were not told the full circumstances of the child's background, or if full consent had actually been given.

While Martina is adamant her adoptive parents "did not pay for me", she believes they were taken advantage of precisely because they wanted a child so badly, and so were made to pay money to the lawyer involved.

Hit by shrapnel

Lucia Panameno, 70, still cannot explain how her granddaughter, Rosa, ended up living nearly 2,000 miles away in the US.

Lucia now lives in a simple breeze-block house down a dirt path in central San Vicente province, one of the areas worst hit by the war.

Close by is the village where she last saw Rosa in 1982 - the same year Martina and Silvia were adopted by the Italian families.

Clutching her precious photograph album, containing the only pictures she has of her granddaughter, Lucia recounted how the family had been fleeing an army operation against leftist guerrillas, when Rosa was hit by flying shrapnel.

In the confusion, the little girl was separated from the rest of the family. They later learnt she had been taken to a military hospital, then to an orphanage and put up for adoption. The judge registered her as "abandoned".

"Perhaps she'll come back one day," her grandmother said sadly, "even just once to see us."

Rosa's parents died during the war and Lucia is now her closest surviving relative. The last she heard was Rosa was living with an adopted mother in Virginia.

According to Alexis Rivas, a psychologist who works with the Asociacion Pro-Busqueda, about a quarter of the youngsters traced abroad have not returned to meet their birth families in El Salvador.

"They have their own lives, they are perhaps scared of losing what they have, or angry because they believe they were given away," he said.

Yet for Martina, who has now returned to Italy, there is nothing to fear in the process.

"It's just a question of discovering your roots," she said, "something to be proud of, something extra, but it doesn't change anything, it doesn't change who you are."

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Reunions: Not always so uplifting

It's confusing being an adoptee because there are all sorts of circumstances surrounding one's orphan-ship.   Some adoptees were the by-products of war, some were removed because they were victims of profound neglect/abuse, some were the added mouth poor parents couldn't feed, some were the unwanted offspring left in a dumpster or at a door.  Each circumstance brings it's own twist to a Search and Reunion story.

According to the group's lawyer, Leonor Arteaga, during the war Salvadorean lawyers would regularly scout the refugee camps or neighbourhoods where displaced people like Graciela were living, in search of children to adopt.

"Some adoptive foreign families told us they paid $10,000 or $20,000 to the lawyers - that was a lot of money in those days," she said.

On paper these had been legal adoptions, she said, but given the vulnerable situation of many of the biological parents, "they were not regular or fair adoptions".

And in many instances, the adoptive families were not told the full circumstances of the child's background, or if full consent had actually been given.

While Martina is adamant her adoptive parents "did not pay for me", she believes they were taken advantage of precisely because they wanted a child so badly, and so were made to pay money to the lawyer involved.

It must be nice to feel so secure in the belief that adoptive parents "didn't pay" for a much desired baby.  It must be nice to have a wonderful adoption experience.  It must be nice to go back and tell first-family members the choice made was a very good one.

I remember starting my own Search process.... I thought of it as my own personal Search and Recovery journey.

For myself, it was far more than seeing who I looked like...  I needed to know someone thought about me and remembered me... even missed me. 

My Search came to an abrupt end, as I encountered all sorts of difficulties.  Sealed records, missing documents, expensive fees... I saw these as signs, signs telling me I was not meant to meet members of my first-family... a family that lived in another country.

The thing is, even if I DID have all the right papers/documents, even if I did have the required money, and even if my birth-mother or father DID really want to meet/see me, I don't think I could ever go through with it.

I don't think I could ever tell my first-parents the abuse I endured after I was adopted.

I wouldn't know where to begin... and I would hate that wait... the wait for their response.  [I've heard such horror-stories... adoptees who couldn't wait to meet mom or dad, only to be harshly rejected and criticized by first-family members.]

It's nice to see there are so many lucky adoptees in the world.  It's nice to see some can find a sense of peace among the many broken and displaced pieces.

I'm glad there are adult adoptees happy with the life-story chosen for them... I simply feel sad for the rest of us.... the ones who didn't end-up so damn lucky.

reunerals

I have only limited experience with search and reunion. Being adopted within my own family, search was not really necessary. The option to contact my original father or mother was always just a phone call away, yet I never initiated any reunion. Over the years I have met my father, my brother and my sister. I have met my two half-sisters, but I never met my mother.

Reunion in my case was a bit weird. I recall seeing my brother and my father around the age of six. I remember visiting my father's house, tripping over this ridiculous deep pile carpet he had. I remember he had a human skull on one of the shelves in the living room. I remember my brother staying over for a week during the summer holidays when I was six. I vaguely remember meeting my eldest half-sister around that same age.

I don't know if I saw much of my original family before the age of six, but I have some distinct memories of knowing I was adopted and meeting my father, my brother and one of my half-sisters. The following twelve years I never saw any of them. My father had decided he no longer wanted to see my parents prance me around and for years there was no contact whatsoever.

For some reason the meeting embargo was lifted when I was around 18 years old. I met my father again at an exposition of one of my uncles, which ended up being the biggest non-event of the century. There was nothing between us. No recognition, no real interest, other than wanting to get this done and over with.

Soon after the "reunion" with my father, I saw my brother again too. He is ten years older than I am, and has very fond memories of spending summer holidays with my adoptive parents. His experience with my adoptive parents was very different from my experience with them. I believe they were good at being an aunt and uncle, doting a niece or nephew for a week or two. In that role I can see them being good to my brother. Unfortunately they were a lot less suited to be parents, as I experienced. So when meeting my brother there was this constant tension between us. In his mind I should have been grateful for having such great parents, while I very much wanted to tell him how different my experience was.

For the next 15 years I would see my brother and my father a couple of times, mostly at funerals, which in my family tend to be the only occasions where people get along reasonably well. One such family gathering, I also met my two half-sisters, while at my grand-mother's funeral I finally met my sister. Of all "reunions", that was the most pleasant. Although I have only met my sister this one occasion, I do believe she is a nice person. At the same time meeting her also felt like too little too late.

I never met my mother, and while I had the opportunity to so, I decided not to do so. Three years ago she died, so there no longer is an opportunity to do so. Still I don't regret the choice I made.

I don't know if things would have been different if  "reunions" would have really been my personal choice. For me it never was. In each case my original family was simply there at certain occasions. It was neither my choice to meet them, nor was it my choice to be separated from them. I do know that each reunion had its awkward moments, especially since lots of family members were always present, checking up on how things were going. So in the end I really experienced a really reunion. Each "reunion" was mostly an awkward situation my original family and I had to deal with.

The last time I saw members of my original family, was at my adoptive father's funeral, 13 years ago, and I can't say I have missed any of them. Given the age of my adoptive mother and her brothers, we will most likely have a couple of funerals in the next ten years, so there will most likely be a few more reunerals to go, before we can finally close that chapter for good.

Neils thank you for sharing!

I appreciate learning about the awkwardness that can come with such a reunion, is there any words of advice you can give us adoptive parents who would like to facilitate such a reunion if possible? prepardness?

My first thought is to put the power of any reunion into the child, as their choice or not?

...

I think the particular awkwardness in my situation had more to do with the situation of being adopted in my own family, which caused all sorts of tensions. I think the only thing general about my experience is that reunion often doesn't work all that well. The damage is done and the past can't be undone. Of course there are many news paper articles presenting happy reunion stories, but that, I believe, is mostly because those stories sell. Who wants to read about reunions going wrong.

Other than some awkwardness, my experience with reunion wasn't completely negative. I could have been rejected. My original family could have sought contact without my consent. My adoption experience could have been so bad, I'd had to protect my original family from that knowledge. None of that happened, so I consider myself lucky. In my case nothing bad happened, but nothing good came of it either. None of us ever talked about the past, and in the present we had nothing to share, so meeting my original family was simply devoid of any meaning.

Over the years I have read several stories about reunion experiences, outside the crap presented in the mainstream media, and from that I have come to believe reunion is often much more difficult and awkward than is generally believed. Something I have noticed in many stories is that the contact eventually stops. Perhaps this is what APs and birth parents are hoping.

Hi

could you explain how you gt started with finding your relatives. My husband was adopted in 1983 in the civil war in El Salvador and has no information so we are looking to start what we can. thank u

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