Narrating the Distance of Transnational Adoption

For transnational adoptees wrenched from El Salvador and Guatemala in the throes of civil war, storytelling and art are powerful tools for navigating identity, dislocation, haunting, and healing.

June 4, 2024

Flor, adopted to the United States as a child amid El Salvador's civil war, reunites with her siblings in San Francisco Lempa, Chalatenango, March 2024. (Pro-Búsqueda)

This web exclusive piece is part of our Summer 2024 issue of the NACLA Report.

As El Salvador and Guatemala’s niños desaparecidos, the children forcibly taken by right-wing forces amid the violence of those countries’ civil wars, began to come of age in the 1990s, a number of U.S. news outlets took notice. A 1996 Boston Globe investigation reported that “scores” of El Salvador’s “lost children” had been “seized from villages by the U.S.-backed military, separated from their families, and falsely written off as war orphans.” A 60 Minutes segment that year told the story of one such “war orphan” living in Ohio who, after a DNA match, reconnected with her Salvadoran family. According to a 1999 New York Times piece, family reconciliation in El Salvador was a “complicated ordeal and a charged metaphor.” As one stolen child, abducted into a Salvadoran military family and reunited years later with his birth mother, told the Times: “They gave us out like chickens.”

Although reports of Central American adoption irregularities were first published in the 1980s, the news stories of the 1990s were the first to incorporate the voices of adoptees. The stories often featured a reporter following a now teenaged adoptee living in the United States on their journey back to their home country for the first time. The narratives repeated a “fish out of water” pattern: journalists depicted “U.S. Americanized” adoptees as comfortable neither with their adoptive parents nor with the kin they visited in Central America.

Such representations effectively pathologized adoptees, failing to recognize the complexity of their circumstances and identities. The 1996 60 Minutes story, for example, emphasized Salvadoran adoptee Gina Craig’s behavioral issues rather than the structural conditions that led to her physical and psychological displacement. Put simply, these early reports failed to recognize how these acts of disappearing children were predicated on psychological warfare strategies that have had lasting aftereffects in the impacted communities.

Central American adoptees—myself included—have struggled in our journeys toward reconciliation for irregularities in the practice of international adoption. Facing a lack of legal recourse and the shortfalls in mainstream reporting, Central America’s disappeared and adopted children have turned to mediated storytelling to reinsert their narratives into Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and U.S. historical memories. These storytellers act as memory workers and activists whose cultural production has been key to un-silencing histories of disappeared or displaced adopted Central American infants and children. Unlike the narratives told by news and magazine reporters, the filmmaking, art, photography, and digital media work of Central American adoptees act as testimonios that fight to keep the memories of Central America’s disappeared children alive.

Notably, the end of the armed conflicts in the 1990s did not put an end to the high number of out-of-country adoptions from Central America. Scholar Karen Dubinsky has documented that, in Guatemala, there remained a “culture of missingness” into the 2000s. After the war, a climate of continued economic inequalities, political corruption, organized crime, and racism against Indigenous populations sustained a culture of suspicion. Impoverished Guatemalan and especially Maya mothers feared that baby brokers known as jaladoras would force them to give up their children or simply take them in the night.

The armed conflicts and their aftermaths in El Salvador and Guatemala thus produced two groups of adoptees: los niños desaparecidos and the children, born to predominantly Indigenous and/or lower-class mothers, who were swept into adoption due to the dynamics of poverty, war, social disenfranchisement, and, in extreme cases, child trafficking. As Rachel Nolan documents in her 2024 book Until I Find You: Disappeared Children and Coercive Adoptions in Guatemala, adoption lawyers and jaladoras in the United States and Central America have rarely faced justice for their crimes of coercion, paperwork falsification, or child trafficking.

Documenting Adoption’s Ghosts

By the early 2000s, personal documentaries offered more nuanced narratives of Central America’s disappeared and adopted children. Two independently produced docs from this period illustrate the ghostly aspects of disappearance. As sociologist Avery Gordon has theorized, haunting can be a nagging feeling, intuition, or sense that requires a response, even if one is not clear what that response should be. Rather than simply the recovery of a repressed memory, however, haunting is best understood as an active liminal state, in which the specters or ghosts of past trauma, exploitation, or oppression make themselves known and beckon a response.

The 2003 PBS documentary Discovering Dominga shows Maya Achí adoptee Denese Joy Becker/Dominga Sic Ruiz on her return journey to Guatemala. Now in her late 20s and married with two young children, Denese/Dominga is forced to confront her childhood memories of losing her parents in Guatemala’s Río Negro massacre of 1982. Engaging with her haunted past, she grapples with how even her adopted home, the small town of Algona, Iowa, could be complicit in U.S. intervention through its residents’ ignorance of transnational politics. She also wades into Guatemala’s memory battle over the genocidal past. She ultimately decides to testify in the criminal complaint, first filed in 2001, that accused dictator Efraín Ríos Montt of genocide. Between 1982 and 1983, General Ríos Montt’s scorched earth campaigns were responsible for deaths and disappearances of tens of thousands of Maya villagers.

A second documentary, the 2012 Niños de la memoria (Children of Memory), offers a look at how the state-sponsored act of disappearing children in El Salvador has had prolonged effects on the families looking for their missing children, and on the children who were disappeared and adopted. The documentary intertwines the narratives of Salvadoran human rights investigator Margarita Zamora, Salvadoran adoptee to the United States Jaime Harvey, and Salvadoran farmer Salvador García, a father searching for his disappeared daughter, Cristabel. Together, the personal narratives of Margarita, Jaime, and Salvador demonstrate the large-scale effect the state system of disappearance had and has on the lives of Salvadorans in the country and in the United States.

Significantly, at the end of the documentary, each of the three characters’ searches remains unresolved. In other words, by choosing to follow three unsettled searches, rather than reunification narratives, Niños de la memoria visualizes a society haunted by a reign of terror, violence, and the unknown. Collectively, these documentaries help visualize the ghosts of the disappeared haunting the present.

Preserving Family Lineages and Expressing Grief

In addition to documentary, Central American adoptees have likewise sought to preserve histories of disappearance and displacement through photography and painting. Salvadoran adoptee Rachael Devaney was reunited with her birth family in 2018 with the help of the human rights organization Pro-Búsqueda. During a 10-year search for her biological family, no DNA matches were found. Instead, Pro-Busquéda investigators traveled to Ahuachapán and tracked down Rachael’s family members, allowing her to reunite with her birth mother Alba, her sister Guendy, and brother Edwin. She also reconnected with her grandmother Leonandra and many uncles, aunts, and cousins who now live on the U.S. West Coast. 

Rachael’s 2020 photography exhibition, Matriarch Strength: Stories of Indigenous Separation and Border Crossing, seeks to memorialize her maternal lineage and her grandmother’s Nahuatl-Pipil identity. Her artwork is a reminder of how violence against Indigenous peoples led to generations of Salvadorans refusing their Indigeneity as a survival tactic after state forces sought to exterminate their communities during and after the 1932 massacre known as La Matanza. Some of Rachael’s family, including her nearly 100-year-old grandmother, embrace their identity as Pipil. Her photo exhibition, which features portraits of her family members, preserves Indigenous lineages. Despite forced separations and cultural erasures across borders, her work is a testament to Indigenous survival against colonialism.

Similarly, Xhiv Bogart is a Maya Ixil adoptee who grew up in the United States. As a young child, she reclaimed her Ixil name, Xhiv, to stay close to her Indigenous roots. Xhiv, whose art can primarily be seen on her Instagram, notes that her work is “engaged in processing the question of identity through… art, particularly through painting, where the bright colors and detailed textures of my work evoke the vividness of Guatemalan craftwork.”


A post shared by Xhiv Bogart (@xhiv_bogart)

Like many adoptee artists and media makers, Xhiv presents her work as an act of healing. She also allows followers to see her art making process. In an Instagram story titled “Born to Grieve,” Xhiv works on a piece dedicated to her experiences of loss. Set to the song, “Honest,” by Kyndal Inskeep and Song House, the video helps establish how grieving, mourning, and performing resilience can be an lifelong entanglement for transnational and transracial adoptees. It is a reminder that, for an adoption to take place, a separation must occur first.

Connecting and Making Meaning in Digital Space

Finally, digital and social media has become a crucial site of recovery for Central American adoptees. Through the spreadability—or ease of distribution and circulation—of narrative content using social media platforms, adoptees have brought attention to histories of international adoption from El Salvador and Guatemala, while also building community and solidarity with other transnational and transracial adoptees from across the world.

In the early 2000s, Salvadoran adoptee Nelson de Witt/Roberto Coto used early forms of social media networking to tell the story of his disappearance and eventual reunion with his family in the late 1990s. His personal blog Ana’s Miracle and episodes of his podcast Inside the Journey mediate his adoption narrative through not only his own voice, but also the voices of his adoptive mother, birth and adoptive siblings, and other Salvadoran adoptees. Looking at the retelling of de Witt’s adoption from various points of view allows for a fuller understanding of the dynamics of family making and unmaking through adoption. These digital stories also address the political and social implications of El Salvador’s civil war and memorialize the life of Nelson/Roberto’s birth mother Mila, a leftist guerilla leader who was killed in the conflict.

Social media has also been a conduit for Central American adoptees to found online support groups that seek to create visibility and connection for and among the adoptee diaspora. Two organizations, Next Generation Guatemala and Adoptees with Guatemalan Roots, run various online platforms for Guatemalan adoptees. Although both are based in the United States, these groups include members of the Guatemalan adoptee diaspora residing in countries across the globe. Both groups offer community spaces on platforms including Facebook, Instagram, Discord, YouTube, and Clubhouse, but they have also increasingly worked to build community offline.

Adoptees with Guatemalan Roots, for example, hosts an annual conference in different U.S. cities. These conferences serve, among other functions, as a safe space for adoptees to share their adoption narratives, make friends, build comradery, and learn more about Guatemalan culture. As I have written elsewhere, the visibility of these groups has also led to significant change in transnational recognition of Central American adoptees. Through digital networking, Adoptees with Guatemalan Roots has helped adoptees create transnational ties, opening doors for opportunities like trying out for Guatemala’s national soccer teams. In 2021, the group met with Guatemala’s then president, Alejandro Giammattei, which led to Guatemala introducing new federal services to help adoptees learn about and reunite with their birth families and reintegrate into the country politically, socially, and economically.

Disappearance and the violence of absence has marked multiple generations in communities across the Americas. The saying “sí no hay cuerpo no hay delito”—if there’s no body, there’s no crime—takes a specific meaning in the case of disappeared or displaced and adopted Central Americans. The infants and children forcibly removed from their families by armed officials or a system of corrupt lawyers and jaladoras were never meant to be found. Falsified paperwork and identities purposefully sought to obscure the true origins of supposedly “orphaned” children and eliminate any potential for reunification.

Yet, their physical bodies are a reminder of the history of state terror in Central America and of the violence enacted through transnational adoptions. The physical and psychological work taken up by adoptees to reunite and reidentify with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Indigenous communities are political acts that defy the goals of disappearance. The media and art-making that result from this memory work are ways of preserving histories of disappearance and communicating disappearance and displacement to create active liminal states that continue to haunt the present. In the absence of legal avenues for adoptees to seek answers and justice for being disappeared and/or displaced from their birth families and cultures, cultural production has become a significant strategy with which they make meaning of traumatic pasts.

Nathan Rossi is an Assistant Professor of Instruction at Northwestern University. A Salvadoran adoptee himself, he is currently researching and writing a book about the role media and digital technologies play in cultural identity negotiation for Central American adoptees.

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.