A woman slowly comes to after being put under by her obstetrician. She wasn’t due for several more weeks, and yet she wakes up to find her massive belly flat, the child removed and herself in stitches. One of her daughters has already been abducted, and now no one will tell her where her newborn baby might be.
Read new and notable nonfiction this January.
It should be fiction. It almost wouldn’t even make good fiction, as it’s almost too melodramatically horrible to be believable. And yet in the world of international adoption, it’s horrifyingly less rare than you would imagine. When babies are in demand, mostly by American families, they become commodities. In countries like Guatemala, kidnappings, coerced adoptions, assaults and bought babies become normal.
In Finding Fernanda: Two Mothers, One Child, and a Cross-Border Search for Truth, Erin Siegal tells the story of two lost daughters, the Christian adoption culture in America and a system that feeds on poor mothers in the Global South.
I spoke to Siegal about the darker side of international adoption and the happy ending she was able to give her book.
First off, I have to say, I wanted to keep checking if this book was well documented. That scene, with Mildred waking up post-cesarean was like something out of a nightmare, and it made me want to cry. Were there points in the research process where the horrors of the situation made you incredulous?
The whole story made me incredulous! There were times when I sat across from Mildred, wondering, how is this woman still alive? Killing someone in Guatemala is fundamentally different that killing someone in the United States. A recent article in the Guardian by Michael Deibert cited the homicide rate in Guatemala as being nearly double that of Mexico.
What Mildred Alvarado lived through is certainly a nightmare, yet she's alive, and so are her children. I think my disbelief in reporting this story stemmed more from realizing the inaction of those who had the power to prevent such grave human rights violations from occurring.
Previously unreleased memos from the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala show that children and babies were being bought, sold and stolen for adoption in Guatemala as far back as the 1980s. Little was done to inform the public about the breadth of the problem.
Regarding the specific C-section scene, I felt able to write it after visiting the medical clinic, speaking to Mildred, Dr. Miguel Paniagua [the doctor who performed the operation], Sabrina, Rony, Coni, investigators, prosecutors and human rights experts who provided context. I also obtained copies of receipts and medical records from the clinic, which were subsequently translated by a Spanish-speaking medical professional—to me, they looked like graffiti, since there were many abbreviations and jargon.
Throughout the investigation, the one thing that really made my heart hurt was the question what really happened to Jennifer Yasmin Velasquez Lopez? Jennifer is the first little girl the Emanuel family tried to adopt. I can't answer it fully.
You mention that UNICEF is against international adoption. It does seem like the demand for adoptable babies turns them into commodities and corruption is inevitable. Is the international opinion of adoption changing due to problem areas like Guatemala?
UNICEF is not against adoption. The idea that they're opposed to international adoption is a lobbying position held by some particularly impassioned adoption advocates. The UNICEF position dictates that other options ought to be exhausted before an international adoption takes place—basic steps like making sure that the child in question doesn't have relatives willing and able to raise him or her.
Adoption in Guatemala quickly became a multimillion-dollar industry. I don't think it's surprising that the relatively enormous amount of cash flow coming into a viciously impoverished, notoriously corrupt country ended up motivating certain people to buy, trade, steal and sell children.
Accountability is important. American adoptive parents have a history of being outspoken, demanding constituents. Many folks I spoke with were unafraid to sit down with a politician's staffer to make their voices heard regarding "their" child's adoption process. I'd hope that the same fervor could be channeled toward demanding more transparency, accountability and safeguards in adoption.
I had always thought of international adoption as the territory of the infertile, but so many of these families are taking in child after child. And the Christian angle was one I had not thought of. Many of the Americans come off as being incredibly unsympathetic in their sense of entitlement. How surprising were some of their attitudes when you started talking to them?
For Americans in general, entitlement is a birthright. We live damn comfortable lives compared to most in the world.
One of the most surprising parts of the research to me was the general lack of knowledge that a lot of adoptive parents had about the child they were adopting, about the process in general and about the country they were adopting from. Many took what their adoption agencies told them at face value and signed expansive contracts that prohibited them from contacting anyone in their adopted child's country of origin during the process.
I was taken aback by some of the descriptions on orphan-listing websites like Precious.org and Rainbowkids.com. Picking a child could be fairly compared to online shopping—choose whatever age, race, gender and medical conditions you want.
This is perhaps an odd thing to comment on, but it's getting rarer to find journalism where the journalist is not an actor in the drama. Was it difficult to leave your personal feelings out of the book? Especially with such heightened emotional states?
From the start, various people offered the advice that I should write myself into Finding Fernanda as a character, using the first person. That felt ethically slimy to me—this isn't about me, nor should it be.
A first-person narrative might have been easier in that I could have simply recounted my own perceptions, experiences and truths. Instead, I strived toward understanding the story and characters enough to write from an omniscient perspective—that is, omniscient with extensive footnotes, endnote sourcing and bibliographic references.
Finding Fernanda is classic investigative work based on thousands of pages of documentary evidence in English and Spanish. I tried to make it read less like dry newspaper journalism and more like fiction by incorporating sensory details and description where possible. I also chose to work with an editor who specializes in fiction. Alexandra Shelley, who edited The Help, made sure I stuck to Mildred and Betsy's simultaneously unfolding experiences.
Writing a book of investigative nonfiction is always a gamble. There's always a risk that you'll unearth something that will dramatically change the story you thought you were telling. You just have to grin and keep chipping away, prepared for things to be potentially turned upside down.
It was eerie at times to sit and talk to Mildred while Fernanda sat by my side. I'd tear a blank page out of my notebook and give it to her, and she'd scribble away as I scribbled away. One of the hardest parts of this investigation was trying to piece together what happened to her while she was abducted for 20 months.
During one of my last interviews with Mildred, Fernanda printed out her name and then drew her family and a row of fruit: pineapple, grapes, watermelon and bananas. She was giggling. It just struck me as miraculous—they'd beaten the odds. Both little girls are severely traumatized, but they're living and breathing. They're OK.
To this day, no one has been convicted of any of the crimes detailed in Finding Fernanda.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.