Monthly Archives: October 2012

Missing Mila

One of the most remarkable books I’ve read this year is Missing Mila, Finding Family by Margaret Ward, which leaves me with a strong sense that the adoption debate could be—should be—different. It is also a profoundly particular—and hence human—story about how two families, one Salvadoran, one  in the U.S., work through their understanding of a wrenching series of events, including death, adoption, and the loss of a child, and somehow come out the other side with an extraordinary measure of grace.

The world is full of adoption narratives. They tend to be sentimental, to dwell on falling in love with a to-be-adopted child, to either romanticize the birthmother’s relinquishment or ignore her altogether, and to emphasize the as-if-born-to quality of the newly created adopted family, although recently, with a proud acknowledgement, too, of its (slight) difference. Missing Mila doesn’t do any of these things. Mila is the birth mother of the child Ward adopts, and the “family” they find is the gradual bringing together of all Mila’s children, from Salvador, Costa Rica, and Massachusetts, their birth father, grandmother, and all the people who raise them into one remarkable group who genuinely care for one another and look after each other.

Ward’s story of how she and husband Tom first came to learn about the child they called Nelson, then spend several weeks in Honduras as guests of Diana Negroponte (wife of US ambassador John Negroponte), is peculiarly flat and factual, preoccupied with what they knew and when, particularly about John Negroponte’s awareness of—and participation in–Honduras’s role in the wars in Salvador and Nicaragua. Peculiar, that is, until Ward tells us later that the first people she wrote that account for were his Salvadoran family, whose understanding at that point was only that there was a baby, Roberto (Nelson), who had disappeared when his mother, an FMLN militant, had disappeared and had probably been killed. It’s hard to write about joy and tragedy in the same lines, and it suggests a great deal about the affective work of the sentimental in covering over violence (as feminist scholars have long argued) that it can have no place here.

Instead, what takes the place of the emotional crescendo of that encounter is another, in 1997, when Nelson was 16 and his U.S. family flew to Costa Rica to meet his relatives. It is a wrenching, tearful meeting, and Nelson (and ultimately his adoptive brother, Derek as well), form particularly strong bonds with Roberto/Nelson’s bio-grandmother and father, but also “their” siblings, two sisters and a brother. The Ward’s gradual process of coming to understand how Nelson had come to be available for adoption is wrenching—that his mother had been shot by Honduran security forces, that he had a grandmother who had never stopped looking for him and a father, too. Understandably, they are terrified that they will lose him, that this is a challenge to the legality of the adoption in Honduras (it is), and perhaps also to their family and living arrangement, despite the gentle assurances to the contrary by his bio-family, whose very first letters, sent into the void in hopes of locating their Roberto, assure them all that they understand that Margaret and Tom are Nelson’s “real” parents.

The rest of the book weaves together the voices of virtually everyone involved, as Margaret Ward first sought to build a record for Nelson, but ultimately with an awareness that she would write this book. Over the course of more than a decade, the children grew, completed higher education, helped each other in business, and wrote a blog together. Margaret spent months in archives, collected oral history from family and friends, and tried to “find” Mila, in a quest that perhaps became more important to her than to the children. They celebrated holidays, birthdays, the anniversary of Mila’s death, shared vacations. In short, remarkably, they all became a family.

A final chapter on the disappeared children of Salvador tries, and to a considerable extent succeeds, in giving us a history of human rights efforts to find and demand justice for the children disappeared during the war, including prominently the work of La Asociación pro Búsqueda de Niñas y Niños Desaparecidos. This is a real service, because that group’s careful work in documenting the fates of children in the post-war period, and their meticulous work in helping communities—and families on both sides of the adopter/lost child divide—become reconciled in the aftermath of the conflict has been little documented by historians and scholars. We have a great deal from and about Argentina’s Abuelas de Plaza de Maya, but aside from Pro Búsqueda’s own books, in Spanish, there is nothing about the comparable (and almost certainly much larger) effort in Salvador.

The greatest contribution of this book, though, aside from the fact that the Ward’s and Escobar/Coto’s families’ stories are compelling in their own right, is the telling of an ultimately courageous narrative about what is possible in the aftermath of atrocious human rights violations in Central America. Not just gangs of torturers, mafias of demobilized militaries, the victories of neoliberalism, and mass migration, but rich, complex lives marked by possibility and—if one can say it without being trite—healing.

The other thing it does is make us aware of how incredibly, depressingly limited the conversation about adoption usually is. Families in the U.S. regularly confess in online adoption forums that they adopt from overseas to avoid the “problem” of birth families. In fact, much of the policy discussion of adoption continues to insist that the whole subject is about “orphans,” as if by pretending that adoptable children have no parents the parents can be made to not exist. What if, instead, we imagined that it really is possible—not always but sometimes—to have rich, meaningful, and sustaining relationships between adoptive families and birth families?

Class binders and illegals

Amidst all the hilarity about binders on Facebook and Tumblr, which I’ve enjoyed as much as anyone, Tuesday night’s debate was actually fascinating for what it told us about what could–and couldn’t–be said about women’s rights, race, and most of all, class.

The question about women’s unequal pay opened up a robust national space to talk about feminism in a way that was not reduceable to abortion rights for the first time since, I don’t know, about 1980. The targeted polling that has told both Romney and Obama that they need to win women’s votes has mapped onto them at least talking about feminist agendas, but they are talking about very different ones.

Romney, aside from being English-language challenged and honesty-impaired (he didn’t solicit the binder, it was pressed upon him and he made a campaign promise to use it), laid out the executive-class agenda for feminism: flexible work schedules for mothers (though apparently not fathers) and affirmative action hiring strategies, where if the applicant pool doesn’t reflect the demographics of who’s out there, you affirmatively recruitment women (and people of color, although Romney didn’t say that). The next day, his campaign released an ad saying he supported abortion rights in cases of rape and incest and did not oppose contraception “at all,” although Planned Parenthood promptly issued a rejoinder pointing out that he had threatened to outlaw abortion entirely and supported the Blunt amendment, which would limit insurance coverage of contraception.

Obama, who referred to Romney’s threat to “get rid of” Planned Parenthood at least four times, laid out a broader, more middle-class agenda, claiming a series of victories on feminist issues: access to the courts for women with equal-pay claims under the Lilly Ledbetter Act, child-care tax credits, insurance coverage for birth control, and support for legal abortion.

Lest we might think that Romney just forgot to mention his support for women who are not well-off, he clarified his views on working-class women a few moments later, when he explained why our country is riven with gun violence and there is nothing that can or should be done about it at the federal level: the problem is single mothers (he said, “and Dads,” but that fooled no one. Mothers are 85% of the single parents out there, but that number is much higher if you exclude divorced parents. Mitt quickly clarified that he meant out-of-wedlock births, which is code for an old conversation in this country: the supposedly loose morals of Black women.) So it turns out that gun violence is the fault of Black mothers. Surprise, surprise.

Interestingly, Romney also made the exact same kind of class argument about immigration. When asked about Dream Act eligible kids, he said no, he wouldn’t support a pathway to citizenship for them. Instead, he made a distinction between “illegals” and the good immigrants whom he would like to invite into the country–foreign nationals with a college degree. Never mind his claim that “it would definitely help to be Latino” in this campaign, the charge that he went on Univision in brown-face, or his confusion about whether Mexican is a nationality and race (as the child of Mexican-born parents, Romney is eligible for Mexican citizenship). Romney is not polling well with Latino voters; in recent Pew poll, 61% saw Democrats as more sympathetic to their issues, while only 10% said Republicans were. This may account in part for the fact that one poll found Obama 2 percentage points ahead of Romney in Arizona.

This is actually a little surprising, given the evidence from California’s Proposition 187 campaign (which was the opening salvo in the war to deny public benefits, like access to schools and hospitals, to those without papers) that a distressing number of U.S.-born Latinos are willing to support measures that punish undocumented immigrants. In other words, his class agenda for immigration ought to poll at least middling among US Latinos. However, Romney’s claim Tuesday night that he did not support Arizona’s SB 1070–which is a little fishy; a truer statement would be that he has neither supported nor condemned it, trying to win the white racist vote while not quite supporting the full measure of their craziness–may give a truer picture of why his support among Latinos is so anemic. US Latinos hate SB 1070 because it targets them–it invites racist cops to harass anyone who looks like they might be undocumented if they have been stopped for another reason. The thing is, anyone who has lived in Arizona is familiar with law enforcement’s willingness to stop people for the crime of driving while brown. The stop doesn’t have to result in a charge, or the charge doesn’t have to hold up in court, especially not if your real goal is to check someone’s immigration status. And of course, immigration status is not a precise thing, nor something that can reliably be proven, especially at a traffic stop–my suburban WASP mother has a defective birth certificate that kept her from flying for all of 2001; the Violence Against Women Act (VOWA) creates a class of people who may be temporarily deportable but ultimately eligible for a green card; and it is well-known that ICE accidentally deports thousands of US citizens every year. Unless Romney is willing to denounce it, he’s toast with Latino voters.

Meanwhile, because it was a question about Dream Act kids, Obama got a pass on that question, and didn’t have to answer the question of why his administration deported a record number of people in 2011. Or rather, he addressed that issue in a way that spoke to middle and working-class Latinos–by claiming he was deporting the gang-bangers whose activities affect working-class communities more than anyone else. What he didn’t acknowledge was that many of the “crimes” for which people were being deported were invented by the Bush administration: using false IDs.

While Romney’s closing statement renounced his 47% claims, his class agenda just didn’t change in the debate. It just got more subtle.

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