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?