A betrayal of identity: the dramatic unveiling of baby-stealing in Spain, and the lives that have been forever scarred

I have been thinking a lot about adoption lately. It is a subject that really fascinates me. I like the idea of scrambling things we think we know--like biology and genetics and "family"--and giving them far greater parameters. Over Christmas break, I read a book about the diaspora of Chinese daughters over the past twenty to thirty years, and the kinds of stunning stories they will have to tell, as many of them will come of age in the next decade. (You can read my post about that book and my thoughts on a "fluid sense of family" here.) Since then, I have been doing some groundwork on dreaming up my own historical project on that very subject. I am preparing the proposal documents for what I hope will become my capstone project for my master's degree, which I will complete in the next thirteen months in order to graduate next May--in 2012. It will be a podcast series, historical in nature but founded in interviews and oral histories, on Adoption.

This has been especially tricky for me because the broad term encompasses several issues surrounding identity that are enormously complex and enigmatic. First, as I have said, the whole notion of a family based on things even deeper than biology is an enthralling break from the regular. When you are adopted into a family and those connections are lost--sometimes permanently, that can lead to even more interesting questions than the ones inherent in the searching for genealogical roots, and the holding on to ethnic or cultural traditions. None of my family is from the South; I have ancestors that died fighting for the Union in the Civil War, yet I am a southerner. How can this be? I identify with just as many cultural oddities from either side of the Mason-Dixon line. I have lived in the South for thirteen years (a majority), and consider it my home. But if you want to inquire about my roots, they are no where around here.

People certainly get worked up about the "roots," and their ancestry. They are significant factors in helping people understand themselves, their positions in the world. I am not dismissing that at all. Plenty of people who are adopted take to researching their own biological families in order to make sense of their own lives. But as a person whose place in between where my family is from and where I myself am "from" now, I think scrambling those ideas is truly intriguing, and plain fun to explore.

This leads me to the second component within the word "adoption"-- the embracing of a new place, or a new culture, or even a new language. Here you have moved, perhaps across international borders, to adopt a new position in this wide world. The adaptation that you go through to create your own, meshed identity is entirely distinct from the notion of digging into your roots to see how your ancestors lived. It does not mean relinquishing the value of your customs, your culture, your language or your foodways; it means creating a living combining all the best things from your roots and your family with the new space and communities you find yourself within.

So when it came to composing this into a specific topic, well, I am honestly still working that out. But the fact is, the whole fluidity of identity, of biology and adoption and roots, of "nationality"--that tricky word I have dissected many times on this blog--they have been on my mind constantly for the past few weeks. So when I heard a shocking story by The World's Gerry Hadden, about an entire industry of babies sold illegally into adoption in Spain--whole lives being changed and identities being scrambled--I had a dream about it.

In the dream, I was the one whose birth certificate came under question, when my brother investigated my birth and discovered that long ago my document had been flagged as invalid, for some undetermined reason. I shall spare you the details. But I woke up feeling betrayed, feeling lost in my own skin. I realized that if I was going to jump into this very sensitive and emotional topic, I needed to understand that I was not immune to feeling rejected, or confused, or lost in my own identity. People had lived their whole lives in Spain not knowing they were not biologically related to their parents. Sisters who had twins who had "died at birth" turned out to be living lives away from each other. Grieving mothers' lives were changed forever, as they grow older pining for their dead child, who in fact is still alive, and is connected to a different mother altogether. In a very philosophical way, it made me take one step back and consider, as I have many times before, the whole concept of your family, who you love, and who cares about you on the planet. It puts into even greater question the theory that your genetics matter in the large scheme. They don't.

The story about the stolen Spanish babies is stunning. Heart-breaking. Absolutely tragic and fascinating at once. Adults are confronting their parents, finding out they were in fact purchased. Investigators and public prosecutors have said that this has been going on from about the 1950s to as recently as 2000(!). It has been due in large part to a high level of trust of doctors and priests, and a targeting of young mothers who appeared poor or vulnerable. They would determine immediately after birth that the child had died, and that the hospital must take care of the funeral and body since the infant was under 24 hours old. That rule was made up. Mothers who protested were threatened to be put into a mental facility. Read the whole thing, or listen to the radio story, here. Estimates range from 3,000 to 300,000 cases of kidnapped and illegally sold babies over the years. Lawsuits are being filed now, after Antonio Barroso--himself a victim of this, who had to confront his parents as an adult--founded the organization ANADIR, so people whose lives were changed forever by this practice can find some restitution, or at least resolve in their own lives.

As I said, I was shocked into having identity-crisis dreams about this.

A database has been set up for children and mothers to find each other again. There have been many people who long-suspected they may have been adopted, so they are finally able to act on those suspicions. Even more, modern technologies like DNA testing has helped prove where there was and was not biological relation; this is something Spanish doctors had not predicted thirty years ago as being scientific proof that could be used against them. This is the lead story from the PRI broadcast:

Estefania Anguita was born in Barcelona in1986, along with a twin sister. But minutes after their birth, she says, doctors told her mother that Estefania’s sister had died.

“My parents weren’t allowed to see my sister’s body,” Anguita said. “The hospital staff wouldn’t let them. My grandmother wanted to bury my sister in the family plot but the hospital said that was impossible too. It was the hospital’s responsibility, they said, since the baby didn’t live more than 24 hours. They just made that rule up."

Anguita always knew about her deceased twin, but says she grew suspicious last year, when her parents admitted they didn’t actually know where her sister was buried. So she went to the hospital where they were born.

“There wasn’t even a record that my mother had given birth to us,” Anguita said. “There was no family file at all. I said it must be here, especially because there was a death involved. Death records are kept forever. And yet there was no trace at all.

Antonio Barroso, who founded the ANADIR organization mentioned above, has an amazing story of his own. Read it here, in Gerry Hadden's blog post on the topic. There's also a story about the uproar by Time magazine, here.

Needless to say, it only increases my own resolve in recording some stories on my own home front, in the unwieldy and curious story of human connections, biology, adoption, roots, and the effects they have on real people's lives. Here's hoping I can somehow make that into a compelling historical narrative. Jury's still out on that one.