Unearthing the Hidden History of Guatemala’s Adoptions: Q&A With Rachel Nolan

San Juan La Laguna, Guatemala. Photo by Enrique Marroquín via Unsplash.

By Claire Paul

What happens when armed conflict and political turmoil coincide with a burgeoning market for international adoptions? How do poverty and state-sanctioned prejudice blur the line between consent and coercion? What is the human cost in the aftermath of the unsanctioned adoption industry that decimated the Guatemalan Indigenous population?

In her new book, “Until I Find You: Disappeared Children and Coercive Adoptions in Guatemala,” Rachel Nolan, Core Faculty Member of the Human Capital Initiative at the Boston University Global Development Policy Center and Assistant Professor of International Relations at Boston University, explores Guatemala’s history of coercive adoptions, diving into questions of informed consent amid entrenched societal inequalities. She focuses especially on the legal agents of the adoptions, including lawyers who acted as intermediaries and jaladoras, or lawyers’ suppliers of young children for adoption. Blending stories of Guatemalan adoptees with the poignant history of the 1960-1996 Guatemalan Civil War, Nolan traces the roots of the industry into a multi-million dollar international market.

Below, Rachel Nolan responds to questions and shares the one policy change she would make overnight:

Q: You’ve done a lot of research on Guatemala. What first drew you to this particular country?

RN: I had lived and worked in Mexico previously and planned to focus my graduate work in history on that country. But when I started reading about Guatemala, I was pulled in by the history of horror and tragedy of the 1980s, and by the seeming lack of knowledge about the US’s role in the worst moments of Guatemala’s past. Once I started traveling to Guatemala frequently, I was pulled in by the spirit of resistance there and persistent mobilizations for democracy and against oligarchy. This is not unusual. Many foreigners who spend a little time in Guatemala find ourselves going back over and over again.

Q: What was the inspiration for this book?

RN: I read a sentence in Kirsten Weld’s wonderful book, Paper Cadavers about the archives of adoption files in Guatemala and wrote in the margin—“has anyone consulted these or written about this?” Many books are marketed now as “untold histories,” but this was a history hiding in plain sight. Certainly, once I started researching the book, I was encouraged to continue by the fact that many Guatemalans I met thought it was an important history to tell. But even before graduate school, I first fell into reading more about Guatemalan history and politics when I was living in Mexico City and read Francisco Goldman’s non-fiction book, The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop? That hooked me.

Q: A significant portion of the evidence behind forced adoptions has been destroyed or kept secret by intermediaries involved. How did you go about researching such a restricted topic?

RN: Guatemala has a very strong law that is the equivalent to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in the United States. It is sometimes honored, and sometimes honored in the breach. I was able to use this law to petition for access to the state adoption files held at the Ministry of Social Welfare in Guatemala City and was able to conduct extensive research with these files for several years, then access was somewhat arbitrarily closed again. The material at the end of the book reading US diplomatic cables was made possible by extremely extensive FOIA requests by journalist Erin Siegal McIntyre, author of Finding Fernanda: Two Mothers, One Child, and a Cross-Border Search for Truth.

Q: Much of your research in Guatemala centers on the Indigenous peoples and the obstacles they face. Are forced adoptions an issue that disproportionately affected the Indigenous population?

RN: Yes, the majority of forcible disappearances of children during the war who were later put up for adoption were Indigenous. There are 22 Maya Indigenous groups in Guatemala. They have been subject to dispossession and violence since the Conquest. Indigenous activists and intellectuals are the strongest voices in speaking out against the discrimination and violence they still face in Guatemala. Indigenous groups disproportionately felt the violence of forcible adoptions during the civil war, and, during the Trump administration in the US, they also faced a disproportionate number of family separations at the US-Mexico border. I wrote about the contemporary history in this story for the New Yorker

Q: What is the contemporary narrative in Guatemala around forced adoptions? Is the topic seen as a taboo, or is it discussed openly?

RN: It’s interesting—a lot of people from a lot of backgrounds know the story of adoptions in Guatemala. But they tend to know the part about adoption lawyers making money from privatized adoptions. The history of forcibly disappeared children who were adopted during the 36-year civil war is less well known and less frequently discussed. Much of the wartime violence is still a somewhat taboo topic. When people do discuss forcible disappearances, it is generally to talk about forcibly disappeared adults. One case of a boy who was forcibly disappeared at the infamous Dos Erres massacre has changed that somewhat. He is the subject of a documentary called Finding Oscar that was executive produced by Steven Spielberg. 

Q: For much of the latter half of the 20th century, the US played an interfering role in Guatemalan affairs. Did this extend to forced adoptions as well?

RN: This is a tough question, because on the one hand you have the US government and on the other, US families who adopted. I would not characterize the latter as “interfering” in Guatemalan affairs by attempting to adopt. Theirs was not a role like the US interfering in Guatemalan affairs through the CIA-backed overthrow of Jacobo Árbenz in 1954, for example. Having read many files it is obvious that many families wished to adopt with the best of intentions. However, having also read official cables sent from the US Embassy in Guatemala to Washington it is clear that the US government was aware of abuses in adoptions from that as early as the 1980s. Which begs the question: why did the US government do so little to combat adoption fraud? The US Embassy, after all, supplied exit visas for adoptees.

Q: If you could make one policy change overnight regarding forced adoptions, what would it be?

RN: I am a mere historian, but I would like to see forced adoptions recognized as a pattern in situations of political violence—we should all be on the alert for not just sexual violence but the theft of children, as well and coercion of vulnerable parents.


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