[Book Excerpt] Mamalita

In this exclusive excerpt for AF, read a chapter of Jessica O'Dwyer's adoption memoir Mamalita, focusing on adoption from Guatemala.

Worry dolls from Guatemala, where the book Mamalita takes place

Because of Olivia, everything else in my life finally made sense. My failed first marriage. My early menopause. The sequence of boyfriends who had rejected me because of my infertility. Meeting Tim. All of it had had a single purpose: to lead me to her.

My parents welcomed Olivia with open arms. Family and friends clamored to meet her. She was the undisputed star of every social gathering. I felt more settled and happy than I ever remembered.

But as the years passed, scrutiny of Guatemalan adoption increased. One night, Tim came home to find me on the family room sofa surrounded by a pile of used tissues. I was watching a television newsmagazine about adoption practices in Guatemala. Much of the show was shot with hidden cameras in the shadowy hallways of a “baby hotel,” which I recognized as the Camino Real. The report focused on one particular “broker,” a nefarious character who kidnapped babies from their Guatemalan mothers and sold them to unsuspecting, infertile couples in the United States. Although the “broker” had been banned from facilitating adoptions by the U.S. Embassy, unscrupulous agencies continued to use him.

Tim stared at the TV screen in disbelief. “That’s our facilitator,” he said. In most international adoptions, contact with birth mothers was impossible because little information was known. In Guatemalan adoption, however, most families had access to a birth mother’s name and cédula number — a national identity card — at a minimum. We possessed that information about Olivia’s birth mother, Ana. It would be possible to hire someone to find her.

* * *

That same year, our local bookstore hosted a book signing for the writer A. M. Homes, who met her biological parents at the age of 31 and had written a memoir about it. As I sat in the audience and listened to her read the first chapter, I became uncomfortable as she described her intense sadness at being denied access to her biological roots for so many years. She depicted a childhood and adolescence that were shrouded in secrets and mystery, calling herself a loner who had trouble fitting in. She related scenes of a tortured young adulthood, when she developed elaborate fantasies of her birth parents. Forming a relationship with her birth mother (who died soon after Ms. Homes had met her) and birth father allowed her to feel some measure of closure.

After the reading, I waited at the end of the book-signing line to speak with her.

“My daughter is almost six,” I said as she signed her name with a flourish. “Adopted from Guatemala.”


“Do you think I should try to find her birth mother?”

She stared at me as if to ask, “Have you not listened to anything I just read?”

My face reddened. “Or I should say, ‘At what age should I look for her?’ When Olivia is older?”

Ms. Homes set down her pen. “Your daughter deserves to know where she comes from. Find her mother as soon as possible.”

* * *

The searcher had arranged for me to meet Olivia’s birth mother, Ana, on Tuesday at noon in Panajachel, four hours northwest of Antigua on the southern shore of Lake Atitlán. Pana, as it was called by everyone, was close enough to Totonicapán that Ana could ride the bus, but far enough away that no one would recognize her. Besides Ana’s mother, only her sister knew about Ana’s pregnancy. I could also be invisible, blending in easily with the light-skinned backpackers who used Panajachel as a starting point from which to explore the rugged highlands.

She was dressed in a purple skirt and cotton huipil that was embroidered on every inch. Her frilly apron was also intricately embroidered. Although her clothes were faded and threadbare, she was, I was sure, dressed in her very best outfit.

Ana saw me and stood up. She was taller than I had expected, although I shouldn’t have been surprised. Olivia was tall. Ana wore brown plastic sandals with low heels. Her skin was the color of nutmeg.

When I reached her, she looked directly into my face. Her eyes were Olivia’s eyes, brown and piercing. She had the same elegant ears.

“Soy la mamá de Olivia,” Ana said. She smiled, showing large teeth capped with gold. Her handshake was strong.

“Yo también,” I answered. “Me too.”

I felt as if I were looking at my daughter in 30 years. I’d never seen Olivia reflected this way. It was both exhilarating and shocking.

“You are the same as my daughter.”

I was so shaken up by their close resemblance, I stumbled over the simple words. “I’m sorry. My Spanish is not good.”

“My Spanish is not good.”

She spoke with an accent I’d never heard before, which I realized must be K’iché. We were both using our second language.

“How was your trip?” I asked. “Are you hungry?” My voice quavered. I was on the verge of tears.

Ana reached for my hand and held it.

We turned toward Calle Santander to find a restaurant, still holding hands, as though walking together down a street in Panajachel was the most natural occurrence in the world. We passed some picnic tables where four Mayan women in red skirts and blouses were eating lunch. No comment from them or us.

“Do you like pizza?” I asked.

I suddenly didn’t want to eat at a taco stand on the beach the way the searcher had suggested. I wanted this meal to be special. We turned into an Italian restaurant with red-and-white checkered cloths on the tables and frescoes of gondolas on the walls. Instead of the ubiquitous peppers and onions, the place smelled of garlic. A group of Canadian tourists dressed in maple leaf T-shirts had claimed five tables. Two American couples filled another one. Ana and I sat at a booth next to the front door. She was the only person dressed in traje in the restaurant, and I wasn’t sure the snooty waiter who’d ushered us to our table would have let her sit down if she wasn’t with me.

Ana ate her pizza solemnly, with a knife and fork. I followed her lead, cutting mine, too. We sipped our Cokes through straws. We ate the entire meal in silence, observing each other discreetly. Ana’s hands were shaped just like Olivia’s, down to her fingernails. Their noses sloped at the same angle. I was aware how different I was from both of them.

The waiter cleared away our plates. I asked him to wrap the remaining pizza so I could give it to Ana to take home. Taking home food was not customary in Guatemala, but I didn’t want Ana to see me waste a crumb. For the same reason, I slurped every drop of my soda.

I told her that Olivia was very intelligent. And tall. I held my hand up from the floor to give Ana an approximation. As much as I wanted to tell her about Olivia’s life — her outstanding school, the nearby playgrounds, her favorite toys — to do so seemed insensitive. Ana’s collarbones jutted out from the neckline of her blouse. Her wrists were half the size of mine. For her to know that Olivia was healthy and eating regularly was enough.

The waiter returned with the wrapped pizza and set it on the table. I paid the check.

Ana and I gazed out the window to Calle Santander. The shadows had grown longer.

The Canadian tourists were noisily negotiating their bill, arguing over who ordered what. The waiter leaned against the wall by the kitchen door, periodically peeking over the top of his newspaper to observe the discussion. The Americans were inspecting a map.

“How did you decide to place Olivia for adoption?”

Ana reached into the top of her huipil and pulled out a frayed fabric purse. She unzipped the purse and pulled out a wrinkled, much-handled, two-inch head shot of a very young, very handsome man in a military uniform.

“This is my husband who died.”

The father of her other two children, Luis and Dulce. The social worker’s report stated he had been killed in a carpentry accident, but I always wondered if he was killed in the country’s 36-year civil war. The war ended in 1996, so the timing would have been right. Clearly he had been a soldier, but I didn’t know enough about Guatemalan military uniforms to interpret the significance of the one he was wearing. What I did know was that the military drove through indigenous villages like Toto and forced every able-bodied man to enlist.

I gave her back the photo. “He is a handsome man. Very young.”

She offered no reason for his early death. Instead, she tucked the purse with the photo inside back into her blouse, then cast her eyes downward and stared at the table. When she spoke, her voice was almost a whisper.

“After my husband died, it was difficult for me to support my family. I had two children and my mother to care for. I worked hard. I knew a man in my village. When I became pregnant, he didn’t want to be the father.”

She glanced up quickly, her eyes hooded with concern. “I don’t want to tell this to Olivia because it may be hurtful to her.”

I nodded slowly, to show I understood. “Can you tell me his name?”

She glanced furtively side to side to make sure no one except me was listening. In a whisper, she said his name. She bit her lip and lowered her eyes again.

“I could not remain in Toto. I moved to San Lucas Sacatepéquez to live with a friend. We both worked as housekeepers. I had the baby in the public hospital in Antigua. After she was born, I didn’t know what to do. My husband is dead. I couldn’t go back to Toto with a child.”

Ana covered her face with her hands for a long moment before she continued.

“I kept the baby for eight days. Then I gave her to my friend.”

Her explanation was so straightforward, I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing. She’d had a baby she couldn’t take care of, and she’d made a hard decision. Not easy, not without great pain. But simple.

“Did your friend give the baby to the facilitator?”

“I don’t know. I moved back to Toto. I didn’t see the baby for a year, until a woman named Gilda drove to my house. She took me to the capital to prove I’m the baby’s mother. The baby sat on my lap. She was already a big girl.”

Her voice trailed off. “I never saw her again.”

She lifted her chin higher, as though to strengthen her resolve. “Now I know she is alive. I don’t have to worry.”

“Would you like me to give Olivia a message from you?”

Ana didn’t stop to think before she answered. “Tell her I love her. She is of my blood.”

I felt a sharp sting in my eyes. The tears I had been suppressing flooded out. As much as Olivia belonged to me, she belonged to Ana. As much as she was Ana’s, she was mine. Their loss was something I would never understand. Their wound was something I may never heal. I was mourning for birth mothers everywhere, for the choices they made for the sake of their children. I was mourning for Guatemala, the beautiful and flawed country that would always be a part of Olivia.

Ana stood and moved over to my chair. She put her arms around me as though comforting a child. “Don’t cry, mamalita,” she said.

Excerpted from Mamalita: An Adoption Memoir, by JESSICA O’DWYER. Available from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2010.


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