When Amanda was only six years old, I asked an adoption professional, active in the Jewish adoption community, how families integrated their child's birth heritage into the bar or bat mitzvah, the traditional coming of age ceremony. She told me the ceremony was about declaring one's commitment to Judaism, and suggested that perhaps it was not an appropriate time to refer to my child's Latin American heritage. This social worker pointed out that thirteen-year-olds usually want to blend in with others—not call attention to their differences.
Yet, six years later, as we planned Amanda's bat mitzvah ceremony, that social worker's suggestions made little sense to me. As I prepared a speech to express my love and respect for my daughter, it seemed dishonorable not to speak of how Amanda's adoption had made our lives so meaningful. With Amanda's permission, I publicly declared her right to feel connected to both her Jewish and Latin American heritages. Traveling to Honduras, the place of her birth, and the only connection she has with her biological family, would be an important part of the process of helping Amanda grow into a secure and confident adult.
When my husband Paul and I decided to take Amanda to Honduras, we discussed it with her a year and a half before the trip. At that time, we told her the goal of the trip was to learn about Latin American culture, and we would save searching issues for another trip. Paul and I made our decision about searching based on the adoption literature we were familiar with, which recommended waiting for a child to be a mature teenager before pursuing a search. We thought that if Amanda felt strongly about searching at that point in her life, knowing how assertive and open she is, she would have told us.
In retrospect, Amanda reports that although she hadn't been ready for a search, she felt we'd already made the decision for her. Since our return, I have had the opportunity to review other experts' thoughts on search, and the difference between searches and reunions. With this new understanding, we might have made a different decision.
The challenge of planning the trip was to include activities everyone (especially Amanda's nine-and-a-half-year-old brother Matt) could enjoy. As a family, we decided to start our trip with five days in Roatan, the largest of the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras. Amanda was certified as a scuba diver just before we left, so she could dive with her dad while Matt and I would snorkel.
Roatan is located in one of the most scenic coral reefs in the world. Besides snorkeling and diving daily, we also spent a day at a Marine Research Center where we had a special thrill—we swam and played with dolphins. Once we reached the mainland, our personal guide Henry drove us up into the mountains to the Honduran/Guatemalan border to spend two days in Copan touring the amazing Mayan Ruins. The road up to Copan has been paved since Paul and I were there 13 years ago, and no longer did we have to stop at military checkpoints. The drive enabled Paul and me to view the many changes as Honduras had experienced great economic and social progress and development.
Amanda saw for herself the diversity of Honduras as we drove through cities filled with businesses and modern homes, and small poor villages where large families live in mud shacks. The cities were filled with people dressed like us, and stores and office buildings which look like the ones she sees every day at home. When we drove through the rural villages, Amanda saw half dressed children walking along the road, and native Mayans with dark skin standing on the porches of houses with no electricity or running water. She began to really understand that Honduran culture was very different from her own life experience.
The town of Copan is quaint, and descendants of the Mayan Indians still farm in the mountains. The sculptures and temples of the Mayas are extraordinary, and Amanda felt honored to be connected to such an accomplished civilization. To add some adventure, we rode by horseback into the mountains to see remote ruins and Mayan farms. One of the highlights of Copan was the pet ocelot Amanda and Matt befriended in the hotel! The most significant part of the trip were the final two days we spent in the city of San Pedro Sula, the industrial center of Honduras. Paul and I feel a deep connection to San Pedro Sula because this is where Amanda was born. We toured the banana plantation, the artisans' market, and the mahogany factory.
Although the city brought us the least adventure, it brought us full circle emotionally. We took Amanda on a "trip down memory lane." Amanda, who usually rolls her eyes with teenage angst when we talk about the "good old times," was enthralled with every word. We showed her the house where we had lived for the six weeks we awaited finalization of her adoption. We saw the house of the U.S. family we had befriended and with whom we'd spent much of our time. (We still correspond with this family who has since returned to the United States.) We stayed in the same hotel where Paul and I used to go for American-style cheeseburgers and a dose of American news. Amanda and I went for several walks around the main square in San Pedro.
Sometimes I felt I could see myself as that very new and anxious mom wheeling her beautiful infant in a stroller around the square, eager to fly back home to start life as a family. Thirteen years ago, it had been difficult for Paul and me, anxious new parents, to fully appreciate and enjoy Honduran life when we felt as if we were being held hostage by a slow moving bureaucracy. Now, free of the anxiety of the adoption process, we found ourselves quite unexpectedly excited by our own "homeland" visit.
We had been so focused on what this "homeland visit" would mean for Amanda, it had never occurred to us how it would affect the rest of the family. Matt understood that this was Amanda's "special trip," and he had to be extra cooperative when we went places that were not necessarily of interest to him. He was all that and more, in a way we never expected because patience and cooperativeness are not Matt's strong suit. I believe this was his gift to Amanda.
Matt now has a better understanding of his two heritages, because he, like Amanda, also "belongs" to a blend of Latin American and Caucasian cultures. It is more real to him that the place he comes from, Paraguay, is different from the place he calls home. He expects—and looks forward to—traveling to Paraguay after his bar mitzvah. Perhaps this is Amanda's gift to him. When we discussed our favorite parts of the trip, Paul, Matt, and I all named one of the adventures. But Amanda said it had been our visit to San Pedro Sula. When we asked why, Amanda responded, "I can't explain it. Just being here means so much." Amanda is rarely at a loss for words. Yet, she did not need words. I understood. I saw it in her face as she walked around the main square watching the people. It was Amanda who noticed that when I spoke in my bad high school Spanish to people, they turned to her as they spoke, expecting her to understand fluent Spanish. "They recognize you. You fit in and look like everyone else here. I'm the one who looks different now," I remarked. Amanda replied, "You know, I do fit in back home. No one ever says anything to me. I don't think anyone really cares if they do know I'm from Honduras." We'd flown several thousand miles to learn more about Amanda's experiences as an adopted girl in Pennsylvania.
Since we live in a suburb populated mainly by Caucasian families, Amanda does not experience racial or cultural diversity on a daily basis and knows mostly Caucasian children. Yet, she has developed close friendships with two girls of Latin American heritage who are not adopted and a definite minority in their world at school. As parents, we have been committed to providing both children with opportunities to socialize and develop friendships with peers of other races and minorities. We have not had access to culture camps, but we have always participated in adoptive family support groups which included families who adopted internationally. We selected our synagogue on the basis of its acceptance and inclusion of interracial and adoptive families with children from Hispanic, Asian, and African-American cultures. Amanda has always attended summer camp programs which attract racially and culturally diverse populations. Amanda attended a Spanish immersion camp at a local college. Our home has books and videos about Honduras and Paraguay. We listen to Spanish music and attend cultural festivals and art exhibits which showcase Latin American talent. I read children's books in Spanish to both Matt and Amanda. Both children have attended Spanish classes.
Bridging Two Heritages
The bridging of Amanda's two heritages came in the least likely of places—a small synagogue in San Pedro Sula. Paul's sister had read an article about a Rabbi from New York who visited a synagogue in San Pedro. I contacted the Rabbi who in turn put us in touch with Mr. Marvin Rembo, a native New Yorker and businessman who resides in San Pedro Sula. Marvin was delighted to show us the synagogue and tell us its history. The congregation, established by immigrant Orthodox Jewish men who immigrated from Poland to Honduras in the late 1930s, was now a racially and culturally diverse Honduran group. "There are lots of other people who are both Spanish and Indian as well as Jewish," I told Amanda. Her hands touched the ark, home of the sacred Torah, and antique prayer books brought from Europe with great care. I believe she was, in that moment, coming to a marvelous truth about herself. She is many things, and "home" is in many places.
Just a few months after we returned from our trip, Honduras was in the news due to the devastation it suffered from a hurricane. We were deeply connected to Honduras in a way we had not been prior to our trip, and we knew all too well what had been lost. We had just been there, and seen a vital and beautiful country. So much of the progress which had impressed Paul and me, was now gone. I was especially worried for the well being of Amanda's birth family. I felt a profound regret for having not searched for them. Aside from my concerns for their safety, I was haunted by the possibility that Amanda's chance to meet them someday was destroyed by the hurricane. Amanda, however, did not seem to be too worried about this possibility as she pointed out that the damage and the deaths had occurred mainly in Tegucigalpa, and her birth family was in San Pedro Sula. Contact with friends and resources on the Internet reassured us that San Pedro Sula and its wonderful synagogue had been spared.
Amanda read this article as I wrote it, giving us the opportunity to talk about the trip again. "I feel a connection to Honduras, not just my birth family. I liked having the experience of being in another country, and learning about another part of myself," said Amanda. For Amanda this journey "home" to Honduras accomplished what it was meant to. There's always the next trip, and I plan to be there with my daughter.
My Homeland Visit
by Amanda Levin
When my parents and I started to discuss a trip to Honduras, I didn't think it would be anything more than a normal vacation. I pictured the shopping and touring and my parents' "let's soak up everything" attitude. I thought of a new place and taxis and my brother fighting with me over beds in the hotel. Just a normal vacation. It didn't hit me until we actually arrived in Honduras that this would not be a regular vacation.
As I sat in the hot airport, kicking myself for wearing black shorts, I started thinking. I remembered all the times I had tried to picture Honduras, all the things I had imagined. It hit me that this was my birth country. From that moment on, everywhere we went, I watched in fascination. This was my past, my heritage. Everything seemed as if it were somehow tied to me. I distinctly remember buying a soda and the woman speaking to me in Spanish. How was she to know I had been adopted and lived in the United States? To this woman, I was just like all the other girls who bought Cokes in her store. I was just like everyone else she saw in Honduras.
In Honduras, I felt a great connection with everything. I don't think another person can really understand that feeling of self discovery I experienced. From a trip that I had thought would be nothing more than shopping and sightseeing came so much more. I left Honduras with a greater understanding of myself as well as the country. To be able to identify with a culture on such a strong level is not something many people have the opportunity to do. I am just thankful that I was one of those people.
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