In June many years ago, my husband and I arrived home from Cochabamba, Bolivia, with our son, Emilio. We have tried to keep his memories of Bolivia alive, to foster pride in his heritage, and to instill faith in the love of his birth mother. I communicate with Emilio exclusively in Spanish, while he speaks English with his dad, at school, and with most of his friends.
Three years after we adopted him, we told Emilio we would return to Cochabamba to adopt a daughter. He was elated about becoming a big brother, and about visiting his birth country. Yet minutes before we were to embark on our trip, Emilio collapsed in tears on the floor of his room. As I sat with him, he talked about the mix of emotions he was feeling. He was especially sad about leaving his beloved dogs for a month. When he felt better, we headed for the airport.
On our arrival in La Paz, Emilio was excited to touch down in “El Alto,” the highest elevation airport in the world. He was almost as impressed by the breathtaking views of the Andes Mountains as he was by his father’s altitude sickness. After a short flight to Cochabamba, we spent the day getting settled into our hotel. That night Emilio composed his first journal entry (translated here from the original Spanish):
Today we arrived in Bolivia. I am happy because I am in my country. My dad got sick because there wasn’t enough oxygen in the mountains of La Paz. Cochabamba isn’t as high and is very beautiful.
The following morning we made our first appearance in adoption court. We spent that afternoon at Solomón Klein Orphanage, where we were introduced to our beautiful daughter, Claudia. Emilio presented her with a special gift, a soft, brown-skinned doll. The gift, and Emilio’s tenderness toward her, immediately won her heart.
The women who worked at the orphanage (the “Mamás”) remembered Emilio and were thrilled to see him again. He beamed as they hugged and kissed him, exclaimed at how tall and handsome he was, and praised him for being bilingual. In his journal he wrote:
Today I visited my little sister at Solomón. All the Mamás were hugging me because they remembered me.
We spent a few hours each day at the orphanage with Claudia, and Emilio thoroughly enjoyed being her big brother. He asked us to repeat the story of how he came to live at Solomón Klein. He compared his own history with what we knew about our daughter’s arrival at the orphanage and her eligibility for adoption.
As we walked the streets of Cochabamba, Emilio looked closely at beggars, at children selling trinkets, and at women with babies selling fruits and magazines. He took special notice of boys his age who earned small change at busy intersections, wiping car windshields with dirty rags. He also looked carefully at the native Indian women in their traditional bowler hats and pleated skirts, and he admired their beautiful, dark braids.
Emilio noticed that he was older than most of the children at the orphanage. When he asked about this, I explained that Solomón Klein is for children up to six years old. He shot back, “What happens to kids who are more than six years old?” I described various possibilities: “Some return to their birth families, some get adopted, some move to orphanages for older children — ” He interrupted, saying, “I know, and some of them live on the street.”
“With Love from Emilio”
When the day arrived for our last court appearance, Emilio insisted upon sitting next to his sister. Later he wrote:
Now my little sister’s adoption is final. The judge said ‘Congratulations’ to me, in English.
During the last week of our stay, Emilio wanted to visit the orphanage as often as possible. He walked around the grounds, found the dormitory room where he had lived, talked with the employees, and played with the children. One day he announced that he wanted to return to Cochabamba as a teenager to work at Solomón Klein. “What work will you do there?” I asked. He replied, “Everything. I’ll help the women to take good care of the children.”
Long before we knew we’d return to Bolivia to adopt, Emilio told me that if we ever went back, he wanted to bring a gift for every child in the orphanage. After discussion about what we could fit in our suitcases, he decided upon balloons. “A balloon for every child,” he told me. “I’ll blow them up myself.” Shortly before we left for Bolivia, he received a package from my sister. It contained 200 balloons, colored ribbons, and two hand pumps. Her card said, “I want to help you realize your dream.”
In Cochabamba, we discussed Emilio’s gift with the adoption facilitator, Carolina, who suggested we have a party. And so, a few days before we left Bolivia, we hosted a party for 136 children and all the employees of Solomón Klein Orphanage. The huge cake we ordered from a local bakery said it all: “With love from Emilio for his friends at Solomón Klein.” We tied a balloon with a colored ribbon to each chair in the dining room. When everything was ready, the children came running in from the playground to take their seats. Carolina and Emilio made brief speeches, everyone ate cake, and the children ran back to the playground, each trailing a balloon on a ribbon. We left very late in the day, utterly exhausted. Slumped in the taxi on the way to our hotel, Emilio spoke just once: “All the children of Solomón are happy now because of me.”
The next night we went to see a Bolivian music group. The leader polled the audience as to our “departments” of origin. Emilio grinned as his hand shot up in response to “Cochabamba.” He sat spellbound through the concert. Afterward he wrote:
There were seven musicians playing different-sized guitars, zampoñas and other wooden flutes, and an electric piano. I liked the music in my heart because it was the first time in a long time that I heard Bolivian music, because I had been in New Haven.
As I tucked Emilio into bed the night before our departure, he burst into tears, saying, “I don’t want to leave my country. I don’t want to go to New Haven. I want to stay in Bolivia.” We recalled the wonderful sites of Bolivia and the people we love there. I promised we would return. We talked about friends and family awaiting us in New Haven, and of how overjoyed our dogs would be to see us again. We reflected on the sadness experienced a month earlier as we left New Haven, and how his emotions now were both similar and different. Within a few minutes, Emilio decided that it would be all right to go home to the United States.
We arrived late the next night at Bradley Airport in Connecticut. We were welcomed by friends bearing flowers, gifts, and flashing cameras. Emilio had come full circle. The journal that began in Cochabamba with “I am happy because I am in my country” ended in New Haven with “I felt good to be in my country again. I have two countries, and I like having two because I have friends in both places.”
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