(Mateo is a pseudonym for his/her personal safety)
An adoptee connects to his land of heritage
“I went to meet myself“
Editor’s Note: Seated around the table for our meal serving as a backdrop for this interview, the harmony of this family is palpable. Each of them speaks for himself while carefully checking with the others for validation that he is representing an answer with fairness to all.
Mateo’s gaze is focused on his plate of food getting cold while perhaps deciding when and how to insert himself into this fast-moving four-way conversation already taking place. He is listening attentively because when his mother prompts him, he responds not only appropriately, but with astutely perceptive answers. As he seems to become more comfortable and trusting of my partner and me who are total strangers to him, he begins to be more receptive to questions; interjecting and joining into the conversation unsolicited. Eye contact is fleeting but he uses it when he wishes to emphasize an important point. When we query him on an issue, Mateo is able to illustrate its meaning in lyrical descriptive language.
Part of knowing who you are is knowing where you came from. Many children do not grow up living in the home with their birth parents. For myriad reasons they may live with grandparents or other biological family members, foster parents, or adoptive parents.
Inevitably the adopted child will want details of his true identity. Feelings of abandonment are common in adopted children. They need more than simple answers. In order to feel complete, they need validation of who they are.
When I think of an adopted child trying to figure out his true origin, I think of a multi-layered cake. Perhaps he knows a basic explanation of why he is living where he is which may be enough to satisfy him for the present time. However, as he matures, he becomes more curious and wants another layer added to that original story. He may keep asking more specific questions and demand more answers. Eventually the request comes to meet his biological parents and/or location of his birth. He will not rest until all layers of the “cake” are added and iced, and he is satisfied.
Imagine the confusion of a child from El Salvador adopted at six months who has Asperger’s Syndrome, (a high functioning form on the Autism Spectrum Disorder.) His birth mother, weakened by anemia after his birth, already had two children she was unable to care for. She made the sacrificial decision to give this child up for adoption in order for him to have a better life. Malnourished, he was taken to the hospital where a foster mother with six to nine other children in her care took him home, making sure to get him to his weekly doctor’s appointments and do exercises with him. A young person came to her house regularly to provide the necessary cuddling until he could be adopted. Mateo’s love of music was evident already at the time of his adoption as an infant. (It remains one of his many passions even today at age 34.)
This complicated, bright young child created stories and poetry as a toddler. He drew maps at age four when his mother first suspected autism. Yet other interpersonal skills and language were not developing typically. For example, he didn’t understand idiomatic language causing his parents to carefully word things so that he would not take the meaning too literally or misinterpret the meaning. He had difficulty forming relationships (“almost non-existent; I didn’t connect with anyone” he tells us) so his parents took him to see a psychologist, but the suspected autism diagnosis was discounted until he was twenty-six! He struggled with concentration, making learning challenging in a traditional public school whose teachers did not understand how to teach him. Mateo tells us, “Looking back, I should have been held back a couple of times; however, I was not disruptive, so they pushed me on through the system.” After Mateo received his diagnosis at age twenty-six, he and his parents began to receive excellent specialized support from the Jewish Social Services.
Mateo could not have been adopted by a set of more supportive, sensitive parents. Mateo’s dad is steadfastly encouraging and concerned. His quiet and calm demeanor belies his rational judgment which provides stability to the family. His is the voice of reason guiding and reassuring during times of doubt. He has no regrets in life. He sees his decisions as lessons and learning experiences for who he is today.
With a background in the religious community as a former nun, Mateo’s mom developed and honed skills of patience and percipience. As a professional teacher with many years of experience both past and present, equipped her to help Mateo in so many ways. She is accepting and tolerant of her son’s wishes, understanding of his moods; she appears to wear the role of the family negotiator. Her insight into his inner psyche brings wisdom and awareness to his issues.
We cannot discount Mateo himself who struggled mightily to help his parents understand his difficulties when they had no professional guidance.
These parents made decisions before they married, including the decision to adopt a child whether or not he had special needs. Mateo tells us, “I knew I was different; I learned differently from my peers. I looked different from my parents.”
When he became school-aged, his parents tried to enroll Mateo in a Spanish inclusion school in order to help him experience his birth culture. However, Mateo was denied admission with the reason given being that Mateo would not be able to handle it.
When Mateo was ten, he began asking about his birth mother. His mother asked what he would ask his birth mother if he could use just a few words, to which Mateo replied, “Please take me back.”
Mateo’s parents tried valiantly to respect his decisions, including his choice to no longer attend weekly Mass after age 18. They felt it was his right to explore faith on his own terms. Mateo does not discount returning to formal religion at some future point, but for now he prefers to read and study the Bible on his own. (He has read the entire Bible.) Mateo draws strength by reading the gospels and epistles because he feels they are currently applicable in terms of morality which he associates with issues of living in society unlike the Old Testament stories.
In his late teens Mateo demonstrated the typical adolescent frustrations of having to live at home when he wanted to move out and to make his own decisions. However, his parents knew that he would always need a strong support system set up before he could leave his home. By the time they found an appropriate supported living situation with two roommates, he was almost thirty. His parents asked when he wanted to go and he replied, “This afternoon!” He moved into the apartment the next day.
Mateo was maturing physically and emotionally. He was interested in finding out information regarding his birth mother. His parents discovered the Salvadoran group Pro Busqueda (an NGO dedicated to finding missing children from the Salvadoran civil war) that does DNA testing. They sent a kit which he completed and returned. However, Pro Busqueda could not guarantee results without running a double-blind study. That became less and less important to Mateo. “I already had an image of my mom.”
Finding his mom or siblings was not the most important part to Mateo but instead getting a sense of his country and culture. “The goal of wanting to experience the country and culture took away the barrier and guilt of my not knowing the language,” Mateo reflects. His parents were totally prepared when he began asking about his background and expressing that he wanted to discover his place of origin. “I wanted to go to El Salvador for awhile, but my parents were worried about my safety.”
Some of Mateo’s resentment and the frustration so typical of adoptees was directed at his dad over the years. A healthy reconciliation restored that relationship before they all traveled to El Salvador. This positive change made the timing perfect, since all three of them were now in a good place emotionally to trust one another.
Several key people involving family members and professionals, some known to the parents and others unknown to them in El Salvador became deeply involved and committed to making sure that Mateo’s trip to El Salvador was a success. His parents accompanied him on this eight-day journey. Both his therapist (a specialist in autism spectrum disorders), and his residence counselor were deeply involved and supportive. Mateo explained that he tends to “live in the present and I had no expectations going into the trip.” His mom has been told by a psychologist that this is the healthiest attitude for adoptees to go with and they’ll return best.
That is certainly true in Mateo’s case. His parents wanted him to be able to express himself about how he felt during their trip to El Salvador. They had the courage and respect for whatever answer he would give. “If he said, ‘Please take me back,’ I wanted to be able to face that it was a scary thing to hear his voice, but it was necessary for me as his parent to honor his wish. I told him, ‘We are glad you are honoring your biological parents that gave you birth.’” Both parents were prepared for whatever the outcome would be. His dad knew it was necessary to take him to El Salvador.
Sister Peggy O’Neill in Suchitoto was one of several dedicated people who spent three to four hours a day with Mateo after they arrived in the country. Her wisdom and devotion to Mateo and his family were blessings to them during this journey. Mateo’s dad shared that “being put in touch with someone in El Salvador to facilitate our visit made all the difference in the world making it a successful experience. It was the difference between it being a tourist trip and a journey of finding oneself. Mateo was drinking in every experience he was exposed to. Just watching him acclimate you could see peace in him.”
No longer needing to locate his birth family, Mateo expressed that, “I just wanted to put my feet on the soil. I wanted to experience the country. That goal of wanting to experience the country and culture then took away the barrier and guilt of not speaking Spanish.”
“These are my people,” Mateo joyfully announced during his journey that became one of self-exploration. Seeing the friendliness of the Salvadoran people allowed him to open himself to them. “I experienced a transformation.” When asked to describe this transformation, he explained, “My mind stopped; it was no longer filled with confusion. A lot of my problems just cleared up. My subconscious feelings, smells, tastes I previously didn’t understand or avoided just went away. Suddenly I was open to trying foods I always avoided. I was surprised that I enjoyed coconut and guava, for example.” He further described, “I always had trouble concentrating, engaging in a conversation with my dad which once strained our relationship, listening, focusing, was sensitive to things like fluorescent lights. That all disappeared in El Salvador. I was not as defensive as I used to be. I can now listen to a person. A re-awakening took place. I went to meet myself.”
His dad described him as being totally at peace with his Salvadoran environment. His mom still needed to hear him verbally state his feelings. Asked if he wanted to stay in El Salvador, Mateo replied, “I would, but I know I need to be where I can get the support I need.” (Mateo needs a variety of supports in his supervised living setting.)
His parents were aware of the risk they took by taking him to El Salvador as an adult, particularly because he does have dual citizenship. They also trusted and were confident that Mateo would make a wise life decision. Mateo’s mom is proud to share that “He returned solid and it has held!”
Mateo’s creativity is now expressed in his photography. His mom reports he has always shown a sense of wonder in nature and will often call them asking, “Did you see the amazing sunset?” He enjoys capturing lightning, cloud formations, birds in flight, animals, and even unique trash which he sees as a form of art in his photography. His talent has been recognized by being shown at juried art shows. He prefers to do his art as a way to express himself rather than as a career.
His mom hopes that perhaps someday Mateo may consider using his creativity to write stories or poetry about his experiences in El Salvador where he found himself, cleared his mind of many issues clouding his functioning, and connected to his people, but was content to return. This truly was a journey of transformation surrounded by a supportive family.
Just as a cake can be a basic layer cake, an adopted child can hear a simple explanation for his placement. When more layers and fillings are carefully added to that basic cake when the timing is right, and as the cake is transformed with the additional chocolate ganache glaze, in this case a trip to the country of his origin, the adoptee, too, may have a transformation.
(Note: all photos punctuating this story are Mateo originals.)