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Bringing Culture Home

By Ellen Guettler

(The Schmidts asked American RadioWorks not to disclose details about their son's birth mother so that they can share this information with him when they think he is ready. Here, we call Gabriel's birth mother "María.")

Scott and Julie Ann Schmidt with their adopted son Gabriel

When Scott and Julie Ann Schmidt adopted their son Gabriel from Guatemala, they wanted to help him keep a connection to his birth culture. The question was, how?

"One of the things we struggled with is should we start learning Spanish?" Scott says. "Do we send him to immersion school? How do we decorate his room?"

It's a question more and more parents who adopt from abroad face. A generation ago, parents would have been more likely to ignore a child's racial and cultural background. But new research shows the children do better later if they have a connection to their birth culture.

The Schmidts attended a parenting workshop through their adoption agency that stressed the importance of embracing Gabriel's cultural roots.

But they didn't know much about those roots. Before they adopted Gabriel, they were given a birth mother profile for him, but it included only her name, location and scant medical information. Julie Ann says having so little information made it more challenging to help Gabriel be proud of where he came from.

"It's interesting even thinking about a family tree," she says. "I know for my own it gives me great stability and self-esteem and we want to create that for him as much as possible. His is more important than my own and it's the one you know least about."

So they decided to request a meeting with Gabriel's birth mother, María.

"We would like to have some sort of contact, versus her going away and not knowing what happened to Gabriel and Gabriel not knowing about his background," says Scott. "At some point down the road we may want to take Gabriel to Guatemala and meet his birth mom if he wants to -- if she's open to it."

Birth mother meetings aren't common in international adoption. But the Schmidts' lawyer agreed to bring María to meet the Schimdts when they traveled to Guatemala to bring Gabriel back to the U.S. It was the first time the lawyer had arranged such a meeting.

Not knowing when they would have another chance to meet María, the Schmidts prepared a list of questions - information they wanted to take back to Gabriel. Their lawyer brought María to their hotel room in Guatemala City.

María is small compared to Scott and Julie Ann. She has a round face and long black hair. She wore a traditional Mayan embroidered blouse called a huipil. Julie Ann said she was instantly choked up by meeting the woman who allowed her to have a child, but María was harder to read.

"She came with very little emotion on her face," she says. "I wouldn't say sad or happy, just really kind of neutral."

Because they don't speak Spanish, the Schmidts had to rely on their lawyer to translate the conversation. They asked her what her hobbies were so they could tell Gabriel what his birth mother liked to do.

She said, "I cook and I clean."

The lawyer tried again. "No, but that's your work. They want to know what you enjoy doing. When you were little, what did you like to play?"

María just shrugged.

It wasn't the only question that was hard to communicate. The Schmidts asked María what she dreamed for herself and for Gabriel, but María didn't understand. The lawyer tried other ways of explaining what it was to dream. Wishes for the future? Something granted by God? But María didn't have a response. For Julie Ann this was hard to imagine.

"She didn't have that concept of dreaming past the present moment. She wanted to work hard and that was it. That was the boundaries of what she knew in her head. [It was] shocking to us because here in the United States, the minute children are born you start having big dreams for them."

Eventually María said she hoped Gabriel would grow up to be a good student, a good worker and a good person.

After Scott and Julie Ann returned home with Gabriel they looked for ways to keep Guatemala part of their lives. They have found other families who adopted children from Guatemala, and Scott says they went to the local Central American grocery store to buy a piñata for Gabriel's first birthday. But they say meeting Gabriel's birth mother will be one of their best sources of information as Gabriel gets older.

"We didn't know if she would want us to take video or pictures, but she was open to all of that," says Julie Ann. "We were just tickled because now we have a video to show Gabriel, not just pictures but an actual video."

The Schmidts sent a letter to María asking her if she would like to visit them in the United States, provided the Schmidts could find a way to get her here. When she learned of the invitation, María said it was very far and that it would be hard for her to miss work.

Staying in touch with María will be a challenge for the Schmidts. The people she lives with don't know about Gabriel, so Scott and Julie Ann can't contact her directly. They must always go through their lawyer and hope, if María moves, that she keeps the lawyer informed.

Still, Julie Ann says the visit was worth it.

"I could feel a connection with her," she says. "I think she was surprised that I wanted to connect with her. I held her hand and sat near her. It was great to see her face. I often take her picture out and I stare at it because I want to see how Gabriel is developing and how they look alike. On the way out of the hotel I gave her a hug and a kiss and she kept walking. Then, by herself, she came back to me and she gave me another hug and a kiss. In that short period of time she became part of our heart."

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