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Deborah Amos: From American Public Media, this is "Finding Home: Fifty Years of International Adoption," an American RadioWorks documentary. I'm Deborah Amos.

Americans adopt more than 20,000 children from abroad each year.

Susan Soon-Keum Cox: How different our lives were, not because I went to America, but because I’d gone to a family.

Amos: The flow of children began 50 years ago, with Korean war orphans. Many thrived; some longed for the culture they lost.

Jane Jeong Trenka: I’m dying to speak my mother tongue.

Amos: Today, more parents try to help their children connect with their birth culture.

Laurie Stern: The more we can let him make the choice of who he wants to be as an adult, the better I feel like we’ll be doing our job as parents.

Amos: But as international adoption grows, parents face new risks.

P.J. Whiskeyman: It’s basically a bait and switch operation. The children they’re pulling you in with aren’t available for adoption.

Amos: In the coming hour "Finding Home: Fifty Years of International Adoption" from American RadioWorks. First, this news update.

Amos: From American Public Media, this is "Finding Home: Fifty Years of International Adoption" from American RadioWorks. I’m Deborah Amos. In the past decade, the number of foreign children adopted by Americans has nearly tripled. Last year, Americans adopted nearly 23,000 children. Most come from poor and troubled parts of the world, and a life in America offers new hope. But it also means the loss of their birth culture.

Fifty years of experience with international adoption has led to new approaches in bringing up a multicultural child. The success of international adoption brings perils, too. The past few years have seen an explosion in adoption groups and companies competing for clients, often over the Internet. Many companies are honest, but when they’re not, it’s hard to stop them from preying on families eager to adopt. Michael Montgomery reports.

Michael Montgomery: Two years ago, P.J. Whiskeyman was trolling the Internet when she chanced on some striking photographs of children. They were on a Web site devoted to finding homes in America for orphans overseas.

P.J. Whiskeyman: I was completely a novice. So I just started looking through and before I knew it, saw a couple of girls I guess my heart went out for and it went from there.

[children in kitchen]

Montgomery : Whiskeyman lives in Lititz, Pennsylvnia, with her husband and four of their six children. The other two are grown. Whiskeyman is 46 and a writer. Even with such a lively household, the images of the orphans nagged at her. It was as if she could see the girls sitting on her living room couch and hear their voices.

Whiskeyman: This is Vika. She looks a lot to me like our daughter. Like she would be a little older sister for her. She would have been. Little impish smile. It’s hard to explain but the heart works differently than the mind.

Montgomery : Their attachment to the photos led Whiskeyman and her husband, Mike Bard, to try to adopt the girls. And that led them to the California adoption company that posted the girls’ photos on the Internet, Yunona USA.

Whiskeyman: We fell in love, and when I called Yunona about these girls, the first thing they told me was "Some other parents have expressed interest in those girls and you’d better get your money in." We scrambled together to wire them the first down payment of like $7,500.

Montgomery : The family took out a second mortgage on their home to cover the costs and signed a contract. All without ever meeting a Yunona representative and with only scant information about the girls. That’s not unusual today in the world of international adoption. As the number of overseas adoptions has exploded, so too has the number of companies battling for business across the country, often in cyberspace. It’s a market worth hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Trish Maskew: It’s a significant amount of money.

Montgomery : Trish Maskew is president of Ethica, a group that lobbies for better rules governing adoption. Maskew says as the adoption industry has expanded, government regulations have not kept up.

Maskew: We like to say that your neighborhood health club is probably more heavily regulated than anybody who’s doing adoptions in the United States.

Montgomery : Maskew says most adoptions are set up by reputable companies and work out well. But there have also been scandals involving child trafficking and Internet scams that prey on prospective parents. P.J. Whiskeyman traveled to Ukraine with her husband, expecting to return home with two new daughters. But instead, they could never locate Vica, the girl with the smile. The other girl wasn’t available, either. The couple refused to consider other children and returned home empty handed.

Whiskeyman: We got suckered in. We would never have gone if not for the picture and the promise.

Montgomery : Many large adoption agencies no longer post orphans’ photos on the Internet. But not Yunona.

The company maintains more than 20 different Web sites with pages and pages of orphans’ photos, flashy graphics, mood music.


Company president Ivan Jerdev insists the photo listings are necessary to link up prospective parents and orphans.

Ivan Jerdev: That’s a very good instrument to find parents, because parents want to see the child.

Montgomery : The listings you have, those kids are available. They’re not advertisements?

Jerdev: No. Nyet. The child is available when the family signs the contract.

Montgomery : That seems clear enough. But then Jerdev adds a big catch.

Jerdev: Actually, it very clearly states in our contract that we can’t guarantee that the child will be available for your family when you are there.

Montgomery : In other words, Jerdev claims a particular child is available when prospective parents sign a contract. But that might not be the case months later when the parents go to bring the child home. So if photo listings are so unreliable, why doesn’t Yunona stop using them? In a word, business.

Jerdev: I would lose 80 percent of my clients. But in this way, they will go to another agency with photo listings and they will have exactly the same problems.

Montgomery : Unlike many adoption agencies, Yunona is a for-profit company. It’s something Yunona’s founder doesn’t hide.

Jerdev: It happened not because of charity purposes or something but, to tell you the truth, because I had to pay bills.

Montgomery : Jerdev says Yunona started out small after he moved to the United States from Russia, but the company expanded aggressively on the Internet to compete with larger agencies. By 2001, Yunona reported it was handling as many as 400 adoptions a year. Fees ranged as high as $15,000 and $20,000. Jerdev says he has many happy clients.

But P.J. Whiskeyman is disgusted with the company.

Whiskeyman: It’s basically a bait and switch operation because the children they’re pulling you in with aren’t available for adoption.

Montgomery : Since posting her story on the Internet, Whiskeyman says she’s emailed or spoken with dozens of other families who say they were duped by Yuonona and are out thousands of dollars. They include Mary Perdue. Perdue is 55 and a machine operator in a factory in Cedar Rapids Iowa. She’s divorced with two adult daughters but always wanted a son. Four years ago, Perdue came across the photo of a boy on a Yunona Website.

Mary Perdue: Why he was cuter than the next guy? I don’t know. He just struck me. The real thick head of hair, dimples and smiley happy little boy.

Montgomery : Victor was a seven-year-old boy living in an orphanage in Russia. Perdue signed a contract and placed a deposit to put Victor on hold. Then the problems started. Yunona began losing documents and failed to return emails and phone calls.

Perdue: Hello this is Mary Perdue.

Montgomery : So Perdue started recording her phone calls to the Yunona representative handling her case.

Perdue on tape: I didn’t go into this thinking people would hold my hand 24 hours a day, but I did expect information and honesty maybe?

Montgomery : Perdue soon discovered some secrets about Yunona. On her contract, Yunona was listed as an adoption agency, but Yunona wasn’t a licensed agency at all. The company operates through a loophole in California law that allows so-called "facilitators" to arrange adoptions for families across the nation, virtually unregulated. Perdue also heard that Yunona was using bribes for judges overseas. She asked the Yunona representative who was handling Victor’s case about payoffs.

Perdue on tape: She told me that Yunona had bribed the judge and they’re still not getting anywhere with her. She told me that.

Yunona Representative: But you know what, Mary, Kazakhstan’s judges are all bribed by us.

Perdue: Oh sure. I know it’s everywhere.

Yunona Representative: Kazakhstan especially. Russia is kind of the same thing...

Montgomery : Mary Perdue says she doesn’t know whether the company paid off judges in her case. When Perdue finally was cleared to travel to Russia, she was told not to mention Yunona to any officials and to take $9,000 in cash to give company representatives. At last, the Perdues brought Victor to his new home in Iowa. But their troubles were just beginning.

Perdue: Friday, July 26, 2003.

[Sounds of boy crying]

Montgomery : Yunona told Mary Perdue that Victor was gentle and a deep sleeper, but in Iowa, she discovered a different child: a boy, now eight, who never slept for more than four hours, was obsessed with fire and knives and prone to long, violent rages.

Perdue : I taped that because nobody believed that he would scream for hours. That was a personal best for him. That was three and a half hours long.

Montgomery : Victor often focused his rage on Kim, Mary’s older daughter, who’s disabled and in a wheelchair.

Perdue : He threatened to eviscerate her. He popped her in the mouth for no reason. He would push her wheelchair into corners and into furniture. And I just knew he was going to open that basement door one day when I was at work and push her down there.

Montgomery : A psychologist diagnosed Victor with numerous emotional disorders and concluded he had been severely abused and physically scarred in Russia.

Perdue : He had scars all over his head and we couldn’t get it out of him what it was. Come to find out he was given punishment by being put in a great big plastic garbage can, full of water, and they closed the lid.

Montgomery : For 18 months, the Perdues tried counseling and even residential treatment for Victor. Nothing worked. So last year, with a heavy heart, Mary gave up custody of Victor. An Iowa judge sent the boy to a special facility where he lives as a ward of the state. The Perdues believe Yunona and the Russian orphanage concealed Victor’s medical history to make him more marketable.

Perdue : I made it crystal clear that I wanted a healthy child. At the very best, they lied. At the very worst, they’re doing everything illegal.

Montgomery : The Perdues thought about filing a lawsuit, but that was too expensive, especially since the adoption had cost about $25,000. They did tell their story to the FBI, which has been investigating Yunona. Other families have complained to the state of California. But earlier this year, state investigators determined they have no enforcement power over Yunona since it’s not a licensed adoption agency. Ivan Jerdev claims he’s been cleared by the state of California. He says all risks, including the possibility that medical information about the child is unreliable, are enshrined in Yunona’s contracts with parents. But Jerdev doesn’t deny using bribes.

Jerdev: It’s everywhere. It’s the reality.

Montgomery : He says payoffs are necessary for all agencies in order to circumvent Soviet-era laws and rescue children from wretched conditions. Jerdev says he’s not violating U.S. law because independent coordinators make the actual payments.

Jerdev: We don’t pay. The coordinators must to do this. And they pay. They have to pay a lot of people. Bribes. The money always finds a way to go around.

Montgomery : Bribes are a sensitive topic for other more established agencies. Many have signed a voluntary code of practice that forbids such payments. But many of those same agencies routinely require adoptive parents to deliver large amounts of cash when they travel abroad without saying where the money is going.

Maskew: There really is no accounting for most of the money that goes overseas.

Montgomery : Ethica’s Trish Maskew.

Maskew: Whether that money is being paid to an official, to a family member, to a facilitator, to pay a middle man somewhere to find a child. There are all kinds of schemes. That is trafficking. We’re actually using money to move the child through the system.

Montgomery : Maskew says the U.S. has laws against trafficking and bribes, but they’re rarely applied to adoptions. New laws could close loopholes for companies like Yunona. The United States has signed the Hague Convention on international adoption. Based on that treaty, the U.S. is drafting regulations that would require agencies to be more open about where their money goes and about orphans’ medical histories. But experts say even with the new regulations, parents should carefully research the agencies they work with.

Joan Hollinger: You’re not placing an order with Amazon.com.

Montgomery : Joan Hollinger is an adoption expert at University of California at Berkeley.

Hollinger: And as sympathetic as I am and as many people are to prospective parents who get emotionally connected through images to a particular child, people have to understand that there just are enormous risks and uncertainties in any kind of adoption.

Montgomery : Yunona’s president says business has dropped since rumors of an FBI investigation started circulating on the Internet. Nevertheless, the company has expanded its offerings. This summer, Yunona announced a new program. Its Web site posted ultra-sound images of unborn children in Guatamala. Yunona says one day soon, the children might be available for adoption.

Amos: You're listening to "Finding Home: Fifty Years of International Adoption.” I'm Deborah Amos. Coming up, war orphans pour out of Korea and transform adoption.

Susan Soon-Keum Cox: The idea that we were transplanting children from one country to another, children of a different race and ethnicity. Those were huge issues.

Amos: Our program continues in just a moment, from American Public Media.

Amos: From American Public Media, this is "Finding Home: Fifty Years of International Adoption" from American RadioWorks. I’m Deborah Amos.

Until the 1950s, foreign adoption was rare in the United States. But after the Korean War ended, international adoption took off, as American families took in war orphans. Korea would remain the major sending country to the United States for 40 years. Not until 1995 would it be eclipsed by China.

Korean adoptees now make up the largest group of adults who can describe foreign adoption from the inside, and they’ve influenced how adoptive families raise their children today.

Producer Sasha Aslanian looks at how the social experiment of transnational adoption worked out for some of them.

Sasha Aslanian: Kim Park Gregg became part of Korea’s global transfer of children as a seven-month-old baby. She was raised in St. Paul, Minnesota by liberal white parents who she says preferred adoption as a way to create a family. Now a graduate student in American Studies, Park Gregg is researching how adoptees were affected by growing up in white homes.

Kim Park Gregg: Every single person who I’ve talked to does have something to say about being a person of color in the United States and what it’s meant for them to grow up as they only person of color, the only Asian person in their town, unless there’s one other adoptee that’s, like, their sibling. I think that it’s ended up being a really important factor for a lot of adoptees.

Aslanian: Park Gregg says until recently, research on adoption has focused on the parents and their needs. She’s part of a vanguard of researchers trying to see things from the adoptee’s perspective. She sifts through old files at the Social Welfare History Archive at the University of Minnesota.

Park Gregg: There were a number of things that I found in these records that were really hard for me.

Aslanian: There are descriptions of planeloads of children leaving Korea in the 1950s to be adopted by people who had never met them. The parents-to-be weren’t screened by anybody other than the family minister.

Park Gregg: They have a huge set of files on Harry Holt ... And there’s some really juicy stuff in those.

Aslanian: Harry Holt was a retired farmer and evangelical Christian from Cresswell, Oregon. When he and his wife Bertha learned that the mixed-race sons and daughters of American and British soldiers in post-war Korea were starving, abandoned and bullied in the streets, they felt called by God to help them. The Holts got a special act of Congress passed in 1955 to allow them to adopt eight children, six more than the law would have allowed.

Much of the glory and controversy in the early days of Korean adoption would center on Harry Holt.

Newsreel: [music] A mighty big trip for some mighty little folks begins in Seoul, Korea where a dozen orphans board a plane for the United States. Most of them are being adopted by an American after five months of red tape. Harry Holt, 50, has six tots already. He’s adopting eight tiny Koreans and taking four to other Americans.

Aslanian: Holt got a tremendous amount of media coverage and was flooded with requests from other families. In her memoir, Bertha Holt writes that visitors constantly showed up at their home in Oregon to talk with her husband about how they could adopt a child. She writes, “Harry could never say ‘no’ to any of these visitors because he could not forget the tiny outstretched arms of the children still in Korea He continued to adopt children and bring them back by the planeload to other Christian families waiting back home. Meanwhile, a watchdog group called International Social Service or I.S.S. was keeping careful tabs on this new frontier of international adoption.

Park Gregg: These are newspaper accounts that talk about Holt going off to get all these kids and I’m sure at I.S.S., they were like “What is going on here?” I think that they were very suspicious. ...Ok, so this is Susan Pettiss. ...She documented a lot of stuff in these files in these years. It’s funny, looking through these files, I really like her. I really started to like her a lot.

Susan Pettiss: I’m Susan Pettiss, I live here in Medford, New Jersey in a retirement community. Since I’m almost 93 years old, it’s a nice place to live.

Aslanian: Back in the 1950s, Susan Pettiss testified twice before Congress, saying these adoptions needed more safeguards like having trained social workers evaluate prospective parents. Pettiss tried to persuade Holt himself. She paid him a personal visit.

Pettiss: I went to his home in Oregon, had dinner with him as a matter of fact. He was very pleasant, he was a very sincere man. No question about it. He had somewhat the attitude that he had all the answers. I think his religion came into this, that if these individuals were born again Christians, good church members and the minister would vouch for them as good church members, then the Lord would take good care of that child.

Aslanian: Holt was undeterred by critics and continued on his mission of bringing Korean children to America until he died in 1964. A letter he recorded for one adoptee survives, though a creative engineer added music later:

Harry Holt: Martha Sue, you were such a sweet-looking little kid and the other little boy was a nice little boy too and both of you laid there. It was a nice warm day. In fact, it was very hot. And the sun was shining. I remember it very well. It was late in the afternoon. I had been driving all day and a good part of the night before and I was so tired and I just prayed to the Lord to tell me what to do because I couldn’t take you home to my home.

Aslanian: The Holts kept scrapbooks on all their adoptions. Susan Soon-Keum Cox looked through them until she found her picture. She was child number 167. She came to America in 1956.

Susan Soon-Keum Cox: I was almost four years old when I was adopted, and I feel particularly grateful to have as a part of my story, having known Mr. Holt briefly as a child. Living in an orphanage in Inchon. One day the director called and said, “We have more babies than we have beds. Can you help us?” Mr. Holt went to Inchon and he selected five children to take back with them and one of the little children was me. He told my parents later that I had a very sad face and he felt that he would not have been able to sleep without taking me home. I have memories of him when I was very little, waking up in the night and crying, having a bad dream, and Mr. Holt would come in personally and comfort me and talk to me. He was my grandfather, really, before I had a mother and father of my own.

Aslanian: Cox now serves as vice president of Holt International. The agency founded by Holt is still one of the largest private agencies in overseas adoptions. In the 1960s after Holt died, Cox says the agency did hire professionally trained social workers, but in those early, frantic days in the 1950s, there is no question in Cox’s mind that Holt saved children desperately in need of families.

Cox: There were all of these children who had been born to Korean mothers and U.N. soldier fathers. They were mixed-race. They were certainly not going to be able to blend in society. And, in a country that continues, a culture that still very much prefers a purity of lineage, that was hugely a problem.

Aslanian: The children faced certain discrimination in Korea. But Cox says what would happen to them in America was unknown.

Cox: The idea that we were transplanting children from one country and culture to another, children of a different race and ethnicity—those were huge issues. That was certainly something that opened the process to criticism. It had never been done, particularly within the child welfare community. They would say, “These are cute babies, they’re delightful toddlers. What happens to them when they grow up?” In fact, no one really did know what would happen when they grew up.

Aslanian: And now,graduate researcher Kim Park Gregg is asking those children what did happen when they grew up. She’s recording their oral histories. She records Jenifer Jacobus in Vancouver, Washington.

Jenifer Jacobus: The great thing about growing up in my family was how accepted I was

Aslanian: Jacobus says her family treated her as one of them. But she didn’t feel the same acceptance from her peers.

Jacobus: Kids always called me like names, racist names and things that I didn’t understand. I had no idea, no concept of what they were calling me. But I never took it to my parents to ask them to explain it to me or whatever. I just kind of accepted that that was just my lot. You know? I took on the role of being this strong, nothing invincible, nobody was going to touch me or whatever and I had such a tender heart. And people needed to ask me what I was thinking and what I was feeling. And that’s their big mistake. They didn’t know and I didn’t know how to—that’s what I would say to adults that have adopted children or whatever, you know. Ask them!

Aslanian: When Jacobus was adopted in 1956, adoption experts were skeptical that foreign adoptees would ever fit in. The answer was to Americanize them; effectively, to raise them as if they were white. By the time Park-Gregg was adopted in the 1970s, parents like hers took a “love is blind” approach to race and color. They believed racial differences should be ignored because they didn’t matter. Both attempts failed to prepare kids for a society that was not color-blind.

Researcher Rich Lee at the University of Minnesota studies the Korean adoptee experience. He calls it a paradox.

Rich Lee: Because on the one hand you have all the privileges associated with being raised in a white family in a small community and you don’t really see yourself and your family doesn’t necessarily see you as a minority or of a different culture. But on the other hand, when you enter into society, you are perceived as being a racial minority, so these are contradictory but true experiences that you’re needing to resolve.

Aslanian: Lee’s research and other studies show it’s important for adoptees’ well-being for them to feel connected to their birth culture. And times have changed since the early wave of adoptees was encouraged to become all-Americans. Lee says adoptive parents today are more aware that their children will struggle with racial identity, so they want to give them the tools to help them. Culture camps and homeland tours are popular. Some parents seek out multicultural neighborhoods, schools, churches and daycare centers so the children will know other people who look like them. Research shows most international adoptees are doing well in the United States.

But for some adoptees, all these good intentions aren’t enough.

Jane Jeong Trenka: Adoption is the only sort of practice in the world where you get separated from your parents; there’s a permanent rupture between yourself and your culture, and you’re supposed to be grateful.

Aslanian: Jane Jeong Trenka is a 33-year-old Korean adoptee. She’s deeply critical of international adoption. In the early 70s when she was adopted, Korea wasn’t sending war orphans abroad, but Korean children born to single mothers, or poor families. Trenka says if her family had gotten some help, they could have kept her, but poverty forced them to choose adoption.

What’s unusual about Trenka’s story is that her mother managed to write her in the United States and the two maintained a tenuous correspondence. In 2003, Trenka published a memoir, The Language of Blood, about returning to Korea and reuniting with her mother and older siblings.

Trenka is packing up her apartment to leave for Korea on her sixth trip. She’s selling off the piano she used to play professionally. Trenka sees it as casting off a symbol of her life as a good girl, the successful Asian adoptee.

Trenka: So this is the adoptive parents' worst nightmare. The adoptee who, like, goes native. All those piano lessons gone to waste!

Aslanian: Trenka’s adoptive parents are no longer in contact with her. She expects this move to Korea will be permanent. She’ll join 100 or so other Korean adoptees from the United States and Europe who have repatriated.

Trenka: It comes from not an exciting tourist mentality, it’s not like, "I’m doing this for my leisure." It’s because I’m dying to speak my mother tongue, you know? And the only way I can do it is to go to Korea. It comes from a place of great pain.

[audio diary begins]

Hello this is Jane Trenka. It is June 24, 2005. I am recording from Seoul, South Korea. I am in my gositel room at the top of the hill in the Sinchon neighborhood behind the McDonalds.

One of my missions that I do when I’m out and about is tell people that I’m adopted. "I’m an adopted person. Ibyangin eeyeyo." And I was kind of mad at myself today because I sort of forgot to say that. I was shopping and a woman asked me where I was from, so I told her "Migukeso wesseoyo. I come from the United States." You know? Dumb. I was mad at myself. That’s an easy out. I want people to know that we exist. How amazing is it that 150 to 200,000 Korean children have been sent away from Korea for 50 years, and still I run into someone in the street and I look Korean and I don’t speak Korean and so they would assume I’m Japanese? What’s that about? Maybe they don’t know that we exist.

Aslanian: Trenka says she’s making a new life for herself in Korea. By day, she writes, teaches English and learns to speak her mother tongue. But at night, she dreams of America.

Susan Cox of Holt International, was adopted from Korea 20 years before Trenka was. Cox accepts that as a mixed race child, she could not have remained with her mother. She says her mother tried to dye her hair blue-black to make her blend in, but finally placed her in the Inchon orphanage where Holt took her to America. For Cox, adoption saved her from an orphanage life.

Cox: The very first time I went back to Korea, I was 24 years old and I went back to Ilsan, the Holt orphanage, and it was filled with children who were waiting to be adopted. I also had the opportunity to meet people who were my age that for whatever reason, they had not been adopted and they were still at the orphanage. And how different our lives were! And not because I’d gone to America, but because I’d gone to a family. ...I have married, I’ve had children. I’ve had work that is meaningful to me, and I know with certainly that those people who were not adopted would have wanted to be in a family.

Aslanian: Despite her happy experience being adopted, Cox was curious about her birth family. She eventually placed an ad in a Korean newspaper and located two half-brothers in Korea. She learned her mother had died.

Cox: My youngest brother, who was with our mother when she died, said, “The last words that she ever spoke were ‘You have an older sister, and she went to America.’” Now to know that I was the last thing my mother spoke of or thought of before she died is a gift beyond measure and yet at the same time, the sadness of that is also overwhelming. To know that for her whole life I was her secret, that she worried about me, that she thought of me, that’s the bittersweet.

Aslanian: For thousands of children, says Cox, the only family they’ll ever be a part of is through international adoption. Korea popularized the practice, but it’s no longer the main sending country. At the Seoul Olympics in 1988, Korea was publicly embarrassed by suggestions it had produced its economic miracle by sending its poor children away. At that time, between 7,000 and 8,000 children were leaving every year. Leaders pledged to promote domestic adoption instead. Today, about 1,700 Korean children are adopted in the United States each year, only surpassed by China, Russia and Guatemala.

Amos: You're listening to "Finding Home: Fifty Years of International Adoption" from American RadioWorks. I'm Deborah Amos.

To hear more entries from Jane Trenka’s audio diary in Seoul and find more stories about adoptees revisiting their birth countries, visit our website at americanradioworks.org. We’d also like to hear your story of international adoption. Tell us at americanradioworks.org.

Major funding for American RadioWorks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Our program continues in just a moment, from American Public Media.

Amos: This is "Finding Home" an American RadioWorks documentary from American Public Media. I'm Deborah Amos.

Fifty years ago, many adoptive parents believed the best thing they could do for a child from overseas was to ignore that child’s cultural differences to help the child become American.

But today, more adoptive parents are trying to help their children to know their roots. Some families read books about their child’s birth culture, or go to culture camps. Some take homeland tours.

But very few have relationships with the child’s birth family. In fact, one reason people choose to adopt from abroad is so they won’t have to deal with the emotional turmoil of sharing the child with a birth mother.

But when Laurie Stern and her husband Dan Luke adopted their son Diego from Guatemala, they decided to make his birth family part of their life. They hope to help Diego bridge the economic and cultural gap that divides the two families. As Laurie and Dan prepared for their most recent trip, producer Ellen Guettler asked them to take us along. Laurie Stern agreed to tell their story.

Gabrielle: Hi everybody!

Laurie Stern: Hey Gabrielle, you made it!

Gabrielle: Hi, how are you?

Stern: Look at the big girl! Hi sweetie! Hi Sofia!

Stern: About once a month, we get together with a group of families who have adopted Guatemalan-born children.

Diego Mack Xicay Luke: My name is Diego Mack Xicay Luke.

Stern: Our son Diego is six. He’s a Mayan – Tzutujil Mayan. There are maybe 60,000 Tzutujiles who live in a couple of small villages the mountains of Guatemala. Most Tzutujil are small and strong like he is.

As Diego gets older, he’s noticing the physical things that set him apart from his friends. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to be in a group like this one because all these kids have something in common. And in a way, they’re growing up as cousins.

A lot of the families in our group really like going to Latin American culture camp with their kids. We respect that.

But Diego’s culture is complex. He is a Minnesotan. He is an American. He is a North American. He is a Native American. He is a Central American. He is a Guatemalan-born American. He’s also a Tzutujil Mayan. They’re all Diego.

So we feel like we can give Diego even more authentic information about who he is, by spending time in his village. During Diego’s adoption when he was a baby, I stayed with him in Guatemala for nine months. Dan and I went back with him when he was three to visit his biological mother, Isabel Xicay Petzey, and her three children. Now Diego is six and we’re going there again.


Stern: It’s a Saturday and it’s like our fourth or fifth day in Guatemala and we’re in Santiago Atitlán in a beautiful hotel called Bambú.

[bird screeches]

Diego: Can you hear that?

Stern: And in a few minutes, who do we expect to show up?

Diego: Isabel? Isabel.

Stern: And we don’t know whether she’ll bring the children or how many she’ll bring. We’re kind of hoping that she’ll bring Juan.

Diego: Juan and, what’s her name? My sister’s name? My sisters.

Stern: They were Julia and Josefa.

Diego: Julia and Josefa and Juan and me are all brothers. Brother and sisters.

Stern: Getting to Diego’s village is spectacular. You take a boat across this huge volcanic lake. There are three volcanoes around it and a dozen small villages. Santiago Atitlán is one of them, and it sprawls from the base of one of the volcanoes to the lakeshore. Isabel never wants us to go to her home. Her neighbors don’t know about Diego, so our translator and friend, Dolores Ratzán, brings Isabel and her children to us. On the morning she was going to come to our hotel, we waited anxiously. Finally, I heard Tzutujil voices coming down the path.

Stern: Come on; let’s go see them. Let’s go see if it’s really them.


Stern: We ran over to say hello. Isabel had brought two of Diego’s siblings, Josefa and Juan.

Isabel Xicay Petzey: Hola.

Stern: Y Diego, hola!

Stern: I was surprised when Diego went right up to Isabel and gave her a big hug. Then she took a step back, looked at him, and started to cry.

Later, when we asked Dolores about it, she said Isabel was wishing Diego’s sister Julia could have been with us, because Julia had loved seeing Diego so much. We found out just before we came that Julia had died several months earlier. When Isabel saw Diego, it made her feel sadder about losing Julia.

I’ve asked Isabel many times why she placed Diego for adoption. She always says it’s because she can’t afford to take care of him. She lives in a cinderblock room with a dirt floor. All she has is a clay pot, a grinding stone and a thin mattress she sleeps on with the children.

She says the children have the same father ... I don’t even know his name. He was in the military and now he works as a truck driver in the town on the other side of the volcano. The way Isabel puts it, he comes and goes.

At the hotel, she showed Diego, Dan and me a photo of a man dressed in an army uniform, carrying an assault rifle.

Diego: Who’s that?

Dan Luke: That is your birth father. What do you think?

Diego: He’s cool.

Luke: He’s cool? You like the uniform and the gun?

Diego: I love guns.

Luke: I know you do.

Stern: Diego was excited to play soccer with his siblings. He knew it was something they’d have in common.

[running & kicking soccer ball]

Stern: Here in Santiago Atitlán, physically, Diego could pass for one of the kids in the village; he looks just like everybody else. But he has trouble communicating with his siblings. He speaks only English and they only speak Tzutujil.

While the kids played, our friend Dolores helped us talk to Isabel.

 Stern: Tell me about the health of you and of Josefa and Juan. How have you all been?

Dolores Ratzán: She works hard for food every day.

Stern: What do you eat during the day?

Ratzán: Sometimes she goes to the mountain and if she finds some wild herbs, that’s what she brings to feed her children.

Stern: I wanted to know how Diego’s sister Julia died ... Isabel said she had stomach problems that got worse because of an infection or a curse, but it wasn’t clear. A lot of times, Isabel tells me stuff that doesn’t make sense ... Still, every time we’re together I feel like there’s a mutual respect and affection. And it seemed like visiting Julia’s grave was something we should do together. Julia reminded me so much of Diego. She was so sunny and she laughed exactly like he does.


Stern: Dan stayed at the hotel with Diego and the kids. Dolores, Isabel and I got into a three-wheeled taxi called a tuk-tuk. The cemetery was part-way up the volcano, overlooking the village and the enormous blue lake.

[Tuk-tuk arriving and footsteps through graveyard]

Stern: [The cemetery] was a jumble of pastel tombstones and unmarked mounds of dirt. Julia’s grave was covered with weeds. Isabel began yanking them out.

[pulling weeds]

Stern: I helped her pull weeds because it seemed like the right thing to do.

Stern: Isabel, puedo ayudarte?

Stern: When the grave was cleared off, Isabel stood at one corner of the mound with her back to the lake and began to cry. It sounded like it might have been a prayer. It was so mournful.

[Isabel cries]

Stern: Later, Dolores told us that Isabel was crying to Julia, calling out the memories they’d shared. She said poverty had always pursued them ...that she tried to save Julia, but she couldn’t.

While we were at the cemetery, Dan and the kids were playing in the hotel pool. Dolores’s son speaks Tzutujil and English and Dan could hear him translating for Diego and his siblings. When we got back from the cemetery, Diego told us he’d found out the real cause of Julia’s death ... and it wasn’t a stomach illness.

Diego: One of my sisters died. I know how she died. ...She was sick and she stole a mango and her dad got really out of control and he kicked her in the stomach and she died.

Stern: But Diego, can you tell us how you found that out? Because when we asked Isabel about it, Isabel told us that Julia had been sick and died. ...Is it because you asked? Did you say what sickness did Julia have or something?

Diego: Yeah, I said that kind of stuff.

Luke: The way I remember it, you said, "what sickness did Julia have?" And they said she didn’t have a sickness, her papa … killed her. That’s what they said. ...And then you said, "Well what did he use?"

Diego: His foot.

Luke: A gun or a knife or what?

Diego: He used his foot ... What was her grave like?

Stern: Oh, well, we have pictures of it. It was just a mound of dirt that was covered with weeds, so the first thing we did when we got there, especially Isabel, was pulling up all the weeds to make the dirt look nice. Isabel was crying and maybe saying a little prayer. It was hard to understand. And what she said was about how Julia was always so interested in you and excited when she heard you were coming to visit. And that even though Julia’s in another place, we’re here at the grave to tell you that Diego is here to visit and we’re thinking about you. And we know you were thinking about him.

Diego: She said that?

Stern: That’s what Isabel said.

Luke: [Diego starts sniffling] Are you being sad now Diego? It’s OK.

Stern: It’s OK to be sad.

Luke: I think it’s -

[Diego cries]

Stern: We do wonder if this is too much for Diego, but Dan worries about it more than I do.

Luke: My view is that, at the very core of his being, is this sadness because he knows he was separated from the place that he was born into.

Stern: I feel like, Yes, there’s sadness in Diego, and there’s joy, and that makes him just like everybody else. But Dan and I do agree that looking this hard stuff in the face has helped Diego be articulate about his own feelings and that he should know all there is to know about his circumstances. Also, by being in Santiago Atitlán, Diego knows what it means to be Tzutujil. He feels it. The people in his village taught him his Tzutujil name, “Atico.” They tell him, “Never forget. You are Atico ... Wherever you go in the world, know that you are Tzutujil and that’s something to be proud of.”

Luke: Ah, Moximón!

Stern: The last thing we did in Santiago Atitlán was to visit a God. His name is Moximón. You pay a little money to a kid in the village and ask where Moximón is living at the moment. They take you to a dark, incense-filled room. When your eyes adjust, you see a bunch of men—they’re called the Brotherhood—guarding a life-sized but legless wooden figure. Moximón has a mustache and at least one cigarette sticking out from a hole in his mouth. Diego sat down next to Dolores in front of Moximón while the Brotherhood and other visitors looked on.

Ratzán: This is Moximon. He is the holy grandfather. This is the main God for the Mayan in this village. The Mayan Tzutujil. And people come here. They worship Moximon. They want a blessing from him for studying, for a job or anything they want to do.

Diego: Can you ask the people who own Moximon to tell them can I visit anytime?

[Dolores translates]

Ratzán: Anytime. He says this is your home you can come anytime, Diego.

Diego: Gracias.

Ratzán: Maltiyox chi aawe is thanks to you. Can you say that?

Diego: Matiosh Chawa [crowd giggles]

Stern: Now that we’re back, we visit Diego’s Guatemalan family just through the photo album. Diego pulls it out a couple times a month even though seeing Julia and the others makes him sad. But he loves knowing his Tzutujil name, “Atico.” And being in Guatemala has made him want to learn Spanish. We’re not sure how Diego will deal with the difficult stuff he learned on the trip, but so far, he’s been his usual soulful and resilient self. We’re already talking about when to go back.


Amos: As the number of international adoptees keeps rising, families will continue to struggle with questions raised by the meeting of rich and poor countries. Most people agree that in a perfect world, adoption wouldn’t be necessary; children would always stay with their birth parents and wouldn't lose their birth culture. Parents like Laurie and Dan hope their children will grow up to find home in each world.

"Finding Home" was produced by Sasha Aslanian, Ellen Guettler and Michael Montgomery. It was edited by Catherine Winter. Project Manager, Misha Quill. Mixing by Craig Thorson. Web production by Ochen Kaylan. Production assistance from Larissa Anderson, Carey Biron and Elizabeth Tannen. Special thanks to Melody Ng and Public Insight Journalism. The Executive Editor is Stephen Smith. The Executive Producer is Bill Buzenberg. I'm Deborah Amos.

To see photos of Diego and his family, and to listen to this program again, visit americanradioworks.org. There, you can subscribe to our new podcast and email newsletter. You can also download this and other American RadioWorks programs. That's at americanradioworks.org.

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