BY ANA KEARNEY
I was born in Mexico City, Mexico, in 1993, but have spent the majority of my life in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I am one of tens of thousands of children who were adopted from Latin America and grew up in the United States, a process known as international or intercountry adoption. Most of these adoptions, as well as many adoptions that happen within the boundaries of the United States, are also transracial adoptions, where the child being adopted is a different race than the parents adopting them. These adoptees often struggle to form a racial identity that feels authentic. International adoptees, in particular, often feel disconnected from their birth culture, which can lead to a sense of isolation and negative effects on their mental health.
As a transracial and intercountry adoptee, I have experienced such feelings as well. A product of the time and of their White privilege, my adoptive parents had limited knowledge of how to discuss race with me. However, I was fortunate that they not only greatly admired and respected my Mexican culture, but also made purposeful efforts to expose me to it throughout my life. They never shied away from talking about my adoption, although they struggled with the incorporation of Mexican culture into our lives. Despite their positive attitudes, I still experienced feelings of solitude growing up. I have always noticed when I am the only Brown person in the room. Thankfully, I was raised in a diverse place—not a universal experience for trans-racial adoptees.
When I was young, I wasn’t ready to learn about Mexican culture, rebuffing my parents’ efforts as well, because it was a reminder that I was different from my peers and my family. So, while I was exposed to the culture from time to time, I didn’t feel a strong connection to it. Though I grew up using Mexican as an identifier, I also felt insecure doing so. This lack of connection had a peculiar effect: I didn’t see myself in the Mexican community or in the media, nor did I feel like I fit into White communities.
Conceptualization of My Thesis
While I wasn’t ready to explore Mexican culture comfortably as a child, I spent much of my young adulthood delving into it, traveling in Latin America and learning to speak Spanish. That exploration brought me to the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. At UT, I pursued a dual master’s in Latin American Studies and Social Work.
After some thought about my thesis topic, I realized that I had to write about adoption from Latin America to the United States. I knew the thesis process was going to be difficult: not only would it require rigorous academic work, but also emotional work. This is the story of how my academic research helped me build a reclaimed identity and find new and lasting connections to my birth family and the adoptee community.
Six months into my graduate studies, the COVID-19 pandemic closed down the world. A few months later, our communities were reckoning with the murder of George Floyd. These isolating and turbulent times forced me to look inward and acknowledge my own privileges as well as my marginalized identities. This reflection revealed how my position as a Brown person in the United States was one of privilege, and different from that of Latinx individuals who had to manage family separation, immigration status, and language barriers.
As I began the literature review for my thesis, I explored what it meant to be an adoptee myself and began to connect with other adoptees from Latin America. I started to come out of the fog, a term the adoption community uses to describe when an individual starts to look critically at how their adoption affected them. For me, and for many adoptees, coming out of the fog brought up a lot of anger and helped me understand my adoption as a trauma. This realization influenced my use of a critical lens toward the international adoption industry while writing my thesis. Examining the economic power dynamics between the United States and Latin America, I noted the privilege that adoptive families have compared to birth families. I outlined the extractive nature of adoptions from Latin America, and the fact that increased demand on the part of adoptive parents in North America and Europe led to illegal adoption rings that fueled kidnappings across the continent.
As I grew more engrossed in my thesis work, I admit I felt jealous of my peers who were in reunion or had found their birth families. My adoptive parents had always spoken about wanting to search for my birth family, but I had only taken small steps toward reunion. In spring 2022, I traveled with my best friend from Austin, Texas, to Mexico City. The last time I was in Mexico, I was seven months old; this trip, I was 28. I felt I could not visit my birthplace without making some attempt to find my biological family. The only concrete information I had was an address and my mother’s name from my birth certificate. I prepared myself for the very likely reality that, at best, I wouldn’t find anything, and, at worst, my family wouldn’t want to meet me.
As I rode in a taxi through a city of 8.8 million people to the address I had for my mother, I thought the chance she still resided there was slim. On arrival, my destination appeared to be an empty lot full of garbage. I took a moment, walked a short distance from where Google Maps located the house, and, luckily, found a metal door. Taking a deep breath, I rang the bell.
The older woman who opened the door looked as if she had seen a ghost, but graciously invited me in. I explained, in Spanish, that I was looking for my birth mother. After listening to my story and noticing the physical resemblance, the woman introduced herself as the mother-in-law of my older sister, Araceli. She shared the house with Araceli and her family, and told me that my mother and other siblings lived in different parts of the city. When she showed me a photo of Araceli and my mother at a past family gathering, I felt as if I was looking at my own face in duplicate.
Although Araceli was currently at work, her mother-in-law promised she would speak to her about how she wanted to handle my appearance. I left all my contact information and hoped for the best. Leaving the house, I felt overwhelmed with emotion: disbelief that I had found my family so miraculously, impatience at having to wait for the next contact, and anxiety at not knowing how my family might react. Even if it turned out that they were not interested in meeting me, I felt comforted knowing they were alive, and glad that I had made the connection.
Araceli called me the next day. She told me she was planning on telling all our siblings—Fidelina, Geraldo, and Claudia—that I was visiting before mentioning anything to our mother. We decided to meet up on Saturday at a park in the Coyoacán neighborhood, the day before my flight back to Austin. My siblings broke the news to my mother, who at first did not believe them. They all arrived together at the park, where we sat on the ground because there weren’t enough seats for all of us. We talked about ourselves: what we like to do, our favorite colors and foods, and my adoptive family, trying to fill in the gaps from a lifetime apart.
What struck me most during that meeting was my uncanny resemblance to my siblings and my mother. I couldn’t stop looking at them, recognizing the same bump on our noses or the shape of our faces. Growing up, I never had anyone who looked like me; this similitude among us amazed me.
Returning from Mexico City, I now had to grapple with my feelings about my own adoption while analyzing and writing about the experiences of others. My thesis was focused on the racial and ethnic identity of adoptees and the experiences that helped to inform their identities. I myself had long struggled with this issue. I remember the confusion I felt as a child when filling out demographic information, and my father telling me to check the Caucasian box, because Hispanic is an ethnicity, not a race. Even at a young age, this didn’t sit right with me. As I was completing my literature review, I saw that this discrepancy was a common conversation topic among Latinx, as colonization and the centuries-long mixing of peoples has led many Latinx to be mixed race. As an adoptee, my anxiety around how to identify racially and ethnically was different: I certainly didn’t feel White, but didn’t quite feel authentically Latinx either.
To explore the formation of adoptees’ racial and ethnic identity, I spoke with 25 transracial adoptees from Latin America about their experiences growing up with White parents, and about experiences that had taught them about their birth culture. I anticipated that reculturation experiences—activities an adoptee uses to explore their birth culture (such as educational activities, proximity to Latinx communities, travel, and language)—would influence how adoptees identified. I asked each subject to identify themself racially and ethnically twice, once in a survey format and again during our oral interview. We spoke about what it was like growing up, learning Spanish or other languages, traveling to birth countries, and meeting birth families.
I found that people’s identifiers changed based on whether they were responding in a survey format with pre-listed options, or they were instead able to offer in-depth explanations during our interview. Many participants chose to use Hispanic/Latinx in the survey, but in conversation tended to be much more specific, citing country of origin or using their adoptee identity as well. Racially, participants noted that family discussions, diverse communities, and DNA testing results helped to identify them. Ethnically, exposure to birth culture, language, travel, and education influenced people’s identity. What I was not expecting was how often the adoptee experience explicitly came into play in forming their identities. Several people had created specific terms to describe themselves, such as “an adoptee from Mexico,” or combined terms like “American Mexican” to delineate themselves from other individuals who state they are Mexican.
In preparation for my interviews, I tried to answer the same questions myself. Listening to others reflect on their experiences helped me to think through my own history more deeply and to feel at ease with myself. The process of listening and holding space for other adoptees with similar experiences has made me more confident and comfortable in my skin. It has also taught me that our identities are a complex reflection of our lives, and that one’s response to the question “How do you identify?” is very personal. We can choose how much of ourselves we want to share with others. Now, if I’m asked, I identify as Latina. Sometimes, I say I’m an Indigenous Latina. If I’m with other adoptees, I say I’m an Indigenous Mexican adoptee in reunion.
For over a year now, I’ve been in reunion. I’m learning how to navigate relationships with my birth family. They accept me and I feel loved, but that doesn’t change the fact that I missed out on 28 years with them. I’m trying to figure out what my relationship with them means and, realistically, what it can develop into. The thousands of miles between us don’t make this process any easier, but technology helps, along with my own effort and their readiness to accept me.
No matter the identities we may share with others, we all have the desire to feel connected. While I may only share my reunion with other adoptees, it influences the way in which I see myself. This journey of self-exploration, across borders and through my research, has resulted in new communities and new connections. I’ve learned how malleable our identities are, shaped by every one of our experiences. While my identity will evolve as I age, I know that the people I have found in this process will still be at my side, accepting me for myself, which is what I was really searching for all this time. ✹
Ana Kearney graduated from LLILAS and the Steve Hicks School of Social Work in August 2022 following the completion of her thesis, “Which Box to Check? How Transracial and International Adoptees from Latin America Develop Their Racial and Ethnic Identities.” She currently lives in Philadelphia, PA, and is pursuing a career in social work. She plans to continue researching adoption and issues that affect adoptees.