I’d never once in my life imagined that I would find myself, along with my husband and friends, on a beautiful, sunny day in Mexico City, surrounded on all sides by “Federales” (Mexico City police) holding machine guns.
At the time, police and guns were the furthest things on my mind. My husband and I, deciding to become first-time parents in middle age, were in the process of adopting a little girl from Guatemala, and we were completely caught up with the adoption process. Our lives were about to be transformed, and we were waiting excitedly to be assigned a child. We had chosen Guatemala because adoptions were said to happen relatively quickly there, and because we felt a strong connection to Central American culture.
While we were waiting at home in New York for our daughter’s adoption to be finalized, we flew for a weekend to Mexico City to visit our friend, Violet, a single mom (and a middle-aged gringo like us) living there with her two adopted children, also from Guatemala. Her son was four. Her daughter was two.
We had a lovely day, walking around Coyoacan, the hip, cosmopolitan neighborhood in which Violet lived. At one point, we were strolling down a lovely boulevard when Robert, her son, asked out of the blue for a pencil sharpener. None of us knew why he suddenly wanted it as he didn’t have a pencil with him. Violet gently told him there were no stores selling pencil sharpeners nearby but she would try to find him one later.
Robert went into full meltdown mode, screaming, stamping his feet, turning red. Violet tried to calm him but he was inconsolable, and he continued his screaming. We all stood there at a loss, not knowing what to do. Greg, another friend who lived in Mexico City, and was spending the day with us, picked Robert up in order to put him over his shoulder, hoping to calm him that way.
At that moment, just as Greg was lifting Robert into his arms, the police surrounded us, with their machine guns at the ready. We stood open-mouthed, hearts pounding, while the officer in charge informed us that there had been a call to the police by someone who had witnessed our situation and believed that we were kidnapping and abusing two Mexican children. It was a terrifying moment, as we waited to see if the police were going to lift and point their guns at us.
Violet explained, in her fluent Spanish, that she was the children’s adoptive mother. The policeman bent down and asked Robert if this were true. Robert, still in meltdown mode and probably as completely freaked out by the men in uniform carrying huge guns as we adults were, pressed his lips tightly together and refused to answer, even when Violet begged him to say something. The policeman then asked the same question of Gemma, Violet’s two-year-old daughter. She stared with bewilderment at him, as Violet explained that Gemma hadn’t yet started to talk.
Increasingly suspicious, the police asked to see Violet’s adoption papers. She didn’t have them with her since she had never seen any need to carry them around on a daily basis. “I have them at home,” Violet explained.
“Then we will all go to your home and you will show them to us,” the policeman responded brusquely, fingering his gun. With an armed posse surrounding us, we six walked the twenty-five minutes to Violet’s apartment. When we arrived, another group of police were there, waiting for us. The rest of us stood outside with some of the officers while Violet went into her home and produced the papers. The policemen apologized for causing us any distress and in an instant they were gone.
Not long after, Violet moved back to the States, to a small city known as the kind of progressive, tolerant place that would welcome a single, middle-aged mother of two adopted children of color. Meanwhile, my husband and I worried: Could we expect such things to happen to us when we became the parents of a dark-skinned Latina? Would people attribute nefarious motives to us? Would we stand out everywhere we went in our own country and around the globe? Did we need to be frightened?
Our daughter is now eleven. We have never — at least to our knowledge — been suspected of kidnapping her. But since day one, here in New York City, we’ve gotten stares and comments, despite transracial adoption being so much more common than it was even ten years ago, as more and more people adopt from China and Ethiopia, among other countries.
We’re still asked “Is that your real daughter?” by strangers who have no problem approaching us. When I’m alone, people come up to me and say, “Oh, she must look like her father since she doesn’t look at all like you!” Other comments include: “Is it hard for you that you and she look nothing alike?” “How brave you are to raise a brown child!” “She can’t really be Jewish!” Once, on vacation, we returned to Mexico, to another city, with our daughter, and were followed by a young girl who kept asking, “But why would you adopt her? Why? Why?”
My daughter, my husband, and I have learned to accept that these kinds of intrusive comments will follow us everywhere we go. We don’t like them and never will, but we’ve learned to tolerate them. When she was much younger, my daughter would say, “If only we were the same skin color, everyone would leave us alone, so can we change our skin?” I had to explain that we could not, but that our love for each other was strong enough to withstand whatever looks or comments we received. And to this day, I never leave home without a copy of my adoption papers in my purse, just in case.