“Mamalita: An Adoption Memoir” by Jessica ODwyer

Jessica O’Dwyer, author of “Mamalita” spoke as a voice of valor, compassion, humility and, most importantly, of determined love for her Guatemalan born children at last evening’s author reading at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California.

A few years ago, the petite blond sitting with me in Linda Watanabe McFerrin’s writing class at Book Passage had once surprised me with essays based upon her Guatemala experiences. Unlike many of my upper middle class caucasian peers in Marin County, Jessica O’Dwyer delved into depths of a society that many educated middle class Americans cannot fathom.

Jessica’s writing expresses a personal humility and compassion for a people trapped in poverty. “Mamalita, An Adoption Memoir” by Jessica O’Dwyer brings American and European readers upon her circuitous journey to motherhood. Driven by maternal love, Jessica, her husband, and their daughter had unwittingly become entangled in a corrupt international adoption enterprise.

Jessica uses the skills of a talented mystery writer to lead readers from her comfortable, loving California life to devastating news of her medical condition causing youthful sterility. A desire to adopt led Jessica and her husband to an adoption agency specializing in children from Guatemala.

From my experiences of Guatemala, I felt a rapid kinship to Jessica in our writing group. Her words eloquently describe the beauty and pain that is Guatemala through eyes of a white mother enamored with her brown daughter.

It happens that my cousin Steven, a sarcastic New York attorney, used to joke about his beloved Guatemalan-born daughter, “She’s the best daughter I ever bought!” Knowing how my cousin adores his daughter, and his New Yorker sarcasm, I do not find him offensive. He calls things as he sees them, no offense intended.

Having worked as a health care volunteer in Guatemala and Indonesia, along with my current work on the Berkeley-Oakland border, I have been close to countless stories of motherhood involving violence, starvation, murder, poverty, of corrupt systems resulting in children essentially sold to adoptive parents. Yet no one, to my knowledge, had written these stories with both confusion and compassion for all involved parties.

While aspects of Jessica’s story resemble others I’ve heard. Jessica’s telling of her story is unique. She writes with a compassion for poverty and challenges of those who know only the corrupt world where they must survive, even when that involves placing a price upon a child’s life. Jessica gently describes both the loss and reward inherent in adoption.

For example, when I worked in Guatemala in 1997, one comadrona (birth attendant) was beheaded as a symbolic gesture for my birthday. Banditos had broken into the comadrona’s dirt-floored home in the middle of the night. They chopped off her head in front of her family because she had worked with us, the northern Americano health care team. The American CIA had largely subsidized the recently ended civil war in Guatemala. Banditos feared that comadronas would sell babies to us.

“Mamalita” does not avoid addressing the realities of this challenging but beautiful country; she shares tragic stories enveloped in her focused motherly devotion.

Violence is a fact of life wherever poverty prevails. Yet these stories are rarely told through personal narratives driven by love and compassion. Great tragedies are usually illustrated through tallies summarized by various Public Health associations, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, Save the Children, and the United Nations. Statistics on poverty, human trafficking, rape, embezzlement and corruption are necessary measures. Statistics do not tug heartstrings like personal vignettes.

Through “Mamalita,” Jessica grows through the love for her daughter. She awakens to experiences of racism through the contrast between her daughter’s nutmeg colored skin with thick black hair and Jessica’s fair complexion with blond tresses. She details, costs, paperwork, corruption, bribery and layer upon layer of her painful realization to both the assumed entitlements inherent in her, our, North American life and the realization that another’s life can be purchased.

After falling in love with her daughter, their adoption process dragged for nearly two years, until Jessica (finally) realized that money talks. International adoption is an often corrupt business.

Humble passion shines through the written word in “Mamalita.” She compassionately develops a relationship with her child’s birth mother, while expressing concern for her young daughter’s ability to bond after so much loss. Jessica’s keen writing engages the reader to her discovery and revulsion of how the world turns in third world adoptions. Both Jessica and her readers are changed by her story.

For an inspirational and realistic view of international adoption, now closed in Guatemala but still applicable to other areas of the world, please read Jessica O’Dwyer’s “Mamalita.”

Personal tales of those suffering because of political, economic and historic inequities need to be shared. Through those who have the fortitude to detail their tales, society may hope to address institutionalized abuses wherever they occur.

“Mamalita” stands as a heartfelt story of victory, courage and determination to inspire all concerned about global maternal-child health and family.

Click to purchase “Mamalita” from Book Passage or amazon.

Click to read Jessica’s ongoing blog about her ethnically mixed family and adoption issues :

5 thoughts on ““Mamalita: An Adoption Memoir” by Jessica ODwyer

  1. Jessica

    Dear Gina: Thank you for such a thorough, thoughtful, and insightful review of my book. Your story about the comadrona left me gasping. The threat and presence of violence is a reality for many people in Guatemala, the terrible legacy of the 36-year civil war.

    I especially appreciate your mentioning the book was written with “compassion for all involved parties.” I tried hard to understand the point of views of both Olivia’s birth and foster mothers, not only my own. And also the complex feelings toward adoption by Guatemalans who observed us during the process. Thank you for noticing.

    Finally, thank you for noting I tried to convey the “reward and loss inherent in adoption.” During the process of writing the book, I came to understand deeply that in adoption, those two elements coexist. I wanted to make the reader feel that.

    Gina, I’m so grateful you read the book and liked it, and are sharing your views on your fabulous blog. Thank you, thank you!

    1. ComingToLifeStories Post author

      Thanks for stopping by!

      I’ve been a fan of “Mamalita” since your first reading of the bus driver narrative in Linda’s class! It is my honor to tout your book at every opportunity.

      You’ve succeeded in conveying the ugly complexities of a people torn by civil war and political-economic forces beyond their influence. This story needs to be told – again and again. Through understanding, maybe there will be hope for solutions.

      Thank YOU for your compassionate spirit to integrate your experience, for your determination to unite your family, and now to share the story for others who might not otherwise know what happens in much of the world.

      Keep up the valuable work!

      Muchisima Gracias, querida!

  2. Sally

    While babies are being stolen off the streets of Guatemala and sold to North Americans, why do women in the USA continue to feel they have the right to go there and take home babies from Guatemala? Is it just to satisfy some maternal instiinct? Why not send money instead? Where is this child’s mother? What became of her? What will happen when this child grows up and wishes to know her family? If one truly cares about poverty and eliminating misery of so many oppressed people, why not support the women and children of Guatemala financially instead of taking their children away?

    1. ComingToLifeStories Post author

      Dear Sally :
      Thank you for your comment! Good questions!

      As a nurse-midwife, I’ve been personally involved in a number of adoption cases. There are always women from all countries, of all classes who make the difficult decision to relinquish their offspring. It is usually a painful decision. The reasons are myriad. It may be a pregnancy due to rape. There may be financial reasons, or social pressures. Sometimes the pregnancy resulted merely due to a lack of contraceptive availability. Sometimes the parents die and there is no family member available to raise the child(ren).
      China, for example, legislated one child per family. Sometimes a second child is born and then must be relinquished.

      The diversity of reasons holds true also for domestic adoption. Although domestic adoption in the USA and Europe is increasingly more difficult, as childbearing women can access contraception.

      In O’Dwyer’s “Mamalita,” she details hiring an investigator to find her daughter’s birth mother. They have established a relationship. Jessica and her family provide assistance to her child’s birth mother. They have all met one another. Hopefully that story will be O’Dwyer’s next book – to address your very questions, Sally.

      Poor countries lack health care systems for contraception, to assist with adequate food support or housing. They lack a social structure to provide for relinquished children. In such situations, international adoption is a godsend for all parties! Government run orphanages in poor countries are places that you wouldn’t want your pets to live. I know.

      There are very very few cases of babies being stolen from their mothers unwillingly. The media blitz about infant stealing was grossly over sensationalized.
      My cousin Steven’s remark about having “bought” his child refers to the exorbitant legal fees, and probably some bribes to government administrators to keep his papers moving, involved with the process.

      However, private international adoption business is not well regulated in countries that lack resources for law enforcement. In such circumstances, opportunists often try to enter the “market”, over charging for services and not providing appropriate provisions for children during their transition.

      There are many groups that provide assistance in Guatemala and elsewhere. I’ve worked on such teams. However, the USA cannot provide health care for all of its own population. The USA, whether through government aid or private donations, certainly is unable to provide food, housing, health care and education for the world’s abandoned and neglected children or their mothers.

      “Mamalita” answers all these questions and more in a gentle and supportive way.

  3. Jessica

    Dear Sally,
    Thank you for your comment, and Gina, thank you for your thoughtful response to Sally. As Gina says, I address many of the issues you raise in my book, Mamalita, in what I hope is, as Gina says, a way that is “gentle and supportive.”


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