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