Confronting adoption and cross-cultural studies at South High School

In honor of “I Love to Read” month, South High School in Minneapolis invited several local authors last month to speak about their books. The third author to share his story and book was author Jacob Wheeler. He visited South High School on Tuesday, Feb. 23 to talk to Geography and History classes about Guatemala and International Adoption.

Jacob spoke to a crowded auditorium in the morning and then spent the rest of the day in the media center talking with staff at lunch and then working with individual classes. He read from his book, “Between Light and Shadow” and answered lots of questions. Several students expressed interest in reading his book about Guatemalan adoption. Many students throughout the day had shared their personal stories around adoption. One girl spoke out as an adoptee from Guatemala and another young man told his story of being adopted at age 10 in Minnesota. They were very powerful stories.

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Interview on radio show “Adoption Discussions”

Today Donna Montalbano will interview me on the online radio show, “Adoption Discussions” which appears on Woonsocket Radio 1240. You can stream it live, or listen to it later, by clicking here.

By the way, I had a great reading at the Wisconsin Book Festival last week. The event was well-attended, followed by thought-provoking discussion, and I got to meet Laura, an 11-year-old adoptee who lives in Madison and is one of the most insightful and curious kids I’ve ever met. The reading felt like a success because of the connection with Laura, alone: it was one of those moments that confirmed the reasons I wrote Between Light and Shadow.

Montalbano bills this particular show as “a not-to-be-missed program, and especially timely because of the recent court ruling in the adoption of Karen Abigail Monahan Vanhorn (which I’ve written about here), who was adopted from Guatemala when she was two years old by an American couple. It was later discovered that the child was kidnapped from her Guatemalan family, and the Guatemalan court ruled that she should be returned to her natural mother. Karen Abigail is now six, and an American court has now also ruled that she must be returned to her Guatemalan family.”

According to Montalbano’s website, the impetus for her show is this:

“Just about every American is somehow touched by adoption personally or professionally. Under the umbrella of modern adoption are triad members of course: adoptees, birth parents and adoptive parents; along with the triad’s extended family circles. Foster parents and foster children (the kids in limbo) are front and center too. Along with the forgotten band of children whose numbers are growing every day: the children who are born through surrogates or egg/sperm donorship. Behind them stand the professionals and educators, the authors and movie-makers, the politicians, doctors, lawyers and social workers. The adoption agents and the leaders of the huge variety of national and international adoption organizations and support groups. They all have something to say, and in order to understand the evolution and revolution now taking place in the world of adoption, we must listen.”

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Next Up: Reading at Wisconsin Book Festival

This Thursday I’ll appear with fellow author Wendy Call (whose book No Word for Welcome explores how economic globalization intersects with village life in a region of southern Mexico called the Isthmus of Tehuantepec) at 5:30 p.m. at the Wisconsin Book Festival. Like Between Light and Shadow, No Word for Welcome was also published this year by the University of Nebraska Press. I can’t wait to meet her and talk about globalization’s impact on Latin America.

“Globalization, immigration and social justice come together in these three powerful works of nonfiction. Acclaimed journalist Jacob Wheeler examines the ethical implications of the international adoption industry in Between Light and Shadow, with a special emphasis on the troubling relationship between Guatemala and the United States. In No Word for Welcome, Wendy Call examines the effects of globalization on a small Mexican fishing community, portraying the lives and struggles of its inhabitants with a deft and poetic touch.These questions – and more – will be examined in this event.”

In advance of my trip to Madison, I was interviewed yesterday by the local community radio station, WORT during their pledge drive. You can listen to the interview here — which begins around the program’s 30-minute mark.

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Casa Quivira’s legal troubles date back to early ’90s

Three and a half years before my book, Between Light and Shadow, was published, I wrote a story for In These Times magazine titled Banana Republic to Baby Republic which revealed the role of Casa Quivira at the heart of the story told in my book. Casa Quivira was raided by Guatemalan government authorities on Aug. 11, 2007, in a prelude to the government shutting down international adoption a year later. Here’s an excerpt from that story:

Casa Quivira was run by Clifford Phillips, an American who now lives in Florida, and his wife Sandra Gonzalez, a Guatemalan adoption attorney. They were among the first to capitalize when Guatemalan adoption became a booming business in the ’90s. …

In 2006, I helped reunite a teenage adoptee named Ellie with her biological mother in Guatemala—seven years after her relinquishment. During the emotional reunion, Ellie’s adoptive mother, Judy, learned from the biological mother, Antonia, that Casa Quivira’s Gonzalez had offered to pay for Ellie, then refused to pay once the girl was in the home’s custody. Antonia had a change of heart and returned to Antigua three months later to try and reclaim Ellie but was ridiculed and refused access to her daughter. In the adoption dossier, Sandra Gonzalez wrote, “Mother of child presents a troublesome and conflicted personality that makes her interpersonal relationships difficult.”

Fast forward to now. Investigative journalist Erin Siegal, whose forthcoming book Finding Fernanda also deals with corruption in Guatemalan adoption (I’ve pre-ordered, and can’t wait to read it!), published on her blog a record she received through the Freedom of Information Act from the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala. This particular document on Casa Quivira and Clifford Phillips reveals that, 14 years before Casa Quivira met its demise in Guatemala, Embassy personnel weren’t “totally convinced that the current problems only reflect naivete.” Siegal provides the full document here.

I should add that, since writing Between Light and Shadow, I’ve encountered numerous adoptive parents of Guatemalan children who shared unsavory stories of their interactions with Phillips, and suspected foul play on his end.

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Between Power and Weakness: Can Motherhood’s Bond Overcome an International Adoption Dilemma?

I published my first blog entry with the Huffington Post today. And I hope to add to this discussion every week or so. The impetus for this was the upsetting news that a cross-border custody battle appears to be developing over a girl named Karen Abigail, who was stolen from her Guatemalan birth mother’s arms in 2006 and brought to the United States two years later by her adoptive parents. Karen Abigail, who will turn 7 years old in just over a month, now lives in Missouri. Yet a Guatemalan judge has ruled that she must be returned to her birth mother’s arms.

Here’s my perspective, in the Huffington Post:

Honorable Guatemalan Judge Angelica Noemi Tellez Hernandez’s ruling in late July that 26-year-old mother Loyda Rodríguez Morales’ stolen daughter must be returned to her arms was a groundbreaking decision.

On its own merits, it was perhaps an obvious one. The decision sought to right an awful wrong by re-linking the maternal bond that was broken on Nov. 3, 2006, when Anyelí Rodríguez (then two years old) was stolen from Morales’ arms in Guatemala City. Continue reading

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Navigating between light and shadow, narrative and immersion

Anne-Marie Oomen, a superstar among the northern Michigan writing community, wrote this thoughtful and, I think, spot-on review of Between Light and Shadow, which ran earlier this month in the Glen Arbor Sun. What trilled me about her review was that she examined not just the subject matter, but my writing approach, and the risk I took when adopting a new narrative style midway through the book:

As a writer, I appreciated Jacob’s ingenious two-part structure unified by this singular and deeply personal adoption story. The structure exemplified the sentiment of the story: the duality of loyalty and love set against the harsh realities of survival, illegal trafficking, and emotional triage. His writing style is straightforward, without much ornament — and in this case, little is needed. His description of the natural beauty and desperate poverty of Guatemala, his careful depiction of the human situations, his thorough analysis of the legal and illegal aspects of the adoption system, and his faithfulness to both families, tells it true in clear and lucid prose.

You can read more of Anne-Marie Oomen’s review here.

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“Between Light and Shadow” featured on KMSU Weekly Reader

The KMSU Weekly Reader (interviews with authors from Minnesota and around the country) featured Between Light and Shadow in a recent podcast. Thanks to Kara Garbe Balcerzak for doing that! You can listen to the interview here: http://kmsuweeklyreader.libsyn.com/jacob-wheeler

I’m also excited to report that I’ll hold a book reading next Friday, Aug. 12, from 3-5 p.m. at the Cottage Book Shop in my hometown of Glen Arbor. Please stop by if you’re in the neighborhood. I’ve also been accepted to read at the Wisconsin Book Festival in Madison this coming October.

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