Isabella Ojeda’s Adoption Story and Finding a Grave
My name is Isabella Maria Ojeda, I think. My original birth certificate said, “Baby Ojeda,” before my adoptive parents were able to get it changed. My birth mother wrote “to Miriam, from Miriam” on the letter she left for me. Maybe she meant for us to share a name? My middle name is Maria, after my biological maternal grandmother. At the end of this year, my last name will be Ojeda-Ahmed, thanks to my amazing fiancé. My name is Isabella Maria Ojeda, for now.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know I was adopted, even if I didn’t quite understand what it meant. My adoptive parents told me from the start, having been warned at a seminar led by adoptees that keeping such information secret could have disastrous consequences. Hiding it from me probably wouldn’t have worked too well though, considering I am a brown Mexican and Peruvian girl and they are light-skinned people of mostly European descent. By what I consider a bizarre stroke of luck, my adoptive father happens to be half Mexican. So, I ended up with a Spanish last name that flows perfectly with my other names, rather than a clunky American one like “Anderson” or “Jones.”
My parents were eager to normalize my identity as an adoptee. They read me all the classic adoption books and answered all my questions. They never made me feel excluded or ashamed of being adopted. I even had a friend who was also adopted. We both had white, blonde moms and we were both brown with dark hair. I remember playing ice breaker games at the beginning of the school year and always using “I’m adopted" as my fun fact. I felt pretty comfortable with the whole thing. But once, when I was very young, a kid on the playground saw my adoptive mom and repeatedly insisted, “That’s not your mom.” Later, as we crossed the school’s grassy sports field hand-in-hand, I asked my mom, “What is adoption, anyway?"
My birth mother selected my adoptive family from what I am told was a scrapbook of sorts, filled with photos and messages from potential adoptive parents. When I entered the world, I was quickly passed from the hands of my mother to the hands of a foster family, before finally landing with my adoptive parents at four months old. Or so I imagined it for most of my youth. I was a teenager when my adoptive mom told me that my birth father had reappeared to try to get me back. My mother had already relinquished her rights, but he thought he could still take his daughter home. He was too late. A recent case had created a precedent, establishing the amount of time a birth father could go without claiming his parental rights before they would automatically be relinquished. So, I continued on, even as my birth parents came together to the courthouse to dispute the issue with my adoptive parents and the agency. I’ll never know exactly how it all happened, how they all felt. All I can claim to know are my own feelings. And they have been complicated ever since I asked my mom that question as we crossed the field.
Starting in late elementary school, I became aware that being Latino (which was generalized to " Mexican” by most people) was not seen as a good thing. For some of my peers, the only brown people they had ever known were the people who cleaned their parents’ houses and mowed their parents’ lawns. These kids made it clear that to be Latino was to be poor, subservient, and law- breaking. They wasted no time making fun of me, asking if I was going to clean their house after school or jump a fence to sneak across the border. As any young child trying to fit in would do, I rushed to distance myself from these stereotypes. I felt protected by my white adoptive family, so I clung to them to avoid being associated with my own people. I basically pretended like I was white for a long time, as if my brownness was a spray tan that would fade if I ignored it for long
In my high school years, I finally agreed to study Spanish and made the effort to clarify that I was Mexican and Peruvian, since no one previously had bothered to ask. But I still acted like my adoption was no big deal. I swore I had no desire to seek reunion with my first family. My adoptive parents asked me about it frequently over the years - they were always in favor of me finding my birth parents and reconnecting. However, I still felt that there wasn’t any reason to go to all that trouble. If I had best friends, a boyfriend, and a big family around me already, what was I really missing?
At 18, I read a letter that changed my mind. When I was passed through all those hands at the start of my life, I came with a journal of sorts. My birth mother had filled out this journal while she was pregnant with me, but after she had decided I would be adopted. It contained a series of answers to personal questions intended to help me get to know who she was once I was old enough to read it. It also came with a few family photos, a very small family tree, and a personal letter for me. I remember sitting on my bed reading it for the first time, using the Spanish skills I had learned in school to translate her words. I remember laughing at her humor and crying at her honesty, suddenly aware of my heart sitting half-empty in my chest. The letter made me realize how much trauma and curiosity and longing I had repressed until then. I was ready to learn more, be proud of my heritage, and find my birth mother.
I began my search in earnest just a few years ago. I took an AncestryDNA test in college, which revealed my detailed ethnicity but no family members. Through a series of Google and Facebook searches and two paid “people search” programs, I found a phone number and address for my birth mother, with her birthday and relatives’ names to verify. I was finally onto something. I had all this contact information, these links that promised to answer my questions and fill my half- empty heart, and I froze up. I couldn’t pick up the phone or the pen for the life of me. Paralyzed by fear and guilt, I convinced myself that reaching out would disrupt everything. It would ruin her life or come as a bad surprise to other family members. I would be stepping into someone else’s world unannounced and struggling to squeeze myself into whatever complicated family tree stood before me. About a year ago, I started seeing a therapist who specializes in adoption issues. With her help, I worked through these fears enough to pick up a pen and write back to the woman who had written to me 23 years ago.
You might think you can see where this is going. Reunion stories are exciting. They are supposed to make you smile, cry, and feel fulfilled. The idea of a separated family reconnecting at last is something out of fairy tales. It should be like puzzle pieces falling into place. I know that’s what I imagined for myself. Sure, it would be a little awkward at first. But I already had plans to write a long-form journalistic piece documenting my reunion story. I envisioned the photos we would take together, my first mother and me. I imagined the stories she would tell me, the mannerisms we would share. I pictured myself hugging her, rediscovering a long-lost memory of her scent as she embraced me. I saw us staring into each other’s faces, searching for similarities.
As I planned all of these things, I waited to hear back. I sent her my letter in August of last year. I heard nothing for a couple of weeks - then it came back in the mail. No forwarding address. I
pondered my options. I thought about reaching out to a half-brother I had found on Facebook. Maybe he would have her new address, or some other way to contact her.
One day last fall, I typed my birth mother’s name into Google, a mindless activity I had grown used to doing every once in a while, just in case. Sometimes I still wish I hadn’t prayed I would find something new, because I did. I found her obituary. She had passed away a month after I sent the letter. The cancer must have put her in the hospital for long before that, so she never would have seen my letter. She was only 53.
I used to think that reunion stories were supposed to make you smile, cry, and feel fulfilled. But reunion stories aren’t guaranteed to have fairy tale endings. There are no puzzle pieces, because life does not wait, locked into place, for adoptees to fit ourselves back into our birth families. Sometimes we don’t make it in time. Sometimes we find it logistically impossible. Sometimes we are not welcomed back.
None of our stories are exactly alike. But they are our stories. I don’t speak for anyone else, and I don't insist that others share their stories if they don’t want to. All I know is that some threads of my story run through the fabric of other adoptees' stories, and those connections bring me strength. All I know is that I have a half-empty heart. Speaking to my pain seems to fill it temporarily.