I’m a Latinx Adoptee — Here Are 4 Ways I Reconnect to My Heritage

published Oct 22, 2021
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Credit: Kristen Garaffo

Growing up, the wall art in my bedroom consisted of an iconic poster of Jonathan Taylor Thomas, an American Girl calendar, and a piece of embroidered Paraguayan lace, called ñandutí. The word means “spider web” in Guarani, the predominant Indigenous language of Paraguay, and mine was embroidered with vibrant red, pink, green and blue threads. I remember looking at it and thinking it looked like a flower, and how special it was that this piece of lace traveled all the way from Paraguay, like I did. To that end, it was a physical reminder of my identity: I was born in Asuncion, Paraguay, and adopted into a family in the United States as an infant. The art on my wall was a reminder of where I come from. 

There was never a time where I didn’t know I was adopted or where I was born, and it was never a big deal to me throughout my childhood. But like most things, my adoption and my identity became more complicated and nuanced as an adult. People in my community began to identify me as Latina, and while the concept of Latinidad is vast and can often imperfectly encompass so many different experiences, I felt an incredible sense of imposter syndrome, especially as an adoptee who grew up in a non-Latinx household. Yet denying this part of myself felt wrong: My biological family is in Paraguay, and not being able to embrace this part of my identity felt like an erasure. Instead of feeling defeated, I wanted to feel proud and confident in my identity as a Paraguayan adoptee. I wanted to learn how my story and I fit in. 

During the summer of 2020, I began my process of reclaiming my Latinx identity. I worked with Hannah Matthews of Hey Transracial Adoptee, a platform that empowers transracial adoptees to develop a positive racial identity, and I enrolled in three months’ worth of weekly identity reclamation coachings. These sessions were specifically created for transracial adoptees who need help reclaiming their racial and ethnic identity, especially if they were raised in white families or communities, and focused on creating a positive racial and ethnic identity, combating racial and ethnic imposter syndrome, and doing a deep dive into the effects of white supremacy on society and our lives. As a transracial adoptee herself, Hannah guided me to a place of self-acceptance, and made this time especially sacred and powerful. 

More and more, transracial, transethnic, and international adoptees are opening up about our need for support as we grapple with how to confidently identify ourselves. I wouldn’t have known where to start or even how to reclaim my Latinx identity without Hannah’s work and those sessions. Here are four ways other Latinx adoptees and I work to reclaim and reconnect with our heritages.

I Display Latinx Art and Mementos in My Home

I have a small space on top of my bedroom dresser that holds a few items I have from Paraguay; my parents brought the ñandutí lace and a few other mementos home with them when they traveled there to adopt me. My dresser also displays an art print by Anna Alvarado and a small Paraguayan flag. It’s simple, but the display is my way of honoring my birth country, and it serves as a space that reminds me of who I am and where I come from, especially given that I didn’t grow up with day-to-day customs and Paraguayan culture in my life. I see my display every morning as I get ready for the day, and it’s a small yet meaningful part of my morning routine. 

John McCormick, a Colombian adoptee in Chicago, Illinois, not only has Colombian art in his home — he makes it himself, and Colombia is his muse. For him, making digital collages is an intimate and creative way for him to connect to his birth country. His work includes images of jaguars, the Amazon jungle, and the mountainside of Quindío, Colombia, given that he loves nature and the country’s landscape.

“Making Colombian artwork has been super empowering,” McCormick tells Apartment Therapy. “I get to learn while I’m creating. I keep a tab of the images I pull from so maybe one day I can visit these places.” His art has also connected him to other adoptees who feel culturally lost, and has allowed him to explore the totality of his identity. 

“It’s a duality of sorts, being adopted, because you simultaneously feel super blessed and special, but also extremely lonely,” he says. “I am here to share my story of adoption. I’m creating artwork centered around reclaiming my culture and identity, and this is my purpose: To create and to share.”

I Find Community Both Online and In-Person

Over the years, my search for Paraguayan representation in the U.S. has been challenging. According to the 2010 Census, Paraguayans are the smallest Latinx group in the U.S., and make up more than 1 percent of the entire population in only five communities nationwide. To that end, groups like Adoptees of South America have been great for me; it’s one of the few places where I am surrounded not only by adoptees, but by people who identify as Latinx. Even just knowing the community is there brings me relief, and their Instagram page is a great place to learn and connect. 

Finding community, whether in person or online, can be so powerful, especially for adoptees who grew up with minimal racial and ethnic mirrors. For her part, Adoptees of South America co-creator Maria Fernanda finds community within the group she co-founded, and within Houston, Texas, where she lives. Fernanda, who is an Ecuadorian adoptee, recently attended a Latin Festival in Houston, and was pleasantly surprised by the large Ecuadorian community in her city. “I felt more like I was in a familiar space than not, and that is because I am learning that even though I was separated from my country, I can make my way back to it in ways that feel right for me,” she tells Apartment Therapy.

I Prepare and Enjoy Foods from my Country

I live near Washington D.C., and though I’ve done my share of searching, I believe the closest Paraguayan restaurant to me is I Love Paraguay in Sunnyside, New York. I haven’t made a trip there just yet, so I’m taking the time to learn about Paraguayan food on my own time, and in my own kitchen.

I’ve made sopa paraguaya, which is a hearty and delicious cornbread with cheese and onions that pairs well with chili. The first time I made it, I did so solo. It felt like an intimate moment that I wanted to savor, like it was my time to connect myself back to Paraguay, even for a few moments in the kitchen. And as the weather gets colder, I have my eye set on trying bori-bori, a Paraguayan chicken soup with cornmeal and cheese dumplings. I’m a fan of comfort food and I’ve learned that some of the most popular Paraguayan meals are stews, soups, and corn-based dishes, which all sound delicious to me. 

I’m not alone in this, as other Latinx adoptees also connect to their birth countries through food. “I really love making patacones,” Fernanda says of the popular dish made by frying green plantains. “The first time I cooked them, I was by myself in my kitchen. I wasn’t quite sure how I would feel emotionally during the process, so I cooked them and shared them with my family afterwards.” 

For Amy Wilkerson, a therapist and Chilean adoptee who has been in reunion with her biological family since she was 15 years old, Chilean food connects her to both her country and her biological family. “I loved the pastel de choclo my grandmother made,” she tells Apartment Therapy. “But when I asked her for the recipe in Chile, she told me she has no use for recipes and she cooks from the heart.” 

That doesn’t deter Wilkerson, who notes that recreating these recipes has been an incredibly healing experience for her. “Whether the meal turns out or not, being intentional about those moments of connection are so important,” she says. “I am so proud to be from Chile, and experiencing that pride with all of my senses reminds me of the wholeness of my identity and the beauty in my story.”

I Affirm That I Am Enough

South and Central American adoptees make up a small percentage of the approximately 62 million people who identify as Hispanic or Latinx in the United States, all of whom have vastly different experiences, languages, and racial and ethnic identities. While there isn’t concrete data about Latinx adoptees in the U.S., there is room for each of our stories, and for our place in the broader Latinx diaspora.

For me, being Latina means embracing my Paraguayan ancestry and learning as much as I can about my country of origin. I am still a work in progress and am learning new things as I go, and I try my best to be gentle and kind with myself as I reclaim the things I’ve lost to my adoption. Simply reminding myself and affirming that I am Latina is a celebration in and of itself. I denied this part of myself for so long, because I thought being Latina meant I needed to have a certain set of experiences, which is a sentiment I’m not alone in. 

“There have been times when I would try to embrace it [my Latinx identity] and I questioned if I was even allowed to,” Fernanda shares. “Not because someone told me I couldn’t, but because I didn’t have anyone telling me that I could.”

When I feel imposter syndrome creep in, I remind myself that no one can take away my Paraguayan roots, and that my ancestry will never change. “To me, this is not a part of me — it is the whole of me,” Wilkerson says of her heritage. “Connecting to my roots allows me to feel whole and rooted in my beginning so I can better understand who I am and where I come from. Understanding these missing pieces allows me to instill more strength and wisdom into my children and help cultivate a stronger sense of identity for them.”
Ultimately, it’s not up to what people think of us, or whether or not we are Latinx “enough” — it’s how we identify and what we think of ourselves.