Central American Horror Story: A Brief Chat With Finding Fernanda Author Erin Siegal

By Arturo R. García

Finding Fernanda is a sobering story–even more so when you stop to think that it focuses on two women out of thousands at opposite ends of a corrupt system.

Journalist Erin Siegal’s book stretches across the continent: it examines the notorious child adoption business in Guatemala via the ordeals suffered by both Guatemalan native Mildred Alvarado, who loses two of her children not just to kidnappers but to her country’s legal and political processes, and Tennessee resident Betsy Emanuel, an American lured in by a Christian adoption agency when she begins the process of adopting one of the children, not knowing the dirty business behind her wish for another child.

Working with a local journalist over the course of three years, Siegal sheds light on the various players: the American agencies and their in-country networks of handlers and attorneys; the medical professionals and court officials who are either on the take or willfully negligent, like the Guatemala City pediatrician who sees his practice expand as he becomes a go-to resource for adoptionists:

On a child’s first visit to his office, Dr. Castillo would ask about his or her background and felt he had no choice but to take the answers provided to him by cuidadoras (caretakers) at face value. Every time one of the women hesitated, he felt chilled. More than half the children examined at his office didn’t have proper paperwork, such as a birth certificate. Sometimes the names would change. It wasn’t his responsibility to investigate, the pediatrician told himself; he was just there to make sure that the kids were being cared for.

Over time, cases like Mildred’s become a cause celebre in Guatemala, attracting more and more attention from the press and the underfunded authorities before a human rights organization represents her in court. For her part, Betsy also feels her own betrayal at the hands of the agency, pushing her to ask questions of her own, culminating in an encounter with Mildred.

In an e-mail interview with Racialicious, Siegal shared more details about the women at the heart of Fernanda, the industry that brought them together, and her own experience as an American journalist working in Guatemala. The transcript, which includes some spoilers, is under the cut.


Racialicious: Let’s start, literally, from the beginning: you went from wanting to do a human-interest piece on Guatemalan adoptions to finding out about the sordid industry behind it, to shifting your entire storytelling style to cover it. Could you tell us a little bit about your experience at Columbia University, and how it prepared you to put this book together?

Erin Siegal: Spending a year in an intensive program like Columbia’s Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism was a starting point, a shortcut of sorts towards assembling an investigative skill-set. Before this book, I’d written some freelance pieces, but mainly worked as a photographer. I wanted to feel confident taking on complicated investigative stories. A friend who’d finished the Stabile program ahead of me offered very sage advice: J-school is worth it only if you get into Stabile, and if Columbia underwrites your study. It was a huge privilege and a joy to be able to spend a year under the tutelage of Sheila Coronel, the director of the Stabile program. She’s an incredible investigative journalist, and a founder of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.

As far as first-time book writing, “Finding Fernanda” had an intrinsic narrative structure—the book flows in chronological order, from beginning to end, as both women’s experiences unfold. Much of the time, it felt like my chief role as author was not to get in the way of the story.

I would have loved to write a book filled with sparkly, snappy writing, but it didn’t feel appropriate. Instead, I tried to reflect some of the awesome, understated grace and dignity of some of my sources; some of the book’s characters.

R: How long did it take for Mildred Alvarado to trust you with her story? What was going through your mind when you reached her on that initial reporting trip?

ES: Frankly, I was a bit terrified the first time I met Mildred. Her safety and the safety of her family was a primary concern. I also didn’t want to re-traumatize her or pry too much. I wanted her to understand that she didn’t have to speak to me, even though Norma Cruz had asked her to—Mildred feels deeply obligated to Norma, the director of Fundación Sobrevivientes, and I wanted her to understand that she could say no; that it was fine for her to say no.

When we first spoke, I didn’t know how much of Betsy Emanuel’s story checked out. I was still a student, trying to get a handle on what exactly had happened. Mildred and I had a slow conversation, without many direct questions. That first interview was brief in comparison to later ones, when highly specific, difficult details had to be drawn out. Much of the time, my interviews with Mildred were long and meandering; her story came out in chunks and pieces.

R: Throughout the process, you worked in tandem with a local journalist, J (Note: name withheld by request.) How long did it take you to feel comfortable living and working in Guatemalan spaces with J, the journalist who helped you?

ES: Dumb luck and mutual friends led me to find J. When we met, there was an instant connection. What was supposed to be a quick morning coffee turned into a day of hanging out, driving around and trading life stories. It’s rare to find a best friend so quickly, but that’s what J. became, faster than anyone I’d ever met. I still count my lucky stars that I not only had someone like him to turn to for help with context and insight for the book’s investigation, but that I have him as a friend. By the time of my last month-long reporting trip in Guatemala, I was sleeping on his couch. It was invaluable to be able to talk the story through with him, to see what he thought about certain hypotheses. It was also invaluable to have someone to crack stupid jokes with, as the investigation unearthed some incredibly sad situations. He also accompanied me to some rough neighborhoods to knock on doors. J. never admitted how he was scared was with me in certain situations until after the book was written.

R: We’ve talked about transnational adoption on Racialicious in the past but focused more on South Korea and Haiti. I know you mention Congo and Ethiopia in the book; have you gotten a chance to compare the “cultures” behind the adoption industries in various countries? Is this a case of one racket fits all?

ES: There are certainly parallels that can be drawn between the developing countries that have served as “sending” countries for adoption: endemic poverty; a lack of social structures or programs supporting women and families; deep-rooted corruption. Many, including Vietnam, Cambodia, and Guatemala, are postwar societies that have struggled with socioeconomic and governmental stability.

I’d say the “racket” is quite simply the lack of regulation—not abroad, but here in the United States. These gaps in oversight mean that child buying, selling, and trafficking for the purpose adoption can still happen today, with little consequence. No adequate legal framework exists in the U.S. for prosecuting adoption crimes, aside from trying to prosecute adoption agencies or facilitators based on money laundering or tax evasion charges. The definition of human trafficking relates exclusively to either forced sex or labor. There are good arguments both for and against expanding that definition.

During my research, I filed numerous public records requests for official U.S. government communication around the issue of adoption fraud. It took three years, but the State Department finally sent me hundreds of pages of previously-unreleased cables. I compiled them into a collection, The U.S. Embassy Cables: Adoption Fraud in Guatemala, 1987-2010, which exposes the U.S. government’s struggle, for over 20 years, tried to navigate the demands of providing fast “customer service” to adopting American families while avoiding complicity in cases of presumed child trafficking. The book of cables is available from www.findingfernanda.com or Amazon as one 718=page paperback or a 3-volume ebook.

R: I saw Adoption Today’s positive review of the book on the FF website. How has the adoption industry at large reacted to the stories you brought to light?

ES: Finding Fernanda has gotten a very positive reception from the adoption community; and I’m very surprised and happy about that, as I tried to make this book widely accessible. My colleague E.J. Graff from the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism warned me beforehand about the probability of receiving hate mail from adoptive parents after writing what some may call a “negative” adoption book. It pleases me to no end that adoption advocates are able to understand this book; to read it and take away information. If there’s a takeaway to Finding Fernanda, it’s that ignorance can and does perpetuate abuses.

Buying and selling children isn’t just an issue to the adoption community—it’s a basic human rights issue. We as Americans need to hold our own government accountable. Through the late 1980′s and 1990′s, the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City faced serious problems related to adoption. As Guatemala’s adoption industry began to grow, so did fraud. Women mysteriously turned up dead. Unknown people relinquished children they weren’t related to. Adoption lawyers, whose profit margins depended on volume, acquired “orphans” in any number of creative ways.

R: Regarding your initial conversation with Betsy Emanuel, you wrote that you didn’t understand “how adoption hooked some families.” How close was the answer you got to Melissa Fay Greene’s statement that “we simply wanted more kids”?

ES: It was pretty close! Betsy felt called to adopt. Many other adoptive parents I spoke with related a similar sentiment.

R: Staying with Greene’s statement, it sounds like she came around to thinking about her own privileges and how those played into the adoption game. Did the Emanuels–who undoubtedly had their hearts in the right place–make any similar realizations during their experience?

ES: Betsy’s experience with Fernanda, and then Mildred, was an eye-opener for her in many, many ways. She was forced to confront the ugly side of adoption: entitlement, imperialism, greed, selfishness. She went head to head with people she had considered to be close friends and community when she chose to speak out. She lost friends in doing so.

Both she and Mildred are regular women, who made mistakes, acted naively at times, and then had to face the consequences of their actions. Their story is painful but important. Through the experience of Fernanda and her baby sister’s kidnappings, both women lost a great deal of innocence. Yet they both, Mildred especially, found an incredible amount of inner strength and bravery.

Today, Betsy Emanuel is much more savvy and worldly than she was before. She’s still so very warm, loving, and spunky as hell, but she’s definitely also more cynical; she’s lost her ability to blindly trust. The same is true, perhaps more so, for Mildred. She lives in constant fear that someone will take her children away from her again.

R: And speaking of privilege, companies like CCI seem to play on that, as much as a parent’s heartstrings, what with their focus on adopting children as part of “God’s plan” and whatnot. Is that a fair assessment?

ES: I’d say so. Many of the Christian adoptive parents I spoke to selected adoption agencies based on faith and the desire to do business with those who shared their values.

R: Finally, could you give us an update on the Alvarados? When was the last time you heard from Mildred? Have you gotten to talk much to Fernanda and Ana Cristina?

ES: I heard from Mildred this fall. She had a bad dream, about J. and I getting kidnapped and killed in her neighborhood, and she called to make sure we were OK. Communication isn’t easy: she had to have her sister take her to an internet café, pay to use a computer, and then send us an email asking to call her, since she didn’t want to write the dream out. I’ll be returning to Guatemala later this spring and will be see her then.

Today, Mildred and her family are doing well. Both kids continue to heal. Fernanda is still a beautiful little girl, she’s still crazy for Pollo Campero fried chicken and she attends school. Ana Cristina doesn’t really talk much, she’s a very quiet child. Both girls are close to their other siblings, too.

The last time I saw Ana Cristina, we were standing in Mildred’s patio, and one of the family’s two chickens strutted past. Ana Cristina reached out, quickly, and grabbed it—this tiny kid, who at age four still teeters when she walks and struggles daily with the aftereffects of severe trauma– she caught a chicken, effortlessly. Then she looked over at Fernanda, holding the bird, and grinned.

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  • k.eli

    Thanks for posting this eye-opening piece. Often times I hear U.S. parents of trans-national adoptees say they did so because the process of adoption in other countries is easier and more streamlined than here in the U.S. but stories like this should give us all great pause as to the reason why that may be. It’s very plausible to assume that some of these children are not as “orphaned” as the agencies claim. I remember there being some controversy over Angelina Jolie’s adoption of Zahara when her birth mother came forward and said that she had been deceived in giving her up. I know the woman was swiftly discredited by the powers that be but after reading about Mildred and her daughters it does make me wonder.

  • Tabitha Rose

    Thank you so much for this interview – I’ve actually had this book on my “to read” list for a while (I think after seeing it linked to by a book blogger) and now I’ll be moving it up the front of the list. The whole story sounds so heartwrenching but also so very important for people to be aware of. We really should not remain ignorant of the abuses that can be hiding behind pleasant facades like these adoption groups.