Tag Archives: Guatemala

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.

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Quoted: On Volunteering and Culture Shock

Peace Corps Ad

Once I arrived for my three-month training program in the small town of Santa Lucia Milpas Altas [Guatemala], I was disturbed to learn I was only one of seven minorities (and two Latinas) in our group of 52. We were completely outnumbered bu Caucasian trainees. Suddenly, my earlier misgivings were overshadowed by a more pressing question: Why are there so few minorities in the Peace Corps?

You’d think that as a US government agency operating in 77 countries, the Peace Corps would do a better job of representing our nation’s racial diversity. But only 19 percent of the more than 8,665 Peace Corps volunteers are minorities. This, in a country where almost 35% of the population is non-Hispanic white. [...]

As it turns out, I have experienced culture shock in Guatemala, only it has been through the misrepresentation of the United States as a homogenous country by an agency that should do more to encourage diversity among its volunteers.

– Susan Alvarado, “Culture Shock in Guatemala”, Latina, September 2011

The university I was assigned to was in a city about 75 minutes outside of the capital, and I remained a spectacle for the nine months I was there. I should state that I have never been mistaken for anything but Black. Even before I locked my hair, I have always had full lips, a broad nose, high cheek bones and dark skin. All of which made me so completely unprepared for people stopping dead in their tracks in the street, the marketplace, or basically anywhere I was, and starring with mouths open, pointing and yelling at me or to whoever they might be saying, “Nigeria!” “Hamaica (Jamaica),” “Mali,” “Burkina Faso,” and so on.

I couldn’t understand why I was such an attraction when right in the Omo Valley in Ethiopia there were people who looked just like me. Furthermore, my Filipino, East Indian and European co-workers never even got so much as a glance in the streets. All of the attention made me wonder….do Black folks not volunteer in Africa? Because if they did, I wondered what looked so alien about me–a Black woman–in Africa?

– Adisa Vera Beatty, “Color Struck: Black and Volunteering In Africa,” Clutch Magazine