I have four daughters: three are Latina, adopted through foster care (one is actually waiting on adoption), and one is biological. She is a blondie like I was as a kid. When people see us in public together, there are sometimes (rude) questions, like “Do they all have the same father?” (No. I’m not sure who three of their dads are.) “Are they all yours?” (Yep!)
If it’s a Latino commenter, they will usually notice the youngest Latina kid and exclaim how cute she is. This is normal. If it’s a white person, they will comment on my biological daughter’s ultra-blonde hair. This I find oblivious and annoying. It has happened a lot, so it’s definitely not an isolated issue. The fact that it’s a pattern makes me think there are a lot of oblivious people.
I used to be just as oblivious. My understanding of culture and origin family has changed so much in the 11 years since we first got involved in foster care. Back then, we were so naive. We thought love was enough to solve any problem, and our child’s culture didn’t matter.
Our very first foster placement was a newborn baby girl of Native American heritage. I’ll call her Benna. We were told from the beginning that she would not be available to us for adoption. The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) designated that she be adopted only by a Native American family. The purpose of ICWA being passed is
“…to protect the best interest of Indian Children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families by the establishment of minimum Federal standards for the removal of Indian children and placement of such children in homes which will reflect the unique values of Indian culture.”
The protocol for social services was to inform her tribe of her birth and they would start searching for an adoptive family from their tribe.
She was an adorable, easy baby and we all fell in love with her. As the weeks stretched into months, we heard nothing from her tribe. We began to hope that maybe she would stay with us.
Then one day out of the blue when she was nine months old, we received a call from her social worker that an adoptive family was found in Maryland and they would be flying out to California to pick her up in two days. We felt like we’d been punched in the gut. We packed up her things, printed all her baby photos, and two days later said goodbye forever. We put on our brave faces to our friends and feigned support for ICWA, but privately we were so hurt. Wasn’t it better that she stay with us, the only family she’s known for her whole nine months of life?
There is a prevalent idea in many evangelical circles, that adoption is a picture of the gospel. We were on board with the concept of adoption as a picture of the gospel: once an adopted child enters your family, their past is wiped clean and they are a new creature. Their old life is gone and they are now part of the Knapp family culture, regardless of their origin family’s culture.
Russell Moore is a popular Christian author and adoptive father of two boys from Russia. When he wrote that he doesn’t plan to celebrate their Russian heritage, only their new Mississippi heritage, he said, “That’s adoption. We’re part of a new family, a new tribe, with a new story, a new identity.”
I recently listened to a podcast on the topic of adoption as a gospel metaphor. Professor Erin Heim, adoptee and author of Adoption in Galatians and Romans: Contemporary Metaphor Theories and the Pauline Huiothesia Metaphors, which sounds super intellectual but is actually easy to follow and very interesting. Heim explained that our modern understanding of adoption is nothing like the contemporary cultural understanding. In Biblical times, adoption was more about inheritance management rather than bringing a child into a family. It was about carrying on the family business.
Without realizing it, I believed that my kids’ culture didn’t matter. But even when I felt that it did matter, I wasn’t quite sure how to include their culture in our family. That is, until my Latina daughter’s grandmother invited me to honor their Puerto Rican culture. For Christmas one year, she sent me a Puerto Rican cookbook, pigeon peas, and sazón seasoning. She sent us books about wildlife in Puerto Rico. She spoke Spanish to her granddaughter during video visits. When she came to visit us, she taught me how to make sofrito (Puerto Rican style, of course) and Arroz con Gandules (pigeon peas with rice). It took someone almost literally holding my hand to show me how to embrace Latino culture.
In turn, we have looked at our daughters of Mexican heritage and asked ourselves how can we celebrate their culture? We have Latino food night and have learned how to make empanadas in different traditional ways. (I had no idea that empanadas are a universal Latino food, and each region customizes the filling based on their own cuisine. Now it seems so obvious and I’m realizing that I have so much to learn about Latino food culture!) I try a new Latino dish a few times a month (last week it was tostones, or fried plantain chips).
We watch TV shows and movies that feature Latino characters like Alma’s Way on PBS, a show about a Puerto Rican family living in the Bronx, and of course, Encanto. I’m learning Spanish slowly and painfully. We plan to take a family trip to Puerto Rico in the next few years when our daughter is about 5 and old enough to remember it. I hope to be able to know enough Spanish to not embarrass myself there.
The blessing of all of these new traditions is that they are becoming part of Knapp Family culture. We are all better people because of it.
Ten years later, I have come to understand more about why ICWA was enacted. I’ve learned more about my country’s awful history with Native Americans, and now it’s a no-brainer that keeping Native children together with their tribe and culture is the best thing for Native children. I am thankful for what that experience taught me, even if it hurt at the time.
Real life isn’t like the end of Annie, where everyone is happy and embraces each other. Real-life is messy and full of trauma. No amount of adoptive family love can change the deep pain a child feels inside when they lose their birth family. This is true even if the loss happened at birth and they don’t consciously remember anything. But if they are connected to their culture and they know their family embraces and celebrates that culture, it’s one more tie that can keep them grounded during the turbulent waves of adolescence.
I’m sure I will mess things up. I’m constantly learning. The first step is not being afraid to look foolish in the process of trying to do better for our kids. What if we as Christians, and indeed all people, admitted there are things we don’t know? Even admitted that there are things we’ve gotten wrong in the past? What if we listened to the voices that have endured pain? Let’s start from a place of humility and see where it takes us.