Beyond  /  Q&A

Rachel Nolan: In the Best Interest of the Child

A new book gets inside Guatemala’s international adoption industry and the complicated context of deciding a child’s welfare.

Guernica: You weave together texture and context around what eventually became one of Guatemala’s most significant export industries: babies and children. And yet you’re a historian of modern Latin America, with broad interests including political violence, civil and dirty wars, genocide, deportation histories, and foreign relations. What led you to focus on coercive adoptions?

Nolan: Like with most major research projects, I came into this one completely sideways. I had been working as a freelance journalist in my early twenties and lived in Mexico from 2010–2012. When I was doing a PhD in Latin American history [at NYU], I was casting around for a topic, as one does.

I came across material about the 1976 earthquake in Guatemala and learned that Pentecostal Christians were involved in adoptions, among other things. I found New York Times stories from 2006 talking about this extraordinary boom in adoptions there, and one statistic drew me in: one in one hundred children from Guatemala was adopted internationally. I thought, Wait, that can’t be true. There must be a mistake. How can that be? How is it possible?

The first book I picked up was yours — Finding Fernanda. I was utterly scandalized by the lack of structure in Guatemala. What I learned from your book and through later research was that what I thought must be illegal practices — coercion, even theft of children — well, they were actually legal under Guatemala’s very permissive governmental structure at that time.

That led me to more questions. What happened to forcibly disappeared children during the civil war?

I learned of the existence of the [Guatemalan government’s] adoption files by reading Paper Cadavers by Kirsten Weld, which is about the National Police Archives in Guatemala City. Kirsten had a note on one page saying that one of the many types of documentation that the archivists at the National Police Archives were scanning were adoption files — because they held evidence of war crimes and legal abuses.

And I thought, Oh my God, the adoption files exist. They’re accessible.

That’s why I started.

Guernica: How did you decide who to talk to, and what was your experience like?

Nolan: There is a cultural stereotype about Guatemalans that they are very quiet. Although cliché is always just cliché, there’s a grain of truth there. It’s a widely acknowledged phenomenon that people in Guatemala are not so ready to share their life stories, especially to outsiders, given the abuses of the thirty-six-year civil war. It takes repeat visits and building up what in Spanish is called a sense of confianza. It’s not just confidence but trust and reciprocity, in some cases, to get people to be willing to talk about some of the more difficult parts of their lives.