El Salvadoran Adoptee Story in the NY Times
April 5, 2007
A Daughter Stolen in Wartime Returns to El Salvador
By MARC LACEY
CACAOPERA, El Salvador, April 3 — Suzanne Marie Berghaus finally came
Ms. Berghaus, a 26-year-old from the Boston suburbs, walked into a
humble homestead here in rural El Salvador on Tuesday and spotted
someone a generation older with a face that resembled her own but
whom she did not know. Then, mother and daughter embraced.
Soon after, others came for hugs of their own. Confronted with
siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews — strangers all — Ms. Berghaus
wiped tears from her cheeks. “Hola,” she said, one of the few Spanish
words she knows.
This was a family reunion of a most unusual sort. Wrapped in it was a
profound personal story as well as that of El Salvador’s bitter civil
war, which long ago came to a formal end but still haunts this
country in ways large and small.
At age 14 months, Ms. Berghaus had been plucked from a hammock by a
government soldier, one of numerous babies snatched by the military
during the war in what was part counterinsurgency strategy and part
Many of the stolen children were sent to orphanages, where they were
adopted internationally in a wartime system that had tinges of
compassion and greed.
Born into this struggling family in the Salvadoran hinterlands, Ms.
Berghaus grew up instead with an American family that was settled, in
She had peace, paved roads and an ample yard, while her family here
was constantly on the run, moving along dirt roads and thick forests
to escape the raging war in the eastern Morazán district, not far
from the border with Honduras.
Ms. Berghaus said she was too young when she left El Salvador to have
any memories of it. But she said that she was aware she had been
adopted from El Salvador and that she always wanted to know more
about her beginnings.
“I have to face that past,” she said in San Salvador, the capital, on
the morning of her reunion. “I’m becoming more of a person. I’m
expanding who I am. I’m this whole new person now.”
Becoming that new person meant confronting a horrible incident in
which a family of 10 became a family of 9 in one instant.
“It’s horrifying,” Ms. Berghaus said. “I wasn’t hurting anybody. I
was playing on a hammock. And then they took me.”
It was February 1982 when soldiers arrived at the makeshift shelter
where the family was hiding out in the latest flare-up in the civil
The family says that an army officer spotted little María, which was
Ms. Berghaus’s name back then, and remarked on how cute she was. Two
other little children from the area were being carried away by the
soldiers. The officer asked the family if it would give up María.
It was not really a question but an order, the family says. The
mother recalled telling the man “no” twice. Still, the little girl
was taken away.
“He said: `I like this girl. Would you give her to me?’ ” recalled
her mother, María Venancia Sáenz, a faraway look coming to her
eyes. “We were so full of fear.”
Later, soldiers returned to the house and ordered the parents to
report to the local military base, where they were told to put their
thumbprints on a form. Like so many children, Salvadoran
investigators say, María would be passed along to an orphanage.
The family never knew that María was later adopted by a couple in
Massachusetts, that she graduated from the University of
Massachusetts at Lowell and then completed a master’s degree in
social work at Salem State College in Massachusetts. They did not
know that she, curious about her birth country, returned to El
Salvador on a study trip.
It was that trip last March that changed everything.
Ms. Berghaus contacted Asociación Pro-Búsqueda, a group founded by
families seeking out their lost children. She shared a few tidbits
that she had learned from her adoption file — her biological mother’s
name and the name of her village.
Soon, Pro-Búsqueda’s investigators were on the case. And before long,
after searching out records and conducting DNA tests, they found Ms.
Berghaus’s birth parents and informed them that their daughter was
Ms. Berghaus, who works at the Council on Aging in Somerville, Mass.,
discovered that she had siblings who had immigrated to the United
States. She arranged reunions with them in California and New Jersey.
But those reunions were mere warm-ups for what took place this week
in Cacaopera, a tiny village in the Salvadoran hills where the
fighting was merciless.
As of the end of last year, Pro-Búsqueda had investigated 787 cases
of lost children stemming from the war. Of those, 323 cases had been
resolved. Roughly half of those have resulted in family reunions.
Every gathering unfolds differently. Sometimes, they are merely
family affairs. Other times, the whole village turns out. Feasts are
prepared and tears shed. Some reunions are bittersweet. Often, the
lost child finds out one or both parents have died.
In Ms. Berghaus’s case, she found out that she had both a father and
a mother as well as numerous siblings and other relatives. Everybody
seemed stunned that the little girl they remembered for her big eyes
and bright smile had found her way home.
“Time stops for a family like this,” said Mario Sánchez, head of Pro-
Búsqueda. “They had an image of their child that is 25 years old. A
meeting like this takes some weight off them. They can live now.”
The unresolved cases, however, outnumber the tearful reunions.
Pro-Búsqueda, which receives support from Physicians for Human Rights
and the Human Rights Center at the University of California at
Berkeley, complains that the government has blocked its efforts to
review military records that would help reunite more families by
indicating the names of soldiers involved in various wartime
missions. The government contends that it is focused more on building
for the future than dwelling on the past.
But the past is not so easily cast aside. In one celebrated case, a
mother filed a report with El Salvador’s government in 1993 seeking
information on the fate of her daughters, Erlinda and Ernestina
Serrano Cruz, who were 3 and 7 when they disappeared in another part
of the country in 1982.
Witnesses saw the Serrano Cruz sisters taken away by soldiers. Pro-
Búsqueda pursued the case before the Inter-American Court of Human
Rights, which issued a ruling in 2005 condemning the Salvadoran
government for its handling of the case. The sisters are still
Two years have passed, and Pro-Búsqueda complains that the Salvadoran
government, perhaps uneasy at acknowledging all the misdeeds
committed by its security forces, has yet to comply fully with the
nine major demands made in the court decision.
Some of the government’s failings seem trivial. Ordered by the court
to create an official day dedicated to the children who disappeared,
the legislature last year instead set aside a day honoring children
lost in the war. The court ruled that it was insufficient. So this
year, the government set aside a day for children who disappeared but
did nothing to observe it.
The government has also set up its own organization to reunite
families separated during the war. But that effort has had much less
success than the family-led Pro-Búsqueda and is dismissed as window
dressing by many parents still seeking out their children.
Those parents dream about a reunion like the one that took place here.
Not long after their initial embrace, mother and daughter seemed to
be tentatively forging the relationship that was not allowed to
develop years ago. The taciturn father, Valentín Argueta, 73, looked
on with pride.
Mrs. Sáenz put her hand on her daughter’s knee and stared into her
“I talk to her but she doesn’t understand me,” Mrs. Sáenz said in
Spanish. “It’s nice that she’s happy. That’s the best thing — that
She said to her daughter, “You must have a nice family there.”
Ms. Berghaus nodded and cried and looked around the room, taking in
all the eyes trained on her.
“There’s so much family I have to get to know,” she said.
I’ve been thinking a whole lot about this idea of citizenship for many transracial adoptees. For the most part I have been thinking of adoptees as immigrants who come to this country. I am currently at the Association for Asian American Studies Conference in NYC, and I have attended a number of workshops on transracial adoption. One scholar suggests that instead of understanding adoptees in the context of immigration, that they are more representative of the experiences of “Refugees.” I agree in the sense that adoptees tend to result out of conflict, historically these are wars. The first wave of Korean adoptions began in the 1950s with the Korean War, Operation Babylift of Vietnamese babies at the end of the Vietnam War, El Salvadoran adoptees resulting from the El Salvadoran Civil War. We are also cultural refugees. The panelist didn’t quite go as far as this, but I think it is an important distinction which separates us from most immigrants, yet is also a divisive quality if we are considering ourselves as refugees. Once again I find myself coming back to this idea of identity where transracial adoptees exist within their own space of identity. Just as many are torn between the duality of American/White culture (that they were raised on) and their birth country’s culture, it seems that trying to classify the nuanced situations of adoptees as either immigrant or refugee is too complex.
As one person brought up during a question and answer, TRA Asian adoptees are the model minority of the model minorities. In other words, Asian Americans exist within the American racial narrative as the over-achievers-the engineers, mathmaticians, doctors etc. Within the Asian American Diaspora transracial Asian American adoptees are the model minority within the Asian American Diaspora which is largely already classified as such. We are still considered Asian by appearance, conform to various stereotypes of the already pervasive and systemic virus of over-achievement, yet we also have been raised within middle to affluent White Christian America-raised on many of the same values and logic that most Whites use to manipulate programs such as affirmative action, and racialize people of color. We are inherently taught how to socialize with mainstream white society, communicate with impeccable English, and are given the resources needed to survive. I realize that quite a few of us turned out “ok” but I think it was an interesting analysis that really considers the privileged status from which we come from as Asian American adoptees.