The Other Side of What We Know

Searching for the identity lost in my mother's adoption

Two photos: At the left, a photo of a mother and teenage daughter, both with black hair. At right, the mother, much younger and wearing a wedding dress, stands with an older woman with blond hair.

Left: The author with her mother on her sixteenth birthday  Right: The author's mother and grandmother at her mother's wedding

When I was young, I thought that when someone said something was beautiful, they were referring specifically to my mother. 

I thought they meant to invoke the feeling of her hair on my hands like ink on the page—the black of it so stark against the faded tone of my palms as I spent hours dragging a brush through it, braiding it down her back, where my fingers first learned the muscle memory. 

I thought they meant her skin, the color of sand when the tide comes in, cool and soft to the touch. I have a vivid memory of facing her, close enough to know that her face was painted more like the Queens in Egypt than the mothers at the mall, the black on her eyelids was as thick as it was smooth. 

I remember thinking that when something was beautiful, its tears were brown. This is what beautiful was. This is what beautiful had. 

The first time I can remember being asked what I was wasn’t that far removed from the last time I saw my mother really cry—long after I knew tears didn’t come in colors. She buried her mother days after my seventeenth birthday and released what I thought at the time was the emotional baggage accumulated over a handful of years spent watching cancer slowly steal her mother. 

My grandmother was, I later came to find out, also beautiful. Her silver hair was topped with a bright white puff, all shaved short to meet her neckline. Ninety-five pounds on her wedding day and as pale as snow in the sun, crinkled by years and tobacco by the time I loved her. She gave us everything. But when her eyes, the color of blue peonies in the spring, closed for the last time, she took with her the only truth we could never have. 

How did she become my mother’s mother?

By the time my grandmother died, she had spent thirty years raising children, never going a single year without being responsible for a child under the age of ten. But in the 1960s, when she was newly married and her house was empty, she swallowed any miracle cure she could get her hands on to help her fruitless attempts to bear a child. 

My grandparents were not wealthy. My grandfather grew up in Brooklyn, one generation removed from Hitler’s Germany. He worked as a construction foreman in the city, and my grandmother never worked in the traditional sense. My great-grandmother, however, escaped a marriage with two children in the 1940s and married a brash Italian with a fondness for antiques and a way in which to make money that has never been fully explained to me. The marriage brought her wealth—not enough for an inheritance, but enough to buy my great-grandmother a place in the society pages, a school house upstate, and, as family lore has it, my mother.

Photo: A dark-haired girl in a first communion outfit holding flowers stands with a woman with blond hair wearing a fur coat and a small girl with blond hair

The author's mother at her first communion with her mother and younger sister.

Adopting a child in the 1960s seemingly simple, but with complicated consequences.In Canada, the time period has been dubbed the Sixties Scoop, when Indigenous children were torn from their homes and communities and raised in middle-class families across Canada and the US. More broadly, the time period between 1943 and 1973, when Roe v. Wade came into affect and unwanted pregnancies began to decline, saw so many newborns placed for adoption that it’s referred to as the Baby Scoop Era. The era has been written about extensively, but information about adoption in Mexico during this time remains scarce.

In my family, the story goes that my grandmother traveled to Mexico with her mother and visited an orphanage. She wanted a boy to name after my grandfather, but the boy in the crib next to my mother had red hair and he was crying. My mother was sleeping. That’s all the explanation my mother was given. That, and a thin file containing naturalization papers and court documents in Spanish that bore her birth mother’s name. 

As a child, I didn’t understand the complicated relationship my mother had with her sisters—blue-eyed and blonde and born of the miracle drugs that didn’t work at first but eventually produced two more daughters for my grandmother as well as the tumors in her uterus and ovaries that would eventually spread to her brain and her bones. 

I didn’t understand that a person could love their own child, born in Mexico, so deeply and yet still call people who look like her spics. I didn’t know what it felt like for my mother to be forbidden to wear hoop earrings because they made her look Mexican, or to live in a town where no one looked like her but everyone looked at her. 

I didn’t understand what transracial adoption was, or that its experience could cut so deep in places that it leaves scars on the next generation. 

Until I was stopped the first time. Until I was followed around the store. Until I was asked for the millionth time what I was and realized it’s not a question asked in standard conversation. 

Until I really didn’t have an answer. 

I don’t remember how old I was when I found out my mother was adopted. But once I did, I started trying on the identity. The only word I had for it at the time was Mexican. My mother was born in Mexico, and we were Mexican. The explanation cut out my father’s English-French-German-all-around whiteness, but the word biracial hadn’t entered my vocabulary, and my mother, who had walked around in the identity for more than thirty years at that point, had no words either. 

When I reached the age my mother had been when I faced her, sitting so close I could trace her tears, I wanted answers. I was tired of not having them. As a journalist, to be without answers is equivalent to a high crime. 

I poured over the thin file my mother had, relying on translations because, although many people had pointed out to me that I look like I could speak Spanish, I cannot.

My mother’s birth mother’s name was (or is) Irene Figueroa. She may have had several other children at home by the time my mother was born. There is no father listed. My mother traveled through Chihuahua, Mexico to come to the United States. She was six months old. 

After years of family stories that dealt in half truths, internet searches that could not begin to make a dent in the complicated system of foreign adoption, and visits to palm readers who claimed Tarahumara spirits lived within my mother, we were no closer to the truth. 

Photo: A girl in a first communion outfit holding flowers stands with an older woman with much lighter skin

The author and her grandmother at her first communion

Then, DNA tests became available for home use.

My mother’s blood says she’s more than 65 percent Native American and a smattering of percentages rooted in Spain, Portugal, and African countries. 

It gave her some answers. And more questions. 

The first story of mine that was picked up by the Associated Press was about a local tribe’s struggle to rewrite its laws around enrollment—who belonged and who didn’t. I spent months talking to tribe members and falling head-first into the world of blood quantum, the practice of determining if an individual is Native by the portion of “Indian Blood” they have. 

Blood quantum was devised by the federal government as a way to limit tribe citizenship, requiring members to meet a certain percentage of Native blood before being considered Native. Some tribes still use blood quantum to determine enrollment today, but the practice has sparked intense debate about heritage, citizenship, sovereignty, and colonialism. 

On long car rides with my mother it’s sparked debate equally intense about what her blood says and if blood can ever know where the borders are. About the consequences of colonization and genocide and the marks they leave on the blood for generations. About the real possibility her ancestors in Zacateca saw their great-great-great grandchildren become Mexican.

And still, I’ve been in stores with her when strangers stopped her to ask her if she’s “Indian” and touch her hair and claim they themselves are Cherokee because their great-grandfather told them so. But Indian Country has made it clear that blood doesn’t equate to citizenship and identity is cultural and tied to sovereignty

Culturally, my mother is a white woman from Long Island who grew up under German discipline, eating Italian food. 

The distinction has raised more questions as my brother and I begin to have children and a third generation is born into the trauma of not knowing where the roots are planted. Can my nephew, with his blonde hair and white skin, my niece with her mocha skin and darker features, both watch a Disney movie about Dia de los Muertos and claim it as representation? Is it cultural appropriation to find our Indigenous roots and fold those traditions to our own? Can we claim the things we find as things we’ve lost? 

At-home DNA testing gave us some answers, but it also reinforced our feeling of watching a culture on the other side of what we know, with our noses pressed up to the glass, pushed there by whiteness attempting to shove us in that direction—claiming we belong there. We look like them. 

We know the question—“What are you?"—will still come. We know we still don’t have an answer, but we’re not done looking, and when my nephew, primed by the questions he’ll field and not understand, comes home and asks what he is, I’m going to tell him he’s beautiful. 


Family, Identity, Race


2 comments have been posted.

Thank you for sharing your story. I too have "Mexican" heritage and am looking for the long lost tribe to which the maternal lineage belongs.

Alison Guzman | August 2020 |

The why your write speaks to My soul your an amazing Journalist I can’t wait to read your first book.

Jesus andrade | August 2020 | Jefferson, Or

Related Stories