Sunday, December 11, 2011

Review of Erin Siegal’s ‘Finding Fernanda’

Posted on Sun, Dec. 11, 2011

Review of Erin Siegal’s ‘Finding Fernanda’

By Michael Deibert

The Miami Herald

Finding Fernanda: Two Mothers, One Child, and a Cross-Border Search for Truth.

Erin Siegal.


300 pages.


(Read the original review here)

The debut book by journalist and photographer Erin Siegal has a mystery at its core: What happened to the two young daughters of an impoverished Guatemala woman named Mildred Alvarado, one of whom was literally snatched from her mother’s womb?

But the book — comprised of heavy-duty investigative reporting and compelling personal testimony — also examines another mystery: How could so many people in Guatemala and the United States turn a blind eye for so long to an industry that, far from being motivated by the altruistic urge to unite needy children with loving families, has become a world where adults dole out children like cards from a deck and view their young lives as little more than a commodity to be exploited?

Siegal does a compelling job of sketching out the drumbeat of poverty and fear, born of economic and criminal violence, that makes up the daily lives of so many Guatemalans today, 15 years after a peace agreement ended a 30-year civil war in which some 200,000 people died. Siegal also delves with considerable expertise into Guatemala’s labyrinthine and often corrupt legal system, painstakingly outlining its connections with U.S. organizations, some legitimate and some not.

Early on in the book, then-U.S. ambassador to Guatemala Prudence Bushnell — a diplomat who flits in and out of history from Rwanda to Kenya to Guatemala — warns in a prescient February 2002 memo that if the United States did not “come up with resources to investigate the suspicious (adoption) cases in a timely manner . . . [the U.S. could be] accused of abetting baby trafficking.”

The advice was largely ignored, with the behavior of U.S. embassy staff in Guatemala appearing alternately ham-handed and heartless as Alvarado tries to recover her children. Lax oversight by the Florida Department of Children and Families of the overseas adoption practices of companies operating in the state completes a picture of indifference to the children at the center of the adoption industry. Some practices were allowed to function long after red flags had been raised about criminal conduct.

This pattern continues even in the face of a report by the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG), a United Nations-mandated body charged with investigating criminal organizations, that between 2008 and 2010 only 10 percent of children who left Guatemala for adoption were legal orphans.

Some of the details of the dark side of the industry in Guatemala — houses where pregnant women are kept while waiting to give birth, nurseries where children waiting to be adopted are given borderline-starvation levels of sustenance — are Dickensian in their cruelty. But the tone of the book is, perhaps surprisingly, not despairing. Siegal brings welcome attention to the work of the Fundación Sobrevivientes (Survivor’s Foundation), a women’s rights organization founded by an ex-guerrilla, Norma Cruz, that has grown into one of the most important pillars of the country’s fragile civil society.

Upon finishing Finding Fernanda, one realizes that supporting of that very civil society, along with the work of bodies such as CICIG, will advance the cause of justice for victims such as Alvarado. Along with its moving personal story of a family torn asunder, Finding Fernanda can also be read as a call to action.

Michael Deibert is the author of the forthcoming Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair (Zed Books).

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