The earliest doubt of my lineage came in when my name was changed from Deborah to Denise.
I must have been 4 or 5 years old when my adoption was finalized and my name was changed. My adopted mother, Sol Maria, had custody of me since I was 2 weeks old, so I never knew anyone else as “Mami.” Mami had been a foster care mother for 20 years before I was born and she mothered four of her own children. I was supposed to be a temporary placement until my biological mother could clean herself up. Rafaela, my biological mother, had already lost custody of all her other children (the exact number I’m unsure of since this was all second hand information), so there wasn’t much hope for me. Mami had just turned 54 and was starting to think of slowing down and enjoying her golden years. Despite all of this, Mami fell in love with me and decided to make the move to adopt me. Startled by this, the agency and Mami’s kids adamantly discouraged her from making this decision by citing her age and what she would miss out on if she made this decision. Not easily dismayed, Mami pushed on and pursued the adoption.
As I look back, I am not sure what kept Mami devoted to adopting me since I was not an easy baby. My adopted brother Jimmy describes my piercing cries as I endured the withdrawals of the drugs that I was exposed to in the utero. He says that my mother would have to leave me alone to cry in my nursery since Mami couldn’t comfort me. Then, to add to the struggles with Rafaela, the court added the recommendation that Mami adopt my brother, Efrain, who had been born 17 months after me and my sister, Iliana, who had been born two years after that. By the time the adoption was finalized Iliana had barely turned 1.
All of these details were unknown to me because Mami had decided on a closed adoption and we left New York three years after the adoption was finalized. Since my name changed at around 4-5 years old, I hadn’t wondered much about my lineage. Despite having a different complexion and hair type, Mami squashed any doubts of her parentage with her love and devotion to us. She never let anyone share with us that we were adopted because she wanted us to feel loved and cherished. She feared that the news of our adoption would make us feel like less and it would rob her of her place as our mother.
Then, towards my final years in elementary school, I started to become aware of my mother’s advanced age. People would look bewildered when they would hear about my mother’s age and kids would tell us that Mami was their grandparent’s age. We were also darker than Mami and the rest of our family, so that made others question us, which resulted in doubts planted in my head about our biological ties to Mami. In spite of all of these things, Mami affirmed her love for us and was quick to remind us that our color was the same as hers just a different shade, so we weren’t so different after all.
Despite her reassurance, I still had my doubts, so I went before Mami and said, “Mami, are we adopted?” Mami was in the kitchen serving us rice and she put down the pot and said firmly, “No, and don’t say such stupid things. You guys are my children.” She seemed upset, so I didn’t push it and I sat down with my siblings and ate dinner. Mami, who had been in the living room, had come in with my birth certificate and put it on the table for me to examine. “Look, read your birth certificate. Who do you see listed as your mother?” she said upset, but not angry. I scanned the document and saw her name listed where it said mother, but no name was present where my father’s name was. ”It says Sol Maria Gonzalez” I said relieved and I smiled looking at her. “See, so please stop asking such stupid questions,” Mami said and with that she swiftly picked up my birth certificate. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to keep the truth from us and when I was 15 a family friend revealed the truth to us.
The toughest part of finding out the truth was the emotions and revelations that came after. All of my doubts and feelings of unworthiness came rushing in and found validation in the truth of my adoption. While Mami reassured me of her love, I couldn’t help feeling unworthy. My unworthiness came from feeling like I wasn’t good enough to Rafaela to give up the drugs. I also felt the weight of being a burden to Mami. Despite the truth being out, Mami worked double to ensure that we knew we were loved even more than if we were her biological children because we were chosen. She told us, “I didn’t get to choose who came from my womb, but I did get to choose you all.”
Mami didn’t have an easy road with us. We all had ADHD and my brother was autistic. Mami spent endless hours in IEP meetings, counseling appointments, and administering medicine. In addition, she had to deal with our anger and emotional outbursts. It was really difficult for her to understand how to raise us and deal with us since none of her biological kids had learning disabilities or behavioral issues. Nevertheless, she was relentless and didn’t accept our limitations. She held her standards high and ran a tight ship. She gave us clear boundaries and expectations, so we never veered too far off and succumbed to the negative peer pressure around us.
When I graduated high school, Mami was diagnosed with brain cancer and she passed away my junior year of college. Since her death, I have become a teacher, my sister has become an office secretary and my brother is a manager at Walmart. Despite the multiple challenges we faced, each of us have been able to carve out a life for ourselves. Neither of us have had to depend on anyone or anything to sustain ourselves financially, and neither of us are on any drugs.
It is remarkable to think about how my mother’s tears and hard work produced three independent, hardworking adults who would have not stood a chance at life had we been left in foster care or with our biological mom. Now, we are able to give back and impact others through our lives. Mami’s life has shown me how great an impact one person can have regardless of age, race, or income.