By Alexandra Lucia-Miller
Colombia is a country that exceeded my expectations. It has a reputation as a dangerous and war-torn region that is unsafe for both travelers and citizens. However, on a life-changing pilgrimage this past year, I found peace and tranquility, a familiar sense of belonging, and a feeling of being welcomed to another home I had forgotten and taken too long to find again.
I was adopted when I was ten months old through La Casa de Maria y Los Niños in Medellin, Colombia. Sparked by a school project on ancestry when I was nine, I promised myself I would one day return to my native country to trace my roots and look for a biological family that I knew little about.
I grew up in suburban Connecticut. My life was filled with field trips and vacations, friends, birthday parties, sports, a dog, and a big backyard. While I had no issues with the realization that I was adopted, I always harbored a strong curiosity and unanswered questions about my identity and my Latino heritage. Looking around at friends’ parents, it was easy to recognize who resembled whom, which personality traits or physical features each of my friends received from their parents.
And while I will forever be grateful to my mom and dad who will always be the parents who gave me unconditional love and a life filled with opportunities I would not otherwise have, I always knew one day I would go looking for answers and visit the orphanage where I spent the earliest months of my life.
This curiosity remained with me as the years passed, college happened, post-graduate job application stress, and attempted full-time employment failures were all checked off the list. But during my first year of graduate school the questions of cultural identity resurfaced again. I realized that there was a huge piece of my life puzzle that was not clear, and I wanted to know that piece about me so I could keep moving forward. A few close friends, a former boyfriend, and even faculty advisors encouraged me not to delay tracing my lineage any longer. So this past April, I booked a ticket to Medellin.
A week before leaving, I confessed to friends that I didn’t know if I could make the journey I viewed as exhausting. I was afraid to feel so vulnerable. I was afraid to hit a dead end and never be able to find the biological parents that as a child I longed to hug. My friends did not know that as a child I sometimes imagined I would one day stumble upon them on the streets of Colombia.
But from the moment I stepped off the plane in Medellin, everything just felt right and amazing. The smell of fresh trees, pine, crisp air and wilderness filled my senses; the temperate climate and the warm smiles of everyone at the airport and on the streets were so welcoming. I knew there was no mistaking that I am definitely Colombian. Everyone there seemed to know I was a Paisa girl. (A Paisa is a girl from Medellin.)
I learned quickly that one thing about Colombians is they go out of their way to be friendly, generally will do anything to help you out and wait hand and foot over you. There’s a big saying in Colombia, that the only risk you run is you “won’t want to leave,” and I believe it.
For so many years, I had often wondered what it would be like to go back to the orphanage. Yet, I was not prepared for the emotion that enveloped me when I pulled up to La Casa de Maria y Los Niños. I swung open the taxi door and almost ran to the front door. It resembled a fortress, rather than the crumbling house I had imagined as a child (and which was the source of many nightmares). The main house of the building had large additions, an outdoor trampoline and basketball court.
I’ll never forget, however, the piercing sounds of the screaming infants inside. Having volunteered in a Nepal orphanage, I was accustomed to crying children. But the wailing of these babies seemed so familiar, yet so distant. Their cries sent chills through me because I heard myself in their cries: myself as a helpless baby. Their cries reminded me of when I was in their same position.
I was greeted by head caseworker Alba Lucia, (no relation, although I definitely entertained the possibility) who immediately remembered me once I told her my biological name: Marta Lucia Saldarriaga. She playfully reminisced about my curly brown hair and gold hoop earrings that I had as a baby, and we both shared laughs about my pudgy cheeks and rolls of baby fat. She then ushered me into a waiting room so she could track down my records.
My tears began as I soon as I looked around the room and saw the hundreds of pictures of children, most of whom like me had found homes in the United States, Europe and elsewhere around the world. It was strange to see their faces, knowing they and I were the fortunate ones who had had a bit of luck and a chance at a better life.
Looking around, there were moments when I felt as if I were watching the slow camera pan on a movie screen of a lost child who finally returned home. As Alba handed me the records, she made it clear that there wasn’t much information about me or my biological parents. She did have pictures of my American parents when they had traveled to Colombia for me. There were also baby pictures of me, updates of my progress in the United States, and a record that I was left at a hospital and a pseudo-foster mother who took me around the neighborhood to see if anyone would claim me. Even the likelihood of finding her was slim to none.
Over the next three days, I visited the orphanage several times and had the opportunity to feed the children, play with the babies who were barely two months old, and enjoy the antics of some of the school aged kids.
Most of my memory of that experience is still extremely emotional. I knew I was given a chance that was not intended to be in my cards as I was not the original baby my parents were supposed to adopt. (The Colombian government did not allow my parents to bring home the child originally assigned to them so I was selected for them.)
While I’m fortunate to be able to have received an amazing education and to have grown up in the United States, I couldn’t help but feel that these children were trapped. What would happen to them if they were not adopted? Where would they go? I started to cry and couldn’t stop; I had never felt so guilty, helpless – but yet knowing and thankful I had been so privileged.
As I cried that day, I thought of my parents back home in Connecticut, how they had endured the typical teen/parent drama and issues, and how they had sacrificed so much for me. I cried more and resolved to remember to say thank you more often and let them know more frequently that I loved them.
Looking back now, the promise I made to myself 15 years ago to return to my roots was worth the wait. I achieved the goal I set, to learn more about the missing piece of me and my culture. I learned so much about me in Colombia – the people there physically look like me. I felt an instant connection to them.
My trip this spring was just a first step in learning about another aspect of who I am. My search will always continue for my biological family. I want to know if I have any siblings, if we look alike, or if I look like my biological parents. I know it means perhaps years of searching records, looking through phone records and more, but it is part of the puzzle that makes up who I am.
Meanwhile, I will be spending this Thanksgiving with my Connecticut family, enjoying their love, and embracing my life here. My trip to Colombia this past spring taught me that I am indeed fortunate in so many ways. I am the product of two rich cultures, which opens up the world to me in so many ways. I learned I am blessed to be both American and Colombian.
By Alexandra Lucia-Miller