The Birth of Juan Jose’

Juan Jose' and Crystel

Juan Jose’ and Crystel

The best part of Antonio’s name change was when Crystel stood up in the courtroom and said, “I want each of you to tell me something you like about me.” She stood confidently, her hand resting on the bar that divided the gallery from the well of the courtroom. She faced the nine people, including Antonio, who came to support his name change. Aunts, Uncles, Antonio and his girlfriend, were sitting with their back against the wall. She pointed to her Aunt Kathy. “Start there.”

This surprised and delighted me. She was asking for what she needed. And, in this moment what she needed was to know that she was as important as Antonio who within minutes would legally be named Juan Jose’.

She didn’t share his need to change her name. Her Guatemalan birth mother had told her that she named her Crystel.

 

Waiting for the judge.

Waiting for the judge.

The birth search and visit report that Jody and I had done in 2011 when her and Antonio were 9 years old said, Mayra (her birth mom) remembered exactly the date of Crystel’s birth. Most birth mothers do not, not for lack of interest but because dates are usually not important in Guatemala. She named her Crystel Rocio. Crystel because:  “I felt she was a little fragile thing as crystal, and Rocio (dew in English), because as I was walking the day I gave birth to her, it was cloudy and it had rained during the night, and I saw the leaves with drops of dew on them”.

When Jody and I adopted our children, we felt it was important that we keep the names that they were given at birth. We wanted to honor the birth mothers. At the time we didn’t know what their birth names would be and I fretted if I would be able to pronounce their Guatemalan given names. I refused to name my baby boy even though my social worker said that I could. I didn’t want to give him, one more thing that could be taken away from him. He was already losing his mother.

IMG_0425A few months later, we received the results of Antonio’s birth search. His birth mom, Rosa, was asked if she named Antonio. She said no, that she wanted to name him Juan Jose’ (Juan to honor her father and Jose’ to honor her grandfather), but the adoption people named him Antonio. Her father Juan died in 1982 during the Guatemalan Civil War. It is estimated that at least

5, 000 Mayans in the Rabinal area were massacred in 1981-1982. Rosa is indigenous and belongs to the Mayan Achi ethnia.

Ever since Antonio learned that Rosa wanted to name him Juan Jose’, he felt that was his real name.

Jody and I supported Antonio’s name change, nudged him even. We wanted to honor his heritage and his birth mother. We understood how central a name can be to a person’s identity. Both of us have changed our names.

A door opened. “All rise. This court is now in session. The honorable Judge Bernhardson, presiding.”

Just minutes before, Crystel had each person, including her brother and his girlfriend say something they liked about her.

What I witnessed that afternoon was two 13-year-olds asking for what they needed.

They’ll do well in the world, I thought. If a person can identify and then ask for what they need, they can navigate the road ahead of them. Jody and I have taught our children well.

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Renewing Passports for Children? Be Aware!

passport[1]

I woke up startled. Filled with dread.

“Jody, I didn’t make a copy of the kids’ citizenship papers.”

I sank into our mattress. “Remember, we never did get Crystel’s green card back.”

Antonio and Crystel’s citizenship papers were issued February 19, 2008. They were six years old.

When Crystel was nine she asked me if I wished I were white or brown, or Mexican or American or Guatemalan. I knew then that it was time that she saw her citizenship papers.

“You’re an American,” I told her. “You have a Welcome letter from President Bush.”

“Do I have a green card?”

2012 Lake Amatitlan, Guatemala

2012 Lake Amatitlan, Guatemala

“Well,” I said.

Climbing Volcano Pacaya in Guatemala was easier than gathering the 20 documents that were required for her citizenship. Her green card was among them.

I had laid the trail of documents on the floor because the table wasn’t large enough. I methodically checked off each requirement before placing the paperwork into the envelope to be mailed.

Antonio’s train of documents was next to hers.

Seems like losing government documents is not unheard of, maybe not even uncommon. When I explained to the Chicago Passport Agency that I didn’t receive Crystel’s green card back – which was a requirement for her passport – they must have believed me because they issued her a passport anyway for our first trip to Guatemala when she was 7.

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala 2014

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala 2014

Now, it would be logical to think that once you received a passport for your children that when it came up for renewal you could just show the about to be expired passport.

It’s never that easy.

Antonio, Crystel, and I arrived at the government office. Waited for our turn. An hour later, I learned that I needed Jody there as well as birth certificates, citizenship papers, etc….

While we were leaving one of the kids asked me why we needed Mama Jody. “So, they know that I’m not stealing you,” I told them.

Getting two parents and two teenagers together at one time can be challenging.

More challenging though and what will keep you up at night is if you don’t ask for a copy of everything that you turn over.

It might not come back.

The Perils of Being a Writer and Other Favorites

This month marks WordSisters’ three-year anniversary. To celebrate, we’re sharing a selection of blogs—our favorites and yours.

crazyquiltWe hope our new readers will enjoy getting to know us better. If you’ve been reading WordSisters from the beginning, we hope you’ll enjoy rediscovering some of our perspectives on parenting, families and relationships, working women, and the writing life.

On Losing My Ambition (Open Letter to 35-Year-Old Hiring Managers) 

My friend C. mentioned that after years of freelance writing, she was interviewing to be a marketing communications manager—a position she’s eminently qualified for. During the preliminary phone interview, the interviewer expressed concern that C. wouldn’t be satisfied with being a mid-level manager. We both burst out laughing and couldn’t stop. More

The Perils of Being a Writer

“I knew it,” she says. “I knew it! I knew you were going to say it one day!” She jumps up and runs out of the room.

“What!” I say, alarmed.

I look down at the writing on my laptop and immediately know what happened. There in black and white it says Antonio and Crystel aren’t my children….More

It’s a Good Day When I Kick Somebody in the Head

I started Tae Kwon Do, at Kor Am Tae Kwon Do School when I was 50 years old. Yes, it was an age thing, time to do something new, challenge myself, and show the world that I’m really not all that old. More

Competing with Friends for Writing Awards

Earlier this month, I applied for an Emerging Writer’s Grant and a Loft Creative Prose Mentorship, knowing full well that I’m competing with my good friends for these honors. I really want to win. So do the women in my creative nonfiction writers group. More

Your Moms Can Get Married Now

I imagine someone at school saying that to Antonio and Crystel and them responding, “Huh?” As far as they are concerned, we are already married, and Crystel, much to her chagrin, wasn’t a part of the wedding that we had before she and Antonio came home from Guatemala. She can hardly believe that we had a life before them. More

God Bless Middle-Aged Daughters

As I walk into the skilled nursing center where Mom is rehabilitating, I see other women like myself and think, “God bless middle-aged daughters.” We’re the sensible, competent women who make it all happen. More

When we launched this blog, we envisioned making new friends and sharing our perspectives. But the reality of our weekly conversations with you has exceeded our expectations. Thank you for reading WordSisters and sharing your thoughts!

What Was This Farm Girl Doing at AWP?

Ellen, Brenda, and Jill  Members of my Writing Group

Ellen, Brenda, Elizabeth and Jill
Members of my Writing Group

The Association of Writers and Writers Program (AWP) had their annual Conference and Bookfair this past weekend in Minneapolis and over 13,000 people attended, including me.

I could have left after the first panel discussion I attended: Stranger than Fiction: Personal Essay in the Age of the Internet. I got my money’s worth in the first hour of the four-day conference.

I heard, “What is our truth and are we doing that on the page?”

I heard, “I allow myself to be a person who can change.”

I heard, “Let’s put out shit that matters.”

Those few words gave me the courage to own my story in its entirety.

When asked what I write it was easy for me to say, memoir, adopting infants from Guatemala, raising them with another woman, etc…but I generally would not say the whole of it.

Fear of how people would see me was part of that.

But, no one else can tell my story.

My completed memoir manuscript, House of Fire, uses fire as a metaphor for the dysfunction in my family of 14 growing up on a Wisconsin farm. I interweave the incest that defined my childhood and teenage years with how I healed. The book describes how my partner, Jody and I, intentionally created a safe healthy family by adopting and raising two infants from Guatemala.

I’ve spent over thirty years working on myself to have my past not define me.

And, to that end, I’ve been successful.

I contain multitudes: the Tae Kwon Do black belt who is a goof who loves to spar at the Dojang, the mother of two twelve-year olds, the police reserve officer, the human resources manager, the soon to be Assistant Scoutmaster, the writer and author, and the woman who married her partner last August.

I’m also the woman who suffered repeated sexual abuse, who had a hushed-up abortion after I was impregnated at 14 by one of my brothers, who was pregnant again within a year by another brother, who gave up a son and never saw him again.

What I wanted most in my early twenties was to know that people could not only survive what I did, but heal and live a good life.

Now, my book, House of Fire, will help me be that person for others.

I didn’t go home after that first hour of the AWP conference. I remained among my tribe of 13,000 writers.

I also have another tribe who I hope to reach through the printed and spoken word.

Recipient of a Jerome Travel and Study Grant

Jerome_foundation newJody met me at the end of the driveway. In her hand she held a yellow envelope addressed to me.

Notifications on two prior occasions from the Jerome Foundation came by email: We’re sorry to inform you….

This was an envelope. A large envelope. I opened it slowly and carefully which isn’t my nature. Rejections don’t come in such packaging. This could only mean one thing.

As I pulled out the contents I realized that I’ve been a beneficiary of much goodness: wonderful teachers, mentors, my writing group, peers, friends, and family.

In November of 2012, participating in Mary Carroll Moore’s weekend workshop, “How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book,” at the Loft Literary Center, I understood for the first time what my book was about: A Woman’s Search to Be Seen. Using her W-shaped Storyboard and Three-Act Structure, I left her workshop with an outline and edited structure for my near completed manuscript. That weekend, I revised several chapters and was able to reach a new depth in my writing.

More importantly, I was excited about my writing and my book, HOUSE OF FIRE. I had been working for ten years on finding the right structure to tell my story.

guatemala-map[1]After applying and receiving a Next Step Grant funded by the McKnight Foundation, I attended a one-week writing retreat with Mary Carroll Moore at the Madeline Island School of Arts, September 2013 and participated in two twelve-week online classes – “Your Book Starts Here: Part 3.

Since winning the Loft mentorship, I have been working closely with mentor, Mark Anthony Rolo.

Under his tutelage, I enhanced the structure of my book to weave in my present story with back story. For example, on our flight to adopt Antonio and Crystel the sun is setting when the plane descends into the airspace above Guatemala City. Three large volcanoes dominate the horizon and I ruminate how both me and the Guatemalans were literally running from fire in 1974 when I was 15-years old.

And now, receiving a Jerome Travel and Study Grant allows me to travel to Guatemala to research indigenous Mayans and Mayan heritage to inform my memoir. I’m truly blessed. This trip is critical to finishing my book.

The trip is detailed field research on the traditions and history of Antonio’s and Crystel’s homeland. Besides the powerful emotional content intended for the last chapters, my visit will also provide insights that will enrich the whole manuscript.

Pacaya Volcano

Pacaya Volcano

Following Antonio and Crystel visit with their birthmothers we will travel by van to Panajachel and board a lancha to take us to Santa Cruz la Laguna, a small pueblo located on the northern coast of Lake Atitlan in Solola, Guatemala.

Situated half a mile above the shore on the mountainside it is home to indigenous Mayans.

Accessible only by rocky footpaths and lanchas, Santa Cruz is a virtual island on the mountainside.

Because of its isolated nature and small size, Santa Cruz is a great home base for our stay. We will be employing indigenous Mayan guides to explore small, traditional Mayan villages around the lake. The guides will be much more than guides as Antonio and Crystel will daily be seeing their own rich café au lait skin.

Santa Cruz la Laguna

Santa Cruz la Laguna

During our travel I will create a record of the voices, landscapes, and villages of the indigenous Mayans. Following my return home I will be able to create prose that truly draws its inspiration from the specific natural setting.

I’m lucky and grateful to have won a Next Step, Loft Mentorship, and Jerome Travel and Study Grant. Receiving these grants will help me complete HOUSE OF FIRE.

Antonio and Crystel, of course, understood the nuances of winning the Jerome Travel and Study Grant but it was Jody and I who were doing the HAPPY THANKFUL DANCE in the driveway.