Navigating Today’s Complicated Landscape for Latinx Adoptees

by Stephanie Flores-Koulish

originally published 2018, excerpted 2023

Recently, we heard the news of a Border Patrol agent asking two women at a Montana gas station for identification after the agent heard them speaking Spanish to each other. Social media also helped to spread the video of Manhattan attorney Aaron Schlossberg ridiculing and threatening to call ICE on two Latinx people speaking Spanish in a New York City café. Schlossberg assumed that they were in the U.S. without documents. And now, we are hearing the horrible news of so many Latinx children at our border being separated from their parents and some even getting lost. For a few years now, our black brothers and sisters have been sharing videos and stories of being “stopped while black.” More and more often now, as anti-immigrant anger and resentment burn brighter, we are seeing the equivalent of being “stopped while brown.” Eager ICE agents are engaging in cowboy-like techniques to promote fear and divisiveness, and it is working. I and other Latinx adoptees cannot help but feel connected to these targeted individuals, despite the fact that our own life circumstances diverged dramatically from theirs. Many Latinx adoptees are experiencing heightened stress right now, because we see ourselves in other Latinx immigrants, as do others.

It’s difficult being a brown person in these United States today, and it is of utmost importance that white families who love their Latinx children understand this better. News stories like the ones above have rippling effects on our psyche, even to the point of producing survivor guilt. We realize at a deep level that any of these individuals above could have been us.

I am an adult Latinx adoptee and mom to my own three children. I can palpably feel that the emotional impact on my kids that today’s challenges present and how profoundly different they are from what I experienced in my white and Black working-class neighborhood as a child. Four years ago I interviewed 16 adult Latinx adoptees for a research project to learn more about our similarities and differences. Our collective stories as Latinx adoptees are important to share, even if they emerge from what now seem to be gentler times in our nation that we, in some ways, look back on with nostalgia. Not only did I hear echoes of my own past from these fellow Latinx adoptees, I also heard a general collective solidarity that we all feel for our Latinx brethren, especially those who are most marginalized: recently-arrived Latinx immigrants and especially the most vulnerable, those who are undocumented.

Even when remembering those so-called gentler times, adoptees told me stories of being repeatedly pulled over by the police in their upper-middle-class Midwestern neighborhoods, considered suspicious simply for being in predominantly white communities. Another Latinx adoptee shared that he was called “basket weaver” by his high school peers on the school bus, after they had studied the art of Latin America in their social studies class. When we are out and about, alone and with our mouths closed, no one knows our story. We are judged by our façade, and today, our façade is viewed suspiciously, and even with fear and disdain, by many more people than ever before—and those who stand in negative judgment feel emboldened and safe to speak their harsh, racist opinions. Once we open our mouths, we are often suddenly treated differently, but for me, and for others with whom I spoke, this privileged treatment feels unearned and unfair—unfair to our Latinx brothers and sisters.

Many of the Latinx adoptees with whom I spoke question why it is that some immigrants (like us) can be treated differently from other immigrants simply because of the way we entered the U.S., and the languages we speak. Perhaps this is one of the (other) reasons we find ourselves yearning for solidarity with other Latinx people, to offer some of our privilege while learning some of our history. Despite the passes we receive for our cultural comfort and connections with white mainstream society, most Latinx adoptees with whom I spoke feel, like I do, an affinity to other Latinx immigrants and marginalized members in society. But oftentimes I found that adoptive parents see us as separate from, and sometimes superior to, our Latinx brethren—we are viewed as the “chosen” ones. Specifically, I heard that our adopted parents sometimes tried to avoid and intentionally distance us from understanding the gritty realities of white privilege and historical colonialism, and instead, offer us the “tourist curriculum,” a less-controversial introduction to cultural aspects of Latinidad, like food, festivals, and Latinx arts. But if my research sample is representative, many of us have wanted more, and have found ourselves drawn to those who are marginalized in society; some of us even wrestle with and become critical of white privilege.

This is not unlike what adoptee Colin Kaepernick has taken on as a cause, the recognition that his African American brethren are suffering under a system of inequity and implicit bias. He has tried to raise awareness of the disconnect between what is happening here in America and what we say we stand for as a democratic society. Look where that has gotten him: he is embraced for his courage by many, especially by African Americans, but he is vilified by white people who feel that he is desecrating nationalistic symbols, leading to his unemployment in the NFL. I myself look at this fellow transracial adoptee with admiration, not only for his actions, but for the ways that he has reclaimed his culture of origin, and especially the way that he has been embraced by that culture.

Like Latinx adoptees who have stories of being shunned by other Latinx immigrants for their lack of cultural and language competencies, it’s possible that at times Kaepernick experienced being rejected by other African Americans as not “black enough.” Just as I assume Colin Kaepernick experienced the complications of navigating his dual identities, I know it is a challenge for Latinx adoptees caught between two worlds: the white world of their adoptive families, and the Latinx world, which today is in a near-existential crisis given the political flames surrounding immigration.

Language, for Latinx adoptees, is another crucial but complicated issue. For Latinx adoptees, language plays a big part in our connecting with or remaining disconnected from our culture of origin. Out of the group of Latinx adoptees with whom I spoke, only two felt completely at ease in their abilities to integrate with other Latinx immigrants in Spanish. The rest had varying levels of Spanish competence, with many expressing unease with speaking Spanish casually, myself included. When we’ve encountered other Latinx immigrants, we felt—and sometimes actually were—judged negatively, given the disconnect between our abilities and the expectations created by our façades. That experience seemed to become a barrier to our language advancement, thus continuing an ongoing separation.

Adoptive families can play their part by gently encouraging their Latinx children to explore the depths of Latinx culture, the specific culture of their countries of origin, their home language, and the collective strengths and concerns of other Latinx people. In addition, it is of utmost importance for white adoptive families to own up to the historic legacy of racism and white supremacy in the United States. Don’t be afraid of exposing your child to the underside of this society; it’s no longer “under,” but instead, it’s already in our faces, literally and figuratively. We cannot deny it; you shouldn’t either. And whether adopted or otherwise, we should all continue to do our parts as anti-racists to keep Latinx history, families, and culture strong and proud.

Stephanie A. Flores-Koulish, Ph.D, is a Professor and Director of Curriculum and Instruction at Loyola University Maryland, where she teaches teachers coursework in curriculum theory, race, class, and identities, and research methods. She has published research on media literacy education and Latinx adopted identity.

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