Translation – Tell Me Who I Am
[Daniel Alarcón]: OK, I’d like introduce you to…
[Osmin Tovar]: My name is Osmin Ricardo Tobar Ramírez.
[Daniel]: And you may not be able to tell from that bit of audio, but you’re going to notice that he speaks a somewhat peculiar kind of Spanish. You’ll understand why later, but believe me when I say it’s important for this story. For his story.
So, in 1997, on January 9th, Osmin was 7 years old. He is living in “Las Vacas,” a modest neighborhood in Guatemala City. That day…
[Osmin]: My mom was working because we need food, we need to pay rent.
[Daniel]: He was with his brother, who was just over a year old. The three of them lived in a rented room.
[Osmin]: We didn’t have a lot, but we were surviving, you know?
[Daniel]: And that morning they were…
[Osmin]: With a… a young woman who lived across the hall from us.
[Daniel]: It was a woman that took care of them, from time to time, when Osmin’s mom was at work.
[Osmin]: And that day was normal: I got up, I was happy, I was playing.
[Daniel]: At 10 in the morning —not long after Osmin’s mother left the house— the woman who was with them disappeared and agents from the Office of the National Procurator General showed up.
[Osmin]: And they tell me we’re going to leave. And he promised I was going to come back later so I just went with him.
[Daniel]: Osmin says that the agents didn’t say mean things to him or hit him at any point. In fact, he says he remembers they were nice, friendly people.
But when they left the house, they loaded the two boys into a white car. They didn’t tell them where they were going or explain anything.
[Osmin]: It was all very fast. I didn’t have time to process what was happening.
[Daniel]: Moreover, processing the events of that day would take him years. What we do know is that Osmin and his brother would not return home.
[Osmin]: I’ll carry the day I left with me for my whole life.
[Daniel]: Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Luis Fernando Vargas, our assistant editor, brings us this story.
[Luis Fernando Vargas]: First you need to understand this: Osmin and his brother actually lived in a very unstable situation. Not just because the whole family lived in one room, but also because they didn’t have food to eat a lot of the time. On top of that, Osmin wasn’t going to school regularly and his mother —who had problems with alcohol and drugs— would get violent sometimes and hit him. Osmin’s dad had gone to Mexico to work years earlier and they didn’t see him very often.
The minor’s court had received an anonymous report of child abuse two weeks earlier. That’s why Osmin and his brother were taken away. That same afternoon, officers from the Procurator General placed them in a home with the Children of Guatemala Association, with the promise that they would go back home soon.
[Osmin]: Since we were kids, we didn’t really understand what was happening, you know? We just wanted to play. We wanted friends. We wanted to talk to other kids.
[Luis Fernando]: But days went by and both of the boys were still there. Osmin doesn’t remember if he ever asked for his mom. He assumes he missed her —like any child would miss their mother— even though he doesn’t have bad memories of those days at the home.
[Osmin]: I was happy, you know?
[Luis Fernando]: Maybe it was because they treated him well: no shouting, no hitting. And they even had things that for him were luxuries.
[Osmin]: There was a Nintendo and a dog.
[Luis Fernando]: Besides, he could distract himself by playing with dozens of other kids. He was far from his mom, yes, but in a lot of ways, his life at the shelter was better.
After a few weeks, the staff at the home finally told Osmin that he and his brother were going to stay there. That they were going to take care of them. They also stopped calling him Osmin.
[Osmin]: They called me Rico.
[Luis Fernando]: The nickname for his middle name, Ricardo.
[Osmin]: My whole life it was Rico, Rico, Rico. So I got used to that name.
[Luis Fernando]: Today, out of conviction, he asks to be called Osmin. Later on, you’ll understand why.
Some time later —Osmin doesn’t know how long— his brother was adopted.
He remembers that they told him they were taking him to the United States. His new parents were from there.
[Osmin]: The gringos want babies. Kids less than a year old. Uh, so it was easier for him to find a family.
[Luis Fernando]: Because an 18-month-old hasn’t learned a whole language. They have little to no memory at that age. They’re almost like a blank slate.
But Osmin —being 7— already spoke Spanish and even more importantly…
[Osmin]: I remember my mom, her face.
[Luis Fernando]: In other words, he had a past that —as short as it had been— would mark him for the rest of his life.
Now, without his brother, Osmin was transferred to another shelter. It was very different from the first. It wasn’t a good place for him. For example, when he was nervous or upset, he would put clothes in his mouth. And instead of calming him down or consoling him, they punished him.
[Osmin]: They wanted to make me stop doing what I was doing, so they would hit me with belts, sticks. I was never bad. I never… As far as I can remember, you know, I always listened to people. I always… I didn’t know why they were treating me like that.
[Luis Fernando]: He started to wonder when he was going to have a new family.
[Osmin]: Why didn’t anyone want to come for me, you know? Kids came and left; kids came and left.
[Luis Fernando]: Things weren’t looking good for Osmin. Every day that passed at the children’s home, his chances of being adopted went down. And when he came of age —according to the institution’s rules— he would have to leave. He would be left without a bed to sleep on or a roof over his head. And without knowing how to contact his mom. Completely alone.
They transferred him to a third home. There, the staff put Osmin in charge of a two-year-old: Eric.
Well, “in charge” in a manner of speaking. He was more like an older brother. They slept together, they played together. Osmin remembers that Eric was always walking behind him, for example.
And Eric is the reason Osmin didn’t end up on the streets but ended up with a family in the US instead.
[Osmin]: If he hadn’t been at the home and I hadn’t taken care of him, who knows where I would be today.
[Luis Fernando]: I’ll explain.
Eric was supposed to be adopted in 1996, when he was a newborn, by the Borz family. The Borzes were from Pittsburgh, in the US, and had lost their only biological child when he was only nine years old. He died in a seizure. They tried to have another child but they couldn’t, despite undergoing fertility treatment.
A friend had adopted a Guatemalan baby and told them about how much poverty there was in the country. And how few opportunities the children in the shelters had.
So, the Borzes decided that adopting in Guatemala was the right thing to do, and that was how they’d be able to make a family again.
The couple was going to adopt Eric along with a girl who was also Guatemalan. They didn’t have any difficulties adopting the girl, but that wasn’t true with Eric. The Office of the Procurator General suspected that Eric’s mom had sold him, so there was a whole pending legal issue that kept the Borzes from taking him.
While they were waiting for the legal process to clear up, the Borzes kept in touch to make sure the boy was ok. That was when Eric arrived at the shelter where Osmin was.
Some friends who were also adopting in Guatemala went to the shelter and told them they had seen Eric, that he was fine and that there was an older boy —Osmin— who was always with him.
And according to Osmin, the Borzes’ friends told them about his situation. They told them that:
[Osmin]: He has a great purpose, but he needs a family and he’s already older. And if he stays any longer, he’ll end up on the street.
[Luis Fernando]: When the Borzes asked about Osmin, the agency offered them a discount if they took him too. A kind of two for one.
And that’s how Osmin got to the United States.
Osmin met his new parents in August 1998.
[Osmin]: It was nighttime. The owner of the children’s home introduced me to my, my parents. And the first thing I did was run and my dad hugged me and said: “I’m going to be your dad and she… she’s going to be your mom.”
[Luis Fernando]: The Borzes spoke basic Spanish: “¿Cómo estás? ¿qué quieres?” They couldn’t really have a conversation with Osmin, but he didn’t care.
[Osmin]: I was very happy that someone wanted to love me, you know? I didn’t know where I was going, but I knew that I was going to have parents.
[Luis Fernando]: The couple came with clothes for the two boys: shirts and baseball caps and pants. They took them out to eat at a restaurant. They stayed in a hotel. Osmin remembers that the staff at the home brought their friends over to say goodbye.
[Osmin]: Yes, I was really excited, you know? Because all of the kids came to the hotel and I was there and they hugged me and everything.
[Luis Fernando]: And the next day, they went to the airport and got on a plane to Pittsburgh.
Osmin’s new parents were teachers and they lived in a suburb.
[Osmin]: And when we were in the car I looked out at all the nice things. Big houses and nice streets. I had never seen things like that.
[Luis Fernando]: For him it was new and exciting. And when he got out of the car, he saw his new house.
[Osmin]: I remember I ran up to the house and went in and they said: “This is your house. This… everything here is yours.” And the first thing I did was go to the toys.
[Luis Fernando]: There were a lot. On top of that, the house had a pool, a big kitchen and a special room for toys. It was the exact opposite of the limited life he had had with his mom and his brother, in a single room, in Guatemala.
Of the three children the Borzes adopted, Osmin was the only one who was old enough to go to school. In Guatemala, he hadn’t gone to school regularly. But at one of the shelters he had taken classes from a teacher. So they enrolled him in the second grade. He was 9.
And that’s when the problems started.
Since Osmin didn’t know any English, he was sent back to the first grade and he was assigned a special teacher who went with him to all of his classes. They sat behind all the other kids. She spoke Spanish and her job was to translate the material Osmin was seeing for him and try to teach him English.
[Osmin]: She was very patient with me. And after that I would go back home and my parents would help me.
[Luis Fernando]: But for him, understanding practically nothing was frustrating.
[Osmin]: When I wanted to feel like everyone else, they set me apart. A different teacher would take me. So, I didn’t feel normal, you know? No one understood me.
[Luis Fernando]: And he started trying to call attention to himself, so people would understand that he wasn’t happy.
[Osmin]: I would yell and fight and I would go out and run around because I didn’t know how to communicate in another way.
[Luis Fernando]: Despite all the help, he was doing poorly in school but not just academically. Being different always tends to draw looks from people. Especially children. For years, Osmin was the only brown person with typical Guatemalan features in his class.
[Osmin]: I only saw white people. I was always the smallest. The skinniest. So they could mess with me, you know? Because I couldn’t speak English.
[Luis Fernando]: And for someone like Osmin, who just wanted to fit in, to become invisible, to disappear, this was a nightmare.
[Osmin]: What could I do, you know? The only thing I could do was fight with them.
[Luis Fernando]: And that’s what he did. He would fight and get in trouble at school. And that started to affect his relationship with his adoptive parents.
When he arrived in the US, he went through some tough changes. We already talked about the language, which is the most obvious. But there are others that we tend to not pay much attention to. It’s just that there is a cavernous divide between the life of a poor boy in Guatemala and that of a middle-class suburban child in the United States.
In Guatemala, it’s a struggle to survive. Day by day. In the United States, people were concerned about doing well in school and trying to have a better future.
And Osmin brought the habits that helped him survive in Guatemala to his new life in the US. It was a case of culture shock. For example, when he lived with his biological mother, a lot of the time he didn’t have food to eat at home. And on the days when he did…
[Osmin]: I hoarded the food because I didn’t know that there would be to eat the next day, you know? So, I had that and when I went to the United States, I did the same thing: I kept my food under my bed. When I was hungry in the middle of the night or early in the morning, I got out of bed to get my food.
[Luis Fernando]: That made his adoptive parents uncomfortable. They didn’t know who to deal with that, so they scolded him.
[Osmin]: Then, I would start shouting. Then I would start to say: “You’re not my mom, you’re not my parents.” And it was a really bad time. I was always mad. I was mad at them.
[Luis Fernando]: They decided to take him to a psychologist in order to find a solution.
[Osmin]: And she told me I had a problem. And I started taking pills to calm me down. I didn’t understand. I don’t know, I just felt like I wasn’t normal. I thought I was sick.
[Luis Fernando]: The fights between Osmin and his parents were breaking down their relationship.
[Osmin]: I was always crying. I cried every night.
[Luis Fernando]: He felt like a stranger in that place, in that family.
[Osmin]: I had a lot of problems, so I think they… They felt something, because I wasn’t calm. No. I wasn’t the boy they wanted.
[Luis Fernando]: And that’s how he started to idealize his life in Guatemala. Life with his mom. His memories of being hit and the times she came home drunk started to feel like minor issues compared to how he was feeling now. On top that, he hadn’t seen his mom in a long time. What if she had changed since they had taken him away?
[Osmin]: I just wanted to go back to my mom, where I couldn’t go.
[Daniel]: And that was Osmin, an upset and unhappy boy, until early 2002. He was 12 years old when his adoptive family got a call from journalist from Newsweek magazine. He was looking into adoptions in Guatemala and suspected that Osmin could be a stolen child. That would change everything.
Well be back after the break…
[Ad]: Support for this NPR podcast and the following message come from Squarespace. If you’re ready to start your new business, get a unique domain and create a beautiful website with the help of 24/7 award-winning customer support. Head to Squarespace.com/RADIO for a free trial and when you’re ready to launch, use the offer code RADIO to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. Keep dreaming. But make it a reality. With a website from Squarespace.
[Ad]: For more than 20 years, Larry Nassar, a former doctor in the US olympic gymnastics team, abused the women and girls that came to him to receive treatment. A new English podcast investigates how this sexual predator got away with it for so long. It’s called Believed and it’s produced by Michigan Radio and NPR.
[Hidden Brain]: Why does wearing red shoes make you seem more influential? What happens to the relationship with your neighbors when you live near a park? Is it possible to use a dog training method for dogs… to train doctors? The answers to these and other questions in Hidden Brain, an NPR podcast.
[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante, I’m Daniel Alarcón.
So, the journalist who contacted Osmin’s adoptive parents was named Alan Zarembo and he suspected that Osmin was the victim of an illegal adoption.
It turns out Casa Alianza —an NGO that works with homeless children and children affected by human-trafficking— was helping Osmin’s biological parents to look for their children.
During those years, more than 90 percent of adopted Guatemalan children were brought to other countries. And the vast majority of them ended up in the United States.
So Casa Alianza contacted several US journalists —including Alan Zarembo— and explained the situation to them. Osmin’s biological parents said that their children had not been abandoned, and that the minor’s court had taken them away unjustly, without exhausting every legal option.
Luis Fernando Vargas continues the story.
[Luis Fernando]: Before the call from Zarembo, the Borzes had gotten calls from other journalists. They refused to talk to any of them. They didn’t want the case to go public. But the couple was also following Casa Alianza’s publications in Guatemala about Osmin and his brother’s case, and they thought it would be a good idea to defend themselves. They were upset that others would think they had done something illegal. So the agreed to be interviewed.
The journalist traveled to Pittsburgh to visit the Borzes in their home. They let him talk to Osmin and he told him that his parents were still alive. He even brought a picture of them.
[Osmin]: And I cried when he told me that they were still alive. And he told me they were fighting to get me back. He asked me a lot of questions. He asked me if I wanted to see them again.
[Luis Fernando]: Osmin said he did. He wanted to see his mom again.
I wanted to talk to the adoptive parents, but since it’s a sensitive subject for them, Osmin asked them for me. They chatted on Facebook messenger. They turned down the interview but they gave us permission to share the texts they sent.
[Luis Fernando]: When he asked them why they didn’t want to be interviewed, they said the following:
“We don’t want any kind of publicity. We just wanted to build a family and we were assured that everything was legal on our end. It made us very uncomfortable when the man from Newsweek showed up and we didn’t like the story he published. We hope things are well with you, but we did our best to love you and make sure you were all ok.”
His sister and Eric, Osmin’s brother, weren’t interested in talking to us either.
Once he interviewed the Borzes, the journalist traveled to Guatemala to meet Osmin’s biological parents. This is Gustavo Tobar Fajardo, his biological father.
[Gustavo Tobar]: And he tells us: “Your son is fine. Here I have pictures and everything.” At the time we were looking for him using his original name from here, right? So, he told us that he was going by a different name than he had here. He had already been adopted to another nationality, and he had another name. He brought all the information.
[Luis Fernando]: Osmin was legally named Ricardo William Borz. And, like in the children’s home, they called him Rico.
But the biological parents didn’t try to contact the Borzes because…
[Gustavo]: We were afraid they would move from where Osmin was.
[Luis Fernando]: And lose the trail. After all, the Borzes were in another country, which had different laws. The adoption had already been processed and they didn’t really know if it was possible to bring Osmin back to Guatemala.
So, if they didn’t manage to find a way, they were going to wait. For a long time, seven years. Until Osmin came of age, by that time…
[Gustavo]: We could talk to him and he could make his own decisions.
[Luis Fernando]: And that’s what they did.
In order to understand what was wrong with Osmin and his brother’s adoption, we need to go back to the moment this story began, on January 9th, 1997. We’ve already heard what Osmin went through. What we haven’t heard is what his parent went through.
At 10 am, agents from Office of the Procurator General arrived at the house and took the children away. Osmin’s mom found out a few hours later when her partner at the time went to tell her at work.
Osmin’s mom went home right away. There was no one there when she got there. Not even the woman who was supposed to be taking care of the boys. All she found was a note the agents had left behind.
[Flor Ramírez]: The note said that the Office of the Procurator General had come to take the children away because of a call that had been made. That’s all it said.
[Luis Fernando]: This is Flor Ramírez, Osmin’s mom.
[Flor]: And for anything else to go to Office of the Procurator General. And I did: I went to the minor’s court and I went to the Office of the Procurator General. They didn’t give me any information.
[Luis Fernando]: They didn’t tell her where her children were or how to contact them. So, not knowing what to do, she turned to the Archbishop of Guatemala for help.
[Flor]: The Archbishop of Guatemala’s social worker immediately got a lawyer. They helped me. They directed me to Casa Alianza. Then Casa Alianza got a private investigator and they started from there.
[Luis Fernando]: They started a very complicated legal process. It was full of hearings and appeals and it lasted eight months. Flor wasn’t able to see her children at any point. The court didn’t even tell her where they were.
[Flor]: I was desperate. I had no idea what to do.
[Luis Fernando]: She spent the little money she had on legal fees. Casa Alianza helped with the rest.
[Flor]: Because I said: “I don’t care about the money.” What I cared about was getting my children back. That was what I needed.
[Luis Fernando]: Finally, in August 1997 —eight months after her children were taken away— the minor’s court concluded that Flor, her mother and Osmin’s godparents were not financially or emotionally stable enough to take care of Osmin and his brother. So they declared them abandoned and closed the case.
The decision was based on a few reports that the court requested from the first children’s home that housed the boys. Those reports contained anonymous testimonies from neighbors that stated that Flor beat her children, that they sometimes didn’t have food and that she wasn’t sending Osmin to school every day.
And the problem is that it appears the whole process was based on those anonymous testimonies. There is no record of a medical exam to verify if the claims were true, if the boys were malnourished or had experienced physical abuse. In other words, there was no due process.
On top of that, another irregularity in the adoption process was that neither the children’s home nor the minor’s court tried to contact Osmin’s biological father, Gustavo, who legally had the right to battle for custody. Despite the fact that he left Flor when Osmin was a newborn and he had a distant relationship with his son.
Osmin’s brother’s situation was different, because Gustavo isn’t his biological father.
Gustavo lived in Mexico for several years and returned to Guatemala toward the end of 1998. He tried to find his son to reconnect with him, but his former partner didn’t live at the same place anymore. A few days later, he contacted Osmin’s maternal grandmother and she told him:
[Gustavo]: “Listen, they took the boy from Flor.”
[Luis Fernando]: It had happened months earlier. Gustavo petitioned for a remedy for amparo [a legal remedy for the protection of one’s constitutional right] so he could be considered for custody. He was also claiming that the mother had made appeals that were not settled before the case was closed.
Gustavo won the remedy for amparo. But he was surprised to find that, by that time, Osmin had been in the United States for half a year and Flor hadn’t even been informed.
Because of those procedural infractions, Flor and Gustavo believe the children were victims of one of the illegal adoption networks. These were organized groups that included all kinds of people.
[Eric Maldonado]: Notaries, judges, agents from the Office of the Procurator General, midwives, doctors, etcetera.
[Luis Fernando]: This is Eric Maldonado, the legal director of the organization Refugio de la Niñez [Children’s Sanctuary], which is a watchdog group focusing on children’s rights in situations of violence. They examined Osmin’s case and helped the family.
These networks connected orphanages with hospitals, the minor’s court and the police to get children and put them up for adoption illegally.
[Eric]: It was a whole framework for an activity that obviously became very lucrative.
[Luis Fernando]: By the late 90s, adopting a baby —legally or otherwise— could cost a foreign family between 12 and 80 thousand dollars, according to different reports.
A study done by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala estimates that between 1977 and 2008 more than 30 thousand Guatemalan children were put up for adoption. Ninety-nine percent of cases were like Osmin’s: A process carried out by a private notary and not by the minor’s court.
This was serious. It allowed adoptions to work like a business: A process more concerned with profit than protecting orphans or abandoned children.
By law, notaries could carry out adoption procedures with minimal state supervision. From conducting investigations to petitioning the declaration of abandonment of a child, to handing them over to the adoptive parents.
[Eric]: This allowed there to be no control other than the public’s faith in the notary.
[Luis Fernando]: In other words, the notary’s word was enough for the minor’s court to approve the process.
[Eric]: And the result was that, effectively, a series of violations of the law were perpetrated.
[Luis Fernando]: In the networks there were also the “jaladores” or “enganchadores” [snatchers or hook-men]. Those were the people who got the children who were going to be put up for adoption. Either by kidnapping them, tricking the parents or even buying them from poor families. Osmin’s parents think that the woman who was taking care of the boys was one of these “jaladoras,” and that she was the one who filed the report in exchange for money.
[Flor]: From the moment my children disappeared, I said: “She must have been responsible, because they were in her care.”
[Luis Fernando]: Osmin doesn’t remember if the woman was there or not when they came to take him away, but a report from the Office of the Procurator General says the boys were alone.
There are other reasons to suspects that Osmin’s adoption was not legal. The boys were admitted to the home of the Children of Guatemala Association, where the owner, Susana Luarca, was sentenced in 2014 to 18 years in prison for human trafficking.
[Flor]: They were what gave me life. I was in agony that whole time. Every day I got on my knees and I would say: “Lord, that it be you who gives my children back to me, that it be you who is keeping them safe wherever they are.” I put them in God’s hands. I would say: “God, give me the strength to recover my children. I don’t care if I’m old woman with a cane, I want to see my children.”
[Luis Fernando]: Let’s go back to 2002. The day the journalist from Newsweek visited the Borzes’ house in the United States. That day was foundational in Osmin’s life, who was barely 12 years old.
[Osmin]: That day he interviewed me and told me things. That day I got up and said: “I’m going to look for my mom. I’m going to seek out my roots. I’m going to seek out my culture. I’m leaving. I’m leaving.”
[Luis Fernando]: In the following years, he took advantage of the time he had alone at home to look for the adoption papers.
[Osmin]: And I looked and I looked and I looked, but I couldn’t find anything.
[Luis Fernando]: And many nights, when his parents were asleep, Osmin turned on the computer, got on the internet and…
[Osmin]: Searched my mom’s name and searched my dad’s name. But no, no, no… I didn’t know. There was no information on them. Just the same stuff. Just the same.
[Luis Fernando]: Just the article in Newsweek. And a few news stories from Guatemala about the case. But no way of contacting his parents. There was no social media at the time and they didn’t have access to computers or email.
When he talked to the Borzes about the adoption…
[Osmin]: They never wanted to talk to me about those things. They never showed me the papers. It was always like: “You can’t come in here. You can’t see this information.”
[Luis Fernando]: And as he got older, Osmin continued to have problems. He also became addicted to drugs and alcohol.
In October of 2009, Osmin was 20 years old and going to college. By then there was social media and Gustavo, Osmin’s biological father…
[Gustavo]: Well we started looking for him on social media, right? By the name he was supposed to have there, right? So, all of a sudden I remember the magazine and there it said: “Rico Borz.” So, from there I started looking for him in the search engine. There were a lot, right? So, I friend requested all of them.
[Luis Fernando]: He wrote each of them asking if they were from Guatemala. And one day, when Osmin was in his dorm at school, after a class…
[Osmin]: I opened my laptop and went on Facebook. And there was a message. Name: Gustavo.
[Luis Fernando]: And even though he didn’t know what the message said —because he had forgotten Spanish— he knew right away that it was his dad.
[Osmin]: I started crying. My friends said to me: “What’s wrong, Rico? What’s wrong, Rico?”
[Luis Fernando]: Osmin had told them that he was adopted and that he thought it had been done illegally. So, he told them:
[Osmin]: “Look, my dad found me.” I have something. Now I can go back to Guatemala.
[Luis Fernando]: After all those years of searching and searching, he finally had an answer. But there was a big problem: the language. Gustavo didn’t know any English either. So, Osmin found a Spanish professor he had and asked him to translate the message.
[Osmin]: And he said: “Do you want to call your dad in Guatemala?” And he called my dad. And then we were talking. And that is the first time I heard my, my dad’s voice.
[Luis Fernando]: Gustavo was speaking Spanish, Osmin was speaking English and the professor translated for both of them. Osmin asked if Gustavo still had pictures of him. He also asked if he remembered what he was like as a child. It was very emotional.
[Gustavo]: I was very happy because after so many years, so many experiences, I was able to reconnect with him, you know?
[Osmin]: I didn’t have the words, you know? I was just like: “Wow.” Since I didn’t know Spanish it was like: “Uh, OK, now what?”
[Luis Fernando]: And that was where the communication started.
[Gustavo]: We wasted a lot of time because he would write to me in English and I would write back in Spanish.
[Luis Fernando]: They used Google to translate the messages.
[Gustavo]: And the time just went by, sometimes we were up until one, two in the morning. Here in Guatemala, chatting.
[Luis Fernando]: They talked about things like Osmin’s mom, his grandmother, his uncles. Gustavo explained all of the irregularities there had been in the adoption process. But mainly they talked about what came next. About how they wanted to see each other again. Osmin was anxious to meet his biological family.
And, he never told his adoptive parents any of this. He knew they would be angry. They never felt comfortable with Osmin asking about his past. And he didn’t want them to get way in or get involved in his life.
But it wasn’t easy. Neither Osmin nor his biological parents had money to pay for the plane ticket. They spent three years communicating via chat and video calls. Osmin didn’t just talk to his dad. He talked to his mom and his grandma, too. Until they had a stroke of luck. A family he knew from church, to whom he was close, offered to pay for the trip.
With the trip planned out, he couldn’t keep it a secret any longer. Osmin told the Borzes he had been talking to his biological family and he was going to visit them. They Borzes were angry. Very angry. They didn’t want him to go. But, like many other times in their relationship, they did give him any reason why. Though by that point Osmin didn’t care anymore. He was 23 years old. He was an adult.
His nerves kept him up the night before his flight, he couldn’t even sleep on the plane. And by the time he was in the Guatemala City airport…
[Osmin]: I was in the bathroom for like an hour. I couldn’t leave. I was very nervous. I don’t know. I didn’t know if I was ready for that. And I was crying. All those years that passed, all those years I was struggling and finally I’m in my country again. And when I walked out of those doors, then I was going to be with my family.
I was sad. I was happy. And once I was ready, I washed my face and said: “I’m going. I going out there.” And outside I heard my name: “Osmin! Rico!” And I look over. And my family was there. My mom was there. My dad was there, crying.
[Flor]: It was something I couldn’t explain. I didn’t know if it was real or a dream. Because it was something that I had hoped for so much. I hugged him. I didn’t want to let go. I wanted to hold on to him.
[Luis Fernando]: Osmin got to know Guatemala City and he got attention from his parents, his grandma and his aunts every minute of every day.
He was finally living the fantasy he had dreamed about for more than ten years. More than a decade idealizing what it would be like to live with people who —for all the blood they shared— were strangers.
But in this story, reality didn’t live up to the fantasy. Specifically, his mom didn’t live up to the fantasy.
[Osmin]: When I was six, when I was a kid, I had an image of my mom. And when I went back in 2011, I saw that same face. There I felt bad, I felt like: “OK, this woman hasn’t changed. You haven’t changed. So much time has gone by and you haven’t changed.” It wasn’t how I wanted it to be.
[Luis Fernando]: Osmin was hoping his mother had turned over a new leaf after losing him and his brother. He dreamed of a mother that had learned from her mistakes. But he saw the same mother he remembered from his childhood. Osmin and his mom became people with very similar defects: alcoholic, aggressive, irresponsible, despite the miles and years separating them.
It’s ironic if you really think about it: It was one of the things that Osmin’s adoption was supposed to avoid.
And Osmin also found himself face to face with a father who, in his childhood, when he needed him most, wasn’t there and who now…
[Osmin]: You want me to change. You don’t want to understand who I am.
[Luis Fernando]: Osmin went out at night to drink and his dad criticized him a lot for it. He felt like he was scolding him, like a teenager. He felt like he wanted to educate him, rather than understand him as a person, understand the suffering he had experienced, and respect his decisions as an adult.
After a month in Guatemala, he went back to the United States, disappointed. Hurt. He finished school, got a job and retreated even deeper into drugs and alcohol. It was four hard years. He went to prison, had a child and lost custody.
[Osmin]: I couldn’t look at my face in the mirror. I didn’t want to see myself, my face in the mirror. I knew I was doing bad things again. After college, after everything.
[Luis Fernando]: Until he couldn’t take it anymore.
[Osmin]: In 2015, one day after I went to a party to drink and got in a fight with some people, I got up and said: “No more. I don’t want this life. I can’t live here.” I called my mom, my dad and my friend and said: “I’m leaving. I don’t want to be in this country. I’m going to Guatemala. I don’t want to live here. I can’t change in this place, I can’t.”
[Luis Fernando]: Two days later he bought his ticket. He had liked Guatemala as a country. He felt comfortable, like he fit in. And at least he had something there. Even if it was just the hope of forming a bond with his biological family. A second chance.
It would be hard, yes, but anything was better than the life he was living in the US.
And that is what Osmin has been trying to do these past three years. Create a new life. He got married and he has a son. He works at a call center. He quit using drugs and alcohol and stopped getting in fights. His Spanish is getting better, little by little.
His relationship with his biological parents is still trying, difficult, but he works on it every day. He hopes that someday he’ll come to feel that family bond that he wants so badly. At least, he told me, at the moment he’s not alone.
And as a symbol of this new start, he went back to using his original name: Osmin.
Rico, the boy who never managed to fit in anywhere, doesn’t exist anymore.
[Daniel]: In 2016, Osmin was able to contact his biological brother. But he doesn’t want to know anything about his family in Guatemala. Out of respect for his privacy, we haven’t used his name in this episode.
That same year, Osmin and his family brought his case before the Inter-American Court for Human Rights. The sentence declared the State of Guatemala responsible for his separation from his family, since it allowed for irregularities in the process of adopting children to occur.
In 2007, Guatemala had enacted changes in the laws regulating the adoption process, after receiving formal complaints from UNICEF and other organizations. Since then, the minor’s court is the only body that can run those proceedings. However, it is difficult to tell if the practice has been completely eliminated.
So, as part of the sentence in Osmin’s case, the Inter-American Court ordered the creation of a national plan to finance the audits of minor’s homes, and ensure that they comply with the law.
Conversely, very few people have been tried for participating in illegal adoption networks and the State still hasn’t offered reparations to all of the affected families.
In that sense, Osmin was very lucky. The court ruled in his favor and the State paid him some reparations. In his case, the State of Guatemala will pay for his Spanish classes and family therapy. On top of that, they’ll provide financial compensation to the family for damages.
Luis Fernando Vargas is Radio Ambulante’s assistant editor and lives in Costa Rica. This story was edited by Camila Segura and me. Music and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri. Our editorial intern, Andrea López Cruzado, did the fact-checking.
Special thanks to Quimy de León and Marta Karina Fuentes from Prensa Comunitaria for their help in Guatemala, and Francisca Stuardo from the Centre for International Law and Justice.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Jorge Caraballo, Patrick Moseley, Ana Prieto, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, Silvia Viñas and Rémy Lozano. Our interns are Lisette Arévalo and Victoria Estrada. Carolina Guerrero is our CEO.
Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.
We have a broadcast list on WhatsApp and we want you to be part of it. Every week we’ll send a link to the episode so you don’t miss it and it’s easy to share with all of your contacts. If you want to get on the list send a message to the number +57 322 9502192, and Jorge, our engagement editor, will add you. That number again is: +57 322 9502192.
Learn more about Radio Ambulante and about this story on our website: radioambulante.org.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.