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Babies Without Borders: Rescue, Kidnap, and the Symbolic Child

From: Journal of Women's History
Volume 19, Number 1, Spring 2007
pp. 142-150 | 10.1353/jowh.2007.0009

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Torture bequeaths extraordinary knowledge, though rarely that demanded by its perpetrators. Thanks to the U.S. military, we know now that one of the most grueling forms of modern torture is not interrogation but what is termed "noise stress." According to recent reports, detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have been subjected to taped loops of various loud, unpleasant noises. One of the most stressful is the endless sound of human infants wailing. As I make my way through the history of interracial and international adoption, this knowledge confirms what I have been learning about the symbolic politics of children. That the sound of unhappy children provides common cultural ground in the torture chamber illustrates the symbolic and actual power of babies, in soul-destroying simplicity.

The social category "child" is at once real and metaphorical—powerful as a cultural construct but equally as forceful in flesh and blood. In my current research I am narrating the story of three sets of iconic children, all of whom have been fashioned from the experiences of actual children. By exploring the histories of children with the cultural and political narratives which were formed around them, I am learning how social fears operate through youthful bodies and why adoption across racial and national lines can be profoundly unsettling. An appreciation of symbolic politics of childhood helps understand why adoption politics have been, and remain, so highly charged. I suggest that if we had a better appreciation of the varied and powerful cultural meanings of childhood, we could move beyond the two main narratives of adoption in the West: "rescue" versus "kidnap."

The three sets of symbolic children I have gathered under one roof are the Hybrid Baby, the National Baby, and the Missing Baby. I briefly introduce them and then discuss some of the research questions which are emerging from this and other explorations in the history and politics of adoption.

The Hybrid Baby is my term for those children produced by the movement for interracial adoption in post-World War II Canada. Case files from two Canadian agencies which crossed racial lines (placing black and native children with white parents) offer remarkable vignettes of the encounter between birth mothers, children, and adoptive parents, as well as the social workers who mediated their relationships. The Hybrid Baby was also a creation of 1950s-era interracial adoption advocacy groups, such as Montreal's Open Door Society, which espoused an integrationist, civil rights philosophy and worked with black communities to find a politic of adoption that was unifying, not colonizing.

The National Baby was an orphan of the cold war, specifically the CIA-backed "Operation Peter Pan." This was a clandestine scheme which brought over fourteen thousand unaccompanied Cuban children to Miami. Parents were motivated to send their children for several reasons, primarily because of CIA-sponsored rumors that the new revolutionary government was planning on nationalizing children and sending them to the Soviet Union for indoctrination, or worse. It is believed in Cuba today that people thought their children would be eaten. As U.S.–Cuba relations deteriorated, and parents were unable to rejoin their children, thousands of youngsters found their way into long-term foster care or orphanages throughout the United States.

The Missing Baby is another product of the cold war, in its 1980s manifestations. Foreign adoptions of children during and immediately following the civil war in Guatemala have been extremely controversial. Attempting to refocus the discussion of international adoption, as Tobias Hübinette suggests in this roundtable, on its effects on sending nations, my aim here is to examine how foreign adoptions have been discussed in contemporary Guatemala.

Any one of these stories could be the subject of a lengthy monograph (indeed, some have been and more will be). My purpose is different: I am using these diverse stories to raise questions about the history and social meaning of children and nations, themes which I will elaborate on in the rest of this article.

Children as Bearers, but not Makers, of Social Meaning

A generation of women's historians has shown us how, to quote Judith Walkowitz, "what is socially peripheral is frequently symbolically central." The insight that women acted as "bearers...



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