- Babies Without Borders: Adoption and Migration Across the Americas
Although very few people are themselves involved in adoption—no more than an estimated 4% in the U.S.—adoption regularly hits the newspapers and stirs national passions, and has for more than a century. Why this is so and how the adopted child has become a symbolic child around the world since World War II is the subject of Karen Dubinsky’s excellent book, Babies Without Borders: Adoption and Migration Across the Americas. This is a great book that historians of foreign relations, family, the United States, Canada, and Latin America, along with those interested in adoption, should read and assign. Others before her have investigated institutions, secrecy, and legal statutes; Dubinsky focuses on the way that adoption works symbolically and politically in the world. Understanding adoption as either good or evil, as either an act of rescue or kidnapping, she argues, is too simple and unhelpful to adopted children and especially to birthparents who become invisible. Babies Without Borders also analyzes the workings of race and racism in adoption and employs a transnational perspective to illuminate the global circulation of babies and varying interpretations of adoption and racial identification. Through a combined analysis of transnational practices and very local and intimate events, Dubinsky argues that child adoptions and the narratives told about these processes are not incidental, “but centra[l] to state building projects (55).”
Dubinsky analyzes the adoptions that receive the most attention and raise controversy— international adoptions (generally from the global South or East to the West) and transracial adoptions (from black, brown, and indigenous families to white parents). The children in these controversies are always silent and serve as a symbol for other national controversies, battles, and traumas. Because children cannot speak for themselves, adoption narratives portray them as innocents who need protection. Cross-cultural and transracial adoptions are either understood as rescue by well-off white Americans and Canadians who adopt babies, or as kidnapping by communities of color and the nations who “give” children to wealthier nations and parents.
The book begins with “the national child” and the 1960 rescue of Cuban children in “Operation Peter Pan.” Cuban parents sent children to the United States in order to save them from Castro’s revolution and their fear that children would be killed, sent to Russia, or taken away from their parents. Under the Catholic Church’s direction, foster families eagerly took the children into their homes as refugees from communism. In reality, however, the children were not orphans, but rather left the island openly; many went to barracks, not homes, where they stayed for months until a placement could be found; [End Page 201] and as older, poorer, and blacker children arrived, foster families were less welcoming. Furthermore, the CIA funded this project and spread misinformation about Castro. Only it was not Castro, but Peter Pan, who separated parents and children. Cuba’s later monuments to the Peter Pan children reveal the nation’s portrayal of the symbolic child. While Americans saw themselves as saving children from communism; the newly-formed Cuba inspired its people with the anti-imperialist narrative that the U.S. stole not only their resources and money, but also their children.
Those familiar with the 1972 National Association of Black Social Workers’ condemnation of adoption of black children by white parents in the U.S. may be surprised by black Canadians’ support for the same kind of transracial adoption twenty years earlier. Transracial adoption began in 1950s Montreal as the Children’s Centre needed more adoptive families. The Centre began placing children across racial boundaries with parents who “could take some chances” and would be willing to adopt children with disabilities or “with coloured blood (62).” White families joined the black community in various efforts and learned about racism. These “hybrid” children, as Dubinsky calls them, carried heavy cultural and political weight for they personified integration, racial peace, and the goodness of white Canadians. The success of the small number of transracial adoptions and the frequent...