Staffer’s search for birth mom reveals dark history of Guatemalan adoption


Gemma Givens was adopted from Guatemala in 1990 when she was 4 months old. As Gemma grew older, she began to feel a deep emptiness. “I felt like I was foundationless, or that I was floating, or I was a ghost, or I was a genetic isolate, which, in a way, I was,” Gemma says. It would lead her to Guatemala, where her search for her birth mother would reveal the corrupt business of intercountry adoption and inspire Gemma to create an international community of Guatemalan adoptees, Next Generation Guatemala. 

Now, at 28, Gemma manages the Host Family Program at UC Berkeley’s International House. Gemma says working with students, who are from all different countries, speak different languages and practice different faiths, has helped her to become a better leader for her community of Next Generation Guatemalans.

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Gemma Givens smiles for a portrait

Gemma Givens, who works at International House at UC Berkeley, was adopted from Guatemala when she was 4 months old. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Read a transcript of Fiat Vox episode #57: “Staffer’s search for birth mom reveals dark history of Guatemalan adoption”:

Gemma Givens: I think adoption was sort of like, “This is your life: privilege and education and things that wouldn’t have been available to me in the same way in Guatemala.” But that, “What’s done is done. This is it.”

[Music: “Building the Sled” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Gemma Givens was adopted from Guatemala in 1990 when she was 4 months old. Her mom, Melinda, was a graduate student at Berkeley at the time.

Melinda holding and looking lovingly at Gemma when she was 2 weeks old

Melinda Givens holds 2-week-old Gemma in Guatemala. (Photo courtesy of Gemma Givens)

Melinda Givens: All I knew about her birth mother, at that point, was from a social worker’s report that the lawyer had given me a copy of. I knew that she had left her village to work in Guatemala City as a domestic. She was separated from her husband. She had other kids. Her husband was not Gemma’s father. So, that’s about all I knew. At the time, it was very common to not know much about the birth mother’s circumstances.

Melinda had a simple story she would tell Gemma about her adoption.

Melinda Givens: And the story was that Gemma needed a mom, and I needed a child, and so we found each other. It was sort of a glossing-over of the sadder part of her story, of course, which is that her birth mother doesn’t have her. The fact that I have her means that someone else doesn’t have her. And I didn’t think that was anything you needed to inflict on a small child. So, it was a good enough story for a while.

But as Gemma got older, it wasn’t enough. And maybe, Gemma says, it never really was. 

Gemma as a toddler standing next to a Christmas tree

Melinda says Gemma, as a kid, was quiet and cautious, but always up for an adventure. (Photo courtesy of Gemma Givens)

Gemma Givens: It just felt as if I was in a movie, but we had skipped some parts. I hadn’t seen the beginning yet.

I felt like I was foundationless, or that I was floating, or I was a ghost, or I was a genetic isolate, which, in a way, I was. There was nobody else around me to inform me of things we take for granted every day. Whose face do I have? Why am I so short? Why is my hair so thick? I can’t do anything with it, and nobody cuts it right.

On good days, I felt super proud and entitled and arrogant about that, like, “There’s no one like me.” And on the worst days, I felt crippling depressed because I’m all alone in the world. Of course, I’m surrounded by love and family and friends, but in a really existential way, I’m completely alone.

[Music: “Building the Sled” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Gemma wanted answers about who her mom was and why she gave her up. It would lead Gemma to Guatemala City, where she would begin to uncover mysterious details surrounding her adoption that were more common than she ever imagined.

Now, at 28, Gemma works at International House at UC Berkeley. It’s a program center and campus residence for students from around the world that promotes intercultural experiences and leadership skills. It was here that she would tell her personal story of struggle, heartbreak and acceptance in public for the first time.

Going to Guatemala to find her mom

In 2011, as an undergraduate student at UC Santa Cruz, Gemma enrolled in a study abroad program through the University of Arizona. She and a group of students would travel to Guatemala City. 

Anne Brice: Why did you want to go? What was your purpose? 

Gemma Givens: To meet my mom. 100%.

Gemma knew what she wanted, but she didn’t know a lot of other things. First of all, she didn’t really know how to speak Spanish very well. She also didn’t know if her mother would want to see her. 

Gemma Givens: If I had a child now whom I had adopted and who was doing all this, that would not be acceptable at all to me, that A) they had to do this by themselves and B) they weren’t emotionally prepared for all options, which there is a spectrum of what of a searching adoptee can hope to find by meeting their family.

She definitely didn’t feel prepared for what she found out.

Gemma talks with Berkeley News reporter Anne Brice

In high school, Gemma couldn’t find a community she felt she fit in. “I felt like … I was a genetic isolate,” she says. “Of course, I was surrounded by love and family and friends, but in a way, I was completely alone.” (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

[Music: “Valantis” by Blue Dot Sessions]

When Gemma got to Guatemala City, she knew a few details about her mom. Like, she knew that her name was Esther Yaqui and that she was from Santiago, a small town near Guatemala City.

In talking to her host parents, Gemma found out that they had a cousin who worked in Santiago. Their cousin asked around about Esther, and soon set up a meeting for Gemma at the town hall. 

This would be the biggest moment of her life, thought Gemma. And she didn’t know what to wear.

Gemma Givens: What do you wear to meet your mother for the first time in your life as a young adult?

She didn’t want to seem flashy or like she was showing off. But she still wanted to show that she cared, that it was a big deal to her.

Anne Brice: So what did you end up wearing?

Gemma Givens: I ended up wearing just a random sweater I got at the pacas, which is like a second-hand chain store in Guatemala, and jeans. 

[Music: “Villa” by Blue Dot Sessions]

I felt like I was foundationless, or that I was floating, or I was a ghost, or I was a genetic isolate, which, in a way, I was.

There she was, sitting with her host family on a bench in the town hall in Santiago, jumping out of her skin as she waited for her mom to walk through the door.   

Gemma Givens: Every single woman who came in, I was like, “Is that my mom? Is that my mom? Is that my mom?”

Then, three women walked in with the vice mayor, Reginaldo Pec.

Gemma Givens: Everyone starts talking. And I can’t figure out which one is my mom. Which one is my mom? Finally, someone’s like, “Y Esther?” Like, “Where’s Esther?” And the women gasp and say, “Se murío.” She died.

Her mom had died just a few years before. Gemma couldn’t hear anything anyone said after that.

Gemma Givens: My deepest goal that I’d had until that moment was to meet my mom and just to see her face. To confirm my existence, you know, confirm that I am, indeed, real.

So now, what did she have? What could she do to find a connection to the place she was from? How could she still get to know her mom, even though she was gone?

Instead of giving up, going back home defeated, Gemma became determined to find out everything she could about Esther Yaqui.

Family reunion in Guatemala in 2012

Gemma’s family met up for a reunion in Guatemala in 2012. From left: Lydia Yaqui, aunt; Ruth Yaqui, cousin; Gemma Givens; Lorena Yaqui, cousin; Maria Yaqui, aunt; Noehmi Yaqui, aunt; Glendy Yaqui (left, sitting); Lety Yaqui, cousin. (Photo courtesy of Gemma Givens)

Who was Esther Yaqui?

The three women who had come to the town hall were Esther’s family members — her sister, Noehmi; her sister-in-law, Maria; and her cousin, Glendy. After they met Gemma at the town hall, they brought her to see her mom’s unmarked gravesite.

Gemma Givens: If it had just been me there, I would have dug her up. That’s how primal the urge was to see and touch and just, you know, acknowledge my mother.

[Music: “Noe Noe” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Then, they took Gemma to meet her grandma, Eusebia. The women told Gemma little details about her mom — that she loved to smile and laugh. And, Gemma learned that no one in the family had known about her. Her mom hadn’t told anyone that she’d given birth to Gemma. 

Gemma needed to know more. She looked for documents that could give clues about who her mom was — birth certificates, adoption papers — anything she could get her hands on.

Santiago, Sacatepequez

Santiago, Sacatepequez, the town where Gemma’s mom, Esther Yaqui, was from. (Photos courtesy of Gemma Givens)

In her research, Gemma found out that her mom worked as live-in maid at her employer’s house in Guatemala City, while she was pregnant with Gemma.

And her mom was Kaqchikel — indigenous Mayan from central Guatemala — so she might not have spoken much Spanish. 

Gemma Givens: Her signature on my forms is her thumbprint. We have to look at this, like, was everybody an equal partner in these discussions. In this transaction.

The more Gemma learned about her mom and her own adoption, the more she learned about the dark history of intercountry adoption in Guatemala.

In 1990, when Gemma was adopted, only about 250 Guatemalan children were adopted by families in the United States. But as time went on, intercountry adoption in Guatemala became a booming and increasingly corrupt business. By 2007, more than 4,700 Guatemalan children were adopted by U.S. families, second only to China.

Adoption in Guatemala, at the end of the day, was an industry. It was a business.

Most international adoptions from Guatemala went through private attorneys who would handle both sides of the adoption without oversight or review by a judge or social service agency. 

Unknown to the adoptive parents, these attorneys would use all sorts of tactics to acquire Guatemalan children for adoption — from buying and kidnapping kids to defrauding and coercing women to give their babies up.

Gemma Givens: Adoption in Guatemala, at the end of the day, was an industry. It was a business. As a business, there were doctors, nurses, lots of people involved in, “Oh, your baby’s dead. No, you can’t see them.” And then, somehow, we end up in Montreal or France or Israel or Belgium.

[Music: “Strange Dog Walk” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Some young pregnant women were told they could stay in so-called maternity homes for free, in exchange for light housekeeping. But once they gave birth, their benefactors would present them with a bill for prenatal expenses, which would be waived if the new mother gave her baby up for adoption. 

Although Gemma says she’ll never know for sure what her mother’s situation was, she feels like she knows enough — at least for now. 

Gemma smiling with her brother Marvin and her aunt Nohemi

Gemma (center) with her brother, Marvin, and her aunt, Noehmi, in Santiago, Sacatepequez. (Photo courtesy of Gemma Givens)

And perhaps the biggest gift that she’s gotten from all of this, she says, was getting to know her younger brother, Marvin.

Gemma Givens: That was really what my heart was searching for was that close of a connection. He became my little son. He still is. He’s 22 now, and I’m 28, and I treat him like he’s 3 years old because he’s, honestly, the closest thing I have to a son, until I have my own children.

[“Stucco Grey” by Blue Dot Sessions]

In January 2008, intercountry adoption closed in Guatemala. It came after mounting international pressure pushed the country to become party to the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption, an international agreement to safeguard intercountry adoptions.

After her study abroad program ended, Gemma went back to the Bay Area for a little while, then bought a one-way ticket to Guatemala City, where Marvin lived and where her mom, Esther, had been working before she died. 

Gemma would spend the next year teaching English and living as a local, riding her bike through the city, getting to know Marvin and learning what her mom’s day-to-day life was like.

Gemma Givens: I learned to appreciate what her social sphere probably looked like. I think I got to know some of it myself, too. From the person who sells you your clean water canister refills to the person who does laundry or the local market people. Just to walk a mile in her shoes, you know?

I accept it now. Accept, forgive — whatever words one might need to hear when they ask, “How do you feel about being adopted now?” I accept it. And on her behalf, I approve of it for what it’s helping me to do now for others.

Gemma would go on to start a group that would bring together hundreds of Guatemalan adoptees from around the world. It would become a community where Gemma would finally feel like she fit in.

Next Generation Guatemala

In 2012, Gemma had graduated from college and was back in the Bay Area, feeling lost.

Gemma Givens: I remember coming back home, sitting on my mom’s couch thinking, “Is that it? Is that really it? That whole thing just happened, and there’s no one to talk about it with?” It was a really lonely time.

So, Gemma decided to create a place where Guatemalan adoptees like herself could find a kind of home. It’s called Next Generation Guatemala. It’s an online community for people involved in Guatemalan adoption.

Gemma Givens: It’s embracing that there is an entire generation of us, about like 50,000 at least, who were born from 1960 to 2007 and internationally adopted all over the world. And so as one group, we’re a whole different generation of Guatemalan citizens. International Guatemalan citizens.

It’s a place where the group can talk about their experiences, thoughts, feelings and adoption stories with a group of supportive people who understand what they’re going through.

Next Generation Guatemala group members pose smiling in D.C.

In March 2019, more than 20 members from Next Generation Guatemala met up in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Mason Jerman)

It’s a community that Melinda hopes gives her daughter the feeling of belonging that she’s been searching for. 

Melinda Givens: Gemma’s group, I think, is wonderful, because it makes it possible to integrate these two worlds that these kids have and that the families have. I’m hoping that it makes this divide between the before and after, the past and present, less drastic and traumatic, and more like a normal variation in a human story.

[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions]

At Berkeley’s International House, Gemma manages the Host Family Program, which helps ease the transition of international students to the U.S. and Bay Area. 

Gemma says working with students, who are from all different countries, speak different languages and practice different faiths, has helped her to become a better leader for her community of Next Generation Guatemalans. 

Gemma Givens: You have Irish Guatemalan, Israeli Guatemalan, Swedish, Danish — all these different countries with a Guatemalan experience hyphenated onto it. Bringing them all together in one group through this experience has been incredible.

Several members from the group have reunited with their families in Guatemala. Gemma even accompanied one woman to offer moral support when she met her family for the first time.

You have Irish Guatemalan, Israeli Guatemalan, Swedish, Danish — all these different countries with a Guatemalan experience hyphenated onto it.

And the group has coordinated meetups across the country for adoptees to come together. It’s an experience that Gemma says feels like a family reunion.

Gemma Givens: I think it just feels free. There’s this basic foundational understanding that either comes from time invested, knowing someone since they were really young, or just, “We’ve been through the same thing. We get each other,” that allows you to just be yourself.

Last March, more than 20 members of Next Generation Guatemala joined up for a three-day visit in Washington, D.C. For one of the ice breaker activities, the group mixed all their baby photos together and then went around the room, trying to match each photo to the right person.

Gemma Givens: Growing up, I would look back at my childhood photos and baby photos and just get incredibly sad. I couldn’t necessarily tell you why. Maybe there’s some shared sadness about what someone else lost for me to be here. My own remembering of how lonely I used to feel about what even is this? Who am I? I don’t know.

After everybody was matched with their photos, they placed the photos all together on a Guatemalan flag.   

Gemma Givens: As I was leaving the meetup, it just hit me how profound that was. It’s like they’ve returned, in some way, to each other. Maybe not to the country quite yet, but they’ve all come together and found each other. Which gave my baby photo, with all these other baby photos, new meaning that wasn’t sad. Whatever someone’s loss may have been, it’s like, it was redeemed or given new purpose. That made me really happy.

Gemma walks the runway in Guatemalan clothing

At Berkeley’s International House, Gemma participated in the cultural fashion show for the program’s Global Homecoming event. Gemma was the only person from Guatemala. (Photo by Ryan Christopher Gourley)

Last year, Gemma shared her personal story with fellow staff at a storytelling series called, “What Matters Most,” hosted by I House’s Center for Intercultural Leadership. It was the first time she shared her story in front of people outside of her adoptee community.

The support she received from the staff was overwhelming, she says. It would inspire her to keep sharing her story, in hopes that it will continue to bring people together and build a greater understanding about her community of Next Generation Guatemalans.

Learn more about Next Generation Guatemala on the group’s Facebook page.

Find more information about UC Berkeley’s International House.