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Global Studies in Culture and Power
ISSN: 1070-289X (Print) 1547-3384 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/gide20
From primal to colonial wound: Bolivian adoptees
reclaiming the narrative of healing
Atamhi Cawayu & Katrien De Graeve
To cite this article: Atamhi Cawayu & Katrien De Graeve (2020): From primal to colonial wound:
Bolivian adoptees reclaiming the narrative of healing, Identities
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/1070289X.2020.1757254
Published online: 26 Apr 2020.
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From primal to colonial wound: Bolivian adoptees
reclaiming the narrative of healing
Atamhi Cawayu and Katrien De Graeve
Department of Languages and Cultures, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium
This paper provides a critical analysis of the narratives of Bolivian adoptees in
Belgium. We discuss how the adoptees look back upon the imagery of family
and culture invoked by their parents and wider social environment and how this
imagery has aﬀected their sense of self and belonging. We argue that the
adoptees’narratives testify of a discursive struggle to reclaim control over
their lives and histories. While they draw upon prevailing discourses that tend
to imagine adoptees as ‘wounded’, they do so in diverse, complex and at times
contradictory ways. Their perceptions of the familial and cultural imagery show
that while they do not entirely reject the idea of being hurt, they seem to make
a shift from explaining this ‘wound’in individual-psychological terms to
explaining it in social terms, making use of emerging anti-racist and decolonial
ARTICLE HISTORY Received 10 January 2019; Accepted 14 April 2020
KEYWORDS Transnational adoption; Bolivian adoptees; colonial wound; culture work; identity forma-
Recently there has been a renewed academic interest in the colonial power
mechanisms that structure current transnational adoption practices (see e.g.
Ivenäs 2017; Posocco 2014; van Wichelen 2019; Wyver 2018; Högbacka 2019;
Candaele in press), building on earlier work (Ahluwalia 2007; Hübinette 2007;
Wekker et al. 2007). This research points to the colonial roots of transnational
adoption and problematises the reproduction of colonial dynamics in con-
temporary transnational adoption practices, including in the way racial dif-
ference and origins of adoptees become imagined.
This paper aims to
contribute to this body of work.
Since the 1980s and 1990s, transnational adoptive parents in Belgium and
elsewhere have increasingly been urged by adoption professionals and inter-
national treaties to pay particular attention to their child’s pre-adoption past. In
CONTACT Atamhi Cawayu Atamhi.Bex@UGent.be Department of Languages and Cultures,
Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium
© 2020 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
line with article 16b of the 1993 Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption,
adoption agencies and adoption intermediaries in Belgium have sensitised
(prospective) adoptive parents to tell their children openly about their pre-
adoption history and to express a positive attitude towards their country of
In her work on transnational adoptive parents in Belgium, De Graeve
(2010) pointed to the dominant imagery that portrays adoptees as unavoidably
‘wounded’because of their being uprooted and disconnected from their
biological family and culture of origin. Adoption professionals train adoptive
families to anticipate potential psychological distress and unsafe attachment
through diﬀerent techniques, including through attention to the child’spre-
adoption past, also in terms of national and cultural origins (De Graeve 2013,
2010). De Graeve argues that while the currentdiscourse breaks away from ‘the
clean break’narrative, it still starts from a depoliticised and psychopathological
model that individualises and pathologises mental distress rather than pointing
to the (global) socio-political dimensions that shape adoption trajectories.
In this paper, we aim to re-politicise the terms of the debate, by reporting on
interviews conducted with men and women adopted to Belgium who were
born in Bolivia, most of them with an indigenous Aymara and Quechua back-
ground. In these interviews, we asked them to narrate their adoption experi-
ence, their experience of their adoptive parents’parenting work and their own
feelings and practices in relation to their country of birth. Their stories oscillate
between reproducing the dominant psychopathological understanding of their
displacement and socio-political understandings that centralise the colonial
dynamics in transnational adoption. We argue that a shift from imagining the
adoptee as wounded in psychological terms to imagining the adoptee as
wounded as a result of colonial and racialising discourses and practices, enables
adoptees to reclaim ‘the right to classify’(Mignolo 2005, 8) and create narratives
that have the capacity to overwrite the discourses of individualised pathologi-
zation with decolonial social critique. Centralising ‘the colonial’(and the
wounds it causes) not only constitutes an important tool in adoptee activism,
it can also serve as a useful metaphor for rethinking the work adoptive families
need to be able to move beyond the persistent bio-essentialist and cultural
essentialist views on family and nation.
The article is structured as follows. In the ﬁrst two sections, we elucidate
our theoretical framework and describe our methods. In the next three
sections, we present an analysis of the data. The ﬁrst empirical section
elaborates on the adoptees’experiences regarding ‘culture work’and the
‘Bolivian’gatherings that were organised by adoptive parents. The second
section focuses on gatherings organised by Bolivian adoptees themselves.
The last empirical section discusses how the Bolivian adoptees describe their
racial and ‘ethnic’identity. In the conclusion, we come back to the imagery of
wounds and possibilities for decolonial healing through ‘delinking’and ‘re-
existing’, implicit in the adoptees’narratives.
2A. CAWAYU AND K. DE GRAEVE
Culture work and the culturalisation of colonial diﬀerence
Since the 1990 s, in Belgium and elsewhere a discourse that conceptualises
the child as ‘rooted’in her pre-adoption past has become dominant and has
largely replaced the previous paradigm that promoted a ‘clean break’with
that past (Yngvesson 2003; Modell 1994). A signiﬁcant number of studies has
critically examined the increased attention for the pre-adoption past and the
birth country’s cultural peculiarities in ‘transracial’adoption in various
national contexts (e.g. Anagnost 2000; Quiroz 2012; Volkman 2003; Willing
and Fronek 2014; De Graeve 2013; Jacobson 2008; Marre 2007).
(2013, 551) uses the term ‘culture work’to refer to the creative and construc-
tive parenting work Belgian transnational adoptive parents do to shape the
identity and citizenship of themselves and their children. This work may
include all kinds of cultural practices, including consuming food, music and
artefacts that originate from their adoptive child’s birth country.
However, despite the paradigmatic shift in adoption, prevailing adoption
discourses still tend to start from the idea that adoptees suﬀer from a ‘primal
wound’(Verrier 1993) that has been caused by the adoptees’separation from
their ﬁrst families and cultures. The narrative of the traumatic rupture of the
mother–child relationship (and by extension the nation-citizen relationship)
draws on essentialist notions of family (and nation) and renders adoptees’life
journeys pathological (for a discussion on the pathologizing of displacement
more general, see Malkki 1992). This narrative is all pervasive in adoption
discourse, including in the discourses that assign a diﬀerent cultural essence
to adoptees that requires culture work. De Graeve’s and other studies on
adoptive parents’culture work have denounced the practice for its under-
lying cultural essentialist and bio-essentialist notions which put an alleged
genetic-cultural origin at the core of adoptee’s identity formation (De Graeve
2014; Howell 2006). Various researchers have criticised adoptive parents’
culture work for being a form of ‘cultural tourism’(Quiroz 2012), cultural
commodiﬁcation (Park Nelson 2006) and for even further alienating adopted
children from their cultures of origin because of the ‘ﬁctional and distorted
construction of identity with limited possibilities for maintaining real or
substantive ties to the culture of origin’(Quiroz 2012, 532). Moreover, several
studies have pointed to the parents’tendency to conﬂate culture and ‘race’.
This conﬂation is particularly evidenced by the observation that in transra-
cially adoptive families the cultural background of the adoptive child is
usually given more attention than in ‘white’families with children of white
colour (Jacobson 2008; Marre 2007). Mignolo (2005,37) critiques the cultur-
alisation of race as, according to him, it overlooks the imperial/colonial power
diﬀerentials. Therefore, he pleads for the use of the term ‘colonial diﬀerence’.
He emphasises that race plays a central role but not in ‘the sense of the color
IDENTITIES: GLOBAL STUDIES IN CULTURE AND POWER 3
of one’s skin but in the sense of how one has been located in the chain of
human being by Western imperial discourses’(Mignolo 2006, 481). This
brings us to our second central concept.
Coloniality and decolonial thinking
We aim to situate the adoptees’narratives in a broader scope, including in
wider practices of relocating indigenous populations in Bolivia and elsewhere
to govern and control them. The case of transnational adoption of Aymara
and Quechua children resembles other practices of displacing indigenous
children in the US, Canada and Australia as part of projects of forced assim-
ilation and civilising during and after European colonisation. Drawing this
parallel reaches back to earlier interpretations of transnational adoption as
a colonial practice embedded in a larger history of exploitation of the Global
South and the stratiﬁed migration dominated by the Global North (Eng 2006;
Fieweger 1991; Hübinette 2007; Wekker et al. 2007). These parallels seem to
be justiﬁed when we consider the fact that transnational adoption is
a demand-driven industry plagued by recurrent practices of abuse, child
traﬃcking, and other irregularities (Smolin 2004; McKee 2016; Cheney and
Rotabi 2015; Leifsen 2008).
Several authors have argued that the ‘colonial reality’of transnational
adoption is not limited to the macro level but also inﬁltrates the most
intimate spheres of transnational adoptees’lives (Tigervall and Tobias 2010;
Wekker et al. 2007). Drawing on decolonial thought (Maldonado-Torres 2007;
Mignolo 2005,2017; Quijano 2007), we use the term ‘coloniality’as deﬁned by
Maldonado-Torres (2007, 243) to point to the global socio-political reality that
shapes transnational adoption. Maldonado-Torres argues that ‘coloniality
survives colonialism’and ‘is maintained alive in books, in the criteria for
academic performance, in cultural patterns, in common sense, in the self-
image of peoples, in aspirations of self, and so many other aspects of our
modern experience’. According to him, modern subjects ‘breath coloniality all
the time and everyday’.
Mignolo (2005) argues that discourses and practices of coloniality cause
‘colonial wounds’, or, with reference to a term coined by Ureña (2019, 1642),
‘invisible wounds of coloniality’.The‘colonial wound’points to the physical
and/or psychological pain that is a ‘consequence of racism, the hegemonic
discourse that questions the humanity of all those who do not belong to the
locus of enunciation (and the geo-politics of knowledge) of those who assign
the standards of classiﬁcation and assign to themselves the right to classify’
(Mignolo 2005, 8). We suggest that this struggle over the standards of classiﬁ-
cation is at the heart of the adoptees’claims to belonging. While the adoptees
in this study did not use the concept themselves, the ‘colonial wound’captures
a discursive ﬁeld that they start to construct. Some of the strategies the Bolivian
4A. CAWAYU AND K. DE GRAEVE
adoptees used, include what could be interpreted as ‘decolonial tactics’and
processes of ‘delinking [oneself] from foreign powers’control over lives’
(Mignolo 2017, 44, emphasis added). These tactics and processes constitute
a counter-narrative to the prevailing discourses that tend to psychologise
adoptees’experiences by explaining them through narratives of primordial
blood ties offamily. Discursivelyshifting the root of their metaphorical wounds
from the psyche to the ‘colonial’can be seen as a way of what Mignolo calls
‘rebuilding and re-existing under new conditions and modes of existences that
are your own’(Mignolo 2017, 44, emphasis added).
This article draws upon the ﬁrst author’s research conducted in the frame-
work of his master thesis, under supervision of the second author, and
complemented with the preliminary research from his ongoing doctoral
study (2017–2021) on ‘roots’, child relinquishment, search and reunion in
transnational adoption from Bolivia. Interviews with 12 Bolivian adoptees
(eight women, four men) have been carried out combined with multiple
participant observation sessions during Bolivian adoptee gatherings and
festivities mainly in Flanders, Belgium. The participants were selected
through the contacts of the ﬁrst author with considerable attention to the
variety of experiences, self-identiﬁcations and diﬀerent ways of giving mean-
ing to their birth country. They were adopted between 1983 and 1996 and
their ages range from 21 to 37 at the time of the interview, yet the majority of
them have been raised in Belgium after 1990. Nearly all of the participants
have travelled to Bolivia at some point in their lives (eleven participants), ﬁve
of whom several times.
We have used a critical discourse analytical frame of moving from the
micro to the macro to better understand our data (Blommaert 2005; Van Dijk
1993) and have looked to how the narratives of the participants are
embedded in the broader web of culturally, socially, and historically situated
discourses and power dynamics. Therefore, it was essential to look at the
adoptees’stories, not as expressions of essential truths, but as discursive
strategies which might have both restraining and potentially empowering
and transformative eﬀects. More speciﬁcally, we coded the transcripts by
identifying frequent topics, clustered them into themes and grouped the
themes into three meta-themes, i.e. adoptees’reﬂections on their parents’
culture work, adoptee gatherings, and adoptees’identity formations. We then
assigned the coded text passages to emerging conceptual categories that
reﬂect the discursive strategies employed by the interviewees and their
relation to wider ideological conﬁgurations.
Adoptions from Bolivia to Flanders, the northern, Dutch-speaking part of
Belgium, occurred between the early 1980s until the end of the 1990s.
IDENTITIES: GLOBAL STUDIES IN CULTURE AND POWER 5
estimate that in that period about 45 Bolivian children have been placed in
Flemish adoptive families. However, as back in the days not all adoptions
from Bolivia were monitored by the Flemish Community government, the
total number of children adopted from Bolivia to Flanders is basically
unknown. Before the Belgian ratiﬁcation of the Convention of The Hague
on Intercountry Adoption in 2005, only accredited adoption agencies carried
out transnational adoptions under supervision of a governmental organisa-
tion of one of the three community governments in Belgium. Interadoptie, the
accredited adoption agency that was responsible for adoptions from Bolivia
to the Flemish Community indicates that they placed 25 Bolivian children
with Flemish adoptive parents in the period between 1982 and 1999.
However, information collected for this research shows that there have also
been adoptions through other channels, such as unoﬃcial adoption inter-
mediaries who facilitated adoptions to Flanders. In at least one case this
involved the kidnapping of a child.
The focus on Belgium, and on Flanders in particular, was mainly for practical
reasons, as both authors live and work in Flanders. However, this focus is also
needed as, so far, knowledge of the experiences of adult adoptees in the
country is almost completely lacking, a few very small studies notwithstanding
(see Buysse and Vandenbroeck 2015; De Pauw, Hoksbergen, and Van Aelst
1998; Paulis 1991). The country’s colonial history is also remarkable, especially
in light of the lack of a critical debate concerning the colonial history and
colonial remnants. Several researchers have observed how the general amnesia
concerning the colonial past goes hand in hand with the denial or minimisation
of race and racism (Ceuppens and De Mul. 2009; De Graeve and Kanobana in
press). A multiculturalism discourse is adopted in relation to the country’s
linguistic-cultural divide, yet the Flemish-speaking and French-speaking com-
munities are imagined as ethnically and culturally homogeneous (Coene and
Longman 2008; Blommaert and Verschueren 1998). In the northern, Flemish-
speaking part, in particular,autochthony discourses havean increasingly strong
appeal in imageries of who the ‘real’locals are (Ceuppens 2006). Policy-making
aims at assimilation of immigrants and points to cultural diﬀerences of immi-
grants and their descendants (not race) as the cause of the persistent barriers
that immigrants face in navigating the job and housing market for instance.
While anti-immigration sentiments are strong in Flanders, family and reproduc-
tion policy still actively supports transnational adoption. Policy makers tend to
see transnational adoption as a viable way for Belgian citizens to expand their
families and tend to draw on an imagerythat valorises adoptees as symbols for
racial harmony and as living diversity tokens (Hübinette 2007).
The focus on adoptees from Bolivia with an indigenous background (Aymara
or Quechua) is important because transnational adoptions from the Latin
American continent have been understudied in general (with the expection of
e.g. Briggs 2012;Dubinsky2010; Posocco 2014)–despite the high numbers of
6A. CAWAYU AND K. DE GRAEVE
adoptions from this continent (Selman 2009)–with an even greater dearth of
information available on adoptions of indigenous children from the Andean
region (Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador). Despite a few exceptions (e.g. Leinaweaver
2008;Clavero2002), the study of adoptions of indigenous children so far has
been limited to the US, Canada and Australia (see e.g. Cardinal 2016;Heanga-
Collins and Gibbs 2015;Jacobs2014). So far, transnational adoptions of Latin
American indigenous children to mainly white families in the Global North have
seldom been analysed through a decolonial lens and/or as part of the ongoing
structural violence against and displacements of indigenous people in the
Bolivia into our home: the parents’culture work
During the interviews in this study, most adoptees recounted memories of
being surrounded by artefacts that referred to Bolivia and its indigenous people
in one way or the other. They talked about the Bolivian (folkloric) music, the
cuddly toys, the books, the paintings, the little Inca statues, the Bolivian
national ﬂag, the Bolivian crib, the panpipes, the knitted caps, the textiles
with llamadesigns, the woven blankets (awayus), etc., that ﬁgured prominently
in their houses. Most of them perceived the presence of Bolivian artefacts with
rather positive sentiments. Twenty-four-year-old Naya, for instance, who was
adopted at 16 months of age, even explicitly stated that she felt thankful and
had appreciated how her parents ‘brought Bolivia into our home’.
28 years old, who was almost ﬁve when he was adopted together with his
younger brother, indicated that their parents ‘wanted that we could keep some
of our culture’and seemed to have experienced this as a positive thing.
Some adoptees, however, also recounted memories of being dressed up as
‘Indians’and wearing ‘Indian’costumes during carnival or during gatherings of
their adoptive families.
occurrences, a few adoptees discussed these memories as an example of having
felt stereotyped and racialised, at least in retrospect, or recalled to have felt
uncomfortable during some of these occasions. They indicated that they found
they were somehow forced to embrace ‘their’cultural origins and perform
‘foreignness’for their white families (Falvey 2008). Yet, some explained that
back in the days they were not aware of the racist implications of being dressed
up as ‘an Indian’, but that it was only later that they realised that they were
somehow staged as an exotic ‘Other’in their parents’fantasy of the ‘multicultural’
family. However, Asamie, a 25-year oldwomanadoptedafewdaysafterbirth,
explained how even as a child she resisted being stereotyped as ‘Bolivian’:
Asamie: Well, if something about Bolivia was on TV, my parents often called
me and asked me to watch. Then I said I did not want to watch and even now,
I still don’t want to watch it.
IDENTITIES: GLOBAL STUDIES IN CULTURE AND POWER 7
Atamhi: And why not?
Asamie: I think I don’t want to watch because this is forced upon me, it is as if
things belong to me. But I don’t want to be forced into this, I want to discover
what I’m interested in by myself.
During the interviews, many of the adoptees also talked about the Bolivian
adoptee gatherings that were organised in Belgium for about 10 years from
the second part of the 1990s onwards. Previous research (De Graeve 2013,
2016; Howell 2006) shows that festive gatherings have become a common
practice among adoptive families and have even been encouraged by adop-
tion agencies, adoption organisations and adoption guides in Belgium. These
festive gatherings are usually considered by adoptive parents as an important
means to share experiences with each other and to bring their adopted
children in contact with other adoptees from the same or other countries of
origin. The gatherings of Bolivian adoptive families took place in diﬀerent
Flemish towns, and were alternately organised by one of the families, typi-
cally in the hometown of the organising family. The gatherings were relatively
small and usually attracted about 10 adoptive families with their children. The
participants in this study who were adopted from 1992 to 1996 all recalled
having participated in these gatherings at least once in their lives.
The majority of the interviewees looked back on those gatherings with
positive memories. Most of them recalled the gatherings as pleasant and fun,
yet some had some reservations. Carlos, for instance, 23 years old and
adopted at the age of 6 months, said that he remembered that he never
understood why he needed to connect to other people from Bolivia.
What I remember of those gatherings is that I didn’t like to go because I was
seen as a Bolivian child while I wanted to be seen as a Belgian child. Well, I was
not completely annoyed because I like to meet other people, but I didn’t like to
have my Bolivian-ness emphasized. That is why I stopped going to those
gatherings. (Carlos, 23 yr.)
Some adoptees recounted that young as they were (between 5 and 10 years
old), playing with other Bolivian adoptees was not necessarily an activity they
looked particularly forward to. They said that they did not really feel Bolivian
at that age and were not speciﬁcally interested in Bolivia nor in adoption.
The quotes exemplify the complex discursive struggle in the adoptees’narra-
tives. When Asamie says that she wants to decide for herself what she likes, she
draws on neoliberal notions of self-actualisation and individual choice to criticise
moments of having been stereotyped by her parents. She denounces her parents’
parenting work as too pampering and paternalistic, which contradicts the plea for
intensiﬁcation of adoptive parents’training which is often advocated by adoptee
organisations in Flanders. Local adoptee advocacy groups argue for monitoring
adoptive families even more, including intensifying the adoptive parents’training
8A. CAWAYU AND K. DE GRAEVE
in terms of preserving the culture of origin, more low-threshold assistance and/or
obligatory aftercare for adoptive families and adoptees.
This standpoint draws
on the dominant Western middle class ideologies of intensive parenting on the
one hand (for a discussion of intensive parenting see Hays 1996;DeGraeveand
Longman 2013) and prevalent discourses that depict the care for adoptees as
extraordinary demanding and challenging. Adoptees’pleas for increasing mon-
itoring of adoptive parents implicitly endorse the mainstream and oﬃcial policy
rhetoric that starts from the idea that adoptees are likely to be psychologically
unstable, incomplete and/or damaged, and therefore in need of specialised
guidance and expert knowledge.
However, when both Carlos and Asamie look back on and criticise their
parents’attempts to (re)connect them to their ‘birth culture’, they draw on
entirely diﬀerent presuppositions and concerns. Here, they fall back on anti-
racist critiques that are increasingly vocalised in Belgian society –yet are still
the object of intense contestation –and provide people of colour with
a vocabulary to frame their experiences and feelings of racialisation, discri-
mination and non-belonging. In contrast to earlier generation adoptees, they
have had parents who were already subjected to a considerable amount of
monitoring and control, and were instructed on how to do culture work, yet
the adoptees criticise the paternalistic and essentializing aspects of the
parenting work. Doing so, the adoptees implicitly shift the focus of the
problem (or the ‘wound’) away from their purported psychological vulner-
ability (primal wound) to the adoptive society that is unable to sustain
diﬀerence (colonial wound).
Feeling of togetherness: Bolivian adoptee gatherings
While the previous section focused on how the interviewees looked back
upon their parents’culture work, this section discusses the adoptees’own
work of trying to reclaim a positive identity. Although some indicated to
have mixed feelings about the gatherings for Bolivian adoptive families,
many of the research participants explained that these gatherings have
resulted in long-term connections with other adoptees and that many of
them have kept seeing each other. After the family gatherings stopped
being organised, little groups of female friends stayed in contact, met each
other repeatedly and went to parties, to the movies or to a ‘girls night’
together. Interestingly enough, several of the adoptees emphasised that
these friendships had not so much to do with their common identity as
‘Bolivian’or as adoptee, but more with being of the same age and having
Some of the interviewees recounted that once they were in their early twen-
ties, they had taken the initiative to organise a sort of reunion of all the Bolivian
adoptees who had been participating in the gatherings for Bolivian-Belgian
IDENTITIES: GLOBAL STUDIES IN CULTURE AND POWER 9
adoptive families and to keep in contact through a self-created ‘Bolivian
Adoptees’-online platform. They said that the ﬁrst adoptee meetings, unlike the
family gatherings, had a clear purpose to them, notably the need to share
experiences and knowledge about return trips to Bolivia with people who were
in the same situation. Yet they continued to meet each other regularly, which
made the meetings evolve into a space for discussing not only things about
Bolivia, but also about all kind of themes, including everyday life, school and
relationships. Some interviewees said that for them it was important that the
gatherings enabled them to talk in a safe and non-judgemental way. Meetings
happened once to twice a month, with the whole group sleeping over in the
house of one of the adoptees. Naya, who had gone to live in Bolivia for a couple of
years, has then returned to Belgium, yet has also stayed in contact with her social
network in Bolivia mainly through social media, described the gatherings as
The beauty of the gatherings is that you are with other people who are in the
same boat and therefore can understand you. I do have very good, respectful
and nice Belgian friends but because they are not in the same situation as me,
they can’t imagine what it is like to live in-between two worlds.(. ..)That is why it
is very important to have friends who are going through this process and this
allows us to understand each other very easily. (Naya, 24 yr.)
Using the expression ‘in the same boat’, Naya articulated her experience of
having a lot in common with fellow Bolivian adoptees. Also Sarah, 21 years
old and adopted at 10 months of age, described the gathering with other
Bolivian adoptees as a way of sharing a ‘feeling of togetherness’. Some of the
Bolivian adoptees even designated this feeling as a sense of kinship. The
adoptees’phrasing in terms of togetherness and kinship seems to creatively
use both family of choice discourses and discourses of biological kinship,
claiming (almost) kin connections with people with whom they are not
biologically related but share national and racial origins. Kim (2007) made
similar observations in her research on Korean-US adoption. She observed
that Korean adoptees tend to experience their connections with other Korean
adoptees as a ‘powerful form of relatedness that is based on radical con-
tingency, shared generational consciousness and elective aﬃnities that
articulate adoptees’‘unnatural histories’and struggles for cultural citizenship
in the West and in South Korea’.
Naya’s expression ‘living in-between two worlds’refers to her experience of
having lived in Bolivia for several years and the subsequent process of having to
re-adapt to Belgian society again. Naya explained her decision to go and live in
Bolivia in terms of her search for racial belonging and a growing desire to
acquaint herself with Bolivian culture. Her return to Bolivia, to use Mignolo’s
words, was a practice of ‘delinking’from the colonial legacies that structure her
life and have put her in a position in which the legitimacy of her presence in
10 A. CAWAYU AND K. DE GRAEVE
Belgium isconstantly being questioned. She experienced her new life inBolivia,
ﬁnding a job, being surrounded by Bolivian people, learning more about
Aymara culture and practices, getting acquainted with diﬀerent knowledge
systems, etc., as a tool to ‘re-exist’and heal from the hurt that she thinks
colonial and racist discourses in Belgium have caused. When Naya talked
about her decision to go back to Belgium, she emphasised her need to keep
ﬁnding ways of delinking and re-existing, for instance through attending
Bolivian adoptee gatherings. These gathering, she explained, tend to provide
her with a feeling of comfortableness similar to what she experienced in Bolivia,
a space in which she can safely express her feelings and experiences as
a Bolivian adoptee. The adoptees’reference to the gatherings as places that
evoke feelings of togetherness and understanding also hinge on a politics of
intimate citizenship in which advocacy groups become spaces in which ‘devi-
ant’bodies are normalised and develop their own visible and positive cultures
that can leak into broader public spheres and have the capacity to shift
boundaries in society at large (Plummer 2001).
Disguised as a Bolivian: negotiating racial and national identities
In this section, we discuss how the Bolivian adoptees in our study negotiate
their racial and national identity, an identity that they tend to imagine as
multiple and complex. The subject of racial, ethnic and cultural identiﬁcations
was brought up multiple times by Bolivian adoptees during the interviews or
gatherings. Guillermo (see above) for instance, pointed to the various iden-
tities with whom he is able to identify:
Yes, I do feel like a Fleming. My friends also tell me ‘you are a real Belgian’. [.] For
sure I’m also Bolivian. [. ..] East-Fleming as well. [. ..] And actually I feel citizen of
the city where I grew up ﬁrst, and a Bolivian second. (Guillermo, 28yr.)
What is interesting, however, is that most of the interviewees expressed to
have a white identity:
Yes of course I am white. I was raised here, and I haven’t received any culture
from Bolivia or their ways of thinking. Not at all. So, I’m actually white inside and
brown outside. [. . .] So, I’m actually disguised as a Bolivian, but I’m just like the
[white] people here. I only look diﬀerent. (Pablo, 21yr.)
Using race and culture as interchangeable, Pablo, who is 21 years old and was
adopted at 6 months of age, argues that his acquaintance with Belgian
culture makes him white. Some of the Bolivian adoptees also explicitly stated
that they only date white partners, or like Pablo ‘rarely date people of colour,
actually almost never’. Hübinette (2007, 143) argues that this white self-
subjectivity for people of colour can be seen as the result of ‘constantly
copying, imitating and mimicking whiteness on an everyday level’. He relies
IDENTITIES: GLOBAL STUDIES IN CULTURE AND POWER 11
on Butler’s(1993) performativity theory to explain the mechanisms that make
transracial adoptees ‘perform’whiteness.
In addition, he notes that this
desire towards whiteness is not uncommon for colonial subjects. The pre-
ference of some of the adoptees for white partners might also be a result of
this white self-subjectivity and an illustration of how colonial imageries
promote whiteness as the universal standard of excellence, beauty and
desire, but at the same time stipulate which bodies are able to reach this
standard and which bodies are not (Wekker et al. 2007). Hübinette refers to
transracial adoptees as ‘ethnic drags [. . .] who are troubling, mocking and
parodying supposedly ﬁxed racial, ethnic, and national identities and belong-
ings’(p. 143). Pablo’s words ‘disguised as a Bolivian’perfectly grasp this
performativity of racial identity.
While some of the interviewees’claimed to identify as white, most of the
participants also identiﬁed as Bolivian. They often described themselves as
either a mixture of Belgian and Bolivian or as a ‘Belgian with Bolivian roots’.
The adoptees thus seemed to feel the need to acknowledge their Bolivian
background, and even said to be proud of their country of origin. However,
most of the interviewees were rather reticent in fully claiming a ‘Bolivian’
identity. Some even reported that they had not always been comfortable with
being non-white and being associated with Bolivia. They explicitly recounted
childhood memories of their desire to be white. Even Naya, who recently
moved back to Bolivia for a couple of years (see above) said:
In High School, around the age of twelve, thirteen, I started to have a distaste for
Bolivia. I wanted to be Belgian, I wanted to be white (. . .) I didn’t want to have
anything to do with Bolivia. I did not want to be reminded every time again that
I come from Bolivia. It irritated me a lot (Naya, 24 yr).
In this quote, Naya explicitly connects her memory of wanting to be white to
her memory of having an aversion to anything Bolivian and an aversion to her
own body. She presents this memory as a memory of a turning point (‘Istarted
to’), yet leaves the repeated events (‘every time again’) that had led to this
turning point implicit. Her narrative highlights that she had come to see her
own ‘brown’body as something Bolivian, and therefore ‘other’,unabletobe
Belgian. She explained that the ‘colonial’gaze that she had learned to adopt,
had made her believe that Bolivia represented nothing but poverty and under-
development, which was something she did not want to be associated with (see
also Leinaweaver 2013). Further on in the interview, Naya explained that her
aversion to her country of origin and to the colour of her skin has disappeared
when growing older. She said that she now identiﬁes as a ‘proud Latina’.
While the adoptees did not tend to see their Bolivian-ness as an essential
identity, they nevertheless sometimes reverted to bio-essentialist ideas, which
may be informed by prevailing stereotypes of Latin Americans. Several of the
adoptees, for instance, tended to support the idea that Bolivians have a natural
12 A. CAWAYU AND K. DE GRAEVE
sense of rhythm. When Elio, 22 years old and adopted at age one, was asked
what made him a Latino, he replied:
The rhythm, it is something that is highly present. The feeling I have with
dancing. The macho part is present too. I always want to show I am here,
I will never quickly move away from someone or something. (Elio, 22 yr.)
While most of the adoptees in this study claimed to be white, some claimed to be
brown rather than white and explained that their frequent experiences with
racism and racialisation had heightened their awareness of being non-white.
Unlike most of the adoptees’narratives that only implicitly referred to feelings of
non-belonging, these stories explicitly discussed experiences of exclusion in
society. Some of the adoptees explicitly pointed to the adoptive society for
failing to fully embrace transracial adoptees, due to their non-white bodies
rendered illegitimate by discourses of race and coloniality. They explained that,
as a strategy, they had chosen to show pride in their origins rather than hiding or
minimalizing their racial diﬀerences. By wearing Bolivian accessories, by speaking
Spanish in public with peers from Latin America, by travelling back to or by
moving to Bolivia for longer periods of time, by frequenting places where other
people with a migration background gather or by exclusively dating people of
colour, etc., they aimed to highlight the position of Otherness that they occupy in
Belgian society. Using these strategies, the adoptees move beyond the dominant
narrative of adoptees’need for individual psychological healing and/or restora-
tion of a presumed lack of ability to attach to family and nation. These strategies
of fully embracing the own Otherness and shaping spaces in which it is not
whiteness and Eurocentric perspectives that centre themselves as the norm, can
be interpreted as another example of the strategies of delinking and trying to
regain pride, and dignity, and assuming humanity ‘in front of an un-human being
that makes you believe you were abnormal, lesser, that you lack something’
(Mignolo in Gaztambide-Fernández 2014,207).
Conclusion: from ‘primal wound’to ‘decolonial healing’
This paper has aimed to make a novel contribution to the scholarship on
(indigenous) adoptees from Latin America through a study of the narratives
of Bolivian adoptees in Flanders, Belgium, regarding their cultural, ethnic and
racial identiﬁcations. We aimed to investigate how the heightened importance
that has been accorded to the adoptees’birth countries since the early 1990s,
adoptees’feelings of belonging. We have tried to lay bare the struggle implicit
in the adoptees’stories that tries to reclaim discursive control over their own
lives and histories. We have shown that the adoptees try to make sense of their
experiences, drawing on various and contradicting discourses that circulate in
society, and do so in rather ambivalent and complicated ways. Implicit in their
IDENTITIES: GLOBAL STUDIES IN CULTURE AND POWER 13
stories is the feeling of living somehow exceptional lives (exceptional identities)
that can cause pain and rejection. Their narratives both reproduce and reject
hegemonic explanations that depict adoptees as ‘wounded’per deﬁnition,beit
through their being snatched away from the naturalised mother-child bond, be
it through their being uprooted from the national ground where they allegedly
belong (racially and culturally). In spite of the ambivalence in their stories, they
seem to reject victimisation and reclaim control over the narrative of their
identity and (psychological) wellbeing. We have argued that in their stories
a shift is discernible from explaining their being hurt or wounded in individual-
psychological terms (the primal wound) to explaining it in social terms (the
colonial wound). According to Ureña (2019, 1643), ‘the invisible wounds of
coloniality cannot be healed without radical changes in politics, [. . .], and in
narratives about the full humanity of oppressed people’. Some Bolivian adop-
tees in this study have actively searched for options to delink themselves from
colonial discourses and practices in order to ﬁnd pride and dignity in spaces in
which their non-white bodies are being denied legitimate membership.
The stories presented in this paper show that Bolivian adoptees draw on
various discourses to build their narratives of (non)belonging and healing,
including on postcolonial and decolonial perspectives that only recently have
become introduced in Belgian activist spaces. We believe that decolonial per-
spectives oﬀer promising possibilities for adoptees to reclaim control over the
narrative of their life and possibilities for healing. They create space (although
not without contestation) for voicing the pain inﬂicted by colonial oppression,
which, according to Mignolo (2005,62),‘oﬀers the starting point not only for
acts of rebellion but for thinking-otherwise’. The narrative shift from primal to
colonial wound can be seen as an act of reclaiming control and of resisting the
omnipresent discourses that tend to render adoptees’life trajectories patholo-
gical, and provides them pathways to decolonial horizons of liberation.
1. We use the term ‘colonial’to refer to not just historical colonialism but also to
ongoing forms of ‘coloniality’, i.e. the perpetuation and reconﬁguration of
colonial legacies in hegemonic discourses, practices and social relations
(Maldonado-Torres 2007; Mignolo 2005).
2. Convention of 29 May 1993 on Protection of Children and Co-operation in
Respect of Intercountry Adoption. Available at https://www.hcch.net/en/instru
ments/conventions/full-text/?cid=69 (accessed 30 May 2018).
3. We place terms such as ‘transracial’,‘race’,‘white’,etc., between quotation
marks the ﬁrst time they are used in the text, to emphasise that they are socially
constructed –as opposed to objective biological markers.
4. The number of Bolivian children that have been placed in the southern, French-
speaking part of Belgium, is unknown.
5. The names of all the participants are replaced with pseudonyms to protect
14 A. CAWAYU AND K. DE GRAEVE
6. The word ‘Indian’was used repeatedly by the participants to refer to indigenous
people. We aim the emphasise that we are aware of the colonial connotations
of the word.
7. Te Awa's recommendations concerning intercountry adoption are available at
pdf (accessed 7 November 2018).
8. Kim (2007)uses the term ‘unnatural histories’to refer to adoptees’shared
histories of displacement and search for belonging, while at the same time
their lives have been marked by untraditional forms of kinship.
9. East-Fleming refers to being an inhabitant of the Belgian province of East-
10. Hübinette’s(2007)use of performativity theory suggests that transracial adop-
tees’white subjectivities destabilise dominant notions of whiteness while they
at the same time underline how colonial power mechanisms set the limits of
racial identity formation.
We would like to thank the Bolivian adoptees who participated in the study on which
this paper is based. We also want to thank the anonymous reviewers for their
constructive comments on an earlier version of the paper.
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the authors.
This work was supported by the Research Foundation –Flanders under Grant [number
Atamhi Cawayu http://orcid.org/0000-0002-9074-0461
Katrien De Graeve http://orcid.org/0000-0002-6177-390X
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