Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Author describes journey to discovering she was adopted | Local News

Carlyn Montes De Oca estimates there were upwards of 85 people who knew her secret.

There were 63 cousins, 14 aunts and uncles and a sprinkling of other relations in her sprawling Mexican-American family with strong Jewish ties. Everyone knew who Montes De Oca was, even some of the townspeople.

The 61-year-old Santa Fe author is one of an untold number of people who learned decades after they were born that they didn’t originate with their families. But unlike most adopted children, Montes De Oca was able to share her story with the world.

Junkyard Girl: A Memoir of Ancestry, Family Secrets, and Second Chances makes its way to area bookstores, Amazon, Kindle and other reading platforms this week. The book is the story of how Montes De Oca reclaimed her identity after learning at age 57 she did not share the blood of the parents who raised her. The release coincides with National Adoption Month.

“I thought when I was growing up that I would adopt kids,” she said. “Then the time came, and I realized I wasn’t motherly.”

And neither had been her own mother. Single and already straddled with two young children, Montes De Oca’s birth mother had suffered with mental illness. She wasn’t prepared for a third child and, in 1961, had come to her cousin’s home in California seeking an abortion, Montes De Oca said.

“My [adopted] mother went to visit a friend, and when she knocked on the door, she heard a woman crying,” Montes De Oca said.

She learned the distressed woman was visiting from Chicago and in dire straits, so she invited the pregnant woman and her two children to live in the family home. When the child arrived, baby Carlyn would be the family’s own.

“My birth mother cried all the time. Two months after I was born, my [adoptive] parents gave them the bus money back to Chicago,” Montes De Oca said.

And then the little Mexican-American girl with Jewish ancestry began to grow. By the time she was 11, she knew something was amiss.

Montes De Oca had poured her love into animals as a child. Her parents, whom she describes as loving but tough, had been hoarders. In her half-acre junkyard existence filled with sheet metal, old cars, more than 40 toilets, plywood and rusted furniture, Montes De Oca said she would imagine her real parents, though she had no reason to believe she was adopted.

“There was as much stuff inside as outside, and I felt suffocated by it,” she said. “I would dream, ‘When are my real parents coming for me?’ ”

“Often kids who grow up adopted and not knowing sense that there’s something different about them than the rest of the birth family,” said Denise Wagner, a Las Cruces doctor who specializes in family attachment therapy.

In New Mexico, there is a lack of training and education regarding adoption, Wagner said. A quick internet search yields a plethora of ads from for-profit adoption services, attorneys advertising their specialties and a government service offering photographs of children who need families. Services supporting adoptees dealing with trauma are essentially nonexistent. A number of promoted internet sites in Santa Fe and Albuquerque have disappeared with broken links, and search engines offer phone numbers that have since been disconnected.

Montes De Oca found support in Oregon at adoptionmosaic.com, an online community that assists adoptees.

“There’s a lot of shame and guilt and secrecy around an unplanned pregnancy,” said CEO Astrid Castro, who founded the agency three decades ago and who with her older sister was adopted from Columbia at age 4.

Montes De Oca was born at a time when most women who found themselves unmarried and pregnant were sent to homes for unwed mothers.

Stories are circulated of summer visits or schooling abroad, and mothers return to their hometowns as if nothing notable has happened. Many were coerced from their babies, and hospitals disallowed mothers to see their children after delivery for fear they would change their minds. The industry is so shrouded in secrecy, it has created a demographic of people who don’t know where they came from and who have no knowledge of their medical histories or ancestries.

“There are fewer closed adoptions, but they do still exist,” Castro said. “The biggest change is in the narrative of the adoptees’ lived experience. They grow up saying, ‘I want to talk about

But few adoptive parents want or know how to have that conversation, she said.

Montes De Oca learned through DNA testing that she wasn’t Jewish after all. She thought perhaps there had been an error until she was matched with a half-sister. With her adoptive parents having been dead for more than 10 years, Montes De Oca’s sister and two brothers decided to break the covenant they had made with their mother to keep their sister’s identity a secret.

“What ended up happening is that we passed a closed records law, and even until this day, our birth certificates are permanently changed and our original birth certificates are under lock and key,” Castro said. “The closed records were to protect the adopted parents and the industry at large. But we grew up and said, ‘I don’t want this fake certificate. I want to know who I really am.’ Now, certain states are fighting for open records.”

Montes De Oca’s discovery that she was adopted came five months before her birth mother’s death. Three weeks after discovering who she was — or wasn’t — Montes De Oca boarded a plane for Chicago, where she met her half-sister and the woman who rejected her as an infant.

“When I got on that plane, I was headed toward my future,” she said. “I used that trip as a time capsule into the past. I reexamined everything. Everything people said. Everything people did.

“It was in a state hospital in Chicago,” she continued. “It was crowded. There was a man yelling, ‘Help me, help me.’ They wheeled my birth mother out, and I just went into denial. She looked like an Irish elf — finely boned, small, with an angular face. I couldn’t see how this could be. I couldn’t find any feeling or connection to this woman.”

Before leaving, her birth mother asked for forgiveness.

“I said, ‘There’s nothing to forgive,’ because I learned that my birth mother wasn’t the best mother,” Montes De Oca said. “There had been neglect and abuse with the children she had kept. I knew that this way was infinitely better, that I had more opportunities and an amazing life that my parents gave to me.

“She was really suffering in this world. Her whole life had been somewhat of a tragedy. She was always depressed, unhappy in love. When it was over, the one way I did connect to her, I knew what freedom meant to me, going out in the world and following my own path. I felt she was free now. She no longer had the constraints that she had when she was here.”

Montes De Oca’s healing journey is helped by her new dog, Grace, and the support of her husband of 20 years, Ken Fischer, and her two stepchildren.

“What gives me meaning and purpose is making this world a better place for them,” she said.

Junkyard Girl is Montes De Oca’s fourth book. She wrote her first book, Dog as my Doctor, Cat as my Nurse in 2017, which became an Amazon best-seller. After taking December off “to sleep,” Montes De Oca will create audio versions of both books in her own voice.

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