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American tells of love for daughter and Guatemala

Editor’s Note: This story focusing on Guatemala  is the third in the World-at-Home series, in which we are attempting to “travel” around the world without ever leaving San Diego County. 

Antligua, Guatamala, at dusk (Photo: Jessica O'Dwyer)

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO—Jessica O’Dwyer flew down to Guatemala to adopt a daughter.  She also found a country to love.

The difficulties that she had with Guatemalan bureaucracy and an international adoption agency might have sent a woman with less fortitude and empathy flying in frustration back to the United States, but O’Dwyer was resolute.  She was determined that little Olivia someday would become her daughter, no matter what obstacles were thrown in her way.   And eventually she prevailed, living so happily ever after that she and her husband later decided to adopt Mateo, another Guatemalan child, to round out their family.

The O’Dwyer-Berger family now live in Tiburon, near San Francisco, but also maintain a residence in Imperial Beach, a San Diego suburb.  They make it a practice to visit Guatemala every year, and some years several times.  That ensures that Olivia, now 9, and Mateo, 6, will grow up understanding their roots, but it is also because, “I love Guatemala,” O’Dwyer declares. 

“I’m obsessed with Guatemala.  I adore Guatemala. … I am fascinated by the country,” she added.  “The people are warm, kind and loving… I have a real soft spot for the country,” she told me during a phone interview prompted by her book, Mamalita, which chronicles her experiences adopting  Olivia.

O’Dwyer is a former English teacher at La Costa Canyon High School and a public relations practitioner, who has worked in turn for art museums in Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco.  During her tenure at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), there was an exhibit primarily on the art of Mexico, but it also included works from Central America, including Guatemala, “and it was just a culture I was attracted to.”

Today a collector of Guatemalan masks and paintings as well as some of its famed textiles, O’Dwyer says she appreciates Guatemalans’ “use of color, the sophisticated design, the workmanship and the vitality.  There is a real life force in Guatemalan art; it is just electrifying. There is also a lot of humor, the references to nature, the appreciation of nature, and, really, the skill.”  One place for San Diegans to see Guatemalan clothing,  textiles, and crafts is at the Bazaar del Mundo, at Juan Street and Taylor Streets, in Old Town San Diego.

Colorful Guatemalan textiles are a familiar site at San Diego's Bazaar del Mundo

By a strange quirk of medical fate, O’Dwyer went through  menopause “twenty years too early.”  After she and Dr. Tim Berger, a dermatologist, met on a five-day, 400-mile bike ride through the deserts and mountains of San Diego County, and fell in love, she made it clear that if they were to marry, she definitely would want to adopt children.  Berger agreed and not long after they married and had moved up north to Marin County, the newlyweds set out on their adoption quest.

Why did she choose Guatemala as the place to find her child?  Why not Russia, or China, or somewhere in Africa?

O’Dwyer responded that she fell in love with Stefany Mishell Xoc Toledo (whom she later renamed as Olivia) the moment she saw her photograph on an adoption website. 

“I felt a real affinity to Central America and that culture,” O’Dwyer added.  “It was something that I felt I understood and I knew that when we became involved in international adoption we really had to embrace the culture and incorporate elements of the culture into our family.”  Guatemala is a country close enough to California that the family could travel to it frequently, “and I knew that I could probably learn Spanish a little more easily than I could learn, say, Russian.”  She pointed out that Guatemala is largely a Catholic country, and “I am Irish-Catholic, a practicing Catholic, so it felt like for me, it is a culture I understood.”

This is not to say that people of other religions haven’t found very wonderful adoptions in Guatemala; in fact, O’Dwyer said she has a friend, Nancy Hoffman, who arranges bar/ bat mitzvahs in Guatemala for  Jewish-American families who want to hold the coming-of-age ceremony in the country of their adopted children’s birth.   There is a small Jewish community in Guatemala City, she pointed out.   


Berger-O’Dwyer family in 2010, from left, Mateo, Tim, Olivia, Jessica

O’Dwyer first met six-month old Olivia in September 2002 in the lobby of the Camino Real, a luxurious hotel in Guatemala City, where many prospective adoptive parents spend weeks or months waiting for the government paperwork authorizing the adoption of a Guatemalan child.  Instead of putting children in orphanages or other institutions, Guatemala encourages their placement in foster homes. From O’Dwyer’s viewpoint, this system has advantages and drawbacks.  It gives the child an opportunity to thrive within a family rather than languish in an institution.  On the other hand, it is only natural for those foster parents with big hearts to bond with their wards, making separation traumatic.  This is particularly true, O’Dwyer suggests, when slow bureaucracies unnecessarily lengthen the child’s stay with the foster family, making resettlement with an adoptive family emotionally painful.

Olivia had been placed in a foster home after her birth mother, “Ana” had decided to give her up for adoption and move from Guatemala City back to her rural village.  An impoverished widow, who already had two children, Ana had become pregnant by a man who later had abandoned her.  

In 2002-2003, the first year of Olivia’s life,  O’Dwyer traveled back and forth between the United States to a hotel in Guatemala City.  On these visits, O’Dwyer typically transported diapers, foods, toys and other supplies for Olivia, as well as gifts for her foster family.  Even when Olivia stayed with her at the hotel, the visits never lasted long enough for the future mother and daughter to bond while the adoption pended.

After a year of delay, O’Dwyer decided that to facilitate the adoption—and to begin the process of winning her daughter’s heart – she needed to move to Guatemala, even though it meant a temporary separation from her husband, the doctor, at a time when they still were young marrieds.  She stayed first at the Camino Real, but later moved to the UNESCO world heritage site of Antigua, a town which is surrounded by seven volcanoes in Guatemala’s central highlands.   “It’s one of the most charming and well-restored colonial towns in Central America,” O’Dwyer said.  Antigua became her and Olivia’s home for six months as the paper worked continued to be dragged and dragged through the bureaucracy.

O’Dwyer regularly took Olivia on walks to the central part of Antigua, where, at internet cafés,  there were other mothers, also waiting out the adoption process, with whom she could compare notes.  In addition, she took Olivia on field trips, including one to the small San Lazaro cemetery in Antigua for Guatemala’s colorful “Day of the Dead” celebration.  “The cemetery was behind a wrought-iron fence at the end of a dead-end street,” O’Dwyer wrote in Mamalita. “In front of the fence, vendors did a brisk business selling grave blankets of pine needles and yellow marigolds—traditional in Guatemala—along with snacks of salted corn-on-the-cob and filled pupusas. A mime in white-face entertained an audience with a trapped-in-an-imaginary-box routine, while two girls paraded by on stilts.”

Noticing that people were staring at her and Olivia –she being blonde and fair, and Olivia, of indigenous Maya background,  being dark-haired and brown-skinned—O’Dwyer began to feel increasingly uncomfortable.  People were trying to guess the nature of their relationship.  She felt the urge to leave, however Olivia “was perfectly content at the cemetery. She scrambled from my arms to inspect the pine needles, then swept the cobblestones as though with a tiny broom.  She discovered that a mausoleum substituted nicely for a play structure, so much more interesting than the usual cathedral steps…”

O’Dwyer wrote she could remember thinking that she’d like to say to the people who were staring “We don’t look alike, but I am her mother. It’s been a long road to get here, but I am her mother.”   And then she added:  “No need to reveal to those families the depth of my real doubts.  My fear that some part of Olivia would never-could never-belong to me, in the effortless way their children belonged to them.”

I asked O’Dwyer to recall the moment she got over such feelings, the moment when she knew, without a doubt, that Olivia felt herself to be thoroughly and without reservations her daughter.

“It was a long process, a very long process,” O’Dwyer responded.  “This is something that people don’t talk about and I thought it important to talk about in my book.  It did not happen overnight; it did not happen immediately.  It was years before my daughter felt she could trust me.  I consulted with psychologists who we saw for three years.  I read a lot about attachment.  I did everything I thought to do that could help the process.”

Olivia with her mother Jessica O'Dwyer at Lake Atitlan

She said the moment that she stopped worrying about her relationship with Olivia came during a trip they made to Panajachel  on Lake Atitlan to meet Olivia’s birth mother, who had traveled there from a more remote area of Guatemala.  When Olivia was reintroduced to her birth mother, to whom she bears a striking resemblance, it was the birth mother, and not O’Dwyer, who was viewed by the child as a stranger.   “Maybe that was the moment when I realized that I was her mom,” O’Dwyer said.  “She regarded me as her mother.  She also had her birth mother, but our relationship was secure.   I had no doubt of that.”

Today, visits to Olivia’s birth mother and family are routine parts of O’Dwyer-Berger family trips to Guatemala.   “Her other family is just part of our life.  Olivia has me; she has her other mom.  Her other mom lives in Guatemala. She has another family, another brother, another sister.  They speak mainly Queche which is a native dialect and some Spanish, and I speak elementary Spanish and we are able to communicate.  There is a lot of holding hands, and a lot of hugging, a lot of smiling, and a lot of drawing pictures and laughing.”

To get to such a relationship with the birth family, O’Dwyer had to face her fears.  “I wasn’t sure, would my daughter love her birth mother more than she would love me?  Would she wish that she were living with her birth mother instead of me?  From everything I have read and listening to adults who had been adopted, it is such a complicated relationship—it might be all those feelings at some time.  But that doesn’t mean that she is not firmly attached to me.  Now, she doesn’t have to wonder and question who she is at her core.  And similarly her birth mother now doesn’t have to worry ‘what ever happened to my daughter?  What is happening to her now?  Is she healthy?  Is she well?’ because she knows. The big questions have been answered for her.  She can sleep at night and everyone benefits.”

The relationship between O’Dwyer and Olivia’s former foster mother is more complicated.  The foster mother and her children came to love the little girl and Olivia (then called Stefany) loved them, the only family she knew, during the more-than-a year period that they were together.  When the time came, it was very difficult for the foster mother, whom O’Dwyer called “Lupe” (many names were changed in the book), to come to terms with the fact that her job has been completed. 

Although O’Dwyer expressed sympathy for the pain Lupe felt, she believed that Olivia’s relationship with Lupe had to be terminated, so that all concerned could move on to the next stage of their lives.  Once, however,  on one of their visits to Guatemala, the O’Dwyer-Berger family encountered Lupe’s daughter, Vivian, who had been particularly close to her foster sister.   Olivia did not recognize her.

O’Dwyer said that while the adoption was pending she took many photos of Lupe and her family, and “every time I show Olivia one of the pictures it is as if she had never seen her before.  She never recognizes Lupe. ‘Who is that?’ she asks every time, and the only thing I can think of is that is so painful for her at a deep, deep, level that she just had to repress that memory and she does it every time.

“I think part of the reason that I wanted to write the book is that I don’t think it is fair to children that they should be harmed in this kind of craziness that goes on with the paperwork. In other words, she became very attached to Lupe and then she had to leave Lupe, and that is not fair. If they had picked up the pace, maybe she wouldn’t have gotten so attached and then had to be detached.”

In adopting Mateo, they specifically sought a child from Guatemala “so that both of them could have someone in the house who shared their heritage. That has been important for both of them, that they are both from Guatemala. They are proud of it.”

Olivia and Mateo “get along like any brother and sister” although they come from two biological families, O’Dwyer said.  “People often ask ‘are they really brother and sister?’  and I say ‘they are now.’ They are brother and sister, and believe me, they act like brother and sister minute to minute, and they are devoted to each other.”

Although the children are too young to read the book, they have watched a promotional video for Mamalita on YouTube, and “they love watching that –’the movie,’ they call it.” 

What does O’Dwyer hope readers will gain from her book?

“An understanding of what it felt like to be a mother going through adoption,” she responded. “And I hoped people would develop empathy for a foster mother like Lupe, and I’ve actually had foster mothers email me and say ‘no one has ever written a book about my pain and thank you for saying this.’ 

“I also wanted people to understand the situation of women in Guatemala.  Olivia’s birth mother is a good example of that, living in serious poverty, being a widow, her family broken apart by the Civil War that ended in ’96, living in a place where she had very few options and where it was kind of shameful to be a mother without a husband.  So I wanted to give a picture of all of those contributing elements to the story.  And I also wanted to show what it was like being a person from California living in Guatemala.”

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  He may be contacted at [email protected]

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Copyright 2011 San Diego Jewish World

One Response to “American tells of love for daughter and Guatemala”


  1. […] the online San Diego Jewish World featured Mamalita in American tells of love for daughter and Guatemala. Written by publisher Donald H. Harrison, the article is part of the “World-at-Home” […]

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