By Brian Hofmann, Medill, Immigrant Connect
The Windex and toast-smelling apartment belonging to the Gomez family* is a cramped, one-bedroom, three-floor walk-up, two blocks north of 26th Street in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago. The family had immigrated, under uncertain legality, to the U.S. from the Mexican State of Tabasco, three years prior to the summer of 2001.
I’m visiting the family with my mom and younger brother John. We’re there so my mom can check-in on the woman who is to be the birth mother of another brother in my life. My mom wants to be sure that the woman is feeling well, eating properly, and taking all necessary pre-natal precautions. John and I, on the other hand, play with the woman’s children – two girls. Our games of tag and hide-and-go-seek, transcend the language barrier that exists between the four of us and distracts us from the nature of this first visit.
Other visits and playdates with the Gomez family continued over the next four months like clockwork, until they were abruptly cut short when the birth came prematurely. Preparing themselves to face the long road that was ahead in now raising a “premie,” my parents quickly cut communications with the birth family after the adoption papers were signed. They also didn’t want to risk an attempt for the Gomez family to null the paperwork, as John’s birth parents tried to do two years prior. Just like that, the Gomez family was gone and our family’s full attention was turned to a 10-week’s premature Danny and his successful fight to stability in the neonatal intensive care unit. Given the all clear, the Hofmann clan returned to a life in Hinsdale, now the five of us. These moments, playing with Danny’s birth sisters did not resurface in my mind until high school.
During the first four years following my birth, my parents had desperately tried to get pregnant again and grow a family. It was extremely frustrating for two people, who both came from large, Irish Catholic families to not envision anything but the same for their own lives. My parents turned to adoption as an alternative to the traditional course of family planning, starting with John. My parents were connected through friends to a very young Caucasian couple from a neighboring suburb, who were seeking adoptive parents for a child that neither one of them was ready for. At the age of four, I got my first best friend in John and my parents were already on their way to making our family even bigger. Despite my parents’ prior experience, the adoption process, for my younger brother, Danny, was completely foreign to them, figuratively and literally.
I always knew that my two younger brothers were adopted. Growing up, I just saw that as fact: like the fact that my eyes are brown or that I’m allergic to cats. It was nothing special, I played together with, fought with, and loved both John and Danny as I saw all other biological siblings do. There was no differentiation between how other families came to be, biologically, and how mine did.
My memories of the visits to the Gomez family did not resurface until high school. It was one of those nondescript days in the fall of my sophomore year of high school, while driving my carpool along a 17-mile stretch of Ogden Avenue through the west side of Chicago. As I was stopped at a red-light at the corner of Ogden, Cermak, and Pulaski, I realized that I was driving the same route my mom drove, ten years prior, when she took my brother John and me along to the Gomez’s apartment in Little Village.
My subconscious awoke a memory from the summer of 2001 and the bi-weekly trips to Little Village. I could smell that apartment and its unique mixture made of two-parts Windex and one-part toast. After the smell, the memory hit me of seeing Danny’s birth mother crying into my mom’s shoulder over the devastating loss of giving up her child for a better life. She made what she felt was a prudent sacrifice for all of her children. By giving up her only born son to a family that would love him unconditionally, she was increasing the likelihood her two daughters would have a better life, in which she and her husband would be able to focus the resources they had on two children rather than three.
From that day on, my commutes along the same route often became periods of reflection, rather than a monotonous daily routine. By closely observing and researching the area I drove through, I came to appreciate the gravity of the birth family’s situation. In order to continue surviving in the United States with their two daughters on the salary Danny’s birth father earned as a line-cook at Burger King, Danny’s birth family had to give up their first son. They did it to continue to provide for their two girls, who share DNA with my younger brother, whom I’ve met and played with, and who probably know nothing about my brother, who’s also their brother. They’ve never met him or played with him and probably never will.
I’ve come to realize that the devotion to survival for the Gomez family mirrors my own parents’ love for my brothers and me. For the Gomezes, the adoption was the option they chose to provide for their existing family.
I often take my parents and John and Danny for granted. However, through all of the petty arguments, fights, and tears that family inflict on one another, I recognize, through my own experience, that not all people have an equal opportunity to keep their family together.
*The Gomez family is a pseudonym used to respect the privacy of the birth family.