By Rafael Romo Senior Latin American Affairs Editor
Growing up in Minneapolis, Alisa Clare Cohen constantly wondered whether her birth parents in Chile really abandoned her. Nearly four decades passed before she learned the truth.
“The story that I was told was that my (biological) family had essentially never meant to keep me,” Cohen said.
Her now-deceased adopted parents, Sheila and Steve Cohen, were always forthcoming about Cohen’s adoption and the country she came from. And yet she wondered.
Was she really abandoned by her birth parents as she had been told, or was she an orphan as her Chilean passport and her adoption documents stated? There were many inconsistencies and she knew there was only one way to find out.
She was about to celebrate her 36th birthday when she finally decided to dig into her past.
Their names had always been in Cohen’s adoption documents. Silvia Beatriz Córdova was listed as her biological mother and Jorge Riquelme Díaz as her father.
In February, she contacted the Chile Adoption Birth Family Search, an online group dedicated to connecting adopted children raised in the United States with their biological parents in Chile.
The group gave her a contact number with the “Carabineros,” the Chilean national police. In a matter of weeks, she got the answer she was hoping for: her biological parents were still alive and very eager to meet her.
On July 19, she embarked on a 28-hour journey that would take her from Minneapolis to Santiago, the capital of Chile. After clearing customs and immigration at the airport, she headed to the waiting area where not only her biological parents, but a half-sister and others in her new-found extended family were waiting for her.
“Welcome to Chile, Alisa,” read the hand-written posters that led her to the group and to Silvia Beatriz Córdova, the woman who carried her in her womb for nine months. There were no words, only tears of joy.
“I’ve been waiting my whole life to find my mother,” Cohen said, overcome with emotion.
‘I never saw her again’
Córdova said she gave Cohen a hug she wishes she could’ve given her daughter as a newborn baby 36 years ago.
“I saw her when she was born, but I never saw her again,” Córdova said.
Córdova says she never intended to give her daughter up for adoption.
“No, no, no. Never! Never! I had already made a bassinet cover for her. I made it myself,” she said. “I made it when I learned I was in the third month of my pregnancy.”
After giving birth to her daughter, Córdova experienced complications arising from the surgery and had to stay at the hospital for three to four months.
During that time, she, her husband and other members of the family asked employees at the state-run hospital about their daughter. The answers were evasive and they never saw the baby.
Chile was under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in 1982 when the birth occurred, and Córdova and her family feared that asking too many questions would put them in danger.
“They would just say things to get rid of us. They lied to my sister, too. It was always like that: lie after lie,” Córdova said.
For Alisa Clare Cohen things are finally beginning to make sense. “With the politics at the time and adoption not being regulated until years after I was adopted, even looking at the social worker that processed my adoption there were a lot of things, elements of it that were just incomplete and inconsistent with what I was told,” she said.
“Can you imagine waiting for a child for nine months, a child you got yourself ready for and then you don’t even get to see the baby? It was terrible, terrible! I could never fully recover emotionally,” Córdova said.
Chilean government officials today say there were so many questionable adoptions back then that authorities now have a name for babies like Cohen.
They’re called “Children of Silence.” They’re babies who were taken away from their biological parents in the ’70s and ’80s, in many cases without the parents’ consent or knowledge of what was happening, and given to adoptive parents. Those children are now in their 30s and 40s and are asking questions about a secret that was kept from them for four decades.
Children of Silence
CNN has documented several cases of adoptions like these, including that of Travis Tolliver, who was also raised by American adoptive parents and didn’t meet his biological mother, Nelly Reyes, until he was 41 years old.
“I was wanted, you know? I wasn’t given up willingly like I thought for all these years. So that makes my heart feel wonderful,” Tolliver told CNN in 2015, the day he reunited with his biological mother who was told at the hospital where she gave birth that her baby was stillborn.
“I’m still very angry. Taking my son away from me was an injustice. Why did they steal my son? I could’ve raised him just fine,” Reyes said, sitting by Tolliver’s side.
In 2015, Chilean authorities named a special prosecutor to begin investigating a list of these so-called “irregular adoptions”, a list that is reported to include nearly 600 families. Constanza del Río heads an organization that helps families find each other and says they have an even larger list.
“We have 3,000 people that are looking for them. These are adopted people and families that are looking for these babies that were stolen from them,” del Río said.
She says during those decades there were entire criminal organizations stealing babies from impoverished families to profit from their sale, while the Pinochet government looked the other way or simply ignored victims.
“Who’s responsible for this? Doctors, midwives and social workers who were preying on poor people to steal their children. You need to understand that these kids were sold. This wasn’t done for a good reason. They were a mafia selling babies,” del Río said.
There will always be unanswered questions. The hospital where Cohen was born no longer exists and the same goes for the adoption agency. For now, it doesn’t matter.
Since her adoptive parents passed away a few years ago, Cohen says her Chilean family, and an adopted sister, are all she’s got.
“I feel happy, very happy,” she said after meeting her biological mother, her eyes welling up with tears.
Neither Córdova nor Cohen speaks the other’s language, but the love between a mother and her child, they say, knows no barriers.