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The world watched a lot of great soccer this summer. But the most beautiful game I watched took place on a hot August night in Jutiapa, Guatemala, at a soccer field near a truck stop on the dusty Pan American highway.
There, something occurred that I'd never imagined when I adopted my son Jordi from Guatemala 14 years ago: I sat in the stands with his birth mother, Hilda, drinking a beer while we watched our boy play soccer.
Hilda's other son, 20-year-old Douglas, organized the game. Soccer is to Jutiapa, a remote town near the border with El Salvador, what hockey is to small town Canada, and Douglas wanted to show us his (considerable) skills. He also wanted to introduce his visiting Canadian brother to his friends. Hilda's youngest child, Cristel, a lively 10-year-old, perched herself on the boards, keeping score and cheering on her two older brothers. My partner Susan, and Hilda and I, cheered too. Despite the joking disapproval of Douglas, an evangelical Protestant, we treated ourselves to cans of cold Gallo beer as we watched. We were a small, peculiar, but enthusiastic audience.
The circumstances that brought this odd tableau together that night are nothing other than tragic. Hilda's sadness at her inability to care for Jordi, her third-born child, is a painful reality of her life. Her pain underscores every moment of our time together, from the first time we met her 14 years ago, when we received legal custody of her son, to our subsequent visits, which have introduced us to her other children and extended family.
It's a cliché that adoption works "in the best interests of the child," a homily that avoids big questions such as global economic inequalities, legacies of war and violence and other hard circumstances that brought Hilda, Jordi and us together in 1999. Yet every moment of the five days we spent in Jutiapa, watching Jordi fall further and further in love with his family of origin, made it obvious that the "best interests of the child" don't end when the adoption papers are signed.
When Jordi, at age 11, decided he wanted to try to renew contact with the Guatemalan side of his family, it was a straightforward process. Through an intermediary, we found Hilda. We sent her photos of Jordi, we received photos of her and her other children, we spoke on the phone. When we told her we'd like to come visit she said we would be welcome "with open arms," and she was not exaggerating.
Our first, short visit with Hilda and her family in Jutiapa, which took place in 2012, could be described as "Oprah-esque." Such a powerful, constant mix of happiness and sadness, tears, smiles and hugs: I would almost need to turn it off if I saw it on TV. It was certainly enough to convince us all that we needed a longer repeat performance.
So, earlier this year we went back. This time we were no less emotional. Hilda is no less sad about her need to relinquish Jordi. Her father died a couple of weeks before our visit, and she told us that, on his deathbed, he said how sad he was that he hadn't been able to say goodbye to his grandson, missing in Canada.
However, this visit we had time to develop relationships. We walked together through Jutiapa's busy markets; we visited Douglas's church and Cristel's school. We shared Domino's pizza and Pollo Campero chicken. We learned which areas of town to avoid because they've been taken over by the maras, gangs that terrorize ordinary Guatemalans today just as effectively as the army did during the country's civil war.
Every day ended by 7 p.m. at the latest so we could drive Hilda and her family up the steep hill to their village on the outskirts of town, negotiate the pockmarked dirt road back down, return our rented car to the locked garage and make sure we were back with the friends we were staying with before nightfall.
The night of the soccer game was an exception. Douglas was worried as he told us he could only get the soccer field in the evening. I didn't quite understand his concern until we raced home through the completely empty streets of Jutiapa at 10 p.m. Our hosts were terrified that we were out "so late." I remembered a quote I have always liked from American political scientist Cynthia Enloe: "Wars don't end simply, and wars don't simply end."
Yet, that night at the soccer field, as we watched Jordi racing to keep up with his big brother and his friends, it was easy to overlook the big picture for a moment and focus on the intimate. We all laughed at Douglas's friends, who kept saying, "I'm sorry" to Jordi, the only words of English on the field, as they knocked him down.
Jordi is one of the tallest sons of Jutiapa, but he's never been a soccer player. Even so, thanks to generous assists from his brother, he managed to score three goals that night. It was like watching him become more Guatemalan, or at least Jutiapan, before our eyes.
Two days after our return to Canada, I heard Jordi on the phone with Douglas, in perfect Spanglish, planning their next visit. There will be plenty of soccer games in the future.