Hospital staff removed Maria Angelica Gonzalez’s newborn son from her arms 42 years ago and later informed her that he had passed away. She was now having a face-to-face encounter with him at her Valdivia, Chile, residence.
“I love you very much,” Jimmy Lippert Thyden told his mother in Spanish as they embraced amid tears.
“It knocked the wind out of me. … I was suffocated by the gravity of this moment,” Thyden told The Associated Press in a video call after the reunion. “How do you hug someone in a way that makes up for 42 years of hugs?”
After reading news articles about Chilean-born adoptees who had been reunited with their biological relatives with the aid of a Chilean charitable organisation called Nos Buscamos, he started his search for the birth family he had never known in April.
The group discovered that Thyden had been delivered early and put in an incubator in a hospital in Santiago, Chile’s capital. According to the case file, which Thyden summarised for the AP, Gonzalez was instructed to leave the hospital but when she went back to pick up her child, she was informed that he had passed away and his body had been disposed of.
“The paperwork I have for my adoption tells me I have no living relatives. And I learned in the last few months that I have a mama and I have four brothers and a sister,” Thyden said in the interview from Ashburn, Virginia, where he works as a criminal defense attorney representing “people who look like me” who cannot afford a lawyer.
He said his was a case of “counterfeit adoption.”
Based on a research from the Investigations Police of Chile, which examined the paper passports of Chilean children who left the country and never returned, Nos Buscamos estimates that tens of thousands of babies were abducted from Chilean families in the 1970s and 1980s.
“The real story was these kids were stolen from poor families, poor women that didn’t know. They didn’t know how to defend themselves,” said Constanza del Rio, founder and director and Nos Buscamos.
The 17-year rule of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who on September 11, 1973, led a Chilean coup to depose Marxist President Salvador Allende, coincided with numerous other human rights atrocities. These violations included child trafficking. According to official statistics, many more were tortured or imprisoned for political reasons, and at least 3,095 people were killed during the regime.
More than 450 adoption-related reunions with birth families have been arranged by Nos Buscamos during the previous nine years, according to del Rio.
Similar work is being done by other charitable organisations, such as Connecting Roots in the US and Hijos y Madres del Silencio in Chile.
Since two years ago, Nos Buscamos has collaborated with genealogy website MyHeritage, which offers free at-home DNA testing kits to Chilean adoptees and others who may be the targets of child trafficking in Chile.
Thyden’s DNA test revealed that he is 100 percent Chilean and connected him to a first cousin who is also a MyHeritage user.
Thyden forwarded his birth mother’s address and her name, Maria Angelica Gonzalez, which is quite popular in Chile, to the cousin along with his adoption documents.
He was able to make the connection because it turned out that his cousin had a Maria Angelica Gonzalez on their mother’s side.
Gonzalez, however, refused to answer his calls unless he sent her a picture of his wife and daughters through text.
“Then just the dam broke,” said Thyden, who sent more photos of the American family who adopted him, his time in the U.S. Marines, his wedding, and many other memorable life moments.
“I was trying to bookend 42 years of a life taken from her. Taken from us both,” he said.
He took his wife Johannah, his two kids Betty Grace, 5, and Ebba Joy, 8, to Chile to meet his long-lost relatives.
When Thyden entered his mother’s house, he was met with 42 bright balloons, each of which represented a year that he had not spent with his Chilean family.
“There is an empowerment in popping those balloons, empowerment in being there with your family to take inventory of all that was lost,” he said.
Thyden recalls his birth mother’s response to hearing from him: “Mijo (son) you have no idea the oceans I’ve cried for you. How many nights I’ve laid awake praying that God let me live long enough to learn what happened to you.”
Gonzalez declined to take part in this story’s interview.
Thyden visited the Santiago zoo where his American family took him for the first time following the adoption along with his wife and daughters. This time, his biological sister served as their tour guide.
When Thyden got back to Gonzalez’ house, he discovered that his mother and he both enjoy cooking.
“My hands are in the same dough as my mama,” he said as they made fried empanadas together. He pledged to keep using the family recipe to stay connected with his family and his culture.
Thyden said his adoptive parents are supportive of his journey to reunite with his lost relatives, but were “unwitting victims” of a far-reaching illegal adoption network and are wrestling with the realities of the situation.
“My parents wanted a family but they never wanted it like this,” he said. “Not at the extortion of another, the robbing of another.”
Through a spokesperson, his parents declined comment.
While Thyden was successfully reunited with his birth family, he recognizes that reunification might not go as well for other adoptees.
“It could have been a much worse story,” he said. “There are people who find out some really unfortunate details about their origin.”
Thyden and del Rio had a meeting in Chile with one of the seven investigators tasked with handling cases of fake adoption like his own.
“We don’t want money, we just want the human recognition that this horrible thing happened in Chile and the compromise that this is not going to continue happening in the future,” del Rio said. “We are trying to make a difference. Not only with Jimmy and his family but we want to do it, the change, in the country.”
In an effort to get the government to acknowledge how widespread the adoption programme is, Thyden also visited with Juan Gabriel Valdes, the Chilean ambassador to the United States.
He claimed that there was no way, either financially or otherwise, to support Chilean adoptees’ travel plans to their native country. He claimed that he sold a truck to cover the costs of his family’s travel and other expenses.
“People need to be able to decide … what their name is going to be, where their citizenship is going to be. They should have access to both,” he said. “They should have all the rights and privileges of a Chilean citizen because this is a thing that happened to them, not that they chose.”
A request for response from the Chilean Embassy in Washington went unanswered.