CAPE COD, Massachusetts– Rachael Devaney (Pipil) has spent the last few weeks meticulously preparing life-size portraits of her family and their accompanying stories for an exhibit "Matriarchal Strength: stories of Indigenous separation and border crossing."
Devaney is a freelance reporter and photojournalist who has carved out a healing process through her work on "Matriarchal Strength."
While the portraits feature Devaney's family members, the people in the photos and their stories were a mystery to Devaney until she met them for the first time in 2018.
For Devaney, the exhibit she has been preparing is also a vehicle to bring awareness to the struggles that Indigenous families have faced since Europeans arrived in the Americas.
During the opening reception of the exhibit, Devaney will tell the story of her adoption, her reunification with her birth family after 40 years and explore issues of Indigenous identity and immigration.
It's a topic she speaks about with a poise that belies the pain of her experience.
Devaney grew up with a crucial link in her heritage taken from her. She was born in El Salvador in 1978 but was raised on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Understanding how Devaney came to be on the Eastern seaboard requires understanding the political climate of El Salvador around the time she was born.
Thousands of children like Devaney were either orphaned by murderous death squads or taken from their families through coercion facilitated by corrupt adoption agencies and lawyers.
"They were massacring and disappearing people," Devaney said. "They would take the children that were leftover in the villages where they had just killed everybody and put them in orphanages."
"Then they would adopt a lot of them out into American families."
According to Devaney, the whole purpose was to incite fear, lower resistance, and eradicate a culture.
"They also wanted to take the children so that they were away from their culture," Devaney said. "They were taught American ways of life."
"Exactly the same concept in North America, where they were taking the children and putting them into boarding schools, except in this instance there was no hope of getting back to families because they were murdered."
She said her adoption was different than the scenario of the children placed in orphanages.
"There were lawyers in El Salvador connected to wealthy families," Devaney said. "They would put pressure on women from Indigenous communities to give their children up."
Devaney's grandmother was living in Ahuachapán, a region on the border of Guatemala. Her mother had two children, who would stay with their grandmother while their mother worked. To work, Devany's Mother, Alba, had to travel to San Salvador.
"She would travel back and forth every two weeks," Devany said. "She would bring money back home to her mother to support her family."
"She ended up getting pregnant with me by accident."
Devaney's mother kept the pregnancy secret from her mother. Her employer placed an enormous amount of pressure on her to give up her child. It was a matter of convenience for the employer, who wanted Alba to continue working, taking care of her children.
Devaney said her mother agreed to give her up but immediately regretted the decision.
"The lawyers who had ties to the United States adoption agencies began threatening to charge her with fraud and jail time if she didn't follow through with the adoption," said Devaney. "This scenario is third world, civil war."
"I was a secret for forty years, nobody knew about me."
Devaney was brought to Cape Cod by her adopted parents. She recalls vast differences in appearance between herself and her adopted family. "My mother is blonde, white and has hazel eyes," Devaney said. "We don't look anything alike."
While her parents made every effort to inform Devaney of where she came from, telling her about her mother, and speaking about Devaney’s culture as a Pipil and Mayan descendant, it was still hard for her growing up in a predominantly white community.
"I had a lot of identity crisis, and a lot of stuff going on," Devaney said. "It was messy; I didn't see anybody else that looked like me."
Devaney eventually found a connection with the Wampanoag people. Mashpee, a town on Cape Cod, is home to the Wampanoag reservation.
"Wampanoag people are predominant in Mashpee," Devaney said. "I had different mentors that would at least on a cultural level bring me into Wampanoag fold."
She said the powwow and social gathering was helpful to her. But Devaney still needed answers. Being able to fellowship with other Indigenous people was a comfort, but it raised more questions.
Like when Devaney began bringing her daughter along to powwows.
"I didn't want to put her in eastern style regalia," Devaney said. "I didn't feel it was ethically right, and I didn't feel it was authentic."
By the time she was out of college, she moved to New York City and began working for the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES). It was a period that a significant impact on Devaney. It was there that a mentor gave her some advice that sent Devaney on a ten-year search.
"You know you really should start looking for your people you need to get out there and connect with people from El Salvador," Her mentor said.
Devaney recalls her time there as the first time she was around Salvadoran people all the time. But it was where she began to unravel the political events surrounding her adoption.
"I found out that the adoption agency I went through was corrupt and that I might be one of those children who was taken by force, that my family could be dead," Devaney said. "I was inconsolable."
The information was a lot to process.
"I didn't know all the politics that was going on," Devaney said. "I didn't know Indigenous people were being killed by the thousands."
Eventually, Devaney connected to an organization called Pro Busqueda. Pro Busqueda nongovernmental organization from El Salvador dedicated to searching for children who were disappeared during the Salvadoran Civil War.
The organization uses a combination of research and DNA analysis through UC Berkeley to match blood relatives of El Salvadoran who were separated between 1975 through 1990.
Devaney said her mother was not initially found by a DNA match. The first attempt was unsuccessful. She began experiencing depression and did not know how to get through it.
After three or four years, she asked Pro Busqueda to try again.
"They took my adoption papers to a town hall in Ahuachapán in the region where my family was from," Devaney said. "The woman at the counter looked at my adoption papers, and was like, 'Why are you looking for my Aunt."
"It ended up being my cousin working in the town hall."
There were still barriers to the reunification Devaney desperately wanted. Devaney's long lost family only knew of two children. There was also the possibility that the family would not want to participate.
"I was terrified," Devaney said. "I had already experienced the feeling of abandonment."
"I didn't want to die without at least knowing what happened."
Days later, Devaney met her mother through a video call. She said the experience was a shock and a miracle.
"My entire family adores me," Devaney said. "My brother and sister love me to death."
"It was like an out of body experience when I found out that they had found my birth mother; she was alive and living in California."
And in addition to her mother, she found out that her grandmother was alive and well. Through her grandmother, Devaney has now identified her own representation in regalia for her daughter to wear.
“This past year was the first year that she had regalia,” Devaney said. “She could go to a powwow in her regalia and that for me was a really big deal. “
Devaney captured stories from her grandmother for her exhibit.
"A lot of the stories are from my grandmother, who is 94-years-old," Devaney said. "She has been on this planet for almost 100 years."
"When she was a child, my daughter's age, she was living tribally, waking up to the sound of drums early in the morning."
Devaney says it is powerful to know that her grandmother was living as Native people had lived for thousands of years when she was a child. "All the stories I've heard growing up about Wampanoag people who lived on Cape Cod are so similar to the way that she lived," Devaney said.
It was these similarities that prompted Devaney to piece together an exhibit that she hopes will serve to educate people to the links between Central, South, and North American tribal entities and help people understand that asylum seekers are Native and Indigenous to the Americas.
"Armed with that information, I hope people can walk away with a broader sense of the borders and limitations that have been placed upon red people in territories that were held by our ancestors for thousands of years," Devaney said.
"To understand that my ancestors were warriors, and the original people of the Americas, gives me, and others who view the exhibit, a greater sense of the Indigenous empires that once existed – and can still exist – as we continue to instill courage, hope, and power into our children who can carry that legacy into the future."
Devaney is not sure as an adoptee if she ever will completely overcome the feelings of abandonment and the 40 years of cultural and familial loss that she went through.
"But spending time with my birth family and listening to and sharing their stories, has filled many of the emotional holes in my heart."
She said that colonizers have tried to silence traditional oral histories of Indigenous people for hundreds of years.
“This exhibit allows me to carry on the legacy of my ancestors and raise Native voices above those that continue to oppress, traumatize and exterminate Indigenous lives,” Devaney said.
Devany's exhibit will be on display at Zion Union Heritage Museum in Hyannis, MA, throughout Feb. An opening reception will take place on Feb. 8. Devaney will be joined by her birth cousin Darwin Gonzales who will share his story about his entry into the U.S. from El Salvador, his journey across the Mexican desert into Texas at age 17 and his presence as an asylum seeker in America.
Angel Ellis, Muskogee (Creek) Nation is an Oklahoma-based journalist. Follow her on Twitter @Angel71852238. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.