With Lucky Boy, Shanthi Sekaran performs a literary cantata that is as dazzling as it is soul-searing. Two disparate threads converge unluckily in Lucky Boy. One spools together the story of Kavya and Rishi in a reasonably stable marriage. Kavya is a graduate of UC Berkeley and works as a sorority chef, while Rishi works for a tech company. They lead a somewhat stereotypical Indian American life, balancing their bike-to-work Berkeley lifestyle with an India imported sensitivity to cultural expectations. The other has eighteen-year old Solimar Castro Valdez, an undocumented immigrant from fictional Santa Clara Popocalco, looking for the kind of stability that Kavya takes for granted. Lucky Boy traces Soli’s journey from naive optimist to gritty survivor and elevates the book by shining a light on the deeply contested issue of undocumented immigration.
“It all started in 2010,” said author Sekaran, “I heard about this case on NPR about a Guatemalan woman who was fighting for custody for her child. She had been picked up in a factory raid, she was in detention, and her son was being adopted away from her,” Sekaran summarized. The case was that of Encarnacion Bail Romero who lost her child to the Mosers, a couple she had never met, all while she was in detention.
As fact meets fiction in Soli’s story, the writing is deft and centered. Soli makes her way to the border by throwing in her lot with a ragtag group of young boys and men, one of whom she falls in love with. But by the time she makes it to America, Soli has “met and loved and lost her man in a matter of seven days.” Carrying the memory of her love, Soli arrives in Berkeley, and discovers she is pregnant. She procures a fake social security number and begins to work as a nanny/housekeeper for the Cassidys, who demarcate the line between privilege and poverty.
Soli gives birth to a son, Ignacio El Viento Castro Valdez, and the turbulent inner landscape of Soli’s feelings for her son is described with seamless fluency. “He was smallest at night, when shadows lapped at his edges.” Later, through a streak of poor timing, Soli is apprehended and put in detention and Ignacio ends up in state custody.
The set-up prepares the reader to face the collision between Kavya and Soli. Even so, it creates a resounding impact.
Kavya meets baby Ignacio at an overburdened foster home and Sekaran’s prose engages sentiment with blazing eloquence. “Kavya and Ignacio weren’t born in that room on that evening. An outline of her desire had been building for years now; it was clearly delineated and multidimensional and lacked the one thing, the real thing, the child at its center. Ignacio climbed quietly into that outline, and Kavya knew she was his.”
I was completely taken with Soli and Checo (her love) and felt that my reaction as a reader was Sekaran’s inflexion as a writer. “That’s interesting because I felt further from them when I started,” Sekaran remarked. “You know, of course, I can basically extract my life and make Kavya. Kavya comes from me. Soli, I had to really build from the bottom up. So maybe I made myself understand her fully because I had greater distance from her myself.”
The details of Soli’s life in detention were brutally honest and shaped itself into an editorial on America’s inhumane immigration incarceration policies while marking the disconnect between family courts, immigration detention and child welfare processes. On the morning of the adoption hearings when it was imperative that Soli make contact with the court, she was told that there was a facility shut-down with no access to phones allowed. “Senora, they are taking my son away from me. I need to call the court. I will lose him,” she pleaded with the guard desperately, but was sternly told to get back to her cell.
As immigrant genre novels go, there typically is a sentimentality, a yearning if you will, that inhabits the first-generation Indian American story and a jaded cynicism that pervades the second generation one. Sekaran manages to get beyond both tropes. Perhaps because she is not telling the Indian American story in isolation to other stories.
“That’s something that I was a little bit hesitant about; whether I have the right to tell the story that was not of my community, not of my experience. I was basically taking someone else’s experience and making a story out of it. I was very aware that I was doing that and that it was a privilege to do that, to be able to sit at my nice desk and write this, while other people were living this. And I stuck with it, because I felt like it was an important story to tell, and it was one that I really cared about,” said Sekaran. Sekaran’s use of fiction to tell a dramatic story has left me feeling awed by the powerful role that writers play in our society. Thank you, Shanthi Sekaran for calling out a case that remains an eyesore in America’s judicial system.
A Mother Loses Her Child: How It Unraveled
The fictional novel, Lucky Boy, is based on the actual case of a Guatemalan immigrant Encarnacion Bail Romero. The following account of this case is based on facts using research into legal briefs. Unless stated, the quotes are from legal briefs and court documents.
Encarnacion Bail Romero, a woman from Guatemala, crossed the border into the United States and gave birth to a son, Carlos, in Missouri. She obtained false documents to gain employment, and on May 22, 2007, after an immigration raid at the poultry processing plant where she worked, she was rounded up and taken into custody. Instead of deporting Romero, Immigration and Customs Enforcement prosecuted Romero for aggravated theft identity. She pled guilty and was sentenced to two years of imprisonment.
Immediately upon being detained, Romero arranged for her sister Maria and brother-in-law, Geronimo, to take in her six-month old baby, Carlos. The couple struggled with looking after Carlos along with their other commitments. Laura Davenport, a “Parents as Teachers” educator, who became aware of Maria’s situation, suggested that she use the help of Jennifer and Oswaldo Velazco, a clergy couple who had assisted another mother with her child while she was in prison. Maria accepted the offer of “free childcare” and started by dropping Carlos off in the mornings and picking him up in the evenings, but soon the Velazcos began keeping the child during the week.
The situation unraveled rapidly after that. On September 19, 2007, Davenport visited Romero at the Osceola jail and attempted to convince her to allow the Velazcos to adopt Carlos. Romero “steadfastly refused and professed her love for Child.” A few days later, on September 25, 2007, the Velazcos introduced Carlos to Seth and Melinda Moser of Carthage, Missouri. “By October 7, 2007, the Mosers began caring for Carlos full time,” without any involvement of child welfare services.
Two weeks later, there was a transfer of custody hearing by the Missouri Juvenile court, with only one day’s notice, and without informing Romero. The hearing “lasted 106 minutes.” Later, on October 9, 2008, the Missouri Juvenile court granted the adoption of Carlos, terminating Romero’s parental rights.
The court found that the mother had “abandoned” the child because she had not made adequate arrangements for the child when she was in prison; that she had not established any contact or communication with her infant while she was in jail; that there were only two letters on file to indicate that she was against the adoption; that she was unable to submit proof of her capability to take care of her child in Guatemala; that since she had a pattern of illegally entering the United States, she would be unable to provide any stability for a child. “A child cannot be educated in this way, always in hiding or on the run.” Thus, Encarnacion Bail Romero lost the first court battle. It was to be a portent of things to come.
One of the two letters on file from Romero read: I have suffered too much by knowing nothing about my little one, asking God to take care of him for me and let me be reunited with him soon. Please, Mr. Dominguez, [lawyer] look for the means to send my son [Child] with my family in Guatemala. This is the telephone number of my sister in Guatemala, I spoke to her and she will welcome him in my country.
Anita Ortiz Maddali, Associate Professor at Northern Illinois University’s College of Law, wrote an article for the Spring 2014 issue of the Indiana Law Journal, in which she declared that in numerous instances the “courts terminated the parental rights of undocumented parents because of biases about the parents’ immigration status, language, race, culture, and the belief that life in the United States is better for children than returning with a parent to a poorer country, such as Mexico or Guatemala.”
On July 21, 2010, the Missouri Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the Juvenile court decision stating that “[i]t is clear from the record that Mother did not consent to the adoption and did not give anyone authority to place Child for adoption.” Seven reasons were given for their reversal.
. The Velazcos had no legal authority as adoption intermediaries
. Romero was not sent any notice on the transfer of custody hearing
. Romero did not have counsel appointed till after the transfer of custody hearing
. No investigation was done into Romero’s abilities to care for the child
. There was no evidence that the Mosers were licensed foster parents
. There was no report on Carlos’s relationship to his mother
. The transfer of custody of Carlos to the Mosers occurred prior to a court order granting the transfer
The case was then transferred to the Missouri Supreme Court. On January 25, 2011, the court upheld the Missouri Court of Appeals decision. Every member of the [Missouri Supreme] Court agree[ed] that this case is a travesty in its egregious procedural errors, its long duration, and its impact on Mother, Adoptive Parents, and, most importantly, Child.” However, since the seven justices were “split on the remedy,” they called for a new trial back to the Juvenile court.
“The case continues to haunt me a little bit,” said R. Omar Riojas, one of the lawyers who worked pro bono on the Romero case. “What we were arguing was for a complete and outright returning of the adoption that would then allow us to have Carlitos (an affectional appellation) back to Encarnacion. We missed that by one vote.” It was a 4-3 split.
It is likely that the court’s decision hinged on the fact that Carlos had been with his adoptive parents for two to three years by then.
Painfully for Romero, the initial decision to grant the adoption was upheld by the Juvenile Court on July 18, 2012, and affirmed by the Missouri Court of Appeals on October 7, 2013.
Unfortunately, this case is not unique. Race Forward published a report titled “Shattered Families,” authored by Seth Freed Wessler, estimating that in 2011 there were at least 5,100 children in foster care, whose parents were either detained or deported, and that if things continued as they were, that number would balloon to 15,000 additional children by 2016.
Undocumented parents nationwide are losing their parental rights, with immigration status playing an inconsistent role in adjudications by state courts. And, as the Missouri Supreme Court observed in a 2004 case involving K.A.W. twins, “[t]he termination of parental rights has been characterized as tantamount to a ‘civil death penalty.’”
In Maddali’s opinion, “Crossing the border unlawfully and living in the United States as an undocumented person can be precarious for children and parents, but characterizing this as parental unfitness ignores the complicated choices parents face and the limited options available to provide for their children … In Bail Romero’s situation, though she was convicted of a felony for using fraudulent documents, she used these identity documents to work and provide for her children.”
It’s hard for some of us to really get the full scope of an undocumented person’s life. Davenport testified that Carlos was weak because Romero gave him whole milk instead of 2%. When Romero explained that she did not have a ride to the city to pick up free formula, Davenport expressed skepticism, because Romero did get a ride to go to the city to work every day, to which Bail Romero replied that undocumented people are afraid to drive.
Then there’s the accusation of not calling her family often enough. Initially Romero did not call her family because she did not have access to a phone, and when she did call, her family members did not accept her collect calls. Yet, she was penalized for this.
Encarnacion Bail Romero lost her child because she was undocumented, because she was poor, because she was incarcerated, and because she did not have a working knowledge of English or Spanish.
Jaya Padmanabhan was the editor of India Currents from 2012-16. She is the author of the collection of short stories, Transactions of Belonging.
Partial list of records used to report on this case:
1. Writ of certiorari to the Missouri Court of Appeals. No 13
2. IN the Supreme Court of Missouri. Re: THE ADOPTION OF C.M.B.R., Appeal from the Circuit Court of Jasper County APPELLANT’S SUBSTITUTE OPENING BRIEF. NO. SC91141
3. IN the Supreme Court of Missouri. RE THE ADOPTION OF C.M.B.R., Appeal from the Circuit Court of Jasper County APPELLANT’S SUBSTITUTE REPLY BRIEF. NO. SC91141
4. Missouri Court of Appeals Southern District Division 2 2010 WL 2841486 re adoption of C.M.B.R.
5. Case brief in re K.A.W., Supreme Court of Missouri, 133 S.W.3d 1 (2004)
6. Supreme Court of Nebraska 277 Neb. 984, 767 N. W.2d 74 Westlaw document brief
7. Appeal from the Juvenile Court of Hall County, Nebraska, Apellant’s Opening Brief
8. Amicus Brief of Legal Momentum in Support of Apellant, Supreme Court of Nebraska, CASE NO. A-08-000919
9. Indiana Law Journal, Spring 2014, THE IMMIGRANT “OTHER”: RACIALIZED IDENTITY AND THE DEVALUATION OF IMMIGRANT FAMILY RELATIONS by Anita Maddal
10. Applied Research Center renamed Race Forward: Shattered Families by Seth Freed Wessler, November 2011