En español | Miguel, a New York labor leader, met the boy who would become his son in his own living room. The five-year-old named Juan would sit quietly on Miguel's couch as his mother, the housekeeper, went about cleaning her client's house. About a decade later, Miguel heard the housekeeper was in trouble. Lost to drugs and bad relationships, the Ecuadorean woman was living in a basement. Her three teenage boys had scattered.
See also: Grandparents' visitation rights.
And Miguel—he's still not sure why—decided to find Juan.
"I remember there was a snowstorm, and I found him all wet and shivering, brought him home, and gave him the couch to sleep on. I figured he'd be here for a few days, but he never left," says Miguel, a Cuban American, who agreed to share his story only if the family name was not revealed.
Now 63, Miguel ended up adopting Juan and his two older brothers. With their birth mother released from jail and rebuilding her life, Miguel's sons—who are now in their twenties—have asked him to help take care of her. She lives in a small apartment in the family's backyard in New Jersey.
And thus another American family was born. Miguel's family is part of a contemporary mosaic that, due to circumstance, medical advances, and changing social mores, allows a more fluid definition of family: single parents, adopted children, children conceived outside the womb, two fathers or two mothers, multiple parents and stepparents, or no parents at all, just grandparents.
That fluidity is a perfect fit for the Latino soul. It's common to hear about someone's grandmother, back in the old country, rearing a kid from the neighborhood because the child's family had too many mouths to feed. The term hijo de crianza doesn't translate to foster child, but it's the same concept: A grownup takes charge of a child because no one else can.
"In the old times, in our countries we didn't need papers to do what we do now," says Dr. José Szapocznik, director of the Center for Family Studies and associate dean for community development at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. "But now, while we can formally adopt, what we don't do is care for someone who, for whatever reason, needs to be cared for by a family other than his or her own."
And so U.S. Latinos are seeking to make families in more formal ways. The number of Hispanic couples seeking to adopt has increased, as has the number of Hispanics turning to reproductive science and surrogacy to produce a child.
"Within the last year, the number of Hispanics seeking to adopt has grown to the point that we've noticed a trend," says Vickye Schultz, senior vice president of domestic adoption and human resources at the Gladney Center for Adoption in Fort Worth, Texas.
About eight years ago, Barbara Gutiérrez was one of those Hispanics. Gutiérrez had always wanted to be a mother, but her career kept her single and childless until, shocked by loneliness after her father's death, she decided to become a single mom.
"It wasn't an easy decision to make," says Cuban American Gutiérrez, a former newspaper editor who now works in media relations at the University of Miami. "But once I decided to do it, I knew I would, and I knew the baby had to look like me."
Gutiérrez's skin is the color of light café con leche and her features reflect her African, white, and Asian heritages. A year and a half after she made her decision to adopt, Gutiérrez got a call from the agency: A three-month-old baby girl with a Mexican birth mother and an African American birth father was available.
Today Katya, 8, keeps her 56-year-old mother on her toes. And Gutiérrez got her wish: The two resemble each other just like mothers and daughters often do. "It's clear this child was meant to be with me, and I was meant to be her mother," Gutiérrez says.
Dreaming of Emma
In addition to adoption, Latinos are turning to reproductive technology to build their families. That's what happened to Armando Correa, who dreamed he was holding a newborn daughter. He named her Emma and, with his partner, Gonzalo Hernandez, 46, went looking for her. They purchased eggs, used Correa's sperm, and hired a surrogate mother. Correa said he didn't have ethical issues with the unorthodox way he was having a child, but he did have doubts whether he was playing God. "Then a doctor told me that, despite science and technology, for an embryo to become a baby, it takes the hand of God," he says.
In 2005, Emma was born. In November 2009, the same surrogate mother delivered their twins, Anna and Lucas.
"There is a connection between parent and child that one can't know until you become a parent," says Correa, 50, a Cuban American who lives in New York City and is the editor of People en Español. "It's a physical thing, an extension of the self."
Richard B. Vaughn, managing attorney of the National Fertility Law Center, says that in the past three years his law firm has seen an increase in the number of Hispanics seeking reproductive help. "As our Hispanic clients go through the process of assisted reproduction, they usually tell other people, and the word spreads," he says.
Correa wrote a book about his quest to be a father, En Busca de Emma: Dos padres, una hija y el sueño de una familia. During a reading at the Miami International Book Fair on November 14, Emma's birthday, Correa choked back tears as he read the details of his daughter's birth. The audience wept with him. Then little Emma took the stage and, poised as a princess, smiled from the arms of her other dad and shyly burrowed her face in his chest as the audience sang her "Happy Birthday."