After living as complete strangers in the same area of New Jersey, two women found out last year that they were sisters. Julia González and Leigh Orski, both adopted daughters from wealthy families, followed the trail of their biological mother to Chile in order to find each other. Her unusual path to the truth spanned eight thousand kilometers, more than three decades and innumerable difficulties.
At first glance, Maplewood is a town of rustic brick and tile construction, with tall lanterns and charming awnings over each window. The main street, with its cafes, restaurants and stores, only stretches for two blocks; further on, the suburban territory begins, with large houses and wealthy families, which hides a liberal, tolerant and Democratic Party-related sensibility.
It was here, in northeastern New Jersey, that Julia González (32) grew up, at the time when she still used her maiden name and was Julia Eisenberg, the adopted daughter of Jay Eisenberg and Gail Safian, a professional Jewish couple. Her parents still live in the same two-story house, so she often leaves her eight-month-old twins with them when she has business or meetings, like on this cold afternoon when she has dated a younger sister who, until a year ago , did not know.
The two arrive together at Cassidy, one of the restaurants in the small center of Maplewood. They have the same complexion, the same brown skin tone, and after watching them talk for a while, you can see that they make similar gestures with their hands. In old photos there are also similar features that are now difficult to recognize; Julia admits that she has had some “tinkering” done since then.
“It’s nice to have met, but it kills me to know that we were an hour apart our whole lives,” says Julia.
-I think that at some point when I was living in South Orange, 20 minutes from here, I could have walked to your parents’ house. How many times have we met on the street? -answers Leigh Orski (29), also raised by adoptive parents.
Julia and Leigh share an imaginary of New Jersey, with its map and territory, they recognize the same places and even discovered that they had a friend in common. They also remember having attended the picnics that Patricia Zuvic, the Chilean who ran Today’s Adoption Agency, offered annually to their families. Even so, and despite the fact that their parents had the adoption documents that proved their relationship, it was impossible for them to meet without the help of third parties in Chile, the country where they were born. To do so, one of them would travel more than five thousand miles to find the woman who, so many years ago, named them Brenda and Carlina.
Leigh’s youth passed silently in Tom’s River, New Jersey. Mark Orski, her father, was an engineer at the Oyster Creek nuclear plant, whose time in the US Navy marked her so much that she later imposed strict discipline on her home; her mother, Michele Orski, was a nurse who specialized in cancer care. Six years after adopting Leigh, the Orskis did the same with another Chilean boy, whose original name is Carlos. From the beginning, their parents told them the truth: that they were biological brothers, that they both came from the same Chilean family, so Leigh – she says – always felt, in some way, accompanied. Unfortunately, that closeness manifested itself in other ways as well, as both suffered from recurring health disorders, both physical and mental. “My organs didn’t develop well. Apparently that’s what happens when there’s alcohol in pregnancy,” says Leigh. Despite these complications, she studied applied mathematics at a technical college in New Jersey. Since then, she has only worked sporadically, when she has managed to stay healthy.
Leigh says that three years ago the Orskis cut off contact with her, reproaching her for a series of decisions they did not share, especially those related to Brian Knapp, her current partner, who had previously been in jail. The break with her parents also distanced her from her biological brother – now 27 years old. Her health continued to suffer after that: In September 2017, Leigh suffered an aggressive infection following the cesarean delivery of her first child and shortly after, in February of last year, she was diagnosed with a bladder tumor. In the middle of the treatment, her boyfriend insisted that she look for her biological mother to discover some explanation for her fragile health.
“I thought it would be impossible, that I would never find it. The only information I had was my birth name: Carlina Parra Sánchez. I didn’t even know if it was the correct one. I got on the computer and immediately found the Facebook group (Chile Adoption Birth Family Search) I had no expectations, but after a while they said, ‘We found your mom,’ “says Leigh.
In the following days, Lilian Fuentes, in charge of the virtual community, gave her the details of her real mother: Luz Celinda Sánchez Contreras. She lived in Chillán, where she had studied up to fourth grade, spent long periods on the streets as a homeless person and conceived eight children from different parents. Of all of them, only the second, Pamela (34), and the eighth, Camila (25), had grown up with her; the first had died within two months of life, while the other five had been put up for adoption under confusing circumstances throughout the 1980s.
After some conversations, it was agreed that the reunion would take place a few days later, on April 19, 2018. Lilian Fuentes would take Luz Sánchez to the Second Police Station in Chillán so that they could communicate via Skype. Previously, through Fuentes, Leigh had learned that another of Luz Sánchez’s buses also lived in New Jersey. It was Julia González -originally Brenda Sánchez Sánchez-, her older sister, who at that time was expecting twins. Leigh didn’t want to surprise her so close to her due date, so Lilian interceded for her.
“Lilian wrote to tell me that one of my sisters lived next door and was going to contact me. I couldn’t believe it. ‘What? What do you want? Are you going to ask me for money?’, She asked me. give my phone number, “recalls Julia, who also did not know that she had brothers in the United States.
The night before, Leigh prepared a list of questions in case the phone conversation didn’t flow. She says she never needed it. That April 17, 2018, the two sisters met for the first time. They talked for almost two hours, discovering that they had a similar sense of humor, that they liked the color purple and the movie The Strange World of Jack. They also recognized that although they had different personalities – Julia showed her extroversion, Leigh showed her shyness – they had both gone through very similar circumstances. Their parents hadn’t kept their adoption from them, but the truth hadn’t saved them from the pain. They learned that the two had grown up feeling out of place, suffering from depression and eating disorders during adolescence. “We had very similar lives in different places,” explains Leigh.
Then they began to compare their photos of youth. In one of them there was a striking resemblance in the puffy cheeks and angled chins. Julia remembers that she cried briefly. Then she revealed to her sister everything she knew about her mother and the rest of her Chilean family. I knew them well. After all, she had lived with them in Chillán.
Julia never finished settling in. She says that at home, her younger brother and biological son of the Eisenbergs made her notice the difference that existed between them. The same thing happened to her at school, where she remembers that her white classmates made fun of her dark complexion. Between the ages of 12 and 18, she went through countless schools, including a military boarding school, and rebelled against the authority of her parents. It was in this period that, she acknowledges, she began to abuse alcohol and some drugs. She was detained on several occasions and by the time she was 20 she was hooked on heroin. “I gave my parents a lot of hard times because of that feeling of not belonging. I always wanted to find my biological mother, understand where I come from. I had a very big void,” she explains.
Gail, her foster mother, had saved herself one last resort to get her to react. She says that from time to time she would speak with her Chilean friend Eduardo Chacana, who, in turn, had asked a contact of her in the Carabineros to find Luz Sánchez, Julia’s biological mother.
In late 2010, when Julia was 24 years old and lost in that erratic lifestyle, Gail asked her again if she wanted to locate her biological mother. Julia accepted and soon after they managed to find Luz Sánchez. With the help of Eduardo Chacana, who was acting as an interpreter, he began talking to her on Skype. Julia recalls that her Chilean mother was embarrassed and told her that she had consciously given her up for adoption, although she had regretted many times.
In early 2011, Julia finally traveled to Santiago to meet her. Luz received her in Pudahuel accompanied by her eldest daughter, Pamela. “Seeing her face was something shocking. We had the same eyes, the same chin, the same skin. I cried like crazy. It was magical, like I took a weight off my shoulders. But when I started to get to know her better, it stopped being so magical” , says Julia.
She accompanied them to Chillán, where she met the rest of the family, her grandmother, and a pile of uncles and cousins. He tells that he stayed in Luz’s mediagua, along with his younger sister, Camila, and her two children. With Camila she established the most intense relationship, she says. The two became close, they went out dancing on weekends, but they argued often. Julia believes that in some way she resented her privileges, such as the $ 800 allowance she received from New Jersey. “They thought I was spoiled,” says Julia, who admits that the fights with her sister even became physical. The other conflict, although silent, was with her biological mother. She had understood that she was an alcoholic and assumed that her own “addictive personality” was hereditary. She claims that she also began to suspect that Luz was holding her to continue contributing money.
After a few months in Chillán, Julia returned to the United States, but quickly got into trouble. According to her account, she was arrested for heroin possession and the Eisenbergs had to pay her bail. With the idea of removing her from that environment, they returned her to Chile, this time only with a one-way ticket. “It worked. I became more responsible, I worked as a waitress, I rented a room and had a Chilean boyfriend. Since then I have been sober. I also began to value the life I had in New Jersey much more,” says Julia, who now drives with some fluency in Spanish.
During that second stay, which lasted just over a year, he visited Luz regularly, but lived by her side and toured the country. “We had very happy moments,” says Luz, on the phone from Chillán. Julia has not spoken to him since last year. “I don’t forgive her that she never told me that, in addition to me, she had given up four other children,” explains Julia. “If I had known, I could have met Leigh much earlier.”
Luz insists that due to alcoholism she does not remember many things, but believes that she did tell Julia the truth. For her part, her eldest daughter, Pamela, thinks that she probably preferred to omit it: “I don’t want to justify my mother, but there were situations that overcame her at that time.”
With only scraps of memory, Luz tries to explain how she gave up five children for adoption. But before that, she clarifies that she is happy that two of her daughters have met: “Super happy for their meeting. Now I only speak with Carlina (Leigh) and I find out from her. With Brenda (Julia) I behaved super well when she came, I don’t know why she suddenly eliminated me from everything. If you talk to her, tell her that she is still very much loved here. “
“Luz Celinda Sánchez Sánchez, 21, born in Chillán (…), comes from a marginal background, mother of three children, remembers an irregular childhood, her emotional ties are null (…) In 1985 she began a relationship with Carlos (…), a worker in an agricultural firm, and became pregnant with Brenda. When he found out that he was married, the relationship ended (…) His current condition is one of absolute poverty, he lives as a close friend with a friend, he works in a hotel where she helps with the laundry. Her conditions prevent her from raising a girl, so she has decided to put her up for adoption. “
This socioeconomic report from May 1986, which is among the adoption papers kept by Julia’s parents, bears the signature of Telma Uribe, one of the social workers investigated by Judge Mario Carroza for the irregular adoptions that occurred in the 1970s. and 1980. “Sábado” tried to communicate with Uribe, but it was not possible. Meanwhile, when asked about Julia and Leigh, Judge Carroza pointed out that “all complaints and cases are under investigation. Once what happened can be established, resolutions will be made on a case-by-case basis. Therefore, nothing has been ruled out in so much so that we are not sure how the minors reached their adoptive parents. “
Luz remembers that throughout the 1980s a woman named “Aída or Haydee” approached her on the streets of Chillán to ask her if she was waiting for a bus. As her stepfather had kicked her out of the house after her second pregnancy, she says that she decided to accept the offers of shelter, food and clothing from this woman. “They also gave us money to drink and pills and drops so we wouldn’t be nervous. We didn’t know anything, we lost track of time,” she says. When the pregnancy was already advanced, she remembers that they transferred her to nursing homes in Santiago to have the baby. On May 6, 1986, as recorded in a notarial document to which “Sábado” had access, they accompanied her to sign the transfer of custody; the next day, just a week before giving birth, she was presented in front of the court to ratify the document.
Towards the end of the month, the Eisenbergs arrived in Santiago. After years of frustrated attempts, Gail says that she had just become pregnant, a kind of miracle that she attributes to Julia, since the conception had occurred a few days after Patricia Zuvic, of Today’s Adoption Agency, informed them that her “Chilean girl ” Had been born.
The American couple stayed at the Crowne Plaza. Both recall the military presence in the streets of the center. Gail mentions that a woman they knew as “Dory” brought Julia, just over a month old, to spend the afternoon with her. They went to the Metropolitan Park zoo. At night, “Dory” picked up the bus. In the following days, with all the documents ready, they dedicated themselves to carrying out the procedures before the US consulate.Among the papers was the sentence of May 23, 1986, issued by Judge Henny Reyes, of the former Eighth Court of Minors from Santiago, who granted custody of Brenda Sánchez to the Eisenbergs. It had been processed by the lawyer María Luisa Avendaño, who died in 2014. On the third page, a sentence summarizes the legal gaps of the time: “That the magistrate has considered it unnecessary to notify the National Service for Minors since, as has been indicated several Sometimes, the natural mother of the minor has delivered it directly to the applicants so that they can adopt it in accordance with North American laws, voluntarily, definitively and irrevocably. “
Gail says that in front of the then consul Jayne Kobliska, they felt judged: “She was very critical of all these adoption programs and said that the Pinochet government was beginning to worry about the situation. She also mentioned that we had paid too much, that they had been He took advantage of us. I didn’t care. It was all legal and we could give him a better life than Luz. Maybe there was abuse, but we were happy to have our daughter. “
That same day they took Julia out of the country.
Denise Zuvic (51), daughter of the director of Today’s Adoption Agency, remembers the last name Eisenberg. She worked at the agency from the late 1980s to 1997. That year, according to press reports, they were forced to close by authorities in several states, after a series of lawsuits from couples who never received their children. Regarding operations in Chile, she clarifies that if there was any type of abuse, it was not the responsibility of her organization. “All the processes were carried out with signed statements from the mother before notaries and judges. As they were poor families, they were given some money or help, but I don’t know much more. We worked with the lawyers, they had their contacts to find the children. If there was something improper, it was not reported to the United States, “says Zuvic, who assures that they have not received any request for information from the Chilean justice system.
After the agency closed, Denise Zuvic says her 77-year-old mother is still tied to the issue of motherhood, but in an egg donation and surrogacy program that operates in Pennsylvania. Denise claims that she herself carried three children for other couples. “One of the most wonderful experiences of my life,” she says.
On April 25, 2018, Julia and Leigh met in person for the first time. It was at the Sun Tavern, a place in Roselle Park, near the home of Julia and her Uruguayan husband, Frances González. They both went with their partners. They talked about Chile and motherhood, since Julia was a few weeks away from having her twins. Since then, they communicate almost every day and meet at least a couple of times a month. “It’s like starting a friendship, but in which you are trapped for life,” says Leigh. “It’s still something new and we have a lot to explain when we talk about our lives. I hope the day will come when she starts talking about something. and I know immediately what it is about. “
Although Leigh has tried to get Carlos to also recognize Julia as her biological sister, she has not succeeded. “She will change her mind,” says Julia optimistically. Taking advantage of Facebook, both have uploaded messages asking about the two brothers they do not know: Isabel and Nicolás. They assume they are US citizens.
Until today, neither of them can understand that Luz delivered a bus five times, despite the precarious conditions in which she found herself. “They can fool you once or twice, but five? That doesn’t make sense to me,” says Julia. As young mothers, they are both closed in on it. Despite this contained rage, Julia says she is willing to accompany Leigh to Chile to meet Luz. You think it is an experience you must go through.
-I would like to see her in person, at least once. I want to give her a hug to see if I feel different, ”Leigh says.
“I didn’t feel transformed, but it’s something important,” Julia answers.
-They all don’t seem real to me yet. They are so far away. Julia, you are real, very real.
Julia looks at her:
-Maybe when you see them you can give a closure to all this.