ALTO DO CRUZEIRO, BRAZIL — When Maria Lourdes, mother of five malnourished children, was asked by her wealthy patroa if she could "borrow" Maria's 4-year-old, she readily agreed. The woman, for whom Maria washes clothes, said she wanted the galega (fair-haired, fair-skinned child) strictly for amusement. Maria sent her daughter just as she was: untidy, barefoot, without a change of clothes or her little pink comb with its missing teeth. The patroa promised to return the child the following morning.
Two nights passed and no daughter. Maria was worried, but she assumed that the child was happy and having a good time. She didn't want to anger her boss by appearing anxious or mistrustful.
A week later, Maria's husband, Manoel Francisco, returned home from his work as a sugar-cane cutter. When he discovered his favorite daughter missing, he shoved Maria up against the wall of their hut. "Stupid woman!" he yelled when Maria told him what had happened.
He went off in frantic search. At the house of the patroa, he learned it was too late: The little girl had been given to a wealthy American missionary who directed a "children's home" in Recife that specialized in overseas adoptions.
"Your daughter is in good hands," insisted the home's local sponsor and benefactor. "Leave her where she is and soon she will be on her way to America to become the daughter of a rich family. That pretty girl of yours has no future in your household. Don't be selfish; give her a chance."
The woman would talk no more. When Manoel became insistent, she asked one of her houseboys to throw him out.
Had Maria and Manoel lodged a complaint with the police? I asked.
"Do you think that the police would take a complaint from us?" Maria said. She was angry at having been tricked but had come to accept what had happened. Her daughter was better off now.
Later, Maria withdrew into the back room, where family members slept crisscrossed in hammocks. She emerged carrying a small plastic basket. In it were all her daughter's possessions: a couple of tattered cotton shifts, a pacifier on a string, a pair of plastic flip-flops, the pink comb and a tiny mirror. "Marcela was so vain, so proud of her blond hair and fair skin," her mother recalled, "and look what happened to us because of them."
Maria's oldest daughter, Marivalva, picked up the objects and turned them over, tears in the corners of her eyes. "Does she miss her little sister?" I asked. "Don't mind her," Maria replied, pushing the girl away. "She's only crying for herself, that it was her bad fortune not to have been stolen!"
"But you have saudades for your daughter?" ("Do you pine for her?")
"I don't think of her too often now," said Maria. "But when I go into her things, it makes me sad, sometimes."
Learning of half a dozen similar cases in Alto do Cruzeiro, I decided to investigate. The names of the key actors in the following account have been changed.
Each year, nearly 1,500 children legally leave Brazil to live with adoptive parents in Europe, the United States and Israel. But if one adds the clandestine traffic that relies on false documents and bureaucratic corruption in Brazil and abroad, exploiting the emotions and ignorance of poor women like Maria, the estimated number of children leaving rises to 3,000 a year, or roughly 50 a week.
The international market in babies was a brief cause celebre in the Brazilian media in 1987-88. I first heard the story at a small hotel in a suburb of Recife. In the '60s and '70s, the hotel was a popular hangout for Peace Corps volunteers, for military personnel and for the more adventuresome American and European tourists. In the late 1980s, it began catering to a new clientele--couples from the United States and Europe in the final stages of adopting a Brazilian child.
Most were working under the auspices of a domestic adoption agency, many of them church-affiliated, and all had been referred to an elderly Protestant missionary who directed a large children's home--call it Casa Alegre--in Recife. On a weekend in June, 1987, I met five married couples and a single woman at the hotel who were awaiting the conclusion of four to six weeks of court proceedings toward a legal adoption. The timing of their arrival coincided with the appointment of a sympathetic children's judge who did not share his compatriots' anxieties about the exodus of poor Brazilian children.
Among the couples were Barry and Peggy from Minnesota. Soon after the birth of their first child, the couple discovered that they were carriers of a fatal genetic disease: Their son lived less than a month. A member of their local church put them in touch with the director of Casa Alegre. Now, roughly a year later, Barry and Peggy were in Brazil hoping to return home with an adopted year-old daughter, Carolina.