Milagros Vacas Arlandis had three biological children of her own and a demanding job as a medical doctor, but something was missing.
For 10 years, she and her husband, Jose Antonio Revilla, had wanted to adopt a child, but long waits and complicated legal maneuverings made adopting within their native Spain virtually impossible.
“My husband and I always wanted to provide a home for a child who didn’t have a family,” Vacas Arlandis said. “We tried to adopt in Spain, but after waiting for years and hearing nothing, we decided to take a different route.”
So in 2002 the couple attended an informational meeting and initiated the paperwork to bring a little girl from China to their home in the northern city of Santander.
As once-homogenous Spain digests a newly diverse population, enriched by an influx of some 4 million immigrants over the last decade, it also has one of the world’s highest per capita international adoption rates in the world. More than half the adopted children come from China.
After the U.S., Spain is the country that adopts the most children from China, the China Center of Adoption Affairs reported.
In 2005, Spanish families adopted more than 5,400 children from abroad, up from 1,800 in 1997. More than 2,700 of the 2005 adoptions were from China, according to government data.
In contrast, the U.S., a country whose population of 300 million is nearly seven times greater than Spain’s population of 44 million, recorded just over 7,900 adoptions from China in 2005, the Department of State said.
Greater female participation in the work force and rising divorce rates have led many Spaniards to start families later, said Juan Jose Garcia Ferrer, director of the Institute for Children and Family, a branch of Madrid’s regional government.
“As women become more involved in their careers, they are putting off motherhood,” Garcia Ferrer said. “And with 30 being the median age for a first marriage and half of all marriages ending in divorce, the demand for adoptions is going to keep growing.”
At the same time, rapid economic development over the last decade has given many families better access to technology as well as the financial wherewithal to pay for adoption fees and international travel, he said.
China is the country of choice for most Spanish families looking to adopt, thanks to brief waits, a relatively transparent legal process and a high availability of children under age three, said Roberto Pili, director of Transmes, a Barcelona-based agency that files paperwork for families seeking to adopt Chinese children.
“The process is secure, the children are very young and the medical information about the children is accurate,” said Pili, who has three adopted Chinese daughters.
And as a result of China’s one child per family population-control policy, the country “simply has a very large number of adoptable female children,” Pili added.
The knowledge that most adoptable Chinese babies were abandoned because of their gender also serves as an impetus for Spanish couples to adopt there, Garcia Ferrer said.
Spanish families who want to adopt from China must first undergo training and psychological screening in their municipality before receiving government approval. Many then opt to work with organizations, such as Pili’s, to sort their way through the paperwork.
Once China approves the application, the family must wait until a child becomes available, a process that generally takes less than two years.
Months or years later the family receives a packet with a photo of the child along with medical information and, soon after, embark on the voyage to China where they often travel and stay in the same hotel with other adoptive parents. The paperwork can take a couple of weeks, and some parents take advantage of this time to get to know their new child’s native country.
But with the growing international demand for adoptions now exceeding the number of available children, China is tightening its regulations to favor healthy, economically prosperous, middle-aged couples.
Celsa Vega, a 50-year-old single Madrid woman whose adopted daughter, Julia, is now 6, said she felt lucky to have adopted from China before the new rules made it next to impossible for single parents to do so.
Vega, who now works as a civil servant, spent her youth traveling, studying and working various jobs.
But on finding herself single and in her mid-40s, Vega decided to make her dream of becoming a mother a reality by adopting a Chinese baby.
“I waited a long time and always felt like I had many years ahead of me,” Vega said. “But at a certain point I decided that I had reached the age where I had to make a decision: either I become a mother or I don’t.”
In 2002, after waiting less than two years, she traveled to China to pick up Julia.
“There was a connection between us from the start,” Vega said. “Adopting her was the best decision I ever made.”
Vacas Arlandis also described the experience as overwhelmingly positive. “People say you did her a big favor, but she’s the one who did us the favor. She has enriched our lives tremendously,” she said.
Both women said their daughters have had little trouble integrating into Spanish society.
“We have never had any problems with racism – if anything, people see Maria as exotic,” Vacas Arlandis said of her four-year-old daughter, noting that there tends to be less prejudice against Asians than against other groups.
She added that Maria does not yet see herself as different: “She tells me, ‘Mommy, I am pretty like you.'”
But Julia has started to make distinctions between herself and Chinese classmates who live with their biological parents.
“Julia will say, ‘She’s more Chinese than I am,'” Vega said.
Still, it may be too early to appreciate some of the identity issues children adopted from China face, Pili said. “Most of the bigger problems normally emerge in adolescence, and because adoptions from China began in 1996, the children are still very young.”
Pili said he and his wife have tried to prepare their daughters for future encounters with racism by instilling in them the confidence to deal with difficult situations.
“It helps that there are so many other adopted Chinese girls here in Spain,” he added.