Content warning for sexual assault.
Branca, now 43, grew up in Southern Italy but was adopted from Chile when she was about two years old.
She speaks fondly of her mother, saying she only ever knew love from her parents growing up. “She had so much love to give,” she says. “I grew up full of love.”
Despite this, she felt like something was missing from the time she was a child and was subject to discrimination, saying she’s never truly felt like an Italian woman.
Years later, Branca is working through the discrimination she faced and the trauma connected to learning the truth of her birth.
Branca shares how her mother wasn’t able to conceive, sharing how that led her mother to feel empty.
“Something was missing in her life,” Branca says, sharing how in Italy in the 80s, not having children wasn’t commonplace.
Branca’s biological mother was a young woman in Chile who’d been sexually assaulted, leading to her pregnancy.
Branca understood the reasons the woman felt like she couldn’t care for her as a baby, saying she sees the choice to adopt her as a way for her mother to both help another woman and fulfill part of her life that was missing.
Branca’s mother has now passed, and she says she never knew the details about her daughter’s conception.
“My mother didn’t know. All she saw was a woman that had a child that she wasn’t able to care for.
Branca never questioned the care her parents had for her as a child. But, this didn’t shield her from the damaging effects of discrimination.
Branca was very vocal about how the love she felt in her immediate family was not mirrored by her community.
“‘Italiani brava gente, Italians are good people,’ is what we say, but that’s not true,” Branca says, citing a common Italian phrase that comes from a 1964 movie of the same name.
“Many historians have destroyed this common feeling about Italians, telling all the atrocities they did during the war and it is how I use it — to destroy this fake image,” Branca says.
“Even though people from Southern Italy are very dark because it’s a mix [due to the] colonization of people from the Middle East and Northern Africa, somehow my skin was always [seen as] darker.”
Branca’s experience was likely one of many, as data from a 2017 survey of 15 European countries showed racist attitudes were most prominent in Italy. And a 2019 survey of Italians showed that of respondents justify acts of racism.
“I was treated badly because the color of my skin is different,” Branca says, talking about the perception of her skin color, the shape and color of her eyes, and how various people would point out these differences.
“They always tried to mark these things as something wrong with me.”
Impact of discrimination
Branca shares that even her mother wasn’t exempt from the colorism that ran rampant, recalling being told not to stay in the sun for too long as a child — something that many POC have heard in our lifetimes.
Branca’s experience is one that many people of color can identify with. I can easily recall childhood memories of being taught to avoid getting “too dark” combined with the ongoing media preferences for Black folks with lighter skin.
Branca shares that initially, this treatment led to her question why being darker would be an issue, but knowing now the answer is colorism.
Colorism and anti-Blackness are very closely related — both are forms of racism that uplift whiteness. Colorism is specific to appearance, posturing lighter skin colors and Eurocentric features as more attractive.
For Branca, the feeling of being othered led to self-hatred.
Shelton says that as a result of long periods of time with little to no validation of their internal experiences, being ostracized in this way can create hypersensitivity and lead to someone overanalyzing themselves.
“I started hating my body, hating the color of my skin, hating the color of my hair, the shape of my eyes, the shape of my nose,” Branca began.
She told me that she had felt her nose was too ethnic looking and hated it so much that she ended up getting plastic surgery as a teenager.
“I couldn’t relate with what I saw in the mirror,” Branca said. “The imagery of ‘The Italian Woman’ that’s shown is blonde and pale…I wanted so badly to be blonde.”
She tried her best to “be an Italian woman,” but she was always reminded that she was different.
Effects on Health and Wellness
Racial discrimination also has negative health effects including Black folks’ higher likelihood to die from COVID-19 and higher rates of being
While anti-Blackness and colorism directly affect Black people and our health, they’re also both woven through varied cultures, countries, and communities in other detrimental ways, such as:
- 62 percent of surveyed Latin American folks cited their darker skin color as a barrier to getting ahead.
- 48 percent of Latin American folks in the survey said discrimination based on skin color is a big problem in the US.
- Lighter skin tones in East Asian and South Asian communities both in and outside the US are sought after.
- Data shows that lighter-skinned Black people are likely to receive less prison time
- Skin tone can affect Black folks’ lifetime
People within the neighborhood and classmates prodding fueled Branca’s negative self-image, and this was coupled with her feeling off internally.
Branca talked about seeing how fervently people represent their countries, using soccer as an example of people’s pride for their homelands, and noting how she’s never felt anything like that.
“Italians — and many other people from different parts of the world – have a strong sense of identity,” she said.
“My sense of identity is still a problem. I never felt like an Italian woman.”
Branca shared that her first questions around her birth origins came when classmates teased her by saying she was adopted.
“There was always something inside me that felt completely different from them, but I didn’t want to listen to myself. There was something that felt disconnected between me and my parents, but I didn’t know what it was,” she says.
“And then, you’re questioning where you come from.”
Kiana Shelton, Licensed Clinical Social Worker with Mindpath Health, says that origin stories are part of the development of our sense of self.
“Not knowing that or not growing up with an opportunity to learn can impact a person. It is certainly not uncommon for adoptees to find themselves struggling to find connection” she says.
Questions answered too late
Branca had this feeling of disconnection from childhood, but chose to ignore it until she was around 7 or 8 when she asked her mother to explain why her classmates were teasing her.
Her mother initially denied the claims, only to tell Branc the truth right before she went to middle school.
“That was a mistake,” Branca says, upset about the fact that her mother had initially lied.
“I don’t know how, but I always knew. And that was traumatic for me. I remember the day like it was yesterday — where we were sitting, where we were in the house,” she says.
“She took this big book of people from around the world, and said ‘you come from here,’ and pointed to a picture of people on llamas…” she recalls.
She laughs, retelling the scene that has stuck with her. She remembers how she didn’t feel connected with what she was being shown in the book, the people she’d grown up with, or with what she saw in the mirror.
“I hated her in that moment. Not for what happened, but for how she told me,” she says.
Shelton shares that in her work when a parent chooses not to tell a child they were adopted until later, it says more about their internal struggle with the conversation than about the child’s ability to understand the concept.
“The potential outcomes can vary and get harder the longer one waits. If you wait too long, questions about trust come to the forefront, as it often means that a child goes back and replays moments of their childhood where this information would have been helpful.”
There are often assumptions made that an adoptee has a desire to get to the bottom of their origin story or that connecting with your biological family will immediately unlock feelings of joy and bring someone to feelings of fulfillment.
For some, none of these things are true, as the process can be painful and complicated.
Branca pushed her questions and feelings down as best she could for years.
“For years, I didn’t want to hear anything about Chile. You couldn’t say the word in front of me without making me suffer,” she says.
“I don’t know where the suffering comes from, but up until I met them [my biological family], that’s how I felt. It was probably the fear of the unknown.”
“Honor where you are. There is no one’s size fits all to adoption journeys. All are just as unique as our fingerprints. If you are curious, explore that curiosity,” Shelton says.
“Consider thinking about what you want to know and what you may be fearful of learning. This can help you make the most informed decision about how you choose to move forward.”
Grief and healing as a non-linear process
Branca’s adoptive parents have now passed away, and she was candid about the toll that took on her, saying that she’d felt that a part of her died too.
She decided that when she buried her parents she would also bury her past, trying to remove any desire in connection with her biological family. “I know I should have a biological mother, father, and family, but I don’t want to know anything about it,” Branca recalls thinking.
“But it’s not something you can close. You can’t turn it out like a light.”
After Branca stumbled upon a cousin on Instagram, she learned more about her biological family.
She says this felt like her life had been turned upside down.
She’d been in therapy for several years, and says she was getting to a place of focusing on the present and being okay with who she was as an individual. Then overnight, she was met with a new reality.
Despite her reservations, she opted to visit Chile and meet with her family, sharing that she’s ultimately glad she did.
“It was a good experience. They are wonderful and intelligent people, they are really amazing,” she says.
But, though Branca had a good time getting to know this part of her family and the experience of seeing people that looked like her for the first time, she was honest about continuing to struggle with complicated feelings.
Feelings surrounding the aspects of your adoption can vary, and Shelton encourages you to validate whatever those are — there’s no “right” way to experience the situation.
“This validation will allow you not to feel stuck for the longing you may always hold,” Shelton says.
“Finding connections in community with others who hold similar experiences could be a helpful part in the normalization of one’s experience and can help with processing.”
Part of Branca’s journey includes visiting her family in Chile again at the end of the year, this time with her immediate family in tow.
“I have my husband and my son who is 12. I decided for them that I need to go there and to close this thing around me,” she says.
The adoption process has the potential to weigh heavily on a person, regardless of how loving and supportive their home life may be.
This is no fault of anyone’s, but can be approached by the adoptive parents in ways that are conducive to the mental health of the child. “True elements of “caring” are to be mindful of the totality of a person… [and] for many can redefine what it means to have someone care about them,” Shelton says.
Adoptees can sometimes struggle with a sense of identity or belonging, or have complicated feelings about their birth and adoption, and it’s important to let yourself feel those feelings and understand that curiosity, feelings of sadness or even anger are all common.
Kids welcomed into homes with cultures or backgrounds different from their biological families may have an additional layer of complication.
“Cultural identity is a part of personal identity and self-conception. But it is important to remember that feeling rooted is subjective for some and simply knowing [where they come from] is enough for others,” says Shelton.
Because of the negative effects discrimination can have on a person’s mental and physical well-being in addition to their self-esteem, these complication shouldn’t be taken lightly.
There are options for both children and adults who are looking for support, whether it’s to unpack connected trauma or to solidify a safe space to share heavy feelings.
This could look like connecting with an experienced therapist (either virtually or in-person), joining a support group for other adoptees, or joining an online community for people with similar experiences are all options.