This story is a companion piece to a video series documenting the story of Marisa – aka Ana Maria – Bocanegra. You can watch the entire video series here. And a GoFundMe, to help Ana Maria and her mother meet for the first time, can be found here.
She was this close to a fairy-tale ending.
Plans to fly down to Colombia from Minnesota were basically set, even before the tears on Marisa Bocanegra's cheeks had dried. It was the summer of 2014, and she had just spoken to her birth mother for the first time ever. Soon, they would get to embrace for real, face-to-face, after 30-plus years of being forced apart.
She felt full, closer to complete.
"I look like her. Everyone says how much we look alike, the same eyes, the same mannerisms even," Marisa told GoMN over the summer.
But that moment of triumph and celebration has instead turned into just one of many steps, on a journey that doesn't have a clear ending.
Part 1 of the four-part video series on Ana Maria. Watch all four parts here.
Marisa Bocanegra does a lot for other people.
The 39-year-old mother has five children (one of whom is in the military) and a fiance. She works as a Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Advocate for Communication Services for the Deaf. And she does deaf interpreting services on a freelance basis – work prompted by her own progressive hearing loss.
She volunteers as an instructor and horse leader with RideAbility, an equine therapy nonprofit. The Horses for Heroes Military Vets is one of the groups that does therapeutic horseback riding with them.
She's a Certified Search & Rescue Team Lead Volunteer for United Legacy as well, helping search for missing Minnesotans on water and land year-round.
But she's never met her birth mother.
Marisa's story first made headlines more than two years ago. She was born in Colombia, and while her mom was still in the hospital, infant Marisa – whose original name is Ana Maria – was whisked away, placed illegally into an adoption program where a family from Minnesota took her in.
Marisa was just weeks old. Her birth mother never knew what happened to her baby, and spent the days, weeks and years that followed fruitlessly searching for Ana Maria. She had a list of her children's names, but wrote "Ana Maria" in red, and asked God to help her find her baby.
And Marisa, living a world away, grew up wanting the same answers.
She reached her mid-30s before getting a real one, and it came after connecting with a volunteer private investigator over Facebook named Gustavo Madrid.
Madrid, after getting a few details, found her mom – Elsy Tueta Bocanegra. Marisa and Elsy Skyped for the first time in 2014, a conversation documented by local news. The two women laughed and cried as mother and daughter, connected physically only by a digital screen, but tethered emotionally by their shared Colombian blood.
Now, with such an important answer, it would only get better. Life would be good. It would be whole. They would be together.
Except that never happened.
Two years later
This past summer, Marisa tweeted us and brought her story back to our attention.
We spoke to her that afternoon, and learned that high point in 2014 was nowhere near the peak. Instead, it turned into another arduous journey, one she hasn't reached the end of more than two years later after repeatedly being told "That's not enough," or "You can't do that."
So what happened?
She needed a passport to travel to Colombia, so she applied. Her application was rejected.
They required her entire paper trail of names – her biological name, her adopted name, her name by marriage. None of which matched. And she needed the legal proof of all of it. It took more than a year to collect everything so she could apply. But she did.
And was rejected a second time.
They needed school records, they said, kindergarten through 12th grade to prove she lived here. So she dug those up, sent them in.
Now, they need her Certificate of Naturalization, proving she's a citizen. And they suggested she wait to apply again (her fourth time) until she can subpoena county courts to get certified adoption documents.
Just to meet her mom.
There was also a problem with her paperwork in Colombia – her missing child case was still open, and without getting it closed, she could end up stuck in Colombia, unable to travel back to the United States. That case was closed in September of 2016, meaning one hurdle is cleared.
As that was going on, they considered flying her mother and brother up to Minnesota. They even have their bags packed and ready to go, Elsy told us. But they're from a poverty-stricken area, don't have a lot of money, and can't just freely apply to travel out of the country on a whim. Twice in the past year they had plans to come up, but they were scuttled last minute.
Now, her family – more than 90 blood relatives in Colombia – are scrimping and saving, hoping to some day accumulate the thousands of American dollars needed to fly her mother and one of her brothers north to meet Ana Maria. Not through a screen and tinny speaker, but in real life.
'This is my life. This is my journey'
After walking us through all this, we asked Marisa: "Do you ever look at it and just go like, 'Can it just be easy once?' ... Do you allow yourself to do that?"
As the sentence was being finished, she cut in.
"No. No," she said.
"I've always believed that, this is my path. This is my life. This is my journey. This is who I am. And I'm proud to be able to ..." A pause. "I'm proud of who I am, I'm proud of who I'm learning I am, I'm proud of the identity I now have been given. ... My identity is just huge, so many different identities I feel like have come into one person who I am now, and I've become a much stronger person."
800 abducted Colombian children
The emotional magnitude of Ana Maria's story is staggering. The patience, the perseverance, the sadness and the hope that's driving her along.
But it gets more tragic when you learn this happened to hundreds of families, who became victims of a wide-ranging illegal adoption ring.
The case went through the Colombian courts and was written about in November of 1986. Three different notaries were accused of falsifying the papers of 800 children in exchange for money. But the crimes were past the statute of limitations. It was too late for a punishment.
And that's only the ones we know about, those who have gone through the same struggles, asked the same questions. Many of them haven't gotten even a fraction of the answers Marisa has – Vice's Spanish-language website wrote about some of the stories this week.
What Marisa wants is for other people – adoptees who are searching for their families, people seeking out their identities and the truth – to know they have someone who will offer support, and maybe even be inspired by what she's gone through. To know "that I didn't give up, and that I kept going and I kept being able to break through barriers, and break down these walls that were very difficult to break through, in order to get where I'm at right now," she said.
Even though where she is right now – still thousands of miles away from her mother and siblings, dealing with what "wasn't the best situation" but that turned out to be "such a beautiful thing" – isn't ideal.
"We still have a long way to go, but we know we'll get there, and we know that, the day that my mom and I can embrace each other for the first time is going to be the most amazing day that we can possibly have," she said. "Not that finding my mom wasn't the most amazing day, but just being able to be in each other's arms again ... we're ready."
So. It's all worth it then?
"It's all worth it. In the end it's all worth it."