Laurie Stern (right) and adopted son, Aa Tiko' Rujux-Xicay (left). Credit: Star Tribune

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This story comes to you from the Star Tribune through a partnership with Sahan Journal.

Whether Aa Tiko’ Rujux-Xicay would ever meet his birth mother was never a question.

Since he was a toddler, his white adoptive parents in St. Paul brought him back to his home village in Guatemala every two or three years so he could bond with his birth family and stay close to his roots.

His mom and dad, Laurie Stern and Dan Luke, named their child Diego. They made sure he learned Spanish. They bought him traditional clothing from his homeland. Laurie, a veteran journalist, felt conflicted about international adoption, but believed by arming her family with information and awareness, she could address it.

Yet Aa Tiko’ (pronounced “ah tee-KOH”) wrestled with his identity. And more than two decades after she brought her son home, Laurie still wrestles with the question: Should you adopt a baby from another country just because you can?

Issues of belonging, privilege, race and class led mom and son to create a podcast that launched this month. In “All Relative: Defining Diego,” they examine their own journey and ask uncomfortable questions about the international adoption boom.

Aa Tiko,’ which is the Indigenous Tz’utujil name he prefers to use now, didn’t want to go there—at least not initially.

“I always told myself, ‘I’m fine. I solved it. I’ve figured out my adoption, I’m comfortable with where I’m at. I don’t want to do any more digging,’ ” the 24-year-old, now a student teacher at Johnson Senior High School in St. Paul, tells me.

Laurie Stern and Aa Tiko’ recording their podcast “All Relative: Defining Diego.” Credit: Star Tribune

But he said the more he thought about the project, he realized he had a chance to change the conventional narrative of adoption, in which “the kid is saved. It works out. The end,” he says.

The truth is a lot more complicated.

“Being adopted is itself a traumatic experience,” he says. “The one person in the world that I should be able to trust with my life gave me up.”

“It would be a transaction between desperate people,” Laurie tells Aa Tiko’ in the podcast. “I was out of time to have a baby. And your birth mother would have a baby she couldn’t raise.”

Of course Laurie does not regret adopting her son, whom she calls the best thing in her life.

“But like all big decisions, everything’s a tradeoff,” she tells me. “What are you doing when you take a kid out of the place he was born into, and raise him in another place? You don’t do that without wondering what the consequences are, not only for the kid—but for the place.”

Always rolling

Part of what makes the podcast unique is that Laurie, a longtime audio and video producer, was rolling tape for more than two decades. She recorded her son’s baby coos when they first met in Guatemala, his hockey games and playdates in Minnesota, and some cringeworthy moments, like when Laurie interviews Isabel, the birth mom, not long after she gave up Aa Tiko’, in her Indigenous Mayan village.

“Mortifying,” Laurie says to me. “I was so nervous that I lost what Spanish I had, and she didn’t speak Spanish anyway. And I was there with a [bleeping] video camera. The whole [adoption] was still a secret in this village where everybody knows everybody. I couldn’t have been an uglier American than I was in that scene.”

Laurie Stern, son Aa Tiko’ Rujux-Xicay, and husband Duke Luke in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, in March 2022. Credit: Star Tribune

Every time Aa Tiko’ has returned to see Isabel, “it’s still emotional. We still cry. It’s incredibly powerful,” he says. “But we started to feel like we’re just one big family. Isabel has always said, ‘These are your parents now,’ referring to Laurie and Dan. It’s been wonderful to know her and see her. It’s been incredible for her to watch me grow up.”

That doesn’t mean growing up was easy. In St. Paul, Laurie realized there were things from which she, as a white mom, could not protect her son. Aa Tiko’ gravitated to hockey, and at games during high school, he had to fight racial taunts on his own.

“I’m not 6-foot-3 and white. I’m 5-foot and brown. I’ve been called just about every racial slur on the ice,” he said, adding that his parents were in the stands, having no idea of his struggles, perhaps a metaphor for something larger. “If they don’t have that lived experience, it can be very isolating.”

Aa Tiko’ from his club hockey days as a youngster, circa 2008. Credit: Star Tribune

The podcast, produced by Sony, also traces the rise and fall of Americans adopting kids from other countries. Nearly 23,000 children were adopted from other countries in 2004, compared with just roughly 1,800 last year, according to U.S. State Department figures.

In Guatemala’s case, the country suspended international adoption in 2008 after revelations of human trafficking, widespread corruption, and lack of regulation. In many cases, babies were fraudulently taken from their birth families.

The steep decline of international adoption makes Aa Tiko’ part of a unique generation, which he acknowledges, “is a weird load to bear.”

But while making the podcast, he got to have genuine conversations with his mom and ask her tough questions. He said he almost backed out of the project because at times it felt too intrusive—almost like when Laurie interviewed Isabel all those years ago. But he said he realized he had work to do, and the podcast gave him a platform for him to find his place in the world, hopefully giving other adult adoptees a voice, too.

“After all the pain and the searching, I’ve felt like I got what I needed to get out of it,” he said. “A calmness.”

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Laura Yuen

Laura Yuen is a features columnist for the Star Tribune and Sahan Journal board member. She explores parenting, gender, family and relationships, with special attention on women and underrepresented communities.