Rye resident Rachel Galvez spent the first year of her life in two Vietnamese orphanages: Sacred Heart in DaNang and To Am in Saigon. When she returned to Vietnam 45 years later, she was moved and awestruck by both the settings – and a special group of people. Meeting the nuns who cared for her and thousands of others, she felt profound gratitude for the women who had worked so hard to get her and so many babies and children out of a war zone.
On that first visit “home,” Galvez also met another woman with whom she shared an immediate bond and understanding of love and sacrifice: her birth mother.
As one of thousands of Vietnamese babies placed with American families in the 1970s, Galvez presumed her biological mother and family had perished during the war. Adopted by a Connecticut couple in 1974, she knew nothing more of her beginnings than her country of origin until seven years ago, when she embarked on an exploration she considers nothing short of miraculous.
Galvez grew up in New Canaan, Connecticut, and had what she describes as “a very happy childhood.” She was told from a young age that she was adopted from Vietnam and her adoption was something to be celebrated. “We chose you,” her parents told her.
Galvez participated in all the rites of passage of a typical American childhood. An artistic and athletic kid, she played softball, lacrosse, and soccer, which she also played in college. She skied, loved to swim, and spent afternoons playing outside with her younger brother.
While she always wondered about her past, it was not until her stepfather died in 2016 that she felt the urge to delve deeper into her history. “The death of a parent is one of those profoundly sad transitions in life. For some reason it drove me to search for answers to my origins,” said Galvez, who remains close and a devoted daughter to her adoptive mother.
A DNA test revealed she was 50 percent Vietnamese and 50 percent European, which “made sense,” she said. Galvez knew she was born in Da Nang, the northernmost U.S. military base during the war, her mother was Vietnamese, and her father was presumably a U.S. serviceman. Incredibly, her genetic testing linked her to a biological half-sister who had immigrated to the U.S. in the 1990’s and was living in New Jersey.
In 2018, Galvez traveled to Vietnam with her husband and two sons, then six and eight, to meet her mother and explore her native country. Despite a language barrier and 45 years between them, Galvez felt an immediate bond – and resemblance – to the woman who gave her life and a path away from war and poverty. As a mother herself, Galvez describes the decision to give up a child as “unbearable,” yet feels only empathy for the choices her own mom and so many other women were forced to make. She has since returned to Vietnam three times and every journey feels as though she is “going home.”
Galvez wrote about her first visit to Vietnam for The Rye Record in July 2018, but she couldn’t have imagined how her story would continue to unfold. Through Facebook and a nonprofit called the SEA2C Foundation that she launched with other Vietnamese adoptees in 2020, Galvez has connected and found welcome camaraderie with many who inhabit the same fragile space between two very different worlds. “I never considered myself someone who needed healing,” Galvez said, but discovering people who share her experience has been akin to finding family. Rachel refers to Tran Van Kirk, Michael Anderer, and Canh Oxelson, with whom she founded the SEA2C Foundation, as “brothers.”
“I don’t think I will ever feel completely whole, but the foundation makes me feel like I’ve done something positive with my experience,” said Galvez.
While the opportunity to find her mother “fell in her lap,” Galvez, a practicing Catholic who finds comfort, peace, and hope in her faith, also sees the sacred in the serendipity: “To be adopted out of a third world country, during a war, and to find my birth mother is a miracle.”
– Photos courtesy of Rachel Galvez
Galvez is determined to pay her good fortune forward and help others in the Vietnamese adoptee community through her work with the SEA2C Foundation and by continuing to share her story. She returned to Vietnam most recently in January 2023 to film a documentary about the experience. The documentary, “Interesections,” which traces her journey and the journeys of other adoptees, has received many accolades and awards, including: “Best Inspirational Film” and runner up for “Best Director” and “Best Documentary Film” at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. Galvez is considering a Rye screening this spring.
“Intersections” was produced in-house as part of the Multimedia Influence and Education Program of the SEA2C Foundation. This program is operated by a volunteer force of multiple award-winning film makers, photojournalist, and multimedia professionals with backgrounds in cinematography and journalism. The series is directed by Tran Van Kirk (Kellerhals), and is narrated by Vietnam War Amerasian adoptee, Oxelson.
Galvez finds the greatest awards, however, in the reunions.
Two years ago, she traveled to a gathering of U.S. Marines who had been stationed at Da Nang during the war. Many had volunteered at the orphanage, playing with the children and at times helping with their care. One medic said he had helped administer vaccines.
“Many of these men were haunted by the memories of the babies and children they left in a war zone, wondering what had become of them,” Galvez said. Her voice breaks as she recounts the tears streaming down the faces of ex-marines seeing “the kids” they had cared for all grown up.
While many struggle to fully embrace their origins and identity, Galvez tries to focus on being grateful. She is often overwhelmed by the sacrifice, bravery, and kindness so many showered on her and her “brothers” and “sisters.”
She recalls the words of one elderly nun at the Sacred Heart Orphanage that left a lasting impression: “It gave her so much joy to see that the babies had found each other. And she was resolute in telling us, ‘I want you to know that when you were here, there was always someone dedicated to your care.’”