When María Luisa Torres came around from the anaesthetic, she had no idea she was about to step into the plot of a horror movie. The date was March 31, 1982, and she had just given birth to a baby girl at the Santa Cristina clinic in Madrid. Like any mother, she was naturally keen to see her baby as soon as possible.
“But when I wanted to go and see her in the incubator, the nurses wouldn’t let me,” she remembers. She managed to dodge the nurses and get to the neonatal intensive care unit where she saw a baby she thought was hers before they caught up with her.
“They told me to go back to the ward because the little girl wasn’t mine. I just went crazy.”
María Luisa, who separated from her husband when she became pregnant by another man, had gone to the clinic after reading in a magazine about a nun who helped mothers-to-be in difficulties.
Sister María Gómez Valbuena told her the costs of her stay in hospital would be taken care of and her child would be put in a nursery so she could carry on with her job as a waitress and visit her baby whenever she liked.
It sounded like a dream solution. But it was about to turn into a nightmare.
After María Luisa went into labour, the nun had given her a document and asked her to sign it.
“I asked her what it was and she told me it was so I wouldn’t have to pay anything.”
María Luisa signed. And then, to her surprise, she was given a general anaesthetic. Sister María reappeared after the birth on hearing the commotion. She walked over to María Luisa and told her flatly that she didn’t have a daughter.
“I told her I did. She was going to be called Sheila,” says María Luisa. But the nun insisted, saying María Luisa had agreed to her baby’s adoption.
“I told her that wasn’t true and she said that that was what was on the document I had signed.”
The nun replied that her daughter had been given away for adoption and was already far away, with a couple who lived in France; and that if she continued to make a fuss, she would lose her other daughter, Inés.
The following day María Luisa’s mother went to visit the nun, only to be told a different story – that the little girl had died.
A week later María Luisa left the clinic, without her daughter. She took with her the dummy she had intended to give to her child and the memory of a baby glimpsed fleetingly through the glass of the intensive care unit, who was “lovely and with full lips”.
This nightmarish scenario is not an isolated case. In the last few years, it has emerged that between the 1940s and 1990s, thousands – probably tens of thousands, and some think even hundreds of thousands – of Spanish mothers suffered the same heart-rending fate. Many were told their babies had died. Others were cowed, as María Luisa says she was, by the power of the Catholic Church and the lingering effects of a period of ultra-conservative political rule.
How could it have happened?
It is easy to forget that in the early 1980s Spain was a very different place to today. It was just beginning to adjust after decades of dictatorship under General Francisco Franco, the Republican general who had ruled the country with an iron hand from 1939 until 1975.
Just the year before María Luisa had her baby, army officers loyal to Franco’s memory had tried unsuccessfully to overthrow the democratically elected government.
Franco had gone, but the power of the Catholic Church, and its conservative social attitudes, was as strong as ever. María Luisa says that Sister María threatened to denounce her for adultery and have the courts take away her first child.
In fact, adultery was no longer an offence in Spain by then. But María Luisa says that she did not know the law had been changed.
The baby-snatching is thought to have begun in the early years of Franco’s dictatorship: left-wing opponents of the regime were deprived of their children so they could be given to “good, Catholic families”.
Many of Spain’s hospitals were staffed by nuns and some, like Sister María, seem to have come to believe they had a right to decide that certain mothers were unworthy of their babies.
They carried on separating them from their children long after there was any official encouragement to do so. In other cases, it seems, infants were stolen purely for gain.
As María Luisa walked away from the hospital, she had no idea that another woman was looking tenderly through the glass at her daughter. Juana and her husband Alejandro Alcalde, then in their early 30s, had gone through official channels to adopt a child and had been put in touch by government officials with Sister María.
Alejandro, an executive with a multinational engineering company, found Sister María “very sure of herself, highly intelligent and very strong-minded”. She said she had an as-yet unborn child in mind for the couple.
“We were asked if we would take care of the medical costs and we said, ‘Of course’,” says Alejandro.
Pilar, as she was christened by her adoptive parents, grew up to be a captivating girl: pretty, affectionate, if a little shy. As soon as they felt she could deal with it, Alejandro and Juana told her she had been adopted.
When Pilar was 14, her adoptive parents separated and she chose to live with her father.
“At times I saw she was sad,” says Alejandro. “One day, she said, ‘I’d like to find my real mother’ and I said ‘I’ll try to help you in any way I can.’”
Alejandro was true to his word. He went to see Sister María, but she refused to give him any information. He hired a lawyer and a detective. He pleaded fruitlessly to be shown hospital records. He asked for help from friends in the Civil Guard, Spain’s semi-militarised police.
And then he went to see Sister María again, this time taking Pilar with him in the hope that it would change the mind of the nun who had fixed the adoption. The girl would never forget what happened next.
“She told me to give up looking because my mother was a prostitute,” says Pilar. It was quite untrue: María Luisa had been working as a waitress when she became pregnant.
After years of fruitless searching and with no other avenue left, Pilar appeared on a television programme devoted to reuniting people. But nothing came of it.
Then, in 2008, Alejandro was told he had cancer. Believing he was going to die, he went to see Sister María for one last time. By then, she had retired to the Sisters of Charity convent in Madrid. “I said: ‘I have come to beg you for some clue.’” But the old nun once again refused to help.
But all was not lost. The spread of the internet, and the popularity in Spain of programmes like the one on which Pilar had appeared, was enabling a rapid exchange of information that would have been impossible only a few years earlier. Slowly, connections were being made.
Alejandro was at home in Madrid when he got a call from his daughter early in 2011. There was a programme on television about babies who had been snatched from their mothers and the name of Sister María had been mentioned.
“I think I’m a stolen child,” Pilar told her father. Alejandro tuned in and watched with growing astonishment as documents were shown that were identical to those he had received from the Santa Cristina clinic.
By chance, a reporter had seen in an internet forum a message from a mother who had given birth in the Santa Cristina clinic. By means of ingenious detective work on the internet, and with a hefty dose of good fortune, the reporter succeeded in making contact with María Luisa through one of her two other daughters.
She and Pilar were asked to take DNA tests. This is the point at which the hopes of many other men and women who thought they were related have been dashed.
As she waited for the results, Pilar told the programme’s reporter: “I’m very much afraid you have not found anything ... But if there’s a possibility, I have to try because it’s the only way I have of realising a dream: my dream.”
María Luisa too spoke of a dream, that of “seeing my three daughters united”.
During the long years of waiting and searching, Pilar had imagined her mother would be rather like her: “tall, slim, not very dark-haired – sort of blondeish – and small-breasted”. María Luisa was of medium height, brown-haired and with a full figure.
When she saw Pilar for the first time she could not believe they were related. “My daughter isn’t like that,” she exclaimed. But she was wrong. The DNA tests showed María Luisa and Pilar were indeed mother and daughter. And – evidence perhaps that we inherit more than just our genes – it turned out that both women were working in old people’s homes.
Their emotional reunion that night in a Madrid television studio was one of less than ten that have taken place so far. Thousands of other people, who know or suspect they were taken away from their mothers at birth, are still searching. One such person is Antonio Barroso, who was inspired to found an association called Anadir for children who had been adopted irregularly. He himself had discovered, in 2008 at the age of 38, that the man he thought was his father had bought him as a baby for a vast sum.
“There are 2200 documented cases in there,” he says, gesturing towards the filing cabinets in his office near Barcelona. He does not believe estimates that run as high as 300,000, but thinks that a figure of maybe 30,000 is entirely possible.
“For 40 years, they were stealing babies,” he says. Antonio holds the authorities responsible and believes that even today they are reluctant to get at the truth. Much remains obscure and, in the case of Pilar and María Luisa, will remain unknown forever.
“I want justice to be done,” María Luisa said after her reunion with Pilar. “I have prayed every night that that nun will not die and will explain to me why she stole my daughter.”
She was to have been a key witness in the court case brought against Sister María. At her first appearance in court, the nun had refused to testify. But on January 24 of this year, the order to which Sister María belonged announced that she had died.
Pilar, too, said that she wanted justice to be done. “But to have my mother and be able to tell her every night that I love her is enough for the time being.”