When Cristina Prisco, 43, was growing up as an adopted only child in the Bronx, she always had a clear idea of where she came from — or so she thought.
“There wasn’t really a day that went by that I didn’t think about where I was born and how my story started,” Prisco told The Post exclusively.
Her supposed origin story, long accepted by Prisco and her adoptive parents, was that she had been born to a poor woman in Chile. The birth mother couldn’t afford to raise her baby herself, so she gave Cristina up to a Catholic orphanage.
Prisco’s adoptive father, Benito Zagaglia, travelled to Chile in the spring of 1980, using an Italian passport to enter the country under Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.
He brought his baby home in May of 1980, holding her close the entire 11 hour flight from Chile to New York City where her adoptive mother Ann Marie Zagaglia anxiously awaited. Little did the newly completed family know that their baby was a victim of child trafficking.
This past April, Prisco randomly flipped the TV on to “Good Morning America” — a show she doesn’t normally watch — and heard the story of Tyler Graf. It gave her chills.
Graf was raised in Minnesota after being adopted by a loving family who were told that his birth mother placed him up for adoption due to financial instability. However, when Graf tracked his mother down in adulthood he learned that she had been told that he’d died as a baby and was forbidden from seeing his body.
He had been taken as part of a complex international trafficking network that was organized throughout the world and included medical professionals, the Chilean government and the Catholic Church, “Good Morning America” reported.
It is estimated that nearly 8,000 to 12,000 children were illegally or forcibly adopted in Chile in the 1970s and ’80s during Pinochet’s reign, Graf’s attorney, Anthony Clarkson, told Houston’s KPRC. Forced adoptions took place before Pinochet came to power, but they increased significantly under his regime. The dictator saw the adoptions as a brutal means of eliminating poverty and controlling population growth; many of those who had their babies taken from them were poor, indigenous women living in rural areas.
After seeing the “GMA” segment, Prisco immediately called her adoptive mother and contacted Graf’s nonprofit Connecting Roots, which spreads awareness of the horrific trafficking scheme and provides free DNA tests to help families accelerate their own reunions.
Laura Rosa Fuentes Caceres, 63, of Talca was listed as the biological mother on Prisco’s adoption papers. With that info, combined with her personal identification number, similar to a social security number, Prisco was able to track down her biological family.
Incredibly, she found herself on a video call with her birth mother and eight siblings just a few days after hearing Graf’s story and connecting with him. She was overcome when she finally saw her family for the first time. She was immediately struck by their undeniable resemblance and was choked with emotion. (A DNA test donated by MyHeritage later confirmed their common genetics.)
“[It’s] pretty amazing to find [my family] after all that time. Now I don’t have to wonder anymore,” Prisco said. But “it was [also] a little overwhelming, because there’s so many of them.”
She and her siblings all have nearly identical facial features. Some share the same seasonal allergies and one brother had the same ear surgery at the same age that she did.
In July, Prisco and her adoptive mother flew to Chile to meet her biological family. They excitedly awaited for her arrival at the airport holding a colorful handmade sign (“Bienvenida a casa hermana”) and Cristina immediately ran into the arms of her mother for a long embrace. (Prisco’s adoptive father is deceased.)
Caceres told her long lost daughter the tragic circumstances surrounding her birth and forced adoption.
When Caceres, who lived in extreme poverty, gave birth to Prisco, she was told that the baby had jaundice and needed to remain at the Hospital Regional de Talca. The impoverished mother could not afford another night’s stay in the hospital for herself, so she went home on the bus without her baby girl.
Caceres returned the next day to breastfeed her newborn but the child was nowhere to be found. She became hysterical and lunged at one of the receptionists who told her that the discharge papers she had signed on the day of Prisco’s birth were actually to put the baby up for adoption.
She was removed from the hospital by security and given no straight answers by the hospital workers. The distraught mother was in shock but too poor to afford the resources to track her baby down. For decades, she kept the story secret from everyone but her eldest daughter.
Prisco lived a good life with her adoptive family, but she’s now “sad and angry” about the “terrible tragedy” that her birth mother experienced.
“Finding out the way I did was a bit shocking, but I’m happy I now know the real story and am a little angry at everything that my mother went through. The people involved were evil people and they robbed me of my family,” she said.
Her mothers have come together to love their daughter and now talk constantly. Zagaglia, 73, is even brushing up on her Spanish to get closer to her new family members.
“We’re just one big happy family right now,” Zagaglia told The Post.
But Caceres always knew that Prisco’s adoption was bigger than mixed-up paperwork because she wasn’t the first of her babies to not return home from the hospital.
A few years before, in September of 1975, Caceres had given birth at home to another baby girl. She named her Marcela. When the infant became sick, she took her to the hospital and was told the baby needed to be admitted.
After several weeks of minimal updates, her partner returned to the hospital and was told that the baby had died and the body had been donated to medical research. Caceres never felt right about the situation but had minimal hope, noting that her daughter didn’t have an ID number to track because she was born at home.
Prisco’s reunion with her biological family has now reignited the family’s hopes of being reconnected with Marcela.
Prisco, who works as a database administrator at Greenburgh Central School District in Westchester, recently joined Graf’s team at Connecting Roots as a board member and administrative assistant.
“I feel blessed, and I feel like I need to try to do whatever I can to help others,” said Prisco. She’s looking forward to having her youngest brother Manuel visit her family in Westchester for Christmas and is excited to introduce her biological mother to her husband and two kids one day.
She said: “I’d been missing the beginning but I feel like my story is complete.”
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