After being abducted from a Colombian hospital as an infant, a Faribault woman had one dream: finding her birth family.
Earlier this month, Marisa Bocanegra, the mother of five, anxiously watched people enter a Minneapolis – St. Paul International Airport terminal. In seconds, her dreams would come true, as her mother and brother would soon walk through the doors.
When they appeared, tears flowed, people cheered, and Bocanegra — whose original name is Ana Maria — walked toward her mother, who two years ago she knew nothing about.
“I’m so happy that this is finally coming true,” she told GoMN.com, which produced a four-part series on the story of Bocanegra, who was abducted from a Colombia hospital before being sold and adopted by a family in Minnesota.
“I’m so very close to making the one main dream I’ve had my whole life come true, finding my biological mother and family and meeting them all for the first time,” she wrote prior to meeting her mother on a gofundme.com page, which she initially used to help with expenses to find her family before changing its focus to helping others who are on a similar journey. “Now that in possibly one more month I will be in my mama’s arms, I want to help other Colombian adoptees who were illegally taken by being their hope, their support …”
But her mission — and her life — were cut short.
Bocanegra was killed Tuesday in a car crash south of Wanamingo. The crash also seriously injured her daughter, 15-year-old Hallie White, who was driving the vehicle. According to family, she suffered a broken neck and a broken pelvis, but is in stable condition. She is expected to undergo surgery Thursday, the family said.
White and Bocanegra were westbound on County Road 11 in Goodhue County when the vehicle stopped at the stop sign, according to the Minnesota State Patrol. The van then proceeded westbound on CR-11, and was struck by a semitrailer driving northbound on Hwy. 57.
The journey leading up to her mother and brother’s arrival on Nov. 10 was far from easy. It included setback after setback, hurdle after hurdle.
There was the Colombian government not closing her “missing person’s case,” as she noted in a post on her GoFundMe page, then her passport application was denied, followed by the government asking her to obtain the entire paper trail of her name changes that was a result of being adopted and getting married. That, too, was followed by a request to get her Certificate of Naturalization, as GoMN indicated in its story.
The 39-year-old Faribault resident, engaged to marry fiancé Brian Nisbit, eventually connected with her mother, Elsy Tueta, and brother, Juan Pablo, through a private investigator she found online two years ago.
“My mother has searched for me for 36 years. She didn’t want to give me up for adoption. My mother was tricked to give me up as she was drugged and told to sign a blank page and then I was gone,” she wrote after an investigator was able to find her mother. “I was sold for money. Her heart has been broken for years and tomorrow I speak to her for the very first time.”
In her posts, the pain, the agony, the excitement and the passion is evident.
“My itch to find my birth mother started when I was in elementary school. I always kept my thoughts silent and bottled up,” she wrote in a post, before giving advice to others. “ … I have to tell you, if you have a goal in life, no matter what it is, don’t let others discourage you from achieving your goal. If you have a dream, you have to protect it with all your heart. If you have a dream, don’t let anything stand in your way … Don’t ever let go of your dreams. Dreams can come true.”
The dream was displayed for thousands on her page and through social media posts across the country. The dream was real, giving hope to many. She described her journey to GoMN:
“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 … 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.”
Her story was set to be the subject of a program called “The Abduction of Ana Maria” scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday at Nueva Jerusalem Church in Faribault.
Her friend, Julia Forti, said last week her adopted parents got the chance to meet her biological mom and brother and had dinner.
“She was so excited to have everyone come to their reception for their testimony of hope on Wednesday night,” she said.
Instead of a program filled with hope, the church held a prayer service, remembering the life of a dreamer.
A selfless friend
“There was a joy that radiated [around her],” said Erica Staab-Absher, executive director of the HOPE Center in Faribault, where Bocanegra often worked. “It was always beautiful and fun to be in her presence.”
Bocanegra frequently spoke of her journey, she and couldn’t contain the excitement leading up to the day she met her mother earlier this month, she said.
“She talked about her faith and her journey and how she made it through,” Staab-Absher said.
Bocanegra was a southern Minnesota anti-domestic violence/sexual assault advocate with ThinkSelf, a program of Community Services of the Deaf, and despite being on leave to spend time with her mother and brother, she didn’t lose touch.
“[She] still found time to check in with us, saying ‘It’s hard not to work when you love what you do,’” read a Facebook post from ThinkSelf. “Her work loved her, too, and will continue to be inspired by her story and spirit.”
“Marisa Bocanegra was an inspiration to us all,” said Aaron Gutzke, Minnesota State Program director for ThinkSelf, in an email to the Daily News. “Her dedication to survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking was unparalleled and she will be sorely missed by our staff and participants.”
United Legacy, an organization focused on search management for missing persons, was another organization that Bocanegra was involved with.
“She was such a beautiful soul, a real life angel who walked amongst us. She selflessly spent her life loving her family and helping others to make this world a better place,” a Facebook post from the organization read. “We will forever miss her infectious smile and willingness to love whoever with an open heart.”
As a “fierce advocate,” who was “incredibly strong,” Staab-Absher said Bocanegra was always willing to go the extra mile.
Take a recent phone call that Staab-Absher received, for example. Despite not directly working for the HOPE Center, Bocanegra took it upon herself to set up a Giving Tree ornament for the clients of HOPE Center.
“She wanted to make sure our clients [had something this holiday season],” Staab-Absher said. “It shows who she is.”
Known as a positive role model, she was recognized with a Latina Community Leadership Award from Casa de Esperanza for her posts on ThinkSelf’s Facebook as the “Positive Quote Lady,” and her message was shared with many, many people.
“She was a gentle soul, with an enormous loving heart, an earth angel,” said friend Amy Miller. “She loved everyone. Didn’t matter how full her day was, she made the time for everyone as a mother, friend, cheerleader, aunt and sister.”
One quote she used frequently, as Forti remembered:
“Smile and let everyone know that today, you’re a lot stronger than you were yesterday.”