Thousands of Spanish children were taken from hospitals and sold to wealthy Catholic families. This is Ana Belén Pintado’s story.

Nicholas Casey:

On a balmy October day in 2017, Ana Belén Pintado decided to clear out some space in her garage. Her father, Manuel, died in 2010, followed by her mother, Petra, four years later. Their belongings sat gathering dust at her home in Campo de Criptana, a small town in the countryside south of Madrid. As she carefully opened the boxes, she marveled at the objects inside — her childhood dresses, a doll, an old dictionary — each so familiar, reminding her of a life the three of them once shared.

But then she came across some papers she had never seen: medical records from decades ago, including a note from her mother’s doctor. Petra Torres, the note said, had been married for eight years. She was 31 years old and had been trying to have a family. But a set of X-rays indicated that she had a uterine anomaly and obstructed fallopian tubes.

In other words, Pintado’s mother had been sterile. The diagnosis was dated April 1967, six years before Pintado was born.

Pintado had long believed that the couple who raised her were her biological parents, but there were a few puzzling aspects about her family. She had no brothers or sisters, which was rare in a small, Catholic town like Campo de Criptana — Pintado herself, who was then 44, had three children of her own. There was also an odd incident that happened after her father died: A lawyer handling the estate found some papers that showed she was born with a different last name, but before anyone in the family could have a closer look, her mother snatched the documents away and refused to speak about them again.

As Pintado sat in her garage, sifting through the papers, she found another document that was just as confounding as the doctor’s note. It was a birth certificate, which indicated that her mother had given birth to a girl in the Santa Cristina maternity clinic in Madrid. “Good appearance and vitality, good coloration,” a hospital staff member wrote. The paper was dated on Pintado’s birthday, July 10, 1973. There was even a room number: 22.