The first post Lilian Esperanza Alvarado ever made on Facebook was a plea: “i need to find two people.”
It was September 2012, and she’d bought her first computer and a pay-as-you-go modem. Typing at home felt strange, like she was living in an internet café, as she’d never had her own PC. She’d made these purchases for one reason: to find her son and daughter, Salvador and Dalinda, whom she had not seen since they fled during El Salvador’s civil war. In March 1988, her kids, then 7 and 9, had gone to the bus station with their father, Isidro, and fled to Mexico. Three months after their escape, Isidro called to tell her that they were still saving up to be smuggled into the United States. She begged him and the kids to turn back.
Instead, she never heard from them again.
El Salvador’s civil war, which lasted from 1980 to 1992, left many families in tatters, whether they were sympathetic to the left-wing guerilla groups or sided with the military and the paramilitary forces that assisted it. Some people were kidnapped, others left for the U.S., and an estimated 8,000 Salvadorans disappeared. Alvarado and her great-aunt had helped found CoMadres, a group dedicated to finding people, after Alvarado’s two uncles vanished in the 1970s. It was sensitive work and drew ire from the state — once, she was blindfolded and detained by national guardsmen and held for three days of intense questioning. After her children left, Alvarado stayed behind in El Salvador, she says, because she didn’t want to desert her fellow volunteers. She had plotted to join her family in the U.S. when the time was right.
After Isidro’s last call, Alvarado tried to reach her family for months. She pleaded with his relatives for news, fearing someone might have kidnapped the kids. Isidro’s uncle and brother told her they’d heard nothing. She had no phone number for her husband, or his sister, at whose home he had planned to arrive in Texas. The geography of both Mexico and the U.S. were murky to her.
She never reported her case to the Salvadoran government. Relatives of migrants who have disappeared often try to ward off neighbors’ speculations that their loved ones might have died, or been ushered into the unimaginable: organized crime or forced sex work. If the loved ones are alive, there are typically only two possibilities: either they did not want their families to find them, or they had no way to communicate.
So, in September of 2012, her second husband helped her carry the computer home from the department store, and a young tech from her church set it up. Alvarado had learned about Facebook, a social network that doubled as a database of friends and family members, and she was willing to try it. Early on, she found the image of a lanky man with her son’s name. But she couldn’t believe the person with a mustache she saw on the screen could be him. She clicked through profile after profile of people who resembled her daughter. Nobody seemed right.
Slowly, the realization set in: Dalinda and Salvador would look nothing like she remembered them. It was hard to comprehend, but they were by then 34 and 32 years old. In Alvarado’s nightmares, they never got older than they were when they left; they stayed elbow height with tiny faces. At night she would dream of finding them and then losing them again, as though she were being tugged underwater.
In 2014, Alvarado’s husband walked in while she was doing aerobics and told her to pause the TV. She had developed high blood pressure and unexplained pangs, and, like many who suffered family disappearance in the region, attributed the afflictions to the trauma of loss. Zumba routines helped keep her spirits up.
“Do you know a Mayela Segovia?” he said. He pointed at a Facebook profile on his cellphone.
“She’s my daughter,” Alvarado replied, dumbfounded.
“She wants to be your friend,” he said.
The fact that Facebook has a monopoly on the social media market has, for better and for worse, also made it a dizzyingly large global directory. In countries like El Salvador, where governments have been maddeningly slow to help locate thousands of citizens who disappeared both during the war and after, Facebook has become one of the few tools people can use to find family members who had been incommunicado for decades.
Some readers might assume that in a time when people mark themselves safe during natural disasters on Facebook; tag themselves at tourist spots on its subsidiary, Instagram; and share their live locations with friends on its other subsidiary, WhatsApp, anyone should be traceable. But for most of the world, at least until very recently, that has not been the case. In 2012, when Alvarado started her search online, only a fifth of the country — 1 million Salvadorans — had an internet connection. But now triple that number do, and according to a survey from marketing firm Analitika, about 92% of them are on Facebook.
“Ten years ago, it was hard to get internet,” said Ricardo Castañeda, an economist with the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies. “Now, even in rural areas, where people have low-end phones, apps like Facebook and WhatsApp are their primary connection to the virtual world, even if they don’t have full internet access.”
José Luis Benitez, a Salvadoran researcher who has written about social media, said that Facebook’s dominance among Salvadorans is largely due to the diaspora population. In the 1980s, anyone who wanted to call the U.S. had to schedule it through a state-owned phone booth. In the 1990s, they could send a telegram. In the 2000s, radio programs transmitted messages and discounted calls to the U.S. helped people keep in touch. For those who could access the internet, even occasionally, social media made the connection cheap. In recent years, phone companies in Central America, such as Tigo, Claro, Digicel, and Movistar, have offered data deals for popular social media apps, including Facebook, that make surfing for hours as cheap as a dollar.
A similar proliferation of social media occurred in Mexico, where, unbeknownst to their mother, Dalinda and her brother settled, in a town called Marin, about 80 miles south of the Texas border. They had reached the town in 1988 with their father and uncle after traveling in the cargo of buses and squirmed into the quarters of a train conductor. Upon their arrival in Marin, the four took residence in the home of the mother of a local evangelical pastor. Apart from a brief stint north, when they attempted a border crossing, they never left. Their father soon moved in with a new partner and left Dalinda and her brother in the care of an acquaintance from church.
The family didn’t know they could apply for asylum, and Mexico rarely granted it to Salvadoran refugees at the time anyway, so they remained undocumented. School administrators did not allow Dalinda to enroll past sixth grade, and so by the time she was a teenager she was working to earn meager wages, first as a seamstress at a jeans factory and then as a live-in domestic helper. Low-paying cash jobs, without any benefits, left her with no money to dedicate towards any fantasies of reunification. She started the paperwork for temporary residency one year, but ran out of money to make payments. If she dared go back to El Salvador, there was no guarantee she could return.
Dalinda once asked her aunt in Texas if she could call a relative in El Salvador to get a copy of her own birth certificate. But even then, nobody on her father’s side of the family told her that her mother had ever looked for them. Their father reinforced this belief, telling them their mother had cut ties on purpose because she didn’t want them.
“As a child, there was nothing I could do. All I could do was ask God that he give me the opportunity to see her again,” Dalinda told OneZero. “And I said to God, ‘I don’t know how you’re going to do it, but I know you’re all-powerful.’”
Dalinda eventually married a Mexican man she met at the church in Marin, and it was her new brother-in-law who told her she could use Facebook to find people. When Dalinda made her account, in 2014, she found her mother’s profile almost instantly. Alvarado had posted rarely, so she sent friend requests to about six of her mother’s Facebook friends. When Alvarado’s eventual response pinged her phone, Dalinda thought she might faint in the middle of the street while shopping with her own school-age children. In shock, she turned off her phone.
“When her profile appeared,” she said, “I doubted it was hers, because so many years had gone by… I watch over my own kids maybe too much, maybe because I didn’t have a mother. I always have to know where they are, how they are, and I don’t let them go out into the streets. I said, ‘I’ve got to remain calm, let’s do what we have to do, just go home.’ I thought if I end up talking to her, I don’t know what’ll happen. I was with my kids, and my heart was beating so fast.”
In the evening, she turned it back on. She soon arranged a two-minute call to hear Alvarado’s voice.
Though Facebook was not founded to address family separation, it has given many people like Alvarado the autonomy to search.
In Britain, adopted children have used Facebook to find their biological parents; in South Africa, communities have used the site to crowdsource information about the missing. And in the U.S., law enforcement has used Facebook to send out alerts and videos from parents whose kids didn’t come home. Facebook has been used to try to identify a brain-damaged man in a hospital in California, and migrants who perished in the Arizona desert. Users upload photographs of the deceased’s clothing, so a waiting relative, even one in a remote part of Mexico or Central America, might see them.
Perhaps the fact that Facebook has given people a long overdue means of finding lost relatives has less to do with the platform than with the failure of governments around the world. Neither El Salvador, Mexico, nor the U.S., which sent over $4 billion of aid dollars to El Salvador during the war, has attempted a cross-border reunification campaign for immigrant families, even as more people go missing each year. Limited government money for migrant search efforts in the U.S. is often funneled toward identifying the dead.
In Central America, when an immigrant goes missing, relatives can now go to a consular office to request an investigation and see if the foreign government can track the person down. Officials can look, for example, in birth records, detention centers, or criminal databases. Families hand over DNA to governmental and nonprofit forensic banks, then wait. Lucía Contreras, one of the founders of a collective called COFAMIDE, guides the relatives of disappeared immigrants through the process. When she gets a new case, she also asks interns from a local university to scour Facebook, but usually they do not have much luck.
Rubén Figueroa, a coordinator of the Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano, cautions people against putting their faith in Facebook. Relatives might have registered under a fake name, a nickname, a married name, or a false location, or simply might not appear in a search window because the algorithm is fickle. It is most useful for people who left rural homes years ago, at a time when there were no landlines, let alone cellphones, or who had simply lost the paper where they had scribbled their home phone numbers.
Yes, Facebook is useful, he tells them, but there are also scams. One Nicaraguan woman who came to Mexico to look for her migrant son in 2019 told OneZero that when her daughter posted about his disappearance, a stranger responded that the man had been kidnapped and he would give her information if she shelled out $500. The daughter asked a question about a childhood injury as a security check, then figured the message was fake. Another Salvadoran told OneZero she reconnected with her mother through a neighbor’s Facebook seven years after she left for Mexico. But, within a week, a local gang started to extort her online. (Facebook did not respond to a request for comment about whether or how it tracks cases like these, or about family reunification cases in general.)
Following their Facebook exchange, a nonprofit called Pro-Búsqueda arranged for Alvarado and her daughter to do a DNA test to make sure they were family before they sought a way for them to meet. They were a match, and after trying for years to sort out the paperwork, the Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano gave Alvarado a seat on one of their annual bus trips to Mexico in 2019, alongside Honduran, Nicaraguan, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan mothers still seeking out their disappeared children. Alvarado and her two long-lost children finally reunited in November of that year.
Dalinda waited in the middle of a white-floored municipal auditorium in Marin that looked like it could be a ballroom. She was now 40; Salvador was 39. They stood alongside one another, Dalinda in a gray, below-the-knee skirt and Salvador in a white button-down shirt tucked into jeans, with their cluster of kids and even a bigger cluster of news cameras around them. The other women from the buses formed a circle around them to keep the cameramen from hustling too close.
Alvarado walked into the room slowly, and when she saw her children, she let out a high-pitched yell: “I see you! My beautiful girl, my beautiful girl,” she said. “Thank God, thank you, thank you, thank you.” She hugged Dalinda, then Salvador, who was wiping tears from his eyes. The women surrounded them started to chant in unison — a half yowl for those still lost and half jubilee, for a mother that had found her own: “They made it!”
Not everyone knew how to react to the reunion. The woman who had taken Dalinda and Salvador in as children sat in a plastic chair on the edge of the hotel lobby and sobbed.
“Now that they’ve found their own mother, will they abandon me?” she said.
That night, Alvarado went to stay at her daughter’s house, and her grandchildren all tried to pile into the same bed, spellbound by their lost-and-found mother and grandmother.
“When I talked to my kids, I understood everything that they had gone through, and I feel so hurt. I feel so guilty for not having asked more questions back then,” Alvarado said. “I don’t want to feel everything that I have felt.”
The reunion gave them a time to dilute some of the bitterness that they had felt. And Facebook, of course, could resolve only part of their connection, giving them the means to talk to one another. The more barbed bits, how to live both apart and in touch, they’d have to figure out on their own.
“At night, we laughed, we cried, and at times the two of us just sat there, talking, we’d start to cry. Since we did not know what had happened to her, the four of us would get into bed — my mom, my kids, and me — and hear about what she was like as a child,” Dalinda said. “She sat and told us stories.”
They spent Christmas together and then after New Year’s celebrations, Alvarado flew back home. Dalinda filed paperwork that year to get residency in Mexico, after paying a fine for being undocumented. Eventually, she wants to visit El Salvador, and dreams of her mother moving to Mexico.
This January, in honor of the signing of El Salvador’s peace accords in 1992, people across El Salvador took to Facebook and Twitter to post their memories about the war with the hashtag #ProhibidoOlvidarSV, which, in English, translates to #ForgettingForbidden.
Alvarado did not watch this online outpouring. She’d given away her computer when it needed repairs. Her phone stopped loading WhatsApp, so she now relies on her husband’s. She has left her Facebook account open, but she does not use it. It’s already a relic of another time.
Félix Meléndez contributed reporting from San Salvador, El Salvador.