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.