ORPHANED BY MURDER, TWO SISTERS MEET THEIR PAST
BOSTON WOMEN FIND FAMILY IN EL SALVADOR
Author: Yvonne Abraham, Globe Staff
LAS FLORES, El Salvador - Imelda Auron replayed her memories of that summer night thousands of times. Her older brother's hand over her mouth. A sister shot twice trying to flee the gunmen. Her parents dead on the dirt floor. It was 1980. She was just 4. But the images were knife-sharp.
A few years later, Imelda and her sister, Maria Cebollero, were scrubbed clean and sent to new parents in the United States. Imelda, 7, was adopted by a Hyde Park woman. Maria, 3, went to a couple in Long Island. The girls were given different names, severed from everything they knew, lost to everyone who knew them.
Twenty-one years after they left El Salvador, Imelda was mostly happy, but felt a nagging unease: Not fully American, she did not identify with Salvadorans either.
''That's how I've felt for my whole life," she said. ''Like an outcast."
Now a Jamaica Plain preschool teacher, she longed to know if her memories were true, or whether she had embroidered what little she knew about her family.
Maria didn't have the comfort of even vague memories. Shuttled between group homes and foster families since she was 12, she ended up in Dorchester and now works as a dancer in strip clubs. All her life in America, she had longed for something to moor her.
"I would be alone somewhere and just want a real mother's hug," Maria said. ''I would pray to God to send my mother's spirit down to me so I could see her face."
Questions bedeviled the sisters, who had been in touch since they were children: Why were their parents murdered? Who was left of their family? They grew up not knowing basic things: What job did their father do? How did their mother smile?
Then, this summer, answers were suddenly within reach.
Imelda, planning to volunteer in El Salvador in July, dashed off an e-mail to La Asociacion Pro-Busqueda de Ninas y Ninos Desaparecidos, an agency in San Salvador that searches for children adopted during the country's 12-year civil war. When a reply came June 13 she could barely believe it. Pro-Busqueda had found the sisters' family. The reunion was set for July 2.
As the trip got closer, e-mails from the agency brought their Salvadoran family into focus. There were two surviving brothers and a sister, 14 nieces and nephews. The family was very poor, living in a village just north of San Salvador in a dangerous area overrun with gangs. Their family had questions, too: Had their sisters found each other? Were they vegetarians, like other Americans?
In the days leading up to the meeting, Imelda, 29, and Maria, 25, were excited and nervous. They wondered how their family would look. They worried about living up to their expectations.
''It's huge," Imelda said before she left Boston. ''My mind is boggled with so many thoughts. I feel like this is going to complete me. But what happens next?"
The sisters held hands tightly in the back of an SUV as it bumped up a rutted dirt hill, past shacks and chickens and watchful women selling oranges by the side of the road. They stopped outside one of the biggest houses in the village, borrowed for the reunion.
Imelda and Maria stepped into the front courtyard and immediately, their past was upon them. Cecilia, 33, with Imelda's face, rushed to her. Salvador, 38, with Maria's eyes, spread his arms wide and held both sisters at once. Carlos, 37, steadying himself on crutches, bent to accept their embraces. Dozens of black-haired children surrounded them. They all clung to each other, crying with joy and sadness, pulling back to check each other's faces, hugging hard again.
No one could say anything at first. Then everyone talked at once.
"Do not cry, my daughters," said Maura Sandoval Avalos, 63, a cousin who cared for the sisters after their parents were killed. "Now you are at home."
"It is an indescribable emotion to see you again," Cecilia said. "I always wanted to have a sister that looked like me. It is not the same living among brothers."
"You don't know how much I have missed you," Carlos said. "All these years, I asked myself, 'Where could they be? Where could they be?"'
Translators stepped in close to the embracing relatives to help Imelda, who speaks some Spanish, and Maria, who speaks none, understand their family.
Over lunch, a mass of relatives helped the sisters piece together fuller pictures of themselves, yelling memories across the porch. One of the children fetched a framed, pastel-tinted photograph of their parents and two oldest sisters. Imelda and Maria stared at it silently, seeing their parents' young, serious faces for the first time. The picture had been taken shortly before Antonia Marroquin, Salvador Avalos, and their two oldest daughters died.
"Why were our parents killed?" Imelda finally asked. "Was it because they were political people?"
Salvador Avalos had been a Catholic evangelist, a devotee of Oscar Romero, the Catholic archbishop of San Salvador who decried the killings of poor farmers that marked the civil war of the 1980s, which pitted the army and death squads against guerrillas and peasants. Avalos had seen the death squads' carnage for himself, helping to bury bodies from a nearby massacre. After the archbishop was assassinated on the altar in March 1980, Avalos continued to preach his teachings, one of his sons said.
"My father used to say, 'One day they are going to kill me,"' Salvador told a reporter later. "And they were killed like dogs."
At 11:30 p.m. on July 31, 1980, gunmen burst into the house. Ten minutes later, the children's father, their pregnant mother, and their two oldest sisters were dead. Salvador, 13, ran out into the dark looking for help, but no one came. The five children spent that night in the house alone, terrified.
This is what the sisters had come to this dusty village of tin-roofed shacks and lush green hills to hear.
"I knew he was a good man!" Imelda said of her father.
That afternoon, the five surviving children visited a pretty cemetery at the base of a mountain, where ocean-hued crucifixes stood above tightly placed burial plots. The sisters kissed the crosses on their parents' graves.
"I feel like I've lived all of these years in one day," Imelda said, exhausted. "My memories are all true."
Now Maria had memories, too. Suddenly, she had more relatives than she could count. She was home.
"I want to show everyone who felt bad for me, I want to show them where I came from," she said of her friends in Boston. "I know where my parents are buried now."
Salvador Marroquin could hardly wait to show his sisters the house he had built. He unlatched the front door and turned on the light. A naked bulb lit a single room with a dirt floor, a few beds, some mosquito nets, and clothes strewn all around. The sisters recoiled, as disturbed as their brother was proud.
"I can't stand this," Imelda said under her breath, as she came out of the house.
The sisters knew their family would be poor. They had no idea what poor meant until now.
The years since their parents' deaths had been hard on the children.
Though their parents and two of their sisters had almost certainly been murdered by death squads sympathetic to the government, the two sons went into the army.
Salvador said he joined at first to try to find those responsible for the murders, and stayed to help feed his family.
For the last 10 years or so, he has wheeled a lollipop cart around the capital, making about $200 in good months. He has spent too much of that money on vodka over the years, he told his sisters, trying to wash away the grief after an 11-year-old daughter's drowning death.
Carlos joined the army, too, becoming part of the elite Batallon Atlacatl, the small, much-feared squad that carried out some of the most brutal massacres of the war. He was injured when he stepped on a land mine.
Carlos is tormented by his experiences during the war, Salvador said, and quick to lose his temper.
Cecilia struggles to raise her seven children, which her brothers say are by "four or five" men.
All of this was more -- and far more complicated -- than Imelda and Maria had expected to find. Later, they cried about what Carlos had done during the war.
"I just feel really sad," Imelda said. Their family was torn apart by a death squad, and Carlos "probably did the same thing to somebody else."
But the sisters wanted to let go of the past.
"I think they live with it every day," Imelda said. "But I don't want to live with it every day. If they had the opportunities we had, they would have ended up differently ... I almost just want to forget about everything, the memories I have, and everything I know about them. I want to know them from now on."
But knowing their family from now on wouldn't be easy, either.
The sisters had come to El Salvador expecting so much: to fill the gaps in their pasts, to restore their family relationships, to feel as if they belonged somewhere. After their first day, it was clear that their family expected much of them, too. The sisters were their way out of poverty. All over the village, families were getting money from relatives in the United States. Now they could get help, too.
"How is your economic situation?" Salvador had asked the sisters at his house.
On that first night, Imelda, who had made the reunion happen, was appalled at what she had seen in Las Flores.
"I don't want to go back there," she said of their village. "Ever."
Maria felt differently. Seeing her family had made her feel lucky, a rare sensation for her. Now she had siblings whose lives were even more difficult than hers. Supporting them offered a sense of purpose.
"I want to take care of them," she said.
But Maria's new purpose was Imelda's new obligation.
"I feel like it's a burden now. I feel like I have to take care of them, and they know I have to," she said.
The morning after the reunion, Imelda and Maria walked to the mall in San Salvador to meet Salvador, Cecilia, and three of her daughters. Imelda walked slowly, dreading another day with her family. She had nothing to say. She wished she could just leave.
The group embraced. Then they walked around aimlessly for a while, the sisters putting the young children on every ride they came upon. Imelda was visibly frustrated, her face strained.
"I'm telling you, I don't know what to do with them," she said to Marco Navarette, the Pro-Busqueda psychologist who was helping the family get acquainted.
Imelda was coming to terms with an uncomfortable reality: Despite being a family, despite what they had been through together 25 years ago, they were strangers.
Finally, the group wandered into a shoe store, where the American sisters chose and bought shoes for Salvador and Cecilia and the three girls. Salvador put on his new tan sneakers and put his old shoes in the box. They had three buses to catch to Las Flores, and he was afraid bandits would rob him.
He was thinking of Carlos, too, who had missed out on the shopping trip because they hadn't been able to reach him.
"Salvador appreciates all the things you're doing for them," Navarette told the sisters as they left the shoe store. "But he's worried about Carlos. He says the special shoes Carlos needs cost $30."
"We get it," Imelda said, annoyed.
All afternoon, Imelda's conversations with her siblings were mostly about money. How much does a house cost in their village, she asked Salvador. About $25,000, he told her. Could he write down an address where she could send money and gifts? Salvador said he couldn't write. Navarette wrote for him.
"I keep telling them, we want to help them, they shouldn't worry about anything now," she said. "But I don't want to keep throwing money around."
Maria wanted to catch up on the years the siblings had missed. Over fried chicken and pizza, with Navarette translating, Salvador told of the time he was robbed selling lollipops. He pulled up his sleeve to show where the robber slashed his arm with a machete. Maria kissed a finger and touched the deep purple scar.
Alcohol had made him fat, Salvador told her. "I drink a lot because of my past," he said.
"Tell him I drink a lot because of my past," Maria told Navarette.
"But now you've got a new beginning," Salvador said. "Now you can start over."
While her two sisters and brother sat at a table engrossed in conversation, Imelda tended to the children. When 2 p.m. came, she cut short the visit. She wanted to leave the mall. She wanted to leave the country.
It wasn't just the poverty, she said later. Her brothers seemed sweet at some times and, somehow, sinister at others. Her siblings saw her as a kind of mother, looking to her to referee their arguments, listen to their complaints, and provide for them. In reuniting now, she felt that she had given up more than she had gained.
"I thought I'd find them later, when I had done all the things I wanted to do in my life. I know it's really selfish, but my old life is gone, and it's hard to know it's not going to be the same."
Before they left the mall, Imelda gave Salvador $30 for Carlos's shoes.
The next morning, the sisters took a taxi to see their family in Las Flores before Maria returned to Boston and Imelda went on to her volunteer assignment in La Libertad.
They arrived to find Salvador hung over. He was sorry. He was ashamed. He had taken the money the sisters had sent for Carlos and drunk it away.
"Please don't tell Carlos," he pleaded.
Yvonne Abraham can be reached at email@example.com.
1. Maria Cebollero (left) and Imelda Auron speak with psychologist Marco Perez on the morning of their family reunion. / GLOBE STAFF PHOTOS/DINA RUDICK
2. Maria Cebollero hugs her family during a shopping trip on the morning after the reunion. Imelda Auron, who dreaded the final-day trip, stands at right. / GLOBE STAFF PHOTO / DINA RUDICK
3. Maria Cebollero (left) and Imelda Auron (far right) met kin they hadn't seen in 21 years. / Globe Staff Photo / Dina Rudick 4. Imelda Auron (left) and sister Maria Cebollero stand over the grave of their parents, who were murdered on July 31, 1980. Imelda Auron (left) and Maria Cebollero look at a picture of their parents and sister.
5. Salvador Marroquin (right) proudly shows his sisters Imelda (left) and Maria the house he built and has lived in for 17 years.