`IMELDA (GINA)' STRUGGLES FOR IDENTITY
THEY WERE SEPARATED FROM THEIR FAMILIES A DECADE AGO.
NOW, `DISAPPEARED' SALVADORAN CHILDREN SUCH AS GINA (ABOVE) ARE SURFACING IN THE US.
Author: Steve Fainaru, Globe Staff
AKRON, Ohio -- Resplendent in a white sweater and a gold Nike necklace that was a gift from her boyfriend, Gina got her picture taken at K Mart recently -- a portrait of an American teen-ager. She sent the photo to El Salvador, where it now hangs in the mud-and-sticks dwelling of Jose and Victoria Lainez.
There in a dank, dark room cooled by its dirt floor, Gina is known as Imelda. That was her name before she was snatched from a rebel hospital by Salvadoran soldiers in June 1984, deposited at an orphanage, then adopted by a well-meaning American family that changed her name and raised her in a northeast Ohio suburb.
For years, Gina insisted to her adoptive family and to a string of skeptical psychologists that her parents were alive. Last month, she was proven right: DNA testing confirmed that Jose and Victoria, who searched 12 years for their daughter, in fact are her biological parents, even though Gina no longer can communicate with them in their language.
"No one believed me, but I always knew it in my heart," Gina said during a recent interview, a hunky American soap opera star staring down from a poster on the wall of her room.
Hers is the first confirmed case of a child adopted into the United States after being "disappeared" by the US-backed Salvadoran military during the 1980s. During the early years of El Salvador's decade-long civil war, soldiers retrieved children from battlefields during counter-insurgency operations -- sometimes forcibly. So far, scores of children have been found to have been falsely passed off as war orphans.
Today, more than a decade later, the children, most now grown, are scattered across the world. Many remained in El Salvador, growing up in private and state-run orphanages, on military bases, or in the homes of wealthy Salvadoran families and military officials. Others were funneled into a poorly regulated, corrupt system by which thousands of Salvadoran children were adopted by American and European families.
Investigators believe more missing children besides Gina are likely to turn up in the States. Americans adopted 2,354 Salvadoran children during the war, according to the US State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, at a time when Salvadoran and US authorities and humanitarian agencies were doing little to verify the backgrounds of adopted children.
"It seems that the majority of the children who were adopted were adopted into the United States," said Rafael Calles, the investigations coordinator for the Salvador-based Association in Search of Disappeared Children, an independent group formed two years ago. "We really don't know how many of the children who were taken out of the conflicted areas got into the [court] system. It's hard to say, but we think it might be anywhere from 20 to 30 a year from 1982 through 1986 or 1987."
Gina will be reunited soon with her parents in what her father, Jose, said was "like waking up from a bad dream and finding out it isn't real." A 17-year-old high school senior who admits she is confused about what will happen next, she said she plans to graduate next year, attend college, then find a well-paying job in computers or cosmetology that would enable her to help her parents and six brothers and sisters financially and possibly move them to northeastern Ohio.
In many ways her story is just beginning. Estranged from her adoptive parents, with whom she says she never fit in, she has lived since last year in the home of a Puerto Rican man and his earthy Spanish-speaking wife, foster parents who have cared for 95 previous children. Now on summer break, she cooks in the bingo hall where she met her 25-year-old boyfriend Lanny, listens to rap, writes love poems, watches TV and browses with frustration through Spanish for Beginners.
The 12-year ordeal has left her with two names, three sets of parents and an uncertain identity.
For most of her life, she has been Gina, taking family trips to Disneyworld, playing CYO volleyball and toe-dipping in Lake Erie. She had her own stereo and her own room packed with trinkets from her life -- stuffed animals, CDs, the bouquet she caught at her brother's wedding -- and decorated with floral wallpaper she picked out with her mother Stephanie. She covered the walls with crucifixes, posters, a plaque reading: "Lord Help Me Find The Way Through The Changes In My Life."
Fluent in Spanish until she was 6, she flunked it in high school. A decorative gift towel was her only connection to her native country.
However, she has been changing since the day last month when she learned the news about her biological parents from her adoptive father, Tom, an Ohio food broker who asked that his last name not be used. The family was already shaken by Gina's departure from home after a series of confrontations in which she often exclaimed: "I don't have to listen to you, you're not my real parents. My real parents are alive."
Concerned about her behavior, Tom and Stephanie sent Gina to child psychologists. "They would all say: `Well, you know, she's created these parents in her mind that you can't measure up to. That's why she's doing this, she's trying to save face,' " said Tom.
Then, two months ago, Stephanie received a call from Dr. Robert H. Kirschner, a forensic pathologist who is the director of the International Forensic Program for Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights. He explained that Gina had been "kidnapped" by the Salvadoran military and that her parents were alive.
Calles, the investigator for the Association in Search of Disappeared Children, discovered File No. 70-A-6-84 while going through Salvadoran adoption records. A girl was listed as Imelda Betty N., the N standing for no se sabe, or "unknown."
Stephanie worried at first about someone rummaging through the private details of her family. But then, she said, "I started to look at it as a mother. I thought about her mother looking for her for 12 years. I imagined what it must have been like not to know if your daughter was alive or dead all those years."
Tom sat down with Gina the next day.
"Gina, I've got some news for you," he said. "There's a doctor who has called, and there's a possibility that your parents are alive."
"That's what I've been trying to tell you," said Gina.
Kirschner, who lives in Chicago, traveled to Ohio to meet with Gina. He took a blood sample for DNA testing that proved the familial relationship with almost 100-percent certainty. But by the time the results came back three weeks ago, both Gina and her family were sure they were related, having exchanged photos and letters in which they recounted similar stories of their violent separation.
"Gina doesn't exist anymore," Gina said recently. "Gina never existed. She was just something that (my adoptive parents) wanted me to be."
Now, she practices writing "Imelda" over and over in her journal and says she will change her name when she turns 18. She signs letters: "Imelda (Gina)." Her foster mother, Emily, calls her by both names, talks to her in Spanish and tries to prepare her for the shock of revisiting a world in which her father, Jose, earns less in a day tending to his rented parcel of land than she once made in an hour behind the counter at McDonald's.
She will be known to all as Imelda when she returns to El Salvador on a tourist visa. But the world she will encounter is far removed from the gas barbecues, velvet lawns and glass-smooth turnpikes of her childhood. Her 40-year-old father's most prized possession is a leather-sheathed machete that cost him 120 colones, or $14 -- the equivalent of five days' work. He uses the machete to harvest corn and cut firewood and sugar cane. Her 37-year-old mother Victoria boils milk over a wood fire and makes tortillas on a stone slab in a dirt-floor kitchen by the light of a single bulb. The bathroom is a concrete outhouse across the street.
"I know they're poor," Gina said. "But we're family and we love each other. That should be enough."
In a letter to her "Mom and Dad," she wrote: "I would like to tell you that I no longer speak or understand Spanish . . . but regardless when we meet we will need no language, just being together once again our hearts will understand what we can't say by talking."
So far the letters, translated by the Association in Search of Disappeared Children, have been Gina's only communication with her family. Through them, she and her relatives have begun to reconstruct the murky events of June 1984 that swirl inside Gina's head like a nightmare that she only partially remembers.
"That's the hardest part: I want to remember but I can't," she said.
She has reminders on her hip and calf: scars of the aerial bombing that left her paralyzed from the knee down until her injuries were corrected by surgery in the US. Earlier that day, she and her family, militia members of the rebel Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, had been building trenches, trying to shield themselves from the strafing and bombs of the Salvadoran Air Force.
Gina remembers being shot, but her parents and her sister Blanca said a bomb struck nearby. A shrapnel fragment passed through her 8-year-old sister Vilma's eye, killing her instantly. Gina, who was 6, was hit in the hip and the leg. In the frantic, blurry moments that followed, an uncle picked her up and carried her to a FMLN field hospital hidden near the Pacific Ocean in the southern province of Usulutan.
"We went to visit her to make sure she was all right," said her father, Jose, his eyes tearing during an interview in his home near the city of San Vicente. "I remember they had cut her hair, and she was crying and crying. She begged us to take her because she was afraid they were going to kill her, but I couldn't. I just couldn't take the child. She was hurt and it would have been dangerous. And we didn't have enough to eat."
That was the last time they saw her. The next day, June 15, 1984, soldiers attacked the hospital. When Gina's relatives arrived, they found only the body of a nurse. The rest of the hospital was demolished and vacant.
According to court records, Gina was taken to a hospital in Usulutan. Although soldiers may have been acting out of concern for her welfare, they also set her on the path that would erase her identity. As she was apparently unable to remember her last name, someone changed it from Imelda Lopez Lainez to Imelda Betty Rubio. From the hospital she was taken to a state-run orphanage called Rosa Virginia Peletier, outside San Salvador, the capital.
Her adoptive parents, who were told almost nothing about her past, are left with this question: "Why does the story begin three chapters into the book?" said Tom, her adoptive father. Already blessed with two boys but unable to have more children, he and Stephanie wanted a daughter. They turned to a foreign adoption service on the recommendation of man who, while measuring their home for drapes, mentioned that he had adopted a Salvadoran child.
Within 10 months, in Oct. 1984, the entire family -- Tom, Stephanie and their two sons -- was on a plane to San Salvador to pick up a girl of whom the agency had provided not even a photo. They arrived at the orphanage in a taxi and were surrounded by children. "You could hear them start to yell: `Americanos! Americanos! Take me. Take me,' " said Tom.
"They only spoke Spanish so I don't know how they learned to say `Take me,' " he said. "There must have been 400 kids taken care of by 8 or 9 adults. They were all aroud us."
When they asked for the girl named Imelda Betty Rubio, a woman looked at them quizzically. "She said, `Don't you know that she's hurt?' Wouldn't you like me to give you somebody else?' " said Tom. "She was kind of looking at us like we were stupid or something.' "
Fifteen minutes later the woman came out with Imelda. The girl's clothes were infested by lice. Her right toes pointed down as if she were "a permanent ballerina," said Tom. Unable to walk, the 6-year-old girl either crawled or used a wheelchair. Her head was tucked into her chest.
The adoption process took four days. To take their daughter home, Tom and Stephanie needed clearance from a Salvadoran court, called the Tribunal for the Protection of Children, and the US Embassy. On the advice of the adoption service, Stephanie brought gifts for the Salvadoran judge, Yolanda Myers de Vasquez, who gratefully accepted them.
"She said, `Oh! I can't believe you did this.' She was really making a scene," said Stephanie. "I was thinking, `Can't believe it? I was told to bring it.' In (the United States), who would think of bringing a bottle of wine and a ham for a judge?"
Within 15 minutes they had received the necessary paperwork: a provisional guardianship allowing them to complete the adoption in the US, and a declaration of "Moral and Material Abandonment." When they asked about the whereabouts of the girl's parents, the judge told them they were presumed dead.
The US Consulate was equally speedy. "The guy looked at the paperwork and said, `Oh, you guys look like rich Americans to me,' and that was that." No questions were asked about the child's background. "They seemed like they were more concerned about us and whether we could take care of her," said Tom.
Once back home, Tom and Stephanie began to realize that their daughter had been profoundly effected by her experience. "I don't think I've ever seen anybody who has so many dimensions," said Tom. As she grew older, her daughter was capable of extraordinary acts of kindness, slipping "have a nice day" notes into her brother's sandwiches and offering tender mothering to anyone who became sick.
Her pain threshhold was extraordinary; she seemed never to cry or show emotion. Her rehabilitation from her war injuries, which were expected to prevent her from walking, was so swift and complete that her doctor once told a group of students: "If you don't believe in miracles, all you have to do is look at this child." After breaking her right arm, she taught herself to write lefthanded. She feared nothing except the crackle of fireworks.
But she also was capable of cool, stony withdrawals to her room at provocations as slight as borrowing a slip of paper without her permission. By her mid-teens she had grown apart from her family and the arguments were more frequent. Finally one frigid New Year's day she ran out without a coat. She has not spent a night there since.
Her adoptive family hopes that reconciling with her biological parents also will help her make peace with her adoptive family, with whom she currently endures an uneasy cold war -- occasionally attending church, visiting from time to time, but keeping her distance.
Gina said she used to blame her adoptive parents. "I felt that they had stole my childhood away from me," she said. "They always had a part in it because they brought me here, they took me away from my parents. Now that I'm older I know that they did it in my best interests. But they still don't know me. They're not my parents."
"The best quote I ever heard was from a guy who works with me," said Tom. "I told him, `Jack, they found Gina's parents.' He told me, `Tom, the day you die I want to die, too. Because I want to be there when God explains this all to you.' "
Series at a glance
Yesterday: During the 1980s, the US-backed Salvadoran military separated scores of children from their families and launched them on an odyssey that is only now coming to light.
Today: A girl's struggle to come to terms with her identity. Last month, an Ohio couple was told that the parents of an adopted daughter were alive.
Tomorrow: As children separated from their families are found, reunions can be bittersweet, raising questions about guilt, blame, and the nature of a family.
To read this series online, go to Globe Online at http://www.boston.com. Use the keyword: salvador.
1. GLOBE PHOTO/THOMAS LONG / Jose and Victoria Lainez outside their home in rural El Salvador, pose with a photo of their daughter, Imelda, identified as having been adopted by an Ohio family more than a decade ago. Renamed Gina, below, she still lives in Ohio.
2. GLOBE STAFF PHOTO/JANET KNOTT / Seventeen-year-old Gina, born Imelda, holds her passport and photos of her family in El Salvador with whom she plans to be reunited soon.