IN LANGUAGE OF LOVE, A SALVADORAN REUNION OHIO TEEN-AGER, `DISAPPEARED,' REDISCOVERS HER PARENTS
Author: Steve Fainaru, Globe Staff
LOS COCOS, El Salvador -- In a reunion filled with joyful tears and awkward silences, a 17-year-old Ohio girl who speaks only English yesterday embraced her biological parents, poor Salvadoran farmers who had not seen their daughter since soldiers seized her from a rebel field hospital 12 years ago.
"My daughter! My love!" cried Jose Lainez, as he and his wife Victoria -- along with their six other children -- enveloped their daughter Imelda in the middle of the asphalt lane that splits the mud-and-stick homes of this tiny community.
The girl, a high school senior, is known as Gina Marie Craig in the Akron, Ohio suburb where she grew up. Taken by soldiers when she was 6, she was declared "morally and materially abandoned" by a Salvadoran judge, then adopted by an American couple who believed that her parents had been killed until DNA testing proved otherwise last month.
"I feel like I'm back home," said Gina, her cheeks moist with tears as she stood amid a crowd of brothers and sisters, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, nephews and cousins. "All the faces look so familiar. I don't even know who they are but their faces look so familiar."
Gina is the first adopted American to be reunited with her family after being "disappeared" by the US-backed Salvadoran military. In the early stages of El Salvador's decade-long civil war, soldiers collected children from war zones during counterinsurgency operations -- sometimes forcibly -- then falsely passed them off as war orphans. The practice was chronicled in a Globe series published this week that including the first public account of Gina's story.
Others like Gina are expected to surface in the United States, where 2,354 Salvadoran children were adopted during the war. Next month, a 24-year-old woman and her 16-year-old brother are scheduled to travel from the Midwest to be reunited with several Salvadoran relatives who had searched for them for more than a decade.
"We get so few happy moments in our work; this is a rare pleasure," said Robert Kirschner, director of the International Forensic Program for Physicians for Human Rights, a Boston-based group that performed the DNA testing linking Gina to her family. "I think the publicity of this in the US will probably bring forth a lot of other children, maybe dozens, who are in the same situation."
Trailed by a CBS television crew from the program "60 Minutes" and accompanied by her adoptive brother Michael, a 19-year-old journalism student at Kent State University, Gina arrived in Los Cocos (population 400) in a fleet of four-wheel-drive vehicles. Her family and the community had spent three days in preparation, stringing up palm fronds, multicolored balloons and bunting to make her welcome more festive.
Wax-paper roses decorated the entrance to the Lainez' dirt-floor home. Outside, in the street, dozens of rented wooden chairs stood under a canopy of canvas feed bags strung together to keep out the blazing sun. After the reunion, Mass was said by Rev. Jon de Cortina, the cofounder for the Salvadoran-based Association in Search of Disappeared Children.
"This is a gift from God," said Jose, Gina's 40-year-old father, a corn and bean farmer. "To be able to see her again, after not knowing whether she was alive or dead, it makes me want to cry from joy."
With a wad of pink Kleenex always in her grasp, Gina, who spoke Spanish until she was 6 -- her age when she was adopted -- but flunked the subject in high school, alternated between tears and confused silences. When she arrived her family smothered her with hugs and kisses in the middle of the street and spoke to her lovingly in Spanish that she could not understand.
She had memorized words to say to her parents -- Esta es una benedicion ("This is a blessing") -- but was too embarrassed to speak them. But she still seemed undaunted, replacing her unspoken words with hugs and kisses for every relative she encountered.
"She looks a lot like her father, don't you think?" said one of her grandmothers, Torivia de Jesus.
Later, in the room where her family sleeps, relatives crowded around her and peppered her with questions about the past 12 years. The questions were translated by Rafael Calles, the investigations coordinator for the Association in Search of Disappeared Children.
"That's your Uncle Felix, and he wants to know if you always believed that your family was still alive," said Calles.
"I did," Gina said. "I always did. I never gave up hope."
As her words were translated into Spanish her family nodded and smiled.
After Mass, her mother served lunch on tables set up in the street: homemade chicken soup with vegetables. The meal was served against a backdrop of poverty: chickens darting underneath the table, garbage rotting in the sun and naked children peering out from the front doors of their homes.
Gina's adoptive parents had worried how she would react to the poverty after growing up in a two-story colonial, with her own bedroom, stereo and an American's access to television and the telephone.
"It's sad," she agreed. "But this is who we are.