One Man’s Search for Family in Two Worlds
Vol. 13, No. 10 November-December 2008
by Bill Norman
Infant Ernesto Sibrian’s mother cradled him in her arms as she fled from soldiers through the El Salvador jungle. The bullet that killed her tore through her body and lodged in Ernesto’s arm. His 6-year-old sister pleaded with the soldiers not to take him, but they pushed her to the ground.
A few months later, Ernesto was adopted by Kathleen Cassidy, a social worker from Princeton, N.J., who found him in a South American hospital. She was told he had no family. She named him Peter Cassidy.
Today Peter, 25, is about to graduate from Delaware University. He has a 5-year-old son. He learned five years ago he has ALS.
In November, he’s going to walk 26.2 miles in a New York City marathon. He’s also putting finishing touches on a movie he made about his life.
“I’d like to write a book, too, if I can find a ghostwriter. I think my experiences would be motivational to other people with ALS,” he said.
Kids hurt by war
Cassidy was one of more than 2,000 children, victims of the 1980-1992 Salvadoran civil war, who were uprooted from their families. His sister and grandparents agonized over his unknown fate. Children often were given or sold to international adoption mills by government troops fighting guerrillas, who often hid in peasant villages in the jungle. “They gave us out like chickens,” said a boy quoted in a New York Times article about the situation.
Unlike most, Cassidy discovered his birth family when he turned 15. The group Asociación Pro-Búsqueda de Niñas y Niños Desaparecidos (Association for Missing Children), aided by DNA testing, confirmed that his sister and grandparents lived in a tiny mountain village not far from where his mother died. Their home had no running water or electricity. Pigs, goats and turkeys shared the house. His sister had never used a telephone.
Cassidy had a cell phone and a beeper, hung out with a hip ninthgrade crowd and couldn’t speak Spanish. But he had always wondered about his birth family. His adoptive mom and he agreed that they needed to go to El Salvador to meet them.
Beans, tortillas and cornflakes
Peter/Ernesto had a tearful reunion with his birth family, but also encountered major culture shock. He didn’t like beans and tortillas, which was about all the clan had to eat. Instead he’d walk into town and load up on good old American fare like corn flakes and soft drinks. He desperately missed television. The outdoor toilet and general lack of sanitation appalled him.
But after that first visit, and then others lasting a month or more that occurred each year thereafter, he came to know and love the people of his heritage, and to speak their language. “There’s not a whole lot to do in the village, so I’d visit for a few days, then backpack or take a bus to neighboring countries like Guatemala, Costa Rica and Honduras. Then I’d head back to the village for a few more days. Eventually, when I got back to the States, I realized I had a split personality, but in a very good way.”
Embracing two worlds
Cassidy said many adopted children, especially if they’ve reached adulthood, don’t stick around too long after being reunited with their birth families — if indeed that ever happens.
“They just don’t have a whole lot of interest or time to get involved,” he said. “But that wasn’t the case with me. I have good friends in the U.S., and when I visit El Salvador, I have friends who’ll pick me up at the airport, feed me, give me a place to stay.”
He still spends a lot of time with his adoptive mom, but he also carries a treasured photo of his birth mom, taken when she was 20. When ALS struck when he, too, was 20, he urgently felt the need to track down his father, in part to determine whether the disease affected any members of the family on that side.
He found his dad in Honduras, and learned he had a half-sister and three brothers, all very successful in life. There was no history of ALS on his father’s side.
Recorded for posterity
The intertwining of his life with the lives of his relatives in two distinctly different worlds forms the essence of his film, which originally comprised 45 hours of tape painstakingly shot in both countries. His footage is good enough that a Canadian news broadcasting company used some in a documentary about children displaced by the Salvadoran war.
Cassidy says he needs to finish the film, just as he needs to walk the 26.2-mile marathon, while he has time. Since his diagnosis, he’s lost most muscle control in his hands, although he can still type and hold a job. His feet and legs are telling him they’re next. He’s trying lithium under the guidance of Lewis Rowland, founder of the MDA/ALS Center at Columbia University in New York.
On the upside, he started a brief but successful business buying, racing and selling horses; has a responsible management position with ING, a large banking and investment firm; and has job offers from others when he graduates from college.
Best of all, he has families in two hemispheres who love him.
Peter Cassidy and Johanna De Luigi in the United States with their 5-year-old son Cameron.
Peter, center, visiting his grandparents and cousin in El Salvador.