El Salvador families seek adoption answers
For almost two decades Martina Torresendi lived the life of a normal Italian youngster, growing up as an only child, lovingly spoilt by her doting parents.
By Mike Lanchin
January 31, 2010 / BBC News
She always knew she had been adopted in faraway El Salvador, but knew little about the circumstances of her adoption, or of her birth family.
So when in 2003 she received a phone call from someone claiming to be her sister, living nearby in Rome, she could hardly believe her ears.
"I have a lovely family in Italy, and that has always been enough," said Martina, 28. "But I always dreamt of having a sister, or a brother. It's silly, but I wanted to know someone I looked like."
A meeting was arranged and Martina travelled from her home in Verona to the Italian capital to see a young woman who turned out to be her elder sister, Silvia. She had been adopted by another Italian family.
"It was the happiest moment of my life," Martina said. In the days and weeks following their reunion, the two young women spent hours avidly gazing at each other in the mirror, unable to believe their physical likeness.
But along with happiness came a series of uncomfortable questions, such as how could they have grown up in the same country unaware of each other's existence for so long? And what had become of their birth family in El Salvador?
In search of answers, Martina travelled back to the Central American nation of her birth in December 2009, for another emotional encounter, this time with her biological mother and large extended Salvadorean family.
"I feel like an angel from heaven has come, I just can't describe the joy I feel," Graciela, her biological mother, said, a huge grin on her face.
Sitting together in the San Salvador offices of the Asociacion Pro-Busqueda de Ninos Desaparecidos (the Association in Search of Missing Children) - the organisation that reunited them - mother and daughter laughed about their family likenesses, especially their broad forehead and round face.
"I'm lighter skinned than you, because it's so cold in Italy," Martina told the older woman in Spanish, spoken slowly with a strong Italian accent.
Another daughter, Flor de Maria, looked on, seemingly unable to believe the young European-looking woman was her long-lost sister.
Taking in the emotion of the encounter, Martina said: "I wanted them to see that I am okay, that my life has been happy. That's why I came back.
"If I hadn't come, then they'd have been left wondering what had happened to Martina and how she'd turned out."
Baptised Janet Ruiz, Martina was just 18 months old when Graciela last saw her. It was 1982 and El Salvador was engulfed in a brutal civil war.
A year earlier, the family had been driven out of their village in the east of the country by left-wing guerrillas who had also killed Martina's father.
Left alone to bring up four young children, her mother did not know where to turn for help.
Then a brother mentioned a lawyer he knew who arranged adoptions abroad for Salvadorean children. At first Graciela refused to listen, but later acquiesced.
"It was the fear and the uncertainty that convinced me, that and the bombs," she said quietly. In August of that same year, she travelled to the capital to meet the lawyer and one of the Italian families.
In the lobby of an upmarket hotel, Graciela said farewell first to Silvia, then to Martina.
"The lawyer said they [the adoptive parents] would bring Martina and Silvia back every seven years and would send photos each year. After about a year, a year and a half, I heard nothing," she said.
Martina and Silvia, who has yet to travel back to El Salvador, are among several hundred young Salvadoreans located by the Asociacion Pro-Busqueda since it began work shortly after the civil war ended in 1992.
Many of them have been found with adoptive families in the US and Europe.
According to the group's lawyer, Leonor Arteaga, during the war Salvadorean lawyers would regularly scout the refugee camps or neighbourhoods where displaced people like Graciela were living, in search of children to adopt.
"Some adoptive foreign families told us they paid $10,000 or $20,000 to the lawyers - that was a lot of money in those days," she said.
On paper these had been legal adoptions, she said, but given the vulnerable situation of many of the biological parents, "they were not regular or fair adoptions".
And in many instances, the adoptive families were not told the full circumstances of the child's background, or if full consent had actually been given.
While Martina is adamant her adoptive parents "did not pay for me", she believes they were taken advantage of precisely because they wanted a child so badly, and so were made to pay money to the lawyer involved.
Hit by shrapnel
Lucia Panameno, 70, still cannot explain how her granddaughter, Rosa, ended up living nearly 2,000 miles away in the US.
Lucia now lives in a simple breeze-block house down a dirt path in central San Vicente province, one of the areas worst hit by the war.
Close by is the village where she last saw Rosa in 1982 - the same year Martina and Silvia were adopted by the Italian families.
Clutching her precious photograph album, containing the only pictures she has of her granddaughter, Lucia recounted how the family had been fleeing an army operation against leftist guerrillas, when Rosa was hit by flying shrapnel.
In the confusion, the little girl was separated from the rest of the family. They later learnt she had been taken to a military hospital, then to an orphanage and put up for adoption. The judge registered her as "abandoned".
"Perhaps she'll come back one day," her grandmother said sadly, "even just once to see us."
Rosa's parents died during the war and Lucia is now her closest surviving relative. The last she heard was Rosa was living with an adopted mother in Virginia.
According to Alexis Rivas, a psychologist who works with the Asociacion Pro-Busqueda, about a quarter of the youngsters traced abroad have not returned to meet their birth families in El Salvador.
"They have their own lives, they are perhaps scared of losing what they have, or angry because they believe they were given away," he said.
Yet for Martina, who has now returned to Italy, there is nothing to fear in the process.
"It's just a question of discovering your roots," she said, "something to be proud of, something extra, but it doesn't change anything, it doesn't change who you are."