MARINA DOLORES ORTIZ
“ I had 1,000 questions which no one had answers to because no one knew my story.”
Esta historia se escribe en Español = This story is also written in Spanish here.
Editor’s Note: Kidnapped as a baby. No identity. No family. Robbed of a normal childhood. Growing up in a place where adults called her names and avoided her.
And always wondering . . . . . . .
That is the beginning of Marina’s story.
Marina is not alone. There are reports of up to 950 children who went missing during El Salvador’s civil war. Most were forcibly removed from their homes by the military as acts of reprisal against their families. The military used this intimidation tactic mostly in rural communities where they suspected opposition by guerrilla sympathizers. The children were in an extreme state of vulnerability. Many of their parents were already dead, disappeared, or in Marina’s case, so frightened, her mom left her with a trusted neighbor and quickly fled hoping to return to find her when the ambush was over.
Some of the children lived on military bases where they were abused. Others were illegally given to or adopted out to military or wealthy families around the world to families who often had no knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the child.
Pro-Busqueda is a powerful human rights advocacy organization founded by Jesuit priest Jon Cortina in 1993. It is committed to searching for and re-uniting these children and their families. Father Cortina once said, “We believe that their right to recover their identity, and the right of their families to know the fate of the children they lost, must be fulfilled and respected.”
Marina comes to our interview today with her friend, Felix Eduardo Alanzo Miguel.
Felix Eduardo Alanzo Migue
I never knew my real name, my birthday, where I was from, or anything about my family until I was sixteen. It was then that I discovered my identity.
Now I know that my young parents and I lived in the small village outside San Miguel called El Castano. I was born on May 2, 1982, near the beginning of the war. The military were persecuting many in that area including my parents, both accused of being communists. The soldiers carried out two ambushes. They took my dad during one and presumably killed him. They threatened my mom earlier, and she nearly died. Several people in our town fled during the ambush, and my mom became scared and left me with a neighbor. My mom was miraculously saved and made it to a guerrilla camp. The soldiers there helped her survive, but she wanted to leave because she was not part of their group. When she returned to our village to find me, I was no longer there nor was the neighbor she had left me with. This broke her down because my dad and I were both gone and we were all she had. She returned to the guerrilla camp to stay, saying she had nowhere else to go and had lost her whole family. She stayed at the camp for 12 years working with the National Resistance. She didn’t care if she lived or died; she had nothing to return to.
Meanwhile, according to investigations, the military brought me along with other children into San Salvador in military trucks to a church shelter. I was one year old. From there they decided where to send each child. When I was two, they sent me to an orphanage run by the Emmanuel Baptist Church. There were 150 kids living in that orphanage. Some of them knew their parents and others of us did not.
One way the orphanage helped us was taking us to church. Still it did not fulfill my need to learn my identity. The only outlet I had as a child was playing with toys and games with my “brothers” and “sisters,” but this never relieved the pain. There were just SO many of us – 150 kids with no personal treatment or attention.
This little girl is the same age Marina was when she was kidnapped.
I was vaguely aware something was happening within the country, but I didn’t know what. Families would come seeking help or shelter, and sometimes they were allowed to stay. There were many kids experiencing trauma. Those who helped me most were not staff, but instead my “brothers” and my “sisters.” One of the older girls named Claudia Arvalo, who was 17 and in my same situation, seemed more aware of what was happening in the country. She began identifying who did and who did not have parents based on who was receiving gifts and who was not. She also saw discrimination going on and began protecting us from potential abuse. She personally prevented me from being raped. If she had not been there, who knows what would have happened to me? I owe her part of my life for looking out for me.
After the Peace Accords were signed in 1992, those who knew their parents returned home. Ten of us had no identities. The authorities did not know what to do with us. We were teenagers by that time, and there were too few of us to be housed in a large facility like the orphanage. I needed an official name in order to be registered so my former childhood nickname of “Loly” changed to Anna Maria Paiz and I had to move to a smaller place called Vista Hermos. The good part was that they moved all ten of us who we regarded as our brothers and sisters together. The orphanage was run by women. We suffered some discrimination being labeled as “orphans.”
The founder of the smaller orphanage himself had been tortured and persecuted and accused of cooperating with the guerrilla movement. He established this place specifically for rural kids who had suffered army persecutions as he had. He didn’t care if we had families or not; all of us were treated the same way. He made occasional visits to our facility.
In the larger setting there was insufficient staff or perhaps a lack of time to teach me how to eat; consequently, at mealtimes I was sloppily filling my mouth with food for which I got scolded and labeled as a “dirty kid” or “messy kid.” No one wanted to take care of me. All of us kids were in the same boat. Once when I was about six years old, we were eating fish, and I was being a sloppy eater. I was covered with fish and snot in my hair, which was hanging straight in my face. (There were no ponytails then or maybe no staff to do them.) I overheard a staff member complain again about not wanting to help me eat. This founder, Pastor Miguel Thomas Castro, was there, and he picked me up and cleaned the hair away from my face and kissed my face. I had never experienced that before and was so surprised! I just wasn’t used to physical contact, especially affection. He used to spend time praying with the kids who were sick, so I often pretended to have a headache so that he would come spend time with me. I continue to have a good relationship with him and see him as a father; he sees me as a daughter. He probably doesn’t remember “the fish story,” but I do.
Father Miguel helped me overcome much of the childhood trauma I was experiencing. I had no memory of anything before the age of five. After age five it was as if I suddenly woke up into this environment with all these kids around me realizing I had nothing when my suffering began. Father Miguel was the first person to help me overcome some of that suffering.
I remained with that group of ten “brothers” and “sisters” for the rest of my orphan life until I was able to create my own life. We all attended school that belonged to the orphanage in a nearby neighborhood of Haciento. The teachers there discriminated against us “orphans.” The staff and other students always blamed us for anything that went wrong at school. I reacted with violence sometimes, got fed up with the situation, and looked out for my rights. The staff regarded me as a person with conflict. I protected other kids who were bullied like my friend Felix here.
One of the teachers, Miss Nelly Sanchez, knew my situation, offered to protect us, and said we didn’t have to react that way. I began to trust her and became a school leader. In addition to my direct line to the pastor, she became my ally. Our group of ten stuck together as a team.
Living in an institutional setting, your human rights can easily be violated. When you realize that you have nothing, you live with a great deal of emptiness inside. I didn’t find meaning in my life. I would ask, “Why as a kid do I have to live without my parents?” I had 1,000 questions which no one had answers to because no one knew my story. During my teenage years I became somewhat of a rebel because of this. I was very resentful, wondering why I had been abandoned.
Some time after the Peace Treaty was signed, the pastor came to our orphanage with two announcements. He said it was too expensive for the church to keep a large facility open for ten youth. The second more shocking news was that there were children snatched from their families during the war and “I think you are among those kids. There is probably someone out there looking for you.” Father Jon Cortina, a Jesuit priest was a friend of his and was very involved in these efforts. He shook our hands, observed us, and asked if any of us remembered our past. Two of the kids remembered they came from a place where there had been a massacre. The rest of us remembered nothing. The pastor said he thought we were “war kids.” We answered, “WHAT war?” I was about 12 years old then.
This offered us some hope as we shared our sketchy information and proceeded to sit and wait. In 1995 some Pro-Busqueda workers came to our house with news that they found the family of one of my “sisters” named Reyna. She responded very hesitantly; she was in shock. We asked her, “Why aren’t you happy? We wish it was us.” Her uncle accompanied the worker, and she remained very distant around him. The rest of us were more kind to him than she was. We asked her what she wanted, and she responded, “I want my parents.” They were killed during the war. We asked the Pro-Busqueda worker about progress on our cases but were told they were more complex and difficult because we did not know our real names. That’s when I lost hope.
I began to pray; I prayed for a sister. I didn’t care if my parents showed up. I just wanted a sister. In 1997 a man came to the Pro-Busqueda office to file a case for a missing girl. (He had been tortured during the war but managed to survive.) He was my uncle carrying a picture of me, and my mom was with him. They had been searching the place she had been and orphanages. The orphanage I was first placed in had a different photo of me than he did, of course, but researchers comparing the two of them during an investigation said, “I think they are the same person.” It was confusing during the year of the investigation because Pro-Busqueda came to my home and did a DNA sample and said there was a chance my family turned up. They were doing DNA samples on my mom to be certain. After two months the DNA results were conclusive for a match.
Then I experienced the same reactions as my “sister, Reyna” had. I was in shock to discover I had a mom, brothers and sisters, uncles, lots of people. After having no one all these years, I wasn’t sure how to respond and had very mixed emotions. I felt joy on the one hand but had questions about my abandonment on the other.
Pro-Busqueda scheduled a time to meet one another in May, 1998. I was sixteen years old. The first person I met was my sister. This was the miracle I had prayed for. One by one these strangers, my family members, began introducing themselves. The last person I met was my mother. It was very emotional. She explained the painful story of what had happened. No one said a word about my dad. Finally I asked, and all my aunts and uncles began crying. My mom told how the army had taken him and undoubtedly killed him and how it affected the entire extended family who never overcame his loss.
I had to forgive my mom, even though she was not responsible for what happened to me. She has lived with guilt her whole life. With the help of eight years of professional psychological treatment provided by Pro-Busqueda, I have been able to form a healthy relationship with my mom. I overcame my anger and suffering issues and am able to call her “mother.” I discovered that my mom is a farmer in Morazan Department. I take my own family to visit her on vacations.
Childhood is a very important part of a person’s life, and if it’s denied because you didn’t spend that time with your family, it is very painful and leaves you with an emptiness. Re-uniting with my family has given me an inner peace now.
The biggest healing for me as a person and as a woman was to have my own children. They are mine and they are special. My family is very important to me. I live with someone and have two children; Jon is seven and Lynn is five. When I first heard my child call me “Mom,” I was in 7th heaven, and I felt fulfilled as a person. Some people say I had my children very early, but I don’t care. They carry my genes; I enjoy them and learn from them and they from me.
The Pro-Busqueda staff is like a second family to me. I feel as if we’ve been connected since I was twelve years old. I participate in all their public events and was once their “Legislator for a Day.” In 1997 Pro-Busqueda built a memorial for the disappeared. I have added both my dad’s name, Jose Delores, as well as my real name to that wall. (Pro-Busqueda helped me work through the legal channels necessary to change my name as my parents intended.) Every year I take my kids to visit my dad at that wall. At first it was hard for them to understand what it was all about, but as they get older, they do. My son gets scared when he hears stories about missing children. When they get older, I will share my story with them. I was a little over-protective at first raising my son, but a psychologist told me that was a mistake. I needed to allow him to be curious. I’ve relaxed a bit more with my second child.
In 2004 I began to work in the Pro-Busqueda office full-time collaborating with victims. My personal experiences can help others who share the same or similar situations. Since I was five years old, I have wanted to pursue a career as a lawyer, and now I am at the end of those studies. I want to specialize in human rights.
Now many people who see me only as a young woman have trouble understanding what I have lived through. It is important for our country’s legacy to remind them that we were victims without an identity. Knowing that there were victims, that these victims were unable to heal properly, contributes to the country’s identity. I learned to recover my own identity, which goes beyond my name; it is my roots at the most basic level. Above all, I am now able to say I overcame my situation and can share it.
Despite the suffering I am able to lead a happy life, not forgetting the past, but living with it. If we choose to forget our past, we leave nothing for the next generation. When I was a student, I wrote an essay about the missing children so that the next generation could read about it as a legacy. My story is a burden and it hurts but I have done enough crying. I have kids and have to go on, and that drives me forward.
I don’t see much future for our kids in this country. Social violence denies them a future. This country has neither wanted to search for the truth of what happened in the 1980s and apply justice nor make those responsible pay for their crimes. Without those two elements we cannot re-build the country. It is necessary to speak on the subject because it is the only way we can build a future for the kids, one based on truth and justice. No one has been tried for the crimes. In this country you can kill someone and not suffer consequences; this cannot go on. Life is important and we have to co-exist. If we don’t look for the origin of the truth, we cannot go on.
The best thing this country has to offer other countries is the experience of our pain we suffered, that we survived and went forward and, despite no peace for the victims, that we have overcome the pain, licked our wounds, and want to recover our trust with the government.
I want to have hope because I have children and need hope for their sake. Unfortunately, we are a very poor country, and when certain officials come into power and see other things available, they often become corrupt. Corruption sickens a society. If we don’t invest more in education, the entire country suffers because we are unable to develop in a humane fashion.
I maintained a close relationship with Father Jon Cortina, founder of Pro-Busqueda, until his death. He knew I planned to name any son I had after him. Our family joins in the celebration of his life held annually.
Editor’s Note: We have supported the mission and work of Pro-Busqueda and decided prior to our recent trip to interview a person who had been reunited with his/her family as a result of Pro-Busqueda’s efforts. Little did we know how volatile their offices housing all their records (including their computer files) would become two months before our arrival. Read this summary for details.
Regarding this attack on November 15, 2013, at 4:45 A.M., Marina says she knew something like this was bound to happen, especially when Congress notified them that the Amnesty Law was going to change. “ I was appalled when I saw the conditions at the office. It was an assault to all the victims,” according to Marina. She said this shows there is no tolerance for truth and justice when a terrorist act is used. “We had recently received a case against the armed forces and tried to solve it using peaceful means; not violent means. There has to be a day when the army and others can sit down and tell the truth to solve these cases. There is public responsibility for reconciliation in the country,” states Marina.
Pro-Busqueda receives no government support. Its work relies on donations and volunteers. The DNA Database is located at the University of California’s Berkeley campus. Through the DNA samples 389 parent/child matches have been identified; 235 families have been re-united; 58 have been found dead. The majority of cases remain unsolved.
Not all the re-united families have happy endings. Many of the “children” who are now middle-aged adults still harbor resentment against their parents for the situations surrounding their disappearances. Much time has lapsed and these “children” have their own families now and many don’t want the past dredged up.
Due to a 1993 amnesty law, no one has been prosecuted for the abductions or the 80,000 deaths, 8,000 disappearances and forced displacement of a million people during the war. This impunity awarded to the human rights violators has been the source of open wounds in the country.