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Ana Williams and her daughter, Laika.

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The reappeared

The Williams sisters and their birth mother find one another, one hemisphere away and decades after their separation in war-torn El Salvador in 1980

The Williams family will hold a benefit concert, featuring Dean Stevens, at the Hooker Dunham Theatre, 139 Main St., in Brattleboro, on Thursday, July 2, to raise awareness and funds to help with the cost of the reunion as well as support the work of Asociación Pro-Búsqueda. A representative from the organization will speak about the ongoing work of reuniting families separated during the Salvadoran civil war. A reception and refreshments begin at 6:30 p.m.; Stevens’ performance begins at 7:30 p.m. A donation of $20 per person is requested. To reserve tickets, call 802-254-9276.

BRATTLEBORO—Isabel Williams grew up knowing she was adopted. She remembers the day she met JoAnn Williams, the woman who raised her and her sister, Ana, and moved them to town when they were children.

What Isabel did not find out until later in life: That the circumstances surrounding her and Ana’s adoption more closely resembled a kidnapping.

Now the Williams sisters are in contact with their birth mother.

And they want their story known.

From 1979 to 1992, El Salvador was engaged in a civil war between the U.S.-backed, military-led government and a coalition of left-wing guerrilla groups. More than 75,000 civilians were killed, most of them by government forces.

Almost a year to the day after the civil war began, the Salvadoran army killed 23 people during the Canoas massacre.

Ana and Isabel were there.

And then they weren’t.

After seven years and the work of a nonprofit organization in their native country, the sisters and their birth mother are together in Brattleboro, along with the adoptive mother who has supported their search for the truth about how they came to be among the people who vanished in that war.

Memories and echoes

Isabel describes her early life in El Salvador: “We were constantly on the move. I remember that. There was no safe place to stay.”

Ana said she has “these vague memories,” as well as “echoes of memories.”

“Unless you’ve experienced trauma,” Ana said, “it’s difficult to understand.”

Isabel recalls that time as “terrifying,” she said, adding that “there was never enough to eat.”

On Oct. 8, 1980, Isabel was 3 years old. Ana was 5. Their aunt, Reina Hernández, had learned about a house where people were distributing food and clothing.

Ana later learned, through the work of the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights, that this house was a place where the people fleeing the violence could “meet, to eat and gather our wits.”

It was supposed to have been a celebration.

As Isabel tells it, her aunt wanted to go, but the girls’ mother, Ester Monterola Lopez, was apprehensive.

Hernández took the girls, her own children, and her parents to the house. “My mother was behind us. She was slow, because she was with my baby brother,” Isabel said.

Soldiers were not far behind.

“It was noon,” Hernández said, via translation, in the University of Washington’s video “We Never Stopped Looking for You: The Disappeared Children of the Canoas Massacre, El Salvador.”

“We were about to give the children their food when they attacked us,” she said. “As the women ran out, they were killed on the spot.”

“They killed my grandparents,” Isabel said. “I remembered my grandmother lying on the ground. Her face was very, very pale. I was trying to wake her up. I only wanted to see her face, I didn’t want to see what was going on.”

“We lay on the ground for six hours” while the soldiers “did terrible things” to people, she said.

“Even if we closed our eyes, we could hear horrible things,” Isabel explained.

“My aunt was taking care of her own children, my grandparents were dead, and my mother was not there,” she said.

“We were alone,” she said, and “my mother didn’t know where they took us.”

After the massacre, the soldiers took the survivors away. “They made us walk to this man’s house. He had a truck,” Isabel said.

This happened in the village of El Carmen, in Cantón Pinalón, she said.

They got in the truck and went to the hospital. While there, a social worker saw Ana and Isabel, who appeared to be alone. “My aunt was wounded and couldn’t speak for us,” Isabel said.

The social worker took them to the Adalberto Guirola Orphanage in the town of Santa Tecla.

“It was a terrible time,” Isabel said. “We were little. I just wanted love,” she said, noting, “we were looked at like little brown animals. We were ruffians.“

She remembers walking to an open office door, where a woman who worked at the orphanage was talking on the phone. The look of disgust and dismissiveness the woman gave Isabel has stuck with her for 34 years.

“The orphanage was a factory for children. Turn it in, turn it out. Quick,” she said.

But, although “some people hurt us,” others “did heroic things to keep us alive,” Isabel said, recalling “this one janitor” who showed her kindness.

The sisters lived at the orphanage for nine months, before JoAnn Williams, then living in Massachusetts, adopted them. She had no idea the adoption was fraudulent.

Meanwhile, Ester tried to find her daughters. After the massacre, she said through translation in the film, a man took her to the orphanage.

When she arrived, the people running the orphanage told her she needed to bring the children’s birth certificates and 20 pesos for each child. “So I got the money, even if I had to borrow it,” Ester said in the film.

“When I got there they told me that the girls weren’t there anymore,” she said, adding, “They told me that they had been adopted to another country. I had no idea which country.”

“I came back crying,” Ester said. “I was so sad. I felt like I had lost half of my life because I didn’t know where my girls were.”

According to the website of the Asociación Pro-Búsqueda De Niñas y Niños Desaparecidos — Pro-Search Association for the Disappeared Boys and Girls — “the Salvadoran army and paramilitary groups, with the acquiescence of the Salvadoran State systematically perpetrated serious human rights violations.”

According to the nonprofit organization, based in San Salvador, those violations included “the forced disappearance of girls and many of them children” through “irregular and fraudulent adoptions,” often committed by public officials.

Isabel believes she and Ana were in the orphanage the entire time, “and they wouldn’t give us back to her.” Asking Ester to come back with money might have been a stalling mechanism to give the orphanage time to adopt out her daughters.

Isabel also describes JoAnn’s experiences trying to adopt the girls through the Alliance for Children in Wellesley, Mass.: “[She] was constantly having to pay more money. They asked for thousands of dollars more than she was initially asked by the adoption agent.”

Isabel said when JoAnn asked the agent why the orphanage kept demanding more money, she was told, “Do you want answers, or do you want your children?”

Searching for answers

Isabel remembers wanting to learn the truth behind her adoption when she was 18.

“I had an interest in my roots,” she said. But, there were few resources available to her then.

“We knew nothing about ‘the disappeared’ growing up,” Isabel said.

Ana took a different route.

“The idea of looking for my family was something I wasn’t prepared to do,” she said — or at least not directly. Ana’s graduate work included a case study of 1980s-era adoptees from El Salvador.

“I could do it intellectually,” she said, noting that she realizes now that “that was tied into my wanting to know” what happened to her and Isabel in El Salvador.

Ana said her sister “always had this clear sense that they were still alive. Even if she couldn’t see them, she knew they were there.”

Seeking the truth

In 2008, Isabel contacted an investigator with Asociación Pro-Búsqueda to open up a search for any remaining family there.

The nonprofit includes in its mission “the search for missing children as a result of armed conflict, promoting their rights, knowledge of the truth, access to justice and full reparation for missing persons and their families,” the site says.

Led by Father Jon Cortina, Asociación Pro-Búsqueda was created in 1994 by “860 families of missing children, young people rediscovered in the process of searching, volunteers and professionals committed to the defense of human rights.”

Since then, it has received “881 complaints from relatives of the missing child[ren] and 200 cases... presented by young people who have been adopted abroad” who believe they are among “the disappeared” from 1980 to 1991.

On Sept. 18, 2009, nearly 30 years after she and her sister were taken from their mother, Isabel received information from Asociación Pro-Búsqueda about Ester — who she was and how they were separated.

But at that time, the organization was unable to confirm the relationship.

“I recently found out my brother was the first one to visit Asociación Pro-Búsqueda and he opened up the search for Ana and I, and he had our mother come in,” Isabel said. Ester gave her testimony, and Isabel said, the organization’s investigator “thought that this history was ours.”

What helped solidify the story was a DNA test, but taking the test added a variable of doubt.

Between when they submitted the DNA sample, and received the results, Ana said she and Isabel discussed a possibility: that they might not be sisters by blood. Because of the traumatic events of their early years, including a questionable adoption procedure, they recognized this scenario.

But, Ana said, she concluded that because she and Isabel had been through so much together, regardless of the results, “we will always be family, no matter what.”

Isabel said it took two years to receive the results, but the process confirmed it: there was a match between Isabel, Ana, and Ester.

The DNA results were the first time Ana said she felt hopeful to find her family. Before that, the potential for disappointment was too great.

Looking at the film footage of Ester in “We Never Stopped Looking for You,” the resemblance between Ana and her mother is unmistakable. It’s in their big eyes, their wide smiles, the shape of their faces.

Isabel said she has been told she resembles her father.

“The missing piece of this story is my father,” Isabel said. “I don’t know when or if my mother will tell us what happened to him. It’s a huge question in my life,” she said.

She knows her father and her uncle were killed in 1981. The two brothers were very close, she said; both were religious lay people who presided over the church when the priest was not there.

Isabel visited El Salvador in 2008, but she had not yet made contact with Ester.

Still, she remembers experiencing it as a homecoming of sorts. Isabel remembers strangers “treating her like family.” She said, “they would look at me and say, ‘You belong to us.’”

“Remember, you are Salvadoran,” one woman told her.

Rebuilding a broken link

For the past few years, Ana and Isabel have been communicating via Skype with their mother, their brother Jesús, and his daughters.

“The first time I saw our [birth] mother, it was amazing,” Ana said. “It was the best thing at that moment. Second to seeing her in person, but I didn’t have that yet.”

During that first Skype session, Ana said, JoAnn was with them. She said Ester kept thanking JoAnn over and over “for raising and loving us.” She said JoAnn is “really happy” her daughters are in contact with their birth mother.

But that contact has been virtual, because Isabel is too sick to travel. Since was bitten by a tick in her teens, she has suffered from chronic Lyme disease after not having been properly tested or diagnosed for some time.

So to reunite, Ester had to come to the United States. In December, after years of working with the U.S. government to get a travel visa, her application was approved.

She arrived in Brattleboro on June 28 and, for the first time in 34 years, she and her daughters were together.

Ester came with one of Asociación Pro-Búsqueda’s counselors, Yolena, who has been assisting the entire family throughout the process as part of the organization’s “psychosocial” support.

“They’re going to have to help us make this transition,” Isabel said.

But Yolena cannot stay for the entire visit, and this presents a language barrier between Ana, Isabel, and their mother.

A few months ago, Isabel reached out to the Brattleboro Food Co-op, which responded by offering bilingual shareholders work credits for co-op members who could step in as translators between the sisters and their mother.

It worked.

She said, “we have a lot of translators.”

The sisters also set up a GoFundMe site to help their mother pay for her trip.

Ana said the “support from the community, from the Co-op, has been so beautiful. It’s amazing we live in this community.”

“There are a lot of people involved in this reunion,” Isabel said.

Benefit show

One such person is Dean Stevens, who will perform a benefit concert at the Hooker Dunham Theater on July 2.

Isabel said she met Stevens when she traveled to El Salvador. She said the activist, translator, and folk musician brings people to villages in Latin America.

“Dean is a family friend,” Isabel said, and “he’s been helping us out a lot, any way he can,” including offering to perform for the benefit concert.

Proceeds will help Ester with her travel expenses, and support the work of Asociación Pro-Búsqueda.

Isabel marvels at Ester’s coming into this environment, so different from her home in El Salvador, where she does not speak the language, to meet her daughters after nearly 35 years.

“I can’t imagine the courage of my mother, coming here,” she said.

Ana, with a daughter of her own, agrees: “I can’t imagine my 3{1/2}-year-old being taken away from me,” she said.

Ester “was very courageous coming out of” the experience of losing her daughters, then “being able to mother her infant son, and have a life for herself,” Ana said. “That’s incredible.”

Persistent questions

“What if it could have been different?” Isabel often wonders. “Would I have lived a good life in El Salvador?”

“My mother [Ester] said something to that effect, that life was hard in El Salvador,” she noted.

She describes JoAnn, her adoptive mother, as “amazing.” “She raised us and gave us so much love. We were safe,” Isabel said.

But Isabel, still haunted by the what-might-have-beens, still asks herself if being separated from Ester and growing up in the U.S., adopted by JoAnn was a mistake in the larger scheme of things. “Was this supposed to happen in my life?” she wonders.

Some questions might never get answered.

“El Salvador is still dealing with the civil war,” Isabel explained, mentioning the greed, money, corrupt lawyers, and the government employees there who are “the same people who ordered people murdered,” she said.

On her trip to El Salvador, Isabel visited the Adalberto Guirola Orphanage. She remembers the Asociación Pro-Búsqueda investigator who accompanied her telling her “nobody works here who was here” when she and Ana were at the orphanage.

But, she said, “he got nervous” when Isabel asked about the occupants of an office beyond a closed door.

“I didn’t trust that,” she said, noting corruption “goes deep.”

She points out these people were “processing false documents to adopt out the disappeared children.”

“Our birth certificates were false,” Isabel said. “Our mother never abandoned us, as they said she did.”

New beginnings

“JoAnn said it was obvious Ana and I had been loved,” Isabel said. “We were very loving, and Ana and I have always been very close,” she added, noting that “we had none of the behavioral problems from receiving no love.”

Ana said she hopes to have some of her questions answered during Ester’s stay.

“But I want to enjoy our time with Ester” and not fill it with painful memories, she said a few days before her birth mother’s arrival.

“This is the beginning” of a new relationship, Ana said.

“There will be a plethora of tears, and it will be surreal to have her” here, she added.

“Every moment will be a new moment with her,” Ana said, adding that even mundane activities like making dinner will hold great meaning, because making one dinner will represent “all the dinners we never had.”

Isabel and Ana both expressed their wish for other “disappeared” children to wonder about their background and open a search with Asociación Pro-Búsqueda.

“The work they are doing is crucial,” Ana said.

Isabel wants these adult children to know “there are people who love you, and you are a part of them, and they will die wondering about you.”

“It’s a huge part of the healing process in El Salvador,” Isabel said, of the families reuniting.

And, even though she said “there are people in the government who ordered these kidnappings and murders,” family members finding one another are “more important than a changed policy in government.”

“We need the truth to come out,” she said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #312 (Wednesday, July 1, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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