Taken by Force, United by DNA: 5 Short Documentaries on El Salvador’s Disappeared Children

Lead Photo: Photo: The Mama Chila Foundation
Photo: The Mama Chila Foundation
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The past reverberates in the present in many ways, and one can talk at length about the abstract effects of El Salvador’s protracted civil war on contemporary Salvadoran society; but for thousands of mothers, fathers, aunts, and uncles, the twelve-year Civil War is still felt in very real ways. From 1980-1992 thousands of Salvadoran children were separated from their families, often by force, their identities changed by local authorities before being offered up for adoption to well-meaning families in the United States.

To this day most of the birth families have no knowledge of their children’s whereabouts, while their Americanized children are often entirely unaware of the context of their separation. It’s an open wound that will never fully heal for mothers like Marta Arías, Ámparo Salina, or Pilar Martínez, all of whom lost loved ones during the Quesara Massacre of 1981, in which up to 500 civilians were killed by the military, and 24 children were disappeared. But one brave organization known as Asociación Pro-Búsqueda is doing the difficult work of reconnecting bereaved family members with their long-lost children, and often coming up against dead-ends while putting their own lives in harm’s way.

Since being founded in 1994, Pro-Búsqueda has reconnected over 200 families using DNA testing — a small but nevertheless significant part of the estimated 2,354 children adopted into the United States over the duration of the Civil War. Working together with a generous laboratory in California that donates its services, the organization collects cheek swabs from both family members in El Salvador looking for their missing children and those who were sent outside of the country and adopted during the war. The test results of these swabs are entered into a database to look for matches amongst those who’ve registered with Pro-Búsqueda. While the chances of finding a close family member are slim, as the DNA database gets bigger the odds a match will be found get better.

To make things more complicated, their offices were attacked and burned in 2013, leaving them without an estimated 75% of their files. Nevertheless, despite setbacks Pro-Búsqueda continues to fight the good fight and recently partnered with the University of Washington Center for Human Rights, which sent ten undergraduate students to perform primary-source research, which resulted in a series of short documentaries highlighting the work done by Pro-Búsqueda amidst ongoing challenges on the ground.

Here’s a look at a handful of short docs that focus on the emotional reunions of the disappeared children.

For a deeper exploration of this subject, check out two feature-length documentaries: Identifying Nelson and Niños de la memoria.


Still Searching: The Disappeared Children of the Quesara Massacre, El Salvador

Survivors of the Quesara Massacre share there recollection of that traumatic day and the context in which their children were disappeared, while reflecting on the tremendous difficulty of living every day with their absence.


We Never Stopped Looking for You: The Disappeared Children of the Canoas Massacre

Las Canoas was an inland refuge for many families fleeing the civil war, until October 8, 1980, when government forces surrounding a home where the community’s residents were gathered and opened fire. Esther and other survivors of the Canoas massacre recount the events that lead to the death and disappearance of dozens of family members.


The Reunion: Isabel & Ana’s Journey to Meet Their Mother From El Salvador

After making contact with their mother Esther, Isabel and Ana prepare to receive her in their hometown of Burlington, Vermont.


Taken By Force, United By Hope

One fateful day, American 20-something Marina Lopez (Llewlyn) received a letter addressed from El Salvador. Confused, she opened the envelope to find that her aunts and uncles in her birth town of Aracatao, El Salvador had been looking for her and registered her case with Pro-Búsqueda. This video documents her emotional homecoming.


DNA Testing Reunites Families Separated by War

This PBS News Hour special report focuses on a Angela Fillingam, who was adopted by a California family as a young girl and how DNA testing through helped her reunite with her biological family.