photo by TANIAH TUDOR
Victor Quijada laughs on his aunt’s patio in Van Buren as his 5-year-old daughter Katherine Quijada and little cousin Iatira Quijada swing in the hammock behind him. Victor was serendipitously reunited with his father’s family from El Salvador in Van Buren after the family and his father believed each other to be dead the past 35 years.
Before November 2013, as far as Victor Quijada knew, his father’s entire family was dead.
Victor came from Guatemala to the United States with that knowledge, which aside from some stories his father, Adolfo Quijada, had told him, was about all he knew of his father’s family in El Salvador.
That was, until Victor’s wife, Lady Bonilla, met Cristina Lara at the Crawford County Adult Education Center in November.
Cristina was interested in Victor’s family name, which was the same as some of her own relatives, Lady said.
“I told her jokingly that maybe they were family,” Lady said.
Of course, that couldn’t be. Victor’s father Adolfo Quijada believed that his entire family had been murdered during the beginning of El Salvador’s civil war.
It turns out, Adolfo was wrong. His family was alive and well and living only a few miles from Victor, in Van Buren.
A serendipitous encounter
Maria Quijada, Victor’s aunt and Adolfo’s closest sibling, and her family moved to the United States to California in 1990.
They came to Van Buren 15 years ago after Maria’s brother convinced them the area was less expensive and had better job opportunities, Maria said.
Victor moved to the United States, also to California, in 2004 for better job opportunities, he said. He chose California because his mother’s family lived there, he said.
Though not at the same time, both had lived in Costa Mesa, in homes only a few blocks away from each other.
After getting married, Victor and Lady chose to move to Fort Smith four years ago to be closer to her family, Victor said.
Several months ago, at a friend’s suggestion, Victor started attending Crawford County Adult Education Center to work on his English and getting his high school equivalency diploma. It was then that Lady met Cristina Lara.
Cristina, a second cousin, had always heard the stories about Adolfo’s disappearance and was one of the few in the family who believed Adolfo was alive, Maria said.
“She used to go visit my grandma often, and my grandma would be saying, ‘Oh, he’s alive,’ and that kind of got her believing,” said Maria’s daughter, Jackeline Quijada.
Their grandmother still had hopes of finding her missing son, Jackeline said.
“She always knew in her heart that he was alive; that’s what she told us,” Jackeline said.
Cristina, who also was at the education center for English and her GED, saw the name Quijada and began asking Victor questions about his family, Victor said. She wanted to be sure of her suspicions before taking them to the family, Maria said.
Cristina pushed for specifics, and Victor was glad to tell her what he knew, he said. He also was excited to think maybe there was a connection, he said.
Cristina recognized his descriptions and stories as being from her family, but pushed for more detail.
“I wrote my dad’s name on a piece of paper. When she see the whole name, she started crying,” Victor said.
Victor also cried when he realized it was true, that he had found his father’s family alive and well, he said.
Victor recognized his two uncles from the area. One he had never met, only seen at Olive Garden, where the uncle works. The other was an acquaintance from his wife’s job at IHOP, where they often exchanged greetings, Victor said.
They never knew each other’s last names or had any idea they were related.
Families torn apart
Adolfo had believed his family dead since 1980, the beginning of the Civil War of El Salvador, which lasted until 1992.
As a member of the Salvadoran armed forces, Adolfo was under constant danger from the guerrilla groups that the army was fighting for control of the government during the war.
Both sides were known to massacre entire villages thought to be connected to or harboring individuals from the opposing group.
Adolfo would sometimes take leave and visit his family at their rural home, or his girlfriend in a nearby village, Victor said, relaying what his father had told him.
After an incident in which Adolfo’s father and two brothers were shot by guerrillas searching for him in his parents’ home, Adolfo made the decision to stay away from his family so that they would not be linked to him.
But after a visit to his girlfriend while on leave, Adolfo was told that guerrillas had slaughtered numerous families in the area, including his own.
With no reason to believe otherwise, and afraid for his own life, Adolfo defected to Guatemala.
“You didn’t go into the military because you wanted to,” Lady said. “You went because you had to.”
What Adolfo did not know was that his family, still alive and together, had been told the same thing about him. Several neighbors said they had witnessed Adolfo being taken by guerrilla rebels, and later his body dumped in a nearby body of water.
Though his body was never found, the family was afraid to search for him, Maria said.
Because they never heard from or saw Adolfo again, Maria said the family had no choice but to believe the rumors.
That was 35 years ago.
Getting to know the family
Maria and two of Victor’s uncles live in the area, and two more aunts live in California, Maria said. Victor’s father has a total of 13 siblings, she said.
To prove he was their nephew, Victor visited his aunt’s house in Van Buren, taking his father’s passport, he said.
“They asked me personal questions and I answered the questions. They were like ‘How do you know this,’ and I said, ‘Why I know? My dad told me,” Victor said.
Maria did not easily believe that Victor was Adolfo’s son. She at first thought he and Lady might be trying to trick the family, to get money, she said.
“My mother is someone that has to see it to believe it,” Jackeline said. “She still can’t believe it.”
It was difficult for Maria to imagine - children of a brother she thought dead living so close for several years and never knowing, she said.
“When he came here the first day, she didn’t believe it was him. She was just like, ‘No, oh no. It’s not him,” Jackeline said. “She thought he was doing a bad prank on her.”
Maria only was convinced after Victor correctly answered specific questions that no one else could know the answer to, she said.
“My dad told me a lot of histories because [he believed] he didn’t have family,” Victor said.
A week before Thanksgiving, the entire family - those in the U.S. with those in El Salvador and Adolfo in Guatemala - had a family “reunion” using Skype.
It was the first time Adolfo had seen his family, and they him, in 35 years.
Within the next two weeks, Victor’s family in El Salvador, encouraged by his 79-year-old grandmother, had chartered a bus to Guatemala to visit Adolfo and his family.
A video of the reunion shows Adolfo and his mother hugging tightly and crying before heading in to his home to meet his current wife and their children.
Adolfo can be seen in the video trading life stories and joking with his family as his mother sits next to him at dinner. He later traveled back with the family to El Salvador, and is still staying with his mother there, Victor said.
“He said it wouldn’t be right for him to just go visit her and then leave,” Jackeline said. “Because he put her through hell, and she didn’t deserve that.”
Old wounds, healed
Before calling to tell Adolfo that he may have found his family, Victor had not spoken to his father for five years, he said.
Victor left home when he was fourteen to escape Adolfo’s strict, military upbringing, going to live with his mother’s family, he said.
Adolfo blamed Victor for leaving, and said it was the cause of his divorce from Victor’s mother, Victor said.
“Pretty much, if Victor hadn’t talked to us, he wouldn’t have a relationship with his father,” Jackeline said.
When Victor called to tell Adolfo about the family, he was - of course - surprised, Victor said.
“I tell him, well, I think I find the family and he was like, ‘Don’t play like that,’” Victor said.
He only believed Victor after speaking to Maria on the phone, Victor said.
“When he talked to my mother, we couldn’t really understand him, he was crying so much,” Jackeline said.
Victor has never seen his father cry before these last few months, and this experience has given them both new perspective, he said. It is the first time Victor has ever seen his father happy, he said.
“I understand now why my dad got that life,” Victor said. “Before I would come and tell something and make a joke with him - no, I can’t in that moment. But right now, I see him, he’s happy and he told me he’s born again. When I talk to him, he’s like another person.”
With the good, comes the bad
Not everything about the reunion has been a blessing.
Adolfo discovered that a daughter he had with a woman before he left El Salvador, who he hopes of finding, died at a young age in a car accident in California, Maria said.
He learned that his father, Victor’s grandfather, died several years ago, as well.
And a strange thing also happened to Victor.
On the day of the first reunion, Victor and Lady stayed visiting at his aunt’s house until about 10 p.m. When they finally returned home, they discovered their house had been broken into and everything stolen.
Though upset, Victor was not surprised to find that something negative had happened to him, he said.
“In their traditions,” Lady said, referencing Victor’s Salvadoran family, “that’s how they see it. When a lot of good, a lot of happiness comes to your family, there’s bad [coming] behind it.”
But Victor did not seem too shaken up over the theft.
“It didn’t steal my happiness,” Victor said.
Because of their immigration status, only Maria will be able to travel to visit Adolfo. Victor and the rest of the family in the U.S. cannot, nor can Adolfo travel to the states. For now, they continue to maintain their newly resurrected relationships from a distance.
But Victor is happy with his new-found family in Van Buren.
“I feel like they are my family, if I need something I know I can come here, because before I don’t have family here,” Victor said.
Victor knows he can call on his family if he needs anything, he said. Though he was not sure if he would be accepted at first, they welcomed him with open arms, he said.
“They’re like, hey, whatever you need, just let us know, because too many years we can’t help you, we don’t help you, so now we are here for you, just call,” Victor said of his aunt and uncles.