By Elizabeth Barnert, author of Reunion: Finding the Disappeared Children of El Salvador

My ethnographic book, “Reunion: Finding the Disappeared Children of El Salvador,” tells the stories of hundreds of families who were forcibly separated during the Salvadoran Civil War and who reunited years later through DNA and the small, human rights NGO Pro-Búsqueda. I became involved with Pro-Búsqueda in 2004, when I was a medical and public health student in the UC Berkeley – UCSF Joint Medical Program. I conducted participant observation fieldwork with Pro-Búsqueda in El Salvador, helping to build a DNA bank to find disappeared children (who at the time were, like me, young adults in their mid-twenties) and assisting as a translator in family reunions for adoptees raised abroad. Our collaboration evolved into what is now a self-sustaining DNA bank run by Pro-Búsqueda that has led to ‘cold-hit’ matches with disappeared children untraceable through other means, and it is also evolved into my master’s thesis for the UC Berkeley School of Public Health on families’ experiences with reunification and now the book, Reunion.

All author proceeds from Reunion are being donated to Pro-Búsqueda and related causes because I feel privileged that I had the opportunity to transmit stories that the world so crucially needs to hear. The work is strikingly relevant to the hundreds of thousands of migrant children crossing into the United States, who now face new cycles of separation and reunification, the roots of which are revealed when we understand the aftermath of the Salvadoran Civil War—which Reunion portrays through first person accounts. The stories help to contextualize the long-term effects of separation and reunification on the children’s life courses. The ethnography speaks to the power of DNA science and the value of human rights courts and ongoing accountability—I witnessed the community receiving the victory of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling in 2005 of the Serrano Cruz sisters, the first case in which the Salvadoran government was held accountable for child disappearances during the war. And the stories in Reunion are unfortunately extremely relevant to the 19,000-150,000 Ukrainian children stolen by Russia, yet another instance when children’s identity become the spoils of war. Finally, Reunion gives hope. We meet Jesuit priest Father Jon Cortina, founder of Pro-Búsqueda and mentee of Saint Oscar Romero. His vision and selfless generosity light a way for the movement to find the disappeared children. Father Jon was a luminary who deserves to be recognized by history. The staff and community members engaged with Pro-Búsqueda embody a collective spirt of resilience and resistance that is so exemplary in Latin America activism.

Powerful children’s drawings and Philippe Bourgois’s vivid photo-ethnography, included as appendices, bookend the close of Reunion, while his foreword lays bare the political perversions of power that led to the disappearances of tens of thousands of Salvadoran children during the war. The children and their families were mainly poor campesinos who a few generations before would have identified as indigenous. The images in Reunion speak undeniable truth.

When I interviewed Francisca Romero, co-founder of Pro-Búsqueda and mother to Elsy, the disappeared child who grew up to testify at the Serrano Cruz trial years after her reunion and after witnessing her father’s murder by the Salvadoran military, Francisca said the following to me:

“When you go home, tell people what happened here. Let them know the reality of El Salvador—how the war was and how the children were lost so that young people in other countries can be in solidarity with us.”

As I looked out to the Sumpul River that separated us from Honduras across the valley below, I absorbed Francisca’s words and promised to share their stories. Reunion will make you cry, and it will make you hope, and it will make you understand its importance to today. Science magazine, in its review of Reunion, concluded: “This book, beautifully written from the heart, is an essential tool for anyone interested in recent Latin America history.”

It seems clear that Francisca was right: that the stories of the mothers, fathers, and disappeared children of El Salvador needed to be told.