My half-brother was two years old when he was kidnapped by his father and taken to the US from Guatemala. I wouldn’t be born until three years later. The loss would nestle itself at the cellular level in my mother’s body—at the tips of her fingernails, the ends of her hair, the body and soul that would eventually house my own body and would become a companion and trustee before language became part of our relationship. When the realization of my half-brother’s kidnapping had solidified itself in time and had become a constant reminder of an irretrievable past, my mother had endured three years of uncertainty and hope. The loss became a foundational moment in our relationship. It still weighs heavily on my mother, whose eyes well up in tears every time she thinks of him. I know my mother through the stories she tells with her body. When my brother and I met after more than two decades of separation, it would be difficult for me because I could not read his body the way I read my mother’s.
“He took my green card with him so that it would be harder for me to track them down,” she said once about his father. When my mother speaks to me about her life before I was born, she holds her voice at the lowest register just before a whisper. Then she’ll slowly look up to show me the tears welling up in her eyes and raises her voice a measure at every breath. She always catches herself at that moment, as if she knows she’ll have to compose herself to be able to get to the ending of her story so she can leave me with a lesson. “Don’t forget that people are always looking to get something from you, Natashita” she’d told me once as a warning. “Siempre para adelante,” she’d say at the moment of crescendo. “Always move forward.”
Her ex-husband was a rich American who had already outmaneuvered her in Guatemalan family court. She couldn’t compete. She had me to think about. He would grow up completely differently than I would, but for my mother, we were parts of the same whole. And the sudden loss of a body part is painful; it would cause what came after to snowball into one episode after another of despair, sadness, and the constant repositioning of that traumatic event in the forefront of our lives, never to be wholly worked out or explained. It was only to be lived with. Siempre para adelante.
As a kid, I would spend a lot of time alone thinking about my half-brother and what he might be doing. Almost everyone I knew had a brother or a sister, someone to play and fight with. I envied those kids. I pictured him going to the American schools I had seen on TV—him running along the long tree-less lawns of the school yard toward the bright yellow school buses which I only knew in their colorful, loud, Chicken Bus form. I would make up stories that he and I would get in fights over the phone so that I could complain about a sibling like my friends did. I convinced myself that I could somehow feel that he thought of me as much as I thought of him. But he hadn’t felt the Xocomil winds for some time—those sudden gusts of whipping midday air which turn the lake into a whirlpool. He was too young to remember the stories of La Sihuanaba, La Llorona or El Cipitio—historias del campo, stories from the countryside meant to scare kids into behaving well. Stories meant to keep kids from straying too far from their mothers.
The story of La Sihuanaba seemed plausible enough—a beautiful woman who washes her hair by the river, luring lonely, wayward men into her lair only to reveal that she was actually just a skeleton. The stories of my brother began to take similar folkloric forms—the lonely boy firmly aware of the injustice committed at his expense, yearning for the day when he would be old enough to reunite with his family. Oh, how he’d love being back in Guatemala where the mangoes droop low enough to pluck. He’d love going to the lake every day and racing to the floating buoys fifty meters out, the three volcanoes watching over us like silent sentinels. He’d be there for me when my mother was too angry and sad to hold it in, when the many small traumas she endured as a woman growing up in El Salvador would give way to vicious aggressions against anyone close to her. Had my brother been there, however, much of what I know about my mother would be completely different—yet another possibility, a story of fantasy told to children and then repeated by children to themselves when the nightmares of reality begin to keep them up at night.
I always thought my half-brother was four when he was kidnapped by his father. Now, twenty-three years later, the discovery that he was two years old changes how I think of him. If he were four, he’d remember something about the lake in Guatemala where we grew up, about how our mother liked to read children’s books in English even though she couldn’t speak it. She would sound out all the letters, turning it rhythmic and rocky. He might remember the bold colors in the sky during September sunsets.
Him being two years old means he missed out on even more of our lives than I had initially imagined. When I think about him being that age, I can see the small birds flying from the power lines to the dusty ground and bathing themselves in the silt. They’re whimsical in their earthly pursuits, these birds, but their dusty bath is filled with nostalgia for rain that might not come. I can also hear the stories my brother was being told when he was growing up in the US. Stories about monsters and lost bunny rabbits told in perfect English by the light of his bedside lamp.
I want to use the word reunion to describe the time he and I finally met in person when I was twenty-one. But the word is tricky because it implies a union before a separation, after which the union is repeated in a reunion. Even though it felt as if I’d be reunited with someone I already knew, there was no initial union so that word does not apply here. Only half the story is told by that word, the other half is filled in by made-up stories. Reunion, is after all, a self-conscious word, aware of how it tricks you into the make-believe world of now, everything will be just fine. He was and still is a stranger, uninhabitable and distant like a whisper in a language I don’t quite understand.
There were also the many scenarios I had formulated of meeting him. I imagined the rush of exaltation that would wash over me as we recognized each other in a crowd and made our way to one another only to embrace tenderly as siblings do. Or maybe it would be like this: I would see him looking at a book in a crowded bookstore that was also a coffee shop with the gentle smell of roasting beans mingling in the air. He would have his back toward me, his brow would be furrowed, and he would be anxiously gnawing at his fingernails. I would sneak up, tap him on the shoulder. He would turn and face me, the book would drop, and we would embrace without having to say a word.
Or, maybe like this: I would fly out to California on a whim. At the airport, I would look him up, finding his home address. I would show up unannounced. He would live in a peach-colored Mission-style house with a red terra cotta roof and a prominent archway leading to the front door. Hi! I’m Natasha, your sister, I would say. He would gasp and, anticipating all the stories we would share, we would begin to cry happily.
The first time we met, my understanding of him began to unravel as we walked into the taco shop and sat down for dinner. I was afraid of what I would find out about him. If he was a bad person, or worse yet—if he was a complicated person whose badness isn’t quite clear from the onset. Was he cruel, inconsiderate, or selfish? Was he the kind of person who would readily admits when he was wrong, or would he stick to his guns no matter how clearly wrong he is, like our mother tends to do? It was the first time I had to examine what the word good meant when applied to people. In the soap operas I would watch with my (our) grandma, the middle ground between good and bad becomes disputed territory; a no-man’s-land silently nestled between semantic spaces where only the brave and aware dare enter. Entering my brother’s world view meant that I had to risk mine being torn apart or, at the very least, I had to risk shaking its very foundation.
Of course, meeting my brother for the first time didn’t reveal what I feared most about a person’s character. There was so much to talk about so we did very little talking. It so happened that we liked many of the same things—but mainly alternative rock. The conversation continued in choppy spurts of information punctuated by tenable moments of silence that hung in the air as if the air itself was unsure what to make of the tension. He was quiet and calculating. I imagine I looked uncomfortable with the way the conversation was heading because he wanted me to be forthright with what I clearly intended to ask him. He said he could tell I wanted to say something. I couldn’t ask what I really wanted to know. I wanted to know how being kidnapped by his father would not make him angry. I wanted to understand the conditions that led him to me as an abstract figure and managed to remain abstract, even as he stood before me in all his physicality, waiting to answer anything I would throw at him. The crux of the conversation and the overall visit was how incredible it seemed to me that talk of the trauma didn’t dominate the conversation, that it didn’t seem to me like there was trauma at all. “What do you think is the reason you left Guatemala,” I asked him. “My eye,” he said, “I needed to get treatment for my eye in the states.” When the courage to ask the questions finally came and I managed to address the glaring fact of his kidnapping, all he could say was something along the lines of what happened in the past doesn’t matter. He was so young when it happened.
It would take me quite some time to realize the trauma I felt came from the trauma my mother felt, passed down through her stories and midnight laments. It was my physical proximity to the site where the kidnapping took place, the conditions which led to me becoming who I was at fourteen and at twenty-one, which ultimately shaped my emotions. The memory became heavy and lost clarity as I pummeled toward a future where the kidnapping and why or how it happened no longer actually mattered, only the emotions surrounding it carried significance. That was the hardest thing to put into words that day in November when more than two decades had passed since my mother and brother were last together. He was right. What happened in the past didn’t actually matter in terms of facts. Only the aftermath mattered; the way each of us related to the event. It was the way he related to the event that most affected me. I also never really cared why or how it happened, just that it did.
The story of his kidnapping was, for him, just the story of how he left his home country and moved to the US to live with his dad, as many children of divorced parents do. The details, the things I had been reminded of time and time again—the custody battle my mom legally won, the time she showed up at my brother’s school to pick him up only to find out his father had already taken him—had influenced everything I felt about my brother. I’d imagined him as affected as I was because I imagined he thought of it the same way I had always thought of it. The years I spent mulling over the possibilities of him never took into account that he was not told the same or similar stories I was being told. And of course, how could he? His life proceeded as many relatively normal lives proceed. His father remarried, he would have another half-sister that was about the same age I was. He was allowed to be a kid, unhindered by the trauma that weighed so heavily on my mother and so fluidly permeated onto me. In that sense, he was the lucky one of the three. It’s understandable how the reprehensible act of kidnapping one’s own child can be garbled to paint a positive result. It’s even more understandable how that parent might create such a picture in order to shield the kidnapped child from the reality of their upbringing. But, as is most often the case, what is left out of the stories we hear from our parents is what bears most significantly on how we view the world.
When I wasn’t spending time alone contemplating the wonder of a sibling I had never met, I was busy being my mother’s only real companion. After my father and her separated, she would go on to date many men, none of whom could handle her depression like I could. She worked harder than most people I knew, throwing herself into her work at all times, leaving me with caretakers when I wasn’t at school. It was somewhat inevitable that we would grow apart. As she liked to remind me from time to time, I was too American. I would spend half my time speaking a language she associated with gringo tourists, HBO, violence. The generational gap between us was also intensified by the experience of assimilation that many immigrants face when they arrive in a new country and raise children there. Hard work and incredible hardship made my life possible, but I was too close to the hardship to see the value of hard work. “If it weren’t for my hard work,” she said, “I’d have fallen apart.” My mother, the Salvadorian immigrant. My mother, the carrier of one of heavy burdens.
I realized then that the story of my half-brother and how he was kidnapped and how I finally came to meet him isn’t his story at all. It was mine and my mother’s. The trauma my mother passed down to me exists in a twilit and cool place in my mind. I have put it there for safe keeping; somewhere contained, air locked, and not viable to come out unless I want it to. You can take it out if you must remind yourself of what occurred and let it brush up against the gaping wounds of newer traumas, areas of your heart, soul, and mind which don’t feel air very often except when you expose them yourself.
When my brother and mother finally met, it was a disaster. He called me to tell me how badly it went, and even before he began to tell me what had occurred, I could already tell that my mother had shown up dressed in a suit of armor built of her own trauma. She had come armed with court documents, proof of facts that to my brother meant very little. Like me, she hadn’t expected to meet someone onto whom trauma had drawn a wholly different and unrecognizable map. He said he understood the things she felt but he couldn’t build a relationship with her based off negative emotions. It was true, no relationship between a mother and her son should be founded on assumptions they have of one another. The only thing I could think of was how terrible it must have been for her. I lamented for her and my conversation with my brother splintered in different directions without a clear sense of course. “You have to learn to separate your emotions from what occurred so you can think about what happened more clearly. That’s what I do,” he said.
He didn’t understand that, to me, the emotions and the event were not mutually exclusive. They exist together. Still, he said, you have to learn to channel your emotions toward something positive. His lesson reminds me of my mother’s lessons about hard work. Both voices sing in unison in my head until I can’t hear anything else. My mother copes by working hard at building a different life than the one she had growing up in rural El Salvador. My brother copes by making music in sunny San Diego. They remain worlds apart, separated by time stretching across three countries.
This is the ongoing tale of recurring defeats and small, barely significant victories. A lot is left out. This disjointed network of people I call a family is only barely coming together to discuss the painful events of the past. It is the dry season here in Guatemala and I am back after not visiting for two years, the longest I’ve strayed from home. I watch the lake at night, staring at its inky blackness and listening to the crunch of volcanic stones as they are moved back and forth by the water. A profound and indelible sadness is looming there and in me, somewhere in the thousand feet of water along with the ruins of inundated towns and lost Mayan treasures. They say there’s a serpentine monster living at the bottom—the Nahual. They say lights can be seen emerging from the deep blue in the crisp hours of the night, lights that take off into the sky at high speeds. They say there are dwarves who fish in small wooden canoes by the lake shore at dusk. Where are you now, my brother? The green mountains are brown and bare and the heat causes the corrugated metal to stretch in the sun. The places where I used to swim as a child are now covered in water. Here, no one knows my brother anymore. No one knows what happened to my mother and I when he was taken or how it continues to weigh down from above like the dry heat, searing our skin red and turning it golden brown with time.
TORCH is a monthly series edited by Arielle Bernstein devoted to showcasing personal essays and interviews about immigrant and refugee experiences. You can visit the archives here. For more information on submitting head here.
Rumpus original logo art by Jyotsna Warikoo Designs. First, fourth, fifth, and sixth photographs © Layla May. Second and third photographs © Natasha Riddle Romero.
Layla May is a queer woman born and raised in the highlands of Guatemala. She has lived in Mexico City and is currently living in Berlin. She is interested in fashion, photography, culture, and identity issues.