Juan Chavez has never touched his little boy, Roberto. But from Los Angeles, where he lives and works, Chavez can speak to his son--and see him--here in the Salvadoran capital. The connection is a two-way television hookup.
"Robertillo?" the father begins, waving. "How are you? You look so chubby!"
Chavez's wife, Marisol, who has not seen Roberto since he was an infant, looks at the screen and asks the boy, "Who am I, my love? I am your mommy."
Five-year-old Roberto, sitting in a San Salvador studio, squirms and waves back at the screen where his parents' images appear. In a few minutes, Juan and Marisol Chavez begin to weep.
The Chavez family is like so many in El Salvador that were torn apart by a decade and a half of war, poverty and lost opportunities. More than 1 million Salvadorans abandoned their country to escape violence or to look for work, and most ended up in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Houston and other U.S. cities. Parents left children behind with grandmothers or aunts; siblings parted company, marriages broke up.
Riding this tidal wave of migration, services that establish and maintain contacts between separated family members have become big business. Courier agencies ferry money and packages back and forth, and airlines are crowded with international travelers whose lives seem forever divided between their exile homes and the homes of their relatives.
And now the video service takes advantage of technology and offers family reunions--via satellite--an application that provides an immediate social payoff.
Salvadorans here in El Salvador and any of nine U.S. cities can reserve time on a live, closed-circuit television connection for an audiovisual conversation with their loved ones. In the States, the communication originates in the offices of the Salvadoran-owned Gigante Express courier service and is beamed to the studio here of Channel One studio, a private cable television firm that is a division of Gigante.
Most of the reservations are made stateside, and workers for Channel One are deployed to distant villages, urban barrios and nearby suburbs to notify people of their appointments for a television meeting with their relatives.
It costs roughly $40 for 10 minutes, though the price goes up if Channel One provides transportation to the studio. The company also offers various promotional discounts that can reduce the price or add bonus time.
Satellite communication is especially useful for those who are too poor to afford plane tickets home, or illegal residents whose status makes international travel a high legal risk.
"We cut down the distance," said Channel One manager Francisco Navarrete. "We've had family encounters where they hadn't seen each other for 10, 15 years, men who had left behind their pregnant wives and only knew their child through photos, who had never seen their child say, 'Papa.' "
Once the televised connection is made, he said, "Sometimes they barely talk. There is so much emotion, it's 10 minutes of sobbing."
And it can also be 10 minutes of airing filial grievances, asking for money, deciding whether to sell the house and the cows, finding out how the kids are doing in school. Technology makes it all immediate.
Rosa Ortega, 56, is Juan Chavez's mother. On the morning of their satellite appointment, she left her home in the provincial seat of Zacatecoluca, about 30 miles southeast of the capital, before dawn, with Roberto and four other grandchildren in tow, to reach the Channel One studio on time.
When the Chavezes were late at the Los Angeles end, Ortega began complaining, and she didn't stop complaining throughout most of their conversation. Like many older Salvadorans who have found themselves saddled with their children's children, Ortega appeared to resent her double duty.
"I was going to leave if I had to wait five more minutes," she scolded Juan and Marisol Chavez.
"Mom, I worked all night and just got off," Chavez, a truck driver, said.
"What are you going to send me? When are you coming home? I will be dead before you ever return," Ortega continued. "Here I am with these kids, and you are progressing. Well, that's the cross I have to bear."
As she spoke, the children sat quietly in their chairs, staring at the images of Juan and Marisol Chavez on the large television screen. Roberto and his older brother, Juan Jr., were dressed in black overall shorts, their three little girl cousins in their best Sunday dresses, scuffed shoes and brightly decorated headbands.
Juan Chavez left El Salvador five years ago, when Marisol was pregnant with Roberto. Marisol Chavez headed for Los Angeles to join her husband about a year after Roberto was born.
"It is the most difficult thing, to have to separate from your family for economic motives," he told a reporter (also via satellite) after his TV time with the family ended.
Although Channel One has been around for several years, the January earthquake in Los Angeles gave it a boost in the family-reunification business. The company turned over air time to Salvadorans here desperate to find out about relatives in Los Angeles.
Now it's a regular business, and Navarrete says it's best on weekends, with a daily average of 45 to 50 communications on Saturdays and Sundays. On Mother's Day, there were 76 sessions.
At first, he said, it was hard for many people to believe they were seeing their families in living color. Some of the relatives in El Salvador live in tiny hamlets that don't have electricity, much less an understanding of international satellite connections. Trust had to be built.
Of course, it helped that Salvadorans in even the most isolated parts of the country are becoming increasingly familiar with the messengers who arrive from Gigante and other courier services with money, letters and gifts from relatives in the States. Navarrete said Gigante--which has grown into an enterprise with its own fleet of small airplanes, armored cars and 53 offices in the States--handled 1 million pieces of mail last year.
Money is the biggest assignment; almost all Salvadorans who live abroad send money home. Officials estimate annual remittances may total as much as $1 billion--more than El Salvador's yearly export income--and money from working relatives abroad is certainly what keeps the national economy afloat.
Neriz Savaria de Ferman and her husband Leonidas Ferman travel for two days from their village of Coyolito, 110 miles southeast of the capital, to reach the Channel One studio for an encounter with their daughter, Juana, who has lived in Houston for nearly 13 years. Their son also left for the States two years ago.
As the Fermans settle into their seats, Juana appears on the screen, her three children by her side. The Fermans have met two of their grandchildren before, but not the smallest one, 3-year-old Azucena.
"Look at your grandmother!" Juana tells Azucena.
At the San Salvador end, Neriz de Ferman confides, "I only know her from the photos."
Juana tells her parents she wants them to come to Houston for a visit. They say they'd rather she come to El Salvador. She says her "papers" make that difficult.
"I feel very tranquil at having seen you, daughter," says Leonidas Ferman, his straw farmer's hat in wrinkled hand.
"I also feel very happy," agrees his wife. "At the same time, it gives me sorrow because I want to . . ." She makes a gesture of embracing her family.
"You want us to be together," finishes Juana. They cannot, but the video hookup helps.