Webcam connects Wheaton parents with faraway sons

Vladimir Vasquez, 14, talks to his mother in Wheaton using a Web camera from his home in San Salvador, where he lives with his two brothers and a 30-year-old cousin.
Vladimir Vasquez, 14, talks to his mother in Wheaton using a Web camera from his home in San Salvador, where he lives with his two brothers and a 30-year-old cousin. (Elahe Izadi/the Gazette)
By Elahe Izadi
The Gazette
Thursday, March 18, 2010

Rosa and Luis Vasquez spend 10 hours a day, six or seven days a week, cleaning apartments and laying carpet to support their three school-age sons. When they return, exhausted, to the cramped two-bedroom apartment in Wheaton they share with a family of four, they ask their boys about their day.

Their chats take place on a Web camera that links the couple to their sons, who are in El Salvador. Thousands of miles separate their labor and their love.

"We want our children to be somebody. It's the dream of all parents," Rosa said. "We have this form of communication so that they don't feel left behind. The youngest boy was only 1 when his father last saw him. He only knows him through the camera."

The couple's decision to migrate and leave their family behind has been repeated by millions of Salvadorans. It has led many of them to Montgomery County to work bottom-rung jobs in sagging industries: construction, hospitality, commerce. In Montgomery, there are 31,856 Salvadorans, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2008 American Community Survey.

Many work grueling schedules with one goal: sending money, known as remittances, back home. El Salvador's population and economy depend on remittances; this money accounts for 16 percent of the country's gross domestic product, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.

The system thrived for years, along with the U.S. economy. Now, the U.S. recession has become El Salvador's problem. The $3.788 billion sent in remittance money to El Salvador in 2008 dwindled to $3.465 billion last year, an 8.5 percent drop, according to the Inter-American Development Bank. The diminishing returns have dealt a crippling blow to the Salvadoran communities that rely on U.S. dollars to survive.

Luis and Rosa Vasquez are among the lucky few with steady jobs, and they never fail to send something to their family. Together, they make $3,000 a month, but after rent and other bills, they are left with less than $1,000. From that, they try to send $760 each month to their boys. The couple said they decided to immigrate without their children because they had no other choice. If they had not left El Salvador, they probably would have had to have taken the boys out of school and put them to work and would have struggled to afford even basic food and shelter.

Luis, 36, left El Salvador in 2000. Rosa, 38, stayed behind for a few years, selling tamales on street corners or sewing clothes in her small house. She slept in the same bed as her children and took them to the market with her. Brandon is now 11, Vladimir 14 and Max 17.

"When Luis left, they felt sad. It all changed," she said. "So I did everything with them."

By 2005, the little work she had was not enough to supplement Luis's remittances. She followed him. Now they both work to support the children they see only on a screen.

"When I'm alone sometimes, I cry," Rosa said. "But they start talking about their days [through the Web camera], and I sleep better when I see them."

The boys are under the care of their cousin, Evelyn Orellena, 30. Max, the eldest brother, is mild-mannered and speaks with the maturity of an adult. Vladimir is outspoken. Brandon's face is almost a copy of his mother's; his pronounced dimples are apparent even when he does not smile. In a letter about his parents, he wrote in Spanish, "Please tell them how much I love them, but tell them it's as if I almost don't miss them, because they are constantly rooted in my heart, and they are with me every step I take."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company