Half an hour into the party, a chorus of angelic voices burst from the loudspeakers near the palm trees. An 8-year-old boy scurried toward the sound. Ducking and swerving through the hands stretching down to ruffle his brown hair, Rene Antonio Flores halted at the dance floor and gazed at the approaching Quinceanera.
A dark-haired beauty in pink tulle and shimmery satin, his sister Karen entered her 15th birthday party to a ripple of oohs. A line of girls in royal-blue dresses followed, among them his 16-year-old sister, Evelin.
At $170, Karen's gown cost more than many people in their town of Apopa make in a month. The $800 for the steak lunch at her party amounted to nearly half a year's wages. Their neighborhood, a warren of concrete huts set against a verdant mountain outside El Salvador's capital, is home to some of the country's poorest -- tortilla vendors, bus-fare collectors and factory workers who share the narrow streets with hungry dogs and vengeful gangsters.
Rene Antonio watched as a priest beckoned Karen's entourage to form a circle. "And now," the priest said in Spanish, "perhaps the parents would like to say a few words."
A hot breeze rustled the hem of Karen's gown. She stared straight ahead. The priest lifted his head to scan the crowd.
"Uh, do the parents want to say a few words?"
A guest shifted her weight from one high heel to the other. Evelin buried her face in her hands. At last, a voice broke the silence.
"Solo la abuelita esta."
Only the grandmother is here.
At that hour, a 35-year-old woman was clearing the last of the lunch plates from a Northern Virginia restaurant. The mother of the Quinceanera wasn't halfway through her 14-hour shift at the job that paid for the elaborate celebration that traditionally marks a Latin American girl's passage into womanhood.
Through the restaurant's plate-glass window on that Sunday in mid-July, Maday Flores could glimpse the smooth, four-lane road linking the Springfield strip mall with Interstate 95. It had been four years since she last saw the pocked highways of El Salvador. Four years since she left Evelin, Karen, Rene Antonio and their two sisters to join the exodus of Latin Americans heading north.
Those immigrants number more than 315,000 in the Washington region -- the majority of them legal, many illegal -- growing the ranks of the area's housekeepers, construction workers, nannies and cooks. The Flores children's mother makes six times what she did in El Salvador. In less than a decade, the money that she and other Latin Americans in the United States send home has swelled to $30 billion annually -- $1 billion of it from the District, Maryland and Virginia.
They are continuing a tradition followed by generations of immigrants to the United States: young men and women who left Ireland during the potato famine to support the starving parents they left behind, or Chinese fathers who spent years laying railroad track across the West in the 19th century in hopes of bringing wives and children across the Pacific.
But there is a difference. Studies suggest that more and more of those on the receiving end of today's Western Union wires are not elderly parents or struggling siblings, but young children. And more and more of those doing the sending are not just fathers, but young mothers.
Many who leave their children to come illegally to the United States know it probably will be years before they return even to visit. So it is that in the four years since Maday's departure, the warm, playful presence her children once knew as "Mami" has been reduced to something else:
"Mami," the soft, sometimes awkward voice on the telephone.
"Mami," the provider of a new tile floor, a new roof and countless stuffed animals and stylish dresses.
"Mami," the painful memory.
A Photograph to Remember
"No se vaya, Mami. No se vaya."
Don't go, Mami. Don't go. Evelin recalls pleading for more than an hour that late spring evening in 2000.
She sat on their sagging couch as her mother offered hugs and explanations. Maday's wages from the sock factory were barely enough to put beans and tortillas on the table. The children's father had never lived with them, rarely visited and hadn't sent money in months. Surely Evelin could understand?
The eldest of the Flores children shook her head and wept.
The next night, Evelin remembers creeping over to the gray backpack that would be her mother's only luggage on the dangerous trek across the Arizona border and slipping something inside: a photograph of a round-faced 12-year-old with soft curls and a dimpled grin.
Four years later, Evelin's cheeks still dimple when she smiles. But she's often frowning. Her sisters have learned to censor the radio. A few bars from such Latin pop songs as "Te Amo, Mama" are enough to bring her to tears. And she can only talk about her mother for a few minutes before her voice chokes up.
Since her mother left, Evelin's preteen shuffle has given way to a sultry stroll. Those swaying hips unsettle her grandmother.
Sixteen is a risky age for a girl in her neighborhood, and Evelin is two years younger than her mother was when she first became pregnant.
The grandmother has a plan to save Evelin from the same fate: Until she has landed her first well-paying job, there will be no dating.
Evelin offers no protest. And yet.
"Love. . . . Love forever," she doodles across her history worksheets.
School has never held her attention. She has had to repeat two grades and is with the 13- and 14 year-olds in eighth grade, a year below her younger sister Karen. Such a friendly, well-behaved student, Evelin's teachers lament, if only she would do her homework.
Evelin's grandmother, Carmen Flores, has no way of helping her study. An orphan who grew up sleeping on the streets of San Salvador, the 55-year-old woman knows only two letters: the "C" and "F" with which she signs her name. Evelin's mother, who used to rifle through her workbooks every night, can now merely ask an anxious "how's school going?" during twice-weekly phone calls from Virginia.
A few weeks ago, Evelin says, she answered with bad news: For the second straight semester, she had flunked science.
"It killed me to tell my Mami," she said afterward. The private school, Evelin knows, charges $65 a month in tuition for all five children -- eating up a chunk of the $450 her mother sends each month.
The school doesn't offer a lot in return. To study there is to swelter in a cramped, concrete-walled classroom while teachers shout over the screeches of children at recess in a fenced-in courtyard.
But the school is close to Evelin's house. To reach the public school she used to attend, Evelin had to hike up a trash-strewn hill where muggers lay in wait. Gangs have infiltrated the public school. Two months ago, a gunman put a bullet through a gym teacher's head.
Despite her troubles, Evelin has fun at the private school. Her sly, infectious giggle and habit of winking when she is telling a joke have made her popular. The teachers are energetic and affectionate, and so much closer in age to her mother than to her sweet but weary grandmother. There's the soft-spoken, smiley woman who teaches English. The loud, enthusiastic guy who teaches math. And her favorite -- the lanky, wickedly witty social studies teacher, Hector Alexander.
Although withdrawn around adults she does not know well, Evelin blossoms in the teachers' presence. She teases them, shows them photographs of her mother, wraps her arm around the English teacher's waist, and talks to all of them about things she does not always tell her grandmother.
But three days before Karen's birthday party, it was to Mr. Alexander alone that Evelin says she confided her most cherished secret.
"My mother is coming," she told him. "It's gonna be a surprise."
In the life of a Latin American girl, no event is more important than her 15th birthday. Evelin was convinced that their mother wouldn't miss it. The nuances of U.S. immigration law -- her mother has temporary legal status but not the permanent residency that would enable her to travel freely or fly the children over for a visit -- were lost on an adolescent girl.
Toward the end of the party, Mr. Alexander pulled Evelin aside. "So," he asked cheerfully, "which one of these ladies is your mother?"
Evelin hung her head. "Oh," she mumbled as her eyes welled with tears, "turns out she couldn't make it."
The pain tugging at her composure was all the more sharp because she had suffered the same letdown at her own 15th birthday party last year.
How could Evelin have set herself up this way twice?
"I don't know," she whispered between sobs a few days later. "I just get these illusions."
Learning Not to Cry
Karen's party had been over for four hours by the time her mother got through on the phone.
"Remember that from this day forward you're no longer a girl, you're a young lady," her mother admonished.
"Uh-huh," answered Karen, nodding.
"And that you need to always carry yourself that way."
Then Karen smiled brightly.
"So, Mami," she said. "I wore the watch and the ring you sent me. . . . And almost all my classmates came. . . . And you know what? I didn't cry!"
Karen almost never does. Not when her mother announced she would be moving thousands of miles north, not when her mother gave her a last, lingering embrace. And not four years later, when asked to reflect on her mother's decision. "She left so that she could give us a better life," Karen said simply. When her mother sounds lonely and tearful over the phone after a long day of work and English classes, Karen lets it pass without comment.
It is one of many ways Karen differs from Evelin. Introduce Karen to a stranger and she will pepper him with questions. Give her a homework assignment and she will do it -- not brilliantly, perhaps, but with enough care to get a solid grade.
She is strikingly beautiful, with high cheekbones and lustrous hair. But there is none of Evelin's sensual swivel to her walk. Karen lumbers like a boxer, her whole body leaning forward.
Her mind tilts forward as well. "A secretary," she answers crisply when asked what she wants to be when she grows up.
Of all the Flores children, a neighbor predicted, "Karen will be the one to get out of this place."
For now, she might have to get past her grandmother first.
Karen sat on a stool in the living area, her eyes bright as she described her plan to get a job at a bookstore next summer.
Her grandmother leaned back on the couch. "I don't know. It's a nice idea, but it's dangerous for a girl to ride the bus. . . . And besides, a child's mentality changes when she leaves home."
On the wall above her head were photographs not just of the children's mother, but of three uncles and aunts who also live in Northern Virginia.
Maday's children, at least, Carmen can still keep under close guard. As soon as they troop in from school, she locks the door behind them.
Karen rarely asks whether she can go outside to play. She knows the answer. Nor is she permitted to invite anyone over. The neighborhood children could be a bad influence, Carmen worries.
And so Karen rides out her adolescence in a 600-square-foot bunker strung with lines of dripping laundry.
Piles of furniture add to the cramped atmosphere. A dining table and couch are jammed up against a refrigerator in the living area. Bunk beds crowd the room where the grandmother and the children sleep two to a mattress. When it's stormy outside, the rain hammers on the thin, corrugated roof with a deafening clatter. When it's sunny, the air in the house gets so hot even the flies stop buzzing.
Yet all around her, Karen can see the improvements her mother's money has brought. Concrete walls that once were bare have been painted a cheerful aqua. The old concrete floor has been paved with pretty blue and white tiles. Karen paces across it in gauzy skirts and jewel-toned tops -- the latest styles from Northern Virginia's malls shipped directly to Apopa.
Her amusements are imported as well. If she's not popping CDs into the boombox sent by her mother, she's helping her sisters fill up an inflatable kiddie pool in the living area.
Such luxuries are beyond reach for many of her classmates, Karen knows. She is one of only two girls in her grade whose families could afford a sweet-15 birthday party. Her three closest friends couldn't even accept Karen's invitation to be maids of honor. "Too expensive," their parents said when informed of the cost of the blue dress their daughters would be required to buy.
Still, Karen says she would trade every one of her mother's gifts to have her home again. And there are times even Karen wonders how the years apart might change her mother. Like the day last year when a man dropped by with a package from Virginia. "Your mother is fine. I saw her just the other day with her boyfriend," Karen recalled the man saying as he lugged the box inside.
"What!" Karen pounced. "My mother has a boyfriend? What's he like? How did she meet him?"
"In the restaurant," the man managed to say before Karen's grandmother halted the conversation with a hiss.
"Stop asking silly questions. He's just kidding," the grandmother said.
But as Karen lay in bed that night, she wasn't so sure. What if her mother was in love? What if she decided to leave them forever for a new life with this man?
"Pssst, Evelin," Karen remembers whispering to the dozing form on the bunk above. "Do you think it's true?"
A Son's Farewell
"Where are you going? Take me with you, Mami," Rene Antonio urged the morning his mother left.
"No, I'm just going to work, my love. You know I can't bring you there," she remembers answering. "So be a good boy and I'll see you tonight, okay?"
Yet even a 4-year-old could tell something was amiss. Why had his mother wiped her eyes before turning to speak to him? Why had she hugged each of his sisters so tightly?
And so he sat and watched by the front door as afternoon gave way to evening and the sky grew dark.
At last, a hand pulled him inside. "She won't be home until very late," his grandmother recalls saying gently. "Come to sleep now."
The next morning, Rene Antonio sprang awake.
"Where's my Mami?"
"Oh, you just missed her," Carmen said. "She had to leave really early."
It went on this way for nearly two weeks, his grandmother recalled, until finally she told him the news that his mother had worried he would be too young to bear.
A few days later, the phone rang. Rene Antonio watched as his sisters took their turns -- crying, and thanking God that their mother had made it safely across the border.
Then they handed the receiver to Rene Antonio.
"Mami!" the boy shouted. "You are a liar!"
These days, Rene Antonio pops up when the phone rings, grabbing the second handset to find out who is on the line. If it's his mother, he smiles and whispers hello. If it's someone else, he hangs up without comment and sinks back into the striped armchair in front of the television in the bedroom.
He spends hours cradled in that chair, his almond-shaped eyes growing glassy as a succession of cartoon characters prattles on the screen.
"A man of few words," joked one of his cousins.
Although Rene Antonio teases and giggles with his sisters, in the household conversations his voice is always a grace note rather than the dominant chord. In the outside world, it is rarely heard at all.
His sisters often call Carmen "Mama" -- "she's our second mother," Karen explained. Rene Antonio always refers to her as "Mi Abuela." My grandmother. Yet of all the children, he is the most attached to her. At night, he curls up next to her in bed, as he used to do with his mother. When they leave home, he is careful to keep Carmen in view. "Where's my grandmother? Where's my grandmother?" he asks in alarm if she strays from his sight.
And as his bedtime draws near, the child who shrinks from nearly everyone's touch crawls into his grandmother's lap and rests his head against her chest. "My poor little orphan boy," she'll say, rocking him softly. "No mother. No father. Who will protect you?"
There is much to protect him from. If his sisters and the other girls in the neighborhood risk the trap of early motherhood, the boys are stalked by a darker cloud -- las maras, the gangs. The grown-ups around Rene Antonio always say those words in an undertone.
"Mara Salvatrucha" and "Mara 18." At 8, Rene Antonio knows their names and their hand signals.
Reminders of their battle for control of his neighborhood come every few weeks: the next-door neighbor who was sliced with shrapnel from a bomb thrown near a crowded tortilla stand on Rene Antonio's street, the middle-aged man on his way home from work who was shot to death for no discernible reason in front of Rene Antonio's school.
Nearly every night, Carmen leads her grandchildren in a prayer for safety.
It was 7:30 and quiet outside as they began on a recent evening. The girls wrapped lace scarves over their hair and pulled up stools to form a semi-circle around the couch where Rene Antonio had settled. His 10-year-old sister, Johanna, sat next to him and opened a small psalmbook with a photograph of their mother taped to the inside cover. She flipped to Psalm 134.
At their grandmother's nod, the girl began to read aloud in a halting monotone.
"Behold. Bless ye Jehovah. All ye servants of Jehovah . . ."
Suddenly, a sharp "POP-POP-POP-POP-POP" exploded through the stillness outside.
"Balas," whispered Carmen.
She sprang to check that the front door was locked and then sat back down. The children listened in silence.
And then they heard it -- a high, unearthly shriek. "Aaaaaayyyy! Noooooo! Mi hijo, mi hijo!"
My son, my son!
On the street outside, a 20-year-old in a gray oxford shirt lay on his side, a pool of blood forming around his head.
Rene Antonio scurried into his grandmother's arms.
"Well," she finally said, turning to Johanna. "You should continue. It's getting late."
The girl turned back to the psalmbook, her childish drone now mingling with the wails outside.
"Lift up your hands towards the sanctuary and bless Jehovah. . .
" . . . Jehovah bless thee out of Zion."
Rene Antonio slipped out of his grandmother's embrace and took his place back on the sofa.
Somehow, a Future Together
The restaurant, La Hacienda, sits in a Northern Virginia strip mall, its brick facade barely distinguishable from the Dollar Store and 7-Eleven next door. Inside, customers order pupusas, sopa de pollo and platanos fritos in Central American accents.
A few weeks ago, the restaurant hosted a 15th birthday party. The sight of the beaming Quinceanera in her frilly pink dress so upset Maday Flores that she had to leave work early. "I'm such a crybaby," she said in Spanish, managing a weak laugh as she dabbed tears a few days later. "I'm like Evelin."
Almost daily, Maday questions her decision to leave her children. She always comes to the same conclusion. "I didn't have a choice. I couldn't have supported them if I had stayed," she said. "And though they don't live like queens, at least they don't have to drop out of school and work like I did. . . . They miss me. But they are better off this way."
In some ways, she is better off, too. She works six days a week, leaving her bed at dawn and collapsing into it long after dark. But she whooshes home in her own red Toyota Corolla, to a spacious basement apartment with central air conditioning and a landscaped patio. Her Salvadoran boyfriend pays the rent and has furnished the place with beige leather sofas and a wall-sized silver Sony television.
She does not tell her children many of these details. Nor does she share her anxiety over how she will reunite her family.
"If I can't find a way to bring them here within five years, I'll go back," she said. "I will have missed the best years with them. But at least I'll have a few left to enjoy."
The children know their mother wants to get them out of Apopa, but beyond that, the plan seems murky.
Evelin believes her mother will bring them to the United States. "Life over there is so much better than here," she said.
Karen is convinced her mother will return to El Salvador. "She's going to buy us a house in the center of the city. It's going to be two stories high with a separate room for each of us and a garage," she said.
Rene Antonio isn't sure what to think. "I used to ask her about that, but my grandmother said it made her sad," he said with a shrug. "I don't ask her anymore."