'Identifying Nelson': El Salvador Born, U.S. Man Searched For His Roots

One Man's Search For His Salvadoran Roots

PASADENA, Calif. -- In the orphanage in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, the boy didn't have a name or a history. He had been separated from his family by the death of his mother during the long civil war in El Salvador. Nobody claimed him. Eventually, he was adopted by a couple in Boston.

This is the story of Nelson De Witt, born Roberto Coto, removed as a 2-year-old child from his roots, his family and his native country.

Now, he has produced his own documentary, "Identifying Nelson," to tell a tale that echoes the pain of many families torn apart by El Salvador's 1980-1992 civil war. Some 70,000 people died and thousands more went missing, including hundreds of children who would be adopted by foreigners.

De Witt, a U.S. citizen, was officially born on Aug. 25, 1981. But Roberto Alfredo Coto Escobar was born on May 22, 1981. "I always knew I was adopted," he said.

Fourteen years after his adoption, a call from a human rights advocate to his parents, Tom De Witt and Margaret Ward, turned their world upside down. "When my dad received that call," De Witt said, "he almost fainted."

The caller, activist Robert Kirchner with Physicians for Human Rights, told the couple that their son had been born in El Salvador, not Honduras, and that his biological parents were revolutionaries in the civil war. He also revealed the circumstances of De Witt's early life.

A few months later, De Witt traveled to his homeland in search of his past -- and met the family who knew him as Roberto.

His documentary, which is made up of three 30-minute segments, honors the tireless efforts of his grandmother Lucila Angulo de Escobar, whom he calls Mama Chila, who never gave up searching for him with the help of the organization Pro Busqueda (Pro Search). Mama Chila died in August 2008.

De Witt's biological parents -- Luis Noe Coto Amaya and Ana Milagro Escobar Angulo -- fought for the guerrilla group Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. His father was a FMLN bodyguard and logistics officer, and his mother recruited people and supplies for the insurgents.

Shortly before the war, his grandmother took refuge in Costa Rica, bringing with her De Witt's older siblings, Ernesto and Eva. De Witt had not been born yet.

De Witt's father would be shot in the chest near the heart. "Fortunately, he survived and now lives in Panama," said De Witt, who looks like a younger version of his father. "He works in a screen printing company."

As for his mother, because the guerrillas needed money to buy weapons, she was sent to Tegucigalpa (with the toddler Roberto) as part of a group charged with kidnapping a businessman for ransom. At the age of 25, she was killed during a police raid on the house.

In Tegucigalpa, in a country that was not his own, her 2-year-old son cried in his crib.


"In 1983, did you adopt a boy from an orphanage in Honduras?" Kirchner, an authority in forensic pathology and human rights violations who worked with the United Nations Truth Commission in El Salvador, asked Tom De Witt in 1997.

"My father was shocked," Nelson De Witt recalled. "It was difficult for him to believe that someone was calling for me."

As De Witt recalls, he and his brother Derek had just returned from summer camp to their home in New Hampshire when his mother said, "Don't go anywhere. We need to talk." He remembers his adoptive father saying, "They believe they have found your birth family. Your family is looking for you. You have a father in Panama and two brothers."

De Witt remembers that his adoptive father didn't say anything about his birth mother.

Groups such as Pro Busqueda have been searching for at least 700 Salvadoran children who, like De Witt, were placed for adoption with foreign families. At this point, some 330 of them have been found. One of them, Victor Contreras, is interviewed in De Witt's documentary. Born in Morazan, El Salvador, Contreras survived the infamous massacre in the town of El Mozote on Dec. 11, 1981, when a Salvadoran army battalion killed 700 to 900 civilians.

For De Witt's family, the search came to an end after his grandmother had spent 14 years asking God for a miracle in the name of her daughter. At Christmastime in 1997, De Witt met his biological father and dozens of family members he had never known existed.

"There were many tears. ... It was a wonderful moment," he said. "It was the warmest reception I've ever had in my life."

He added, "When I found them, I found myself."

De Witt said that, along with his childhood friend and director of the documentary John Younger, he raised $15,000 from family and friends to make his film.

"My parents were revolutionaries, they fought against the injustices of the government, and I did not know that," said De Witt. "For me, it was important to know where I come from in order to know where I am going."

"What will happen next? I don't know," he said.

In his blog, he reflected on his family reunion:

It's my last night in Panama. My birth father and I are sitting at the dining room table eating dinner. My stepmother and sister are away, so it's just us. As we finish, he looks at me and asks:

"So, are you Nelson or Roberto?"

I pause for a second before replying: "Both."

In Pasadena, after introducing his film, De Witt acknowledges living in two worlds. "In my 30 years of age," he said, "I am still looking for answers."

"Identifying Nelson" will officially open in December at colleges and community organizations.

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