Early last winter I learned from my younger brother that our mother had a secret Facebook profile. This surprised me. It wasn’t so much that she’d resisted using the account to keep tabs on her children, or to perform the digital facsimile of mom-daughter girlfriend-hood that I see to some extent among my own extended networks — we’re not that kind of family. Instead, it was the name she chose to represent her social self, a character who’d effectively ceased to exist in mid-1980.
My mother grew up in a small Salvadoran village whose population was nearly decimated during the course of the dozen-year civil war that began roiling shortly before she fled. My father, an American Peace Corps volunteer, had been prematurely yanked from his post six months prior under a United Nations diplomatic advisory. He returned to collect her in June after compiling the necessary paperwork to secure her U.S. residency. After their hasty marriage, she became the first of her five siblings, two parents, and many more first and second cousins, colleagues, and friends to escape the violent conflict with her life. (Many others were, of course, less lucky.) It was then that the name that she would later use on her secret Facebook profile became endemic to the past: a character, a memory, a relic.
By the time my mother had crafted her digital avatar, nearly three and a half decades had passed under a Polish-American surname and its full Christian antecedent. It caught me off guard to see the old name in full, the diminutive of her middle name paired with a family name that’s common throughout the Spanish-speaking world but fast fading from my family of married mostly-women. Together, the two names crack with a satisfying alliterative crispness.
Though my mother’s leisure preferences veer more in the direction of telenovela binges than swapping mundanities on the internet, she’d been lured onto Facebook by one of her sisters. My aunt, an alternative-medicine meme enthusiast hell-bent on curing my grandfather’s cancer with juices, had discovered a closed Facebook group called “Memorias de ______,” where the long-scattered village had recently rebuilt itself online. It boasted a membership in the low hundreds, which is impressive given the village’s reasonably small size. It was run by a cousin of my mother’s who had stayed behind through the war, but most members had been gone for decades. Some had been children when they left, like my mother’s youngest sister, who is closer in age to me than to most of her own siblings. Others were the more youthful members of my grandparents’ generation, miraculously tech-savvy septuagenarians who’d learned computers late in life at the behest of American-born grandchildren who could barely speak their language. (For children of the diaspora, Skypiar — to Skype — is a very real verb.) Mostly, the group’s members were those who left as young adults — those who, by now, have spent more of their lives outside than in. Long-lost neighbors and relatives resumed contact after decades of quiet separation, strewn from Virginia to Montreal to Los Angeles and points above, below, and in between.
The members of Memorias were those who left El Salvador as young adults — those who, by now, have spent more of their lives outside than in
When I was finally accepted into the group as well, I was offered an uncanny glimpse into a time and place I’d only ever known through the telephone game of fading recollection and my gringo father’s anthropological spin. “It was the wild west,” he would dreamily recount while my mom sat beside him tight lipped, occasionally breaking her silence to verify that yes, so-and-so really did lose a hand in a drunken machete fight, or no, people did not bully the kind male nurse who was indiscreetly gay. When she did tell stories, it was through the reluctant subjectivity of a person who’d built a great wall between who she was there and who she became here. She most enjoyed describing scenes where the location was incidental: studying hard for a big exam; dancing to Donna Summer records long into the night.
But here, on Facebook, were artifacts. Blurry black-and-white photographs of the past emblazoned themselves on my consciousness for the first time: my cruel and beautiful great-grandmother grimacing through a marcel-waved bob; a drunk great-uncle cocking a gun-holstered hip like a diminutive brown cowboy. Characters plucked from oral history were animated with evidence fit for a courtroom. Uploaded to the page en masse, these photos offered a stunning visual archive of community left behind.
Clicking through the slideshow of the group’s album page, I’d bump into intermittent images of the remittance-enriched village as it exists today. The once unpaved and rock-studded roads are now slicked in creamy black asphalt. Vinyl-sided townhouses are lidded with gray shingled rooftops in place of red clay scallops topping mud brick, plank wood, or tin. And all of the houses now have toilets; my father’s Peace Corps project of the late 1970s had been to modernize the village with dry pit latrines. “It looks much nicer now,” says my 86-year-old grandmother, whose father had refused to send her to school because she wasn’t a boy and, as such, is partial to emblems of against-the-odds progress.
But on the whole, Memorias doesn’t romanticize modernity, possibly because the majority of its membership isn’t there to enjoy it. While their greenbacks have financed the village’s re-creation, their memories — memorias — piece together the place as they would like to remember it: a closely-knit enclave where stingy landowners are reimagined as benevolent community patriarchs, where economic shortage and isolation were cozy instead of confining. The same nasty great-grandmother, despised by her own kin, was “a mother to us all.” To spend time inside the group was to submit to the lush melancholia of diasporic longing. Members had inadvertently created a place that existed independently of the village’s present and past. Their community was a village of its own, a separate collective entity its members fortified together.
Conventional wisdom warns that you can never go home again, where “home” is a fixed place in time, impervious to chronological forces. By way of the internet, something closer to the opposite is now true: Home can be annotated, revised, and collectively reimagined in real time. Within online spaces, diasporic communities can engage in a virtual reality game whose source material is a loosely shared past, with key concrete reference points. The liminality, at least for a time, is the point: It’s in the process of creating, of reminiscing and reinventing, that the residual wounds of dispersal, forced migration, and immigrant ostracism are put aside. In building this dollhouse together, the group’s in-between years are momentarily healed. My mother, for a time and entirely because of Memorias, became Facebook-obsessed.
Reunion by Facebook has become a feel-good trope of viral media. Adoptee groups and, even more, collectives devoted to rejoining lost pets with their human companions, thrive with membership numbers in the tens of thousands. For many of us, Facebook is an easy way to seek out long-lost figures of our own varied pasts, be it the elementary-school classmate who moved away or the onetime lover who disappeared. One friend of mine, an immigrant to Canada from El Salvador who left about a decade after my mother did, reports that her older sisters used Facebook to piece together their old neighborhood and create new correspondence. But what I witnessed among my mother and her fellow villagers was something different: nostalgic insistence on a place as it never quite was. An ever growing body of academic research points to the ways in which tech-facilitated connectedness has eased the strain on families and friend groups ripped apart, but the field of diasporic invention is a more barren plain. It’s hard to find published research on what happens when dispersed communities reconfigure online, and how it shapes their relationship to an idea of home. “Digital cosmopolitanism” doesn’t account for the collective imagination of those who have home abandonment in common.
What I witnessed among my mother and her fellow villagers on Facebook was something different: nostalgic insistence on a place as it never quite was
As an undergrad, I fell in love with social theorist Benedict Anderson’s concept of the “imagined community,” which deemed that the nation-state can exist only if those living within its boundaries feel a sense of unity by virtue of their shared membership. By identifying with the arbitrary political borders of a place, this “imagined community” of mostly strangers reinforces the nation-state’s power. First published in 1983, Imagined Communities remains foundational in shaping how we think about nationalism. Thinking about my mother, who has by now spent the majority of her life as a Midwestern mom and schoolteacher but still identifies so closely with the one-school town she was born in, I can’t help but wonder: What do all these people in the Memorias Facebook group really have in common? Would they have anything to talk about at a dinner party, apart from a somewhat shared origin experience? The indelible attachment to a place of origin more closely resembles a belief system than a fact of geography. It’s that imagined community, on a micro level.
In a 2007 interview for the journal Callaloo, the Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat points out that, after so many generations and decades of Haitian migration, the Haitian Diaspora became the country’s 10th geographical department. (There are officially nine.) Those who had left were so numerous that they encompassed a state unto themselves. “Having such a large group of people outside of the country has redefined what it means to be Haitian,” says Danticat, suggesting vastly different yet simultaneously held notions of a theoretically shared home. Similarly, an estimated two million Salvadoran exiles now live in the U.S.; by some estimates, Savadorans will soon comprise the third-largest Latino group in the country. If the Haitian diaspora is its country’s 10th state, I think of my mother’s Facebook group as a Salvadoran neighborhood: a department with local color and lore, more vibrant and immediate than the home of the past.
It also makes me think about how the circumstances of departure complicate the parameters of home, with little unspoken rivalries fomented between those who stayed and those who left, as well as what constitutes collective experience. Does the trauma of leaving measure up to the trauma of staying? Can both be true and the home still be shared? I suspect that my mother feels unfairly lucky to have gotten out when she did, at the dawn of the civil war, and with the ease of an American husband’s sponsorship. As eager as she was to join a Facebook group of hometown compatriots, she has visited the town in person only twice over 36 years.
Within the last month or so, I noticed that my mother had edited the old name she’d been using on Facebook. She’d stapled the surname we share, my father’s name, onto her father’s last name with a hyphen. It seems more like my mother, this name, which strings together a narrative of geographic origin and an unlikely destination in few words.
Around the same time and completely by accident, I noticed she’d created a second account as well, this one under a name more readily recognizable to anyone who would have met her within the past few decades. It seems to be the more neglected of the two profiles. Its photo is a two-year-old snap of my silhouette in jogging tights backlit against the vast slate swath of Lake Michigan. We have no friends in common, and I wonder who — or what — she’s trying to find.
The last time I saw my parents in person, they’d just visited one of my mother’s cousins who’d escaped the village at the beginning of the war and with whom she’d lost touch until early this year. It turned out he’d wound up in Costa Rica, where he spent the past four decades living modestly and raising a family. In his middle life he began cultivating a hobby arboretum of indigenous tree species otherwise deforested to scarcity. Horticulturists from all around the world traveled to see his trees; a university in Germany wanted him to deliver a lecture. My parents seemed relieved to have seen the new space he occupied, the rich life he’d grown from the dust. Seeing her cousin appeared to fortify my anxious mother’s increasing projection of calmness, a shift in demeanor that I’d mistakenly attributed to age rather than resolution. I imagine that seeing how everyone wound up has brought her no small measure of peace.
When I checked Memorias for updates while writing this, I found the group had been vanished. A close relative of ours had opted to disrupt the peace, my mother explained to me, by posting insults and lies. Small feuds erupted in turn, and rather than attempt mediation as one might in a community confined by shared space, the group’s administrator took everything down. My mother doesn’t seem terribly upset by the situation. I presume that she’ll keep in touch with the people she wants to, and her tiny online community will become an even smaller one — cultivated, with intention.