Iliana Dominguez-Franco and her older sister Joselin have the same laugh. They laugh over Google Hangouts as they listen to the cassette tapes of Joselin singing “Tu Niñito” as a toddler. But listening to the tape together is bittersweet, since they usually don’t have much to laugh about.
“We’ve cried about things before, and we’ve talked about death, but this just brings out in both of us I think—it just feels like a sister moment,” Iliana said, “This is the most honest and open we’ve been with each other in a long time.”
The cassette tapes bridge them together, since Iliana lives in Philadelphia, and Joselin in El Salvador. In fact, it was through the cassette tapes that Iliana learned that she even had an older sister.
“The first time I heard about her was probably when my mom started to show me the cassettes that my sister would send her, that my grandma would send her,” Iliana said.
Joselin and Iliana’s mother lived in El Salvador, where Joselin was born, when she decided to leave her abusive husband by escaping to the United States. Joselin was a newborn baby at the time. The journey was too dangerous for a baby, so Joselin was left behind with her grandmother.
Her husband stalked her all the way to California. She finally divorced him, but not before she got pregnant by him again, giving birth to Iliana in the U.S.
Iliana has just graduated from Bryn Mawr College, a private liberal arts school in the suburbs of Philadelphia, lined with cherry blossom trees and castle-like dormitories.
“I may be here but my mind is always in two places,” she said.
While her peers left campus for winter break, Iliana had to spend her savings —the money that she was going to use to visit her family— on a lawyer for Joselin after she tried crossing into the U.S. without papers.
Joselin said it all started last year, when some local gang members called her and said, “We know you live three houses from the church.” They demanded protection money that she didn’t have.
One day, the gang grabbed Joselin on the street as she was getting off a bus. They beat her and scratched her arms. She went to the police, who did nothing. That’s when Iliana, who was in her senior year at Bryn Mawr, found out that her sister needed to flee.
The family paid thousands of dollars to have Joselin smuggled through Guatemala and Mexico. She crossed into Texas by wading across the Rio Grande River in water up to her chest, and walked into the brush. She spent most of the hiding in a day in a tree. The Border Patrol spotted her and she ended up in detention.
The family finally found a good lawyer pro bono, but the government rejected Joselin’s asylum claim, just as it’s rejected the claims of most people fleeing violence in Central America. Last December, in the middle of the night, Joselin was deported. Now she’s back in El Salvador and afraid to leave her house.
Joselin stays connected with her mother and sister in the U.S. by listening to those cassette tapes with Iliana over Google Hangouts, since phone calls are expensive.
There’s one tape in particular that makes Iliana cry. It’s of Joselin as a toddler talking to Iliana, as if she were there in El Salvador with her. She talks in a high-pitched, yet forceful voice.
Iliana described what she heard in the tape, saying, “It was my sister talking to me. And saying my name and just telling me not to forget her, and telling my mom to take care of me… and that she was waiting for me and that she missed me…I can just imagine how this conversation would have happened really between the two of us in person if she had been here. To tell me those things. And to be my older sister during that time.”
Iliana has created a Facebook page where you can find out more about Joselin’s situation and help out.