Skip to main content

For the family of a mysterious castaway, the hard wait is nearly over

By Rafael Romo, Senior Latin American Affairs Editor
updated 11:02 AM EST, Tue February 11, 2014
  • It's been an emotional time for the parents of castaway Jose Salvador Alvarenga
  • His mother, Julia, said her son didn't keep up, and they didn't even know he was missing
  • "I would pray to God, and I won't lie to you, I was crying," she says
  • For the excited residents of his town in El Salvador, Alvarenga is a hero

Garita Palmera, El Salvador (CNN) -- She talks to the pictures as if they could make her voice travel thousands of miles and reach her son's ears.

"Oh, my son," Julia Alvarenga, 59, says in a tender voice at her home in this coastal town. And then she says, "I'm going to see him again."

The past two weeks have been an emotional roller coaster for the Salvadoran woman. First, she learned her son had been missing for 13 months. Then she was told he had turned up half a world away. And now she's getting news he might be back home soon.

Her son, Jose Salvador Alvarenga, 36, appeared in the Marshall Islands on January 30 claiming to be a castaway. He told authorities he was lost at sea on a fishing boat for 13 months, eating raw fish and turtles.

His assistant, Ezequiel Cordova, 23, died four weeks into the drift because he couldn't eat the raw food at their disposal, Alvarenga told CNN. He said the pair got caught in a storm soon after leaving Mexico on a shark fishing trip in December 2012.

Jose Salvador Alvarenga attends a news conference in Majuro, Marshall Islands, on Thursday, February 6. Alvarenga, who is from El Salvador, said he spent 13 months lost in the Pacific Ocean, floating from Mexico to the Marshall Islands, which is about halfway between Hawaii and Australia. Jose Salvador Alvarenga attends a news conference in Majuro, Marshall Islands, on Thursday, February 6. Alvarenga, who is from El Salvador, said he spent 13 months lost in the Pacific Ocean, floating from Mexico to the Marshall Islands, which is about halfway between Hawaii and Australia.
Castaway Jose Salvador Alvarenga
Castaway Jose Salvador Alvarenga Castaway Jose Salvador Alvarenga
Castaway headed back home
Castaway finally heads home
New details in castaway's story

In Garita Palmera, the house is decorated for a homecoming. Balloons and ribbons are hung, and a banner reading "Welcome Home" is strung up on the palm tree archway that leads to the home.

One of the castaway's nieces made a heart-shaped decoration. It welcomes him home, and adds, "May God bless you."

But the family was not exactly sure when to expect Alvarenga's arrival. The government has not been in contact with them as his journey takes place.

For Julia, a born-again Christian who attends the Iglesia Principe de Paz (Prince of Peace Church), the survival story was an answer to her daily prayers.

Castaway moved to undisclosed location to avoid media crush

Three pictures of Julia Alvarenga's son are among her most treasured possessions.

One shows him the way he looked the last time he visited. A second one shows him holding his only daughter when she was 18 months old. But her favorite one was taken when he was only 6 months old, back in September 1977.

Julia and Ricardo Alvarenga have nine children, three of whom live in the Maryland area, and the rest in El Salvador, she said.

Alvarenga's mother, who helps the family by selling groceries out of a room in their cinder-block house on a dirt street, also made a personal family revelation.

She says Jose Salvador Alvarenga last visited their home in Garita Palmera eight years ago. The only thing they knew about him all this time, Julia says, was that he was working as a fisherman somewhere in Mexico.

For missing man's mother, castaway's survival story is tale of grief

Jose hadn't called his family since. "He easily forgets about things," she said.

"I would pray to my Lord Jesus Christ, 'You're all-powerful, and you know what's best.' And that was the only hope I had all this time. I would pray to God, and I won't lie to you, I was crying; but I never lost my faith," Julia said.

As she told her family story, a clucking chicken ate seeds while the family dog, aptly named Doggy, took a nap on a plastic chair.

Ricardo Alvarenga, a 65-year-old farmer, agreed, adding they didn't know their son was lost at sea until the story of the castaway made the news and his picture was shown around the world. Some neighbors came to tell them about it.

Even though their son has yet to return home, he's already a celebrity in Garita Palmera and neighboring towns.

Carlos Francisco Orozco, 46, owner of a chicken restaurant, said he's very proud of his fellow Salvadoran.

"He's a hero for my country," Orozco said. "Not only a hero, but a Superman like (the character) on TV. He's truly a hero."

Many wondered whether they would have been able to survive in a similar situation, but no one would openly cast any doubts on Alvarenga's story.

Alvaro Herrera, 38, who owns a shoe store in neighboring Cara Sucia, said he also admires Alvarenga.

"I'm telling you that he's a man of great courage because of what he went through. God was with him because God is good and does good things," Herrera said.

At the Alvarenga home, Areli Barrera was also waiting for the castaway. She's his former girlfriend and the mother of their 14-year-old daughter, Fatima.

She politely avoided answering questions about Alvarenga, saying only that she's glad he made it out alive. Fatima, who was not yet 6 the last time her father visited, said she remembers very little about him.

"I don't know him," she said.

As for Julia, when asked what's the first thing she's going to do when she sees her son, she extended her arms around herself, the universal signal for a warm, heartfelt embrace.

READ: Five things about the castaway's tale

READ: Castaway begins journey home from Marshall Islands, stops in Hawaii

READ: For missing man's mother, castaway's survival story is tale of grief

Part of complete coverage on
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
It was supposed to be a class trip to a resort island. Instead, the ferry capsized, turning the afternoon into a deadly nightmare.
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
It's hard not to be nervous, standing outside the Ebola isolation wards.
updated 8:58 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Ukraine says it's forces have regained control of an airfield from Russian separatists. Nick Paton Walsh reports.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
An "extraordinary" video shows what looks like the largest and most dangerous gathering of al Qaeda in years.
updated 8:30 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Explore each side's case, reconstructed from Pistorius' court affidavit and the prosecution's case during last year's bail hearing.
updated 5:16 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Officials are launching their next option: an underwater vehicle to scan the ocean floor.
updated 1:53 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
How are police preparing for this year's 26.2-mile marathon, which takes place Monday?
updated 1:02 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Katrina Karkazis
Romance is hard, for anyone. For people with intersex traits, love poses unique challenges.
updated 8:38 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Suisse's Belinda Bencic returns the ball to France's Alize Cornet during the second match of the Fed Cup first round tennis tie France vs Switzerland on February 8, 2014 at the Pierre de Coubertin stadium in Paris. AFP PHOTO / KENZO TRIBOUILLARD (Photo credit should read KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images)
It's no easy matter becoming a world class tennis player. It's even harder when everyone (really -- everyone) is calling you the "new Martina Hingis".
updated 5:26 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
The "kill switch," a system for remotely disabling smartphones and wiping their data, will become standard in 2015.
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Browse through images you don't always see on news reports from CNN teams around the world.
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Sky gazers caught a glimpse of the "blood moon" crossing the Earth's shadow Tuesday in all its splendor.
updated 11:09 AM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
A staff stands next to the propellers of Sun-powered plane Solar Impulse 2 HB-SIB seen in silhouette during its first exit for test on April 14, 2014 in Payerne, a year ahead of their planned round-the-world flight. Solar Impulse 2 is the successor of the original plane of the same name, which last year completed a trip across the United States without using a drop of fuel. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
This solar-powered aircraft will attempt to circle the globe next year.