The Hashtag That Helped Us Survive the War on Migrants
Photo: Cavan Images/Getty Images

The Hashtag That Helped Us Survive the War on Migrants

#CentralAmericanTwitter unified a world…

My family and I left El Salvador for America in 1987 — after the massive earthquake, in the middle of the civil war. The 5.7-magnitude quake toppled buildings and cracked open the streets of San Salvador, leaving them uneven and jagged. Records of the 1986 event show that over 1,500 people died, 10,000 were injured, and another 100,000 were left homeless. The seismic event tipped over a wooden-framed television set; it landed on top of me while I played with Legos. My nananoya (“grandma” in Nawat) burst into the living room and hoisted the TV set off of me. I was four.

Amid the chaos, the bullets of the left-wing guerrillas and government-sanctioned death squads pummeled the country. That violence alone, which began at the start of the decade and was funded by the U.S., would claim over 75,000 lives and launch hundreds of thousands of people into a diaspora.

My memory of the journey out of the country remains fractured. I remember the panic and sweltering heat. If I close my eyes, I can sometimes see the desert. The river. The Greyhound buses and pissing in Ziploc bags and tossing them out the window because we didn’t stop for hours and the bathroom in the back was broken. The flashbacks come in waves, but what I know for sure is that by the time we arrived in the Pacific Northwest, I was an icicle. The blistering cold had me permanently wrapped in a wool sweater.

Over time, waves of Central Americans from all parts of the globe would arrive at the shores of the hashtag. We shared memes, recipes, Spotify playlists, even images of our families.

At school, I was gawked at. My hair was Indigenous-length, and the assimilated Latinx kids — predominantly Mexican — called me niña fea: “ugly girl.” The White kids were convinced I was simply an unwanted Mexican. The bullying was relentless; several times it led to being held at knifepoint. My parents found solace in a local Pentecostal church, and together we hid there, surrounded by an army of right-wing conservatives. Together, my family and I lived through the end of the Reagan era — then elder Bush, then Clinton, then young Bush, and Obama. Now, Trump. Together we shuddered when we heard about Immigration and Naturalization Service raids. Together we felt the sting of being poor in the land of plenty. Together we strived to navigate undocumented life.

No one I knew wrapped their tamales with plátano leaves. No one used any Salvi slang in their Spanish. My clothes were thrift-store bought, and my school supplies were from the dollar store. I struggled to make friends, and the loneliness caught up with me. I wondered, “Is there anyone else like me?”

There were. I found them.

The movement #CentralAmericanTwitter began the way most things do when an entire community is ignored: out of necessity. Depending on who you ask, you might hear the tale of some form of the hashtag being used as early as 2012 or 2013. But consensus points to the signature moment coming on October 12, 2014, at 6:12 p.m. — when Salvi humorist Wilfredo Santamaria launched the distress signal that would eventually become our North Star.

I reached out to Santamaria recently and asked him about the post. “As a queer Salvadoran who grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, during my teens and early adulthood,” he told me, “I was always seeking community on the internet.” He was not alone. Like many children from Central America whose families had forcibly left their homelands and taken refuge in various nooks and crannies throughout the U.S., Santamaria had been siloed: “My parents weren’t particularly invested in material cultural things, but my mother made sure to teach us how to read, write, and speak Spanish.”

This experience was all too common. Families were forced to embed themselves in communities where there was no one like them. Preserving their unique identities became a struggle. Some masked their accents. Others lost them altogether. While a few managed to find each other within pockets here or there, others struggled to connect. Santamaria’s now-infamous tweet echoed in the fog of our diaspora. For a while, it seemed to go unheard. Eventually, though, it would reach the coastline of Southern California, where Zaira Miluska was on the cusp of altering the course of history.

Miluska, a Salvadoran American, launched @CentAm_Beauty on Twitter in February 2017, one year into the Trump presidency. An Instagram account appeared as well. The bio on both said its purpose was “to show the beauty and diversity of the isthmus.” Their arrival gave the hashtag form, powered it by providing a destination. Though she may not have realized it at the time, Miluska had managed to reach out through the fog, take Santamaria’s hand, and illuminate the path forward for all of us.

At the time, the media was a clogged pipeline of 24/7 news reports featuring gang violence, government corruption, poverty, migrant caravans, and death. But rather than wallow in disillusion, the new accounts broadcast images of our flourishing cultures with a balanced grid of thoughtful curation. Miluska flooded our timelines with gorgeous photographs and insightful captions that highlighted our diversity. She, Afro-Salvi like Santamaria, prepared timely posts that centered Afro-Indigenous history and art. She celebrated our gifted poets, writers, academics, business people, scientists, musicians, artists, journalists, and athletes. She brought attention to influential activists in the fight for human rights.

The timing couldn’t have been better. Central American children were being lost, trafficked, detained, caged, sexually abused, deported, shot, or separated from their families. Migrants would be mistreated while crossing into Mexico but manage to reach the border, only to be caught by U.S. border patrol and then kept in unsanitary conditions and denied medical care. Pregnant women were forced to give birth while in shackles. Asylum applications were being blocked. Even while the White House carried out “zero tolerance” policies hyperfocused on the Northern Triangle (Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador), Miluska kept her scope broad, making sure to spotlight Belize, Nicaragua, Panama, and Costa Rica as well. She helped us see ourselves in all our shades — and in high definition.

Over time, waves of Central Americans from all parts of the globe would arrive at the shores of the hashtag. We shared memes, recipes, Spotify playlists, even images of our families. We began to build platforms designed to fulfill various needs. News curated for us, by us. Collectives to share books. Podcasts to discuss everything from pop culture to politics from our generational perspective. Meet-ups and pop-ups where artisans could sell their wares. People submitted their art to zines we created, and social calendars filled with invitations to cultural events. Academics began to engage in valuable discourse while providing access to PDF versions of important historical literature and studies.

We championed each other’s causes, raised funds for those in need, and began our healing journeys. We flirted and followed and retweeted our crushes. One couple got married, and the wedding was officiated by someone they met through the CentAm network. Powerful LGBTQ voices emerged, celebrating the nonbinary while drawing attention to the longstanding homophobia and transphobia that persists within the community.

For those who joined the community during the initial stages, it seemed like utopia. But as the collective grew, the hashtag splintered. Trolls appeared, waving their bigotry and perpetuating stereotypes. “It’s interesting to see how quickly it became problematic,” Miluska said. “From Black Central Americans calling out the exclusion they felt to Salvadorans becoming the dominant voices to the LGBTQ community forming their own hashtag in conjunction with the original.”

“Will it evolve?” I asked her. “Who knows, really?” she asked in return. “Everything happened so fast. We were so hungry for representation.” Perhaps the legacy of the hashtag will be that it allowed platforms like hers to gain visibility—paving the way for us to physically meet and build lasting connections and letting us know who we could turn to when the world misrepresented us or failed to understand our pain. Trolls may be intransigent, but feeling seen is undoubtedly powerful. And nothing will make that more evident than when your people are actively being hunted.

I first saw the image online during the summer of 2019. By all accounts, the heatwave that June had been the hottest on record, and New York was sizzling while on the verge of declaring it an emergency. My loved ones and I had made plans to visit Menorca in early July, and despite my best efforts, I still hadn’t packed. One of the gems that comes from following #CentralAmericanTwitter is an abundance of travel photos, and I was excited to participate.

It’s remarkable, really: A bunch of kids raised in diasporic conditions with families of mixed immigration status blazing new trails of transcendence. This privilege is not treated lightly. Many of us have lived the experience ourselves or known of someone who had and therefore fully understand feeling landlocked, unable to venture outside the U.S. due to a lack of papers.

Conversely, we’re also agonizingly aware of the dangers of heading north—of the lives we’ve already lost at the border. That sobering reality is always lurking. And on that fateful morning a week after Father’s Day when the photograph surfaced showing the lifeless bodies of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter, Angie Valeria, we were reminded in perhaps the cruelest way yet.

The immediate shock and subsequent unwinding of their story was like tearing the stitches on an unhealed wound. Despite his mother’s plea, the young twentysomething and his wife, Tania Vanessa Ávalos, had fled El Salvador for the promise of a life beyond poverty; they took their only child with them and never looked back.

I tried my best to avoid looking at the image, but it had gone viral; it was all but impossible to ignore. My heart sank at the sight of Óscar laying face down at the water’s edge, his daughter tucked into his shirt with her arm wrapped around his neck — one month shy of her second birthday.

The photo, snapped by Julia Le Duc and published by Mexican newspaper La Jornada, had stripped them of their dignity. I didn’t want to see them like this, reduced to what American Dirt author Jeanine Cummins referred to as the “faceless brown mass.”

I’m 12 years older than Óscar was when he died, I realized, and I became furious at the thought of all that potential being snuffed out of his 25-year-old body. Furious over Angie Valeria’s diaper, which was so obviously water-logged. And, my God, the heat; even if they had made it to the so-called promised land, the odds would have been stacked against them. All they wanted was a shot at living their lives in full.

I didn’t know them personally, but I knew them. I sat quietly and cried. Tears flowed down my cheeks as I thought about how my mother carried me on her back across the same river at age five. I close my eyes to remember. And as soon as the flashback comes, it’s gone. But in that brief moment, I felt it all over again.

Being from Central America and living in the U.S. can make you feel like you’re in a tragic rollover accident that claims lives, yet somehow you manage to walk away from it. But you’re not unscathed, not truly; you may look okay, but inside of you, there’s an inexplicable hurt. You know that your people are missing or dead and that scattered among the debris is the wallet where you kept the tiny photographs of your loved ones and suddenly you can’t find them. You feel this anguish every time you see the footage online and read the articles and hear the reports that mention what is being done to families just like yours. I used to bury all these feelings because I didn’t know how to cope. No one outside my family understood.

When I found #CentralAmericanTwitter in the winter of 2017, I felt like part of my soul had been restored — a part I didn’t even know was missing but had secretly missed. And later that fall, when I announced that after 30 years of living undocumented in the country that I would finally be naturalized, my immediate family and friends weren’t the only ones rejoicing; the online community was also with me.

They were there when I walked on the stage to accept my citizenship certificate, like long-lost relatives beaming with pride. They were there when I began writing and performing poetry about being subjected to the divide created by the border. They were there when I found the confidence to leave my normal spot way in the back during our marches and rallies — and to cheer me on when I stepped up to the mic.

They dove into the trenches with me, showed me where I had room to grow, and supported my unlearning. They reminded me that our cuisine was delicious and validated my childhood struggles. They told me my Nawat-descendant heritage held a special place within our collective, that being mixed did not make me “less than.” And when I shared with them that I had found the love of my life, they took delight in my joy. Their unrelenting support was like a beautifully woven blanket, perfect for facing the blistering cold. I am an icicle no longer.

So now, even as those in power lobby to erase us, we continue to fight back, together. Telling our stories and reclaiming our history. Always reaching for one another — through the fog of our diaspora — via our foxholes in the DMs.