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

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By Rafael Romo

Senior Latin American Affairs Editor

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 the coastal town of Garita Palmera, El Salvador. 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 even been missing for 13 months. Then she was told he 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.

Ezequiel Cordova, 23, who was Alvarenga’s assistant went they got caught by a storm during a shark fishing trip in December 2012, died four weeks into the drift because she couldn’t eat the raw food at their disposal, Alvarenga told CNN.

“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.

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.

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 which 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 that faces 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.

He hadn’t called his family since. “He easily forgets about things,” she said. As she tells her family story, a chicken eats seeds nearby, clucking while the family dog, aptly named Doggy, takes 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, an 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 wonder whether they would’ve 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 on neighboring Cara Sucia’s main street, says 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 is also waiting for the castaway. She’s his former girlfriend and the mother of their 14-year-old daughter, Fatima.

She politely avoided giving her last name or answering questions about Alvarenga, only saying 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.

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.

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