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'A pain that doesn't go away'

By Gabe Semenza
July 26, 2009 at 2:26 a.m.


When Dora Torres saw the shoes, she knew her son lay dead on the gurney. She nodded to the coroner.

Just weeks before, Torres hand-picked the shoes as a gift. The mother mailed them to El Salvador. She had no idea her teenage son would wear the shoes during a surprise trek to reunite with her in New York City.

Six years later, the image of those shoes, the memory of her son and the pain of his death draw Torres to a Victoria County dirt road. She is the only family member of anyone who died who returns each year to the makeshift memorial to honor the tragedy on its anniversary.

While much is said of the 19 illegal immigrants who died in a sweltering tractor-trailer in May 2003, little is known about the loved ones they left behind. Torres' story begins with civil war and continues with her fight to make sense of a child's death.

Torres, 47, lives today in Houston and works at a shampoo factory. She was born in San Alejo, La Union, El Salvador. She gave birth to her first child, Anna, when she turned 20.

At about that same time, the Salvadoran civil war erupted. During the next 12 years, 75,000 people died and the already shaky economy worsened. By the early 1990s, Torres was a struggling single mother of three.

"She left El Salvador to survive, to give her children a better life," said Marta Olvera, a Houston-based philanthropist who befriended Torres after the Salvadoran's son died. "Most of the people left their children with the grandparents and came over."

While Torres toiled in a New York sewing factory, her three children yearned to be with her. Anna Torres, the oldest, followed first in her mother's footsteps. She entered the United States illegally at age 24.

Jose Mauricio Torres, 15, was the family's youngest child. He loved to sing, dance and listen to the radio. He was a bit of a homebody. He grew up knowing his mother by her voice on the end of a long-distance phone call. When his father died, he sought to reunite with his remaining parent and sister.

Torres didn't know her son risked the trip to Mexico and then to Texas. When news reports about the tragedy surfaced, a strange feeling overtook her. She called her home country, and her mother told her the news: The dead found in Victoria were moved by authorities to Houston.

"She came to Houston to identify her son, and she saw the shoes," Olvera, 55, said. "She was devastated. In the beginning, she was very, very bad. There was nothing that could comfort her. We never understand why it happened. Why? It's six years already, but it's a pain that doesn't go away."

Torres stood again in May on Fleming Prairie Road, the now infamous road where police found the trailer. She stared at the crosses, the water bottles and placards left to remember those who died during the worst botched smuggling attempt in U.S. history.

"He was a very good boy," she said. "He was a brave boy. I always remember him."

Two years ago, the boy's grandmother, Maria Angela Torres, visited the makeshift memorial for the first time. She wore a green dress, sandals and gold-colored jewelry. She tried to console her daughter.

While Torres copes better today than she did in the beginning, Olvera said the mother still cries.

"It's a little bit different. She has three grandchildren. Now, she focuses on them," Olvera said. "They take her away from the pain. Still, she doesn't understand why."

Anna Torres, the oldest, has two children. She gave birth to a son in Houston just weeks ago. The family's youngest son, a 21-year-old, immigrated illegally after his brother died.

"We will never forget Mauricio," Anna Torres said. She bowed her head and cried. "He was the best of brothers."

Olvera works to ensure this and other tragedies are not forgotten. Every year since May 2003, she and others organize a service, which is led by a priest and held at the Victoria memorial site.

"We will do it every year as long as I live, yes, God help me. I'm very tired that this happened," Olvera said. "I don't want anyone to forget the tragedy."

Jose Mauricio Torres died from the unbearable heat, which reached 170 degrees inside the airtight trailer. He died gasping for air, clawing in agony. This realization must remain an unrelenting nightmare for his Houston mother.

She stood where first responders found her son dead. She motioned to his portrait, which was hand-drawn and leaning against keepsakes planted in the ditch. Her face grimaced.

"As long as I'm alive, I'll be coming here," she said.

Story told from interviews with Dora Torres in 2007 and 2009, and from visits with the mother's friends.

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