SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) — At last, a Wisconsin mother and her long-lost son met Saturday for the first time since her estranged husband spirited him away to Mexico more than 30 years ago.
It was an emotional reunion in the San Diego airport, heightened by the fact that the mother speaks only English and her 37-year-old son only Spanish.
David Amaya Barrick, whose father took him across the border at about age 2 from Chicago, was biting his nails just before his mother, Kathy Amaya, now 60, appeared before him in the airport.
They embraced, hugged and kissed -- the first time they've laid eyes on each other in about 35 years.
The son spoke in Spanish: "I love you and I missed you a lot. I welcome you into my life."
The mother declared to her son: "I love you and I'm very happy to see you and I'm not going to let you go."
Later, the son told reporters that he was at a loss of words.
The mother remarked: "He's all grown up."
The mother and son will spend a few days in San Diego getting to know each other again. They will do so during long strolls along the beach, they said.
Then they will travel Tuesday to her home in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, where they will enjoy Thanksgiving together. Kathy Amaya, an assistant housekeeper at a hotel, has four adult children who are half-siblings to David Amaya. Two of those adult children live with Kathy Amaya.
Saturday's journey to see her son also marked another milestone in Kathy Amaya's life: It was the first time she ever flew in a plane.
The separation between mother and son spanned 1,800 miles and lasted more than 30 years. The mother counts the absence as 35 years, the son as 34 years -- an exact figure to be certainly figured out while they get reacquainted.
The family saga then took a dramatic turn by how David Amaya was discovered: He was arrested illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border at Imperial Beach, California, on October 30. The U.S. Border Patrol thought he and a Mexican national were smugglers because they were in the company of six Romanian nationals.
They were all arrested after crossing a flood control tunnel frequented by intravenous drug users and polluted by human waste. Bandits had earlier robbed David Amaya of his money and cell phone, leaving him only the clothes he was wearing.
David Amaya didn't even have any identification cards on him. At first, he said he was a Mexican national, and then, as if he summoned a distant memory, he told Border Patrol agents that he was a U.S. citizen born in Chicago.
Border Patrol agents checked out his story and indeed found his birth certificate -- as well as his mother, in Wisconsin.
Complicating the drama are the conflicting parental accounts about the son's relocation to San Luis Potosi, Mexico, where he was raised by paternal grandparents.
Kathy Amaya said her estranged husband took the boy to Mexico without her permission and wouldn't return him. She mailed letters to the grandparents in San Luis Potosi, but those notes were never answered, she said.
More recently, she searched for her son under the name "David Amaya" for years on social media, but she never knew that he was using her maiden name -- Barrick -- as part of his full name, a common practice in Latin America.
Her estranged husband, who hasn't made himself available for comment, told their son that his mother abandoned him at an orphanage because she didn't love him, David Amaya said. But after the father put the boy in the grandparents' care, "he almost never spent time with me," David Amaya said.
At one point, the mother nearly lost all hope of ever seeing her son again, unable to make contact with him, she said.
When the couple divorced in 1986, they didn't settle on child custody, so police were unable to help her, she said.
David Amaya will spend the holidays with his mother in Wisconsin for a month, and he hopes to speak with his father about what really happened to him when he was 2 or 3 years old.
Then David Amaya will return to San Diego to build a new life. He was a drummer in a band in Mexico and now likes San Diego's proximity to Mexico and its cultural atmosphere. Moreover, he's taken a liking to a local church pastor, Freddy Rivas, who has helped Amaya with food and shelter since the Border Patrol released him this month. Amaya was recently baptized at the church.
While in Mexico, he married and divorced, and his ex-wife and their two children live in Mexico City.
As he makes a new home in San Diego, he says he will recount his life by writing a book.
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