A mother refused to let her 13-year-old daughter walk alone to the convenience store just two minutes away. A father barricaded his front porch with chairs to stop his daughter from wandering down to play on the sidewalk. Another mother snapped at her 2-year-old son every time he waddled over to their yard's gate.
Parents in the rural community of Bridgeton in southern New Jersey have been haunted by the same question for the last two weeks: What happened to little Dulce Maria Alavez?
The disappearance of Dulce, 5 — and the possibility she was abducted in the daytime from a local park — has gripped the region, shattering the sense of security intrinsic to any small town.
But in Bridgeton, a tight-knit enclave of mostly Latino immigrants, the case has thrust residents into the heated, national discourse over immigration and xenophobia from which they had been mostly insulated.
The investigation, resulting in increased attention on Bridgeton, has also heightened fears among residents in the country illegally of law enforcement and deportation.
"I haven't seen racism here before — in our little town there's nothing like that," said Licho Ruiz, 37, a resident and mother of two young children, adding, "It is really unbelievable. People are really afraid now."
Dulce went missing on the afternoon of Sept. 16 after her mother, Noema Alavez Perez, took her, her 3-year-old brother and her 8-year-old cousin to get ice cream at a neighborhood store.
When they arrived at Bridgeton City Park around 4 p.m., Dulce and her brother ran to the playground while Alavez Perez sat in the car with the 8-year-old, roughly 30 yards away, according to police reports.
Minutes later, she found Dulce's brother on the playground crying. When she asked where Dulce was, he pointed to a cluster of buildings near the park.
Alavez Perez panicked, according to family members. Unable to find Dulce, she called police and her family, frantically telling them to come to the park.
"She called me sobbing; I could hardly understand her, but she said Dulce is missing; the police are looking for her; come to the park right now," Norma Perez, Alavez Perez's mother who helped raise Dulce, remembered, through tears.
"I felt like my heart stopped," Perez, 40, said.
An Amber Alert later identified a thin-framed, light-skinned man wearing orange sneakers, red pants and a black shirt as a person of interest in Dulce's disappearance. Police suspect that, while playing on a swing set with her brother, Dulce was somehow lured into a red van that had sliding passenger doors and tinted windows.
Other than that, little public information exists about what might have happened. The investigation has stretched into its third week.
"She would always be with me and my mom; she would never get away from us," Alavez Perez, 19, told local reporters, adding, "She wouldn't go with a stranger she doesn't know."
News of the suspected abduction soon spread across town. Residents rallied to try and find the young girl.
Local businesses donated money toward a reward, which grew to $35,000, for information about her suspected abduction. A local restaurant owner, who donated to the fund, flew his drone over the 1,100-acre park hoping to find clues. A candlelight vigil was held at the park.
Dulce is now on the FBI's list of high-profile kidnapped or missing persons.
"It's very tragic to see a mother lose her child," said Lucia Dominguez, 52, a Bridgeton resident. "I myself have a daughter, and I can't imagine the pain she feels. We just want the girl to be found."
Two weeks after Dulce's disappearance, a sense of disbelief still loomed over this insulated community.
Like Dulce's grandparents, most of the town's older residents emigrated from Mexico around 20 years ago. Many made their way directly to Bridgeton, where they had been told ample work was available in the surrounding vegetable farms and food processing factories.
The town of about 24,000 quickly became an immigrant enclave: Once abandoned buildings were adorned with bright green-and-red Spanish-language signs for laundromats and bakeries. Convenience stores stocked chile pods and arnica leaves. A pupusa joint sprang up on the same block as the mayor's office.
The immigrants' American-born children grew up in the same communal atmosphere their parents knew back home, playing freely in the streets after school, while adults chatted on the porches of two-family homes.
But some immigrants in Bridgeton have remained in the United States illegally, causing concern among some state officials, including the New Jersey attorney general, Gurbir Grewal, that residents have been reluctant to come forward with tips to police about Dulce for fear that it could put them on Immigration and Customs Enforcement's radar.
Grewal's concern was amplified after ICE arrested Dulce's mother's boyfriend, Edgar Martinez-Santiago, a Mexican citizen, after the girl's disappearance. An ICE spokesman said Martinez-Santiago, 27, was released Sept. 19 and that he was part of an ongoing investigation.
"ICE does not target witnesses. ICE encourages undocumented immigrants to cooperate with local, state and federal authorities without fear of reprisal," the spokesman said.
Residents said the community has largely evaded the increased immigration enforcement efforts of recent years, though they fear Dulce's disappearance could change that.
"A few people were picked up here and there, but we haven't lost so many people," said Alberto Peresia, 41. "But with the kidnapping, now we are worried in two ways: one is the safety of our kids, the other is immigration enforcement."
Many who live on the same block as the Alavez Perez family described Dulce as a playful child with a near-constant smile. She would often play in the family's yard with her brother and nag her older cousins to show her YouTube videos of Peppa Pig, her cousin Jose Alavez Perez, 16, said.
"She is just such a happy kid," he said.
These days, Dulce's mother spends her time either at home or sitting on the blue cotton chairs of their local Pentecostal church, praying for her daughter to return, Perez says.
Adding to her distress, Noema Alavez Perez, who is currently five months pregnant, has been intensely scrutinized and targeted in xenophobic remarks. Online critics have attacked her fitness as a parent, and one stranger chided her for taking a break to eat a slice of pizza while community members searched for Dulce in the park, Alavez Perez told local papers.
In the most public incident, a South Jersey schoolteacher appeared to place some blame for the girl's disappearance on the mother's Mexican heritage.
Commenting on a Facebook post questioning why Alavez Perez had remained in her car while her children played in the park, the teacher, Jennifer Hewitt Bishop, wrote: "They're Mexican, it's their culture." She added: "They don't supervise their children like we do."
Bishop is currently facing disciplinary action at her school. She could not be reached for comment.
For most residents, Bridgeton has often felt like a safe haven from the undercurrent of anti-immigration sentiment they knew simmered in pockets of neighboring, predominantly white communities. But Dulce's disappearance has forced them to confront the heated discourse they had previously only heard about on television.
"The only tension we've had here is between people with papers and people without papers," said Maria, 41, who preferred to only be identified by her first name because of her immigration status. "I've never encountered racism from other people, especially singling out Mexicans, here. That is very bad for all of us. And it's coming from a teacher. What will the kids she teaches grow up thinking?"
On Friday, children were running around the playground where Dulce went missing. Just a few signs indicated that this grassy area was the scene of a parent's worst nightmare: Yellow police tape remained wrapped around a metal bench and the ropes of a children's jungle gym. A tribute to Dulce hung on the fence of a nearby baseball field.
Earlier in the day, several teenagers had passed the tribute on the way home from the nearby Bridgeton High School, the fall leaves crunching beneath their shoes.
Some stopped to look at an array of traditional prayer candles, or "veladoras," from a recent vigil. Above them hung a bright pink poster board, with a phrase scribbled in large black letters: "Bring Dulce Alavez Home."
Written by: Christina Goldbaum
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES