El Salvador is a beautiful, green place where volcanic minerals fertilize the soil. The earth works with the people to create a bountiful variety of agricultural products. It has always been this way. They say that when the Spaniards arrived in Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, that they were mesmerized with its vast geographical reach and its riches. And they say that when they reached Cuzcatlan, now El Salvador, that they were amazed with its agricultural surplus. The people were actually able to produce more fruits and vegetables than their families required for sustenance.
And so it was in 1980 that the rich continued to attack the poor for what little land they still had in their possession. And the poor continued to struggle for what little rights and land they had maintained for nearly five hundred years. This culminated in a full out bloody civil war. I was born in 1978, and in 1986 the civil war was raging in the department of Usulutan where I resided.
My family was neither rich nor poor. We were neither supporters of the government or the guerillas. We had a modest restaurant. In the evening drunk soldiers would come in, talk loudly, and get their fill of pupusas. Late into the night stray bullets would fly into the family home. We had to sleep under the beds. And in the morning when I walked to school I would see bloodied bodies in the street, casualties of the evening’s activities. One time my cousin Juan found a pair of combat boots, put them on, and goose-stepped down the street.
One night in the month of December 1986 my mother seemingly simply decided that we would leave for the United States the next day. It was the perfect time to travel through Central America and Mexico. Christmas festivities were in full swing and instances of drunk driving were more frequent then at any other time of year. Law enforcement was distracted trying to deal with all of the drunk drivers. First, we went to Juan’s parents and had them sign a notarized statement allowing Juan to leave the country with us. Then, we gathered what little belongings and money we could carry and took a bus for Guatemala. It was me, my brother Wilber, my cousin Juan, our paid guide, and my parents.
From Guatemala we had to swim the Suchiate River into Chiapas, Mexico. Years later as a child in the United States somebody called me a wetback. I adamantly responded, “I am not a wetback. I did not swim the river. My father did.” I was fortunate. My father swam the river while my mother, Wilber, Juan and I floated on an inner tube. I do not remember Chiapas. It’s unfortunate because today people talk about the beauty of Chiapas and the strength of the indigenous communities.
What I do know is that from Chiapas we took a plane to Mexico City. I was scared because I had never taken a flight before. My mother had jokingly told me that we were traveling to the United States on the Dukes of Hazard helicopter. The flight attendants were so pretty with their immaculately applied makeup and nail polish, and their fancy jewelry. The plan was that our paid guide would take us all the way to Los Angeles, where family would drive us up to San Francisco.
In Mexico City everything went wrong. First off, I think we stood out like sore thumbs. We spoke the same language, and we were just as brown as the Mexicans. But we were shorter and stouter than the Mexicans, and our accents were different. We were just different. We got on the metro, or the subway, and Wilber got lost. Now when I ride the metro and see the masses of thousands of people I am amazed we ever found him.
My Tio Adrian was supposed to connect us with our guide, but my tio never arrived. He was arrested. And the police arrived to arrest my parents, and take us kids
into custody. My father paid a bribe and we were supposed to be on our way to meet our guide. But in his place came another man. He took us to a house with no furniture. There were other Central Americans there. We were not allowed to go. My grandmother paid a ransom and again we were on our way.
Years later I understand clearly what occurred in Mexico City. Our paid guide, who had taken us from El Salvador had been working with the police. I am sure the police got paid by our guide, then the police were paid again by my father. And finally the second paid guide had basically purchased us from our first guide. It was a network of corruption and in our ignorance and desperation we got caught up. My parents were very trusting people of faith. Later it came out that our Salvadoran guide had a reputation for deserting people. Eventually he was killed in the civil war violence. Somebody threw a bomb at his house, and he was killed instantly. I suspect it was revenge. It is common for paid guides to sell their customers to one another.
From Mexico City we rode in a big rig up to Tijuana. There were check points along the road. My mother pretended to be the wife of the truck driver. Juan and I pretended to be the children of the truck driver. Wilber and my father rode inside a bench behind the truck driver. We got to Tijuana without a problem.
From Tijuana to Los Angeles we rode in a different big rig. Approximately fifty migrants packed into the bed of the big rig. A solid wall of lettuce hid us from anyone who would open the hatch. It was hot and humid in the truck. People were sweating, crying, vomiting and praying. There wasn’t enough oxygen for all of us. Once in a while a panel was opened up for us to get fresh air. My family was fortunate enough to be huddled near that opening. When we arrived in Los Angeles the truck driver told us to run and scatter as fast we could. Not all of us got out of that trailer. Some people had perished for lack of oxygen. I cannot accept nor will I ever be able to accept that those migrants were criminals. They were human, just like my family and I. I don’t know how we connected with my tios and grandmother, but some how we made it up to San Francisco.
I grew up in San Francisco’s mission district. I struggled in school. In El Salvador I had skipped kindergarten. But in second grade in San Francisco I was held back because I was younger than the other children and had poor English. From that point on school was a serious problem for me. I was put in special education, bilingual education, and English as a Second Language. The schools didn’t know what to make of me and I didn’t know what to make of school.
My mother did the best job she could. She worked in restaurants as a cook, and sold food out of our home. She sang alabanzas, or songs of worship, and cleaned and cooked all day long. She had a baby girl in the midst of her hard work, and didn’t miss a beat. At 5am in the morning she had us in line to register for immigration, at 10am we were in line for WIC, and at 1pm we were in line for a box of food. At one time Immigration classified us as subject to deportation, and later we were protected with asylum.
My mother was so busy she had no idea what me and my brother were doing or not doing. I didn’t do my homework when I didn’t want to. I barely got through each grade level. My brother got mixed up with gangs. In 1994 he got the strength to leave his gang, and not look back. One night he received a phone call that a friend had a flat tire and needed him to meet him outside of Potrero del Sol Park. The phone call was a set up. He was killed upon arrival at Potrero del Sol Park. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I spent a lot of time in my Tio Adrian’s auto body shop. There I began installing alarms and car radios.
Several months after my brother was killed I met Maria. Her uncle was killed in El Salvador on December 24, 1989 as a result of gang violence. We had a lot in common. Her older sisters attended UC Berkeley. She was determined to attend a university too. We visited the UC Berkeley campus, and she talked about her aspirations. In 1997, I barely graduated high school, but Maria made it clear to me that I would graduate from college. She made it clear that it was absolutely possible.
Finally in 1998 my family and I were granted legal permanent residency. When the judge made his decision my mother suddenly clapped her hands together, and then collapsed. She had fainted with gozo, or joy. At that point I had matured a lot. I took community college seriously. I was very far behind in math, science, and English. I had a lot of ground to make up. I worked full time, and sometimes I worked two jobs. In 2003 I became a U.S. citizen. And in December 2008 I graduated with a BS in Electrical Engineering degree from the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Today I live in Tucson, Arizona. Immigration is a daily reality here, both documented and undocumented. Most migrants are hard working people like my family. I know there are those who have committed crimes, and there should be consequences for that. But all migrants are human, and all should be treated with dignity.