On April 5, 1980, at the age of Thirteen, I crossed the Tijuana-San Yisidro border into the United States, illegally, with my Mother. Three days prior, Mother informed me that we would be boarding a plane to join her family in Los Angeles, California. My response was to sneak into a bus and go to my Godmother’s house because I didn’t want to leave. After five years in hell, I was terrified of what another relocation would bring. My Godmother allowed me to stay for the night and then sent me back to Mother to prepare for the trip. Instead of taking the bus home, I got on the bus to go to La Libertad hoping that my Grandfather would let me live with him. While in route, as we rode by San Salvador’s Mercado Central, the bus was blocked by a car that had been set on fire. We soon realized that we were caught between Guerilla rebels trying to take over the Mercado on one side and military forces on the other. We were caught in the middle of gun fire. The repeating “pop…pop…pop” sound and smelled the sulfur of gun powder drowned everything around me. Sometimes, we heard the soft “thump” of a bullet finding its way into someone in the bus. As I rocked myself for comfort and closed my eyes to try and avoid seeing the massacre taking place around me, I felt sticky warm splash on my right side and a bullet graze my chin. The person next to me had been shot on the head spraying his brain matter and blood on my face, chest, and shoulder. The sulfur smell now smelled of iron, shit and piss from those of us who lost control of our bodily functions. Then, it all stopped. That is all my memory will let me remember. I don’t know how I got home, or even getting off the bus.
The next two days are a fog. We left El Salvador with all our lives packed into two suit cases and landed in Tijuana, Mexico where we waited for my family to meet us to make the journey across the border. The plan we concocted for Mexican authorities was that Mother and I were there to meet her family to say goodbye because we were going to reunite with my Father and brothers in Spain, as evidenced by the plane tickets we had purchased from Mexico to Madrid. While waiting for my family to arrive, we were persistently accosted by Mexican officials who weren’t buying our story. Mother kept leaving to put money under a sink in one of the bathrooms for one of the officials to not arrest us. After the third trip, the other official came to us and told Mother to not leave me alone next time because his partner “had his eye on me.” Luckily, my Grandmother, uncle Mario, Great-aunt, my mother’s sister, her husband, my cousin Rosanna and her friend arrived shortly after. Apparently, they had decided to go shopping because they thought the plane had been delayed. I remember how excited I was to finally meet my family, especially my Grandmother with whom I had corresponded since learning how to write when I was four years old. I couldn't believe that I was finally meeting my Abuela and eagerly ran to her and exclaiming my joy at meeting her. She responded to my happiness by pushing me away and saying, “Ugh. Que asco. Here I have been telling my friends that my Spaniard granddaughter was coming and you sound like all the other Salvadoran Indians.” I dropped my extended arms and retreated back, deep into that foggy place that has always kept me safe.
Once we left the airport we were going to cross the border under assumed names. I was to be my cousin Sandra who was born the same year as I, and Mother was Ramonita Guzman, a Puerto Rican citizen. We piled up in the back of the pick-up truck with my cousin and her friend. We were held up because her friend was a legal resident and her “Green Card” was from when she was a child and they had to confirm her identity. Since we were held up, the border patrol officer decided to question us. He repeatedly asked Mother, who had made up a whole life for her Puerto Rican identity, if they ate tortillas in Puerto Rico. This Mother had not prepared for. She continually responded that if you’re in Puerto Rico and want to eat tortillas you eat tortillas. The fed-up officer gave up her and began to talk to me. He asked me questions in English. I had no idea what he was saying but could hear my nervous aunt (who was supposed to be my mom) say, “yup… yup… and shie…t.” Well, not understanding, I thought she was giving me hints. So, I repeated, “yup… yup… shieet.” Apparently, this was wrong. He turned to my cousin/sister and asked for clarification as to why she spoke perfect English and I, her sister, only knows how to say “shit.” My amazingly quick thinking “sister” responded, “That’s because she grew up by my Grandmother and she doesn’t speak English and won’t let her speak it either. She’s in the car ahead of us.” Rosanna’s friend made it back from the back office and the exasperated officer waved us on. Then, I rode to Los Angeles hiding under the blankets in the back of the pickup truck. The first thing I saw when I pulled my head from under the pile of blankets was a shiny black Ford Ranger with wide hips and thought, “One day, I will have a truck just like that!”
Four years later, I graduated from Manual Arts High School with Silver-Seal Honors. The night before graduation, I cried myself to sleep because even though I had a near 4.0 GPA I could not attend any of the Universities I had been accepted to. I was undocumented, and as such, would have to pay non-resident fees with no opportunity for assistance. I was devastated. Luckily, I was able to attend a business school using another cousin’s social security number and get a job after as Assistant to the Dean of Education. In 1985, ICE (formerly known as INS) finally approved the petition for family reunification application my Grandmother had presented ten years prior. I began my long journey towards achieving my higher education dream.
I came to this country because I had no choice. El Salvador, like we were in that bus, was caught up in the middle of the Russia-US cold war. My people wanted freedom from an oppressive regime. They wanted to be able to feed, house, and support their families. They wanted their children to be able to dream and fulfill their destinies. Instead, they endured a bloody torturous civil unrest and eventually a ten-year long civil war. I was lucky and was able to get out before enduring what many of my fellow Salvadorans had to live through. My experiences, as horrific as they were, don't come close to what they survived. I can’t help but be sickened by what is happening in the United States today. I can’t help but see the parallels. We have elected to the highest office an individual whose campaign was aided by Russia intelligence. Think on that. We have just become the recipients of the same interventions the US has engaged in all over the world. The scariest thing about all this is that no one is speaking on this. We are being distracted by divisiveness and hatred. Welcome to El Salvador, circa 1976.