San Salvador, El Salvador, February 2005
Lying in the hammock in a shady corner of Dalila’s patio, I can look up through colorful towels hanging on the line and a flowering poinsettia tree to the hulking gray-green presence of the volcano, seemingly serene in the rectangle of azure above. Three days ago I arrived from Costa Rica, after spending several weeks in an intensive course trying to hasten my acquisition of spoken Spanish. Dalila’s niece, Eva, dropped me off at the airport in Alajuela, just outside San José, but I wasn’t sure exactly who would meet me here in San Salvador.
I should have anticipated the warm welcome. As I emerged from customs, a contingent of relatives from each side of the family converged, arms outstretched for abrazos (hugs). We created a caravan on the way to Dalila’s house, where even more relatives gathered and a delicious meal was quickly prepared. The highway from the airport was as I remembered it, only it is the height of the dry season now, so the rose-colored blossoms of the Maquilishuat and Madrecacao trees, as well as the more distinctive brilliant yellow of the San Andrés, softened the visual effect of the hovels with thatched or corrugated tin roofs all along the way into the capital. Some men stood right by the edge of the highway, cutting coconuts with their machetes, hawking the pulp and milk to passersby. Women leaned over hot braziers filling freshly made tortillas with fried meat, beans, or cheese to create the traditional Salvadoran pupusas.
When I was here with Tom, Nelson, Derek, and Ernesto six years ago, I felt more like a tourist than family. Dalila, her sister Tita, and their five children were living in Soyapango then, a working-class district on the eastern outskirts of the city. Another sister, Inés, whom they hadn’t seen in eighteen years, had come with her disabled daughter all the way from Mexico by bus in order to meet us. Dalila and Tita’s tiny house was bursting at the seams. Tom and I stayed in a hotel downtown, and the boys stayed with their Uncle Reinaldo in an upper-middle-class neighborhood at the other end of the city.
I miss my husband and sons on this trip, but traveling alone has some advantages. This time I am sharing a room with Dalila, and I have a lot more time to converse with her. She has moved recently with her two grown sons to a neighborhood nearer to downtown. Next week I’ll go to stay with Reinaldo and his family before I return to Costa Rica briefly, then fly home.
My Salvadoran hosts represent each side of the family—maternal and paternal. Dalila and Reinaldo each play a minor role in this story, and they remember what things were like here in the late 1970s and early 80s. It’s no secret that I am writing a book to celebrate the miracle of Nelson in our lives, and everyone has been so helpful. We know a lot more about his parents now, but we still have questions. Will Dalila and her sisters—will Reinaldo and his brothers—help me sort out the facts about Mila and Luis? Do I have the right to call forth their most painful memories? I wonder, too, whether I will have an opportunity to look for that photograph of Ana Milagro (Mila) that supposedly appeared in a local newspaper in the summer of 1981, just after her third child was born.
Earlier this morning Dalila showed me her new neighborhood. She wanted to take me up the hill toward the volcano before it got too hot. When we were nearly at the top of the steep incline, we stopped to catch our breath. “This is the place where I lived with my sister Mila for a while in the late 1970s when Eva was just a baby,’ she began without preamble, pointing to the pretty red and yellow, single-story stucco house in front of us. “No one knew where Luis was at the time, and Mila didn’t explain. I didn’t ask. In those days, you didn’t. When she showed up again with a baby, I took her in without asking any questions.”
While I was admiring the profusion of colorful plants in the tiny front yard and taking pictures of the house and garden, Dalila pointed out Mila’s room, to the left of the front door. I plan to show these photos to Eva. She’s never been back to El Salvador and has told me forthrightly she doesn’t want to come here. She prefers to have her aunts and cousins visit her in Costa Rica. “Anyway,” she emphasized just last week while I was staying with her, “I grew up here so I’m really a tica [Costa Rican woman] now.” One of my assignments is to obtain a copy of Eva’s birth certificate so that she can finalize her naturalization and apply for a passport.
Resting in the hammock on Dalila’s patio after our walk, my mind races down too many paths at once, as I ponder all the curious circumstances—perhaps I should call them miraculous—that have combined to bring me here. I begin to read the morning edition of La Prensa Gráfica; one headline immediately catches my eye, for it reminds me that yesterday—February 1, 2005—marked the seventy-third anniversary of the death of Farabundo Martí, a charismatic leader of International Red Aid, an organization closely allied in the 1930s with the fledgling Salvadoran Communist Party. Martí was imprisoned, summarily tried, and executed in 1932 when an insurrection in the western part of the country broke out against the regime of General Hernández Martínez, which had overthrown the first democratically elected president in a coup.
Government troops were ordered not only to eliminate the so-called troublemakers—groups of students, artisans, and labor-union leaders that had been involved in the unsuccessful uprising along with farmworkers—but also to indiscriminately kill campesinos (peasants). The blood of campesinos literally ran in the streets of Nahuizalco, Tacubo, and other towns and villages in this largely coffee-growing region. It has been estimated that somewhere between ten thousand and thirty thousand lost their lives in just a few weeks, in what is simply referred to as the Matanza (slaughter). Today it would probably be called an ethnic cleansing, for many of the peasants were indigenous. As Tommie Sue Montgomery puts it, “Anyone in Indian dress or anyone running from the security forces was fair game.”
Without exception, historians like Montgomery trace the Salvadoran conflict of the 1980s back at least as far as this coup and the uprising and reprisals that followed. In the late 1970s a new generation of revolutionaries drew inspiration from the telling of the story that had coalesced around the figure of Farabundo Martí, and they incorporated his name into the moniker of their group, the FMLN (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional)—now a legitimate political party. The newspaper I am holding carries a picture of FMLNistas, or farabundistas, as they are also called, laying a wreath on Martí’s grave in the general cemetery of San Salvador to commemorate his sacrifice and to remember the mass murder.
Perhaps I should start my book with this unparalleled example of brutal repression in Central America, in a country ruled by an authoritarian regime supported by the oligarchy and the military. Or I could begin with the story of those like Luis and Mila who came of age in the late 1970s and were profoundly moved by the persistent economic disparities and political repression in their country, at a time when Martí had long been a legend.
I decide that I will have to start instead with the elements of the story that are most familiar to me—the way we experienced it. As I re-read this newspaper article I am reminded, however, that ours is not just a personal story; it reaches into the whole fabric of El Salvador’s recent history, and I will have to include events that occurred long before 1983, when Nelson first entered our lives. I will need to find a way to place his little miracle firmly in the context of the prolonged tragedy that led to a twelve-year civil war (1980–1992), the death of at least seventy-five thousand Salvadorans, and the disappearance of countless others, the aftermath of which continues to the present day.
As I lie here trying to fix on a way to weave all the disparate threads together, I also find myself thinking of the varied, sometimes even contradictory voices of those who have lived some part of the story I want to tell. And I am touched by the loss of the voice that was silenced—the young mother who must have looked out the window of that little house into its luxuriant, sun-dappled garden. What was she thinking as she held Eva in her arms? Did she name the various flowers, using the sound of the words to soothe her baby? Or was she herself too distracted by the memory of their narrow escape, something she didn’t dare share with her sister?
I find myself addressing her with all kinds of questions. Was “Iris,’ the name you chose for your nom de guerre, your favorite flower? It’s mine. Even though I realize how difficult it will be to combine what we know with what I can only imagine, I take heart in this small connection I seem to have with the missing Mila.
Historians who have treated the Salvadoran conflict of the late 1970s and 80s in academic literature have suggested that one ought to try to grasp both the impersonal forces at work—the revolution itself—as well as the motivations of the individuals who carried it forward, sacrificing everything if necessary. I will have to do this. Inevitably, my take on the Salvadoran civil war is colored by my desire to make some sense of individuals I now care deeply about. What made them willing to risk so much? Can I grasp their convictions and their eventual doubts, their personal struggles and fears, their love for each other and their hope for a better future?
I will also have to interrogate myself as I try to convey the manner in which Tom and I came to our choices—less profound ones, no doubt, but just as crucial for the dénouement. While I have many documents to work with, I know they don’t always convey the whole truth; the facts will continue to be open to interpretation. The narrative I can construct is not made of whole cloth, and I recognize that memories are malleable, subject to omissions and colorations over time by retellings in a variety of settings.
The Chilean American novelist Isabel Allende has suggested that memory is a mental process somewhat akin to imagination. It “is conditioned by emotion; we remember better and more fully things that move us.” We thus tend to give our narratives more color, but we are thereby also liable to “create a private legend.”
Taking that risk, I believe these threads deserve to be joined in a variegated tapestry that will inevitably be as much familial legend as it is history. I have a strong sense that this multifaceted story that relies on the memories of others, as well as my own, can only be held together by my unfolding emotional truth. The book contains inconsistencies that remain unresolved and gaps that remain unfilled, as well as intentional generic dissonances. These features may jar some readers, but I need to let them be as they are, part and parcel of a whole journey of discovery and self-discovery.
Despite the contradictions and gaps, at its core the story I have to tell relies on a recognizable pattern, one that even resembles literary fiction. It is a tale of love and loss, yet one whose trajectory moves from disappearance to recovery, from anguish over death to solace in life. In a world where the conflicts of the day on every continent challenge the last bit of optimism we might muster, it seems worthwhile to recall a story that ultimately restores hope.