“Sometimes we do for our children things that the world perceives as madness.”
Let me tell you about my own childhood. I grew up on the outskirts of Soyapango, El Salvador, in a house made of cardboard, mud and corrugated tin perched on a ridge outside the capital. As a child of 5 or 6, I loved to go down and play in the empty fields of weeds and wildflowers. In the last days of October I was fascinated to see the white butterflies as they migrated to these vacant lots. The days were breezy and sweet, full of beautiful clouds at sunset—beautiful days when you are a child and nothing worries you at all.
My parents were Pipil and Nahua-Creole. Although we were poor, my heart felt happy. They worked hard to provide something to eat for their ten children. I was the last. Even with just a little food, you feel secure because you’re with your family. Days of glory, yes. These were the last days I saw all of my family together.
Suddenly everything changed. I was perhaps eleven years old when the savage civil war came upon us. It would rage on from 1979 to 1992.
“By the 1980s the kidnappings began, the killings began. Those clouds of butterflies, wisely, never returned. Perhaps they began to feel; deep inside, that they too might be exterminated in this place.”
Everything changed. Just as the butterflies flew away, so neighbors began to immigrate to safer places. Those who could, began to send their children away with anybody who would take them—even people they barely knew—to Guatemala, Costa Rica, Mexico and many to the United States. My family was too poor to escape. Through hard work one of my older sisters succeeded in pulling together the money and was the first to leave. I saw the anguish of my mother as her daughter was leaving.
During seventh grade many of my classmates between 12 and 14 years old began to leave on their own. Among them were Luis, el Chino, and Manfredo. They said goodbye to us, and set out alone. The government of Mexico caught them and sent them back. The three boys lived for only one year before the death squads on both sides—left and right—made false accusations against them. They were murdered. I wonder if the Mexican border guards realized that they had given a death order when they deported my friends, boys who never made it to their 17th birthday.
The war became more brutal. Our family splintered. Some of my brothers and sisters tried to make their own way out of Soyapango. Some survived, some did not. Middle class people were given exit visas—to Australia or Canada. Opportunity was always reserved for those who had more resources. There is so much corruption in the world that children without resources end up with no options at all. And me, I was the daughter of the tortilla maker and the drunk.
In 1989, when our neighborhood was shelled for 10 days by the Salvadoran Army, my mother tried to protect me with her body. At the same time, I tried to shield my daughter and my nieces.
“If you love your children, nothing else matters. You will do anything so that your children live.”
We survived only by the grace of God. I believe it’s because we have a purpose—or at least we have a voice to tell people what the reality is.
The reality in Central America today is this: It can be painful to hear your children tell you good-bye in the morning. You don’t know if a coldblooded thief taking your son’s telephone will take his life, or if someone taking a purse will take the life of your daughter. In your home you will open a note that tells you, if you and your family want to continue living, you must pay somebody all the money that you have earned for the entire month. The lady who sold bread on my street corner couldn’t pay. They killed her son in front of her. You must pay the gangs everything you earn, in order to survive. Meanwhile, the leaders sleep late and at night, like dogs, they go out looking to see who they can devour. The governments know this. They permit it.
Put yourself in the shoes of those parents who, believing in lies, sell all their possessions so that their children can escape. For the great love that they feel, they abandon their children to their fate.
What are the lies? For years we have been told the American dream: that by hard work anyone can get ahead. We hear from the coyotes that once our children get to the U.S. they will be safe, that they will get documents, if they can only manage to turn themselves in to Immigration. But, to get your child that far it costs you from $10,000 to $12,000—an enormous sum in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, where you might earn $5 a day.
“Please hear me: You must not close your heart.”
Now that parents have become capable of selling their souls to the devil to remove their children from violence, you must not close your eyes. You must not think of us—human beings fleeing violence—as a nuisance. We must all see a Supreme Being in the person who stands before us.
One day the butterflies didn’t want to return to Soyapango; they changed their route. Preferring a better way of life, they immigrated to another place. As human beings we need to learn from them: we need to open the skies so our children can fly to liberty.
Storyteller Milagros Ramirez is an undocumented caregiver in San Francisco. She is writing a memoir, The Nanny’s Tale: Growing Up in the Violence of El Salvador, and is actively seeking a publisher for her manuscript.
Rita E. Moran is the editor and translator of Milagro’s memoir. She is an ESL Instructor at City College of San Francisco, and curator of Maya Woman: The Helen Moran Collection (MayaWomenInArt.org).