Earthquakes and Ancestors
My family used to tell the story of my birth, perhaps as kind of a joke. In 1963 my mother, Alma, asked her bruja mother-in-law to concoct for her a contraceptive charm. With nine surviving children, she hoped to stave off additional mouths to feed. Alma tucked the amulet into a little glass jar and buried it (among hundreds of similar hopes) in an empty lot somewhere amid the ridges and ravines above San Salvador.
On New Year’s Day of 1965, construction workers started digging in the lot. The jar was disturbed and I was conceived. A few months later, during the early morning of May 3, the land of El Salvador convulsed in an earthquake. The capital was almost completely destroyed. My family pointed out that I was born the third of October, five months later to the day.
El Salvador is called the Land of the Hammocks because it’s in constant motion. Whenever there are catastrophes, the earth continues moving for a while. There are a lot of doubts, a lot of sorrows, and above all the uncertainty as to what will happen on the morrow.
Perhaps this earthquake wasn’t on such a grand scale, but the fragile dwellings of the poor collapsed very easily. Back then, my family lived in the hill town of Soyapango above the capital, in a mesón—a typical one-room dwelling made of adobe, with a coating of cement stucco and a roof of clay tiles. In this room you have your dining room, your bedroom—and not just for one person or for a couple. In our case, there were already nine children, my pregnant mamá, and Diego, my father. During the earthquake the whole mesón collapsed, leaving my family homeless. By the mercy of God no one in our family was hurt, but a lot of people that we knew were killed.
Because we were now homeless, Mamá and Diego, together with my eldest brother, Bernardo, decided that we had to uproot the whole family and move back to the place where my mother was born. Aguacayo was a rural backwater that the earthquake had left intact. My grandfather, Joel, was a landowner, and he agreed to let them occupy a hut with a plot of land.
My father and the two oldest boys would stay in the capital. Bernardo was seventeen and Walter was fifteen, and they didn’t like country life. And so Mamá took only seven kids—the girls and two or three of the other boys. The government provided a truck and carted away the refugees and their few possessions, back to the department of San Vicente.
Perhaps Mamá wanted to see how her family, especially her father, would treat her now that her mother had died. But I think it was primarily the ambition of my father that made Mamá move with her children. Diego stupidly hoped old Joel would actually give them a house.
In any case, the moment she returned Alma became once again her father’s servant. And now she was not even the servant of her mother, but of a stepmother whom she needed to serve for love, because the stepmother provided a roof over the heads of her children. The change for all my siblings was very radical, too. Although in the city you live in a one-room shanty huddled lethargically together, it’s not the same as braving the isolation of the countryside. And to top off all these ills, Mamá didn’t know for sure whether she was pregnant—but there I was in her belly, beginning to make war on her as well.
I remember Mamá talking about beautiful, sunny afternoons in Aguacayo and the nearby town of San Sebastian. My mother and her sister Marta told us so much about the pretty place where they were born, that I grew up completely immersed in the story of the people who lived there. Although my father was indigenous Pipil, Mamá came from a different culture entirely.
Alma’s father, Joel, was the son of Antonio Barajas, who had been brought here from Spain as a child around the year 1865. Antonio was tall, white, with blue eyes. He was not wealthy, but tilled the fields himself; he was very hardworking. Joel’s mother, María, (my great-grandmother) spoke Nahuatl. She was the daughter of the Nahua cacique, and one in a long line of midwives and healers. She died young, probably in childbirth. From the union between María and Antonio, only one of the children was born black (by which I mean very dark-skinned). My grandfather, Joel, who was born in 1901, looked completely white although the mestizo culture was in his veins. Strangely, he was covered with hair, like a gorilla.
Antonio had a sister named María, as well. She married Señor Marcelino, also a Spaniard, and they lived nearby. Señor Marcelino was devoted to his books, and studied medicinal plants and herbs. He set bones for those who were injured, and my great-grand aunt María delivered the babies who were on the way. They would one day teach the arts of herbalism and midwifery to my mother.
Alma also remembered her father’s grandmother—yet another María. Old María was always on the lookout for something that she and her employees could do. Completely Nahua, she was short and dark, burned black by the sun. When Alma knew her she was shrunken with age, a bit heavy, with long hair that fell below her waist. Unfortunately, she suffered from goiter, with a big, swollen huehuecho like a turkey’s gizzard on her neck, for lack of iodine. This was a common ailment at that time. My great-great-grandmother María would lean back in a reclining chair every afternoon, her neck extended so she could breathe despite the goiter, and take the powerful sun with her whole fortune in bambas spread out beside her so the metal would not corrode. These coins were artisanal, their edges clipped by hand, and so they were not perfectly round. After her death the money disappeared, and the family was always looking for it.
Neither of my grandparents talked the way the neighbors did. Strangely, both of them knew what was necessary of schooling—they could read and write, and they had no accent when they spoke. This was unusual, especially because Joel came from relatively poor people. Perhaps because he was Spanish on only one side, Joel was of a social class a little lower than my grandmother, Sara Montoya, who was born in 1900. Both of her parents had come from Spain, and they were wealthy.
Sara’s family home was a large hacienda, a very beautiful place. It was built of adobe with a clay tile roof, like the Carmel Mission that I visited not long ago in California. Inside, the floors were made of red artisanal tile. It stood up on a hill, or rather on top of a strange structure that I never quite understood. It was like a little knoll made of clay, egg whites, and stones from the river. It was so well built that it survived the earthquakes at the end of the year 2001, and had withstood big earthquakes even before that. That’s how the Spaniards built all their houses back then. I don’t know if they constructed them in this way because they were afraid of floods, or for other reasons based on old myths or ancient stories.
As a small child many years later, I liked very much to sit up there, on top of this little stony hill, and watch time pass. We children would tell stories or cut corn kernels off the cob. The country people never were seated. They always had something to do, and when one visited from the city one had time to watch them work—as though they were all ants. For me this was very entertaining.
The adobe house was surrounded by little bushes called piñales. These plants give fruit that’s very good and rich in vitamins. People surround their houses with piñales for security, because they’re covered with thorns. In front of the house was a very large patio or threshing floor where they would dry out the harvests. Out there in this patio they would feed the chickens and turkeys as well as the dogs. And at certain times we’d sit there to watch how my cousins, the sons of Tía Marta, would break wild horses. Sometimes the horse would jump and make the cowboy fly through the air, landing in the middle of the thorny piñales. It looked very painful, but the cowboy would get up and continue to do his work. It was very amusing! The little cousins my age thought that soon it would be their turn to break horses.
My abuela Sara grew up completely unloved on this hacienda. I never knew her; when I was born she had already been dead for ten years. I have no idea how she was raised; she kept it all inside and not even Mamá knew the whole story. But Mamá spoke of her often, describing her as a tall woman with white skin and striking black eyes—ojos aceitunados. She never wore makeup. Her hair was long and wavy, always nicely dressed with a couple of drops of pomade made from crushed flower petals and rendered lard. She was known for her beauty and her fine figure, and had a powerful presence. She spoke very authoritatively, and stood up to the men. She was also known for the very elegant way she behaved, and the humane way she treated the poor. She liked very much to help people, and was dedicated to her family and to her community. However, Sara’s character was explosive, and her language was often foul.
Sara’s parents came directly from Spain. Her father was such a hardworking man that he could just snap his fingers and the people around him would do what he wanted. He married off his daughter at age fifteen to a little old Creole man, José, who was also rich.
José was gone a lot, traveling to Guatemala and Honduras in connection with his workshops, where they made sugar candy and wove blankets. Although she was very young, Sara was well prepared to carry out her role as the wife of any great gentleman. She managed the house, and became the administrator of perhaps a hundred peones who worked the land. She knew about harvesting and about the care of animals, and nobody cooked as well as she did.
After a number of years Sara met Joel when he came to work for José. Joel was the foreman on the hacienda; he wanted to earn money rather than work the land for his father, Antonio. Sara fell in love with this tall, fair-skinned young man with his hazel eyes, and left her husband for him when she was about twenty-four. Was it an act of rebellion, as well as love?
Sara had earned a lot of money on her own. She bought a house from Antonio one block away, and put it in his son Joel’s name. There was land for orchards, banana trees, yucca, tomatoes—everything for the kitchen. From Antonio she also bought fields for cultivation some five or six miles away, and put them all in Joel’s name. I don’t understand why she paid to buy Joel’s inheritance for him. Perhaps it was just a plan to separate her from her money. At any rate, now she did all the housework and cooking herself, and directed five or six peones who worked in the fields. Perhaps that’s why she used foul language, and treated people roughly. Joel never used bad language, but he lived a double life, seeing lots of other women and completely uninvolved in the life of the home.
In the end, the children of Sara and Joel—Alma, Carlos, and Marta—were all very light in color, but they weren’t able to get the blue eyes of their forebears. Only their little brother, José, who died at age two from St. Anthony’s fire, was white with blue eyes. José and Alma looked a lot like their father. Among the other relatives there wasn’t anybody in particular who was remembered for the color of their skin, other than some girls who were completely white.
Joel never worried about giving his children the advantages that Sara had been accustomed to. Maybe it wasn’t economically possible, or perhaps his manner of thinking was different. At any rate, Sara being the daughter of two Spaniards, she had certain standards. When she went off with Joel, she tried to adapt to the people around her—but although she tried, she was not the same as the others. She always put in a bit of what her Creole family had taught her.
Sara inherited from her mother a machine to sew clothing, and she would confect her own garments based on newspaper patterns. She did not dress in colorful clothes like the mestizas of the place. She wore rather somber colors, blouses and skirts that reached below the knee. My grandmother made the clothing of her children as well. She didn’t like them to dress like the neighboring children, many of whom wore the traditional clothing if they were indigenous. The girls of the place wore dresses in striking colors, but they didn’t use underwear. Sara was not that type of person. She dressed her children decently in darker colors, although the cloth might be cheap.
But she herself always went out very well dressed. She wore boots so that she could go out into the fields and the thorns would not wound her feet; but around the house she wore sandals made of pigskin, although they only held up for a week. These were the customs of people who had money.
In his youth Joel, like his father, Antonio, had been a Caballero de Cristo Rey—a member of the most powerful Catholic lay order in El Salvador. These men liked to ride around on magnificent horses. Unfortunately, the Caballeros couldn’t just live with a woman—they needed to be married in the church. Sara would laugh at the deputation of Caballeros who would periodically stop by the house, begging her to marry Joel so that he could rejoin the group. She would not make herself a laughingstock by actually marrying this man who slept with all the women in the vicinity.
In the end Sara hated both José and Joel, and never forgave them for their treatment of her. One time she spat on José in front of her children. And Sara beat her daughter Alma mercilessly.
Alma, my mamá, was nearly white. Her eyes were very light brown, like a drop of honey, and the look in her eyes was very sweet. She was a woman of medium height, with small features. Her face and her whole body were stained by the ravages of time and the sun. Everyone who knew her when she was young said that she had been very beautiful.
Alma always said that she was born toward the end of the year 1926. What difficult times, when machismo predominated in our country! Although her father, Joel, was mestizo, he had a mountain of old prejudices against Sara, the daughter of Spaniards. Joel couldn’t even spare a moment to go and register his daughter’s name at city hall in San Sebastian. For many years Alma thought she bore her paternal last name, Barajas, but found out later that it had fallen to a neighbor to register her birth at city hall. The man put Alma’s first name with the last name of her mother, Montoya, and nothing else—although everybody in the place knew who Alma’s father was.
I have never managed to understand Alma’s parents. They never wanted to spend any time with her, not even to play a little—which is a right that all children have during their childhood. Joel raised his daughter as a servant and field hand. Being female, she was denied an education as well as her father’s last name. She worked and worked at many different tasks, but did not have the right to go to a fiesta, much less to play: this was not for her. The “loving care” of her mother, Sara, was purely abuse. I never understood this kind of affection, but Alma loved her mother and loved her father. Perhaps she loved her father a little more because he was not so strict with her. But in the end it was clear that the sincerest affection she had was for her mother.
Every afternoon from the age of six, Alma had to carry a leather backpack full of melcochas—like a sweet snack bar—out to the workers in the fields. This is what the men were accustomed to in the afternoon; it was a little refreshment so that their mouths wouldn’t be dry. When they don’t eat this, because of working so hard, they chew more tobacco. This is why their teeth get yellow, but very strong.
At first she went along with a servant who carried water, but by the time she was eight or ten years old Alma became the almuerzera, the one who carried food and drink to her father and the workers he employed at sowing time or harvest time. Sara was up at 4:00 AM cooking the food. At 6:00 she and her kitchen helper lifted a huge basket onto Alma’s head. There was a clay pot that contained piping hot, freshly made bean soup; another pot full of rice; and lots of tortillas. There would be a container of salt, lots of plates made of clay—and always a lot of brown sugar candy or molasses.
My mother had to carry all this on her head from the age of ten. The little girl couldn’t put the basket up there herself: she couldn’t even lift it. Balancing the basket on her head, Alma walked five or six miles out to the fields to bring the men their breakfast, which they called almuerzo. It took two workers to remove the basket from her head. She returned to the house at about 11:00, and then made four trips to fetch water for drinking or cooking. Later she set out again on a second trip to bring the men their dinner, which they called comida. Her burden was so heavy that she used a double yagual made of towels to cushion the load. By the time she was fifteen she had no hair left on the top of her head.
For many reasons, the job of the almuerzera was dangerous. If the soup spilled onto her head she would suffer grave burns. She had to walk for hours with this heavy load on her head, opening many gates to get through the neighbors’ fields. She had to pass all alone through desolate places. Alma’s parents knew that they were exposing their daughter to the danger of rape, which was very common. All the people of the village agreed that this was child abuse. They tried to talk with Joel and Sara, but the pair were close-minded—said they needed someone to help them and the only one they had was the child, my mother. I don’t think they cared what might happen to her.
But Alma did her work with gusto. Sadly, she didn’t have the right to eat the food that she carried in the basket. If Alma wanted to bathe, she needed to do it in the river at 4:30 in the morning, and she couldn’t take a little time afterward to play.
But the height of evils was yet to come. When Alma was nine or ten years old, some new people came to live nearby. Coronada was a prostitute, a woman who loved to fight and create problems for everyone. She had a husband and some blonde, pretty children who weren’t his. In her house they ran a clandestine cantina where they furtively sold moonshine and chichi. There were fights and even murders. All kinds of vagabonds and working people who liked to drink would gather there at the end of the day, and they had big parties. Even the señores of Cristo Rey would come at night on their big horses, and they’d have relations with her. As soon as Coronada’s daughters developed, at thirteen or fourteen years of age, she would wait for the first two menstrual cycles and then sell them to rich men. This was the last straw for the whole neighborhood. Sara was still young then, and had to bear with these people living right near her house.
One afternoon Sara went down to the river with her two youngest children, to wash the hulls and sticky residue off the corn kernels she had cooked with lime and ash. Afterward, she would grind it for masa—what we call nixtamal. She carried the baby José in her shawl and had four-year-old Marta by the hand, and on her head she bore a big clay huacal containing the load of corn to wash.
She never imagined that she would run into that awful woman down at the river. But there was Coronada, bathing in the late afternoon because she worked at night. She loved to scream insults to anyone who came around. “You stupid fools, I’ve slept with all your husbands!” She especially hated Sara because my grandmother was fair and beautiful and well respected.
Camaron Chele! Chacalina! "Blonde Shrimp!" she called out, taunting Sara because her skin was white like a shrimp, that became red after cooking.
Sapío Chele! "Venomous Frog!" responded Sara. “Be quiet and respect my children.”
Then Coronada pulled out a navaja—a straight razor.
Sara seized the woman’s hand and the razor fell to the ground, but Coronada kept fighting and insulting her and wouldn’t shut up.
Sara was tall and strong, with a powerful instinct for self-preservation. But on the heels of this instinct came a terrible rage. She threw Coronada down on the slippery rocks by the river, and smashed her head again and again onto the rocks. Still Coronada wouldn’t stop the insults. Sara lifted a huge boulder and dropped it right onto the woman’s lap. It fractured her pelvis, and Sara thought she had finally killed her. Little Marta saw it all, but nobody else was around.
Sara stepped into the river and rinsed off the blood. She lifted the heavy huacal with the washed corn onto her head, took her children and climbed back up to the house. She ground the corn and made tortillas and fed everyone.
At that point Alma, the almuerzera, returned.
“I’ve killed Coronada,” said her mother. “The children are with Señor Antonio, and I am leaving.” Sara thought no one had seen. She had told Antonio where she was going, but no one else. Joel buried her bloody clothing.
That night, a broken silhouette appeared. Coronada had somehow crawled back from the river. She was a bloody mess when her daughters found her. They loaded her into a hammock and brought her to the hospital, which was far away. It would have been better for my grandmother if Coronada had died, but since she lived she told everybody what Sara had done.
For a while my abuela stayed in hiding with relatives in San Salvador. But back home Joel was not caring for his four children—he was out with other women every night. Old Antonio beat Joel for neglecting them. When little José became very ill with Saint Anthony’s fire, Sara returned from the city to care for him.
Neighbors told the police that Sara was back. Coronada had had the straight razor, so the claim of self-defense made sense. And the police knew Sara; she was so highly respected that they didn’t want to arrest her. But finally one day the police came to the house. It was about 5:00 PM. “We have come for you, Niña Sara,” they said respectfully.
Sara was making pupusas. “Come in,” she said. “Let’s eat first. Then let me pack.” She cooked the meal and fed the police and the children and her father-in-law, Antonio. The children started to cry and old Antonio chastised them: “Quiet! Don’t give satisfaction to the people who wish you ill!”
Soon after, Coronada saw a rich old man ogling her thirteen-year-old daughter and sold her to him for 500 colones. She also insisted that he buy the girl a house—the house right next door to Sara.
Then Coronada ran into someone who said he had seen what Sara had done—a man who was so poor he was putting out traps for cuzucos (armadillos) and iguanas to feed his family. She paid him the 500 colones to testify against Sara. The court didn’t accept the testimony of four-year-old Marta, who had a speech impediment and was hardly intelligible.
Later, Antonio confronted the man and offered to pay him four times what Coronada had paid, if he would recant. But Sara was sent to jail for nine months. Coronada was sentenced to three years for selling her daughter.
Joel brought food to Sara twice a week, but the jail was in San Carlos, a long distance away. Sara, ever the businesswoman, sold some of the food. After two months, she was elected president of the prisoners, and tried to get them things they needed. The judge was a friend of hers, and she asked if they would bring her little José, who was still very sick. They brought the child to her and she nursed him for two months in the jail. But it was clear that he needed to be in a cleaner place, so they brought him home—although there was no one there to take care of him. Within a week Sara observed a white dove that came one night and stayed in the window of the prison. This was very sad for her, because she believed in signs and knew now that her son was dead.
Alma’s life was a little better with her mother gone, because she only had to carry food once a day to her father and the workers out in the field. However, this was basically the end of my mother’s home because my abuelo Joel, still being a bit young and macho, became involved with a neighbor woman, Herminia, who went with him to see her husband in the same prison. They became friends and then from friends they passed to something else.
When Sara at last got out of prison she returned to her house, but the place that she had had with my grandfather was now occupied by the other woman. Unfortunately, Herminia was a prostitute, but that’s what Joel liked. This woman took all the fruit of Sara’s labor. She sold or cooked the hundred chickens that Sara had kept for eggs. From this point on, everything began to fall apart in my mother’s home.
One day when Alma was twelve years old, she was walking back from the fields with her load on her head. From far off she heard children laughing and jumping in the river. Eight or ten girls were there with Niña Eva, the neighbor lady who gave catechism to all the girls in the village. The girls were bathing and having fun, which their parents permitted. The fathers of these girls worked hard, just like Alma’s father. But these parents bought their children everything they needed. They didn’t expose their daughters to isolated places in the countryside. They allowed their daughters to study, to play, and to go to church.
Niña Eva knew that my mamá didn’t have these privileges. But perhaps out of pity that day when Alma was coming back home, the lady told her that she could stay with them. That it would be just for a little while; that she could play—she shouldn’t just think about work. Niña Eva promised to talk with Alma’s mamá.
And so, being a girl of twelve and seeing the happiness of her friends, Alma allowed herself to be convinced. After only a very short time, she heard her mother whistle on a nearby knoll. Sara called to her, sounding very angry.
Alma felt full of fear. Niña Eva and the girls helped her to lift the basket full of heavy clay pottery back onto her head, and she hurried away. Sara walked about a block ahead, and did not speak to her. But when they arrived at the house, Alma saw that her mother had strung up a noose over one of the crossbeams. There was lots of rope: her father, like all the men, made heavy rope out of maguey, agave fiber, during his free time. And so Sara had hung up a noose high on a house beam and was waiting for Alma, furious. She said that a person who disobeyed the orders of her mother deserved to die. And that day she tried to hang my mother up by the neck.
Sara grabbed her daughter’s arm and tried to stick her head in the noose—the gallows was ready. Alma fought with her mother, but she was very young, and smaller than Sara. Both were screaming, but Sara was by far the stronger one. Surprisingly, in this struggle Sara couldn’t get the noose onto Alma’s neck, but got it around her solar plexus—what we call the mouth of the stomach—where sometimes if they punch you, you’re left breathless. Seeing that she couldn’t do it any other way, Sara tied her daughter up and hauled down on the rope so strongly that Alma, hoisted into the air, lost consciousness.
Alma’s granduncle, Señor Marcelino, was with her when she woke up. He had arrived with a machete, and cut her down. He carried the girl into the house to wait for her father to arrive. Joel was angry with Sara, but life went on just the same.
The days passed after this, and one day on a pilgrimage the children got together again to play with Niña Eva, the lady who gave catechism. And this time she came and asked Alma’s parents to let her come along with Carlos, her older brother, to play. Sara and Joel, embarrassed because the lady was very well known, told her yes. They waited about half an hour while the children played, and then the parents called them away. That night, Joel was so angry that he beat the children with a verga—a whip made out of a bull’s penis bone. This instrument is very common in the Latin countries. When people are butchering a bull they take its genital organ, stretch it and dry it, and use it to beat the horses. It gets so hard and strong that it hurts a lot on contact. People use it especially to punish their children.
Joel never struck someone more than twice. But he struck so powerfully that with the first blow the person peed. With the second blow the person lost control of their bowels. When the children arrived home, Joel already had the verga in hand. Carlos, because he was male, received two blows. And Alma, who was female, received a single blow. At the age of fifty my mother still bore the scar that her father had made on her backside some thirty-five years before.
Never from her father’s purse did Alma receive money for shoes or for clothing. She was an intelligent businesswoman, and liked to buy little piglets and fatten them up to make some money. She did all the work to fatten up the pigs, but when it came time to take them to market, her father sold them and kept the money. He gave Alma just enough to buy another little cerdito and fatten it up, but the earnings were always for him to keep. During her adolescence, although she worked the whole week long, Alma didn’t have the right to receive even a tiny salary to be able to dress herself or buy something. For this she had to work in her free time, making tamales, making loaves of bread and going out to sell them, cutting down bananas in the fields and going out to sell them.
Alma always wanted to take care of other people. On her father’s side, the family very much liked the ancient medicine, the form of healing with herbs or at least with rudimentary instruments. Señor Marcelino, the Spanish husband of Tía María, had lots of books about herbs and medicinal plants and taught himself and then the young Alma how to use them. Tía María was a great comadrona, an experienced midwife who imparted this art, as well, to Alma—but there was some kind of taboo whereby the girl was not permitted to come and actually witness a birth. Nevertheless, my mother became an excellent midwife; she even delivered all of her own babies—except for me. Alma admired this kind of life, and she would have followed it except that her father prohibited her from learning to read and write. He said that women don’t need to do this in order to sleep with some man, and therefore he denied her education. On the other hand, her older brother, Carlos, had to go to school to learn a job so that he wouldn’t be limited to farm work, which was too heavy.
Although Joel wanted his son Carlos to be different, he valued his daughter Alma least of all. In the village, all the men worked alongside their own sons, and Alma was in effect the son of Joel’s house. She had to have the strength of a man to do the sowing, the strength of a man to harvest the corn when it was mature. Everything that a man had to do, she had to do. This brutal kind of life made her want to free herself as early as possible.
Alma decided to leave home before she reached fifteen years of age. Her brother was already in the city, successful with a big workshop weaving blankets. She begged her grand-aunt María and Señor Marcelino to help her get away from Sara. They helped her to move into the capital because they saw how exploited and abused she was by her mother. Alma knew that something different and difficult was waiting for her, but what could be worse than living this life of deprivation and brutal treatment by her parents?
She left behind only her ten-year-old sister, Marta. But it was no longer a home; it had changed into a battleground in which always Sara came out the winner because she was bigger and stronger than her youngest daughter. Their father, Joel, also wanted to beat the girl. It was a terrible situation, so when she was only thirteen years old Tía Marta suddenly opted to go away with a man perhaps thirty or forty years older than she, leaving their mother completely alone. From running the whole operation, Sara now had a single cow and a kitchen garden. My abuela never wanted to have another man, or anyone in her house. She was always alone.
Alma began to have a new life in the city, and didn’t want to return to the problems in her parents’ house. She had learned to cook from Tía María, and got work in one of the biggest restaurants in San Salvador. It was very busy because at that time they were digging the Panama Canal. Carlos wanted to go and get work there, but they rejected him because he was too thin. It was just as well, because a lot of the canal workers died from malaria. At any rate, Alma liked working in the restaurant because she was very good at cooking up the orders and inventing different dishes. Unfortunately, some new friends began to lead her down a different road. She began to look for other work, and—disastrously—it led her to the side of my father.
Alma got a job in a large weaving workshop. She was only sixteen or seventeen and soon she became the lover of the owner, who was rich. He treated her well and gave her things, and she thought he would marry her. But one day his wife appeared, pregnant. Alma tried to end the affair—she didn’t want to be responsible for breaking up a marriage. But she knew the owner would come to her room anyway. So she asked a favor of the man who lived in the room next door, Diego, who seemed so sweet. He was a weaver in the workshop. She asked that he pretend to be her boyfriend, so that the owner would leave her alone. Diego did so; there was a confrontation and the owner left. Alma thanked Diego for his help, and then he raped her.
Thus the hammock swung. Many years later, after the earthquake of 1965, here was Alma once again dependent on her father, Joel. But now she came with seven hungry children to feed.
We children were a strange lot. Some of us turned out tall like the Spaniards, and others were short like the Nahua and Pipiles—like me. We came in every color, from white like Mamá to dark brown like Diego—like me. Mamá had long, dark hair that frizzed up into a cloud, like the hair of Africans. My hair is black, and straight. We were all thin from hunger.
Out in the countryside, Mamá was getting more and more pregnant with me, and to walk from the place where she left her children to the house of her father was one hour going and one hour coming back. She had to use the grindstone once again to grind corn and make tortillas for the peones of the household, while her children were going hungry.
My brothers and sisters were left completely alone in a hovel surrounded by pine trees and big, unfamiliar domestic animals, very far away from any neighbors—completely different from the life they had had in the city. And there were no bathrooms. You had to go down to the river to take care of your necessities, out in the open air. At least in the city there were public bathrooms, called letrinas populares. The countryside filled them with fear. They were especially afraid at night during the winter, without electricity.
At fourteen, my eldest sister, Tomasa, was already getting attention. The young men of Aguacayo had a very strange manner of trying to make love to her. When she would go out walking, perhaps to the river to bathe her little brothers and sisters, the young men would herd the cows over to where they were. It was a stupid way to get Tomasa’s attention, and it threw her into a panic. Besides, Tomasa had left her boyfriend, Rey, in the city.
I think that abuelo Joel behaved very badly toward us—he didn’t provide any food at all. Because of this, Diego came on the weekends and brought what food he could. Whenever there are catastrophes in our countries, the big countries with strong economies begin to send us what help they can. But the problem is how they channel the aid. At this time the Catholic Church began to channel the aid very late, I think two months after the earthquake. And so Diego worked when he could and got donations from various places. He knew that there were nine children and that help was needed.
In the countryside the only work available is that of a peón. Neither Mamá nor the children were disposed to adopt this new type of life, which was more slavery than anything else: working twelve hours a day for a miserable salary. None of the children liked this place, and they all wanted to go back to the life they knew. Mamá didn’t want to be there because she didn’t want her children to grow up the way she had, always being scorned by people who thought they had the right to control her life, simply because they possessed something or because they gave some charity. But my brothers Bernardo and Walter didn’t want Mamá to come back to the city. They wanted this hovel in Aguacayo to be theirs. Ambition always took them to a different point of view.
Back in the city, the government had made a deal for some unoccupied lands up in the hills belonging to a lady who was a millionaire with a lot of property. She agreed that people could rent the land at a very low price for a certain amount of time, giving the earthquake victims the right to put up champas—little shacks that would at least give them shelter. Families had to pay the lady five colones per month to rent a lot. They offered my father a very small plot of land, about a thousand square feet.
The government of President Kennedy, here in the United States, is much remembered from that time. I’m told he died in 1963, but he had already sent aid, of which our family received two dozen láminas or corrugated steel sheets, a few bits of lumber called cuarentones, and five pounds of nails. With other earthquake victims, my father and older brothers constructed our little champa of about 400 square feet, for a family that would soon consist of twelve people.
During my childhood there was no food, no money. Our house had no running water, but it did have electricity. It was easy to get to, right in the middle of Soyapango, just around the corner from the Catholic church, and about three blocks from the town hall. Our home was thus very central, but it was still a champa. If you live in a champa, everyone thinks you are the lowest of the low, and that you will never even have the right to struggle to get out of that place.
For Diego, however, it was a castle that only cost five colones per month. But my papá couldn’t even pay that. Knowing that he had gained the right to live there filled him with such pride that he began to drink and drink, and he completely forgot his responsibility to come up with the five colones. And so my mother started searching for someone who needed a vendor to go out and sell things in the streets, because she had to bring back food to the house.
There must also have been something left in the food banks President Kennedy sent to our country. Since they lived so close to the Catholic church, my parents heard their names called over the loudspeakers. Although they weren’t Catholic parishioners, they went to see why they were being called. It turned out that, being known in the barrio and being old, each of them had the right to a box of food once a month. The box contained half a gallon of cooking oil, some five-pound tins of horsemeat, and I think two or three tins of sardines. It also contained five pounds of brown sugar and a big sack of yellow flour called Inkaparina, which was cornmeal with a strange, bitter taste. Mamá used it to make tortillas, and lasagna-style pasta that she served with vegetables. There was also Quaker oats, although Mamá didn’t know how to cook it. She mixed it with the sugar to make a kind of drink.
My brothers and sisters only had the right to eat the food from the box belonging to Mamá. We could never eat what came in our father’s box because before it even got into his hands, he had already sold it to the neighbors to buy liquor. It’s very sad when people have a vice so deeply rooted that they don’t provide any security for their children. To Diego, his vices were more important than feeding his children.
Into this family I was born on October 3, 1965—five months to the day after the earthquake. Mamá had always delivered her own babies herself, but I was the last of the ten surviving children and the only one delivered in a hospital. They brought me home to our sheet-metal champa in a cardboard bassinet, wrapped in a receiving blanket—gifts of the government. My sister Tomasa was very jealous of this special treatment and immediately took a dislike to me. As a newborn, a child of the earthquake, I thus earned the immediate resentment of all my siblings.