My early childhood was rather beautiful—and sad at the same time. Life was very good in my brother Bernardo's new house, for the freedom we children had to run a bit wild. But there was still nothing to eat.
Once a month, Mamá would rest. That is, she would tie up a huge bundle of clothing and blankets to wash. There were no facilities at all near Bernardo’s house, so she would bear the laundry on her head to a natural hot spring. One of my sisters might come along, too, bearing more bundles of laundry. By the age of four I would trail along after them for two and a half miles on a narrow path through the jungle, teetering along the edge of a ravine until we got to the top of a little precipice.
Years later they told me about one day in particular, of which I have no memory at all. Mamá bathed me in the hot water and then clapped me into some underpants. I was a runty, bony little creature. She wrapped me in an old scrap of blanket and sat me in the grass to dry amid the damp laundry. Later, when she looked up from her washing, I was gone. The people searched everywhere, everywhere—and couldn’t find me. The place was surrounded by chasms and ravines, and they thought I had fallen down into the abyss.
I woke up in our champa that evening at about six-thirty when Mamá and my sister arrived. They had run all the way home, very worried. Bernardo said I had turned up around two o’clock in the afternoon. He had been startled to see me and asked, “Where’s Mamá?” But I just lay down to sleep, without a word. Before she died, Mamá told me, “I don’t know how you found your way home from such an isolated spot, at the age of four!”
I had stumbled home all alone along the edge of the abyss—barefoot, nearly naked, clinging to my little blanket. When you don’t eat, sometimes you sleepwalk or hallucinate.
Breakfast was the only meal in our house. There was never any lunch—unless one of my sisters made atol, corn soup. We rarely had dinner. I must not have eaten at all the day we went to the hot spring.
In Central America, families cook a pot of up to five pounds of beans at a time. Since there is no refrigerator, you have to boil the pot of beans every day. If you don’t, they go bad. When the beans are boiling, you can eat bean soup; and by being boiled day after day, the beans become mushy. The flavor changes until they are sweet, like honey—people like them this way.
In our big family, however, the boiled beans never lasted long enough to become soft and sweet. If Mamá cooked five pounds of beans on Monday, they would be gone by Wednesday. For breakfast we had frijoles gelados. The beans were not actually frozen, just cold—Mamá didn’t have time to heat them up because she was always in a rush to get the older kids off to school—which started at 7:30 in the morning. We had no plates or utensils, so she would serve the cold beans on top of a burned tortilla and we’d sit on pita mats or the dirt floor of the champa to dine. Cold beans are hard, they stick to your palate and scrape the roof of your mouth. I preferred not to eat.
Most families would have a big enameled coffee pot by the fire, but no milk. Ours was not an actual coffee pot, just a big, dented pot that someone had thrown out. We bought something called flor de café, or coffee flowers, which came in little round sticks like cigarettes or tootsie rolls. We all knew that we weren’t drinking real coffee; the flor de café was made from ground-up coffee bean hulls. People could buy this because it was cheap—five centavos for one roll. You put a little piece of the roll into the coffee pot and boil it up. You never throw out the grounds, all week long—you just keep adding chunks all week and that’s how you eventually get some flavor. At the end of the week you dump everything out of the pot and start over.
Mamá used the coffee grounds as fertilizer for the little herbs and medicinal plants she grew in pots outside the house, but in our country the land is so fertile that you really don’t need it. If you toss the seeds of a mango onto the ground, the next day you have a mango tree! Everything grows like that, so everyone has guavas and mangos and lemons in their patio. The only thing you can’t grow is grapes. Our patio was so small, however, that all we had was a lemon tree and a tree with little edible flowers, flores de madre cacao.
When I was little, my father didn’t have a loom in the house. He left at five-thirty in the morning to walk a long way to work in a large weaving workshop, and returned at about nine at night. Diego spent his earnings on liquor, so there was almost never food in the house, whether he worked or not. Sometimes, however, he would bring home cheese rinds full of parasites. This is why I was always full of little worms. Once in a while he brought home tripe, something we called moronga or morcía. This consisted of sausage casings filled with pig’s blood, flavored with mint, onions, chile, salt. Diego ate it. It looks horrible—coagulated blood with “crunchies”—tasty chunks of pig’s cheeks and ears, the eyes with meat around them, all cooked up. They sell hunks of moronga wrapped in newspaper for 25 to 50 centavos. Diego would bring it home and Mamá would cut it up and add tomatoes, spices. This we called fritata merienda, and I liked it, too.
If Mamá did well selling blankets, she might bring home a little ground meat—but usually she could only buy vegetables. Unfortunately, even if one of my parents did bring food home in the evening I’d usually be asleep by then.
No wonder I was always piriche—mooching, I guess you’d say. From the time I was very little I’d manage to show up at a neighbor’s house at mealtime. I'd put on a big, friendly smile and say, “That looks good! Can I have some of that?” They knew what my home was like, so usually they’d give me a tortilla—and sometimes cheese.
Mamá was always looking for ways to earn a little money so that she could feed us. She would take care of nearly all the little children of neighbors who were working; it was something very special. Our house was like a childcare center, where the mother of all was my mamá. Parents who could, might pay her twenty-five centavos for the day. Often, she just got a “Thank you” or a piece of bread, which was a luxury item, in return. Only people with a bit of money ate bread. If we little children ate bread at all, it was because someone came along who had plenty.
Mamá sent my older siblings off to school, got us little kids up, carried water, washed clothes, and did everything else. She washed up and then at about ten in the morning she left to collect blankets from large workshops to sell on the streets of downtown San Salvador. At that time there were only two bus routes that came out in our direction, and you had to walk a long way to get to them. Mamá would return at about eight or nine o’clock at night.
While Mamá was gone one of my older sisters would keep an eye on all the kids. But my sisters didn’t care particularly about me. Ondina would sometimes take me out to the street, supposedly to distract me; but really, she just wanted to look out for her boyfriend.
One day somebody explained to me why, for most of my life, I have borne on my face a long scar from my forehead all the way down to my chin. Now that I’m in my fifties, it has mostly faded. It happened when I was about eighteen months old. I vaguely remember someone holding me out by a fifth patio—which is what we call an extra-poor hovel—and a little neighbor girl approached me, closer and closer. Suddenly I felt a terrible pain, and I was covered in blood. They said the girl had fingernails like razors, and she took it into her head to gouge my face. In my country all the ladies of the night—the prostitutes—bear on their faces the knife scars of a lifetime. When I was a little child, people would say, “Maybe that Milagros got into a knife fight with the streetwalkers!” This little girl attacked me another time and broke my nose; it was bent to one side for a long time. And thus I grew up with my own stigmata.
Mamá took better care of us than my sisters did. Sometimes I'd go off with my next-older brother, Alfredo, and we'd climb up the tall, skinny ladder attached to a billboard that overlooked our hilltop community. We'd perch up there watching for Mamá to come home. One time I fell asleep up there for a couple of hours—it’s a wonder I didn’t come crashing down!
Mamá was much sought out as a partera—a midwife. Sometimes in the middle of the night people would knock on our door. They’d get Mamá up and off she’d go with them to deliver a baby. Sometimes people even came in a car to get her, and they would pay her five pesos. But, as luck would have it, most people would never possess the five or ten colones she normally charged for this service. I’m talking about sixty centavos—perhaps a dollar and twenty-five cents. Still, she did it gladly. Although people didn’t have the money, she felt that it was her humanitarian duty to help them.
After the birth, she would make several visits to the newborn. On the first visit she would burn the end of the umbilical cord and douse it in 90% alcohol. On the second visit she would put baby oil on her fingers and heat them over a candle flame. (For this reason all the midwives had ruined fingers.) She would massage the baby’s head to give it proper form, and gently massage the baby’s stomach for thirty or forty minutes to let the gas out. And for eight visits she would bathe the baby in the morning, then swaddle it in rags, tying up the legs in a special way so it wouldn’t end up bowlegged. This was necessary for boys, especially.
Many babies developed a deep depression in the soft spot on their head, due to the excessive noise of the barrio. If not remedied, babies can get diarrhea and may die. To cure this problem, the midwife has to puff on a cigar, and then place her mouth over the depression and suck. Mamá did this three times, and then you could actually hear the pop as the depression went away.
Lots of women tried to be midwives as a business, to make money. But they were rough and some of the babies died. Being a midwife is a gift and it requires training, like my mother got with her aunt and uncle back in Aguacayo. She was so much in demand that some afternoons up to five different mothers would come to our house with their babies, asking for the soft spot to be fixed. Mamá would protest that she had to smoke too much tobacco, and besides—she needed to stop and cook food for the family!
Neighbors often came to Mamá with problems, and she would prescribe home remedies. As I grew older, I helped to gather the plants and minerals she needed, and I scouted for the rare, black-skinned chickens that were crucial to many of her treatments. Many years later, when my own baby was very sick, Mamá treated her with un fajero porque—heated pork lard on a special, large leaf on her stomach, which got rid of gas.
With the passage of time Mamá never managed to become a person with money, but yes, she was a person very beloved in her community. Although abuela Sara had treated her very cruelly as a child, she had also inculcated into Mamá a sense of compassion or duty to serve others, and a spirit willing to help. This attitude also gave Mamá the strength to rebuke abusive husbands. She quickly learned how to defend the women whose husbands beat them. Doing this, being who she was—Niña Alma Montoya—in these ways she was happy. With her kindness and compassion and her dedication to the community, she garnered the love and respect of everyone. Everyone but Diego.
I loved to be with Mamá when she was doing her daily chores. Since I was the youngest, the last child, very early I became her companion, carrying water. I thought that she felt a little lonely and that she liked to remember her childhood. She liked very much to remember her sorrows and everything that had caused her to become who she was. Probably it was the only time when she was happy. I loved to hear about her life, and I hated to listen to all the kinds of abuse that our women suffer in the countryside. I was a girl, and I never imagined that my own calvario—my own ordeal—was going to begin so soon.
Mamá would tell us stories when she was washing clothes—and not in a washing machine, but rather in a stone basin where you scrub the clothes by hand. And you can only use a little water because there is no plumbing in these houses. Bathing was special, and you learned to do it with half a gallon of water. Fortunately, we only bathed for special occasions like Christmas or New Year’s Eve.
To wash clothes you have to walk four blocks with a heavy clay water jug—on your head, if you’re a woman, or on your shoulder if you’re a man. The jug holds about four gallons of water, so if you’re going to do the laundry you have to make at least twelve trips to fill a barrel of water. My sisters were good at having babies or else having periods, so Mamá washed every day, working like a burro to carry all that water! She had a special soap for diapers, which wouldn’t hurt the babies’ tender bottoms. She could get the stains out with lemon juice, salt, and blazing sunlight. The diapers would dry within ten minutes.
When my legs got stronger, perhaps at six years of age, I could carry two gallons of water—one in each hand. And that was the beginning of an interminable coming and going, water-bearing. Later, I carried water in a single large container, but with my short arms I couldn’t lift it up to my head. Luckily, the lady from whom we bought water (at one centavo per trip) had two sons bigger than me and they would lift the container and place it on my head. These two boys were deaf and mute, but somehow I could understand them. By making signs and different sounds we would talk in our own way, and their mother found it very amusing to watch us. Sometimes she didn’t even charge me for the water, because her sons were happy.
There were four of us little kids in the family: First there was Zaqueo and then Sonia, who came early at seven months. Diego gave Mamá a beating, and Sonia came out the next day. Then there was Alfredo, and three years later, me. Sonia and Alfredo, being so close in age, were very united. They shared everything, and even sat back-to-back on a single hole over the latrine.
Thanks be to God, we all inherited the ability to work hard from my mother—who never had time for anything else, not even for us. Like everyone else, as a girl I felt bad that I wasn’t working—and indeed I didn’t work for a salary. But to help your family you have to learn early how to do everything in your house, from washing your own underpants to washing everyone’s menstrual rags without saying anything. When I was very little I was sent out to gather firewood from vacant lots, but I didn’t yet have chores like the others. Unfortunately, in my family no one had a job in industry; no one had a boss who could give them any bonus or anything different, but still we felt that happiness whenever we earned a few centavos.
My older brothers would start out in the shoemaking workshop where Bernardo worked, and he taught them the trade. Soon Zaqueo had to go and learn the trade, too. We younger ones were expected to be like servants to our older siblings—all more or less with the permission of our parents, of course. Our older brothers and sisters were our elders and we had to respect them. In the end, this was the foolishness of old people who confuse charity with affection; or who think it’s your duty to buy love—or your daily bread—with work. You must be grateful; but when you get older you feel resentment.
Those who worked got meat. Those who didn’t work got the juice from the meat. I am lucky because I married a man who put his daughters first: he would give them the meat because they were growing, and we were the ones who got the juice. But not in my parents’ house. Alfredo and I even fought to be the one to go out and get an ounce of cream for Diego—the one who went for the cream got to lick the pot.
Working men ate first. My papá and my brother Bernardo ate at the little table, which only accommodated two because one end was attached to the wall. Everyone else ate sitting on the ground. Sometimes there would be nothing left for Mamá, and she would just wipe a tortilla on the insides of the empty pot.
One time my father was lying in the bed drunk. Bernardo, our breadwinner, was all dressed up and ready to go out. He sat at the table and my mother served him sopa de gallina. Diego sprang out of the bed and threw the bowl of soup at Bernardo, screaming, “I am the head of the family! You don’t have the right to eat first!”
I remember my early childhood as an extraordinary epoch in our country. Although I was always hungry, times were relatively peaceful and I could run around at liberty in the countryside. There was much more freedom here than in the middle of the city. It was very nice, also, because my father at that time was a little bit accessible. This was the reality of my childhood.
At that time they were doing a lot of excavation and construction in the capital, and trucks were constantly coming out our way to dump the excess dirt. There were no dump trucks in those days, just gangs of men with shovels to move the dirt. Of course these loads of rubble contained shards of broken glass and chunks of solid concrete, as well—but this was our playground and we enjoyed it. The big kids—my brothers or other boys of twelve or fourteen—would climb up to the top of huge mounds of dirt and go sliding down on scraps of cardboard. Whoosh!
In winter the water would course down through our dirt roads and flood over the sides, opening up enormous potholes. But we didn’t care. We children had never heard of a park, didn’t know what such a thing might be. For us this was Disneyland!
I have always believed that there is a powerful force in the heavens that looks after you. Thanks be to God no one was seriously hurt in our perilous playground. This is why I don’t understand why children need so many toys and videos. In the empty fields we could do anything we wanted to enjoy ourselves, and this was a great era in our childhood. Wow!
The days raced by—weeks, months, and years. The area began to be populated. At first we were just four little champas, but later there were twenty, and then more. All kinds of people came to live in that place, and so, month by month, different families began their lives and a little community arose. Soon there were children the age of my siblings, ladies who shared their sorrows with Mamá, and rather strange gentlemen who were nonetheless heads of families. We were a select group of neighbors, all very much united.
In the evenings people would get together after work. The sheet-metal champas were like ovens, but it was so lovely outdoors that the adults would bring out old chairs and we children could play outside until very late. Yes, television existed, but it was outside our grasp. The neighbors set out electric light bulbs so that we could run around in the dusty streets and the flat, open areas the bulldozers had scraped out. We played jump-rope and other games of our land while the grownups got to know each other and tried to make friends amongst themselves.
When it got to be midnight or one o’clock in the morning the adults would say, “That’s it! We have to go to work in the morning!” They’d bring their chairs in and we kids would troop into the one-room champas that were cooler now. We’d pile onto the petates, the pita leaf mats we used instead of mattresses atop a couple of rope-strung beds. Of course we knew nothing about toothbrushes, much less pajamas, and so we went to sleep in the same clothes we wore playing out in the street. It was peaceful and lovely, until the next day dawned.
Above all, the dirty river was our children’s paradise. And it wasn’t just me and my siblings, but all the neighbor kids, too—maybe fifteen or eighteen of us who scampered like little goats exploring all the way to the Río Acelhuate. In the native Nahuatl language, its name means River of Water Lilies and Beautiful Countryside. This contaminated waterway was a chalky brown, like milk with dirt mixed in. It passed through our whole city. No, we didn’t go swimming there, although some adults assured us that the water was clean even though its color was foul.
It was very amusing that they said the river was clean. One day we little kids were enjoying ourselves watching some teenagers proudly swimming. They were showing off different strokes, filling their mouths with water and spewing it out: to them it was a great game. Suddenly, right in their midst floated a huge, rotting pig carcass with all of its intestines exposed! For us it was matter of course, but it was a new experience for the teens. At the sight of the pig they fled for the riverbank, scrambling to wash themselves off in the little wells that had clear spring water. They picked lemons from a neighbor’s tree and scrubbed their bodies with lemon juice.
I think that we little ones were wiser than they. Yes, we did cross that same river—not every day, but perhaps once a week. For me the crossing was traumatic, because I was so small and the current was very strong. We knew the places that were shallowest, but often the water came up to my waist. Although I felt frightened and even nauseous when trying to cross, I had to show my buddies—and especially my older siblings—that I had enough courage to do it. If I was a coward they’d never again bring me along on these adventures.
We crossed with the intention of picking tomatoes, yucca, and other vegetables that grew on the other side, and thus bringing happiness to the tired face of Mamá. The only hitch was that all these plants had somebody who cultivated them: their owners. We could never get to the plantations of expensive pineapples or delicious, basketball-sized cincullas, both of which were guarded like gold. Some of the children tried to keep purloining vegetables as they grew older, but big kids were chased away with gunshots! I think the owners decided not to put up with any more theft.
The river was notorious, and not just because its waters carried dead dogs and cats, as well as chicken feces from the surrounding poultry ranches. All the people who had a water closet (as we call it in my country) connected their pipes so that the sewage wound up in the river. And at 5:00 every day we’d all scamper up to higher ground because of the surging aguas negras: that’s when all the factories in San Salvador let out their contaminated liquids—and the river widened to some fifty meters. Nobody ate the little cherry tomatoes that grew wild on the riverbanks, because they were daily doused in pollution and you’d get sick. We called them “defecated tomatoes” because they looked like something that had been consumed and then come out again whole. Even here in the United States, I can’t bring myself to buy them! Before all this, they say that the Rio Acelhuate was very pretty. I miss the banks of my filthy river!
One day like any other, off we went with our friend Tere, who was much older than ourselves, to wash clothes in the streams flowing into the river. Often there just wasn’t any food in our house, and of course Tere would always give us beans and a tortilla, and occasionally a little piece of cheese. She would pay the ten centavos for the use of the rock and the right for us to pass the whole day up to our ankles in water, washing with soap. We’d spend hours helping her and our fingers would get softer and more tender than a baby’s bottom. You get famished when you work so hard scrubbing clothes on the rocks—but this day not even Tere had food.
Only at a time like this do plain beans smell so good. And that day when our friend had nothing at all to give us, we remembered some large, bell-shaped white flowers that grew near the fresh springs in the riverbank. They were as big as the paper cones that merchants used to wrap up small purchases. The flowers were acidic yet tasty, although some parts were poisonous. You had to know which parts you could eat. So these we gathered up, and brought home for Mamá to cook. We gobbled them up with a bit of salt—and thus we knew glory!
Even though I was very little, I carried a metal basin with two or three sticky black balls of jabon de cuche—laundry soap that Mamá made from pork lard and olive oil, with a bit of dirt tossed in. Each ball of soap weighed about a pound and a half, and you could use it like a rock to scrub the clothes.
The hot spring was a very isolated place where torrents of scalding water gushed into some rustic troughs, and then plunged down into the dirty river below. For ten centavos you could rent a trough and spend the whole day there washing clothes. We kids thought there were little fishes hatching in the water—but they were really tadpoles. We’d catch them in our hands and play. There were also dangerous water snakes to watch out for.
Another way Mamá earned a little money was by making and selling tortillas. She scoured the countryside searching for the lime and firewood she needed. We little kids collected chiribiscos, dry sticks for firewood, in the abandoned fields. That was my first job.
Soon Tomasa, my eldest sister, was separated from her husband, but she continued to struggle very hard. I was very surprised at her, because she took charge while my mother went out into the streets to sell tortillas or whatever products came into her hands. Tomasa started making the tortillas—and it’s not easy. To make tortillas for two or three hours is a fairly time-consuming art, and her face was always covered in burns. But she liked to help Mamá and to make a little bit of money.
Anyway, business was bad because all our neighbors came along wanting tortillas but they wouldn’t have any money until the end of the month, if at all. Mamá always gave them tortillas on credit and they paid when they could. Sadly, in our countries people almost never have money to buy the things that you make. They ask you for credit—but if they don’t have work, where can they get the money to pay you? There was something very special about Mamá, because she never said no to people. What a business!