Guerrillas Come to Middle School

One winter afternoon—it didn’t rain that day—the teachers brought us kids in sixth and seventh grade out to the patio, so that only the lower grades were left in their classrooms. We were all 11 or 12 years old.  We thought that maybe they were going to give us some presentation or have an event—but that wasn’t the case. Soon there appeared our beloved Principal Toad, along with a group of men. 

The strangers looked so big, so dirty.  They were burnt by our country’s sun, or else tanned too dark—as if tan skin was what they had wanted achieve.  Each of them carried a heavy pack on his back.  They wore beards and moustaches, and they looked maybe forty or forty-five years old.  They were very friendly, but spoke Spanish only with difficulty. We should feel fortunate, said the principal, to have such distinguished people at our school. 

 

And in a way we, too, felt kind of special—the way they noticed kids like us, that afternoon.  No, their bags contained neither candies nor cookies, as we might have wished.  In their backpacks were weapons.  They came to teach us the art of loading and unloading guns of all kinds, from pistols and revolvers to .70 caliber machine guns.  It was a school secret:  Careful not to tell Mamá or Papá!

But we never could talk to our parents anyway—they’d never listen to us. The guerrillas took advantage of this lack of communication.  They had studied our culture—we of the lower class in Latin America—and knew that parents never talked to their children.  With poverty comes family disintegration.

The beginning of war occurs in your home.  You see that there’s no affection, no understanding.  Or if there is, you see that there’s no expression of it.  They never show you, so you feel that you’re not important to your parents.  For them, the problem of poverty is to give you something to eat—not to worry about how you feel from not having anything to eat.  And if we were happy when the guerrillas did give us candy or cookies, it was because we were always hungry.  We say, Las penas con pan son buenas.  Sorrows with bread are good.

I think my arms were thinner than the gun barrel I took clumsily in my hands.  Watching the men, we each handled a weapon—“to lose the fear,” they said awkwardly.  It was so easy to shoot, and so to defend our rights and avenge the blood of the martyrs, who—like us—were The People.  I remember it so well, the way we saw ourselves reflected in their beautiful blue-green eyes.  They treated us affectionately.

We didn't know where the white guerrillas were from.  They looked at us with pity, although not with compassion.  The Latino guerrillas looked at us quite coldly.  I think they might have been from Nicaragua, or they might have been Salvadorans who came down from the mountains in the Zona Oriental, near Nicaragua.  They were the only survivors of large families who had been massacred, so they joined the guerrillas to make a living.  They had a lot of hatred in their hearts for the army and the government politicians. The Latino guerrillas treated us kids like automatons, they never looked at us with eyes of pity.  They taught hatred;  they said, “You have to fight to regain your territory.”  But if you’re poor, what can you possibly regain?

That day there began a deluge of visits to our school.  The white guerrillas told the Latinos to treat us a little more humanely.  They would ask how old you were, where you lived, who were your parents.  They patted your head with their big hands.  You’d think—How handsome they are!  They’re interested in me!  Day by day, while our teachers called us the children of garbage, these foreign soldiers at least gave us a little sympathy, and taught us how to kill in the name of the lowliness of our lives. 

Looking back, I can see that the whites must have been military advisors—veteran fighters who specialized in training troops.  They had come to the school to scope out the environment.

 

Every day in that school was so different. One day, at almost five in the afternoon they made us go out and line up on the street.  It wasn’t wide, just a dirt road that independent buses would rumble along.  All the grades, from first to ninth, were made to line up on the two sides of the street. It was a dark afternoon at the end of September.  The guerrillas showed us how to put out miguelitos—planks with nails in them—to stop the flow of buses.  When tires hit the nails, they’d explode.

There was a little meeting, and then the guerrilla column walked to the middle of the street—naturally, in our company.  The reality was that on this walk, we were the human shield—the girls and boys running and walking alongside the guerrilla soldiers—until we entered a wooded area that was still around in those times.  Of course we smiled and talked with them.  And with all the innocence in the world, we showed them the houses where we lived.

There were some days when I was sure that it wasn’t my own fault to have been born here, in such poverty.  But when they repeat to you every day how you should employ a weapon to be strong and respected, I think that there’s something in your twelve years that makes you doubt it. When your parents leave you to your own devices, you come to make your own decisions—and sometimes they’re matters of life and death.

When I would get home, after the Thursdays or Fridays when those men would come, I’d feel something very hard in my chest:  the need to cry or shout.  I wished that someone would listen.  I needed to find someone wise who could tell me with complete certainty, “Yes—this is the right way to go.”   But I found my father in the street, totally drunk; and my brothers and sisters would be fighting over everything, down to the tortillas.  I didn’t want to live there anymore. I wanted to find my own road, my own way out.  I didn’t even dream of rising above this in my life. 

At night I always went to an evangelical church of the Assemblies of God, and if possible I went in the afternoons as well.  I wanted to be out of the house and away from school;  and when I could, I liked to be alone. I still spoke to the butterflies, but now it wasn’t their season.  Thus it was that I tried to make for myself a good Friend, and I found Him in Jesus, the Son of Jehova.  He would listen to me and would never tell anything to Mamá.  And so something very beautiful grew inside of me, as through I had someone to confide in.

When the weekend arrived and I saw my old companions from morning shift, they always thought about playing games and having boyfriends or girlfriends.  They’d never give a thought to these classes in arms that would happen the next afternoon.  The fathers of morning students worked in banks, and their children came to school clean and well dressed.  The afternoon students, like me, were all children of Pedro Pueblo—we were the poorest, most ignored by our parents.  The atmosphere was completely different. My mother never knew about the little inferno to which she sent me, until I finally told her almost twenty years later.

The routine was horrible, but if you didn’t want to go to school you needed a very good reason.  And—who knows?  Perhaps that is what made us unite as classmates.  We almost forgot our differences, for even when we were doing tasks together in class we’d always be scared that the teacher would think we were talking about the guerrillas, and not the schoolwork.  From time to time, a few new students would join our class.  Strangely, they’d only last a couple of weeks before getting the hell out of there—even leaving the city.  And so we’d go back to being just ourselves, the same hapless group as before.

As children you want to have confidence in your teachers.  But as the situation got worse, instead of advising us to get out, our teachers departed and abandoned us to much worse teachers—to whom we had absolutely no importance.  We were abysmally far behind in our studies.  The new teachers were drunks, or came from far out in rural areas.  Sometimes these teachers didn’t bother to come to school, and so the students had to go back home—although many lived very far away.  When this happened, I’d go to a friend’s house to watch TV (because of course, my family didn’t have one).  Or I’d go home and start carrying water.

Many students left school from necessity and never came back.  One teacher, Gabriela, sent me with another girl who lived out in the countryside to get her clothes.  The girl was to come back and be a servant in the teacher’s house.  The two of us had to cross the dirty river and pass through big fincas—coffee plantations—which were horrible places, lonely and dark, where rapists would commonly take advantage of girls and women.  These men always judge you by your appearance—are your clothes clean and new, or dirty and old?  They take advantage of your economic condition.

On one occasion there arrived in our class a little woman, a mujercita. No, Yanira wasn’t a girl; she had a sexual partner, Rubén.  (Of course, her family didn’t know about it.)  Rubén was in the ninth grade, and the two of them were already of an age between seventeen and twenty. One fine day she told him what was going on with the guerrillas.  He and his friends confronted our tubby little principal—who was even shorter than the eighth-graders.           

That very night Rubén’s house was visited by some men dressed in black, with mountaineering gloves.  By sheer luck they didn’t find him, since they wanted to bring him to justice in their own way. That day was the last we saw of him. His sister Carolina was a classmate of ours, and she told us that Yanira and he had fled the country that same day, and went off to suffer in Mexico with barely two hundred colones—about twenty dollars—to their name. Within six months of Rubén’s departure, the family’s house was abandoned overnight—everyone left.

This was the secret fear we all had, that if anyone in our family said something, little as it might be, we would see this happen again. And so, by force, the guerrillas showed us how to make decisions that would save our lives.  Later I understood that we had to be children in puberty or just before, in order to have hatred so terrible instilled in us. To do this at such a decisive age, the guerrillas must have studied how to kill the soul of a child. 

Everyone wants the best out of life, though your stomach be empty.  It was nobody’s fault, since your parents didn’t ask you to come into the world:  you can’t blame them.  And even if you’re impoverished— still, you were born with two good hands, and two excellent feet that will take you wherever your mind directs them. So what if you live in bad conditions? Fight it with your work and with your heart.

I always thought that nothing was impossible;  that even if everyone looked down on me or saw me as an idiot, it wasn’t true.  I knew that I worked hard—and what I ate at twelve years of age I had earned.  My brothers and sisters worked hard, too, and although these were difficult times they even built their own homes. They wanted something for their own children—not a hovel of cardboard and earth like the one they grew up in—but something much better, instead.

A great change was coming about, from 1978 to 1980.  Almost all of the older students left the school, and only a few of us were left.  An exodus began—or it was the first my eyes saw of it.  Many students disappeared in that epoch, from one day to another.  The family would say nothing until they knew that they were in a place safer for their life.  My neighbors, very dear people to whom I felt close, either died or left that neighborhood, which was the cradle of my, by now, ancient infancy.  It was a dear place that I carried in my heart, that little by little fell to pieces. 

By now we had only two teachers for three grades: seventh, eighth and ninth.  When one teacher was in one classroom, the second teacher would be in another.  If there wasn’t music class, which a volunteer taught twice a week, the third room had a free hour.  And (as it would be a lie to say that at twelve or fifteen years of age one loves to study) we liked to stand at a corner of the school where some boards had fallen, and spy out to see what the neighbors were up to.  As you may imagine, we saw all sorts of things:  from robbers breaking in to houses, to women washing the corpses of dead men.  We watched from idleness, and with fearful curiosity. 

Ever since I had seen the first corpse on the road home from school, I think this sight became routine.  All the time—on the news, in the river, on the buses—there were corpses. Out in the countryside, where means of communication didn’t reach, it was far worse. At night, the police who were out on patrol now had the authority to recruit youths of fifteen or older for the army.  Families felt very badly, since the war was just about to heat up.  It seemed that day by day an attack grew closer.

I saw all the men of the neighborhood get angry about things that were happening, but they never spoke of political parties, since they said that was dangerous.  Everyone said the green was better, not the blue. These were the colors of the political parties—but, of course, I didn’t understand.

 

The day after an election found Mamá very worried and Papá very angry.  They heard that some men had come along and rummaged through the ballot boxes.  They had gleefully taken out all the ballots that were in favor of the green party, but they still wanted to kill the delegates of the other parties.  Sure, these men were with the party currently in power, with hands that could help or hurt you.  We knew this because several neighbors had ballot boxes in their care.  And, since they give you a salary and a free lunch for bearing this responsibility, who that was hungry wouldn’t go along?

From this point on it seemed that the situation was worsening quickly.  For one thing, nobody talked politics anymore, much less of the color green. Our life went on, accelerating with such speed that it filled me with surprise and grief.  The beautiful days became filled with rot, as every road filled up with great trocas—big Army trucks brimming with soldiers—who were sitting with rifles ready to shoot.  Armored cars passed along our anxious and scabrous streets at all hours of the day and night.  As they began their constant patrolling, the age-old tranquility, from one day to the next, was gone.

We all knew that everything was different.  You can feel it in the air, the worry of every person around you.  What I feared was losing our lives. If only my family had lent me a moment of their time and had listened to me!  If maybe I had realized that for the last two or three years the school had been preparing us for the loathsome time that would arrive!  But no, nobody wanted to hear it, only the Owner of my life.  And to Him I owe it to narrate this small history.  I believe that this is why my Creator has guarded me—so that you will feel the weight that settled on the shoulders of an innocent child. 

Something very curious happened then, and I still can’t understand why.  That September I went looking for my butterflies on our little mountain, but no—they never came back.  I knew that they migrated and that was their way, but why didn’t they pass through here anymore?  I needed them!  They were a part of my childhood, they were my innocence!  Where had it gone?

The serenity of the butterflies was replaced by the thunder of bombs falling on nearby hills, and the racket of helicopters flying low. No, I never again saw my little friends, with whom I imagined flying to faraway lands.  They, too, departed.  They flew off to safety and my soul tumbled down, into a dark well that kept getting deeper.

Even today I remember it as if it were still happening, and this is why my adult heart opens up and pours out into these pages. I believe that although you may eat only tortillas with beans, if there is peace then it has the best flavor.  But the bitterness in my mouth remains.  Why keep silent?  Why, for so many years?

 

I think those days deserve more than just being held in memory.  They demand that others come to see how a child’s heart breaks into a thousand pieces.  They demand that you come to see what happens, when those who want to change the world place weapons into the small hands of beings who are without importance, and otherwise useless to them.