School and Shadow
All the little children would start school when their first milk tooth fell out. Perhaps because of a calcium deficiency, my first tooth fell out when I was six and not seven years old, like everyone else. Also, I was very small for my age, and rather scared of the school. But the joy of my brothers and sisters was contagious, and I was very curious to know what school was.
In El Salvador the school year runs from January (mid-summer) through October, when the rainy winter ends. Now that we had moved, my siblings’ old school was very far away.
The dirt road passed through the middle of isolated coffee plantations with no people anywhere around. There was no electric light, and you had to walk right by a cemetery, too. Parents allowed their children to smoke cigarettes when passing the graveyard to fend off the Signuanaba—a supernatural woman of great beauty who could drive you mad or make you lose your way. She was usually seen from behind, a woman with long, shining black hair, dressed in a flimsy white slip—but if she turned her head you’d see she had the face of a skull. It was thus an adventure getting to that school!
To establish a school in our newly populated neighborhood, the government bought a former chicken ranch with an ancient henhouse. This ramshackle structure was made of old boards with chicken-wire mesh to keep the pullets from escaping. Workers put up partitions and fashioned eight tiny classrooms with a couple of narrow corridors and a large patio in front.
And so began the Geneva Urban Unified Mixed School, for it was sponsored by a Swiss charity. It was only a dozen blocks from our house, and a great joy for everyone—especially Mamá. My next older brother, Alfredo, began his first year of school there. Even now I remember how Mamá herded him to school by pitching rocks at him. He didn’t like to sit in class, so my mother followed him down the road, tossing stones at him for a few blocks so that he would get going and stay on course. He was so scatterbrained that sometimes people stopped him to point out that he was wearing his shoes on the wrong feet. Well, the problem may not have been absent-mindedness so much as the novelty of wearing shoes at all!
I was very content at the school that happened to be mine. It didn’t matter that I was educated in a former chicken coop where chicks and hens had been raised before me. I didn’t mind the rough floor of dirt and concrete or the corrugated tin roof which, when it rained, kept you from hearing what your teachers were saying. While it’s true that the teachers abused us, any change in our lives was a reason for joy: surely anything would be better!
In school it was all laughter—and sometimes tears. Why? Usually because of some punishment that had been inflicted upon our bodies at home the night before. Sometimes our parents were in a bad mood, and in their anger or frustration they would take out their ire upon their children. The next day, in our pain and frustration, we didn’t want anybody near us.
Of course, the teachers would contribute their share to our woe. Teachers threatened to set fire to your hair if you came to school unkempt, so I tried to be well dressed. Of course, I had only one dress—just like the one Mamá had made for my sister Sonia—short sleeved, with a faded pattern of little flowers and some pleats that were never ironed. I played in this costume every day, too, and my siblings made fun of me because instead of sleeping in it I insisted on changing into a ragged old dress of my mother’s. Each morning I tidied up my dress and made sure my hair was clean and combed. Every Sunday Mamá would braid my hair, and I tried to wash my dress once a month.
We children were subject to many forms of punishment. A teacher might humiliate you in front of others by throwing your notebook at your feet. Or she might bestow un coscorron—a rabbit punch to the head; or else lift your skirt and whack you with a yardstick. Sometimes at eleven in the morning she’d put you out in the sun underneath the bell they rang for class changes and recess. For an hour or two you’d have to stand there in the hot sun, balancing your desk on top of your head. Or she might give you una carrera de mico—a “monkey race,” rubbing her two thumbs up the side of your head so that a few hairs might be ripped out. Or the teacher might say, “Quieres ver a Dios?” (Do you want to see God?) Then she would use her thumbs to lift you up by the temples, again ripping out a few hairs. They would do this to boys and girls alike, even the little kids. Only at adolescence did they stop, when we got too big and rebellious. And, of course, the teachers threatened to expel us if we told our parents any of this.
We’d always say that we didn’t know whether school was a good thing, or not. In my school I wasn’t sure what happened to the good part. On the one hand, we were the laughingstock of other schools because we were the poorest. But on the other hand, there were classmates who walked three miles to get there—and even though class began at seven-thirty in the morning, they were punctual. We figured that you had to learn to read, even if you could only read badly, so that later in life people couldn’t take advantage of you.
When I was little the only people who could become schoolteachers were those who could pay their way to teachers’ college—what we called Normal School. This meant that nearly all our teachers were from the upper middle class, and they were very well educated. (Later on we learned that there were changes in the Normal School, and that they started giving scholarships to poor but intelligent students—but that’s another story.)
Since our teachers were from well-to-do families, they always were very well dressed—not like teachers today. They came with enormous briefcases, the women’s faces carefully made up. You could spot them at a glance—you’d say, “That’s a teacher.” They were very superior to all of us, and they always made it clear that you would never attain their high-class status. Throughout our childhood they created in us the idea that we were beings who must be completely subservient to anyone who would guide us on the road to knowledge. This was confirmed by Mamá, who had only been to school for six months in her whole life; and by Papá, who said of the teacher, “she’s your second mother.” In this way they indicated that it would be stupid for us to refuse the teacher’s crazy whims, such as cleaning her desk, running to carry her briefcase, and doing other ridiculous things.
There are people who leave very deep footprints on your life, difficult to efface. One of these was my first grade teacher, Señora Marina de Vásquez—I will never forget her name. She was a tall, slender woman with a stylish bubble hairdo. What a know-it-all she was! On my very first day of school she smacked me very hard on the back. She had told me to move a bench, but I was so little that I could barely drag it, and I inadvertently bumped into her desk. Another time, Señora Marina decided to punish us all because, unbeknownst to the class, two boys had stood in the doorway of the principal’s office, looking her over like vagabonds. This had filled her with shame. She told us all to stretch out our hands with the palms down, and she rapped us on the knuckles with a ruler. She did this to thirty-five children, although only two had offended her. But she was very fair-minded and punished the lot of us, giving several blows to each one. Unfortunately, we would have this lady as our teacher for first, second, and third grade.
Sometimes I got in trouble despite my best efforts. Part of my problem was that things would happen and I wouldn’t understand why. Maybe I was just unsuspecting. Here’s an example: Señora Marina picked three of us children to be her servants, perhaps by chance or perhaps because we were the poorest and most neglected of her students. She would arrive quite early in the morning, and desire us to fetch her breakfast.
One day when we little servants arrived she sent us out to bring her a cup of milk and some bread with an egg. We had to walk perhaps seven blocks to get her breakfast, and so naturally we missed class. Señora Marina may have forgotten about us that day, or perhaps we came back more quickly than she expected. Our hands full, one of us used her hip to push open the little wooden door to the classroom. We suddenly discovered that our teacher had no hair! She suffered from alopecia—a malady that causes people to lose their hair and eyelashes and eyebrows. Even then I understood that it was an illness. All her life, the teacher Marina had been impeccable in her toilette, but the three of us kids saw her without her wig, and that cost us her hatred. She angrily chewed us out, saying that the door was closed and we needed to knock. But how were we to knock, with our hands full of her breakfast?
We were overcome with shame. “Sorry! Sorry!” we said, and we put her breakfast down and fled. We had never expected to see her this way, and we certainly weren’t going to go and shout, “She’s bald! She’s bald!” for all the world to hear. Regardless, from then on she was always angry with us.
Perhaps the proximity of a handsome male teacher was part of Señora Marina’s fury. Our classroom was just girls, and next door was the boys’ classroom. Their teacher was Señor Ricardo López, a pleasant, good-looking man of twenty-eight or twenty-nine. He was so handsome and elegant that you knew at once he was from a high-class family.
In first grade I had a fifteen-year-old classmate named Lucía. She came from a rural area even further out. Lucía was a simple young woman, a bit strange. She was much lighter in color than me, and you could tell at a glance that she was from the countryside. She wore two long braids in her hair and always came barefoot, with her dusty, calloused feet. She wore the traditional peasant dress—a loose white blouse with a bit of elastic in the short sleeves, and a long black skirt made of commercial cloth. Of course, Lucía was much bigger than the rest of us—she was fifteen and we were barely six. Her parents hadn’t sent her to school because they had some cows that needed to be herded to pasture.
Just as her family exploited her, so did the teacher. Señora Marina saw in Lucía a person who could be useful to her. When we were halfway through the school year she appropriated the girl to be her personal servant. The teacher told me to go home with Lucía to gather up her possessions. I knew the house—a humble cabin on a very beautiful little ranchito—because I was always very nosy, and Lucía was very special. We left the school at eight o’clock in the morning, crossed and re-crossed the river, and didn’t get back with her things until eleven-thirty—that’s how far away her house was.
Instead of helping the girl, the teacher gave her one more wound. Once she had Lucía in her power, she restricted the girl to her house in the capital and only gave her permission to go out once a month. This is how all the domestic servants worked at that time. We didn’t see our classmate for the rest of the year.
It turned out that Marina had gotten pregnant. When she went out on leave, we had a new teacher practically every month. Teachers didn’t want to come to our crummy school on the distant outskirts of the capital. When they did arrive they didn’t know who we were or what we had learned. Nonetheless I enjoyed social studies, especially geography. We were obliged to study everything about our country, including the names of the departments, the rivers and lakes and everything. But learning was difficult because the teachers were constantly changing. We would actually be glad when Marina came back to teach us in second grade.
In any event, after the baby came the teacher wanted to show it off to everyone, and she brought Lucía along for a visit. By this time the girl was wearing shoes, and had given up her traditional clothing in favor of cheap pants and tight blouses that she bought from street vendors. And she spoke differently. Lucía’s manner of speaking had been very simple. Our friend had grown up in an isolated area; her parents had emigrated from the countryside and they all had kept their country accent. When the girl returned to visit us, we found that she was trying to adopt the singsong way of speaking that they have in the capital. Here in the U.S., every Salvadoran will tell you that they lived in San Salvador. But then you hear the countrified way they talk—like, “Noooo, nooo es mi caballooooo.” (To our ears, this would sound like, “Naw, that ain’t my horse.”) We Salvadorans don’t laugh because we don’t want to make fun of people. Anyway, it’s perfectly obvious that such people are not from the capital at all, and you ask them why they lied about it.
As for our friend Lucía, she never studied again—she couldn’t even finish first grade. It was very bad that the teacher exploited her, because how are we supposed to get ahead if we can’t study? Poor Lucía hadn’t even learned to read or write before the teacher took her away.
We did have a lovely principal, Señora Landaverde, who would take over our class on the days we didn’t have a teacher. She had white skin, long, wavy hair, and big glasses; she was probably in her late thirties at the time. Señora Landaverde didn’t dress like the other teachers, but wore “hippy” clothing—like blue jeans or denim skirts with loose Indian print blouses in baby blue or other pastel colors. She wore sandals or tennis shoes, which was very strange for a woman at the time. In the capital she owned a bakery, and a shoe shop as well—a franchise of a well-known brand. She would give out discount coupons so that parents, even poor ones, could buy their children shoes. (Of course, my parents disregarded this opportunity.)
Señora Landaverde was a law in the school, and yet she was a very sweet woman, quite different from all the other teachers. She read us stories from a book with a very pretty cover. Ever since I could remember I had listened to stories on the national radio station. But to all of us, the culture of parents or teachers reading stories to children was completely new. Señora Landaverde was the only one who took the time to do this. She would go to the library and bring in storybooks to entertain us. We had never seen such books! Her voice was sweet and soft, and I liked to hear it—although it put some of my classmates to sleep! (These were usually the kids who had walked barefoot to school for forty-five minutes.) When she read “The Little Match Girl” we all ended up crying, so she gave us each a piece of candy to console us. I will never forget this—because nobody ever gave us anything!
It was a shame that when I started second grade our principal Señora Landaverde left the school. Sadly, she departed when the political situation heated up and the teachers’ movement began—ANDES 21 de Junio, the National Association of Salvadoran Educators. She no doubt opposed the abuse of teachers and the other social problems that existed, but she wasn’t stupid. She had a lot of education and she asked to transfer to a safer, more central school.
Unfortunately, we students then fell into the hands of a dictator, the bitter vice-principal. Señora Esmeralda de García was a very angry woman who never missed a chance to wallop you on the back with her belt. She was rather fat, with a deep, harsh voice; all of her sweetness was gone. She had light skin, with a little nose and a skimpy, thin-lipped mouth, and she wore very short hair and big round glasses. This martinet vice-principal took over the reins from the angelic lady, but since I behaved very well she seldom beat me.
Señora Esmeralda was never friendly. She told us to call her “Señora Directora.” She had two children who attended a private high school—they were on a very different economic level from us. I don’t understand why she liked her children to hang around our school once she became principal. She might be mistreating us or beating us with the yardstick, but when her own offspring arrived her sweetness was so great that she ran to them, hugged and kissed them, exclaiming, “Ay, my children!” She gently led them into her office, then emerged to strike us again. You’d wonder how she could have such motherly affection for her own children, and no feeling at all for the children of others!
In our schools we celebrate everything, and no matter what the event the principal’s daughter would come out in the very best traditional outfit and perform dances for us. She took so many ballet classes that the way she walked became quite different from anyone else. She was about eight years older than me, and was very well known in the community. Any of us would have said, “Ay, we envy her!” But the girl did not speak to us, only to people who were at her social level. The principal’s son would come, too, in style—trailing marijuana and alcohol. He gave this contraband to the bigger kids for free, to get them hooked. His mother let him do absolutely anything he wanted. If he had wanted to rape one of the older girls he could have done so freely.
Señora Esmeralda was well known. In spite of all the problems at our school, when middle class people saw the principal’s children here they began to send their own kids to us. These middle-class kids certainly stood out from the rest of us. They were smart, of course, but they started becoming drug addicts and developing other vices. We poor kids couldn’t afford anything but alcohol—the one thing that was available around us. But more vices were being promoted by the son of the principal, so what could we do?
When the armed conflict began in our country, the principal’s children were the first to leave. She sent them to America about the time I was in fifth grade, but she and her husband remained. I saw her children once again some thirty years later, and was startled to see that they looked the same as ever. They had married very well in the United States, and their life here was easy—thus their bodies were just the same as when they were young. They had had a comfortable life because they were the pampered children of mommy and daddy.
Señora Esmeralda retired when we were in sixth grade. Since I was president of the class, I was charged with buying her a gift. All my classmates pitched in, and so we raised the magnificent sum of seven colones—a bit less than one American dollar. I found her a little centerpiece with ceramic animals to remember us by.
In spite of all the abuse that school entailed, from the beginning I could see that my brothers and sisters made friends there, and I would have liked to make some new friends. I admired my sister Sonia, who was five years older than me. She and my other sisters had friends from wealthy families who lived in big houses on the main street of our barrio, people with lots of land, who lived well. The huge old house from the former coffee plantation had been torn down, but its enormous portal remained, from which these few wealthy families came and went in their 4-wheel drive cars.
Sonia was always very authoritative; she had a circle of friends who were far beyond anything I could manage. She was the leader of her social group and got what she wanted. I said to myself that I, too, would start to be part of this new life, and be different. But I guess my character wasn’t the same as hers. I wished I could feel the sense of security in life that she seemed to possess, but she was very different from me. I would just shrug things off, as if to say, “Ah, everything’s fine—no problem!”
During my first years of school, if any of the kids tried to bully me I would go and tell Sonia. She would come with her group and demand, “What’s going on here?” She and her friends protected me. I was surprised to see her in this role.
Plus, Sonia was the only one who had a different relationship with the teachers. She was befriended by the teacher Gabriela, whom she had for third, fourth, and fifth grade. La maestra Gabriela was a lot like Sonia—small of stature but very sure of herself. She wore an elaborate, ratted hairdo with little bangs at each temple, which was all the rage at that time. She was divorced, with a little son. She was very nice to my sister, and that contributed to Sonia’s sense of security. I thought my life was going to be like that, but I didn’t have maestra Gabriela until fourth grade, and she didn’t befriend me as she had Sonia.
My classmates and I were on the morning shift at school, and I think that the other kids lived about the same as I did, with families mistreating us all the time. This made us feel very close to one another. However, at one-thirty in the afternoon there was another group of children who had it worse than we did. They studied in the afternoon because from a very young age they had to work in the morning, whether shining shoes or making them. Some of these kids collected sand from the polluted river, and others crushed stone that they could later sell. Such is life, you just have to live it.
In the afternoon class there were two boys I remember in particular, the brothers Ramírez. They had everything they needed to live a tranquil life: a kind mother, a hardworking father. And they had a little business outside the Catholic church in the barrio, which had a parochial school. They sold or rented little camaritas, or slide viewers, something called Viewmasters. They charged kids twenty-five centavos to see an adventure of ducklings. These boys were very hard workers—such are our Latino children.
I very much admired the afternoon students, but I went on the morning shift, where the parents at least checked up on their kids’ progress. Although my mother almost never came, I had three older siblings in the school and they were the ones who supposedly watched over my education and my problems.
One scary problem occurred when I was in first grade. A third grade boy suddenly appeared and took an uncomfortable degree of interest in me. His name was Cecilio; he was big and tall, already twelve years old. I don’t know why he looked at me in particular, with his very strange eyes. It frightened me. Those eyes were out of the ordinary, full of a malice that doesn’t belong in children so young. He would always give me something, usually a ribbon for my hair. That was odd because my mother never left our hair loose—she gave each of us two very tight braids that would have to last from Sunday to Saturday. Mamá pulled our hair so tight that for the first few days I didn’t close my eyes to sleep—because I couldn’t! And I didn’t understand why Cecilio would always give me hair ribbons, if I wouldn’t use them.
The boy was a classmate of Sonia’s, and he had a little brother in my class—José, who was a couple of years older than me. No, Cecilio wasn’t ugly—all my sister’s friends wanted him as a boyfriend. But there was something in him that scared me—and even scared my big, strong friends. He always seemed to be stalking me, spying on me. He seemed to know when I was heading to the co-ed latrine at school, and he would turn up there whenever I needed to use it. He scared me. He was the only one I was afraid of.
Cecilio’s abuela owned the big electric grinding mill in the neighborhood. In those days each woman cooked the corn at home, washed it, and then carried it out to the old mill in a huge bowl on her head. There the corn kernels were ground up with water to make cornmeal, called nixtamal. When it came out of the chute it was ready to be made into tortillas. At that time in my country this was a good business, and they knew it.
The family also made money from allowing people to bathe in their basement. There was no water source nearby, but the room downstairs was tiled and two feet deep in water. You could bathe up to ten children for five centavos. Seven or ten of us little kids would get together, each with some soap in a little huacal and a scrap of old blanket to use as a towel, and go “swimming” at la casa del molino. The littlest kids were naked and the bigger ones might be wearing underpants. We’d scrape together five centavos and crowd in to see Jimena, the sweet old lady, and say, “Niña Mena, nos vende un baño!” “Miss Mena, sell us a bath!”
Among her grandkids were Cecilio and his two brothers, and five very pretty girl cousins, some of whom were already adults. But a few of these girls were our age and went to the same school, as it was the closest. During the week the boys stayed with their grandma, but on the weekend they went to stay with their mother, who paid someone to take care of them while she worked. It turned out that the babysitter’s sons were raping both boys.
The family moved to Mexico when I was in second through fourth grades. Later they returned, and in eighth grade José confided to me that back in first grade his big brother José was already raping him. José later decamped to another city and hardly ever came back, not even to visit his family. No, I never knew why he was so suddenly sent far away. As for José, he became a homosexual. He came back later as a woman, a prostitute. Anyone in the street felt justified in beating or kicking him. The two boys died of AIDS years later.
Cecilio had a very talkative and stuck-up friend, Ágeda, who arrived in second grade. She was dark, her complexion like mine but even more marked by the aboriginal blood of our ancestors. They were three siblings, a filly and two little colts. Ágeda, at seven, was the oldest. She surprised us because she always wore very clean clothes and they combed her hair every day. She was very affectionate and we told each other that she kissed up, since she would bring fruit to Señora Marina and give her a present on Teachers’ Day. We never got to eat fruit ourselves, much less give it as a gift! As for presents, what presents could we buy for five centavos? That was a fortune that the rest of us we could rarely manage to possess. Well, she could!
Of course the teachers loved her. They shunted aside the girl who sat closest to their desks and installed Ágeda there. She looked like a Pipil princess: new shoes, a fine denim bookbag for her notebooks, clothes nicely ironed. And her mamá came every day to speak with the teacher. (What an interested teacher!)
Now the mother paid for that heartless teacher to have her glass of milk and bit of pastry every day for breakfast. And of course it wouldn’t be her own little daughter who would bring it, much less the lady herself. The teacher, our “second mother,” would send out her humblest little bastards for the milk—and, as always, one of them would be me. For three years we would miss our classes to go bring the little cup of milk to Señora Marina. But it wasn’t all for nothing, since the lady would take pity on us and give us a crumb of her pastry.
Thus it was that I, with a hollow place in my life, became one of the best friends of the Pipil princess, as I called her. Everything in her life was lovely. She had just about anything that any one of us could have desired, except a papá. She and her mother insisted that he was away on a trip, and this sacrifice allowed them to live a little bit better off.
Nonetheless they resided with Ágeda’s maternal grandmother and her aunts in a sheet metal champa like our own, except that theirs was falling down, with parts of it made from earth and cardboard. Ágeda’s uncles were young, but always drunk. We learned everything about her family…except about the father. He sent the money for everything, but he was never around.
Since Ágeda possessed a lot of books we went to her house every day to do homework. She was very intelligent and not the least bit troublesome. Whenever there was a contest, it was she who would win the crown: her father sent her enough money to buy everything—but everything!
On a day like any other, when we were already in the fifth grade, a much older cousin of mine noticed that we came home from school together. She chatted with the girl and asked about her mother, who was a friend. Ágeda told her where she lived and very contentedly they went to the house.
Afterwards, my cousin dropped by our house since she was also a dear friend of my mother’s. She said that she finally knew where Ágeda’s family lived, and then told Mamá about the problem. What problem? I was terribly curious to know, and my cousin recounted all the details. She said that neither the girl nor her brothers knew the truth.
It turned out that my friend Ágeda was presumptuous and a liar. But my heart never had malice in it, so I never told her that her father was in prison for the sexual assault of a girl. No, he was not away on a trip; he had been very well guarded in prison for the past five years. His sentence was for fifteen years, but they had reduced it to twelve. And it was her paternal grandparents who sent them all of that money for their support. Regardless, I envied her. Although her house was falling down, some walls made of plastic sheeting and not even corrugated tin, she was the only person I ever envied.
At thirteen years of age Ágeda fell in love with a boy; it was puppy love. When her father returned from prison and found out, he tried to rape her. He said it out loud, an attitude that many men have: “You’re my daughter. I paid to raise you, and now you must pay me back by being my woman!”
After that, when I heard her say all sorts of pretty things about her own dad and then tell me that mine was a drunk, I think God gave me the strength not to scream at her the truth about her own life. One day, of course, she discovered the horrible truth and it came to torment her. I’m glad I held my tongue—for if not, at this late stage of life I would have a terrible burden on my conscience.
Years later my Pipil princess worked as a secretary in the capital, and secretly engaged in prostitution at night.
Despite all these problems, sometimes there were beautiful days—for when you’re a child you don’t worry about having only one pair of shoes for school. You spend the rest of the day barefoot. And there were some happy moments.
When I was little my papá inherited a loom. The owner of my father’s weaving workshop died, and with breathtaking generosity his widow gave the looms to individual workers. Diego, the Spiderman, inherited a loom which he brought home and installed in the middle of our tiny champa. What a racket it made from morning to night!
Anyway, my siblings all knew that I liked to talk a lot, and I really liked to eat semitas, a kind of jam-filled pastry that is popular in my country. A piece of semita alta, which has an extra layer of buttery dough, cost five centavos. I knew that Diego had five centavos in his pocket. I liked to go and sit down with him.
There I was in the afternoon after school, seated, asking Diego to give me five centavos for semitas. Our parents never gave us anything when we went off to school, they didn’t give us a sandwich, nothing. Yes, we ate beans for breakfast with a piece of tortilla. Then we were going to be okay because we had something in our stomachs. But they never gave us anything to eat at school. Sometimes we liked to go up to our friends, and they would generously share their lunch, or their five mangos, their handful of whatever fruit might be in season. And that’s how you find out who your friends are—because there are some friends who love you even though you are nobody.
And so in the afternoons I liked to be there with Papi. I spent perhaps two hours saying to him, “Give me five, I want semitas, give me five.” Finally he took out the five centavos from his pocket, insulted me, and told me to get out. But he gave me the five, and nothing else mattered! Off I went to buy the semitas: one each for my two older siblings, and one for me.
Oh, those were the days! For me they seemed lovely, although what I got was mistreatment from my father. He didn’t hit me; he just swore at me—but I secured the five centavos for my semitas!
One thing above all remains etched in my memory of second grade. One day, it must have been the year 1972, we little kids came out of school at two in the afternoon, and there in the dusty road near the bakery were the bodies of three young men. All were youngsters that everybody knew, who came every week to deliver the flour used to make bread. They always took the same route, and that day they had been murdered at point-blank range.
The dirt road was narrow and the delivery truck very wide, thus we all had to squeeze alongside it in order to pass. The police hadn’t arrived, nobody had come. No mothers were with us; where I lived, mothers almost never brought their children to school or picked them up. You’d walk to school with a neighbor kid or with a brother or sister. And so we children made a circle right up close around the bodies. Somebody older, maybe one of my siblings, should have told me not to look.
One body was splayed in the dirt at the bottom of the bakery steps. Another lay next to the delivery truck and one underneath it. We saw the boys’ faces in the dirt, their blood spattered in the dust, and we said to one another, “They killed them!” These bleeding bodies, cast onto the ground amid white splotches of scattered flour, were the first of so many corpses I was to see.
Wow, how hard life is! I stood there looking. We just stood there, a clump of us—my brothers and sisters and neighbor kids—maybe ten or fifteen minutes just looking at the bodies. As a little child, despite the violence that I had witnessed in my own family, it was shocking to see the bloody bodies of the three young men. They were hard workers, youths not so much older than we were, covered in dust from the rutted dirt road. I dreamed of this scene near my house for about a year: the faces of the murdered boys in that steaming noontime, and the way your body writhes when no longer directed by your brain.
For us this was the beginning of a time of violence. I don’t remember which day it was, but I do remember the heat, the dust, the noonday sun and the crowd of us little kids from the school. Sometimes I talk with my family about it and they clam up, especially people of my generation, because we like to pretend that such carnage only happens in films. But when you have seen these things with your own eyes, and your ears have heard the sound of a bullet striking flesh, a machete slicing into a human body—these are things that you can’t forget so easily.
We kids walked those dirt roads every single day. That day we stood in the road, all in a group, and for us it was… How can I express it? Okay, now as an old woman I can say it: This violence was something profoundly disrespectful.
They didn’t harm those youths in some middle-class district. No, they had to come to our impoverished neighborhood and murder them exactly at the hour when children were about to come out from school. It seemed that they did it precisely so that we kids would see what would happen. They did it consciously, to terrorize the next generation.
Before arriving at our district, the killers had to pass through an upper-middle class neighborhood: but such things never happened there amid the pretty houses, the big houses with a garage, people who were employed. They came here, also, to throw out the bodies of people they had killed elsewhere. Already there had been cars passing through our narrow dirt streets, carrying the bodies of people who had been murdered. The perpetrators sought out our impoverished, outlying district, perhaps because all the streets ended up overlooking the river. The killers brought their victims here to throw them down the cliffs along the river, hoping the water would carry them away. There was a place that was called the Three Crosses, after three crossings of the river, and the bodies of murdered people always turned up there.
We would watch the killers come and go, but nobody said anything. This is what makes me sad sometimes, because I wonder: Why couldn’t we talk about these things? Why did we always have to keep silent when we knew who did the evil deed? Everyone knew it was the army—sometimes we’d see uniformed soldiers doing this. We knew the people with money were behind it.
The incident at the bakery was widely reported on radio and television. They said that the youths belonged to a union, which was prohibited in those days—so they had to pay the price. Who made them pay the price? I had never known what a unionist was—my family unfortunately never had the connections to get work in a private company. Later, they taught us in school about unions and unionists, and then we realized that they were workers who wanted to begin the struggle for labor rights.
Well, the only people who didn’t like unions at that time were those in the government of Arturo Armando Molina, the PCN (National Conciliation Party). Its slogan was “Vote for the little hands,” and to this day their symbol is two hands clasped. Those hands were stained by the blood of many people who never agreed with what was happening in the country.
A paramilitary death squad arose, called the Shadow of Death. They gagged you, beat you, tortured you, and if this was not enough, then they killed you. As time went on, people took advantage of the situation to get back at neighbors they were quarreling with. All you’d have to do is talk loudly about someone, maybe saying that a man was in the green party, the PDC (the Christian Democratic Party), and the Shadow of Death would come at night and murder the whole family.
As a young child I came to understand all this—what the symbol of the little hands meant. I will always remember this, and all the people who have never spoken to tell their story. I believe that the perpetrators thought us so stupid that we would never know who had murdered the young men at the bakery. I believe the weight of these deaths will always be on their conscience.
And so the delivery boys were dead. What could we have done? Mamá had always told us not to look at dead people, because sometimes the trauma can be very great. These corpses had not fallen naturally into the road, and we were not going to touch them, either. After maybe twenty minutes Sonia, the oldest among us, said, “Let’s go, monkeys—Mamá must be waiting for us.” And we went running home with the news. But Mamá had already heard, and the curious were coming out to see.
A new era began the moment the bakery boys were murdered. Big changes began to take place, things that my mind never could have conceived of. It was as though a page had been turned and we had entered a new epoch. Afterwards we realized that a huge wave of violence was approaching. A diaspora began, of everyone who had the means to leave our little country.