Unforgetting: Confronting El Salvador’s—and My Family’s—Past

Unforgetting: Confronting El Salvador’s—and My Family’s—Past

Unforgetting: Confronting El Salvador’s—and My Family’s—Past

Doing so helped me to understand not just the violent history of El Salvador, but also that of my country of birth, the United States.


As a young man, I joined a guerrilla insurgency and went to war, but I didn’t really know why I did so. Just six years after the Vietnam War ended, my family and all other Salvadorans started facing the profound consequences of the Reagan administration’s decision to begin spending billions of dollars to bolster the universally condemned Salvadoran government and military in their war against the leftist guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. The FMLN was the Salvadoran embodiment of what Reagan referred to as the “evil empire” of communism. By the end of the war, some 80,000 people had been killed in a country of just over 5 million that’s the size of Massachusetts. Most of the innocents were slaughtered by their own government, according to the United Nations and international human rights groups.

Born in the United States, I’m the son of Salvadorans, so the postwar humanitarian crisis—gang and government violence perpetrated by young men who, like my younger self, don’t know why they’re violent, and mass migration—is, before anything else, personal. My childhood American innocence was protected by my family, while my father cordoned off key parts of his story, leaving me to sort through and try to make sense of the half-truths and outright myths of family history that hardly explained why I, a Salvadoran kid born in San Francisco, decided to go to war. Excavating my family history, especially my father’s history, helped me to understand not just the violent history of El Salvador, but also that of my country of birth, the United States.

“Damn it,” pop said. “I wish someone would exterminate those sons of bitches. They’re ruining the country.” My father repeated this sentiment often, especially when he was watching Spanish-language broadcasts featuring reports from El Salvador about gang violence—the near-constant news story about his homeland.

He was watching TV while sitting on the black leather sofa beneath the portraits of my two grandmothers hanging on the walls of the living room. It was in 2000, and I was visiting my hometown of San Francisco from LA, where I taught in the country’s first Central American studies program. Years earlier, Pop’s logistical support for my work with urban commandos of the FMLN during El Salvador’s civil war brought us closer, helping to thaw what had been, at best, a tense relationship.

Pop had never met a member of MS-13, the most notorious of the Salvadoran gangs. The story of the maras and their real violence remains hidden to Pop and most Salvadorans.

In no way did I advocate Pop’s final solution to the gang problem, but tempering my desire to fire back was my growing interest in learning what he knew about La Matanza—the slaughter of 10,000 to 30,000 peasants in 1932 by the dictatorship of Gen. Maximiliano Hernández Martínez in response to an Indigenous uprising aided by Communist insurgents. I had started to take a greater interest in this grim topic recently, thanks to the Central American studies program where I taught. Most of the books I’d read on La Matanza mentioned Ahuachapán, Pop’s hometown and the capital of the western Salvadoran department of the same name. Pop would’ve been 9 in January 1932, when the slaughter began, old enough to remember something. In the course of my research, I’d started to wonder what impact the colossal event had on his generation—and on the current generation of Salvadorans facing continued violence. Helping the students in my Salvadoran Experience class take the difficult but necessary dive into the history of war, violence, and overcoming that had shaped their immigrant families was inspiring me to look into the ways these forces had shaped mine.

Both of my parents’ stories interested me, but because his history was the most forbidden fruit in our home, Pop’s story interested my inner Detective Columbo the most, especially the stuff he remained silent about: what he remembered about 1930s El Salvador and why he didn’t like to talk about these things. Like an archaeologist searching for ancient buried treasure, I had brought a map of El Salvador. I’d also brought some of my books on Salvadoran history. With the resolve of a former revolucionario, I was determined to do el todo por el todo—go all out—to try to smash the wall of silence protecting the unspeakable things in my father’s past, which I suspected haunted me on some level as well.

Mom brought out Pop’s dinner, a ham and cheese sandwich with hot atole, to the living room table toward the end of Jeopardy! Alex Trebek told the contestants they were about to enter Final Jeopardy. Taking advantage of the commercial break, I approached the table where Pop sat regally, despite his advanced age.

“Hey, Pop,” I said, sitting down beside him. “I’m really enjoying teaching the students at Northridge. We finally got formal approval to start our Central American studies program a few weeks ago. Now we’re doing the research to create a strong curriculum.”

“That’s great,” Pop said. “Is there a chance you’ll get a permanent job?”

“Nothing’s permanent, Pop. Anyone who knows history knows that, right?” I was appealing to Pop’s insatiable will to learn that had led him to read newspapers daily and devour World War II books. “That’s right, son. Nothing’s permanent. Everything changes. I can tell you from all my friends who’ve died over the years.” Pop rarely mentioned death; I felt emboldened.

“So check this out, Pop,” I began, laying the map on the table.

“Look there,” he said. “There’s Ahuachapán.”

“Yeah. I’ve been reading a lot about the history of Ahuachapán in books like this one. It’s got some cool pictures and maps and stuff.”

“Oh, yes. There’s San Vicente, your mother’s hometown,” he said, before calling out, “Nena, your son is researching that homely hometown of yours.”

“Call it what you want, but I love my pueblo,” she retorted. Mom was an eternal optimist, lightness coming out of every fiber of her being.

“Says here in this book that La Matanza took place in Ahuachapán, Pop,” I said, my stomach tensing up for either another disappointment or a breakthrough.

“La Matanza? What’s that?” he asked, with a real look of puzzlement on his face. The commercial break advertising laxatives summed up my situation.

Then, before I could answer, his eyebrows rose, his mouth opened wide, and he started to nod. “You’re talking about 1932,” he said, with the confident, intelligent, David Niven–esque air I always loved about him, “when they killed the comunistas and the indios.”

“Yes!” I said loudly, my mix of excitement and fear competing with the blaring television. “Yes, Pop, that’s what I’m talking about.”

“You know, in 1932 I was 9 years old on my way to turning 10,” he said. “I remember everything.”

I couldn’t believe he was actually going to speak about such a significant part of Salvadoran history that I’d never realized he’d experienced.

“We had some friends, Adrian Rodas, his brother Virgilio, La Chica López, a big beautiful india who was good with a gun and rode a big white horse. She was friends with my mother and my abuela Mamá Juanita and was involved with Adrian. Adrian and Virgilio were two men who had balls, so much balls, they didn’t fit in their pants. They could ride a horse backward, shoot with two guns, and killed guardias before ‘32. La Chica was good with a gun, too. They were somehow involved with the indios, but they weren’t comunistas. Adrian and La Chica told my mother and my other grandmother, Mamá Fina, ‘It’s probably a good idea for you to leave to Ataco or San Salvador.’ There were rumores, and my mother and Fina were talking about leaving, but we didn’t leave in time.”

“Wow, Pop. So what happened?”

“In the early morning we heard tatatatat!” he said. “My grandmother told my mother to send me to Mamá Juanita’s house, but it was too late. I was scared hearing the shots. My mother looked out, saw what was happening, and told me and Mamá Fina, ‘Don’t be scared. We’ll get through this. Just go back to the bed. I’m going to see what’s going on.’

“I was worried about my mother going out. You could hear it sound like this”—he rapped on the door with his hand to imitate gunshots. “We thought they were knocking on our door. But it was the machine guns. Soldiers were on the corner shooting at about 200 men who were in the barranco [ravine], about a block from our house. My friend Joaquin’s father, Coronel Chacón, and some troops came out of the cuartel [barracks] and started a massacre right there. It was a matazón [massacre] of people.

“One of the men escaping the matazón tried to come into our house. He hid in the oven, a big adobe oven my mother and Mamá Fina made bread in. Mamá Fina told him, ‘I’ll give you five pesos. Leave, and God bless you.’ He took the money and started running out the back. He was hopping over a fence when the bullet hit him. He died. The military came and searched our house. The first place they searched was the adobe oven. My mother eventually came back and told us what was happening.”

Pop caught his breath. until that moment, he’d shown no signs of difficulty talking about stuff he’d been silent about for so long. 

“Later that morning, a friend said, ‘Hey, let’s go see what happened at the cuartel,’” he continued. “We walked toward it and got close enough to see the cuartel. We climbed a tree. There were men with machine guns standing above men with shovels digging holes. After they dug the holes, you could hear the tatatatatat of the machine guns. We saw the military guys give the prisoners shovels. They made the comunistas dig their own graves to bury themselves in. They shot many.”

The weight of this silenced memory pressed my stomach.

“There was a band, a group of soldier musicians playing music. One of them started reading a manifesto: ‘We invite the people to come out at 2:00 in the afternoon to see the execution of a group of rebels.’ Many people went. Some went out of curiosity. Others went out of fear, like they were forced. In the cuartel, there were a bunch of men and boys lined up to be killed.

“We thought they were going to march them to the cemetery,” Pop said, “but instead they went to the patio of the cuartel, a tremendous big place. It was beautiful there. They took them there and shot them by the dozens. Papapapapap. Puta, sííííí. They invited people to come and see what the Socorro Rojo Internacional was. [International Red Aid, a social service organization established by the Communist International, was led in Latin America by Farabundo Martí, who was killed in La Matanza.] They made mass graves not just in the cemetery but in the cuartel.”

Not noticing much emotion in the telling, I asked, “Pop, how did seeing this make you feel?”

“I started feeling scared after seeing all these dead people,” he said. “At night, I felt afraid of seeing the dead and the ones that were almost dead before they came to give them the tiro de gracia.

“Later on, I spoke with other kids about it. After that, I never spoke about this again, have not since childhood. I saw not just one but hundreds of dead in those days.”

“Why didn’t you say anything, Pop?”

“I had no occasion to speak about it. I never belonged to a political party and wasn’t partisan. At night, me surraba [I shit in my pants] in the darkness. When I was alone, I went to Mamá Fina’s cot to sleep with her.”

Pop paused to breathe and started trembling like when he was angry. Then he began shaking more violently. At that moment, my 78-year-old father became the 9-year-old boy who’d witnessed one of the worst massacres in the history of the Americas. He looked so vulnerable. Mucus started dripping from his nose. Tears followed.

After a few moments he tried to gather his composure. “This makes me very sad, son. Can we stop now?”

“Of course, Pop.”

A moment of silence. Pop looked around the living room, as if he’d lost his glasses or something. Then came the sounds of his big nose honking from crying. Unbeknownst to me, my heart had always been broken because of the heartbreak I inherited from Pop. I started crying, too, and hugged him as he remained silent, unable to look directly at me.

Mom came into the room; she had surely been listening. She looked concerned for him but also happy to see us bonding.

“It’s OK, Nena,” he told her. “It’s OK.”

In that moment I was full of pride, giving myself credit for breaking through Pop’s silence. Many children of Holocaust survivors have been driven to bring their parents’ hidden stories to light. Psychologist Dina Wardi calls them “memorial candles.” Lighting up this story hidden in the shadows of our family history, I felt like the Salvadoran equivalent.

Minutes later, I gained a different perspective. Looking at Pop gather a smile as he struggled to raise his frail physique from the sofa to walk to the bathroom, the revolucionario in me realized that Pop had been doing the same emotional heavy lifting I’d thought only Mom did. Entering the final phase of his life, Pop felt ready to talk about his silent darkness. I was simply the listener he found to help him do so.

Certain things Mamá Tey, my paternal grandmother, had told me about Pop’s hard life made sense now. I understood why, for example, at 12 he had started decades of heavy drinking.

I also became even more aware of the tender force of Mom’s lightness—how Mom and Mamá Tey’s love had saved Pop from himself and helped me save myself. They connected me to a lost part of my history and helped me understand the importance of extended family—all my cousins and aunts, whose pictures hung on the walls of our apartment in San Francisco. My father’s tragic past—in many ways the unconscious root of my anger—had helped form me into Tito, the crazy dude who, without knowing the emotional atom bomb he’d inherited from his family, had joined Los Originales, an informal group of street toughs others likely saw as a gang, and, later, the comandos urbanos of the FMLN. The born-again Christian phase of my youth probably had something to do with trying to redeem myself from my terrible inheritance, too.

My inner and outer peace with Pop fundamentally altered my sense of my family, my country, and myself. I’d never before experienced this level of compassion or the profound ways a compassionate perspective of the past could alter one’s view of people and of nations. Suddenly I experienced Pop, my family, and Salvadorans, and El Salvador generally, in a much more tender way. But to find emotional equilibrium, I also had to turn this perspective inward and find compassion for the spoiled, misguided little gringo boy who was so angry and confused about being Salvadoran. This newfound love of myself helped me map the layers of emotion—fear, anger, hopelessness—working below my conscious awareness to create my inner conflicts. Through all of this, I’d found my way. I’d come to realize that if we do the necessary work of unforgetting, our buried love can blossom.

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