If you’ve been reading this blog regularly, you’ll know that I have a strong connection with El Salvador where I lived during the decade of the 1990s. Every so often I get nostalgic or something triggers me and I get the urge to write about those days or how they still impact on me and my kids. The Central American child migration situation is in the news every day now, with varying explanations and huge amounts of political manipulation, so it’s something that’s been on my mind a lot lately.
I migrated to El Salvador for love in 1991 and back into the US with my kids in 2001 to get out of a country that was increasingly sinking into terrifying violence and where I could not envision a future for myself or my kids. The very week we left El Salvador, the 9-year-old son of a man who owned a small mechanic shop (eg, not someone who was uber wealthy) was kidnapped and then killed by his captors when the police attempted to rescue him. My son Daniel was also 9 at the time.
Still, leaving El Salvador was the hardest decision I’ve ever made — and I had a plane ticket, family support in the US, spoke the language, had a job, and already had US citizenship, as did my kids. I cannot imagine sending my children on their own, by foot. I cannot imagine having to make the choice between the known day-to-day violence of one kind and the potential yet very real violence of another.
My ex-husband made the journey into the US in the early 1980s when he was 18. It took him four months to make it. He tells of hunger, of sleeping outside, of looking for short-term work in Mexico to replace the money that the police had stolen from him, and being chased through the fields by a man with a machete. He traveled with the clothes on his back and not much else. The heartbreak and fear involved in a decision to send a child on that journey alone is something I can’t fathom. But I know that El Salvador is no place to try to raise children right now either. Even in the 1990s, every time I left the house I wondered if I would return that evening or if I might be caught up somehow in the senseless violence that runs wild in the country. It’s something you learn to live with, and you don’t realize how stressful it is until you wake up somewhere where you feel safe.
Our decision to migrate back to the US continues to be difficult sometimes, as I wrote in this post about my daughter’s experiences dealing with family separation. It’s never easy for families to be separated, and it enrages me when the family bonds, of “others” or of “the poor” are imagined to be less strong or less meaningful than those of more privileged people or of the current citizens of a particular country. Sending a child to walk across a desert is not a decision parents make lightly. Why do people seem to understand that when it’s the “Lost Boys of Sudan” and not when it’s children of Central America?
Yesterday, my son Daniel wrote about his experiences for a newspaper called Brasil do Fato, where he’s interning for the next 3 months as part of a human rights grant he received from his university. He doesn’t elaborate about his childhood in El Salvador in this version, but his original version talked about the joy of growing up in the Barrio where we lived, playing in the alley and the rubble of an abandoned building down the road, and how things have changed since then.
Daniel’s piece gives a quick history of the US’ involvement in Central America and why it’s not an isolated issue, free of history and a broader global context. He also reflects on “how much a person’s fate is determined by the country and family into which they are born and where they fall in the order of social forces that structure the world.” It’s something he understands well, because he’s had the best of his two worlds.
Here’s the original article published on July 24, 2014, in Brasil do Fato (in Portuguese), and I’ve pasted in an English translation here:
Human Rights here and in the wider world
by Daniel Ramirez
I am Salvadoran, on my father’s side. Which means that I share, at the very least, a common history and memories of life in a Salvadoran barrio. In the barrio, I grew up alongside many children living in very difficult circumstances, just like the children who are seeking to flee the country today.
Our lives, however, turned out very differently. I am privileged to be a college student at the University of Chicago, and currently in São Paulo working as an intern for Brasil de Fato thanks to a grant from my school’s Human Rights program. This highlights for me how much a person’s fate is determined by the country and family into which they are born and where they fall in the order of social forces that structure the world.
Throughout the 20th century — especially after 1932 when the Salvadoran government put down an attempted peasant insurrection led by the Partido Socialista Centroamericano, killing up to 40,000 indigenous people in a massacre known as “La Matanza” — economic tension between the Salvadoran oligarchy and its working classes continually increased.
This conflict hit a high point during the global economic crisis of the 1970s, and in 1979 an attempted coup d’etat sparked the Salvadoran Civil War. The United States saw this as an opportunity to ensure communism would not take root in El Salvador, as it already had in Nicaragua, and funded the Salvadoran military’s campaign against popular resistance. On the left, the guerrilla militia named Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (in honor of Farabundo Martí, the leader of the 1932 insurrection) was organized to fight for the Salvadoran people.
It was a brutal war that lasted until 1992. Thousands were killed and human rights were grossly abused on a massive scale. To escape this, many Salvadorans migrated to the United States, including my dad who escaped to the US in the early 1980’s. In 1990, my dad was deported back to El Salvador, and my mom went with him.
I lived in El Salvador until I was nine, then I moved to the United States with my mom and sister.
Since I left, I’ve gone back to visit El Salvador once every couple of years. Now, my old friends have grown up. They work hard for little pay and already have families, and we’ve grown apart. There are still kids hanging out outside, but they’re older, and it seems to me like the character of their activities has become more serious.
The barrio has changed. It now “belongs” to the 18th Street gang. There’s more violence around, some of it between rival gangs, and my dad tells me to be careful who I talk to. The kid who lived directly across from us back in the day was shot and killed along with his mother right in the alley in front of my old house. If I’d been born ten years later, my childhood would not have been the carefree, playful existence that it was.
Violence, Hope and Reality
This is the type of social climate that is causing children to leave for the United States. And if we follow the chain (if not totally causal, then at least telling) from US military funding, to an intensified civil war, to refugee migration, to Los Angeles gangs, to deportation and finally to the pervasive power of gangs throughout El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, we can see how much current migration into the US from Central America has been shaped by the United States’ influence.
Right now, on the United States’ side of the US-Mexico border, thousands of children are arriving at immigration detention centers, most looking to escape violent conditions in their home countries. Meanwhile, President Obama is looking for the power to deport them as quickly as possible, intending to send Central Americans the message that the US will not aid immigrants arriving en masse to its borders, even if they are children.
United States foreign policy in Latin America extended and fueled a brutal civil war in El Salvador. Its domestic treatment of immigrants, refugees and low income communities bred gangs who then committed crimes and who then were deported back to a Central American economy and society that had no room or place for them to reintegrate in a healthy manner.
The United States is a major historical cause of the current influx of child immigrants. It would be just for United States society to take collective responsibility for the harm it inflicted in the past, and do what it can to help remedy the crisis in Central America. But, as can be seen by looking at how United States society treats its African-American community, as a country, it is not very good at taking responsibility for past crimes.
Why I’m Here
Now, I’ve come to Brazil with a critical eye in order to understand the interconnections between my Salvadoran barrio, my experiences in the United States, and the periphery and the social movements in Brazil, specifically in São Paulo, where I’ve come to live these three months.
I hope to see how diverse groups of people organize to fight for themselves. My goal is to consistently articulate my insights, and track the progress of my thinking on the theme of human rights. I’m not sure where this project will go, but I’m excited to go along with it and take it wherever it leads.