An American in El Salvador Helps Refugees Facing Death Squads (Sylvia Gregory — Part 1 of 3)

It’s June 30th, 2016 and I’m interviewing Sylvia Gregory. I know you’re a physician assistant. Before that, what did you do? And when did you go into your present field?

Oh, I did everything from teaching piano to doing remodeling on houses. Did secretarial work. 1981 started training [to be a physician assistant] and then I entered in 1983.

So, what do you think in your past led you to become an activist?

Well, my family of origin. We had a small, extended family — my parents and then my Uncle Charles and my Aunt Leslie Gray. [See more about these people at] And my cousins. When I was growing up world problems were discussed every day. At meals, really. You got the feeling that success was measured by how much you do to try to solve world problems. And my parents were very active in visionary causes as were my aunt and uncle. Way ahead of their time. Such as the World Federalist Movement to create a world government so that we would never have another world war. And also civil rights. People from all races were friends of the family

You were an only child.

I am an only child. That was actually fortuitous, as well, because then I was relating to adults who were deep thinkers and deeply cared about the issues. When I was in my earlier adulthood I was active in the environmental movement. Then in 1984, Uncle Charles and his second wife, Dorothy Granada, announced that they were going to Nicaragua with Witness for Peace to observe the Contra atrocities against the people of Nicaragua and against health clinics and schools and things that the Sandinista government had put in place. So I turned to my dad and I said, “What’s going on down there?” (laughs) And he said, “Well, there are some revolutionary movements and some wars going on in Central America,” and I said, “Which side is the U.S. on?” And he said, “The wrong side.”

I began studying Central America, from Spanish conquest to the present day, at that time. Then in order to cement it into my head I decided to write like a 60-page summary of the histories of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. The Spanish conquest to the present, so it was kind of brief, really. (laughs)

Once I understood what was going on and what the United States role was, it was very compelling to get involved in trying to change U.S. policy and trying to assist the people of El Salvador with their efforts at staying alive, actually. The people who were coming back at that time from Honduran refugee camps were repatriating into the same war that they fled and they were in a lot of danger. But, they had very stunningly organized their return en masse with international accompaniment because at that time in the war which was 1988, by then the Salvadoran forces and death squad apparatus could not get by with killing North Americans. They could in the early 80’s but they couldn’t in 1988 because by then there’d been enough solidarity built up. The Salvadoran struggle for justice had sent people to organize solidarity.

Are you saying there were enough North Americans to make a difference?

No, there was enough solidarity. Like there were two ways that the non-violent struggle for justice in El Salvador organized the international community. One was the international mainstream religious community. So, we’re talking about Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopals, Methodists and Presbyterians. And so on. After Archbishop Romero was massacred by the death squads [Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot dead while offering Mass in a chapel, targeted because he had been speaking out on behalf of the Salvadoran people against widespread poverty, social injustice, killings and torture] it was a very ripe time to organize the international community around what was happening in El Salvador and what was happening with these people who had had to flee the country because of their families having been massacred.

Are you saying that the heightened awareness in North America …

Yes. In the religious community. They were so shocked. That somebody would be killed like that. So they began studying it and became aware of it. That was very important, too, in the Salvadoran nonviolent struggle for justice because the international community greatly supported them by sending money, and people too. Delegations of people would go down from churches and they would study the situation and then they would send mission people.

Mission funds would be sent to empower the people who were trying to take back their rights and their power. And then you also had the advent of Liberation Theology in Latin America which is a phenomenon in Latin America and Catholicism. It’s a very vibrant form of Christianity, really. So that was also influencing the international community as well as the Salvadoran churches of those denominations within El Salvador. But then the Salvadorans who were organizing the movement for justice also wanted to organize people who are not religious.

These would be educated people, okay? So they sent people up here to the United States to talk about what was happening and to organize solidarity around what was happening. When people were kidnapped from these communities in Salvador, then all these international telexes would arrive in Spanish to whatever brigade they were being held at, requesting that they be released.

When you say brigade, what does that mean?

That would be the armed forces, the army really. The Salvadoran army would have brigades here and there and people would be taken to the nearest one likely. So this began helping these people survive because the army couldn’t get by with all this international pressure, they would let them go. Without torture. Yeah.

Incidentally, I know that you speak excellent Spanish. How did that happen?

Well, once I started studying the situation in Central America, I got active in the solidarity group in Salem [Oregon] cause that’s where I was working at the time. The Salem solidarity organization reached out to a Salvadoran man who had escaped the death squads and come up to Honduras, starving, went to Mexico and was chased up to the U.S. really and was found begging on the streets of Yakima Valley.

He was found by a priest. He was an educated man. He didn’t have college education but he was high school educated and he came from a middle class family and he’d worked under Archbishop Romero doing literacy work in the rural areas, okay, teaching people to read and write. And that was considered communist subversion, to teach them anything. Thirty of his classmates had been massacred by the death squads because of what they were doing, He was next and he decided he wanted to live so he left. So, anyway, a priest in Yakima, Washington discovered him and asked him what he wanted to do with his life and he said he wanted to become a priest and follow in the footsteps of Archbishop Romero. So the priest there financed him to come to Mt. Angel Seminary.

One of the members of our solidarity group had been to Nicaragua and gave a presentation out at Mt. Angel Seminary about what was going on. And this Salvadoran man came up to her and said, “Do you know anyone who knows anything about what’s going on in my country?” Because the seminary was very prejudiced against him and the fellow seminarians were like putting sugar in his gas tank and things like that. That’s so Christian, you know. (giggles, laughs) So then we invited him to come to a potluck dinner with our group. And it was at my house and he arrived first. And I expected a 35 year old man to be there, right? Oh, no. He was like 22 and he’s 5 foot 4. [Sylvia Gregory is tall, very fair, and heavily built.] And I said, “Oh. And who are you?” (laughs) He said, “Osmar Aguirre.”

He was the first person who arrived so I said, “Well come on out to the kitchen because I’m finishing preparations for the dinner.” And he said, “I wanna get one thing straight before we ever start.” He spoke perfect English. And he said, “Don’t ask me my history as a person because I’ll start crying and I’ll never stop.” So I said, “Okay. okay. I won’t!” He didn’t have any spending money whatsoever because the priest paid for his room and board, his books, and the tuition but didn’t pay for anything more than that. So, we decided to take Spanish lessons from him and pay him to teach us. So, he began teaching us.

And then along about the summer of ’85, when I was still in Salem, he said to me, “I’m going back to Yakima for the summer and I want you to meet with this Salvadoran family who just arrived so they don’t know any English. So, you’re gonna have to speak to them in Spanish. (laughs) So, here I am, Ha! Thankfully, I studied Spanish in high school but we never had anybody to speak it with. But, anyway. So I met with his family and it was like, after an hour of trying to communicate, I was exhausted. But that’s how I learned it again. It came back to me. When I went down to Eugene in ’86 to take another job, I sought out the Salvadorans in town. So then I became in contact with an extended Salvadoran family who was in sanctuary here with the Quaker meeting.

They were very helpful to me cause they really introduced me to the culture. They were also part of the Salvadoran Movement for Justice. That’s why they were refugees. Two of the family, males, had been in prison in El Salvador for organizing a union in a bra factory, Maidenform bra. They were imprisoned and then they were let go but on the condition that they would leave the country, so they did it with their families.

And the family also had a visitation from the death squads as well. And this man and his brother were on the list to be killed but they were not there. So they killed two other members of the family. The thing is that once the death squads visit you, they will come back and finish every last one of you off in the family. So they had to go from one friend to another friend, every night a different place. They were staying in the capital city, San Salvador. So that got to be very difficult, as well.

So when these two brothers got out of prison then the whole extended family went to Mexico and were there for like two or three years. Then they were accepted into sanctuary here in Oregon. The wife of one of them, her family also had been visited by the death squads because her brother was a Baptist preacher and he preached Liberation Theology. So he had to go into exile in Canada, along with her mother. All these people have this same history and I was just very fortunate to run into them.

So every night after work I would be over at their house cause I was trying to help them find work and find housing. They were all sort of living on top of each other. Nine people in a two bedroom apartment, the age range being like toddlers to 65 or whatever. It was very difficult. But gradually my Spanish improved because they didn’t speak English either yet, you know. They’ve all learned now but they didn’t speak it then so much. I was working in the sanctuary movement at that point, here in Eugene, as part of the Central America Solidarity Effort, and with CISCAP, which was Committee In Solidarity with the Central American People.

I read this book called, “Salvador Witness.” It was the diary of Jean Donovan who was a lay missionary with the Maryknoll order of nuns. And she and three of the Maryknoll nuns were in the diocese of Chalatenango in Salvador. They were essentially Liberation Theology nuns that worked with the poor.

It brought them to reflect on the Bible in a much more vibrant way in terms of the poor taking back their rights and their power, not taking over, but sharing power and having basic necessities and so on. So because they were working on that, they were gang raped and murdered by the Salvadoran National Guard on December 2, 1980. Her diary covered the time that she arrived in El Salvador, which had been ’78, until she died. [News of this horrific incident was widely reported in the U.S. at the time.]

So then I went to a Quaker meeting presentation by a woman from El Salvador who came up here to find volunteers to come and live with the refugees who were now coming back into El Salvador from Honduras during the same war they had fled. This was the first time in the history of the world this has ever happened, that refugees come back into the same war they fled, with all their names on death squad lists to be exterminated.

Why did they do that?

Because they so much wanted to go on with the struggle for justice and they couldn’t do it being refugees. They were the most amazing people because they saw the movement for justice as a spiritual struggle. It was Liberation Theology from the spiritual aspect, of bringing the true teachings of Christ to this planet. (Clears throat) They were committed beyond their own deaths to that struggle. Which was extremely inspiring, actually. So I thought as a medical person I was needed and I have to go. I have to go and answer this call. They were asking for volunteers to live with people in these war zones because they weren’t allowed to come back to anything that wasn’t a war zone because it was the only uncontested land at the time.

So then I found CRISPAZ which stands for Christians for Peace in El Salvador. But, you didn’t have to be Christian to go. (laughs) It was just, you had to have some connection with a church in order to be able to stay in the country on a long-term basis. You had to be saying that you were a missionary and staying and teaching catechism and things like that. That’s the sum total of my knowledge of catechism, the word. (laughs)

You had to claim to be Catholic?

Well, yes, you did. (laughs) You could do other things, too. So I contacted CRISPAZ and got signed up with them to go to El Salvador as a long term volunteer. I consider myself sort of a spiritual person who draws from all religions. And I admire the Quaker philosophy because I would consider Quakerism to be more of a philosophy in a lot of ways. It is a religion, too. But, anyway, it’s a spirituality, really. And so I really did appreciate that spirituality and I had to have a church sponsor.

I was attending a Friends Meeting and I asked them. They didn’t have to pay any money cause it was all volunteer. They just had to give me a statement that they were my spiritual or religious sponsor. That helped immensely. So then in August of 1988 I went down there. And it took a month just to get your visa and all the things to do. So then I was placed by the Archdiocese of San Salvador in Teosinte. It’s a very interesting word because in the indigenous language it means a perennial form of corn which to those indigenous groups was God. But, in Latin, Teo means God. Deo or Teo, too, is my understanding.

Anyway, that was the name of this tiny village. The people had just come back in the second return. The first return happened October 10,1987 when 4,314 Salvadoran refugees went in United Nations buses from the refugee camp of Honduras to the border and asked to be let in, and the Duarte government said, “No. We won’t let you in.” But, they had to relent because there was the international press that the people had organized to be there, and all these international volunteers who were gonna come into their communities and live with ‘em. It’s just so inspiring to me that these simple non-violent techniques – they’re not simple to organize — they just run over the people with the guns! So they had to let them in.

The second return, about a thousand people, went to communities in Eastern Chalatenango province on August 17 of 1988. The Duarte government didn’t want to let them but they had to. Those people were dispersed to different communities and the way these communities found where they were gonna live is that the Salvadoran Liberation Theology churches — Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal, Baptist — were all organizing together to help these groups of refugees.

At great peril to themselves, these churches were organizing to help these thousands of refugees who were coming back, to have food staples for the first 18 months until they could get their crops planted and harvested. Medications. They were teaching basic … how to teach basic medicine to people who were illiterate in these communities? So that they could take care of their people. They were providing all of that training. They were giving support to the agriculture. They were providing seeds and fertilizer.

Were these churches local churches?

Local churches getting help from internationals. Big denominations. Global denominations.

It’s a beautiful thing! It really is. If you want to ever study where people are taking the true teachings of Jesus to heart and are living it, those folks and those churches were doing that as well as the people themselves, okay? It was immensely inspiring to see this kind of activism. Julia was the head of the Human Rights office at the Archdiocese. She would hear the testimonies of people who witnessed the massacres and what happened, to get the word out. Well she was on the death squad list, too and she often had to leave the country. The Lutheran bishop had to leave the country all the time. The Baptist minister had to leave the country all the time. They were just trying to do this at their own peril. Yes, heroic people.

So they provided all this support as well as the Salvadoran popular movement provided support to start schools in these towns once they got the housing organized and so on. These villages were bombed out places that had been deserted. There were just four survivors of the bombing in 1981 in Teosinte, and they left and never came back. So these are the people I lived with, came back with in that second return and went to Teosinte. And had to rebuild this village from ground up, basically.

I was sent there by the archdiocese of San Salvador because I had medical knowledge and there was no trained medical person in that vicinity. They placed us volunteers in communities who had asked for accompaniment. CRISPAZ liaisons with the archdiocese. And then the archdiocese places long term volunteers in communities who have asked for them.

The people came back in August. Internationals – Terensio from Italy and Alice from the United States like me — met them at the border and accompanied them back to Teosinte. I arrived on October 19 of 1988. And I was just so amazed by the people. They were just so inspiring. It really blows your socks off, really. (laughs) I was there for the first year of their reconstruction. It teaches you that there’s absolutely nothing that can’t be accomplished with enough community organization, hard work, love, faith, and hope.

They were amazing. I brought all these antidepressants with me, thinking that they’d had half their families massacred by death squads so they must be depressed. Oh no, they weren’t depressed! (laughs) They were sad when they were talking about the family members they lost, definitely mourning their losses, but not depressed. They were hopeful. They had this task.

These people had been running within El Salvador for a couple of years before they became refugees, running from death squads. And the death squads were trying to isolate them high above water sources? So that they would thirst to death, starve to death, all this. But the thing people need to know is that assassinations of people were carried out by U.S.-trained death squads. U.S. trained, equipped, and financed. The Reagan administration was sending $1,500,000 a day to El Salvador to prosecute this war in a country that’s twice the size of Lane County [the Oregon county, home of the University of Oregon, where this interview was recorded.] I mean, what a crazy thing!



About Sylvia

Sylvia Hart Wright, the interviewer and blogger, has combined efforts to help achieve a more peaceful world and social and economic justice, with a career as a librarian, author, and longtime college professor. For more about her, please visit her website at There you can also find the first chapter of her memoir-in-progress, ACTIVIST: Adventures at the Cutting Edge of Social Change.
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