Salvadoran Death Squad Survivors Build a New Life (Sylvia Gregory — Part 2 of 3)

One of the women in town, whose life story I took down while I was there, said that when they came to her town, well, they came to her family in March of 1980, same month, same year, that Archbishop Romero was massacred.

This woman, the death squads arrived at her house March 1980, grabbed her husband on the way to the cornfield and cut off his ears and cut out his tongue and cut out his eyes and let him live for a few days and then they brought the head, after they killed him, they brought the head to her. To see. The purpose of that was to terrorize people into not continuing to organize. So, then in March 1980, they also killed her oldest son who was then married, and his wife, who had a grandbaby, Monica, who was 2. And so, that child then went to Esperanza, the woman I was interviewing, right? To take care of. I was taking down her life story.

Esperanza was 56 at that point, in 1988. And she’d had eight children, five boys and three girls. The oldest son and then the next son were both massacred. In May of 1980 they massacred the next son and his wife and they had a grandbaby Sandra who then came to Esperanza to raise as well. And then in June of 1980 the death squads came back to the community. And so, Esperanza and all of her family fled. They were en guinda. It’s a Spanish expression that was invented to describe this particular historical time in El Salvador.

It’s hundreds of thousands of people running and running. For years. Because they didn’t want to be refugees. So, they tried to survive it. But then, Esperanza said, “We would run across piles of baby bodies.” Cause babies had starved to death or had thirsted to death. En guinda. By two years, the only thing she had left on her was half of a half slip to cover her. No shoes, nothing. Feet all torn up and everything from running in the forest and everything? And she [clears throat], then in 1982 her next oldest son starved to death, en guinda.

And then the other two sons said “We’re going to the guerrillas.” And so they went to go to war. Then Esperanza and her daughters and her two grandbabies were so swollen up with malnutrition cause running you just have to forage what you can find to eat. But, they finally decided they weren’t going to make it if they didn’t leave. So, they went to Honduras to become refugees. These are the kinds of stories that everybody in Teosinte has.

They knew us gringos would starve to death if they gave us a bag of corn and a bag of beans. [laughs] And told us to cook over an open fire. We’re not gonna make it alive! So they assigned us to a family to eat. They knew we needed that kind of support. [laughs] Sure enough, I tried making tortillas and grinding corn. I just didn’t have the right wrist motion.

The man of the family in Teosinte that I was assigned to eat with? En guinda for him, he was so swollen with malnutrition, and so thirsty! They were so thirsty. He dreamed of drinking water. Mundo was his name. So he told me his experience along about in ’82, he just sat down in the forest at night once and he just said, “I prayed to God and I said, ‘I can’t go on. I’m physically exhausted. I’m swollen, malnourished, I’m so thirsty. I’m just gonna die.’” Then he said within 15 minutes he was totally energized when he realized he said, “Wait a minute,” he said, to himself, “My grandparents and my parents were not able to liberate our people and this is my responsibility to bring the true teachings of Jesus to the planet now.” So, he got up and went on!

They were just amazing people and it was Liberation Theology which inspired them. Because it’s so inspiring to the poor to not be considered victims who have no skills. I got to be with the people as they were reconstructing their village and planting their crops and doing those things. And when I got there, the people had already started a clinic. They had two male health promoters who had studied basic medicine with Doctors Without Borders in the refugee camp. And they were nearly illiterate men. Campesinos from the community in the refugee camps.

So I asked them, I said, “What do you want me to do?” “Well, we’ll do the medical consults. You teach us your skills.” So, that’s what we did. I would take care of the more complex cases and things. And also the women who would come to me at night and ask for birth control pills. I would take care of those people too, but on the sly. Because the male elected town council would not be in favor of that. We were not allowed to preach birth control. And as it turns out, you don’t need to? All you need to do is empower the women, empower the men, and the birth rate drops.

You empower the women and the men when they’re young and send them to high school or university, you know. And you try to empower the women economically and the men economically. Frances Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins in their book, “Food First,” proved that, in their research, the birth rate plummets once you make the lowest socioeconomic group economically secure. So, that’s what the process is. It’s not that they don’t have access to birth control. It’s not that Catholicism doesn’t believe in it. The men don’t believe in it because they feel that they need to control the women. And that’s how they were taught. So. I don’t blame the men either. I don’t feel hostility toward the men for being macho, you know. They’re a product of what they learned. So ….

It’s just astounding because there were 50 men. This is a village of 350 people, okay? So, there are 50 men left alive, okay? There are 100 women, half of them widows, and there are 200 children. So, the 50 men were working in multiple teams. It was a very organized effort. Monday through Thursday they would be all going out and planting crops for the whole community’s benefit, right? And then doing whatever they had to do to manage the crops. And then there would be another team who was doing house construction. And there was another team that was doing rehab of the only way in and out of the community, I wouldn’t call it a road, per se. [laughs] Because half of it would fall into the canyon every winter with the rains.

So they had to keep repairing it to have it be passable in and out of town. Cause we were six miles and four rivers of no bridges from the last town to which there was a road or a bus. Okay? [light laugh] So. Anyway, so they were the road team. And then there was the potable water team. They had to carry 1500 pipes three hours up the mountain, two women to a pipe or one man to a pipe to string together what had been the water source for the community, a covered spring that was very good water but it had been bombed out. They had to redo that. So there were all these teams and there was the pastoral team, the spiritual team for the community. And the health team and so on.

So the 50 men were being in multiple teams. And then Friday, Saturday the men had time to work on their own house for their own family but many of them didn’t just restrict themselves to doing things for their own family. They would help the widows. Then Sunday was for day of rest cause it’s the Sabbath and so everybody rested on that day.

And it was very interesting to me the changes that the people made in us internationals, not trying to. They weren’t trying to make us change in any way, accepted us with open arms, they were thrilled that we were there and they’d like sixty more of us, please. [laughs] Cause they were afraid, you know, they were in danger. So our job in the community was always when the helicopter gunships from the U.S. were overhead pointing their machine guns down at the community, that we would run out and make sure they realized that there was an international presence there. And then if the troops were invading that we would go first to talk to the troops, to make sure that they knew that we were there. Okay.

What you do with the troops is you can’t tell them about the organization of the community at all because if they find out who the leaders are they’ll kill them. So you have to make up stories. One of my favorite stories was this lieutenant or whatever, he asked me why I was there. I said, “Well, I’m here because the bishop sent me here.” And I dressed sort of like I was a nun, but in lay clothes? I was 41, I had some early gray hair. [clears throat] And so one of them asked me what religion I was and I said, ‘I’m Quakera.’ Quakera would be Quaker with an ‘a’ on the end. And they never heard of it, they thought it was Quaker Oats. Cause Quakera to them meant oats. So, I explained to them, “Oh, it’s one of the other religions, one of the Protestant religions.” And they were very puzzled and they said, “So, are you a Quaker nun?” And I said, “Yes.” Of course there’s no such thing. [laughs] But it ended the conversation.

So then another time they marched into town and I’d only been in town for a month. And I stick out like a sore thumb with glasses and short hair. They know you’re international. That particular day the lieutenant was speaking to me in English, which means he was trained at Fort Benning, in Georgia. [The infamous School of the Americas] And he was big time serious and he was mad as a red hot hornet.

He asked me why I was there, “What are you doing here!” And I haul out all the different things from the bishop, from the Quaker meeting, my visa and all that stuff. And he says, “Well. We’re going to search your hut!” At that point, the three of us internationals were in one hut and it was maybe 10 feet by 15 feet or something? We had 3 cots in there. It was just plastic walls and a door and windows that you physically open, they’re wood, right. And then a corrugated metal roof. So, we were in there and I was on my period at that point in time and so I had my Tampax.

But, anyway, he came into the hut which was very bad to have him search because Torensio had recorded the bombing in nearby communities the night before on a tape. We used that kind of thing to get the word out about what was happening. We didn’t get bombed but they did. But, then, cause I was on my period I had Tampax on the top of my suitcase. It was all zipped and everything but …. So, then the one soldier was going to rewind this tape and play it. When the other soldier found the Tampax he opened my suitcase, he pulls one out, he says, “What’s this?! This is dynamite!” And I said in Spanish, “No! No, Senor! It’s for the woman’s period.” And they dropped it and fled! They left town! [laughs]

Worse than dynamite!

Worse than dynamite! Because it was absolutely taboo in that culture to talk about anything between the navel and the knees that happens in a woman. And so I used the culture against them, not even intentionally. I was so surprised. They just left! So, I always take a lot of Tampax whenever I travel to Central America, even though it’s long past time for me.

So, the people of Teosinte were having to do all this work of trying to get everybody into a mud house or a reconstructed adobe house and get them protected to some degree from these helicopter gunship machine guns and things. Plant the crops, you know, all the things. But here they are, seven months into being back, and they announce they’re starting a school. And in that community there were only three men who had a 5th grade education, literate enough to start a school. So, the principal was one of these men. And then the teachers were 12-year-old young women who had had two years of primary school in the refugee camps. Okay.

So they started this school. They got a piece of plywood paid for by the Episcopal church or the Catholic church or somebody, and some paint, painted it black, and a box of chalk, and started a school. No furniture. Everybody’s sitting on the floor. And the teachers gave preschool through 2nd grade in the morning and they went to 3rd grade themselves in the afternoon, and they studied with the principal every weekend, for all of them, including him, to bring their educational levels up so they could offer more grades. And the gal in church was helping with that, too. As was the Salvadoran Popular Movement for Justice.

In what way would they help?

They eventually got paper products. They helped with sending teachers in, eventually. They helped these 12 year olds. By about 1998, most all of these 12 year olds who had a 2nd grade education in ’89, in ’98 had a University of Salvador credential in teaching. A degree! And this is what I’m talking about! I would’ve never thought that I could’ve ever started a school, cause I’m not trained in education, okay? Here are these people saying, “Well, education is the only way out of poverty, we have no choice. We’re going to do this.”

And it’s also “Each one teach one.”  [A slogan from other literacy projects]

Yeah. It is! And, they knew that it wasn’t a great school, but it was the best they could do. So they did it. By about 1990, they all had desks in the school classrooms. And books and paper and pencils. And they were offering more grades. They eventually got it up to nine grades. So they did that. And then if you wanted to study high school or university you had to go out of town.

I had to come back to the United States in late 1989, so I was in El Salvador a little over a year, that first year of reconstruction of the community. But having had the experience with them I never wanted to be out of touch with them. Because they had such a tremendous impact on me, they really gave me hope. Whenever I feel, “O god, everything is so hard to accomplish,” I think of them! Hey, you know what! We can do it. We just have to organize, that’s all. And have faith and hope and love and hard work, you know. And anyway, so I had to come back in late ’89 cause my money was running out so I needed to come back.

You had been living on your own savings while you were there?

Yeah, it was volunteer work. Which was fine. I think we should finance our way, although some people got a small stipend from organizations like Church of the Brethren and that’s fine, too. Not about getting wealthy, you know. [light laugh] I always wanted to be involved with the community so we [mostly Sylvia herself] founded a non-profit called Women’s Empowerment Partnership to continue to work with the community on projects they wanted funding for. One of them is scholarships for youth, we funded that.

But anyway, back to the community, when I was living in Teosinte, 1988-89, one thing that was hard was on one Sunday, when I was at lunch at the family that I was assigned to eat with, Mundo and Juana and their two children. Mundo was in the hammock just silently thinking. And he asked me, “How much did your shoes cost?” I had gotten some Adidas running shoes when I got to the capital, when I found out I was going to the mountains, okay? Cause that’s where Teosinte is, in sort of the northern mountains of El Salvador. So I said $28.00 – what it was in 1988 — but I translated it into their currency.

He was so shocked that anybody would have that amount to spend on shoes that he didn’t say anything for the rest of the afternoon. Not because he was mad but he was just shocked. So what the silence does is help you to reflect on your own wealth. Because then, the only income they had was from fattening up a pig. So, one day I came and they had sold the pig! It was an awfully cute pig. It was a darling pig. A pot bellied pig. And I said, “Well, how much did the pig go for?” And he said something like $20.00.

So he had to buy shoes, medication, whatever, to keep things going with that amount of money for his family. So, it really gives you pause and all of a sudden you feel ashamed of your wealth. Because you understand that we’re both the same. Okay? We’re equally worthy, right? This person has nothing and I have the blood of their family members on my hands for being a taxpaying American, right?


It’s true, though. Complicity. So this is not good. [light laugh] But, it gives you pause to think of all this and it washes down into you. Another day that he was reflecting in the hammock he asked me, “Well, so you worked outside the house, right?” And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Well, how much did you make at your last job?” And so I said, “Well, I had two jobs. I had one at White Bird [a program in Eugene that serves homeless people] and I made $5.00 an hour. And the one in private practice, I made $13.00 an hour.” And I translated it into their currency. He was astounded that anyone would have that amount of money in an hour of work! Because in five hours I made what he made in a year. [sharp intake of breath] And so it just gave me this HUGE understanding of what we’re really talking about.

Well of course he’s living in a subsistence economy and so on – though I’ve stayed in campesino homes myself, you don’t have to convince me!

No, I know. But, anyway. It’s just really, really important to have that experience. To be ashamed of your level of wealth and I consider wealth to be having the ability to work at a job that pays you a decent wage. That’s huge wealth in this world where the majority of people don’t have that. And it’s just huge wealth to have education. It’s huge wealth to have health care and huge wealth to have potable water or an adequate house! It’s huge wealth to not be on the death squad list to be shot. [light laugh]

When I left, they didn’t want me to leave. I told them I needed to come back and assist my parents with housing because they were in sort of an economic crisis at the time because rents were starting to really skyrocket in Eugene back in about ’89. So they had written needing some help. So, I told all the people, “I’m running out of money, I need to help my parents with housing.” They said, “No problem. Bring them down here and we’ll make them a fine mud house!” How do you say that’s not adequate? [light laughs] You just get to reflecting on it all. I mean, to have potable water. To have indoor plumbing.

This was an extraordinary piece of my education. It was worth many years at a university. I couldn’t get it just by studying, you know what I’m saying? Because I had studied the history of El Salvador. I knew it! But I didn’t understand it until I was there.

Sure, there’s no substitute for being on the ground, being in a peasant home in a peasant family. I mean, I’ve tried myself to grind corn for tortillas in Nicaragua but I could barely turn the darn thing. But the 12-year-old girl could grind the corn.

Oh absolutely! Or even the 5 year old girl! (laughs)

I was part of a work crew building a school with adobe bricks. But they had a foundation of concrete — it was cement and they had a mixture of cement and rocks, pebbles and rocks, whatever. And these little kids — just hanging around the building site for fun — would be carrying rocks that I couldn’t carry.

Sure, on their head or on their back.

Or in their hands. And they were laughing at us, you know, how funny it was that they could do so much more than us American grownups.

Well, it’s hilarious! I thought it was wonderful just to have the people see that we don’t have skills that they have. I mean I asked, I begged [laughs], the head of the agriculture committee to let me go with them to plant corn. Because I wanted to see what that experience was like. Well, that was unheard of for anybody who’s not a widow. A widowed woman, yes, would do that. But certainly not an international. So, finally, one day they decided I could go. I had to go before the elected town council to ask. They said, “Well, what good are you gonna be if you break a leg!”

It’s mountainous. And the slopes are muddy when you start planting in May cause that’s when the rain starts. So it was hilarious — they tried not to laugh. I’m like slipping and sliding and I always fell into the river that we had to cross. Because I could never be as agile as they are, to hop from rock to rock. So one of them told me that my problem was not being confident that I could do it. [light laugh] No es optimista! So anyhow, it was a wonderful thing for them to see that I did not have many of their skills, that I would not survive in their reality.

These are skills that would never show up on an IQ test.



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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