Gonzalo Escobar, 10 years old, was standing at the doorway of his home, when these uniformed men with rifles and rubber boots came marching by. He started to follow them out of curiosity, wondering who they were. After following them for a few minutes, my father stopped and went onto the sidewalk to play with marbles, which had been the original plan. He glanced up one last time as the guerrillas kept marching further down the street, when out of nowhere, gunfire erupted. My father was horrified and frozen. Something was not right. There was a tingling sensation on his head and when he reached up, there was blood on his fingers. One of the bullets had probably grazed him. He quickly ran to the nearest home to use as shelter, but the door closed before he could get there, so he went to the next one over and hid, waiting for everything to pass. This was an introduction to a war that no child asked for.
As Gonzalo grew, he learned to be weary of the situation in Dulce Nombre de María. Still, he wanted to enjoy himself with friends when he could. When Gonzalo was a teenager, a few years after his original encounter with the guerrillas, he wanted to go out to the park to spend time with a few friends. His mother had warned him not to go because she knew it was not safe to be out so late, especially during those times. He went regardless. The group of friends was carrying on having a nice conversation when suddenly, the electricity in the area went out. Gonzalo saw a group of guerrillas marching in and immediately wanted to leave, but he and his friends knew it was not a good idea to just get up and go in front of them. It would make it look like they were running away, and they did not have any reason to. The guerrilla told my father’s group that it was going to be hosting a meeting and the friends had to stay, so they did. He recalls that any time the guerrilla called for a chant, “Viva el FMLN!” everyone had to chant back regardless of whether they wanted to or not. It was a way of keeping themselves out of trouble and away from suspicion. Everyone at the meeting had to make it look like they supported this warring party, and anyone that did not, could pay a price for it. The same went for the soldiers from the government’s forces. When they came around, everyone had to listen to their side of the story as well. It was a cycle and the civilians were stuck living in it. Civilians had to do what they were told most of the time, without question. If the soldiers came into anyone’s home asking for food, then they had to be fed. If the guerrillas came in hungry asking for food, then they had to be fed too. The people of the pueblo fed both groups and most never really showed any favor for either side. They treated both warring bands the same and had to be agreeable in order to keep their lives. But while the civilians did this with the hope of staying safe, the guerrillas would still accuse them of favoring the soldiers, and the soldiers would accuse them of favoring the guerrillas. The people of Dulce Nombre could not be safe not matter what they did.
During the time, anyone under suspicion from either warring side of supporting the opposing band could find themselves in a very difficult situation. If anyone supported the FMLN, the soldiers could kill them, and if anyone supported the soldiers, the FMLN could do the exact same. For this reason, civilians just preferred to stay out of being involved. People wanted change and to have better lives, but this war was not the way. The citizens did not ask for the war, and none of them should have been killed for it. My father recalls how there was a female living two houses down from him, who was being hunted down by the guerrillas. When they barged into her home, they started looking for her everywhere, overturning everything incase she was hiding. There was a big cardboard box filled with clothes in the living room, and they overturned that too, but she was not there. Well, she actually was, and they missed her because the clothes managed to cover her perfectly as she fell. She was fortunate that day, but one of her friends was not. They found her and killed her. How did they kill her? They took her to a trench and sat her down on a big wooden stake. That stake punctured her whole body and came out of her mouth. Why were the guerrillas looking for them, what was their crime? They were the girlfriends of soldiers.
Throughout the war there was just fear, worry, and death. In the end it was a fight of interest by the people in power and the poor suffered. It was a pointless fight because nothing came out of it. Today, El Salvador is not any better off than it was before the war.
Looking outside her apartment window on rainy days here in the United States, Blanca is reminded of her childhood back home, when she used to play outside her grandparent’s home with one of her friends. She recalls one of her most joyful and untroubled memories being when they would jump around in big puddles of water, competing to see who could make the biggest splashes. This would become a fleeting period of happiness, however, because war would soon engulf her childhood life, “We had a childhood when it was time for war, practically our whole childhood was lived in war.”
Blanca Galdamez was born in Dulce Nombre De María, Chalatenango in 1974. One of her most vivid memories of the war involves her grandfather, Papa Chepe, who was very social, much like herself, and had a small store where he sold many foods and snacks. This was the perfect way to get to know a lot of the people in the pueblo. Around the time Blanca was four years old, the movement known as “Las guerrillas de El Salvador,” was starting to gain traction. It recruited madereros who collected wood from the mountains to sell in San Salvador. This, however, became una mascara or a mask for the transportation of arms by the guerrilla, otherwise known as the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Papa Chepe, due to his personality, was aware of many things such as this that went on. He conversed with both the madereros and la guardia, the latter of whom were police officers that came into the store. As a result, some people within Papa Chepe’s family that were involved with the guerrilla believed he was passing along information, which was not true.
It was late in the day on February 16th 1979. Much like any other day, Blanca, then a young girl, started making her way from Papa Chepe’s store to her friend’s home next door to watch the Flintstones. The street was deserted because everybody had gone into their homes to start preparing for supper. There was one person she noticed outside though, a man wearing a plaid shirt and jeans. She did not see his face because what grabbed her attention was the gun on his waist. She continued walking, but as soon as she arrived at her friend’s house she heard a single shot that prompted her to run back to the store where Papa Chepe had stayed alone, “whether it was for bad luck or reasons of fate.” Here she saw her grandfather lying down dead, with a bullet wound to the heart. This was one of her most distressing memories, as well as one of the first deaths related to the war that happened in Dulce Nombre de María. “No one around saw anything, no one could do anything…we never ended up knowing who it was…he committed the crime and ran.”
In Blanca’s eyes, the Salvadoran Civil War began for many reasons. For one, there had been many military based governments in the country that citizens were simply tired of being a part of, and they were also tired of a small percentage of the population having all the wealth and power in the country. There was no education or any type of benefits for most of the citizens who needed them. As a result, many different groups started banding together, forming the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), which was comprised of campesinos and students alike who had a good understanding of the situation in El Salvador. The goal of the group was to fight for and improve the lives of El Salvador’s citizens. This did not happen, however, because all that came from the war was fear and terror.
Once the war took a firm hold of the region, armed conflicts between the Salvadoran military and the guerrillas could happen at any moment. Sometimes civilians woke up with guerrillas having control of Dulce Nombre and other times the soldados, or soldiers, and this became daily life. Civilians had to walk among them and be prepared for any moment when a battle could break out. When a confrontation did begin, everyone knew that on both sides there were people from the same family. It was a very difficult situation because it was two brothers that could be facing off against one another. Every person without exception, women, children, men, the elderly, everyone was at risk.
Respect for women was never a top priority. During the war, some young women fell in love with one of the uniforms and they would pay for it with their lives. They were always killed and displayed as examples to the public just for dating either soldiers or guerrillas. That was not fair. Many horrible things happened to women. When soldiers would go from place to place and they saw a beautiful girl, they could just take her and rape her. The guerrillas could do the same. These acts against females was just one of the deplorable things that happened during those trying times. The war continued and death felt like it could be right around the corner.
One of the most terrifying days Blanca experienced happened when she was in eighth grade. She was at home studying for next day’s algebra exam with a few friends, when suddenly, gunfire and explosions broke out. The guerrilla had begun a full-scale attack on Dulce Nombre De María. The group bombed El Antel, which was the pueblo’s only locale with phones for communication. It also bombed the town hall and the Fedecredito bank. Blanca, her friends, and two brothers, who were also at home, had to stay quiet and listen. They heard soldier’s speakerphones threatening the guerrilla to retreat or else the whole of Dulce Nombre would be bombed. Helicopters could be heard hovering above the house, firing at the guerrilla, seemingly without a care for where the bullets landed as long as the situation was brought under control. The military was fighting back just as hard as the guerrilla was.
At a point, the guerrilla became overwhelmed and decided to retreat, but cornered with military troops around them and helicopters overhead, their only option was to go through houses and use them as a way to get through to the mountains. When the guerrillas came pounding on the door, Blanca was terrified, thinking if she opened it they would kill everyone. After the guerrilla threatened to lob a grenade, her brother opened the door, with Blanca fearing the worst. It turned out they only wanted to pass through and use the house as a shield from the helicopter gunners. There were thousands of guerrillas in Dulce Nombre that day, and many of them stormed through the house to get to safety. The whole ordeal lasted through the night and when morning came, Blanca was surprised they survived. When she went outside to see the destruction, her tia Mela’s home nearby looked like a strainer, and many people had ended up dead. When she walked further down the street, there was the corpse of a woman, naked and just left there as a warning by soldiers, that no females should be with guerrillas, or else the same could happen to them. This would be the last major attack that would happen in Dulce Nombre, and Blanca believes that “If we did not die that night it was simply because it was not our time.”
El Salvador was supposed to be a better place after the war, without any more conflict, and with better lives for citizens. But after the war, there were still many left who were full of hate because their loved ones were killed and they had nowhere to go. They had nothing left. A lot of these were young people who started coming together, wanting a better life for themselves, and it did not matter how they got to that goal. From this, started gang violence, the post-war that is still going on to this day. “Now you are not asked if you want to join the ranks, you are forced to be in them.”
Today, the official war has passed and there is a feeling of despair. How after so much conflict and destruction, the ideals the guerrillas were supposed to be fighting for could not be protected. “That is, to live in peace, and to live in our land. Everything that we went through, everything that we lost, everything that we suffered, and we can’t be in our land, we can’t live in our homes, we had to emigrate. [I still feel] despair of not being able to be where I want, of not being able to [be] with the people that I want to be with.” In the end, nothing really came out of the war because some people did not learn to forgive and to find worth in what was left. People still do not see themselves as equal, yet we all have the right to be happy, to love, to live. “No importa quien sea, si sos blanco, si sos negro, si sos chocolate como somos nosotros, si sos del este, si sos del sur, si sos del norte, si sos del medio oeste, si sos hombre, si sos mujer, si sos medio hombre, si sos media mujer, si sos niño, si sos viejo… Nadie aprendió con la guerra a tener valores porque seguimos odiandonos.” In order to live in peace, we have to accept one another as we are.