Sonia Edith / German Rivera’s Story


Sonia Edith Abrego de Portillo Giron

The war started because there were injustices, and there have always been social injustices in El Salvador. Whenever there is a particular group in power, it always tends to look more after itself, and the group in power at the time of the Civil War was the PCN or the National Conciliation Party. The FMLN, was fighting to try to change this, and now that it is in power today, well, things have not really changed or they might even be worse. Why is this? Because humans tend to always be unjust. What needs to happen is that these groups need to think about the people who elected them, to serve their brothers and not just themselves. “In the end, the war was not the solution because we as humans are intelligent, and we need to be able to communicate to resolve our issues… If we were all taught to serve and help each other from the very beginning, then wouldn’t the world be a wonderful place?”

Sonia Edith Abrego de Portillo Giron was born twenty-one years before the war officially started. Throughout her youth she went to school, performing very well in her studies, and from a very early age she had always told herself she would become a teacher or a nurse in the future. By 1977, when she had completed high school, she realized that there was a great need for educators in the country. One day, she noticed an ad on the newspaper about the university of Ciudad Normal Alberto Masferrer, which was giving high school graduates the opportunity to study to become teachers. This was the chance to fulfill her dream. She applied, and recalls vividly how she was asked to sing, draw, and write among other things to test her abilities. She was accepted, and although she would not graduate until 1981, she started working as a teacher almost immediately in 1978, after having only studied at the university for three months. From 1977 through 1981, as a part of a national effort, El Salvador had managed to amass enough teachers to cover most of the country. Sonia Edith feels lucky because she was able to remain in Dulce Nombre De María, teaching at Francisco Gavidia where both my parents and anyone else that lived in Dulce Nombre went to learn. Her last year of study, however, from 1980-1981, she would not be able to complete at Ciudad Normal because the school became a barracks for soldiers.

At a point while Sonia Edith was working at Francisco Gavidia, there was a big confrontation that took place between the two warring sides. The school principal was not present that day and it was up to her to make the decisions, which was not an easy task. In the pueblo, the guerillas were attacking in much greater numbers than there were soldiers, so the former had the upper hand. The explosions and bullet fire felt very overwhelming, especially for the young students. Some of them became so alarmed and anxious that they would faint in the classrooms and had to be given first aid. Others would get urges to urinate and the teachers would cover them up with a towel and tell them to go into buckets. It was not safe to wander around while the battle was taking place and everyone would usually have to duck down on the floor to avoid being hit by any bullets. It was the job of the teachers to protect the kids as best they could and to try to appease their worries when something like this happened. This particular time, once the fight was done, the guerrillas were left in control of Dulce Nombre and they went into the school to tell Sonia Edith to file the kids up and send them home for the day. A lot of these kids were traumatized from what happened. Sonia Edith had her first son in 1982 and to this day he does not like fireworks. The sounds of the blasts and explosions remind him of the war and he does not feel safe. In Dulce Nombre “No hay fiesta si no hay cuetes, y música de banda.”

Sonia Edith worked at Francisco Gavidia for thirty-eight years and to this day,  she has never seen the roof of the school fixed. All the desks are old and worn out. How could anyone want to learn in these conditions? She wants the newer generations to have better opportunities to learn, but it does not seem like the government is willing to lend itself enough to accomplish this. For now, Sonia Edith has brought it upon herself to try to beautify the school and improve its infrastructure so that the children can have a passion for learning and treat the school as their second home. She does not need to be a mayor, to have power, or to be a public figure to cause positive change, she just needs to serve and help the community. She needs to identify herself with the needs of the people around her, “And there can be no greater satisfaction than doing the best you can to assist your brothers and sisters.” All you need is “Un espíritu dispuesto a servir.” A priest that came into the pueblo during the war had this same spirit. He did not identify himself with either the left or the right, but was there to encourage and strengthen the people of Dulce Nombre who felt like they were losing everything. Religion played a significant role for those who wanted to remain hopeful that the war would someday end and El Salvador would be a better place for everyone. This hope is not yet lost and never will be.



German Rivera

When German was young, life was mix of happiness and terror. As a child he could not fathom the scope of the Civil War that was happening around him. He would play with friends, confrontations happened, they paused, and then continued playing. He loved to play soccer with some of his neighbors, just trying to pass the time as kids. Playing was one of the only ways to feel happy and forget the fear you felt when you stopped.

 When the war started, German Rivera noticed the worry and insecurities of some of the people that lived in the rural parts of Chalatenango. It was difficult to go out and feel safe. People felt fear of coming across either the guerrillas or the soldados on their way somewhere. When he was a child, all German knew of the war was what he heard from the grown-ups, a fight between the good and the bad. The soldiers and the guerrilla. German recalls that there was a military base near his home when he was a child, and practically every night there was gunfire from a confrontation between both sides. Every night he would have to go under his bed where he felt safe. During the war, there was this feeling of constant vulnerability.

German also had an immense fear of “la guardia,” which was a type of police force. German would hear stories of how this group captured people who were believed to be part of the left side and tortured them, sometimes mutilated them. It was an immensely cruel way to take someone’s life. Members of La Guardia did not have to be sure that those captured were indeed supporting the left. If they suspected someone, that person was in trouble. The guerrillas were not exempt from this type of behavior either. Sometimes on his way to school, German would see decapitated or limbless corpses out in the open. No one knew who they were, where they came from, whose families they belonged to, if they were a part of the guerrilla or the soldiers. They were just a nameless, unrecognizable vessel that was left behind. This was a constant reminder of life’s fragility, living in a war-torn country. “We always looked for an explanation as to why this was happening, but we could not find one.” German’s parents would just advise him and his siblings to be careful, to be observant and to not go out if they did not have to. If they ever saw anything, not to say anything because, “El hablar era un delito tambien, no se sabia con quien estaba hablando.”

German recalls that some of his relatives had to leave their homes because they were forced by the left to do so. Living in the center of Chalatenango, though, German and his family mostly had contact with soldiers, but this does not mean things were better. Sometimes they would interrogate people on the streets, on buses, anywhere. No one could feel safe being with either side. He remembers having lived through the 1989 offensive, a very dangerous situation when a large group of guerrillas stormed down town San Salvador holding many people hostage. He was working in the area when it happened, and a lot of people, him included, had to immediately flee somewhere safer. This was the war in a nutshell. Fleeing, having to leave your home, searching for safety, but never quite finding it.

Today the war finished on paper, and some things have improved. People have more freedom of expression today, and there is more awareness of human rights. El Salvador’s infrastructure is doing much better and certain things are more accessible today than before, like phones, clothes, food. Still, there are a lot of anti-social groups that do not care for any of this. Gang violence is a big problem in El Salvador, and this is the war after the war. During the Civil War you had explicit uniformed sides fighting, today that is not the case. Certain things are improving and others are not, but we are continuing to move on with hope.  In the end, we are are still living the war’s aftershocks to this day.