Oral Histories: Central American Curriculum

Oral history with Margarita Montealegre, 02/22/2019

Oral history with Margarita Montealegre, 02/22/2019


JLB: My name is José Luis Benavides, we are with Pilar De Haro and Margarita Montealegre. Today is February 22nd 2019 and it is about mid day. We are at California State University Northridge. Margarita, can you tell us your full name and your date of birth and where were you born?

MM: Ok, My name is Margarita Isabelle Montealegre Morales. I was born in Managua, Nicaragua, February 21st of 1956. The dates are very important because February 21st was the day that they killed Sandino, and 1956 was the day they killed Anastasio Somoza Garcia.

JLB: It has significance. It has political significance.

MM: Political significance in the country of Nicaragua.

JLB: Can you tell us the name of your parents?

MM: Yes! Of course. My parents names are Jorge Isaac Montealegre Montealegre and my mothers is Ethel Morales Villarreal.

JLB: : Can you give us any idea of what your parents did? Like what they did for a living? What kind of families they were coming from.

MM: Okay my father comes from, between a middle and high class family background. My grandfather used to have farms, but also he was a doctor that studied here in the States. And well my grandmother well she didnt study. She just got out school and married my grandfather. And they were first cousins.

JLB: Oh, they were first cousins?

MM: Yes. So that is why my

JLB: That is why it is Montealegre Montealegre

MM: Yes.

JLB: So they married against the wishes of the family?

MM: Yes, yes. And my father studied law in Leon. Which at that time that university was very prestigious. But, he didn’t like to practice the law and as someone who had graduated from law school and then he decided to work on farms on my grandparents farms, but also then he also, he had decided to have a store where they used to make uniforms or and were like a tailor. You know? And where they did suits for a graduation so it was a huge store. And he had that store for many many years.

JLB: What was the name of the store?

MM: Montealegre.

JLB: Montealegre?

MM: Mhmm. And well until the earthquake that destroyed the store. And then my mother, which studied in ugh. My mother was sent to the States to finish high school to finish. Because she lost her mother when she was very young. And my grandfather who was married to this Mexican woman decided to send her you know very young like I think in 13 or 14 years old to private schools. And my grandfather on my mother’s side also had a store that was for suits and things like that. So both of them, my grandfather and my father, had the same kind of store. And then my mother studied in different Catholic schools in the United States. Until she came, I think for vacation or something like that, and uh she met my father. And they fell in love madly. My father was I think seven or eight years older than my mother. And then she had to go back to the States. And then she got married before; or well I don’t know if she graduated, but she got married with my father very very young. And then um, my father when they married well um lived in a very old neighborhood that was is Managua called Sajonia and that’s where my grandparents also had their house. And that was the neighborhood I was born also. Well, I think I am the first one that was born in a hospital. The rest well I think they were born in houses.

JLB: Your siblings?

MM: Yes. Yes.

JLB: How many siblings do you have?

MM: I have a brother that is ten years older than me. I think he is seventy three right now. And his name is Jorge. Lilly, which is ten years older than me or no less, eight. And then I have another sister, Lucia, that is like six years older than me or seven years older than me. So I am the youngest one.

JLB: You were the youngest one with a lot of difference.

MM: Yes.

JLB: That is a lot of difference.

MM: Yes. A lot of difference. I think I am a little bit of an accident.

[both laugh]

MM: They weren’t expecting me. But, ops.

[both laugh]

MM: So, but also we were, at that time Managua was a very small town. And the neighborhoods and the barrios were linked and we didn’t have a huge difference in terms of classes. There was a mixture of culture of cultures, of classes. Like, people could have their a huge house and next to it somebody that didn’t have too much money. And there was also this sense of all cities that you could walk and that was the. We remember you know? As well, people that we went to school, that we could walk ten, twenty blocks with a bunch of students. And it was safe in Managua. So when, there were a lot of things like churches, we would get together. A lot of different people you know and I was brought up with the Catholic church. So we used to go to mass every Sunday and I did go to private school. It was Catholic also. To two different private schools. One called la Asunción and La Pureza and my father continued to have his store and then my mother reinvented herself. And, that she decided to put together a concept about an academy that was called Academia de la mujer moderna. And it was classes for middle class girls that would have come on Saturday and learn how to read novels or good literature. To know how to do papier-mâché or doing things with your hands and with paper. And also we used to have yoga classes. So it was a mixture of a lot of things; even cooking. There was a German teacher that would come, a chef lady, that would teach us how to cook and so there were a lot of people. One of the good things that I remember also about that is that there were a lot of good painters and my mother gathered them and then they would teach us how to paint, but they were incredibly known painters. So we were little kids that just wanted to go and hang out and just have fun, but there was a lot of discipline in terms of how to paint and the norms and rules that we had to follow from the teacher. So that was what my mother did. And it became a success because it was a different concept and nobody had anything like that at the time. So there are a lot of my friends that I know and I see them now so many years afterwards, that the Academia is still a reference because through reading we had to analyze things and because of the teachers she was so, how do you say exigente?

JLB: Demanding.

MM: She was very demanding in terms of interpreting the writer and saying what is the message. That my friends will tell me “ We remember when she asked us those you know”

JLB: All those questions. But for you it was probably a very interesting way of learning also to have a visual education right? Because of all the painters.

MM: Oh yes! And the painter, well you know because he taught us basic stuff I could start you know with even if it was a flower or a table or something I would start with the drawing. And you know the squares and all that that you can do. So and also I did some modeling because my mother also designed clothes. So we had to model her clothes, clothing for little kids or even my sister. All her students in the Academia were also part of the modeling of her designs. And amongst those people there was a friend of my mother that was much younger than her that were studying French, and she became an incredible model. And that model is Bianca Jagger.

JLB: Oh, my God.

MM: Bianca Jagger now, but her name was Blanca Perez Macias.

JLB: Blanca Perez Macias.

MM: Yes. And we have pictures of her you know that she’s modeling because my mother said to her: “Would you like to model for me because I have my designs and there is going to be a modeling event in different cities in Nicaragua.” And then she said yes. And she still calls my mother  Dona Ethel. So that is how she met Bianca and the story is that when Bianca was going to  France, she told my mother: “I am going to live there and have a scholarship and I’m going to study at this Institute of Political Science.” So that’s part of what I’m talking about of all this time is before the earthquake.

JLB: This is in the sixties?

MM: Yes.

JLB: More or less right?

MM:Well until 72.

JLB:  Correct. Tell me a little bit more about your, well because you were close to your mom, but how about your school experience? How was your early education like, elementary school? What are your memories?

MM: Well elementary school was for me was very important in terms of both of the nuns at those different private school was very, como se dice exigente?

JLB: Demanding.

MM: Demanding again okay. And then they were because they want us to learn different languages and to have good grades. And also the way we have to dress in order to go to school we have the uniforms. We couldn’t use you know something that they were good and were going to have to show the knees you know. It had to be…

JLB: Below the knees.

MM: Yes below the knees. And it was demanding in terms of like a language. Because we had in the basic English classes you could choose like a regular Colegio la Asunción either language either you wanted to learn French or English. I chose in English and that’s what I started with you know. The first steps or the first time that I started to learn how to speak English. A little bit. And then we had, there were the sports also there was also a challenge and demanding in the world. But also the sense of like what we were very much influenced by the Catholic church and it was saying you know also the school would ask us a lot of things that we had to do in order to besides the the private school that we had to do in the community.  So, just to give you an example, every single year we had like the summer vacation and we used to go to the seashore for at least a month. And I remember very young with the literacy campaign. And in the sea shore it is called Casa Aires that a lot of people used to go there. We also had shows; well also I was a dancing lady since I was a little girl because the dancing classes of ballet, Cha Cha Cha, and things like that were across the street from my house. So I would go there almost every single day. So in Casa Aires we would do all the different skills that we thought we had. Boys and girls in order to get money and it would get crowded and we would gather money in order to give it to the community or to the school or things like that ever since we were little. And my mother was also very much involved her friends were part of it. I think my childhood went like that.  Along from the neighborhood getting together it was pretty normal to celebrate birthdays not like they do now, it was more simple with only like 7 or 10 people in the gardens, and just like the cake. And then, the first communion and things that would go on and on also. But also the life of the neighborhood. The neighborhood for us it was that, it meant for us, no longer were we representing the school. We had barriers in terms of school, because our friends belong to different schools, and we would get together and do things together. And it was a mixture of cultures and that time there weren’t too many religions like we have right now in Nicaragua. But it was very important, and we had, at least from what I remember we had much more respect for the elderly at that time. For me my grandfather was somebody, because my grandmother died very young, my mother’s parents died many many years ago before I was born.

JLB: So you only knew your grandfather? From your mothers side?

MM: Yes, my grandfather just for a yew years. I think until I was like four or five years old. And then my grandfather was the person who told me stories about his familys background, him being the doctor studying in France and things like that. And I will remember from my grandfather is like Saturday he was no longer a doctor that was having his clinic, but on Saturdays at six oclock in the morning he would open his office for free. And people from farms and place would come to the neighborhood.

JLB: Thats pretty nice.

MM: Yes. And he was a person a person who liked a lot languages. So he spoke French and English, but also he had a sense of humor because my father on the opposite was very strict and he wasn’t a strict at all because of the way he was brought up and because of the profession he had chosen it made a different type of person. One that wasn’t as strict as my father was. So that lasted until 1972. After that, everything changed for me and for us. Because on the 23rd of December of 1972 a huge earthquake hit Managua and my parents had sent me to the States so that I could learn how to speak english. So it was an exchange program and I was sent to a very small town called Salamanca, New York. It was very close to the Niagara Falls and it was very cold.

JLB: When did they send you? Did they send you in the fall? Like months before?

MM: No. They sent me in December.

JLB: In December? The same month?

MM: In the beginning I think or in the end of November. And what happened is that my life changed in terms of everything. My history, my school, because the earthquake hit Managua. And it changed the lives of many people from Managua. Because I was in this little town and I didn’t know about what was going on in Nicaragua every single day. So I decided to go to this place where they would sell the newspapers and I would read the newspapers for free and I would put it back. In order to see the New York Times, because I was in this little town. So the guy knew I was from Nicaragua. And I went to school on a normal day and I see this guy trying to reach me the day after the earthquake, very early in the morning to tell me there is something happening in your country, in Managua. So that’s how I found out about the earthquake.

JLB: Wow. You were sixteen at the time.

MM: Yes. So instead of staying in this town for a month or a month and a half I ended up having to stay I think like 7 or 8 months there. And instead of just taking classes and just listening I had to have grades in order to finish my high school. What happened you know and then, what’s incredible is the story of how my sister managed to say something. It was like an exchange, somebody a journalist would contact me and call me and tell me that they were ok. Because he was hitchhiking to the airport and my sister said you know I’m going to give you a ride. There is one condition. There is no gas, but there is one condition. You call my sister at this number and you tell her that she can not come back and we are all ok. The houses are totally destroyed. We don’t know what we are going to do, but just tell her everybody is okay. Nothing happened to anyone in the family. None of the members of the family and that she has to stay there.

JLB: This is how many days after the earthquake?

MM: That was the 24th.

JLB: Ok. So you didn’t know for a long time? For several days.

MM: No no. Because the 23rd was that night.

JLB: So you only went one day without knowing.

MM: Yes, without knowing. And when they knew about the earthquake, this family, that had ten kids, I was number eleven.

JLB: Do you remember the name, what was the name of the family?

MM: Yes! Lansbury. Mr. and Mrs. Lansbury. Rodney was and Murn, I think something like that the lady. Both of them, she was a nurse and I think he was a sociologist or something like that. And they had these ten kids and everything went perfectly and every was so organized. I knew everyday what I had to do like my chores and everybody had to change every single day. And we knew. And the people were incredible with me when they found out the family. They said, they thought my parents had died or something when we knew all the news. And they said don’t worry you can stay here. Can you imagine, 11 kids?

[all laugh]

PDH: Somehow they made it work.

MM: And then I said, and then I started crying because I felt desperate. I didn’t know about my friends. Well, I knew that my family was okay, but it was something like being in a limbo. But the people were incredible in terms of solidarity. The town and then the school also because then I wasn’t just learning how to talk in English a little bit because I had to have grades in order to finish my high school. So that is what I did, I was no longer “Oh, this is really nice,” and getting together with friends.

JLB: You had to go to school and take all the subjects.

MM: Well I was in school but I wasn’t taking it very seriously because I was just, you know, for me I was just going to stay for two months or a month and a half, and practice English and learn. Because there was only one person in that town that spoke Spanish. That was the Spanish teacher.

JLB: And the school didn’t have any ESL instruction

MM: No, no no no.

JLB: So you had to jump in to all your classes in English with a somewhat limited English. You knew some , but it was not, it’s like the experience of some of our students, because some of them are in that situation. Was that a public school?

MM: Yes

JLB: Okay.

MM: And some of the pictures, two of the pictures that I am going to show tomorrow are from the yearbook. So I finished my high school and I came back to Nicaragua. And my parents didn’t have any house, any property. They had lost everything. My father lost his store.

JLB: So your father’s store was also destroyed by the earthquake?

MM: Oh yes! Because that was in the center.

JLB: And your home.

MM: And also where my mother had the Academia also. Which was another building.

JLB: So both businesses of your family were destroyed. Your home was destroyed. What did your family do?

MM: Well, they had relatives and family. And there was this uncle that he had money and had different houses. And he had a house near the port of Corinto which was a major ports for boats. It was huge. So his house was to come on vacation with his family near the seashore. So he said you could stay until you settle down and then we shall see. So my father worked on the farm more. Besides, he was a lawyer but he didn’t want to practice so he started to produce, to sell the milk and things like that.  And that’s when I decided to do something with a friend who had also lost everything, her family. And we got together and we started painting, and doing little things that we could sell. And we would go to little towns and we had little paintings in oil that we would sell in little towns. And this friend of mine, which is a cousin, convinced my father that I should leave the country. And that I should go to a place that was inexpensive to pay. The university was I think like $200 a year for foreigners. Especially coming from Nicaragua, so I went to Belgium.

JLB: And that was in ’73?

MM: No. I went to Belgium in ’74.

JLB: Oh in 74. So you were 18. You were an adult.

MM: Yes. So when I went to Belgium I started taking classes. Learning how to speak French, another language that had nothing to do with english.

JLB: And did you choose French in the school?

MM: No I never would have chosen French. I didn’t know anything about French. I had to learn and in order to that I would move to a very humble neighborhood that I was full of students that spoke French. So I felt that I had to speak French or learn the first thing. So people were very patient with me and they taught me the first things. And I went to French classes and then I went to the university, but it was terrible because the students they look at me differently because I would ask every single thing. And I would really get upset like what does that mean. And that’s how I learned French. And then I decided I wanted to go work. So I cleaned houses and then I got together with, that was the time after the coup of Pinochet. And then I met a lot of people from Chile and I met a Venezuelan guy, Carlos Enriquez. That he was in Paris and we became friends because he knew Nicaragua and so we made a connection. So he was the person to influence me in terms of teaching me the basic skills about photography.

JLB: Okay.

MM: And that’s how I decided to work a lot and buy my new camera. And start taking pictures. And I had a 28 millimeter.

JLB: How did he interest you in photography? Was he taking photos?

MM: Oh he had taken pictures of Nicaragua. That is how I met him, “I want to show you some pictures of Nicaragua after the earthquake and Granada and all these people that had moved from Managua to Granada.” And he was responsible from the Venezuelan government to give all the aid that he was in charge of. But the only condition that he had, that’s what he said, is that the aid that the Venezuelan government at that time was giving to him and the plane and all the things that he had, would not go directly to Somoza or to the Somozas army in order to distribute that. That was a no no. Because he said when he arrived with all the help and all the aid he said well you’re not going to stay, I would like to stay in Managua and distribute this and then they said no you are not going to distribute that because you should give it to us. And then he said no. So like they punished him and then they sent him to a city about 2 hrs, well an hour and half, away from Managua. And that’s where a lot of the people were. And that’s where he got to know Nicaragua and start taking pictures of what happened during the earthquake and things like that and that’s when he showed me, well the link or the attraction for me was to know what was going on with the people after the earthquake. And with images that opened my mind. So he was coming from the school of journalism in Venezuela and then I decided I should try to be a photographer, but there wasn’t a school of photography that I could access in Belgium. But I started taking pictures. That’s when I started taking my first pictures.

JLB: How much older than you was Carlos?

MM: Oh many many years.

JLB: Because he was already finished with his degree right in Venezuela?

MM: Yes.

JLB: So you bought your camera, you start taking photos, and?

MM: And then, besides that there were a group of students from Nicaragua that were at the university of Louvain. And we started a small group studying the political situation especially after the earthquake and the dictatorship in Somoza. So we start reading about history and discussing. I got very much involved in demonstrations against Pinochet and some other countries even from Africa. And the Nicaragua became the main issue for the Nicaraguans trying to see because there was a lot of repression after the earthquake. Two years after I was in Belgium I decided to come back to Nicaragua and start the university and get involved in politics.

JLB: That was in ’76 when you came back?

MM: Yes.

JLB: So you came back to Nicaragua, your family was living in Managua?

MM: My family was yes, they were able to go back to Managua. My father was able to buy a house, and my mother reopened her place but not the Academia. She went to, she made a loan and she went to France to learn how to do facials and she opened a place at the house where she could do facials, and she worked there. And then my father had his farm and my sisters had left, my sister Lucia was married to an American after the earthquake because she went to the American school. And then my other sister was also married for a few years and so I was alone because my brother had been married for a few years, but I got very much involved. A lot of my generation got involved into trying to overthrow Samosa. Be part of the.

JLB: And that’s through the university?

PDH: And what did your parents think of that when you started getting involved?

MM: My mother said go ahead. She said if I had your age I would be involved. Just be careful, but she was very open. But she was scared when she heard all the stories afterwards. And then my father was against that, but then I was and then I decided when I came back to Nicaragua to take a class of photography with a guy. And can you imagine we went to this class and a lot of people went to those classes. We were very much involved into politics into different groups of people who didn’t like Somoza. We were against Somoza. And the guy that was teaching us, who was very open, he lived in Venezuela, he knew a lot about black and white and about lenses and things like that. He was part of the system of the security of the political security of Somoza. To get informations. And I didn’t know until afterwards. Because I was in those classes, one of the guys that knew him said that guy is part of the security of Somoza and he is getting a lot of information from all of you. So that gave me a lesson, you cannot talk to anyone and also you cannot trust anybody at that time. So but that for me, well the classes were good, he knew, we were obliged to develop and do a lot of things, and mistakes. So there were a lot of discussions about the pictures and but then there were also another opportunity to work in another place. That had to do not the agrarian reform, but progress for peasants or workers.

JLB: Was that a government entity or was it a non-profit?

MM: No no it was the French government and some other organizations. Even the American organizations, to teach some of the peasants the best way to work with the earth and, como se llaman los cultivos?

JLB: Well we can translate that later because I don’t remember. The crops!

MM: The crops. It was an incredible group of young people. We were all without knowing involved in groups of people that we were working in this perfectly normal place, but also we were involved in the groups that tried to overthrow Somoza.

JLB: Could you tell us a little bit about those groups and how you were able to get involved, how were you able to get in?

MM: When I came back from Belgium I found out most of my friends were already involved, most of my best friends since childhood. And for them it was first: “Do me a favor. Go to Costa Rica, we want to send some letters and things like that and be careful” and I would started. And then “Go to this neighborhood.” I did very crazy things in very scary things without knowing the risks. Like one of my best friends was a guy that got killed afterwards; and he convinced me, “Margarita you have to go do a, come se dice encuesta?

JLB: A survey.

MM: A survey to a very poor neighborhood.” And I said really? Yes and it was like four pages of questions and I would go house by house and I knew the numbers that’s what he told me he had and I would go to these neighborhoods and started knocking. And people were very open and so the last house I knocked at, this guy was very skeptical and said “Cmon get in.” And I go and the guy started asking the questions. And the last question was “How much do you earn?” The question was for example from 500 to 2000. And he would go “No more more.” And I thought this was strange. For this neighbor to be earning so much money. So when I went to the highest salary, 5000 he said to me “You know you are going to go to jail because you are part of a communist group and you are trying to get information.” My heart started beating. I wasn’t even involved. And I said “No, no,” because I didn’t even know the purpose of the whole thing. So I started running in the neighborhood and my friend was waiting a few blocks away and I said “Never again.” Because this guy belonged to the national security, was part of the Somoza national security. He was the person in that neighborhood trying to gather information, trying to capture people. That was my first experience. And after I had finished with that class that was very controversial with this guy, I started to think, well we used to get together and started to talk and I tried to help people whose lives were at risk or who had already been fighting against Somoza. And suddenly somebody said “Well you should try to get to La Prensa and try to do some practice there.” So I went to La Prensa, I knocked on the door, and I said “I just want to practice.” And they said “You can stay for a month to practice and we’ll see how it goes.” But everything went so fast in terms of politically and things that changed in Nicaragua like the opposition against Somoza. After the month they said “Well, you can stay.”

JLB: Do you remember the year?

MM: Yes ’77.

JLB: Do you remember who you talked to?

MM: I talked to Pedro Joaquín. Pedro Joaquín Chamorro. And Danielo Aguirre who was the editor. And at the beginning the reaction of La Prensa, all the guys, they had never had a woman photographer. And for them it was challenging in terms of saying “No she can not cope with this,” because it is too dangerous. The traditional things, women are so fragile. They don’t know how to deal with danger situations, they don’t know how to deal with a dictator because we had to go to the national guardianship, to their conferences and all that. So because I was practicing for the first month it was one point in advantage for me because the assistant of their intelligence didn’t know who I was and they knew that it was just the male photographers carrying the cameras. So I would sneak into places that the La Prensa wasn’t allowed to. Then I would take pictures, but I was found very quickly. Because I would sign the pictures and then suddenly they would say we are going to find out who is this woman. At the press conferences they started asking and so they knew. That Margarita Montealegre was taking pictures in places.

PDH: What type of places were these?

MM: Like well the national headquarters and the public relation office of the army. And then they had, everything went so fast that every single day they had a press conference saying “We killed this many people,” and I would get there and get the picture and go to see what proof they had. And also I had my allies. The rest of the papers, the newsrooms, the photographers, the radio journalists wouldn’t say a thing. But afterwards they knew.

JLB: Did you sign MM because you don’t want them to know your name?

MM: Yes. Oh no, the paper said,

JLB: Oh because they didn’t want it to show a woman taking the photos.

MM: No no no. It was because they wanted, because I didn’t know if I was going to stay. So they didn’t want to put my full name because it was an advantage of sneaking and getting into places. But the first stories that I did cover was one of the most dangerous one. Because there was, I was at the paper during one of the first few days at the paper, it was almost three oclock in the afternoon. And before they would close you know the edition and everything like by noon and by 2:30 the paper would be out you know.

JLB: So they had like an afternoon edition?

MM: No,

JLB: At that time they closed? And then the next day,

MM: Yes. So in the afternoon it would be in the rotativa, how do you say rotativa?

JLB: Printing press.

MM: Yes, printing press. So were like the editors and one of the journalist and I was reading things you know we had developing and suddenly there’s a call from a lady and the lady said “I have proof how they kill my son. And you have to come to this city,” which is called Condega, which is up in the north “and you have to come and I would like to tell the story how my son got killed with this person. I want you to come.” And we knew that it was risky because also the phone was intervened. So we went there and she started telling all the details about how they killed her son, who was somebody who lived in Condega and had farms and produced a lot, but he was against the dictatorship. And that’s how, that story, the next day was on the first page, with even the person, the doctor who saw the body and saw how many bullets. And she had been hiding the, it was like, como un microbus? Como se dice microbus?

JLB: Like a microbus?

PDH: Is it like the instrument?

MM: No it is a car, it is not a car

JLB: It is like a bus, a small bus

MM: Small bus, but very small one. And what happened is that when I took pictures of the whole thing, you could see the bullets and she was tells the whole story. And her daughters were there, and the national guard never forgot about that story, because it was something to tell, you know, “Everything you said, was a lie.” So it’s incredible that it was on the first page and everything. It was so sad to listen to the mother also. You know what they did? Afterwards, they came back many months afterwards and killed every single person that was in the house. Little kids, not the mother because the mother wasn’t there, but they never forgot that was part of the proof.

JLB: That they were killing people.

MM: Because they had the courage to tell the story. Their own story, their own truth.

JLB: And you were there not as a reporter writing the story but to take photos.

MM: Yeah, photographs.

JLB: So which photos did you take of that story?

MM: All the photos, the pictures of the mother talking,

JLB: You took pictures of the mother? You took pictures of the bus?

MM: The microbus with the bullet, and also the two daughters or three daughters that were there. And that’s what they did. So for me it was something like mixed feelings with the reporter also, because, well, we did the story, but then the repercussions were terrible in terms of what happened. But every single day it was something like that. Because also part of my training, if I could cope with that, is that there was a reporter that would go every single day to the national police in Managua to see common things, but also political things that were happening in prison, with the head of the police. So, but we had informants, people from the police who would say “What he said is false. So don’t even put it, they are political prisoners, and people that have been killed, and patrols during the night they come and they patrol the city and they start killing young kids.” But also it was the whole thing too that I was a woman, an a photographer they didn’t know, but I was able to sneak also because the other guy, we say in Spanish, in Nicaragua, he was  was burned, very well known, so while he was trying to talk to the police I would go and ask some other things.

JLB: He served as a distraction.

MM: So that’s how I started to be a photographer, and a photojournalist. It was also the challenge that all the photographers were older than me and were male. And the message for me as a woman was “You can’t cope with this. You’re too blonde, you are too white. No, I don’t see you in this profession.” And I said: “OK, thank you.” But I had to play like a tough person in terms of surviving those type of things. It wasn’t easy. And also it wasn’t easy for us, as women because there was another woman journalist also.

JLB: I was going to ask you, the newsroom, did they have other women?

MM: Just one.

JLB: One besides you.

MM: Yes.

JLB: Was she a writer?

MM: Yes.

JLB: What was her name?

MM: Ángelita Savallos.

JLB: OK. And she was more senior than you or she was as young as you?

MM: Oh yes she was like 10 years older.

JLB: OK, so she had already a career established at La Prensa.

MM: At La Prensa, yes. But all the time the commentaries were about how us women were never going to be as good as them. And also it was normal for them to tell you things like “I like you,” or to touch you.

JLB: So harassment right ?

MM: Yes.

JLB: Sexual harassment basically.

MM: Not all of them, but you know, well one day that I got fed up and I talked to the director. And he talked directly to one of the guys who was an elderly guy and some other guy. But it’s funny because they always forget that there was a woman among the photographers. And remember the old dark rooms?

JLB: Dark rooms? Yes.

MM: They had this doors, and you could not see enough, everyone was developing, printing and whatever. They start talking about how they felt women, their sexual lives all while I would be

JLB: And you would listen to all that conversation.

MM: And then I would turn on the lights and it was like whoops. And they would say “Next time Margarita just tell us when you’re here,” and I would say “Why? If that’s the way you talk about things.” So, but we protected each other you know other than those things. It became a relationship of respect. And people, what I like about that group of photographers is that none of them studied photography. And they were great photographers, and one to the other would teach. And say, “I know this,” for example, to freeze a movement or something that is going on you have to put the speed very high. And everybody put the speed very high. And that is how they learned. They gave me the basic things even though I had studied a little bit, that would arrange my all thing in terms of taking pictures within an action scene.

JLB: Because it’s not the same thing. You cannot say, stop for the photo. So it took them a while but they accepted you, this group of men.

MM: Oh yes.

JLB: They ended up respecting you. How long do you think it took them to get to that point?

MM: Not that long I don’t think so because everything moved so fast in terms of what was happening in the country. For us it was, we must, we have to take good pictures. And I learned from all these people that didn’t have any school. For example to go to the National Assembly, where the deputies are, “Pretend that you don’t even have a camera, just walk, and then start taking pictures.” At beginning all the people would try to touch me, who are you? What are you doing here? Or the senators, because there were two chambers, and they would say :We would like a picture of this and of this, because they know us. You should get there and try.” So that is what I did. I was also king of afraid because I had the sing here that said La Prensa, because La Prensa was the opposition newspaper of Somoza. 

JLB: Correct. I was going to ask you about that, was there in the newsroom at the time a sense that everyone was working in an opposition newspaper?

MM: Oh yes!

JLB: Or was there people who was reluctant to what La Prensa was doing in the newsroom?

MM: No, everybody at La preens was, all the photographers, almost all the writers, even the ones that did sports became politically very much involved, and when they were commenting about the sports they would say something against Somoza. And also I had the advantage for some things that – May I have some water?

JLB: Yeah.

MM: Once was a journalist, I don’t remember, from Brazil, and he asked somebody that spoke English or that knew Somoza and then the editor said “She knows Somoza.” And I said: “Yes, I know him because his daughter was my friend, we went to school together.” And then what happened I went to his office and he gave a long interview to the guy and by the end he said “I know who you are, you’re Margarita and you live,” there, like saying, you know where you

JLB: I know exactly

MM: What you are doing and who you are.

PDH: That’s a threat.

MM: Nothing happened afterwards, there were so many things, I wasn’t the main target but my father said “Don’t ever go back there.”

JLB: But were you still doing political activity besides working for La Prensa?

MM: Every night!

JLB: So, tell me a little bit about what you were doing. And people knew in the newsroom, what you were doing?

MM: No. But everybody would be suspicious about every single one because almost all of us besides working, we were doing political work, in terms of trying to help people, we had to help doing transportation, taking people away from dangerous zones where their lives would be at risk.

JLB: In danger.

MM: Yeah, in danger. And we have to move them to different places or different houses. And I also was in charge of international press already. And so for example there were public comunicados, I would go to the Intercontinental Hotel and they knew

JLB: That you were the person doing that?

MM: Yes

JLB: How did you ended up being the international press representative?

MM: Well, in Managua. Frente Interno.

JLB: But how did they select you for that? Who selected you?

MM: Well at that time, because I was, because I spoke English and I spoke French a little bit,  they decided that I should contact the press. But I wasn’t the only one, the good thing is that I was working for La Prensa and a lot of people started coming with the upraising and everything, all the demonstrations and the killing of the director of the newspaper. Even the reporters that they would send here they didn’t speak Spanish. So it is not that I translated them but that helped me a lot. So that’s how I got to meet Susan. Susan Meiselas came to the paper and she didn’t speak Spanish. Well, she talked to the director and then to the editor and Carlos Fernando. And at the beginning we would go cover some things with Susan and also I would translate sometimes for her and then she made her way you know in terms of trying to learn en la calle or with people that were with her that knew. And also Alma Guillermoprieto was among the

JLB: She worked at the Washington Post at the time, right?

MM: Hmm. But Alma spoke perfectly Spanish, you know.

JLB: She was Mexican. But also those people, the reporters, helped me a lot to save my life many times. For example once I went undercover with a bunch of foreign journalists but I was the only one Nicaraguan and I didn’t speak one word of Spanish, from Managua to Estelí. And what happened is that, well, they started taking pictures because the National Guard was very repressive because they thought everybody was foreign, were foreigners, so they didn’t care. And they started do that and I never spoke just in English among the photographers or journalists. And what happened is they saw the material, well the the rolls developed, and the editor said “Yeah, we are going to publish them.” And I said “Ops”, it was a huge thing because I think for Easter, which in well in Latin American countries is big deal.

JLB: Correct.

MM: And then this this is what’s happening in Estelí, all these people taken down from the buses. This is how the military behave with the people. So they were like that so the next day, they tried to, or the days after, to figure out until they catch me. They said, well, “This is the woman from La Prensa.” And the guy that was in charge of the public relations of the army, he said “Margarita we want to talk in front of all the journalists. You should be careful for your life.” And so I had to move from my house and I had to stay few days at the Intercontinental Hotel. And everything was going so fast. Nothing happened afterwards. It was, I think it was hard for them to keep tracking everything that was going on, and there are too many journalists at that time. But there was always a foreign journalist trying to see that we were together and the coverage of all of that. But he did say publicly “I cannot tell what is going to happen to you.”

JLB: He threatened you, publicly. And at the time did you live on your own, did you live alone?

MM: No no, I lived with my parents.

JLB: Still with your parents?

MM: Yes. My mother and father, yes. My mother said she didn’t care. She didn’t care that I had made that option. My father was more skeptical and scared. But my mother said follow your steps, follow your dreams whatever you feel it is right for you. And she was very proud at that time that I was the first woman photographer, photojournalist. Because she said “You are going to hear, don’t get angry,” and I said “No, forget about it, the comments from these guys?” And I said “I have to fight back.” And she said “No.” And I said “You are the traditional way but I’ll deal with it”.

JLB: So you’re doing both things, you were doing photojournalism, you were doing also, you were a fixer, a PR representative for the Sandinistas for the foreign correspondents. And you were doing also political work.

MM: Yes, and transportation during the night, for people that were hiding from Somoza’s, from the Somoza’s regime. I had my car, and because I was at La Prensa I was able to have a loan and buy my car. And then the friends they said, “Oh yes, we can use it during the night.” So sometimes I had to drive three hours and come back to the paper like nothing.

JLB: Correct, you were out probably most of the night, and then you came back to the paper to work.

MM: Yeah, but it was nothing, everybody was like that, it was like Speedy Gonzales all the time all the people. Because you feel that you are not alone in one cause, I mean when you see the paper, all the publications there was repression every single day. Like families, it was very tough for us, well for them as journalists and for me as a photographer, to cover things and to see whole family that was killed. Because even dogs, little kids, 3 years old, 4 years old, just because their father was an opposition person. Not somebody that they knew, it was just their intelligence would tell “Oh these people do this,” or they do the papers for the Frente Sandinista. So cases like that were lots of cases. There was a certain space and place in the sense that it was out of control for them in order to repress everybody. There was a lot of repression, and a lot of killing. One of the things that I forgot to tell you, one of my first works, jobs that I did at La Prensa was going to the morgue every single day, with a reporter. But for him, the reporter, it was something normal.

JLB: Correct.

MM: The guy that was in charge of the morgue, he would say “Well, we have two, three dead bodies, new ones.” And

JLB: You had to take the photos.

MM: I was the photographer, yes. And I am very short, so I had to find a chair and look, and open the drawer, try to take pictures of all the people that nobody had asked for them.

JLB: That nobody had claimed.

MM: Claimed, yes. Because there was a section that would say “Do you know him? Do you know this person?” At that time they would publish photos of dead people. Well, they had a social message also. To tell the relatives. There are these

JLB: This person was killed.

MM: Yes, and nobody has identified or asked for him, or her. Ans it has been in the morgue for few days.

JLB: Was that a regular section of the paper?

MM: Yes.

JLB: What was the name of that?

MM: Sucesos.

JLB: Sucesos. And it was a way also of showing how many people were being killed.

MM: Hm hm.

JLB: As well, right?

MM: Yes.

JLB: Because in many cases the family probably didn’t ever claim them because they were afraid.

MM: Hm hm.

JLB: They could be charged with something else, right?

MM: Yes.

JLB: So it was kind of a social work.

MM: It was very very strong because for us, it was, and me, well because it’s very complex. There is a mix of feelings but also something that you have to go beyond, saying, well this is, he works for the government, he gives me information, he becomes like your informant but you cannot say that.

JLB: Correct.

MM: So what I remember is once we went to the morgue and he said “Get in.” He was cleaning a guy that got killed and was a tenant from the National Guard and he was killed in Monimbo, and he was really, there were wounds everywhere. I had never seen somebody that’s dead being cleaned and the person that is in the morgue who is does that. And I had to climb even, you know, the table where they were cleaning him in order to take pictures. And also, well, that’s one thing, I took those pictures, thanks God the director, the editor said “No we are not going to publish that.” And I said “Well I took the pictures”, “No, no, that’s OK, no problem but we are not going to publish that.” But the other thing is that he would give me information, to me and the other journalists, in a certain point, that would talk to him and bring fruits, or talk, and even joke with him, and then the journalist would say “Well tell me, honestly, how many people from the National Guard have died, or the police.” “No, no.” “Cmon”. And then he had another notebook, and then he would say you know “She has to count how many, but quickly,” I would go t-t-t-t-t. So there would be like, come se dice una, no se, una

JLB: Like an exchange of information?

MM: Si.

JLB: An informal agreement?

MM: An informal agreement but es como the day una information, I going to give you information, but you have to do it quickly. I think he knew at a certain point things were so bad that he needed to give more information than the ones he officially had to

JLB: Correct. Which was good for you guys, right?

MM: Oh, that was perfect. His name was Gonzalo I never forget that.

JLB: So when things started are becoming more, at some point do you, either become more dangerous or  became more intense in terms of how the Sandinista movement was about

MM: Everything went so fast. We worked, all of us, not just the people in the press. I cannot say 24 hours but a lot of hours in terms of like your official work and what you had to do afterwards you know. But, well, a turning point for me was the death of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, who was the director of the newspaper. And after that, things moved so quickly in terms of like, they couldn’t stop the demonstrations. And then, people that were forbidden to come to Nicaragua. There was a group of 12. It became a whole incredible demonstration. And when Pedro Joaquín Chamorro died it was a shock for us. We never thought that they were gonna, I mean do something like that in the morning or kill him the way that they did. But I think that made the crew or the people the we worked at La Prensa very close to each other and try to protect us. But also follow what the editor had to say you know. The good thing that I remember of them is that Pedro Joaquín used to get together every single day with all the journalists and the photographers and see what we were gonna cover. So that tradition in terms of the job we did it. Every single day we knew what we were gonna cover. And sometimes if something we saw we would cover it immediately. But there was a sense of protection among us. If we saw that it was very very dangerous the journalist would say “Let’s go, let’s move quickly because something is gonna happen.” But, I don’t know, nothing ever happened to the photographers or the journalists. After, besides the killing of Pedro Joaquín, some of the journalists they were in jail for a few moments or something like that but nothing. And also the radio was playing a very important role and there was also a, come se dice sindicato?

JLB: A union.

MM: A union of journalists that was very strong. For example, just to give you, there was censorship, they used to send the National Guards in order to see what was gonna be published. And the censor would say “No, this doesn’t go, no no no.” And then a certain time there were a lot of people that were censored and they decided “Well, we are going to go in the streets,” because they weren’t saying anything. And churches open their places nationally. The journalists would go and read what was happening after the massacres.

JLB: The censored stories?

MM: Yes. And that’s called  – excuse me – periodismo de catacumba.

JLB: Was that happening at La Prensa as well, were you guys censored?

MM: Yes.

JLB: So you had to go out also to the churches?

MM: Yes the whole story would get, you see, at that time they had that kind of paper, that you can put just some glue and stick, and it was everything ready you know, to publish, I mean to be en la en la rotativa, come se llama?

JLB: Yeah, the printing press

MM: HmHm. And then suddenly the censor would go there and huge x. X, x, and so that’s when the periodismo de catacumba, because there was so much censorship, you know, on the radio and with the press. There was just two newspapers. The one of Somoza was called Novedades. And La Prensa. And so that was an incredible movement because churches opened their open their doors and after mass or in between the journalists would pick up the microphone and read the news. “This is what happened today.”

JLB: And this happened after the assassination of Pedro Joaquín?

MM: Yes, yes. 

JLB: How much longer were you able to stay at La Prensa?

MM: Until the end.

JLB: Until they bombed it?

MM: No, no no. A few days, because they told me, el Frente told me, “You have to, there is a war and the final insurrection is going on and there are gonna be different fronts and we need you with the press with the insurrection in Managua.” So like two days before that happened, I knew the final insurrection was.

JLB: So you remember more or less the date?

MM: Yes, it was like June 9th 1979.

JLB: Okay.

MM: And they would pick me up in a car, we were full like that, that’s when the barricades and everything, parts of the neighborhoods of Managua. And we started very close and then the National Guard with tanks, so we went to a certain point of Barrio called El Dorado Colorado and if there was barricaded the journalists would stay and ask for me. They called me Marta during the war.

JLB: It was your, was your nom de guerre? Marta?

MM: Marta.

JLB: Marta Lafoto, what did you say?

MM: Marta Foto. Yes.

JLB: To distinguish you from other Martas?

MM: Yes. So they would come and I would get them and say where are gonna, what would you like to cover? There had been things going on in this church and places. There has been bombing there, people that have been killed here. All of them would say “No. we want an interview with estado mayor,” and okay we would go to the interviews, “We wanna see this barrio,” we went to see,  people are getting together where people have taking care of them, you know, doctors, nurses, because they had been bombing. So they would ask, and if I could do it, you know, and I would ask if I could.

JLB: You served as the guide for

MM: Yes.

JLB: For these reporters. At that point were you carrying a gun?

MM: No.

JLB: No?

MM: No, no. At the beginning, no.

JLB: Okay.

MM: No, afterwards yes I had to because

JLB: So in early June you start essentially going full time with the Frente

MM: Yes.

JLB: Right? And you were not taking anymore photos for the newspapers?

MM: No. Not at all.

JLB: And when did they bomb the paper? La Prensa?

MM: I don’t know. I think it was in June.

JLB: It was in June as well? It was, it was probably a few days after that you

MM: Well because I remember we had to move from Managua because the National Guard had surrounded and deliberated the son of, it was controlled by the Frente Sandinista, that was united at that time. And I had to leave that part of Managua, and I changed everything. I was scared that I was find in a house. With long sleeve. Because the first thing they would do is check your elbows, if you had scratches, you had to como se dice arrastrarse?

JLB: Oh, you had to bel, like, crawling, in the ground, right?

PDH: So that was like, an indication?

MM: Yes, and my knees. So I put, I was a Mennonita, you know, very long, a long skirt and I passed with a family. There was a family going there, trying to escape from the war. What happened is that the family had like a little pig and a little chicken and I had asked him if I could have the little pig, in order that nobody would recognize me. That’s what I thought in my mind. And there was a police watching La Prensa, trying to see, and then he said, because I covered la policia, he said, “So Margarita Montealegre, can see what’s left of your job?” You know, of La Prensa? And I thought he, and he had a gun. So I continued walking with the family and didn’t even, and I walked many many many blocks until I went to my house. And then I asked my sister to move me to another house, and then went to the war to Masaya.

JLB: So from Managua they took you to Masaya.

MM:  Yes. I went with a guy that worked for the, or collaborated with the Red Cross and he asked me “What do you have as an I.D. from the Red Cross?” And I said “I’m a donor.” And then, “I have just this, that says my type of blood.” “Let’s go.” So kind of like an ambulance, and I went back to work in Masaya. Because what happened is called repliegue, people that left Managua, walking, to Masaya. But for me they told me to leave in a legal way. I don’t know why they did that, that’s OK. And I decided no, I need to go back, and I went to Masaya through that way. The guy had left me there and he went back. It worked perfectly with the National Guard.

JLB: They just assumed you were a donor.

MM: Yes.

JLB: With your donor I.D.

JLB: And in Masaya you were still doing work?

MM: Yes.

JLB: As a liaison for foreign correspondents?

MM: Yes.

JLB: Were you taking photos at that time?

MM: For the radio, the radio. I was in charge of the radio with some other people, the news, because

JLB: For the rebel radio station?

MM: Yes. So we had to do like every single day like an hour or something of the news of the day. We had few reporters that would volunteer and say this happened in the neighborhood or this happened in this part of Masaya. And there is food. Because Masaya was one of the most organized places. In in, I’m talking in the sense of distribution of food, they knew how much food they had in their comedores. And that was for free. So but because Masaya produced a lot of yucca, we ate yucca almost every single day,

JLB: Every time and every single meal.

MM: So we stay a few days, and then we moved to another city. And that was liberated afterwards and that was Diriamba. And then Jinotepe, and then Granada. But the resistance of Masaya is one of the most well known, before the final insurrection, that’s when Monimbo, all the indigenous people kept the resistant for day during the Somoza, even when Somoza was in power. And that’s when a lot of the pictures of the Foreign Press took you know, that the one of them woman carrying the body, you know, and, but he was like, like, an example of a city is Masaya, Estelí. So, I was in five different cities Managua, Masaya, Jinotepe, Diriamba, and Granada.

JLB: And Granada.

MM: Granada was less.

JLB: And in all of them you were sort of guiding.

MM: Yes.

JLB: Foreign correspondents. Do you have sort of a, can you give us an idea who were these foreign correspondents? And and what was the reaction to what was happening at the time?

MM: I think the majority of foreign correspondents were pro change in Nicaragua, to, and were more sympathetic with the FSLN because of the dictator, the type of dictatorship and then, the type of commentaries that Somoza even said about the Foreign Press, and also about the killings like nothing’s happening. I’m not saying all of them, you know, so but hum. And also the persons that I remember is, for example, Alan Riding, Alma Guillermoprieto, Koen Wessing, who was a photographer. Then, there were Brazilian journalists really good Brazilian journalists and, and then photographers. And therewere people from the AP that I don’t remember their names, but there were a whole crew of people and the France Press, but the AP crew was, I mean, a lot of people they sent here to cover the war. And well, Susan Meiselas, Susan and then there was that John Hoagland. And there was some other journalists, Silio Boccanera. I have the names in our room, but none here. And there were a lot of people from Costa Rica, journalists from Costa Rica, because Costa Rica was, there was much solidarity. So they knew and they send lots lots of journalists here. And people from Panama, also and all French reporters. And English reporters.

JLB: From all over the world basically, right?

MM: Yes, there were a lot of journalists. The Intercontinental Hotel was controlled by the journalists.

JLB: And that’s how you met Richard Cross.

MM: Yes. I met Richard. Yes.

JLB: In that trajectory or?

MM: No, because I think he was in Leon. I think I met him afterward. Later. Yeah.

JLB: So you met him later, in Nicaragua.

MM: You know when he came to Nicaragua?

JLB: I’m not sure exactly at what point he came, he went to Nicaragua I think is, I just have the vague timeframe that says summer, but I don’t know when in the summer he was in Nicaragua so I don’t know exactly when, but he’s got to be around this time.

MM: There were incredible journalists, I mean, very more into doing an investigation about every single things people said, and try to follow up, you know, to say, when which is true, which isn’t true. So, but I remember meeting, Richard, but I don’t, I don’t have the dates.

JLB: Correct.

MM: Yes. But I think if you contact Carlos Rincón, he will give you more information.

JLB: Let me ask you this, in this road from Masaya to Granada right, that’s where that’s the geography that you’re talking about, what kinds of things you did with the foreign correspondents? How did you help them?

MM: In Masaya, they were, the correspondents would ask, you know, oh, for example, there was a huge school, a Catholic School for boys. And that’s where the first militia got together, you know, and they were trained and everything in order to defend around Masaya, and so they took pictures of that, they took pictures and, well, they did an interviews of people. Because like I told you Masaya for me was an example of a city on resistance but also city very well organized, in terms of trying to give equally the food, the distribution if there wasn’t any water, they would say, en barata, yo no se como se dice en barata, you know, los megafonos, que son camionetas. Sabes? Que dicen, buen, en lo pays nuestro, “Es muerto el”

JLB: Oh, they were doing like announcements?

MM: Well not not about that. I’m saying that the baratas would say, there’s a distribution in the comedor numero cinco, the meals are ready for the people.

JLB: So people went and they were announcing.

MM: Or the Red Cross, for example, has a certain types of things that they keep, you can cure all the blasts. And there’s this type of medicines, or things like that. They would say things. And there was like a radio, I was in charged also of the radio, you know, with some other guy. And so we did different things, is just not with the journals, journalists.

JLB: Did you take photos at the time?

MM: Yes. Almost all my pictures got lost. Because the system was that I would give the films to correo, correo that was, that was part of Frente. And those films would be developed in Costa Rica, or in the States, in San Francisco, or I don’t know. And they, they used them, but I never saw them back. You know, the

JLB: So you just took the photos and then somebody else was in charge of transporting them.

MM: So I got back some of the photographs because a guy told me “I think some of the pictures that you took are here. So you have to recognize them and tell them, tell me honestly, which was”

JLB: Which was yours.

MM: So I have some of those pictures. They’re survivors for the book. And and the ones are in my mind and in my heart.

JLB: All the others just probably are public domain.

MM: I know for sure until I die that I’m not scare but I don’t have the pictures.

JLB: Were you in danger at the time? Did you see some battles?

MM: Of course.

JLB: Yes?

MM: Yes.

JLB: Tell me a little bit about that. And what would what kind of experience you had.

MM: Well, for example, one of the most dangerous things for us was the bombings through airplanes because you never knew where they were going explode. In Managua was very heavy. So you see the photographs of the kids, it was a refugee place, a house, and on on the ceiling was written “refugee for little kids,” and that’s where they bombed, they bombed many houses, and those little kids were taken to this place that was a school. And they had a huge auditorium. And that was one of the worst cases because I saw a lot of kids die, and even their mothers.

JLB: So when they bombed, they knew there were kids.

MM: Yes. And, well, we had many situations, but the most risky ones were the ones in Managua, because the National Guard started trying to surround the areas that were liberated by the Frente Sandinista. And so there were a lot of repression. And also, what they did is they infiltrated people and young, young young soldiers 15, 14 years old, and they put those guys on the top of trees during the night. And so they had, they were snipers.

JLB: Oh.

MM: So during the day would kill. So you knew, like in a certain place, that you had to go running zigzagging.

PDH: Oh, wow.

JLB: So they couldn’t kill you?

MM: Yes

JLB: Because they were shooting.

MM: And the journalists knew about that. I said, “You cannot walk like nothing’s happening.” Because you don’t know which street.

JLB: You would find a sniper there.

MM: So there were many situations. But, Masaya was, there were lots of killings, but not as in Managua, but there were bombings also in Masaya. Because Somoza couldn’t, I think he couldn’t forgive that the insurrection before, Monimbo, was of resistance that took them days to get back the city, you know. And there was the indigenous people that kept the you know, the como la llama viva.

JLB: Keep it alive, right? Did you ever have to fight? Did you ever have to be involved in battle?

MM: In that final insurrection? No. I had my gun afterwards. You know, like I think in Masaya or

JLB: So in Masaya is when you get a gun.

MM: I think but I don’t remember.

JLB: Did you know how to shoot before that?

MM: Oh, yeah, we had training before, I had training. Yes.

JLB: So you had training about how to use arms? And how to.

MM: Yes.

JLB: How to

PDH: Training,

MM: Yeah, but I didn’t have to fire any until, until afterwards. It was in the 80s.

PDH: I was gonna say training in the newspaper, or where?

MM: No, no training by the FSLN. In different spots, you know, like farms, or in the mountains near the volcanoes, places that the National Guard wouldn’t be there, or check. But we had very, very much tough training. And even in the war, in Managua, we had training while the war was going on, in order that people would be prepared, you know. Like, for example, in Managua, the people, one of the guys that was in charge of the whole control of Manawa, he said, “Well, you have to leave Managua.” Whenever, when they move to Masaya. “You have to leave Managua and because you’re not somebody that is in danger, you know, so not too many people know that you’re involved with us.”

JLB: Correct.

MM: So that’s why I had to leave, you know, and when I went back, and it was very risky. But then, my problem, my problem was that my knees and my elbows had, you know, bruises and everything. So I went to a house, an abandoned house, okay, this is the story. What I did. I went to an abandoned house and I looked for a long sleeve shirt. And that skirt that I told you like menonita. Okay, and then I said I can not leave with   my camera, I have to hide my camera. Because if they see me with my camera, they’re gonna recognize me directly and say, you know, so what can I do? What I did is I put everything in a black, como se dice bolsa

JLB: A bag. All the films, my cameras, and I put it in an abandoned patio for house, wood stones and everything like it put. And then I left without nothing, you know, just nothing, nothing, nothing. And I felt, you know, well, I’m gonna lose everything. So I started walking, walking, and I went to my house and the day afterwards, I, I, well, during that day, or the day after there’s a neighbor, an old lady. And she said, “Margarita, is this true that you were near this neighborhood?” And I said, “Yes,” “I’m going to go there. Do you need something? You left things?” And I said “Yes.” “I can try to see if I can, what, what kind of things?” And she didn’t know it my cameras and my film.

JLB: Mm hmm.

PDH: Right.

MM: So the old lady went to the neighborhood and pull all the stones and the whole with a black bag. And he brought my cameras and my films.

PDH: Oh wow.

JLB: Wow.

MM: And that’s when I decided, yes, I’m going back to, I’m gonna go to Masaya with my cameras. And one of the conditions that I forgot to tell you, that that every journalist or photographer had to give me film, because I didn’t have film.

JLB: So that was a way for them to pay you for.

MM: Well, pay me no.

JLB: Reward you for your services. For being their guide. Do you remember the camera that when you were using the the time?

MM: Nikon.

JLB: Okay.

MM: And Nikkormat, at that time.

JLB: So you were using two cameras”

MM: Yes.

JLB: Hm hm.

MM: I still have them.

PDH: So when you were involved with the FSLN, can you talk about the women in the in the cause? What, kind of, like, what they did? How many were involved?

MM: Oh, there were a lot of women.

PDH: What kind of, like, I guess, what the type of work they did?

MM: There were, many of them, you know, that participated and had the same training or better even training than some of the men, but always the boss was the men. And just in one or few cases, very few cases, women were in charge of operations that they would get a whole city, to control the whole city. There was this case of Granada, Granada there was this case of Monica Baltodano that she took a group of combatientes, and then then she said “Well we’re going head to the headquarters of the National Guard.” So we went there, we were very few, and there were like houses, OK, like, you see like there’s a neighborhood, but all the houses would communicate from one to another. Very small houses. And so, we started walking, like the houses had small patios that communicated from one to another. And we started looking at uniforms of the National Guard, that were part, and then we would see people coming with civilian clothes, very young kids. And so, we did the

JLB: They were National Guards.

MM: Yes these are part of the National Guards. You know, they want to pretend that they’re civilians or want to disguise as civilians and leaving all their their uniforms there. So that was by the end of the war, you know, and that suddenly we went to a house and we start listening, you know, como se dice como, con el megafono?

JLB: With the, how do you call that stuff that you use for megaphone?

PDH: Megaphone thank you. See? So easy.

MM: And she opened the window, you know of that, and started listening to this guy, that is the chief of the National Guard in charge of Granada, and saying that he wants to surrender himself with his troop. And he said el Quartier Général, and then he says “I want to surrender myself.” And then she said, “Well, I’m here. I’m the, the commander in chief. And I’m with my troops here.” And then he started saying, “No, I want to surrender. But with a comandante

JLB: Oh, man.

MM: So that’s a huge battle you know, of words and things like that. So we part of that, and then suddenly, he kept saying the same thing, that he wanted to surrender himself to a comandante. And then, finally the comandante came to a place, but the person that received him, and you’re going to see the picture, did you see it?

JLB: No, I didn’t it, is it in the book? In the presentation?

MM: In the presentation.

JLB: I don’t remember.

MM: Ok, we have to look at it.

JLB: Hm hm.

MM: He surrenders to her. And then he goes and walks with his nephew and a niece something to the house where the comandantes are waiting with the the machos the you know, the, I’m saying machos, but they were comandantes. And that was the first time I think, when the all the surrenders, really, a woman controlled. And then, but also there was a huge battle in in Granada. And, but he had a lot of meaning about the machismo, you know, for him, a woman was not right.

JBL: Correct.

PDH: He didn’t want to surrender to a woman. So can you talk a little bit about Dora too? I know you spoke about her when we were doing metadata but, her position in the insurrection in Leon?

JLB: Dora Téllez.

MM: But I don’t know too much about Dora María. I know she was the one that was in charge. And, su Estado Major, como se llama? Como se dice?

PDH: Like, level, ranking?

MM: No, no. Estado Major is like, the guys in terms of ranking are, have such power.

JLB: They are below her but they are.

MM: There were a lot of women. And that was different from other citites, you know, not too many women were in the Estado Major. What I remember of of, well, first of all, this is the second largest city of of Nicaragua. And it was under control since they the first day you know, there never was like, Managua like it was in danger and it was a lot bigger. And and and there was also a lot of organizations. Oh, and also disorganization, you know, can you imagine everybody wanted to be boss and say, you know, “I have the power.” But in terms of her, I think she’s a very intelligent woman, that was able to, and and also had the experience to being in control in different situations before, like the the ones of the asalto al palacio, the 24th, the 22nd of August of 1978. And she’s the one that was in control of like, talking to Somoza, and dealing with him, and negotiating with him. And so, for her, and well, you could see different stuff that happened in different cities, but there was a control, and they knew how to, which parts or places to attack first and afterwards, in order to be liberating you know? Yes. I think for us, the Nicaraguans, she’s one of the smartest woman, as a warrior, as a soldier, but also somebody that politically can take decisions, you know? And what is really sad is that, the history doesn’t show that.

JLB: Correct.

MM: In terms of women, you know, that’s how I feel at least.

JLB: You have more questions:

PDH: Not now.

JLB: Not now?

PDH: Maybe it will come to me.

JLB: Don’t doubt it, just jump in.


JLB: We are back. Second part of Margarita Montealegre’s oral history.

PDH: So where we left off, I was asking you about the women’s participation in FSLN. So you can take it from where we left?

MM: Well, I think it’s important, you know, that question, at least for me as a woman. And, because lots of women that were part or they were the chief of the insurrection, the final insurrection in different cities, they’re hardly mentioned. They’re talking about the military, and they talk about men, but the ones that were in charge of the military and the civil organizations within the cities, they don’t talk about them, you know, their referrals are always male. And that continue to be that way. You know, it’s, for example, will I think I gave you the, the example over there were nine main members of the National directory, you know, Dirección Nacional, so none of them was a woman. And they never included one, until they lost the election, you know. So how can you feel that you’re included, you know, being from the other sex and you have so much struggle that you have gone through, in order to get your rights when the, all these males, they will always have, you know, their way of thinking, you know, a person with power or a person that has been recognized since history, you know, their grandfathers their fathers, and, and that’s how they inherited everything, you know, it’s just like, so, um, and even small rights. Like, for example, abortion was a big issue. And they didn’t allow it, you know, for many years. Or what else, well.

JLB: Equal pay.

MM: Equal pay, or, for, it was more acceptable to have another mate, that is from the same sex, that is a man, but if it was the case of a woman that was condemned, you know, during the revolution, not to go to jail, but it was something that would make fun of it, you know. So there were lots of things you know, about, and so I think, for us, and many of the women, and also the, the right of the land, for example, it’s acceptable for men to be the owner, but to, for a woman, they don’t see why a woman can handle and can manage the whole thing, how to deal with money and how to deal you know, with the harvest and whatever, you know. Because it’s not a women’s issue, you know, it’s hard for them to accept you know. And, well, I think little by little, especially the young generations have learned how to, to get those causes and made them theirs, you know. A lot of women now feel that, more and more they’re being represented by them. But before it was the man that were talking about women and what were their rights, you know. So that has changed a lot. And I think, well, just to give you an example also, besides being a journalist and part of the union of journalists that participates in catacumbas, I also was a member of an organization called the Association de Mujeres Nicaraguense Luisa Amanda Espinoza, AMNLAE, and before it was AMPRONAC. Association, before before the the revolution it was Asociación de Mujeres ante la Problemática Nacional. And that association was among women decided to do a whole thing against the the dicatorship, and against Somoza and to support the struggle of women toward the land, because the the dictators and dictatorship and his, come se dice aliados? Allies.

JLB: Allies.

MM: Were trying to get take away the land from her. So what. you know, things that usually woman, they’re not supposed to do, they took United Nations office in order to get the attention what was happening, you know, in the, so, Somoza sent the elites army from guided by his son to repress that park. But it was like an international issue because it’s an international organization. So I think, women, for us, at least I’m talking about my experience, it took me a lot of time to swallow, that we are in the right to decide whatever we want, that we don’t have, you know, like, how do you say a formula that if I get married, I’m going to be happy, or I should get married, otherwise, you’re not going to be successful. And if that if you study and you don’t have kids, also, you have a handicap, you know what I mean? Because they don’t tell the men that you know. So and the other thing I wanted to tell you is that many of the women that were in charge of the final insurrection like Dora María, Flor de María Monterrey, Dharma Lila Carrasquilla, women that were in charge, and you don’t listen too much about these women. Just when you see the people in the streets and say “Oh, this woman, she really has courage,” but when they say that the courage is compared to a man, you know,

PDH: Yeah. That’s true. So, and if you’re talking about history, there were many women that were very brave, but you see them after ’79 they were like the head of police, but they repeat what the national directory had to say about what they had to do. You know, it was it wasn’t the case of Dora María Téllez because she was the Minister of Health for many years. In the case of Flor de María Monterrey, because she was the head of of, she was in the National Assembly, but also then they put her in the history department that gathers all the documents and everything you know, after the revolution, in order to write about history and to do research and everything. So, and and you can see, well and then you compare to the young people that had participation and were women, there were hardly mentioned in history. So when you read books, you read the books about Nicaragua, they’re talking about commanders, you know?

PDH: Yeah.

MM: So, at least that’s the way I see. And it was a sin to say in Nicaragua for many “Well, I’m not willing to, to fall in love with somebody or get married because everybody wants to,” you know, I’m gonna do it. So it was something that is established, and if you don’t do it, that’s not right, you know. So you’re against the current. So I think that has changed. And I think Nicaragua is, not as much as we would like to, but Nicaragua is one of the countries in Central America that that’s headed. And it’s very advanced in terms of saying, you know, where we have so many killings, of feminicides, you know, in this country, and the womens are the ones that do the research, the women are the ones that show the cases and look for support and made those cases up to the public. And the public will know what amount of violence when men can live and can cope with it.

JLB: Let me let me put you back to the revolution time. Once the revolution succeeds, then what happened to you?

MM: Tic toc tic toc. Oh, well, the first thing that they, I was at the at the army, you know, when the, well I have to tell you some stories about the day of the revolution.


MM: I’m going to tell to the students, but you know, due to, because I was photojournalist I knew the bunker where Somoza lived or and I knew his massage,  masajista come se dice?

JLB: Masseuse.

MM: Masseuse. Yes. His masseuse used to be my mother’s masseuse at the clinic she had for facials.

JLB: That’s amazing.

MM: And Somoza’s lover used to be my mother’s client, you know? And she found this masseuse, so she convinced her to be Somoza’s official masseuse. So it was an incredible lady, she’s still alive. And this woman, we loved her, you know, was very honest woman, very humble. So what what happened? It’s, I’m just going to tell you a story about this woman. She, Alan Reininger, you remember that I told you?

PDH: Yes.

MM: I think it was him that took a picture of, they allowed, Somoza allowed him to come to his bunker while they’re doing, they were doing his massage. And well, it became publicly you know, that everybody’s saw that picture of this woman giving massage to Somoza. So, the first thing they do when the revolution won, you know, when it was over you know the Somoza regime, is look for the woman. Okay, forget about Somoza, because Somoza had left the country and capture her because, what was her sin? Being Somoza’s masseuse. So, I had to intercede you know, with people, and say “This woman has, that was her job.” And it was recently that she got into that, you know. So, so little stories like that, so, but also about the bunker, because I had gone to some interviews, you know, with Somoza, that they asked me to take pictures, and, with the allowance of La Prensa of course, you know, I went with the Brazilian journalist. And, well, I got to know very well  the bunker you know, where Somoza’s office was. And then Somoza, when the revolution happened, you know, and the first thing the first thing we went is, was to his office and so they didn’t know how to get there. Because it was a way, the the office or the walls were cover with leather, the same leather, is like the bunker, you know when explodes, you know what a bunker is?

PDH: Yeah.

MM: Okay. And so, como se dice la manilletta? It was like hide.

JLB: The handle?

MM: Yes, the handle was hide among those, all that leather, you know, that was brown. So there were a lot of people and we open and I said “This is the way to get in.” And then, and then, what’s incredible to get into the bunker, it was that there was a radio going, and they could hear very loud the National Guard asking for help from different parts of Nicaragua and they said “General, can you respond? General Can you respond?” And then the guy, one of the guys said, “Well, the general is gone. And this is the Frente Sandinista,” you know. So, and then the other thing, the tale of the bunker is that there were so many pictures, they were ripped apart before he left, in order that they want, they didn’t want ,you know, like, we say in Spanish to burn faces, it means to, to show who their allies were, you know, or the people that were very close. But they didn’t finish that. So all these pictures were around his desk. And then a lot of, what was incredible a lot of persons start getting to the, you know, to this desk. Because those were the persons that were guerrilleros.

PDH: Mm hmm.

MM: So, for me it was an incredible experience, you know, to see, when they changed power. But among all these people, you didn’t see any woman.

JLB: Really

MM: Just me while taking pictures. And the journalists you know, but I mean, because a lot of women were in charge of like, I can tell you a bunch of them, you know? And what’s incredible about the women before the revolution, this Association of Women is they were able to gather people that had worked in offices, people that were peasants, people that were workers, and they all were were women. And the main slogan that had is “Donde estan nostros hermanos campesinos?” Because a lot of the peasants had disappeared. And that was like the cry, como se dice el llanto, el grido?

JLB: The cry? What you said.

MM: Yes, of the mothers and the women looking for their kids, their husbands. And that became something afterwards even when they kill Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, they had a big banner, saying, you know, where are nostros hermanos campesinos? Well, for, for us, well, as Nicaraguans, it was very important, even though she was, she was a woman, but she wasn’t somebody that would be, you know, in order to change a lot of the things that we think they should be to have changed, to have a woman that is a mother. And it was a present when Violeta Chamorro became to power you know, and I think things change little by little, in a way, because of, there were more participation of women in the ministers of health. But even during the revolution, you know, so I think that’s very important, but you know, it’s not due to revolution, that the woman were power, you know, because they the ones that were in power and taking the decisions were man. And you can tell by the time that had passed, that is not the same thing. You know, if you have been brought up that you are always right, and the man is the one that has the power, and takes the decision.

PDH: Right.

MM: And nobody, you know, would really even discuss or say something that might be controversial, doesn’t want to have any contradictions that can. So, I think that’s a little better, that it is changing. But right now, I think it’s very important, for example, like the movement, no more killings no more femicides. And that has become a group of women and associations that went to make public what’s going on in terms of violence against women, against children, because there are consequences of all that violence that children are witnessing. So I think, also, that women are, are changing little by little, they preconception about how we are supposed to be, like in a role model, you know. And that’s why the big challenge is, has to do with to study more, to specialize and to speak out.

PDH: Absolutely.

JLB: And then what happened with Margarita, after the revolution?

MM: Oh, during the revolution, I started. Well, I was at the bunker, you know,

PDH: Right.

MM: And I decided, you know, I’m going to stay at the bunker, nearby, with the army, the new army, and I’m going to stay there. And then suddenly, somebody told me, “I heard you at the radio, they they call you on the radio” “On the radio?” “That you need to go to the newspaper,” it was called Barricada. “And you have to go there.” And I said, “I didn’t hear that. I don’t think so.” “No Margaritas, swear to God, you have to go.” And I said, “Nooo.” I felt you know, like the revolution was over. So I had to rest you know, in my mind. So, and then, the next day, I had to go to Barricada, which before was the newspaper of Somoza,, Novedades. And that’s when I show up to, talked to Carlos  Fernando Chamorro, who was my friend, and we worked at La Prensa together. So I told him, you know, “Well they said, you’re calling me to, to be here.” And he said, in Spanish, “Fresca, I’ve been calling you.” And I said, “Oh, my God,” you know, so that’s when I went with my camera. They gave us film, and I start taking pictures again for the paper. And a huge thing for me in terms of discovery is that I was at the paper trying to clean up and get rid of a lot of stuff with another bunch of workers, but I mean, we’re talking two or three days after the revolution. And suddenly, I see lots of boxes, empty boxes, and say, let’s get rid of this, and then start with like, the third box, you know, it was heavy. And then we open it, and it was full of negatives from Novedades. And they they didn’t even use, you know, like, envelopes to put the negative. They just put like masking tape around here. Masking tape and saying, for example, March April 1979. Okay.

PDH: So what kind of images did you did you guys find?

MM: Oh, lots of important images. Because remember, you don’t have to forget, La Prensa was bombed.

PDH: Mm hmm.

MM: So there were no images or record of images besides this other newspaper.

PDH: Yeah.

MM: So for example, Asalto al Palacio with Dora María and Hugo Torres. They had their own point of view, but that’s the point of view of them, of a fact that happened. And nobody else was gonna give us to us, you know, give us those kind of images and also a lot of pictures of the dictator and his life, regular life, which is important. But at that time, nobody saw it like that. So I took the boxes to my house and start cleaning each one of them and cutting, and try to recognize with Novedades what is going on, besides my job. And Carlos was with me and he said “Do it because.” And now they’re, those are in some archives, at the Universidad Centroamericana.

JLB: Centroamericana, mm hmm.

MM: But that’s important because, a lot of things that we never thought would be in those types of archives, you know. But what was incredible everything was going to be, I mean, dumped away because we thought, you know, were empty boxes.

JLB: You saved the visual memory of the country.

MM: Of that part of it. For me was very important, it was like, I mean, this is a goldmine, you know, it’s just. Because there were lots of things about them, you know, that was very interesting. And they had those images, I don’t know if they preserve all of them because nobody, there was an institution that was very serious in terms of not touching because the natural director or somebody would say, “I need something,” they wouldn’t return the negatives

JLB: Oh, they would take the negatives and not return them.

MM: So after the revolution, I worked I think three years for Barricada, three or four years, and then I work on and off with them you know, the when they ever they needed, but also with different organizations, especially Dirección Nacional, I was their main photographer. So I traveled within the country, very official. And then and then I I went to this international, to Institute of History, and I worked with them all negatives and things that they had, in order to recognize specially before the revolution, recognize the archives that they had, or people had donated a lot of, people started donating a lot of images and things like that. And then I work for the Department of Propaganda of Frente.

JLB: She is going pretty fast, you realize that?

MM: Mm?JLB: You’re going pretty fast, so what what happened in Barricada?

MM: In Barricada, well, we

PDH: I meant like her voice too fast.


MM: Ah, in Barricada

JLB: She is gonna come now.

MM: Well in Barricada, we had to cover every single day was news because new ministers, new institutions, and for example, that picture, of the currency.

PDH: Oh, yes.

MM: Yes. That picture was in March of 1980. And that picture, it was because a friend of mine was in Carazo, Jinotepe. And she said, we were visiting and we’re doing a coverage of Jinotepe or something else. And then she said “There’s place, you know, that they were going to take some land, that has been abandoned. And these peasants want to put, you know, like little sticks with their name.” So that’s how they picture, and then we went in a truck, back in a truck, looking for the peasants. And they were putting, like the little sticks with their names, and then they did the march. And I was in the camioneta, back of the truck, taking pictures of that. And the signs says “No somos aves – we are not birds to live from the earth. We are not

JLB: Fish,

MM: Fish to live from water, the water. We’re meant to live from the the land.” It’s kind of controversial at the time because fish and even birds, you know, it’s something but it was on a una frase como se dice? Phrase?

JLB: A phrase, mm hmm.

MM: A phrase that a peasant that got killed said. And so that became like, an icon in terms of, like a photograph, you know, because people feel that they were represented in order to get a piece of land, to have their own, and well, the story behind the story, like I told you, is that if you see the whole picture, you’re gonna see on this left side, a little kid,

JLB: A little boy, mm hmm

MM: Yeah, a little boy, like eight years old or nine. And the boy in the, in the, on the on the bill is wiped out. So they erased him, you know?

PDH: Yeah, who would?

MM: Because, I don’t know, maybe they didn’t didn’t think he had the merits, you know, because he was young, in order to get the land. I don’t know, what’s the decision but you know, but

PDH: Yeah,

MM: The original picture has this kid. And then, and then also, searching those pictures, in that picture with the enlarger, there’s one or two women, but behind?

PDH: Did he put them behind? No, I don’t I don’t remember that.


MM: But you know, but they’re, well, the number of women didn’t represent the population,

PDH: Of course

JLB: Of the women in the countryside, yes.

MM: Because mainly, the women are the head of the production, in many parts of Nicaragua, especially in the countryside. So after that, I worked for the, the Institute of History. And then after that, but while, I had the same job of covering for the National Director, you know, that would they, wherever they wanted to me to go, so I had to travel sometimes, but also I had to, I had to work with them, this Institute of History, and then they Institute for History decided that I should be the, I would should work in the Department of, of Propaganda. So I worked also taking pictures of you know, the production, mines and things like that, that they thought was important in terms of coverage. And then after that, I worked as the Director of the Museum of the Revolution, which was an incredible experience, you know, to get objects, little things that represented part of the history of the revolution. And that people donated, that museum disappeared after the revolution, because nobody knows where things went, you know, I didn’t, I wasn’t there anymore, but that’s what they say. So,

PDH: For how long was the museum open?

MM: All the 10 years. The revolution. Yeah. But like, I had to leave the country because I got married, had my kid and my my ex husband was doing a master’s degree. And then when I came back, I continue to be being a photographer. No, when I came back, I was in the States when they lost the revolution, you know, the the elections. And there was a huge change in terms of like Violeta Chamorro. But besides that, I was mobilize, mobilizada se dice?

JLB: Mm hmm

MM: Three times in the war in different. So in 82, 84, 83, with soldiers. The first one, where I was like the only, two, we were just two other women there. And the other one, I was the only one. And the other mobilization for three months. So we, when you listen about the war, you never hear too many stories of how women dealt with it.

JLB: And those mobilizations.

MM: But all the time I had my camera. So, some of the pictures of the book that have survived, because I don’t have the negatives, it’s because of people had scanned them, or had given to me, you know.

JLB: So, what was the purpose of the mobilizations? Was that for defending the country?

MM: Yes, well basically

JLB: To contrast the Contras in the north?

MM: But, and then then the training was very tough. And, like for us in Managua, they would say you know, there were there weren’t too many Contras. And since ’82 in the book you’re gonna see some of the Contras that were captured. But because they, they attacked the place where we were that is Jalapa very close to Honduras. And yes, well, that’s when the, I think the, there were starting with huge aid. Not big, big, big from the States toward the Contras. The Contras were small groups that didn’t agree about, of course with their land taken off them

JLB: Correct.

MM: Yes. Then I had another mobilization that was in coffee plantation, and then another one. And well, what they said is, they did you should be mobilized at that time, because you didn’t participate in the work, but that wasn’t my case

JLB: Correct you participated in the war.

MM: Yeah. So not not everything was like that, you know, very equally. But I don’t regret, I don’t regret. I mean, I I regret that the policy wasn’t equal for everybody.

JLB: Correct.

MM: But I think that shaped my my life, you know, in terms of seeing things that wouldn’t have seen the way I saw it, because I lived them, you know, and I coped with it. And I, and nobody told me.

JLB: Did you did you see battle?

MM: Yes.

JLB: So you actually you were in combat?

MM: Yes. There. Yes.

JLB: Could you give us an example of

MM: Okay.

JLB: One combat situation?

MM: Well, the one of ’82, we were in Neyapa, which was a land that was next to huge river, you know. And it was just a small house. And then another house that was like, this American guy that used to live there, and he didn’t live there anymore. He abandoned that. He had like another place, where he had his kitchen, that was it. And well all these troops came there. And we, one day, by two, three o’clock in the morning, we start listen to fire. And they were attacking. That was the first, that was in’82, an attack of people that were Contras. And, or people that resent the revolution, but they were organized by the Contras, and they attacked. The guy that was, you know, like como se dice haciendo guardia?

JLB: Oh, he was

PDH: Guarding?

JLB: He was guarding, but he was, all the other people sleep, right, all the other people were sleeping?

MM: Yes, like watching,

JLB: Watching, watchmen or watch?

PDH: Something like that, yeah.

MM: So this guy, he was with me, at 2am when we started listening to the fire, he got killed.

JLB: Wow.

MM: And then, there was, an exchange of fire, incredibly. And then, I remember by 7am, you know, the helicopter, trying to save the, all the people that were wounded. And, and the people that were, that they captured. But but also there was messages for the women when we were in war. That, for example, in my case, I’m talking personally about, because you’re fat, you’re not you cannot get up to the hill. Or because you’re a woman, you’re too weak, you know? So and, so for us first was a plus effort in order to say “Yes, I can do this.” So, so that’s what happened. Well, and many of the women, like for the literacy campaign was incredible the amount of students, thousands and thousands of students went to places where they gave literacy and or they learn or they taught how to read and how to write to the peasants, or people that could not read or write, even in the cities. And there was one huge, huge organization, and the guy that was in charge of that was the priests Fernando Cardenal. And, and, and also well, during all that time I had to cover official programs, and also to be, well coverage of a, in the mountains, you know, things that had to do with production. Or attacks, you know, that were held in different parts of the country.

JLB: And you were, you said you were also in Central America and other countries, right?

MM: Yeah, I was in Salvador, that’s the only place in Central America.

JLB: Could you tell us a little bit why?

MM: Because Barricada sent me.

JLB: they sent you for a good number of weeks, months, or just days?

MM: No, a number of times. Bueno, well, when Salvador started uprising, you know. And, and the last time we were is, well, after, we were the last time I think, well, one or three or four – I don’t know how many times we went to El Salvador. And, the last time it was when they killed Monsignor

JLB: Monsignor Romero

MM: So, because I know him, I had known him. I had been asking ,and going to see you know, if they, he would have ,he would give us you know, an interview for  Barricada. And I kept insisting insisting until he said yes. So, um, and he gave the, he gave us the interview. He gave us the interview and that was two days before they kill him.

PDH: Wow.

MM: And we were there for the big mass. Okay, after they kill him, you know, and there was a lot of repression when they kill lots of people, you know,  I’m not, I don’t think journalists but a lot of people you know, and I was at the cathedral when a lot of people die because of asfixia, asfixia? Como se dice?

JLB: They were asphyxiated.

MM: Asphyxiated. And there is a famous picture of a photographer that I don’t recall the name, that when you see outside of the plaza, you see hundreds of shoes, like a small mountain of shoes.

MM: Correct, those were people that were running.

MM: Mm hmm. No, no, but it was like a mountain that they left the shoes. And a lot of people died.

JLB: Correct.

MM: Yes.

JLB: So but you were, you were at the cathedral when they killed Monsignor?

MM: No, I wasn’t in the cathedral.

JLB: Okay.

MM: I was in Salvador.

JLB: Okay.

MM: And then, we get out of the cathedral after that repression of the, when they, all bishops from different parts of Central America came for his burial. And what happened is that, well people try to save themselves and, and that’s where they get asphyxiated. Okay, but afterward, they were allowing us to go, one by one. And when we went out, the people from Nicaragua, and Barricada, we got a gun here. And saying “You’re going directly to the Nicaraguan embassy, and you’re going to leave the country right away.”

JLB: And how did they know that you were from Barricada?

MM: Or they knew. They knew because I went to the presidency of, I knew the president. And with the journalists, we had to make interviews and everything. So they, they really have an incredible system of security in terms of repression. They had at that time, I don’t know how to do this right now. But yes, and then for example, for me, being in El Salvador, the difference was huge compared to Nicaragua. Because the battles there were like you were in the middle of the war. Like, for example, you were in the middle of a demonstration, and suddenly you would see and airplane, an [incomprehensible]  These and, from the guerrilla side, and being part of the marchers or whatever, and then the, the army attacking. So you will get caught in the middle you know, as. So Salvador was one of the most dangerous place I have ever experienced.

JLB: In which areas of Salvador where you taking photos?

MM: Many many, one was Mejicanos, and some others. But like, when there was the massacre at the university also, we went there.

JLB: Mm hmm, so you did a lot of

MM: I knew, I knew Juan Chacon, I knew many of the people that got killed during that time. Until they told me, you know, you cannot go back for a while. So.

PDH: At this point, wait, what year is it?

MM: No me recuerdo cuando lo mataron el.

JLB: And now let me move you forward to, you said, you, you get married after you were director of the museum, right?

MM: Yes.

JLB: You get married. And then you left the country.

MM: I was married while I was the director,

JLB: While you were the director, and then you went you left the country, right?

MM: I left the country for a year.

JLB: Okay.

MM: And that’s when the revolution left, lost the the elections.

JLB: The election, that was 1990.

MM: Yes. 1989.

JLB: 1989. Yes, that’s true.

MM: 1989, because, I went there and then in 1990 was when they Violeta Chamorro

JLB: Won the election.

MM: Assumed the presidency.

JLB: The presidency.

MM: Si.

JLB: And when you came back then

MM: Okay, when I came back,

JLB: What happened?

MM: What do you think happened?

PDH: What do I think happened when you came back?

MM: Aha

PDH: You grabbed the camera?

MM: No, I always had my camera. I would never leave my camera. Not for a husband, not for anybody. He knew that. Well, when I came back, I decided that I had to redefine, I reinvent myself in something else in order to survive. And well, I had to help friends, you know, like saying, well, we’re gonna do, have some, kindergarten, you know, they’ve had studied education. And then they said, “Well, why don’t you take pictures of little kids?” You know, like, and I said, “No, I’m a war correspondent.” You know, a photojournalist. “No, Margarita, times have changed.” And I said, well, and that’s how I started doing my own business, you know. While taking pictures of little, little schools, and I bought my studio lights. And I started taking pictures. And I was getting money. And then I had people that known me for a long time and wanted me to take pictures of weddings. And I said “No way I’m gonna take pictures of weddings,” and then, then they they insisted so much, that they said, “Just for this case, Margarita, just for my daughter, do it.” And that’s how I started taking pictures. But I’m gonna say it in Spanish. I, I took pictures, and I was with a friend of mine, a camarografo, you know, como se dice camarogra? Cameraman. And, and then I asked him, you know, where are you working? No, no. Where are you working? And then he said, he asked me “Where were you working?” And I said, I’m doing, I’m doing weddings, weddings. And then he said, “No, you’re working for the BBC.” Bodas, bautizos y comuniones.


MM: And then, I used to tell my students, and then I started also teaching photography at the university. So, and the students would say “Margarita, profe, where are you working?” And I said “At the BBC” “What a good job. You must be getting lots of money.” And I said, “Of course, bodas, bautizos y comuniones.”

PDH: Because there is always bodas, bautizos y comuniones.

MM: And that’s how I survived that 90s you know, and then well

JLB: But you were teaching as well.

MM: Yeah, I was teaching, I was passionate about teaching because

JLB: Where you teaching at the Universidad?

MM: At de los Jesuitas.

JLB: De los Jesuitas de Nicaragua?

MM: Si, in the 90s yes. And then we didn’t have film, we had lots of problems but, we had to copy, make slides, it took, it a was a lot of money you know because of

JLB: It’s an expensive endeavor right? Photography? It used to be at least.

MM: It is, it is. Well, because we had to show slides and everything, all the books that I bought when I was at the ICP, and they were part of my collection. I had to show them you know. Okay, this is

JLB: Were you teaching photography or were you teaching photojournalism?

MM: No, photography.

JLB: Okay.

MM: But I taught a lot about photojournalist, photojournalism and photo documentary.

JLB: So those kids were getting a good education.

MM: I think so, they still call me profe. Otherwise. They didn’t call me BBC. I don’t know. I have many of my students, some of my students, that are photographers now.

JLB: For how long did you teach there?

MM: Oh, I think, on and off like 10 years. Yeah.

JLB: And you were doing the BBC on the side?

MM: Of course. Yes. Because I got divorced, I had more responsibilities in terms of well, my kids lived with me and, and things were equally in terms of economically, you know.

JLB: Were you able, during this decade, to create your own projects and try to work on something that he was not necessarily weddings or or First Communions?

MM: Not that much, but well,

JLB: Maybe with your students?

MM: With my students, well the project is to support and to try to push them to do projects about things that they would never think about. Prostitution. Mines, or contamination, or homeless people. Or even, well, they did one, one of the teachers, there was always como se dice enamorando?

PDH: Falling in love?

JLB: No, he was the opposite, doing the opposide, making people fall in love with them.

MM: Yeah. Like flirting with the students and one of my students followed him and took pictures of that, and put it in the exhibit. And he was so cinic, he looked at the pictures, “Oh, very interesting.”

JLB: Exposing all those professors that were.

MM: So, and then well, it was good, because even people that didn’t even have resources and lived, you know, their families very far away from Managua. They made stories, documentary stories about, the woman, the women, how they survive with the little stones that they have to crack into making to pieces. But what happens is their eyes get too much sun, that they can become blind.

JLB: Blind.

MM: So there were many stories, very interesting stories about them. They were looking at was something that wasn’t easy. And the university wanted to kill me because, you know, they they said, “Well, they’re going to where they dump, you know, the trash.” And I said, “That’s okay with me.”

JLB: Of course.

MM: “I’m gonna go with them.” So, but it was good. It was good because it was a challenge. And I was like, reinventing myself in something that I like, and I was more, with, with the help of the energy of the young, you know,

JLB: Correct.

MM: And new ideas, of how these people, and how, it was interesting for me also to see them, how they saw the people that were involved in, in the revolution, you know. And how they qualified us, you know, they say, “How could you be, how did you survive?”

MM: But they had to story and they, a lot of them had to read the Susan Sontag, On Photography.

JLB: On Photography. Yeah, mm-hmm.

MM: And a lot of them, you know, like, I had the books, I had to scan the books and show them pictures. Because at that time,

JLB: Correct.

MM: To show them you know, like, different masters you know, how they did their stories, you know? And, and then this in 2011 is that when I’m, 2010, when I went to Hampden Sydney. Because 2004 also, I went to 2004 to the Fulbright.

JLB: So 2004 Fulbright, you get a Fulbright.

MM: 2002 until 2004.

JLB: To go and do what? A master’s degree?

MM: A master’s degree, on photography.

JLB: Where did you go?

MM: What university?

JLB: Mm-hmm.

MM: Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond,

JLB: And why did you choose that university?

MM: I didn’t choose it. I had three options, and I put the three options, that’s the one that they say they can afford.

JLB: That’s the one that accepted you?

MM: No, they accepted me at the other ones but the one that they could afford,

JLB: That Fulbright could afford.

MM: And I said, “Okay, I don’t care I’m gonna go.”

JLB: You went with your kids?

MM: Yeah, no, I went with my daughter.

JLB: With your daughter only.MM: Yes.JLB: To do your to do your master’s degree. So, what, what did you learn there? And how did you focus your education? When you were

MM: Okay. Well, for me what was important once I got there, to go to the library and read more about foremost photography, which I was coming from the opposite way, from the practicing.

JLB: Correct, you were practitioner photographer before.

MM: Okay, and, and it was trying, it wasn’t easy because to, I had to open my mind in terms of seeing what studio photography, what it meant for them. And conceptual photography, contemporary photography, and whatever photography that I had no idea. All my, como se llama, companeros de clase,

JLB: Colleagues.

MM: My colleagues would choose erotism, exotism, whatever, you know, it’s just like, I went like this “Oh!”. And for them, the war was “Oh!””. So, I decided, once I got to Richmond, it took me a while to think that I, first I was looking for social photography. But then I said, I have to know what this city is all about. So I’m going to try to see if they allowed me, and to get in some people’s houses. And that’s how I began and do with the help of a friend that I I met through an email, email that she worked for the, I thought she worked for the major, but she was doing like a consulting thing. And she started answering me things about Richmond, I hadn’t even had to Richmond. 

PDH: Mm-hmm.

MM: And I said, “Well, I’m gonna go there.” And I want to know if you know, any neighborhood that I could write and ask if, permission if I could do a documentary of this neighbors. And then she said, “No, no, there’s no problem. We’re gonna do that once you get here.” So she talked, she sent a letter. So all this neighbors, her neighbors, and one of the neighbors said “Yes.” And the other one said, “Yes, you should say yes to her.” And then the other one said, “Yes, yes, open the door. There’s no problem.” And that’s I started taking pictures of the daily life of them. And they invited me to the event, their events with their kids and things like that. So we’re in Halloween and in, so these people also introduced me to some other people from other universities that had some other events. So it was more like trying not to do something that I was preconcebido.

JLB: Preconceived.

MM: It was something that I was like, surprised, this is what’s going on here. And then I saw the differences in terms of races also you know, because the African American lived in one side, the middle class. So I started exploring, and in my way exploring was walking on the city. And then because I got to know a lot of people, I talked to one of the priests that spoke Spanish perfectly, he was a Jesuit. And he lived in Honduras. And I started going mass, to mass with my daughter because she wanted to go, and then that’s how I met him. And he, this guy said, you know, what’s your name? And I said, my name is Margarita Montealegre. And he said, “That’s strange.” There’s a Mixteco woman, her name is like that. And I said “Mixteco? Woman? Her name is Margarita Montealegre?” “I’m going to introduce you to her.” And so she, he, he introduced me to her, which was a young woman, you know? And then I asked her, “Is your name Margarita Montealegre and it si Mixteco?” And then she said “Yes, because my father found that name. And he liked that.”

JLB: He liked that name!

MM: And so I started exploring the Mixteco lives of these people that live on trailers. Whenever they allowed me to do that, so they opened the doors. And I followed them a little bit, when whenever they said, you know, they went to buy things. And then, also what it really connected and connected me with the city was, there were a lot of cultural activities. So I did follow cultural activities. Well, I loved Halloween, for example, for me, because we don’t celebrate Halloween. And for me, I think it’s mixtures of cultures. And there’s a freedom of a lot of people to participate, most of the different races to be on the street and say, well, we can be on the richest neighborhood on to the other neighborhood. And it doesn’t matters. It’s like a freedom day that there are no boundaries, you know.

JLB: Correct.

MM: Mm-hmm. So for me, I really loved it, and because of the kids being involved in that gave them a lot of life.

JLB: What, how, how your photos were received in Richmond? Did you show them in Richmond?

MM: Oh, yes, very controversial.

JLB: Why?

MM: Because, for example, one of the pictures that I told you, I used to go to an African American fair. And walked there, I used to go with my daughter, you know, to different places. And I suddenly I said, I saw this studio, photo studio outside, you know, and this guy taking pictures, and then I see these three girls with their grandmother, and then they’re sitting there, and then then they said, “Grandma, we want to picture,” I said, “This is my opportunity to take a picture.” And the the background was, like two or three jaguars, with also the car. And then, so that I asked the grandmother, I had the whole sequence, you know. And I took pictures of the whole sequence, you know, and well, every month we had like a critique, you know. Okay. In the critique I come very innocent, you know, with my pictures of Halloween in black and white and these things in whatever you know, and the African American fair. And then, suddenly the the only African American guy that is there, get so upset and angry with me, because he said to me that I made it everything up, you know, from that picture with the background? And I said, “Are you sure?” “Yes, you did with Photoshop,” and I said, “Excuse me, I don’t even know Photoshop.” And these people are my witnesses, they know, I don’t know anything about Photoshop, and I’m not planning on learning right now. And and then he was really angry said, “No, you made, that’s a very racist photograph, you know, of these three girls.” And then I said, “Okay, wait a minute, hold it.” And I went to, como se dice mi armadio?

JLB: The closet.

MM: My closet. There was also where we had the critique. And I bring all thes prints that I had, you know. And I said, “Well, this is the photographer. This is the background, you can see the background? Okay. And these are the three girls that wanted a picture, and her grandmother paid for that. And I thought it was a great image of somebody that spontaneously. So I’m not thinking about the Jaguars word because they’re black. That’s on your mind. And I said, that’s on your mind. And so that’s the way you see things. But I’m gonna seeing things like that, at least, that wasn’t my intention.”

PDH: Mm-hmm.MM: “But I didn’t made it up, you know, the background, and I want to prove it with this.” So what did he say? Oh, it became very controversial, he was very angry at me. But people, well said “It is true, you know, what she does is she works on the streets, and she takes pictures, is always with her camera.” And that in Richmond, brought me to other places that I had to go or somebody would give me a ride, or I would take bus, you know, and take pictures to try and to get, you know, how, how the South it is, you know, it’s nothing that you can describe, you know. There is racism, it is truth. They don’t like Latino, they don’t like Latinos in Richmond, at that time, the Latinos would hide, you know, you could hear them at the university. They were painting. And I could hear that would, they would talk in Spanish, but not loud. It’s not what like Washington or some other places you know.

JLB: Mm-hmm.

MM: So, so that’s how I started and I made a lot a lot of contacts because I worked, I worked all the time.

JLB: Correct.

MM: And, and people would, I mean, I, I started to think, you know, “I cannot be all the time having like prejudices about how people are gonna think because I’m a Latina, because I come from Nicaragua, because I come from the word. People have to think, whatever they want. And I have to think whatever I want. But in order to do that, I don’t have to be all the time, you know, like, prejudging. Like, usually they prejudge me.

JLB: Correct. And this is the first time that you’re carrying out a project, or series of projects that are not assigned to you. And that you have to sort of come up with the with the idea. How did you develop them? Did you think about the project beforehand? Did you just decided I’m gonna do and be nosy into the houses or try to be intimate with, with the people. What was your thought process behind behind your projects?

MM: Well, the first project of the houses was to, to know something that was intimate and it was risky, also, because people feel a little bit uncomfortable. So I tried to talk to the people and see if the, they say “We don’t want you here.” That’s okay. But I think what helped me is what, like one neighbor would recommend me to the other neighbor. And the other neighbor said, “Well, I’m going to go to a national fair.” And sometimes you know, people say, “Well, Margarita, I don’t feel like you come today, but you can come another day.” So I tried to be opened you know, I didn’t feel like I resented that, you know, it is just like, well, this is a challenge for me, but it’s a way to break barriers and to get to know a place that I had people that tell me you know, you’re never going to be able to do that. And so also also I used my part of knowledge about photojournalism, for example. I wanted to cover the debuttants’s party or festivity that they have in the University of Richmond. And I had a friend that knew another friend and I said, “How can I get there?” And so, they told me, you know, all the people that I had to write until they said, “Yeah,” I kept insisting insisting, and I said, “Debutants? In this time!” You know, I couldn’t believe that, you know. But I went there. And they allowed me and they. What’s incredible, I’m going to tell you another story about. There’s a picture of a woman kissing her boyfriend. And the two guys here,

JLB: I saw that.

MM: Okay, that, that woman a, she was, I think, a Freshman at the university. And I asked her for her name and everything, you know, and then she called me because one of her friends was helping my daughter and she knew. And then I said, you know, “Lauren –  it was her name- I have a picture of you, and your boyfriend kissing each other, you know, and I would like to give it to you.” And is she said, “I cannot believe this. He just asked me to marry him today, you know?” And so I sent the picture. And well, there weren’t there wasn’t any was happening. Nothing. You know, I just sent the picture. And she was happy. You know, it’s just like. And, well I did that, and I, I tried to cover a little bit, you know, well, it wasn’t too risky. Because I was always alone.

JLB: Correct.

MM: So, but it was a good experience, because I talked to the people.

JLB: Where you’re the only international student that came from a developing country in the program?MM: Uh, huh.

JLB: Did you have, did you struggle with your point of view? I’m assuming at this point, you,

MM: Of course.

JLB: You have a clear point of view, because you are looking really, is the reverse colonialism? Right? Most of these photographers that went to Nicaragua or other places they can be as noisy as they want, they can be as intimate as they want. Right? And there’s some kind of aesthetic that goes with them. Did do you face some resistance to your point of view?

MM: Well, from the dean, I did.

JLB: Tell me a little bit about it.

MM: Oh, because, when I show him the critique, you know, all these pictures of the fairs and this and that, you know, and then, one of the comments he said to me is, you know, what surprises me about you, that you keep on taking pictures of stupid people. And I said, “Okay, you know what?” I said, “I have met so many people in my life, like presidents, Pope. And I think, for me, I rather be with stupid people. So that’s my choice, it is my project, is my time, is my scholarship.” And afterwards, he apologized because it became a scandal at the university.

JLB: Because other people listened to him telling you that. So he told you that in public.

MM: Oh, at the critique? Yeah.

PDH: Wow.MM: Yes, because, and then he said that I was, the letter, he wrote me a letter to recommend me that that was, I was one, no, that I was the best, I, it wasn’t true you know,  that I was the best in the program that he remembered. I want to show you the

JLB: Cause in a way you challenged him, right. You challenged his?

MM: And I feel okay. I say. So I feel okay taking pictures of stupid people.

JLB: Correct. But I was thinking in your project, about going into the houses of sort of average people, right?

MM: Mm-hmm, middle class, all kinds of people, you know.

JLB: Is something that you will see a lot of photographers that go to countries like Nicaragua, Mexico, right? They do that, and they sort of feel the right to do that kind of invasion of privacy, of space of folks who leave in there. How did you come up with that idea? Because I think to me, that’s the most interesting one.

MM: I don’t know how, you know, just, I just thought I had to, I couldn’t get any connection with the people of Richmond, which people tell me, all of them, that is very difficult, you know. And well, so many artists helped me, you know, all artists, people, photographers that were very old, or a people that had galleries, “You have to continue on that, documenting that.” And that’s, that’s how, well for me was, a way of saying, “Well, I didn’t do this in my country, because I was covering the war and things like that.”

JLB: Correct.

MM: And this is a way of knowing this a little bit, a glimpse of what’s going on in the city, and city of contrasts. And that’s what I did on, como se dice monografia?

JLB: Monography.

MM: I wrote about experience, how I felt.

JLB: So you had to do a thesis at the end of

MM: Yes.

JLB: The, and your thesis, what was the title of your thesis? You remember?

MM: I think it was, Mirando al Sur.

JLB: So you finish that degree in Richmond. And then what happened with Marguerita? Where did you go?

MM: Back to the BBC.

JLB: Back to BBC? The BBC in Nicaragua?

MM: Back to Nicaragua, and in 2004 I, uh, well, well, I have to tell you something about Richmond. Well, because I knew this friend of mine, that invited me to talk about photography. And she went to school at VCU, and I told her all the contradictions that I had with this dean.

JLB: This dean, yeah.

MM:  And well, she invited me to give a talk at Hampden Sydney, about the war photography. And I talked about, a little bit, you know, I was very shy with the guys because I, when I see all these tall guys, the young kids looking at me like this. So, I started talking and describing the, the war. They weren’t interested in, but some of them were. And that, I never thought that made a connection for her in terms of, like in 2010, before 2010, you know, asking me to go and do,

JLB: And do, be a visiting professor?

MM: Visiting Professor, yes. And do the whole thing of the presentation of Nicaragua, which I never thought, you know, university will be, like at college like that, interested in Nicaragua. And it was very important for me, you know, well, first of all to deal with men again, I think my life has been sealed dealing with men, and survive them.

JLB: Yeah, that’s basically it.

MM: So, and then for me it was a surprise when they invited me you know, I almost said no, because I was so scared. I said, you know, and then, but it was incredible because the there was another guy from, Dave Woody who won a National Gallery.

JLB: Correct.

MM: You know him?

JLB: Well, I know of him.

MM: Oh, yes, he’s well, he was the other one that was teaching. And it was a great experience to be with him, his wife, and the community of professors you know, even though you think about the university or the college, teachers are incredible, and they are, go deep into whatever they know, and the library, and the people were very open. So it’s, it was a lesson, lesson for me and, and a great experience, like a friendship. So, it was hard, because I wasn’t with my daughter. And then my son, and my son was with my father, and my daughter with an aunt. But I couldn’t have her you know, because the school weren’t around. I didn’t have a car. And, one practice that they had at that university that I loved is every Thursday, we would have lunch and talk about problems, or como se dice cuando, como, aciertos, cosa acertada que heche?

JLB: Things that you did right. 

MM: Yes.

JLB: Things that people did right.

MM: And nobody’s gonna burn, or you know, do something, it’s just, you talk and then people get, tell you advice, if it works, if it doesn’t work. And so it was really, I mean, one of the healthiest things I’ve ever experienced being a teacher, you know, because every Thursday you just talk and people tell each other, you know, their experience how they deal with the, the students. And the problems, and so also, that’s when I decided also to, you know, to volunteer, teaching Spanish, or trying to practice Spanish with the students, in order in order to know them, you know.

JLB: But but all this time that you’re doing all this, first your masters, and then you become a visiting professor, you’ve been doing projects, right?

MM: Yes.

JLB: Tell me a little bit about the projects that you have done, on your own that are not necessarily

MM: Okay. In 2008. For example, well, many projects, there is one that is, we did with, there was a huge intoxication, because there is one chemical that they use to make an alcohol, very pure in order that the people that are heavy drinkers, you know, and it’s very cheap. But they, these people that used to sell that, they swiped the content and they put something that’s like, was poisonous.

JLB: Oh, man.

MM: Yes, in order to get, well more money. And we did a project about all the people that die, you know, well, there were a lot of alcoholic people that dependent on very low price alcohol.

JLB: Alcohol.

MM: And because it was contaminated, you know. So we did a project and exhibit about that. And, and there were involved many, many photojournalists, and we showed it in different cities. And to show you know, well how many funerals they had and and how many people were and affected in Leon. And then in 2008, also, I talked to a friend of mine, we both talked about this organization that puts something in the paper that had to do with girls with cancer, girls and boys, and then they said well, they were gonna celebrate 15 years old. And then, so we visited the organization which is in the hospital where they treat the cancer, and we proposed them, you know, that we wanted to cover that for free and they said “No, no, we wouldn’t” and then we said “No, we can do that. We can give the each one of the girls, you know, disk so they can take it back home.” And that’s when we started, you know, and but that started to other project because also we had to cover many of the girls when they died, and the treatment and so we did, I’m still doing that, and when Steven left the country to move to an old post in a in Chile, and now we’re not just two photographers, we are like eight photographers and all of them they give me the pictures, and we edit and a friend of mine helps me to edit, and we give all the, every year, the disk to the quinceañeras. So I’ve done other projects you know, of girls or there’s also a project that they have is like before they die the little kids, but I didn’t want to put those pictures there. They have like a dream. A dream is to have, for example tyrannosaurus, and they love that. And so, the organization brings lot of presence, and they know that they’re going to die. And he gets really happy, he gets with his mother and everything. And the people that had treatment, the nurses are next to him. Or, for example, we go to different cities, and they asked me, can we “Can you come with us, we’re going to go to Estelí, we’re going to visit.” And it’s hard, it’s really hard, because they’re with all the pain and you know, the treatment. They’re six years old, seven years old, even 15, that you think they dance and everything. And then they they died, you know, a month afterwards. So it’s, it’s pretty hard. There’s some of the photographers that I had asked, you know, and they said, “I don’t have the heart to do that. And I have to be honest, you know, I cannot cope with that.” And I said, “That’s okay. You know, just, you have to know your limits since and I’m not prejudging or judging you, you know.”

JLB: Correct. And the project, the most recent project that you’ve done is with the, oh my God,

MM: Femicide?

JLB: The femicides, yes, the femicides.

MM: Okay, the femicides has to do with, well, this organization that is very persevering in terms of following up all the women have been killed due to violence, and femicides. They used to have the numbers, and sometimes pictures the way that they were killed, but but also details of, talking to the person that is in charge of her of the organization, I, I said, “Why don’t we give a face of the woman while they were leaving,” you know, and to know what they did? To tell a story, we look for a good writer that can tell this story, who was this woman? What was the story about her, you know? And what machismo has led into the killing of this woman, you know, and probably, the majority of the cases are their husbands, or their companeros,

JLB: Correct, somebody close to them.

MM: And to tell, you know, well, there are three kids and that, and sometimes there is no reason, is just because she was a woman. And she said, “Hello.” And he thought, you know, it was something aggressive, toward a guy, and they would kill because of that. So that became a small project, then became an exhibit,

JLB: An exhibition.

MM: And the exhibit really was in many, many parts of Nicaragua. And also, you know, there was like, they invited a lot of people in order to talk about something that’s happening in Nicaragua and in other countries, but in Nicaragua, and that that’s just not numbers. I mean, it’s affecting families, lives, psychologically, in different terms. So I did that since 2014.

JLB: But you essentially, you conceived that project, right?

MM: No, with her, with her.

JLB: With the person who was in charge of the exhibition,

MM:  Martha Magaly Quintana . Yes, yes. Because she’s the one that has been doing the work.

JLB: Correct. And she, she knows the issue, right?

MM: Well, and she follows up immediately. She has the, the person that investigates and the woman, and how they can get to some neighborhoods, that you would never know. That is so dangerous. And well, she said yes. And the good thing is, for example, the last exhibit, one of the last exhibit was for year a la universidad, in the campus, so people could,

JLB: People were able to.

MM: And they had the stories, and at night, they would light it up and, people that study at night, would read the stories.

JLB: That’s a wonderful project.

MM: Yes.

JLB: So what do you see, see doing yourself in in the future?

MM: I don’t know. I don’t know, I have to. I have to work, keep on working with girls. I have to survive, in terms of economically, you know.

JLB: Correct.

MM: So I still do studio pictures and I like that.

JLB: You do the BBC?

MM: Yeah. No, no, BBC no more.

JLB: BBC no more?

MM: Because of my knee.

JLB: Okay.

MM: Yes, but I do studio pictures or I go sometimes. And when people tell me, you know, to do like a small story for them, for their organization, or it’s things that I that I can allow myself, you know, and I think I’m going work on other stories, but I’m going to continue doing the, the girls with cancer. And well, I told you about the girls from, with cancer, that it was a small thing, and one came next to the other, you know. I, I decided to look for this guy that was the chief of all of the cadets. And, and talk to him. And I said, well, in my dreams, in my soap operas that I used to watch when I was a little kid,

JLB: The Mexicans soap operas?

MM: I used to see you, you know, they quinceañeras, you know, and then and all this guys armed, you know, with staples I think,

JLB: With their swords?

MM: And then, and I said, well, because I didn’t have that, I think these girls aren’t going to enjoy it. And then they can dance with them. And then he said, well, the good thing is, this guy said, “You don’t have to convince me because I had struggled with cancer. My daughter had many years, and she has survived. Just just tell me at what time you need the soldiers, and you’ll have them.”

PDH: Wow.

MM:That started in 2008. And it was a hit. I mean, these girls go crazy because of those guys.

JLB: Correct, because of all the cadets in uniform.

MM: Yeah, well, I think I have to think I’m some other project that has to do with women.

JLB: Correct.

MM: Because I think we’re the most affected in this society in terms of discrimination and lots of things. And, but also kids, little kids, you know, how they start working very, since they are very small.

JLB: Very young.

PDH: Mm-hmm.

JLB: Well, thanks, Margarita. Do you have any other questions?

PDH: I don’t think so.

JLB: We tired her a lot. She’s totally exhausted.

PDH: Yeah.

JLB: Is there anything else you want to say? That didn’t?

MM: Well, that  want to conclude to say that to be a woman still hard in any kind of society.

JLB: Mm, that’s true.

MM: And that it’s a struggle, but we can survive.

JLB: Thanks Margarita.

PDH: Thank you.

Oral history with Héctor Bernabé Recinos, 01/21/2020

Oral history with Héctor Bernabé Recinos, 01/21/2020


Marta Valier (MV): This is an interview with Héctor Barnabé Recinos, we are in San Salvador. It is January 21st, 2020 and we are MUPI, the Museum of the Image and the Word. It is going to be an interview in Spanish.

MV: Puede hablarme de ta vida? No hablo espanol.

Héctor Bernabé Recinos (HBR): Bueno, sí, gracias. Bueno, yo vengo de padre guatemalteco, madre salvadoreña, y por supuesto que nací en El Salvador. Y estudié primaria en Guatemala, secundaria en El Salvador. Vengo de familia de hacendado y conociendo después del estudio de bachillerato yo me integro a trabajar con proyecto de recursos geotérmicos y conocí realmente el mundo laboral. Entonces, bueno, yo, ya no pude seguir estudiando en la universidad y todo la acumulación de conocimientos que ellos tenían me fui formando. En ese tiempo, en los 70s, aquí la situación era muy difícil para organizarse y vimos el trato que se daba los trabajadores y yo me involucro en el esfuerzo de constituir un sindicato. Fue complicado, lo logramos en el 1972. Con, en un dejo momento de una campaña política de elección presidencial, verdad? Utilizamos los, los intereses de los votos, y fue así como logramos constituir un sindicato, fue como una candidatura de un militar. Que iba como presidente que como candidato a presidente, pero él era director de la Guardia Nacional, es conocido como un criminal. Aquí en El Salvador.

MV: Como se llama?

HBR: El Chele Medrano [José Alberto Medrano], así. Entonces le ofrecimos los votos, y dijo, bueno, que la oligarquía no ha permitido hacer el sindicato. Hoy lo vamos a hacer, pero si los votos de ustedes no me salen, van a terminar colgados en un árbol. Es conocido por ese papel que jugó aquí en El Salvador. Entonces lo formamos, y yo pasó a ser un directivo de la junta directiva en el año siguiente de que lo formamos, y empieza mi carrera dirigente sindical. En el ’74, ’75 por ahí ocupamos puestos en el Sindicato de la Industria Eléctrica de Telcel, ocupamos puestos en la Federación Nacional de Trabajadores Salvadoreños, FENASTRAS, que fue la mas importante, con major fuerza, en la lucha porque ahí estaba toda la industria estratégica, el agua, transporte, energía eléctrica, puertos. Estaba también toda la maquila y. También organizamos también mucho en la gastronomía, verdad? Somos nós nos posicionó realmente como una fuerza importante en el desarrollo de la lucha, en la defensa de los intereses de los trabajadores, en la organización. Todo este esfuerzo se fue concentrando en una organización popular, verdad, que venía con las organizaciones revolucionarias de los ’75, ’76, ’77. Y yo tomo un papel o en el ’78, como presidente y secretario general de FENASTRAS con otros compañeros. Tuvimos mucho, mucho represión en ese tiempo que fue aumentando poco a poco, pero nuestras actividades siempre eran fuertes. Teníamos control de la industria eléctrica a nivel nacional y tocar al sindicato o la federación y a sus dirigentes era un poco comprometedor para el estado. Sin embargo, empezaron a capturar gente, desaparecer, asesinarlas e iniciaron los presos de las organizaciones social, popular. Y bueno, eso pasó un trayecto de ’76, ’77, ’78, ’79, fue dramático, pues de mucha lucha y de mucha represión. Ahí, para defender algunos algunos sindicatos en huelga, tuvimos que hacer los primeros ensayos para un apagón a nivel de ciudad en el ’79, que hicimos otro en defensa del sindicato que lo tenían cercado con la Guardia Nacional, Ejército, tanquetas, que fue la Tropical, la Constancia que son gaseosa, la Coca Cola y tuvimos que hacer un apagón y negociar con el ministro de Trabajo, que quitaran las tanquetas y el cerco porque la ciudad asesinara a todos. Ahí no había, no había concesiones en ese tiempo, así que negociamos eso y pedimos que se sentaran a negociar en el Ministerio para el conflicto. Ese fue nuestro papel, verdad? También era resolver problemas en el campo con el lecherías, y cultivo de algodón, cultivo de caña para mejorar los salarios a los trabajadores. Y bueno, lo que pasó realmente es que en los principio de los ’80 empezaron, desde el ’79, empezaron a poner bombas en los locales, a destruir, con mucha vigilancia, compañeros baleados, asesinados, otros desaparecidos. La situación venía cada vez más complicada porque fueron los años más más dramáticos, te lo digo, más dolorosos para los y los liderazgos, el movimiento en general, del ’79, ’80, ’82. Prácticamente se ha perdido en la calle. En ese tiempo y se fue recuperando poco a poco. Y fueron las Comité de Madres lo que iniciaron el proceso de recuperar las calles exigiendo derechos humanos a sus hijos desaparecidos, asesinados y detraído a los sindicatos, ese fue un papel importante que jugaron los Comité de Madres en ese tiempo. Y nosotros en el ’80, cuando ya la represión estaba montada con una estructura de paramilitares y de escuadrones de la muerte que yo recuerdo que salía en la televisión el mayor D’Aubuisson diciendo que Bernabé de la FENASTRAS son comunistas este el otro y eso era señal que estaba en la lista de los de los que van a asesinar. Eso era muy digo muy característico de él lo que anunciaba en la televisión, días después asesinado. Con ese tipo de represión digo, pues tuvimos nosotros que entrar en un proceso semiclandestino porque teníamos que dar conferencias, tenemos que tener a la prensa, darle explicaciones, el trabajo en las huelgas, nuestra familia clandestina también.

Pero ya cuando vimos que el movimiento iba para abajo, que habían militarizado prácticamente todas, todas las toda la industria. Y las instituciones del estado, nosotros teníamos un cuartel en la, de la Guardia Nacional dentro, de las instalaciones, Soyapango. Y bueno era un acoso militar, verdad, y control. Y dijimos bueno, vamos, vamos a aquí, hacer un trabajo, verdad, de ser más libres en el trabajo, no tenemos por qué estar aquí. Esto no es un cuartel, no es nada, hay trabajadores y hay cosas que bueno, que hay que cuidar, pero que están afuera, no adentro. Yo había sido capturado aquí por la Policía Nacional en el ’79, el ’80, fue capturado en San Miguel, salí luego, dos interrogatorios, algunos golpes y todo, pero salí. En agosto de 1980 por la represión que había el movimiento es todo y nosotros, que estábamos militarizado, decidimos hacer un corte de energía a nivel nacional, eso no se había hecho, solo lo que se había hecho era local, San Salvador. Ahí eso duró, estuvimos negociando, estuvimos negociando y entonces se fue prolongando eso y el corte de energía. Nos acusaron de todo, lo que se había muerto en el hospital, responsable.

MV: Cuánto tiempo?

HBR: Eso duró poco más de 24 horas. Y por último estábamos nosotros aqui en Soyapango, y también llegaron con la cosa muy sincronizada. Esperamos más o menos una mañana, porque no tenían los nombres de los que capturar, se los pidieron a la empresa. Entonces, al final nos capturaron. A 16, 16 que pasamos a la guardia. En el cuartel de la Guardia Nacional. Allí fuimos, fuimos torturados. Esperamos que la gente se fuera porque fue nuestra exigencia, si no, no nos echamos la luz. Per dar la energía, y, después nos llevaron en la guardia, 16, estuvimos allí mano o menos tres o cuatro días, sin agua, sin dormir, sin comer, interrogándose, amenazandonos a la familia. Y estuvimos en la guardia, estuvimos 71 días. Después de eso, y las amenazas a la familia, llegaron miembros de la Comisión de Derechos Humanos, un abogado, y bueno, o acciones de organizaciones populares exigiendo la libertad. Pero a los 72 días nos pasaron a Santa Tecla, el penal de Santa Tecla. Ahí se constituyó el Comité de Presos y Presas Políticos, porque, con el objetivo de exigir digo, la categoría de preso político y no de delincuente terrorista, todo lo que había. Ese fue uno de los primeros pasos de la organización en la prisión. Así en el cárcel de mujeres también. Se iba a constituir el comité de presos y presas. Y, al final, una comunicación de acciones que, en huelga de hambre con la organización, para un poco prever lo que venía porque estaba aumentando cada día, y más que todo era jóvenes. Joven de 12 años, presos capturados como terroristas, delincuentes. Bueno, y eso fue, digo, tuvo un sello muy importante en el sentido de que, se organizó todas las comisiones, alimentación, el salud y educación física. Vean compañeros que no sabían leer, que les enseñaron a leer. Educación. teníamos compañeros que venían como médicos presos. Suspendimos la celda de castigo, estábamos con los comune, no permitimos que castigar además a los presos, porque había una celda chiquita, pequeña, donde recién ahí ahí los metían días días días a los presos. Esa fue una de las reivindicaciones también. Dicho que la organización nos permitió liberar, liberar un montón de cosas en los centros penales.

MV: La organización nazi en el cárcel?

HBR: Si, esta se reprodujo en Mariona, cárcel de mujeres, el Santa Ana, San Miguel. Igual, verdad, fue una cosa que al final habría que Radio Venceremos, no se nos nos bautizó con el quinto frente de guerra. Esto nos permitió también, no solo la denuncia, sino a nivel internacional, verdad, que no visitaran personas importantes, verdad, como congresistas.

MV: De donde?

HBR: De Estados Unidos, de la Unión Europea, que vinieron al penal, verdad, y hablaron estuvimos allí dando testimonios, solidaridad de organizaciones, este también de derechos humanos, movimiento sindical internacional. Bueno, es toda una lucha que nos nos dio mucho reconocimiento. El caso nuestro nosotros tuvimos 50 meses en prisión. A los dos años exactos, 22 de agosto, sacaron a mi esposa y mi hija de 13 años, María Adela y Ana Yanira con otros compañeros que estaban ahí y una compañera de derechos humanos y un compañero de asesora avocado del movimiento sindical. Lo sacaron de la casa y los desaparecieron. Estando preso, yo, y mis tres hijos se quedaron huérfanos prácticamente, y en la calle porque ellos no se lo llevaron porque estaba jugando en la calle pelota con, con otro vecino. Ellos son los de los dibujos que me traes. Verdad, está ahí, dibujaron cómo fue la operación. Bueno, al final yo salgo el 15 de octubre de 1984. Nos sacaron y nos dijeron que no tenemos derecho a quedarnos aquí, lo que íbamos para Holanda, que el exilio estaba en Holanda. Yo pido a mis hijos, cuando llegó. Al final se educaron allá, son profesionales. Están viviendo su vida.

MV: Tu regresaste a El Salvador?

HBR: Yo regreso indiscutiblemente. Vengo aquí porque como era secretario general de FENASTRAS aquí en noviembre estaba el Congreso. Al evento me volvieron a elegir otra vez presidente y salgo de nuevo en el ’86. Viene otra vez, igual, igual, y elegimos Febe Elizabeth Velásquez. Qué fue asesinada puede en un bombazo de la federation. Después yo vengo y estoy aquí, entro en forma clandestina, verdad, este en el movimiento como asesor.

MV: Cuando?

HBR: En el ’88.

HBR: Salgo después de más o menos seis meses, y el ’89 ya entró en, digo, legalmente con prensa, con solidaridad todo eso. Estoy aquí en FENASTRAS estamos siempre activos, con movilizaciones de calle. El día de la bomba, que fue el 31 de octubre, yo estaba en la segunda planta del local de FENASTRAS, en una entrevista con un periodista, Chris Norton, o se llamaba, yo no se si se murió. Era la hora del almuerzo. En FENASTRAS había, a las doce mucha gente a comer porque había un comedor popular donde comían todos. La gente que llegaba, dirigentes de sindicatos. La teníamos un poco de seguridad, pero no se. Cuando fue el bombazo. La compañera no me quiso acompañar, sino que se fue el bombazo, fue una explosión terrible. Sin techo, el edificio. En la cocina explotó el tambo de gas también. Bueno, eso fue terrible, bajar, después bajamos, me cayó una lampada, me rompió la camisa [can’t understand] chiquito, mucha suerte, de todo que voló. Nueve, nueve, nueve muertos, más de 30 heridos. Y luego hicimos la denuncia, le pedimos a la Embajada de Estados Unidos que crean una comisión para investigar el bombazo, que es el atentado terrorista, realmente. Y bueno, pues la ofensiva pasó, más, más compañeros muertos. Muchos se integraron al Frente, pues no había más que hacer, ninguna libertad. La represión era brutal, ya no podía andar en la calle. Terrible. Ni tampoco podía dormir tranquilo en la casa. Nosotros andamos durmiendo en casas diferentes, casi todos los días. Y nos dijo que no podían no podían investigar nada porque el lugar ya estaba contaminado y que no tenían, no iba a salir ninguna prueba positiva. Así quedó. Pues yo he estado, después de eso, vienen los Acuerdos de Paz, indiscutiblemente. Yo me retiro de FENASTRAS y regreso al sindicato de STESEL, el sindicato de la industria eléctrica de la Comisión. Y empezamos a retomarlos, por qué la sindicato había sido disuelto por decreto ejecutivo. Empezamos a recuperar las prestaciones que teníamos antes. Yo más o menos siete, siete u ocho años. Después me retiro. Digo y por último, soy miembro del Comité de Presos Políticos y Presa.

MV: El comité de Presos Político, que quieren?

HBR: Nos estamos hoy, col comité, estamos ahí con la ley

MV: De reconciliación?

HBR: Lea de reconciliación que la llama el gobierno, pero nosotros queremos la ley de reparación. Que contenga los tres aspectos, cuatro aspectos importantes: la verdad, la justicia, la reparación y la no repetición. Prácticamente lo que ha presentado la Asamblea Legislativa, la Comisión, que no haya justicia, sino que los casos de las personas que cometieron crímenes de guerra después de los 60 años no se les puede aplicar ninguna ley. Esa es amnistía. Para qué? Decir ni conocer la verdad? Por qué en este caso, el mío propio, yo quiero saber dónde está, dónde está mi hija? dónde está mi esposa? Qué hicieron con éllas? Después yo puedo perdonar, si? Estamos pidiendo que se abran los archivos de la Fuerza Armada, para, bueno había haber algo, de los responsables. Si, cómo es que un operativo solo se hizo por eso? Todas las políticas de tierra arrasada era que se las inventó el batallón que iba por allí? Mentira. Conocemos, conocemos la guerra, y por eso estamos exigiendo eso. De toda manera esa es una lucha interminable.

MV: Muchas gracias.

HBR: Un placer. Esto es un poquito de la historia.

Oral history with Linda Garrett, 12/10/2019

Oral history with Linda Garrett, 12/10/2019


Marta Valier (MV): Today’s December 10th.

Linda Garrett (LG): 10th.

MV: 2019, I’m with the Linda Garrett at her place in Santa Monica, we’re conducting an oral history interview. You want to tell me a little bit about your early life? Where you were born and where you grew up?

LG: OK. Well, I was born in 1942. So was World War II, in Los Angeles. And my father worked for some aircraft company. My mother was a writer and historian and had spent some time in Europe just before the war started. And she loved talking, about telling us stories about what was happening in Europe in 1939, and how she got caught up in the Spanish Civil War victims, and the beginning of World War II, and the Nazis and all that. She had many adventures that she told us. So we grew up with some sense, I think, of the world and the bigger world and a bit of adventure because she presented her stories in that way.

MV: Sorry. Did you say she. She was living, where was she leaving?

LG: We were in Los Angeles. We were all living in Los Angeles.

MV: So her stories, she was.

LG: She had gone to Europe as, she was an American, but she had gone to Europe. She had a good friend who was Hungarian, and met her friend. And they traveled around in 1939 and got caught up right as the war was starting. So then my brother was born in 1945 and we moved to the town of San Luis Obispo. And that was a wonderful time. Probably one of the happiest times in my life in terms of just being a child, living on a ranch in the country, in the countryside, having animals. I had my own horse and we had cows, cattle and sheep and all those things. It was a wonderful childhood. And when I was twelve, there were four of us. By then, I was the oldest. My parents decided to move back to Los Angeles, which was for me, a disaster. And we moved to a town, San Marino, which was all white, restricted, wealthy community. My parents did not have a lot of money. They were aspiring upper middle class. So we were on the lower, lower scale of San Marino. And at the time, even I knew there was something wrong about this community, that it was so insulated and so white. Even though I didn’t really have a sense of racism or anything at that age, I knew there was something wrong. Anyway, through high school, I worked in the local library and I worked, I always worked to escape school and escape San Marino. I went to the University of California, Santa Barbara for almost three years, really did not have a good time there. It was also an all white, very at that time. This was the early 60s. 1960-61, it was a very Republican university. The John Birch Society, which was, you may not know it doesn’t exist anymore. I don’t think, but a very extreme right racist organization was very popular on the campus at UC Santa Barbara has my memory. There were no, it wasn’t like Berkeley at that time. There were no political things happening, even though I didn’t know what political was, anyway I dropped out. I went to Europe for a year. I spent six months as a nanny in England for my mother’s friend, who she had traveled with in Europe in the thirties. And then I went to Germany, where I had a cousin who is in the American army in Bavaria. And it was winter of 1963. The wall had gone up pretty recently. It was, the Iron Curtain was a big deal, and my cousins, the army base was fairly close to the Czech border and he was always on maneuvers in the middle of the night. They had threats and things were happening. I didn’t really have any political understanding of anything, but I decided I wanted to go to Berlin so, and they couldn’t go, American army people couldn’t go unless they were assigned there. So I took a train all by myself in the middle of the winter and went to Berlin and there was the wall, and things were happening. And I didn’t really still didn’t really get it all. I certainly wasn’t a politically conscious person, but I also didn’t see it as somehow the enemy, friend, enemy. I really didn’t understand it, but came back to L.A. and by, and I started I had several different jobs, but I went to work at the Los Angeles Free Press Bookstore, which was a very important political 60s venue in Pasadena. And there, everything was happening by 1964, everybody was political. Everything was political. Everything was just exploding all around us with Vietnam happening, and the civil rights movement. And to be in a bookstore where all of these books were appearing and magazines and articles about really what U.S. history and what we had done to the Japanese, to the Native Americans, to everybody, all this information was, we were just learning every day. We were all learning, not just me. It was just an incredible time. And then I got involved with the Peace and Freedom Party, which was trying to get on the ballot in California. We had to have, I think, a million signatures or something and had a year to go out and get signatures in order to be a party. And it was wasn’t a Communist Party. It was a leftist, pro-peace anti-Vietnam War anti-racist party. But not. I wouldn’t call it a sectarian left party.

MV: What years was that?

LG: This was ’65, ’66 maybe I can’t remember exactly. ’67? It went on for a few years before the actual election, I think was on the ballot in ’68, but it was a great experience. I was actually a paid organizer for a while. You know, $50 a month or something too, and lived in a commune in Pasadena on Orange Grove, with other people who were organizers. So that was all a period of awakening really, and learning and meeting people and learning how to go out and organize and ask people to sign abortion, pro abortion. That was a huge issue. And in fact, I was remember being in a line to go to a theater in Westwood. There used to be huge lines and we would ask people to sign our petitions for abortion rights. And there was a there were standing there and the line was a group of people that had, had gone to high school with in San Marino, and they were shocked and appalled. And I later, few years later, went to the first and only reunion and everybody said, oh, here comes the communist. It was, it was an interesting time. People were so polarized and everybody was positioning themselves or learning something. I mean, there were also like hippie moments in that time, like, great surprises of just seeing what everybody was doing, what was happening. And it seemed like things were happening overnight out of nowhere. Everything was bubbling. It was an amazing time. In 1968, by then I was married. He was a union organizer. We went to Boston for a year.

MV: Where?

LG: To Boston to. I’m not sure exactly how we made that decision. My brother was living there, and going to Harvard and our plan was to take a backpacking trip to Europe for a year. And Boston was sort of a stopping point and we were both worked low level jobs, saved money, and I now worked with the Welfare Rights Organization. And we were doing anti-war stuff all this time. I was never a big leader of the Vietnam movement or anything, but I was always involved in leafleting and demonstrations and so on. We went to Europe. We helped organize anti-war, anti-war demonstrations in London, and Paris, and Rome, actually. And just by leafleting at the American Express was a big deal then that’s where everybody would go. You probably don’t even know what American Express is, but they sold money orders and things and it was a place people could get their mail. Of course, there was no Internet or no e-mail or anything. So all the Americans would always go to the American Express, wherever they were in the world. And it was a good place to leaflet and get people to go to these demonstrations. So that was our, that was our work in Europe. We went to North Africa. We came home. I got pregnant. Our daughter was born in December of 1970. I worked for, I was working for an ACLU welfare rights project at the time. And, in 1972 my mother died of cancer, and it was very traumatic time and I didn’t want to be married anymore and I split and we had a very friendly separation and joint child custody and all of that. And then I worked a couple jobs and started working with Indochina Peace Campaign (IPC), which was the Jane Fonda Tom Hayden anti-war group and really was one of the few things happening after night because in 1973, the Paris peace agreement was signed. So there was no more draft. And the anti-war movement basically collapsed in 1973. And the Indo-China Peace Campaign was one of the few national organizations that was trying to still until the war continued. Right? But American boys were not being killed, supposedly. In, at the end of 1974, IPC decided to send a small delegation to Saigon, then Saigon, with the idea of in downtown Saigon unfolding a huge banner against the war and then escaping, or something. And my job was to go to Bangkok and be in Bangkok to meet them. These people, after they were after they unfolded their banner and hopped on a plane, they didn’t come to Bangkok. But I stayed there. And and with the help of Tom Hayden and Jane, the idea was that I would go to Hanoi from Bangkok. It took, I don’t know, three months or something for me to get the visa. And during that time, I was living in Bangkok with the journalist’s family and traveling back and forth to Laos, to Vien Tin, Laos, where the North Vietnamese embassy was. And they would say, we don’t have permission yet, come back. So I did that three or four or five times. And then in April, I think it was on April 20th, something like that of 1975. They said, come, we have your visa. I went to Laos, got on the plane. I was the only foreigner, flew in to Hanoi, huge storm and an old prop plane that I thought was going to crash. But I knew I wouldn’t die because I was with Vietnam, and it was OK. And that was the night before the war ended. But by sheer coincidence. So I got there on the 29th of April. No, I’m sorry. That’s wrong. I was there for several days before the war ended, and I can’t remember the date, but I do remember, well, one important thing about that visit was meeting with a journalist, a Vietnamese journalist who my brother, my brother had been to Hanoi in 1972 as a journalist, and he had met this Vietnamese journalist who agreed to see me when I was there. And he was an old man and he was a wonderful person who invited me to his home, late at night, and talked about the war and what it had meant, and how his family was in the south. He hadn’t been able to see his family since the 1940s. And how, he said, “The war’s going to end and we’re going to bring beautiful things to the people in the south. We’re going to teach, bring them culture and poetry and music.” He had such dreams for the postwar, none of which happened of course, things didn’t turn out as people had hoped. But he was, he was. I was so fortunate to meet him. He, he has died since. And so then on the morning of the 30th, I was waking up early, but in the hotel and they said, come, come, come outside. And the war was ending and everybody was in the streets. Everybody had a little paper flags and there was fireworks and excitement. But excitement in the Vietnamese way wasn’t like being an American football game or something. It was it was different. But people were very happy, to say the least. And later that day, the rest of this delegation from the Indochina peace campaign arrived. So I was the only I think the only American in North Vietnam that morning. And then they came. And then we had another week or 10 days where we stayed in Vietnam and traveled. And they took us to different, to Haiphong and different places and showed us around. We were invited to celebrations and so on. So that was, that was a momentous event in my life, certainly. And I’ve felt I’ve always felt, despite everything that’s happened since then in Vietnam and elsewhere, a real commitment. If I believed in blessings. It was a blessing to be there. At that moment and I certainly wasn’t, I mean, there are so many other Americans who were leaders in the anti-war movement and people who sacrificed a lot and should have been there. And I was very fortunate to be to be there at that time. Came back to L.A. few months later, opened a bookstore here in Santa Monica, down the street with a couple of people, put up the money and I ran this was called the Bookshop in Ocean Park and we were very political. We wouldn’t sell bestsellers, only politically correct books and things. And we had events every month, at least once a month, political events, poetry readings and things like that. So this was 1975, 76. In 1979 I went on a delegation back to Vietnam. The Chinese had invaded North Vietnam and it was a very tense situation and they wanted some people to come. But the important thing about that trip that I remember is, it was in July 1979, and July 19th was the day the Sandinistas’ victory in Nicaragua. And we were with the Vietnamese that day, and I remember my Vietnamese handler saying, “It’s time for you Americans to pay attention to what’s happening in Central America. We don’t need you to be doing anything for Vietnam now, it’s not the right time. You go pay attention. Learn about Central America.” Yeah. And I had never I mean, I had kind of follow what was happening in Nicaragua. I’d never been to Central America. I really didn’t know anything. I certainly didn’t know anything about El Salvador. So that was ’79. But then I came back and we started hearing rumblings and refugees were coming and things were happening in March of 1980 the archbishop was assassinated and really many people were coming. And I met some Salvadorans and we had an event at the bookstore for these. And then in the early arrivals of Salvadorans, there were a lot of very political people, students mostly, or grad students and people who had to flee. But they came with a purpose to organize up here. And they were amazing. And everybody said at the time and and I certainly agree, ever since the Salvadorans are good organizers, and they they set to it. And it is as you probably know, there were five different organizations that later became the FMNL, and there was always tension between the organizations. At least three of them were pretty strong here in L.A.. And so the organizers were, you know, each out organizing more North Americans, getting people involved. And then many times it just seemed it was horrible. This kind of tension and competition. But at least in my opinion, when I look back on it, not just here in L.A., but in general, maybe many more things happened and many more people were involved because there were the organizing was kind of dispersed. And they were there were many projects. I mean, El Rescate, that was the first legal services, legal social services project. But then CARECEN started and others, and everybody was vying for money and for donors and for support. But maybe in the long run, it’s not a bad thing because many more people were committed and involved. I don’t know. It was hard at times.

MV: This is something I’ve heard also from the community of Guatemalans.

LG: Same thing.

MV: Once they came here, they found themselves divided, reflecting the different groups they were coming from.LG: Yeah, it’s hard, and it’s it sort of continues even though it kind of doesn’t. But it kind of does at least for the for the people who were involved 30, 40 years ago, those loyalties still exist. I think to certain organizations. So El Rescate was one, and CARECENS was the other, there were other things happening, too.

MV: What were their differences?

LG: El Resctae in some way was in competition with CARECEN I suppose, you know some, for the same donors. People who supported the refugees and so on. For people who weren’t organized, for the refugees who weren’t organized here, it probably, I don’t know if it was uncomfortable. It probably was at times because everybody was trying to recruit the refugees, and North American support. So it was quite, quite a time. So El Rescate opened in May of 1981. My bookstore was, had been oh, the bookstore was right here on Main Street, originally. And after I came back from Vietnam in 1979, I was interviewed by, I think, the L.A. Times or something about what was happening in Vietnam. And so we were having an event at the bookstore. I was showing my slides and a demonstration of Vietnamese who were anti-communist came marching down Main Street yelling, you know, and banging on the bookstore’s windows. And some people had put smoke bombs inside the bookstore in little paper bags behind the books. It was all a huge kind of scary thing. We had no idea that was going to happen. And the landlord, I think that’s what caused the event, a few months after that, the landlord raised the rent from three hundred dollars a month to three thousand dollars a month. So we moved to a little space down the street and it wasn’t the same. And I didn’t have the same energy anymore to run this. Then the decision was, I’m going to close it and go to El Rescate, is this the moment I should be doing this? But I had never been to Central America still. So in July of ’81, I went with some friends to the second anniversary of the Sandinista victory. And then I said I was going to take a bus and go to El Salvador and Guatemala and Mexico, see for myself what was going on. My friends thought I was crazy. Everybody thought I was crazy. I just took just, got on a local bus and. I saw on the ground really what what was going on, the poverty, the way people were living, the repression, the soldiers everywhere, the checkpoints, people being pulled off the bus, made it to San Salvador in the late at night. It was a blackout, a curfew. I got out of the bus. I had names of people to contact. But this was late at night. I found, I saw a sign that’s a hotel or rooms or something and stayed there and ended up. It was a brothel and I was there for the first night. Nothing. I mean, I was fine. Nothing nothing bad happened. And the next day, I contacted the human rights people and other names that I had. And I spent about a week, I think, in in San Salvador. People took me around, taught me, answered my questions, showed me everything. The Human Human Rights Commission, the Committee of Mothers, some journalists, some religious people took care of me. And my Spanish was terrible, practically non-existent. But I guess I understood enough to get the picture. And then I went on to Guatemala and I met I had a few names there. I just stayed there a few days, on to Mexico and home. But then I felt, I think by the time I came back more comfortable making this decision that it was this is what I wanted to do. And I felt like I had at least a superficial knowledge of what was happening. Closed the bookstore and went to El Rescate. And I was the, I think I was the director for a short time till we found like a Salvadoran who who was qualified and could do it, and I did fundraising and I did press stuff, lots of different things. And by 1980, and then I made. Yeah, I made several or maybe many trips to El Salvador between May of ’81 and the end of ’84, for taking medical supplies or whatever things back and forth, meeting with the organizations, trying to collect information because there was no. It’s hard to remember or to to understand now, but with no Internet and no real news sources, information was hard to come by. It really depended on a few journalists able to publish up here. So it was it was important to go back and forth. And I did one, we did a medical airlift thing with Operation California was called, we took a planeload of medical supplies to Honduras at one point for the Salvadoran refugee camps across the border in Honduras. And and I wanted to go to the border. So with some other people, we rented a jeep. We drove across Honduras to the Mesa Grande refugee camp and we had some medical supplies. It’s right, right on the border. And. I was able to go across and visit one of the guerilla camps on the Salvadoran side. A little boy, 9 or 10 years old, got me at like 5:00 in the morning and guided me up this mountain and no cross to get over there. And if you did, you read the Charles Clements book, Witness to War?

MV: No.

LG: Well, we were there at the same time. So what if you’ve read his book, he he he gives some good descriptions of what was happening there and how it was. But I think I was there for about a week. And it was a small, maybe there were two or three adobe structures. We slept in hammocks. Tortillas and beans once in a while, some avocado and some lemon. The best meals I ever had in my life were those meals with cheering them there. I have to say. There was a wedding at some point from one of the young people. Two people got married and there was music. There was a life. But then in turn, then Clements arrived, about that same time. And he stayed. He was a doctor, medical doctor.

MV: Who sorry?

LG: His name is Charlie Clements. His book is really important. What he did was important because he had been in the United States Air Force in Vietnam. And after that, became a doctor and wanted to do good things. And he came he spent a year in El Salvador in the mountains with the guerrillas. And when he left, he wrote this book. He has the book is very readable, very authentic. He’s not a it’s not rhetorical. It’s not a Marxist or anything like that. It’s a book that many people could read and really understand what was happening in El Salvador. I think the work he did was incredibly important.

MV: You said there were songs. Do you remember what songs?

LG: I don’t remember. I’m terrible at things like that. But they had. Yeah, there was a little band, a little group with guitar and violin. Three or four guys in this group. But I don’t remember music. I’m terrible. So after about a week, they they received news that it was, that they were going to have to move. That there was going to be an army invasion. And so I left, went back to Honduras. Charlie went with them, and they went down to the Guazapa vulcano, which is right outside of the capital. Right? And and were there during most of the war.

MV: This was near the border with the Honduras? Right?

LG: Yes. Right. Yes.

MV: Do you remember the location, the name of the area?

LG: La Virtud is the name of the little town on the Honduran side. Mesa Grand was the big refugee camp sponsored by the United Nations, and there were ten thousand maybe refugees there. A lot. A lot of people there. There was another big refugee camp near Morazán, that you probably know, Colomoncagua. So, let me think what else? Quipurito was the name of the little hamlet where I stayed and there was another camp nearby of a different organization. I can’t remember the name of that place, but I met those people too. They had a doctor. A lot of children and a lot of women were there. It wasn’t just, and students. I mean, I think that was part of the picture was that the actual kind of leaders in the camps were students who had left, who had come from San Salvador and organized. And so they were the more educated leaders at the time. And actually, everybody I remember spending time with when I was there, most of them were had been students or grad students. One was, two of them were doctors that actually had graduated medical school and one was killed not long after that. The other, Julian, just died a couple of years ago from diabetes or something, but I I haven’t seen him since then, since the war. Can’t remember there was another trip I was on where people were fleeing across the river. I was on the Honduran side and the army was had invaded. The Rio Lempa, not the Sumpul, Rio Sumpul was a huge massacre earlier on, this was maybe 1983, I was at Mesa Grande camp and people said, started running down towards the river and said, they’re coming, they’re coming. And the army, the Salvadoran army was shooting at refugees and they were trying to swim across the river. And I remember they had some big intertubes tires, intertubes, and the men were carrying women and children across the river. It was raining, and muddy, and very scary. So there were a lot of different events like that during that time. But by or maybe one other story I should talk about, because there’s one person who’s was very important in his story, sort of it’s important as indicative of many people, I think. On one of the trips down from L.A. I was asked to go to the prison, Mariona prison, a prison where political prisoners were being held and to take some leaflets and things just to visit one particular person, Héctor  Recinos, who was a leader of the electrical workers union. And he had been captured in 1982 [was captured in 1980], I think, and tortured. And his whole, there were a group of electrical workers who had been organizing blackout and things, that the government didn’t like. So they were they had all been arrested and they were being held at Mariona.

MV: Blackouts you said? Blackouts?

LG: Yeah. Shutting down the electricity in different places, different cities and different times. There’s another word for it besides blackout, but that’s what would happen. So I was able to get into the prison and on visitors day and I met these guys in particular, Héctor Recinos and his story it’s so incredible and it relates back El Rescate because he he was arrested, I guess, in ’82, or ’80. And I’m confused about the years. I’m sorry. But two years after he was arrested, on almost the same day his wife and daughter were disappeared, they were taken away. And neither of them have ever been found. And he had three sons, young boys who were maybe ten and six and three at the time. And they were visiting a friend nearby when these men came and took his mother and daughter, who was 13 at the time. So we knew all this, right? And I met with Héctor and he wanted me to meet his oldest son, who was still in El Salvador. The three boys were still there, but they were living under assumed names and hiding with a distant relative. But the idea was to get them out, and bring them to the US. So I met with the oldest boy, Héctor. And at one point, maybe on another visit he, Héctor  and I went there together, although we couldn’t be seen together, but he helped me get in the prison is my memory anyway. And he was like 14, but a really mature 14. And he had been basically taking care of his little brothers, so on. So in 1984, we got word at El Rescate that the boys were coming. And their grandfather had gotten them to the Guatemala border. He had hired somebody, help them get across the river. They got all the way through Guatemala, through Mexico. Arrived in Tijuana. And they were arrested by the Americans. They were in prison. So El Rescate, we got them out and they lived with me for a not very long, for a few weeks and then stayed with a relative at the same time. There was a lot of negotiating going on in El Salvador to to release the political prisoners. And so. A few months later, they were released and they all of the electrical workers, prisoners, including Héctor, were deported to Holland because Holland, the Netherlands, was, wanted to take them, was willing to take them. So the boys went there too. So they all there was a big reunion in in the Netherlands, father and and his sons. But he couldn’t stay. He had to get back to El Salvador and he went back in ’85, sometimes in ’85, and stayed and did continued labor organizing and doing his work. The mother and daughter, nobody knows, still, really what happened. It was apparently the national police that took them. And for a long time Héctor was told by somebody or he thought that the daughter had been like adopted by some family in the United States and was still alive. But apparently that’s not true. So, but he continues to this day doing human rights work and organizing for the disappeared and the political prisoners from from the 80s, they’ll organize and make their demands. And he’s he’s an amazing person. So I stay in touch with them, and those boys.

MV: You would travel pretty frequently.

LG: Yeah.

MV: How long would you stay for? Couple of weeks, a month?

LG: It depended on some of those. Some of those trips, it was a couple weeks, but sometimes just not very long at all. Few days, back and forth. And always, you know, there’s always nervousness about what would happen in customs, or whatever. I never had any problem. And a lot of people thought I was a nun. And I kind of looked like I could be a nun. So that was that was, I just was very careful, but I never had any problem, coming and going. So by late 1984 at El Rescate, we decided we had to have a human rights department and really be doing human rights work, not just the legal and social services. And part of the project was I would go to El Salvador and be the human rights representative. So I went down in January, I think of 1985, was going to just be for six months. And my daughter was here with her father and our friends, and my sister and so on. It ended up being 10 years, going back and forth a lot. But really I lived down there 10 years. And the work was a lot of a lot of it was just documenting, all these books right here are chronologies, the news every single day. Radio, TV, print, news, I kept a chronology of everything that was happening, and the source of all the information. And that’s what all those books are. So part of my life was just monitoring all, everything that was happening, and talking to people and trying to make sure of it. And then writing weekly reports back to El Rescate, which they would distribute

MV: From where were you collecting information?

LG: Radio, television, the newspapers, organizations, anything, everything that was happening every single day without without editing, but writing the news as they reported it. But then my weekly reports and monthly reports would be more.

MV: From you living there and seeing with you own eyes?

LG: Yeah.

MV: Do you think the people, the the press, were they reporting exactly what was happening or no?

LG: In different ways, yes. And I also included Radio Venceremos. And and the other guerillas radio was also there. So you know, they’re written just as as I heard them. So you could get the same story from Radio Venceremos and from Diario de Hoy, the right wing newspaper there. Make up your mind what you believed. But then when I wrote the weekly report or analysis, I think it was much more honest.

MV: Mm-hmm

LG: The other part of the work was receiving delegations. So a lot of delegations came from the US and Europe. We had some too. And then, you know, all the logistics of arranging a schedule, appointments, meetings, transportation, translating, everything for these delegations and they would come for three or four days or a week. There were all kinds of sometimes members of Congress and the religious community, solidarity people, just a whole variety of, of Americans who wanted to see what was going on. And we would always meet with the government, with the military, with the FMLN in and one way or another, with the popular organizations, the human rights groups. We always presented everything so people could, again, make up their own minds about what they wanted to see and ask questions of the government and the military and so on. I think those delegations were very useful and important because people came back and they again, they had like I had had a first first-hand view of what was going on and and and what could be done up here. So that went on almost 10 years also, a lot of a lot of visitors came.

MV: Were there visitors before, well you weren’t there, but were the delegations also coming years before? When did they started?

LG: Yeah, we started, I mean, delegations did come in the early 80s. The worst the worst years, of course, were 1980 to 1984, in terms of death squad killings and disappearances, and all of that. It was a really difficult time. And I don’t, I mean there were some delegations, but I don’t think a lot of people went. By 1985 when I went down, the popular movement was able to be a little more open, not quite so clandestine. So the labor unions and the student groups, peasant groups, religious groups were actually, there were demonstrations in the street, again, which hadn’t happened because it was so dangerous in those early years. So there were there was more access for delegations to actually meet with people, meet with different groups. And the government and the military thought it was in their interest to give their side of the story, I guess. So they met with us, and the embassy. We always made sure people met with the U.S. embassy as well, and heard their side of the story.

MV: Which allowed you to do your job, right?

LG: Yeah, because we could kind of look like where we were very neutral, and just trying to give everybody a voice.

MV: So those were ten years.

LG: Yeah, 1989 was the year of the offensive, the big military offensive. And this gets back to Hèctor a little bit. And to this other woman, who is really important to me during my time down there. And this another labor organizer. Her name was Febe Velasquez, Febe Elizabeth Velasquez. And I met her on one of the first delegations that I had in 1985, we visited this labor federation, FENASTRAS, and a whole group of union people came to meet the delegation. This is like the first time they had been so open. And Febe was one of the people in this group, and she was just 22, 23 years old. But one of those women that you never forget who is just so charismatic in her way, but and really intelligence, and smart and clear, gave great answers to questions, and was just very engaging in so many ways. And she had been working in a garment factory since she was 13 years old, from a very poor family, at this time, she was in 1985, she must have been 23 or 24. And she quickly became like a leader in the labor movement in 1985 she was the secretary general of FENASTRAS which was this big labor federation, and they had a large building office downtown San Salvador and October 31, 1989, a car bomb went off at noontime, right in front of that building. And she was killed and nine other people were killed and 27 people were wounded, injured. And Héctor, who I mentioned before, actually was in the building at the time. He wasn’t injured, but he he was upstairs meeting with a journalist friend of mine when that happened. So Febe was killed, and the offensive started November 9th, November 11th. She was killed October 31st. And so the offensive was in her honor, was named in her honor. And she’s still considered a hero in El Salvador. We were there during the offensive. You know, we knew it was coming. Didn’t exactly know what time exactly when things were going to happen. But it was a very frightening, but I have to say, just go back the whole experience. I never felt personally threatened. And it’s this kind of that, gringa, I don’t know, self-confidence or, you know. I’ve just never felt like anybody, anything was gonna happen to me. And there were different times where things were a little scary. But I never. I never felt I was going to be killed. But so during the offensive, there was helicopters and bombings, and things were happening. And one night some men in black with M-16’s came to the door of our house, and we all just froze and we didn’t let them in and nothing happened. We were we were very lucky. But a lot of people died during those days and maybe, just to say historically a little bit, 1989, I mean, this offensive had been planned for years. The logistics of the offensive and preparations for it in the Spring of 1989 was Glasnost, and Perestroika. Everything was changing. Everything was starting to fall apart in the communist world. And in November 9th, the Berlin Wall comes down. And so this is November 11th, with a lot of confusion. And people just, you know, what does this mean for everybody, for everything that ever. It’s all collapsing and. But the decision was made to go ahead with the offensive. And I think then that the larger political context created some doubts and indecisions, and made it. It was a real crisis, I think, for many people. So of course the offensive did not succeed militarily. But politically, I think the, the analysis it was that it did lead to the end of the war and the massacre of the Jesuits on November 16th. Of course, the Americans realized it’s all over, that they could not continue funding this war. So. The offensive ended the war in some ways, even though the peace agreement wasn’t until January 1992. During those last couple of years I continued to

MV: ’92?

LG: ’92.

MV: Yeah.

LG: I continued doing the writing. Then El Rescate, we started working on this database called the Index to Accountability, which, in my point of view is the most important thing we ever did, and the idea was to, to create two databases, one that would document the history of the military officers who were responsible, who made the decisions, and the other database was the all the violations of human rights. So my job in El Salvador was to try to convince all the human rights organizations, that were five, of course, that we should all combine our data because everybody had some similar but their own data about violations. In the end, the only only organization, institution that agreed to work with us was Tutela Legal, which was the human rights organization of the Catholic Church. And in the end, I think that was fine. It was a good decision. They had probably the best documentation and the most neutral, most, I don’t know what my word is I’m trying to say. But María Julia Hernández, who was the director of two Tutela Legal, was very, very careful and precise in testing, taking testimonies and documenting the information.

MV: These were testimonies of people? I had talked to a person that said that they would go to Monseñor Romero and they would tell him what had happened and he would put it in some records. 

LG: Yes. When was one Monseñor was alive, there was an, the institution was called Soccorro Jurídico, but then it I can’t remember exactly the sequence, but it closed. I think the director had to leave the country. And then Tutela Legal was started. I think, I think, Monseñor, it was after he was killed, because the Tutela Legal records actually start in 1982. So we don’t have the early stuff, but we got, there are like forty five thousand testimonies that they had. So in El Salvador my job was to go to Tutela Legal every week and wait for them to give me a mimeograph copy of the week’s report. And then I had to wait for people coming to L.A. to carry this information. In L.A. they were designing all the database, which was, but now it’s very primitive when looking back on what what they did. But it was amazing. And I think it was the first, not only anymore, but certainly but the first experience of of creating these two databases that could be cross-referenced. So if you find a violation, a person, you could, you could cross-reference and determine what would which officer had command responsibility over that zone or that area at that moment when that person was killed or whatever. So there was a lot of work done in L.A., and there were a whole crew of volunteers inputting this data every single day. And the objective was to complete it before the signing of the peace agreement, because the peace agreement was going to include a Truth Commission that could use this information. So they worked like crazy up here and and did completed it and we presented it down there to the United Nations Truth Commission and to the ad-hoc Commission, which was set up to investigate the military officers. So that was all. I mean, I think it was very important and successful a contribution to that process. But the reason I still see it as important project is that it’s used still today by war crimes investigators in Europe and here, in Canada, by immigration people who are investigating. We get calls from lawyers who are defending somebody who’s going to be deported and they want to know if they were involved in anything. So that database continues to be really important and useful. And the actually the University of Washington, Human Rights Center, has a project, that’s just been completed, to combine all the human rights data from the other organizations as well. So this new complete database will include the United Nations database, the UCA, the universities, the Human Rights Commission, the Soccorro Jurídico, and Tutela Legal, everybody’s database. And I haven’t seen the final version, but they worked really hard to clean it up. So there’s no duplicates of information, etcetera. So it’s another tool that should be really useful in the future, for academics or researchers, investigators and so on. After that, when the Truth Commission report was presented in 1993 to the government and the military and everybody and amnesty was passed, general amnesty by the legislature immediately. So no one could be prosecuted. But then there was, during those months, there was an increase in death squad killings and the U.N. decided they better stay involved and there should be an investigation. So I am I, I was an investigator at that point. It was called the Grupo Conjunto to investigate death squad killings, and that was in 1993-94.

MV: How do you do that? How do you do that job? How do you investigate deaths?

MV: They hired internationals, there were detectives from Chile, Spain, Canada, the US. Think that’s all. But there were like five teams of police, or people who had experience in investigating. It was, in the end, it was like many, many projects of the United Nations, I mean, it was it was established with a lot of publicity. We’ve got to do this. And really the objective was to stop the killings and make sure that people, death-squads type of people would would understand that there would be an international consequence if they continued doing this. I don’t think the objective was really to prosecute. It certainly wasn’t to prosecute. They didn’t have the ability. The commission didn’t have the ability to prosecute anybody. I think it was just like a holding pattern. Right. Keep things quiet. But it was an amazing experience for me.

MV: What was your role? To coordinate?

LG: I was one of the investigators on a team. And actually, I was, I was the lead investigator for a small team. Two guys, one was American, and one was Canadian. And they really didn’t want to work with a woman. And that was one of my most clear experiences of that. And at that time, I didn’t, I just thought something was wrong with me, that I really wasn’t doing a good job. But they they just refused to do any of my suggestions about investigations. So I was, I resigned as the lead investigator and I worked with another team, with the Chilean detectives. And they were great. And, you know, we we had one particular crime. We were supposed to investigate and we did. And we wrote a report and so on. And so that it lasted about six or eight months, I think. And nothing really came of it. You know, it was more of a public PR.

MV: So the reports are there. But there were no consequences.

LG: No.

LG: So that was late ’94. And then I left in ’95.

MV: How did they operate, these death squads? How, how how were their targeting the victims? How were they?

LG: Well, with most of, I’m trying to remember these particular killings that we were, that were, that occurred after the peace agreement. The idea was to look, there were some FMLN people, and some right wing people. It was kind of a mix of victims. And it’s not really clear that they were all actually death squad victims. But. People were as, the, the style of the motive, no, there’s a good word for describing how the killings took place, but, you know, people would just be picked up, thrown in the back of an SUV with polarized windows and disappear. In these cases, and I can’t remember the details of these cases we were working on, but. They could have been death squads, it could have been some other minor, personal revenge for something. You know, it was kind of unclear. And as I say, I think the investigation met its objective, which was really just a warning, that the international community is watching.

MV: Mm hmm. Which is something that wasn’t happening in 1979-1980?

LG: Right. Right. And of course, back then, it was much more massive what was happening, a much more frightening than postwar. But we had, it was, we were getting death threats, the investigators. You know, it was, it was kind of a big deal in that, in that sense that supposedly these guys were being investigated. But, and then at at the same time, there was the amnesty right? Which was horrifying that this had been passed, and it basically still 40 years later, 30 years later. Even though the amnesty was kind of repealed two years ago, there’s still very little of any kind of I mean, no one has actually been punished for anything. There is the prosecution, the trial now for the El Mozote massacre. But that’s been going on for months or year. It’s not clear what will really happen. In the meantime, all those people, the really, the people who really had command responsibility during the war are dying or have already died, with no punishment’s. I’ve been working I worked on a few cases here with the war crimes people in Washington, and one, of the one of the people we were investigating died at age 90-something before he could actually be arrested. So some of those people are still around.

MV: So if you if you if you read the book, a history book in El Salvador of contemporary history, would you read, what they write in it? How do they write history?

LG: That’s a good question. I don’t know, the schools, it would be interesting to see a school textbook. I don’t know what they say. If it’s like our history textbooks, they don’t say much. There might be a paragraph, or there was some war from 1980 to 1992. I don’t know. That’s a good question for every country, right? Who writes the history, and and how they write it, and what the children are taught. I don’t know.

MV: And since you also worked in the in the Balkans and as a reconciliation, how is reconciliation possible if it’s not, acknowledge what has happened?

LG: No. The hatred and the distrust, everything just continues. And the children inherit that from that. There’s something called genetic trauma, or inherited trauma or something like the children, the grandchildren can even still feel the pain and the anger of the parents or grandparents, what they went through. And there’s if there’s no, you know, it’s it’s difficult to think of anybody, any country that really seriously initiated a process of reconciliation and forgiveness. Except Germany, which is so interesting, and that’s one reason I wanted to go spend some time there, because in Berlin in particular, because I think it’s the only, as far as I know, the only country that has tried to honestly acknowledged the past and and maintain a daily reminder of what happened and and and a future. It certainly hasn’t happened in the Balkans at all. Not Vietnam, or El Salvador. Yeah.

MV: To  go back to the period in ’79, ’80. Those years, what are your memories of El Salvador, the strongest memories you have of what was happening there? Related to, maybe through the pictures that you have seen of Richard Cross?

LG: There’s so many, I mean, there’s there are sensory memories that are really strong. The heat, and humidity, and getting off the airplane. From Los Angeles the flights would always leave at midnight and it arrived in San Salvador at 7:00 in the morning or 6:00 in the morning and get off the plane. And it was like walking into a sauna. Just unbelievable. Heat and humidity and and smells and odors, and crickets. But I would say my strongest memories were being in the in the “campo” in the countryside, either in the mountains or just visiting different communities outside of the capital, spending time with people in their little champas, and the generosity and hospitality of people who had nothing except, you know, a mud bahareque, a house with a mud floor or dirt floor swept clean all day long, and a little wood fire and the smell of the smoke, the cooking.

MV: All these people there were displaced from their home?

LG: Some. Some. Oh, and actually, I did spend a lot of time on those early years, 80s, those early visits. There were refugee camps, or displaced camps, in the churches in the capital. And there would be hundreds and hundreds of people, you know, living in in the courtyards and so on and cooking and the smoke and the smells and the children. Women and children mostly. And old people living in these really crowded, uncomfortable conditions, but safe inside the church. Just trying to cope with the poverty that that’s there and that’s all over the world but not in San Marino, California. And wait, not. And I don’t think it should be romanticized, but people are incredibly generous and hospitable to us, you know, coming in as a white American out of nowhere and inviting me or us delegations even into their little home, giving us coffee or whatever it was that they they had the little bit or whatever they had, telling their stories, very painful stories, being willing to do that. I mean, that those are the experiences I remember most, most strongly. And then in the city too, the union labor people, I mean, they is just courage everywhere. Really, just remarkable. And perhaps it’s the same in every similar situation, when there’s that level of tension and war pre-war, all that going on, but also the sense of for people who were participating, who were organized, or who had a sense of hope that what they what they were doing really was going to mean something, and that things were going to change. I think what’s very difficult now, 30 years later, 40 years later, is to talk to some of those same people. And things didn’t turn out the way people had hoped. I think a lot of lessons to be learned, I guess, about what happens, what power does, and corruption, and what we see everywhere. But. In these countries where people have gone through, revolutions, and lost everything, lost relatives, suffered horrifically. And then the postwar comes, and I think the majority of people just felt they were forgotten and left behind, their lives really were not improved, and that there wasn’t, the solidarity that exists when you’re in the middle of a struggle it tends to fade I think post post struggle, whatever, struggle anywhere. It’s very difficult. I think post, is more difficult than the than the actual revolutionary period. I don’t know where to go with that but.

MV: When did you go back last time in El Salvador?

LG: Last time?

MV: Hm.

LG: I haven’t been there since 2015, four years ago.  I went to work for this other organization from, I was away from El Salvador until 2009, and then a friend of mine who had worked at El Rescate had started an organization in Washington called the Center for Democracy in the Americas. And so I went to work with her in 2009 until 2015 as the El Salvador senior policy analyst or something. So I spent some time in Washington and we took delegations to El Salvador and went back and forth. So I had a number of visits and opportunities to go back and be. And I wrote reports during that time, too. On what what the situation was. And those were the years 2009, the FMLN president took office with great hopes that things were going to finally change, that there was opportunities. Etcetera. So that was a process also. And I haven’t been back since 2015, I guess.

MV: Now, how do you see this situation?

LG: Down there? Well, there were just such excitement when that when Mauricio Funes was elected president in 2009, he was not a member of the FMLN, but he represented the FMLN and they were the party in power. And it was just, it was thrilling after all these years of right wing government since the end of the war. That this was the opportunity, things were, great things were gonna happen. And it’s just another, he’s it another example of corruption, kind of, subsuming any hope for for change. I mean, there were some minimal things happened. The uniforms for kids to go to school, milk every day for school kids. I mean, there were things, some good things that happened. Right. But the, Mauricio Funes, I don’t think, he had been a journalist before. He was a respected journalist who was quite good at what he did. There are many different rumors and stories about what happened to him, but he clearly became a corrupted person in his personal life and, and the way he ran the government, and he’s now a fugitive in Nicaragua. He stole millions of dollars from the government. He and his cronies, his all group. They are, I don’t know, the FMNL doesn’t really take responsibility for that I don’t think, but they were in power, I mean. And I and I do know many ex-combatants, people who were activists or participated in the war, who live in mostly in rural areas, and have lot of anger and feel that they were totally forgotten, that their lives haven’t changed. You know, there’s a lot of alcohol and health problems. Alcohol, PTSD, serious serious problems. And now there’s even less expectation, I think, that good things are going to happen, that the country, and I just read some data, which I don’t remember any of it at the moment, but the actual statistics about life and education and health care, all those things, it looks like 1980s or 1970s, life has not improved for the majority of people. And of course, hundreds of people are coming here every every day, every week. People are still leaving. And I think the dream of every young person or most of them is to go to the United States and meet up with a relative because everybody has relatives here. Right? But there’s no opportunity. There’s no hope there. The school systems, the schools are collapsing and falling apart. Many of the schools don’t have running water. They don’t have toilets. There’s nothing for the kids. So. All these years, all the struggles and. And and and I don’t see what the future really is for El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras. Except for people to continue migrating for the kids, they say, you know, their choices, join a gang or or or leave the country, that really there’s no, nothing else to do. It’s all really tragic.

MV: In the media general, we don’t read what happened in their country. If we know, then the stories are not aliens. It is their stories that are aliens.

LG: Right. And there’s two things I would say about that. One is the one of the things we did in El Rescate and other groups here in the early 80s that was most, one of the most important things we did, was that we organized “house parties”, they were called, and people would invite their neighbors, their friends or family to come. And we would bring a refugee and food and they would cook food, Salvadoran food. And the persons or or the refugee or refugees who came would tell their story to this group of white North Americans who didn’t know anything about El Salvador and those personal, that personal contact, which is really what you’re talking about. That just made a huge difference. Those are the people who ended up coming on delegations, or giving donations or whatever, but being involved in some way because they had that personal experience, they could understand. I mean, and the other part of it that’s so important even more now than it was then, is that Americans are so focused, we’re focused on America and America. There’s no real information unless you just, as you say, really seeking about what’s going on anywhere else in the world. You can watch hours of news and it’s all about Washington, what’s happening here. The country is so insulated and uninterested, most people, and lack any knowledge of anything outside the border, so people who are coming across, most of, or a lot of Americans don’t have any sympathy or understanding or empathy for why they would come or they’d just see it as an invasion of of their territory in some way, and obviously I think, you know, again, if there were more direct contact, people who’ve actually met a refugee or a migrant and actually know somebody, and know their story are much less likely to be so racist and intolerant. But that’s where we are now as a country. And of course, it’s the same in Europe. Italy, right? All of Europe. All the white Western world is in fear of losing control. That’s definitely what we see here.

Oral history with Toña Rios (Part 2), 10/18/2019

Oral history with Toña Rios (Part 2), 10/18/2019


Marta Valier (MV): This is Part 2 of the oral history with Toña Rios.

Toña Rios (TR): Finally I decided, and I said, you know what? I want to go. I don’t know where, but I’m going. I got my little cousin, he almost grew up with me and my grandma, Francisco. And I asked him. “I want to go, I don’t know where, but far away from here. We take a bus, maybe all day – because I heard my sister, what she went to Guatemala, all day in the bus or whatever and I said – you want to go with me? But don’t tell everybody, just go.” And he said, “Yes, I’m going with you”. “Okay.”

MV: How old was he?

TR: Ten, ten years old. And I said, but “We maybe, we don’t have something to eat. Oh, we don’t have a house over there. Oh, we need to live on,” “Yeah. It’s OK. It’s OK, but I’m coming with you I don’t want to stay here”. I said “OK. Don’t say nothing. And then, tomorrow, when it’s dark, let’s go.” “OK.” Yeah, at 2:00 in the morning, I just go out, just go out. Especially after Monsignor [Romero] died, because we feel like, if they killed him, how they cannot kill us. People are gonna pay attention to him because, “Oh, wow, he is a bishop, a bishop”. But the other people? A thousand, hundreds of people killed. Nobody knows. And, but, in my feeling is, yes, I leave for a moment, and I need to come back, because this is this is my country. That’s my family stay here.

And I went to Guatemala. After a week in Guatemala I said, “No!” The same problem, you hear the same things, they kill priests, they kill people, they kill indigenous. And I said “No no no no.” I’m going to come back to El Salvador. And I go back to El Salvador.

And I stay for a month in El Salvador, because I tried to put my family in different places and I separate them. But nobody knows I’m there. Not my sister, not my dad. My dad is in another place. My aunt is in another place. I put them separate. And I put I separate because if something happened, just one family or whatever.

After a month in El Salvador there were are a lot of problems, a lot of things. Whatever you see, dead people, whatever you hear, whatever you see. And I said, well, I need to go back to Guatemala.

MV: So you went back and forth many times.

TR: Two times.

MV: Two times.

TR: And I go back to Guatemala and I asked the nuns where my sister was first, I asked the nuns what they think if I stay here or go back to El Salvador, because it is dangerous because you cross the frontier and there is a lot of soldiers. “What do you think?” And then one of the nuns says “Why don’t you try to move more – this is the center – move more North, near to Mexico, I think it is better.” But the nuns didn’t know because they never went that way. I said: “But why? Why?” “There is the same church. You can help them. And they do. Nobody knows you. Maybe you go to make your life different,” and blah, blah, blah. They convinced me, but my family is more far away from me. And I said, “Well, if I do something else and I can work, and I can help, or maybe I can move one day you know, a lot of things. But finally I move, to Quetzaltenango. One of the nuns in El Salvador is from Quetzaltenango. I moved to Quetzaltenango, I work in whatever, I just, the first day I went there, I worked in the fields to guard, they call chilacayotes, it is like a squash. And one of the lady says, “Yes, you want to work, you can do, but you see the chilacayotes? You have to find that chilacayote and bring them from to here [she explains with gestures that they fruits were up on a very steep hill]. And there is a place like this, and the chilacayote are here, I said: “Oh my god!” And I got one and phiummmm [gestures that she felt down.] Oh no, but I did it. I brought the chilacayote. Yeah. They don’t pay me, but they give me a place to stay and food. And I said, “For now it is something.” And I put my little cousin in the school, the same day that I arrived I put my cousin in the school, and they took him. OK, I put him in and I go to work. But I just worked two days in the field but then I found another job in a restaurant. The restaurant is like a hotel, for me it was like a hotel, but they have a restaurant. The lady is related with the nuns, with the church, because she told me from the church, they sent me to this place. And I start working there, and I see a lot of people like the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, testigos de Jehová. Jehovah’s Witnesses?

MV: Oh, yes, yes.

TR: And Elin, the church, where they have a little white thing here, the women has a little white thing. But finally in Quetzaltenango, because I always go to the churches to find cover or something, they tell us “Why you don’t move to Mexico? Mexico’s better. They, they describe Mexico, they don’t know Mexico, but they describe Mexico. They hear maybe stories or whatever. And I said: “Oh, wow. But, you know, the family is even more far away. No, I don’t want to go far away.” “But you can help your family, or maybe one day you can bring them.” Then people start saying something like that. And finally, like, you don’t want it, but you don’t have a choice. I find another job, in a convent. They have like a daycare. And they said, “You can work here with the children, you can help – in Guatemala, near Mexico – and they are going to pay you.” They gave me money, a little money. But at the time I didn’t know how much money because this was quetzales is, I don’t know how much in El Salvador, but I just start thinking, OK, if I have money, instead of going back to El Salvador, maybe we go to Mexico paying and blah blah blah. I just make a little my life better. But no, I stayed there.

And that I think in the month they killed the bishop in Malacatan, near where we are, we are here, and then the next place is bishop, I forget his name now.  And they killed the bishop, because the situation in Guatemala is the same as in El Salvador. But in El Salvador, there is a war, everybody knows, in Guatemala no, it is under, they killed thousands of people, and it is under, nobody knows exactly that there is a war in Guatemala. When they killed their bishop, I start thinking, oh, my God, it’s the same thing in El Salvador. They killed bishop Romero for preaching, to open the eyes, and mind to others. Same thing here, what do we need to do? To stay back? To go? Not in front of us. Finally, one of the families we meet in the church start talking. “But I want to move, from here to Mexico. How far is Mexico?” “Oh, maybe an hour, two hours by car. By bus.” And I said, “Oh, that’s not far.” “No, but you have your documents right from El Salvador right?” And I said “Yes, but no visas, they are passport but,”  “OK, that’s easy, you go and blah blah blah, very easy, I go every week.” And I said, ”How about we are going with you when you go?” “Oh yes sure.” And we came to the frontier but I see that it is not easy.

They ask for visa, because it’s Mexico, Guatemala and Mexico. OK, the illusion we had to cross is gone. But I stayed around, stayed around, all day. Finally, about 5 p.m., maybe 5 or 6, it is a little dark, a man appears. And he told us:”You not eat all day, I never seen you eating, you don’t have no money?” Then I said “No.” “Where are you coming from?” Then I don’t say, I just say “From here”. He said “OK, let me see.” He went out, and brought a piece of sandia, watermelon, big piece of watermelon. Oh, my God. I got the watermelon. I eat it. But he caught my attention because he had a big scar here, big, and just like. And then his eyes like this.

Finally, after five five minutes of us eating the watermelon he came back and says, “You want to cross, right? To Mexico?” And I said:”Yeah.” Because a lot of people, a lot of people trying to cross and I said, “Yes.” “Do you have money?” And I said, “No, that’s why I’m here, that’s why I’m here all day.” “And no papers?” “No, that’s why I’m here all day.” “And no papers?” “No.” Oh my God. ”Can you swim?” And I said:”A little bit, but I don’t know.” I know, I swim, but in my river, in my country, but I don’t know here and I said: “Yes a little bit”, and he says:”The river is so big”. And yes the river was there, very big, from here to there. And I said: “Yeah”. And he left. And after, more darker, I’m just thinking thinking, thinking. And he came back, he said, “I’m going to help you, okay? Take your brother and let’s go.” He helped us to cross the river, I don’t know how. Because he said that the river was so big and so dark, dark. I can touch my brother, just touch him. I didn’t see him. That night so dark, I don’t know why.  But the darkness is right for for, you know, for guards. We crossed the river, trying to whatever. Because he said “Don’t try to stand, just just go in.” That what he asked us.

MV: Because of the currents?

TR: The currents just take you. But we walked a lot a lot, a lot a lot a lot up, and then he said: “OK let’s go here, straight, don’t talk, don’t say nothing, just go straight and don’t try to put your feet, you know, to step just go, go, go, go, go. When you cross and you touch the monte, or whatever there is there, if you touch something just hold, and then jump. Yeah. We walked, walked, walked, walked, and then we, I don’t know where, said “OK, let’s go to the river.” Oh my goodness. I don’t know how far we went, but I just try, and try, and he got my cousin from the hand and then go. Finally we crossed, I don’t know how, but we crossed the river. And until now I want to see, you know, in the day, how the river is because I feel it is so big, I hear the noise of the river. But now I would like to see it, but I never went back.

We crossed the river and we went to Mexico. It was very bad very bad. Because with no family, a big city, oh my goodness. But remember, I had two times and this is the first time. But I crossed it, I crossed it. And I stayed in Mexico, Tapachula, which is very close to the border. And I stay there. I helped what I can do. I went to the refugees place for people who tried to cross in the la Bestia in the train, we never took the train, but the people can back sometimes without legs, without hands, or whatever, a lot a lot a lot of people come back, but they have a space for twenty four hours to stay for to eat or to relax or or to try to again, whatever, right? We there. I don’t know how we there but I offer myself to the lady who take of, it is a church. And I said “I’m here I can do whatever I can do. I cook.” And I cooked there. Thanks God because my cousin who want to eat a lot and finally we stayed there and then I moved in a a car, sometimes in buses,  to Mexico. Finally, we appear in Tijuana. It’s not easy to go, but finally we arrived in Tijuana, it was in December, it was December, yeah.

MV: What year?

TR: 1981, almost ’82. Yeah, I was there, it was so dangerous for us, but we crossed into the United States. How? Is not because “I want to go to the United States,” no! The people they tell us “Move move move there, more ahead.” They mention names like Monterey, Guadalajara, Hermosillo. I know the names now, but I didn’t know where are the places. But they mention them, ”Why don’t you go to Monterey, why don’t you go to Guadalajara, why don’t you go to Hermosillo?” “I don’t know!!!” But at the same time, when they say that “Go, move!” Something happens right? There is maybe something there? The first time from from Mexico to Guadalajara, I didn’t know if Guadalajara was going back or the direction but I asked: “Where is Guadalajara?” “Just take a train, three days train?” “Three days in the train?” And they said “Yes only three days, and then you can find job there” Three days? And I did it in three days. And when I was in Guadalajara I said, what are we doing here? It is the same place, same situation, people around. And you cannot knock the door and say “I’m here,” because nobody knows you. But the same thing, people say “Where are you coming from?” “I come from El Salvador” “Oh my God it is far away, how did you come?” “I don’t know. I just sometimes walked and sometimes the train and sometimes”. “Oh, my God. Why you don’t go to – in this case – Hermosillo”. I don’t know what Hermosillo means! But the idea of the people is to move these people near the United States, they never tell us, “Go to the United States.” In my life, I never heard, “Go to the United States,” but that is the idea, because there is more opportunity, that’s what they say right? And I moved to Hermosillo, my first time. And Hermosillo, and I said wow, and then? What is the next move?

But I stayed in Hermosillo, Iworked in the tortilleria, they made tortillas. For my first time I see the little tortillas ‘delgaditas’. When I started the tortilleria I said thanks for God, because the tortillas that were not good for selling, they would put them in a different things and they give it to me, a big bunch of tortillas. And the place where I stayed is a church too, and a lot of people, maybe in the same situation, I never asked, but you don’t need to ask, you see the people. And they are going to work sometime, some of them stay, especially women and children they stay, and they got a big bunch of tortillas, and in few minutes the tortillas disappear. And I said, tomorrow I’m going to bring more. And I stayed there for a little while, I liked that tortilleria. Because the lady, with the tortillas that are not good they put a little salt and they do like this. And she is eating the tortilla like that, and I started eating liked that! I never ate tortillas like that! To put the tortilla and put a little salt in it. Oh, my God. That’s the way we eat tortillas. My cousin, oh, my God. He got a bunch of tortillas together, because they are so thick, and he got a bunch together, and he eat it like this. He put salt in there in each tortilla, and they got bunched together. Because the other one, the thick ones, you cannot bite them. And oh my God, always we talk about those tortillas. And then we had the tortillas the same here but, but there, for us, was so new, we don’t know. And oh my God, we always talk about those tortillas, “I never feel like eating until we had those tortillas.” Yeahh, so good. And I stayed there for a month. Yeah, almost almost almost, well, less than a month, less than a month before it is December, until December, but it felt like years in the same place. And then one of the guys, one guy around there, he says, are you coming from El Salvador? We say, “Yes,” we’re afraid because we don’t know people, right? And say, “yes”. “Oh, OK. We can help you guys. There’s only two, right?” Yes, “OK.”

“We are North American. We are gringos.” “Ohhh, gringos!”  “We are gringos.” And we pay attention very clearly what they are going to say. They say “But we are part of the sanctuary movement. Maybe you don’t know, maybe you don’t hear about that. But we tried to help you. What we do is, if you want”, they offered to a lot of people, but they don’t qualify because they are from Mexico or other countries. And the refugee movement was for Central America. And I said “What do you want to do?” “We can can help you to cross the border to the United States, say to Los Angeles.” And I said: “Who is going to Los Angeles?”  “You are going to the United States, right?” And I said, “No, I’m not going there” “Where are you going” And I said, “I don’t know. I just want to go to a safe place.” In my mind I want to save my family, but I never stop. I’m going here, no, I’m going there, no. But that day he told us us “We we can help you to cross the border. But we put you in here and then you cross by yourself and then on the other side  somebody is going to take you by. This is safe.” They told us in Spanish, very good, how do you say, very good information. But we don’t believe in nobody at the time. We don’t believe because we don’t know. But finally, he says, he tried to convince, he said “You are part of the church, we are part of the church. And then this church is going to help,” and he mentioned a lot of things. Well, finally, we agree what they say, they are going to help us, OK.

And they put, after two or three days, I don’t know, they put us in the car when, we went to another place, Sonora or I don’t know where is the place, but very close to the border in Nogales, Arizona. OK, but they changed their mind. “Let’s go to Tijuana instead. Not in Nogales.” Tijuana? I know Tijuana because I heard about it. But finally they say Tijuana, and they put us in the border, very close to the border, maybe five minutes walk from here to the border, and then they left us there and they say:”We are going to the line and then we take you there and yeah you cross to the United States. “OK, we try, we move, we go there, not easily but we cross. Like that, we cross. I don’t know! I just, they tell us there is a hole and then you go there and go over there and go to the church. And then we go over there. The first time we crossed like that with my cousin. But we crossed, but after here we need to walk a lot. Another guy guided us from, after crossing the border. We walked a lot a lot and we run into the freeway. We need to cross to the freeway, just running. And we doing it. We’re doing it. And we appeared in Chula Vista, now, I know where is Chula Vista. In Chula Vista those guys that helped us to cross, there was a sanctuary movement here in 1982 in the United States. They started, they sent me a lawyer, the lawyer tried to help me get a work permit, and I don’t know what else for political asylum, a lot of things. But I didn’t qualify. During that time, I didn’t qualify, I just got nervous. My family again. I said I go back to my country, I don’t want to stay here, but I stayed a year, one year here.

MV: You were in Los Angeles?

TR: In Los Angeles. After a year, I said, No, this is not for me. Even if I tried to work, but I can’t stay here, my mind there and my hands here. My cousin started school. But it is not a life for us. No family, no friends. No nothing. And I said “No. No, no, no. I don’t want to stay here. I don’t want to stay here.” One day, I buy my flight, my ticket, just going because no papers and I talk to my cousin. “Do you want to stay or you wanna go? Because I go” Even I just to see where is the family. In that case, two families. One family, my mom and my brothers, plus my aunt, widow aunt and a lot of children. And I said, “You want to stay? You wanna go?” “No, I want to stay, waiting for you. But come back,” and blah blah blah. “Yes I want to come back, you know me, I’m gonna come back, but I want to know.” Because at the time no phone. Yes phone in the city, but not in there and then the war more and more and more. And I said, “I’m going back, ok?” And I went. I just stayed there almost one year, 9 or 10 months, I think, and I went there, but oh my goodness.

No family around. Nobody knows about my family. Even the people knows. I didn’t find them and I looking for them, day and night. After three, after almost a week, I have a, because I’m walking I don’t have a car, after a week I know what is my family. One family was in refugees center, far away and and the other one is with my sister who lives with the soldiers. But how can I, now? And then my sister, she didn’t know about us. We’d disappear, and that’s it. Oh, my God, when she saw us. “You are crazy! You are this, you know we are  family and,” oh, my God, she was very angry. But finally we are there, and she invite us to her house. And I say: “No I cannot go to your house, we are going to meet in this place.” Just for a moment and then disappear because it is so dangerous. Yeah. After a week, I tried to decide to come back, to move again. Same thing with the first time. To Guatemala, staying in Guatemala, and around around. But why is I move the second time? It is because I see the family cannot stay in no places. My brother priest, he passed away, they killed him. My sister who is a nun, she disappeared with the family we don’t know about her but we know she’s in Italy because the nuns in Guatemala they told us they took her to Italy. OK, the family is going to spread around. And I said, “Well, okay. Why do I need to?” I had two sisters, one twelve when almost thirteen, and one twelve, because a year and a half apart. But one of my sister was sick. And the 13-year-old is very good, even for the guerrilla, or the government. For both. My family, they believe the children do not serve in the government, because we know, we see the government. And then we don’t know the guerrilla exactly, what they do and why. There is no choice. Even you don’t have a choice, you have to do something. And that night I decided, when I didn’t find my family, and I see a lot of things are wrong, and said “I want to take my two sisters, I don’t want let them here.” How? I don’t know. And I said, God, you know me, and you see the situation here. I want to take them. And I arrived, the next day I go away again. Same thing, just with 50 dollars in the pocket at that time. And nothing else. Well, God. God and each one. And we move again, same thing, very hard to cross, and then, the first time we had passport, but this time nothing, no passport and three people, no passport. The first crossing, which is El Salvador to Guatemala, very bad to crossing. We crossed to Guatemala. We went to the same house, nuns’ house where my sister was, we stayed for two, three days. I work, I work wherever I stop I work a little bit, for money or for no money but just for eat and live, a place to stay. That’s why I find the guy, they offered us to work with them, but they have a bordel. We don’t know. We found this place, “Oh thanks God this guy is going to help us.” But with my two sisters, I’m afraid for everything, because it’s my responsibility, not only because they are my sisters, but they are girls, at that age. And I find the place, and the bordel and we don’t know, they say “You can work here and you can wash clothes for these people,” and I washed a lot of things, and we clean, we do a lot of things here. And he specifically said, I give you just a little money, but you can have a place to stay here to live here, and food. And we say yes, because we don’t have a choice. But the first day, everything good, at the second day, no. “Your sister need to go there to help my mom because my mom has zapateria, they make shoes.” And I said, “No, no. My sister need to stay with me.” “No, but she’s 13. She can help you. She can help you. They are going to get money.” And I said: “No. I come in for work not them, they need to stay where I’m staying.  They need to learn by me, if I wash clothes, they need to learn how to wash clothes,” and I start arguing. But the guy was very insistent. “Oh, no, you sister is 13-year-old, she can do this job.” And I see too many things. I don’t like it. But finally, one day we went together to her mom house. They sell shoes. Nice shoes but we don’t have money to buy. But on the second floor, there is a lot of noise and we discover that there is a bordel. And they offer us to sleep there that night, because her son is going somewhere else. And I said, well, yes, we are going to to sleep here. And at about 7pm the people start coming, mens, lot of men, and women. “Oh my God.” And we go to the first floor, the third floor, where there is no roof and nothing, and we are looking around, who can sleep here? There is a lot of trash, old mattresses. And I said, “if we go under, and then we cover with that, nobody knows people are here.” And that’s what we do. Well, finally, I stayed there for two weeks. After two weeks, and I worked hard, about 3:00 in the morning or 4:00 in the morning to cook, to clean, to wash clothes and everything. It doesn’t matter. But we have a met, we move ahead. We stay there. And then the guy who’s in charge, Leon, I never forget Don Leon, finally, we talked to him about we want to go to Mexico. “And why are you going to Mexico?” “Oh, because we have a brother who’s a priest.” And finally he said he is a coyote. He told me. “You know what, I. Yeah, I work in this. I cross people to different places, but especially to the United States.” “Oh, yeah? Oh, OK”.  We never asked him to cross us to the United States because we don’t know him and we don’t have money and a lot of, you know, dangerous things. But I said, “Oh, OK. Good. Maybe you can help us to cross to Mexico.” “Oh, yes. Yeah. One day. But for the meantime work because you need to find money for that,” and blah, blah, blah. And I said “Yeah. OK, OK.”  But after three weeks, almost almost, three weeks almost four. He said “OK, you know what? Tomorrow I’m going to.” Because he was going almost everyday, but the way he works is they got these people and they send them to somebody else. That’s the way they work. And I catch a lot of things, what they say and what they do.  After that he said, “I’m going to Mexico. You want to go with me?” And I said “Yes.” He says to cross to Mexico, we need some passports. And I said “Yes, but I don’t have passports.” He said “That’s ok, don’t worry about it, you have a little money and we are going to buy the passports, as a Guatemalan persons”. I said “OK.”

When we crossed to the border, from Guatemala and Mexico, we showed the passport and that was it. We were going with Don Leon. Oh, I don’t know. He gave the passports, a bunch of passports, but they gave some money, they put money in each passport. I don’t know how much.

“Oh, yeah, everyhting is OK, good luck.” That trip is a little better that the first, because we, not many people, and because we are safe with that guy. But at the same time, we are very scary. We know the bad problems. There is prostitution, right? I said, “Is he going to the right direction? If he took us to some,” oh my God. I never sleep, I never, I just, looking around and then my sisters here. And the places where he said, “Oh, let’s go eat something because,” I never got  up, “No, I stay, that’s OK, no problem.” Oh, my God. That time is, I think, a bad time for us. But finally,  he left us at the basilica of Guadalupe. A lot of people, during the night, the people stay wait until then next day to open the basilica again. But when I arrived there, I think there was a mass. I don’t know. But it is nighttime, and I see the nuns. And I talk to one of the nuns. And I said, “I’m sorry. I just came from El Salvador, and these are my sisters,” and I just little little things, right. We arrived very late, to the nuns’s house. And the they say, “OK, sit in here, a very small place, and we slept until the next day.” Because from Guatemala to there we could not sleep. And we sleep very, we don’t see the night. A day after, the nun, the superior nun, she offered me to work in the daycare. I said, “Yes, I can work. That’s what I’m looking for!” And I said, “If I can stay here, if I have work and I have everything, I can stay, I don’t move. But if I need to move, I need to move.” And I asked my family too. But I worked there for three weeks. Yeah. For almost three weeks. They pay me. I remember the first time I got money, I sent them to my family, one of the churches where I know, and I said: “Please give this to my family.” Because the idea is that they need to know that we are still alive, and we are in Mexico. And my two sisters started school whenever I stop, because we don’t know tomorrow, but whenever I stop I try to put them is something, and they go to school at the convent, they put them in the school and I work those three weeks and after three weeks they tell us:“Why don’t you move al otro lado?” And I said, “Yeah, maybe, we don’t know exactly,” I don’t know what otro lado is. Because, I don’t know,

But when I hear Los Angeles, I say “Oh, yeah, Los Angeles, I don’t know,” inside of my conscience I don’t want to come back to here, to Los Angeles. I don’t want it, because the first experience was so bad for me. But at the same time, I have my cousin here.

MV: Where was he? Who was he staying with?

TR: He stayed with one friends, yeah, church friends. And they said: “Well if you go, he gonna stay, because you gonna come back, I know you are going to come back for your cousin.”

From Mexico City we moved to Tijuana by train, then I asked God to help us, we went to the church, that church sent us to other nuns. And those nun say: “Maybe you can cross to the United States? To Los Angeles,” they say. “Oh,” My sister says, “Yes? If they say that it is because it is good.” OK, we move, we try, no, not easy. First of all because money, they charged 500 dollars each, at that time, now is thousands. But five hundred dollars for each. How can I got 500 dollars for three times? And I said, Oh, my God, no, no, no. We are looking around, we talk. Impossible, impossible to cross. That’s why we move again to Arizona, in that direction. We don’t know exactly where, but people say: “If you cannot cross from Tijuana you can go to.” They gave us some options, I don’t know why but they give us some options. And we move to Arizona again. Nogales. And then we cross, we cross, again, from the hole, and we go. There is the border, the border, and there is a fence, alambre, and the people cut it, they cross to the other side. We cross to the other side, but the problem, well, not the problem but the this is that we cross and from this church they told us: “You can cross and there is another church, immediately there is a church, a Roman Catholic church.” This church in Nogales, Mexico, I think is Presbyterian, yes Presbyterian church here. And they tell us: “You run, and cross, and go to the church, and they are going to help you there.” OK, we do that. At about, 8pm maybe, I don’t know but at night, we crossing the border, we got to the church. And the day is, the second time was in March, when we cross. And I see the people start walking, and I see people with the cross. And I say: “Oh my God it’s Ashes Wednesday, let’s go.” I got to two girls, we go to [can’t understand], and when we go back to the pew, the immigration took us. One guy, he said: “OK, you are in detention.” They put the, the esposas? To me.

MV: The handcuffs?

TR: hm-mm, to me, not to them, to the girls. And I said: “Put them on the girls too!” Because they are, you know, and he said: “Oh yes” But what he did he put this with her and the other, because I told him “Put these things to them too”

MV: Because you wanted to be sure to stay together?

TR: Yeah. And the church is very full, and nobody said anything. Nothing. Well, I didn’t hear nothing. And I start crying, crying, and crying. But they put the, how do you call these?

MV: Handcuffs?

TR: Esposas we say esposas in espanol. And then they put us in the car, they put us in the car, and we appear in one of the detention center, in this side, not on that side, this side. They have a small room, very very small room. They open the door for us, they put us in there. And the girls, oh my God, the girls crying and saying, “That is your fault, remember I told you we need to go back to El Salvador. We had a little money now we don’t have nothing.” Oh my God, a lot of things. And I took them both here and I said: “We need to pray, I know God is here, and he knows, he knows we are here, but we need to be together, we need to be together.” The younger one said, Ines is her name, “I’m thirsty, and I’m thirsty.” There is no water, but there is a sink, toilet, no, no washer, just the toilet. And I said: “There is no water.” “Yeah but I’m thirsty.” “Yeah, I know that but there is no water.” And she knocked at the door but nobody answered. The next day: “I’m thirsty.” And I said, “You know what? There is the water. Do you want to die? Die, but if you don’t want to die we need to drink water from there. I can take the water with my hands” “How can I drink the water from there?” “I’m sorry, there is no more water.” And cried again. After three days, she drank that water. I got the water and I said: “We need to drink the water,” just a little bit, just like that, we don’t want to die. But after two days, three days, not he third day, one of the ‘guardias’, a black lady, she appears to the door. She opens the, a big big, how do you say ‘el candado’? Lock, but the lock, the thing

MV: On the door?

TR: Hm-mmm, there is a big big

MV: A lock?

TR: Locker right?

MV: Locker yeah

TR: And we hear when they put. But in el Salvador, if you are in jail, if someone do that, it’s because they are  going to put you out to kill, or they kill in the same place.

MV: If you hear the noise of the people opening,

TR: Yeah.

MV: Opening the,

TR: The door.

MV: Opening the door,

TR: They are gonna kill you now, this is the time to kill you. And I heard it, and I, I just fell down, and then my sister, “What happened?” And then the lady, she opened the door and she put in the floor burrito, but we don’t know, it is the first time we hear burrito, burro. She put it and wrapped in a paper right? She put it in there and said: “That’s your lunch,” with the foot she threw it there to there. “This is your lunch,” like in that moment I see the foot, she three the lunch. And then my younger sister she is more, she says: “Maybe it is veleno.” Veleno?

MV: Poison?

TR: Yes, poison. And I said “Maybe.” I’m thinking in El Salvador, I’m not thinking here because I don’t know here. But I think in El Salvador, it is possible, they want to kill us like this because a lot of people, I don’t know! Because we don’t know where we are. Maybe they don’t want to kill us, because we are three but they kill us with veleno. It is possible. But three days there, the same place, do nothing, we want to explore [laughs].

MV: The veleno.

TR: Yes! We tried the water, there is no choice, we want to explore the veleno. And I negotiate with the girls. I said: “Well, they sent this to us. It is possible that there is veleno there, but one of the three will need to try it. If she dies, then it is veleno, if don’t die, is food. What do you think?” They my younger sister said: “I wanna die first.” And I said: “No, that is not the case, that is not about you want to die first or second or third, but somebody needs to taste it. I can taste it” “Yeah, if you die, how can we?” “It’s the same, OK?” And then my other sister said,

“How about if you eat it at the same time and we die at the same time?” [laughing] And I said: “No, that is not necessary, only one can die, or the three of us we can live, but we need to taste it.” “Yeah, Ok, who’s going to die, who’s going to taste first?” And then the little one says: “I want to taste it” “Why? Because you wanna die?” “No, no, no, but I don’t want you to die I don’t want you to die. If I die I die.” And I said: “Let me taste it.” “No, because if you die where can I go?” “Yeah but maybe it is my fault, remember what you said, you wanted to go back but I said no because we need to be together, to move ahead, maybe it is my fault. I need to die.” But I just make for reflection, because it is only “Die, die, die,” no! “We need to die for something,” oh my God, and then the burrito on the floor [laughing], a big burrito, like this, for the three, and I said oh my God. At the meantime we prayed, we prayed, we prayed, very firm, remember lot of texts when from dad, my family read. And then I got the burrito. We don’t know what is inside, but it is food, OK? Then we open it, and we are praying, we are praying, we are praying, and then I see frijoles and rice, rice and beans. We know rice and beans, yes they can put veleno in there but, at the same time, frijoles! Arroz! [laughs] That is the first time we see the tortilla arina, the flour from tortilla, we didn’t know. “Oh and they wrapped it in this, OK, but frijoles, I know frijoles I know rice. Now we can taste it!” “Yes, we taste it!” “Let me see,” and I got one frijole. “It’s frijol” “Yes but sometimes – the thirteen, Isabel – yeah but sometime you eat it but the next day you die.” “No, maybe not,” Oh my God, a lot of things with the burro. Finally, the three of us, not eating everything, but just a little bit. “Do you have a stomach ache?” “No” “OK” “There is the bathroom” “No it is OK.” Finally, now to sleep. “If I sleep and then I die?” “No, no, it is not going to happen”. But you know the light, all the time is light, you don’t know if it is day or night, or whatever, and my sister, the younger sister said: “But when we know when is day and night here?” “When you have sueno, when you are tired you sleep, and then, that’s night,” “OK” [laughs]. We never slept because we scared. “If you sleep and you die” “Oh no no no no”. We never sleep. Oh my God, the three of us with the big negro because we don’t want to sleep. And then the next day, another burro. Like this, again. We don’t know the time, night or morning or whatever. “OK, we not die with the first one. OK, it is going to be the same.” The little one, she is always like this. “How about, if it is not?” Again! Arguing again. Finally we eat a little bit again.

We stay there for fifteen days, after fifteen days in the same place, fourteens days, with the day they take us. Fourteen days, start people coming people to talk us, pastors, priests, I don’t know, they introduce us, but I don’t believe nobody, nobody. Even if God came, I don’t believe it at that time [laughing]. But one of the guys said: “You know what? We try to help you, we try to help you, we try to put you out,” blah blah blah. Never happened! Everyday the same. But after fourteen days the guy said: “You have fourteen days now.” “Fourteen days?” “Three years or five years here, we feel like, like that” We are very weak, we don’t eat we don’t drink, nothing. “Yeah, you have been fourteen days here and I think that tomorrow they are going to put you out. We tried to do it!” Blah blah blah. How? This people, why they say they gonna? Why? But finally, on fourteen days, the same lady we saw the first time, black lady, she opened again the door. Because to throw the burro, she cannot open the door, there is a something down to put the burro like this, but the first time she opened the door, that is why I feel they are going to kill us, or take us to kill outside. But on the fourteenth day she opened the door. I said Oh my god, OK. Fourteen days maybe it is too much for them. So now, they are going to kill us. We took together and then prayed and prayed and prayed. And the lady said: “OK girls, need to go out.” Oh my God. And they put us the thing again, the same.

MV: Handcuffs

TR: Hm-mm. And they said: “You need to go out. We are going to move you guys, to different place.” Who is going to believe that? And I say, I just think I don’t tell the girls, but the girls know too. They put in the car and she didn’t say nothing, just: “We are gonna move to a different place.” Turn on the car, they put these things, and we go to the office, they give the papers and everything and they put it in the car. About midnight, I don’t know, I don’t know which direction and I don’t know where, but the car has a, she is going in front right? And we are in the back. We call perrera, perrera for the dogs, because the dog does not bite the person right? They have something here, well we are in there the three if us. Well around midnight, she says: “Well girls, we are going to get up a little bit for a few minutes, if you want to go pee or whatever,” but I said, “I don’t want to go outside,” because I know, when they put people in the car and they say, “OK you are free, they sh sh sh,” [sounds of shots] and in El Salvador you see that, especially when you go in the bus. They tell us, “Just go. Pah Pah,” [sounds of shots] and everybody dies. They don’t kill like this right. And I said: “No I don’t want to get out,” and then my sister “But I want to pee,” “OK do pee here, it is OK if you do pee here you do pee here” “ No no no” And then the lady says, “Don’t be afraid,” half in Spanish, just a little bit. “OK OK Get out, no afraid of me OK? No afraid of me.” She was a big big big lady like this with those guns here, you see and you feel die, you feel die. And then, finally we get up from the car. “Straight straight, because there is two more hours.” OK, we go. “Thanks God we are still alive, let’s go again.” Finally we arrive, about four o’clock in the morning, three o’clock, I don’t know, you see the time mas o menos. And it is houses in the desert. It is the desert, there is no houses in there, but there is a big house there, and I said “Oh my God, what are they going to do with us?” But these houses, there is a place here, it is an office, a big lock, she opened and she talked to somebody and there’s people there. “There is two more.” When we go in, a lot of people, but just women and children. No men, women, and children. But some of them have no foot, no hands, or no hair. “Oh God! What happened here?” People who crossing in La Bestia, yeah, people crossing in La Bestia. They find them and they put them in there. Oh my God, I see people, “Oh my goodness what do I need to do?” But I worked there. Yes, I tried to help the nurses to clean, I don’t know if they were nurses, but people coming from outside. And I clean them, I help to, you know, because in El Salvador I worked with the nuns, they had a clinic, and I helped whatever they needed me. And I told the lady, I worked in a clinic in El Salvador and I can help you,” “OK.” And I put to water or whatever. I worked there, that’s on the fourteenth and fifteenth. On the 24th, March 24, one man came, on the 23rd, one man came and said: “Toña Gamero, Isabel Gamero, Ines Gamero,” from the megafono, they called us. “Come to the front.” We know there, we are sleeping on the street but with mattresses, and there is a lot of children, crying. My goodness, I try to make a circle to talk to them and laughing. My two sisters they worked a lot with the children, oh my God, and they don’t like children. But that day, on the 23rd, they say “Toña Gamero come to the front”. Oh my God, again. “Because you helped a lot here in this place, you have a day with somebody.” Somebody? What’s that? They give us special food, because we are working there. They say. But here is the house, and far away you see another house, same, more home, far away, and I said: “They are gonna kill us, it is time to kill us. Yeah.” But I say: “The three of us right?” They say: “Yes.” And no, no

MV: No handcuffs.

TR: Yes, no handcuffs, and I say, why? “Well, we are going with you guys” those two guardias, “We are going with you.” But no no, no esposas. I said: “OK.” Oh my God, they were going to kill us, they are going to say “Run and then [gesture of shooting],” I feel like in a movie, but the movie is in my head. So, OK God, it is time, OK. You know, always like that. No, we went to that house, far away, they had a lot of food on the table. A lot. One long table, a lot of food. Green salad, and, a lot of food. Oh my God, And I think, well, maybe they are going to feed us and then they are going to kill us, that is why we are going to eat. But I try to be positive with the girls and say: “Wow. See? Because we helped.” And then two ladies appear: “Oh, welcome!” Only English, and we zero English. “Welcome.” I don’t forget when my sister said. She said, “You want lemonade?” or blah blah blah, I forgot. And my sister: “Lemonade!” Because she thinks it is a limón. “Lemonade!” And they were give us a very good lunch, we eating whatever we wanted, the people are eating with us too, not the guardias but the people from that place, they gave us a lot of food.

And nothing happened. And then they call the guardias, and they came to take us to go to the house again. But on the 24th, one of the men that we saw in the jail before, they visit us, to take us, and blah blah blah, he came to that house, far away from, we saw them. Said: “Toña Rios and” blah blah blah, and I said “Yes” “You off, you off today.” And I said: “What do you mean you off?” “Yes, yes, no more jail for you guys. You are off today.” He tried to say it in Spanish but he couldn’t say it, a little bit of Spanish. And I said, “Are you sure?” “Yes, you know what day is today?” I said, “No,” “Today it’s the 24th. You know what is the 24th of March?” “Yes” “What is the 24 of March?” “Monsignor Romero! They killed Monsignor Romero that day” [laughing]. He said, “Yes, Monsignor Romero, they killed him, Monsignor Romero, that day, but he resurrected, you know that right?” And I said: “Yes!” But in my mind, oh, they are gonna kill us the same day [laughing]. No, they went to the office, they made their papers, everything, I don’t know what they do. Finally, he says, “Look look overthere,” and I go like this. There is a church. There, far away, there is a church, and a big big big sign of Monsignor Romero, a picture of Monsignor Romero, and the picture moves because of the weather, the air right? And goes like this, and I said: “Monsignor Romero! Monsignor Romero! And they call us.” And then the girls cry and scream: “Thanks Monsignor Romero!” Oh my God, that is the end of the calvary.

We move move move, and went to the church, a lot of people here. There is this sanctuary movement, yeah, there is a lawyer, some people are coming there, and they say are going buy clothes for us, and they ask us, we want to go to Los Angeles, because we don’t know where we are but, we want to go to Los Angeles or you have family in Tucson, or Houston, or whatever? “No, I don’t have family here,” just my cousin “but he is in Los Angeles.” “Where in Los Angeles?” Oh, my little cousin. “How old is your little cousin?” “He is only eleven-year-old.” At that time, yes eleven, almost twelve. And I tried to figure out how, and they said: “Oh my God, OK, you wanna to go there?” “Yes, I wanna go there.” But at that time I didn’t know where my cousin was. Because my friend from the church she moved to Chino, Chino is that way, and we are that way. We don’t know, we don’t know nothing in Los Angeles, but I know she went to Chino, from the church told me, “Yes, she moved to Chino.” “And then? My cousin???” “She took him, because you left the boy with her.” The same day, the night, she bring my cousin. 

That’s why I, I went to the church, Immaculate Conception, and I start be together, I try to find people from same country, to talk about what the situation is here, how can we incorporate our life in here. Oh my God. The priest in Immaculate Conception

MV: The church in downtown Los Angeles?

TR: Hm-mm, he is is from Mexico, well, I don’t know where he is now, but at that time Padre Miguel, he is from Mexico, he is a little bit better than other priests I know around and he tells us: “Would you be part of the group, the youth group?” Because the first time when I came, I asked for help at one in the morning and they put our names in the books, and whatever there, with my cousin. But this second time I go there and I don’t see people, the same that I’m looking for. But finally Padre Miguel tells us about being part of the groups and staying around and blah blah blah, blah, blah, blah. Yes, that helps us a lot.

In the meantime the lawyer and the case in political asylum start doing their own, because we don’t know exactly what they are going to do. But finally, one day they say, “You told me you came one night in 1981 almost 1982 here. Did you do something here that people know about you here?” I said: “No no no no. Well, yes, the church, the Immaculate Conception.” “OK, let’s go see ,maybe they have your name in there, or they are going to give you a letter or whatever.” Yes, they found my name and my cousin’s names in there. Oh God, thanks God. And the lawyer told me, from CARECEN, “Oh yeah yeah this is enough, this is good.” The the sister Carmelita too, she wrote a letter for me, but she said: “You disappeared! You didn’t tell me when you goback” “Yeah, but my family!” Finally she wrote a letter and the church say, “I know, she came here in 1981, not in 1982.” OK, that helped, that helped. And then that lady put me on political asylum, but political asylum they denied it, they said “You didn’t qualify for political asylum.” I declared in front of the judge five times. And then, he says no. The last last last one, she said: “You didn’t qualify because you have your arms, you have your hands, you have your legs, you have your eyes” I said: “If I don’t have my legs I can come here?” “Yes a lot of people don’t have legs, and they qualify for political asylum.” And he says: “You know, you are complete. You don’t lose your father and your mother.” “Yes but I lost my uncle, and my brother” “Yes, but that it is something else.” Yeah, and he said there is no political asylum. I fighted, I fighted a lot, well, the lawyer but me too. But they say no. But the amnesty came, in 1982. If I came in 1982,  it’s not good for me but I arrived in 1981, because of midnight, right? More than midnight. But he put 1982 and didn’t put December 31, no, put 1982, December 1982. OK, that’s what the  church do. And then the sister Carmelita says, according to what the church says, she made the letter, in 1982, December 1982. They don’t say at midnight or the next day. And that’s what the lawyer discovered, everything, this. She told me: “You know what? The amnesty started in 1982 but it is for the people come in 1981. Yes! I’m gonna put you for the amnesty.” But we don’t cancel, at that time they didn’t cancel the political asylum, fighting and everything, and then she put me for another way, the amnesty. And then the amnesty resolved my problems [laughing]. Some people say: “Thanks Reagan,” and I say “No! Thanks God, not Reagan,” Reagan financed the war in El Salvador, this is good? No. That is why a lot of people has to leave, has to move around. The people lose family, lose their own identity, because a lot of people here, they say they’re from Mexico. A lot of people, they say they’re from Mexico. They don’t say they’re from El Salvador because they’re afraid. A lot of people, they lose their children, children appears in Europe, or, I don’t know, everywhere in the world. And nobody denounced that. And I said this, when I was in jail, when I was in detention the first day, the immigration, the man said, “Why are you coming here? Why are coming here?” “I don’t come here, I’m sorry but I don’t come here.” And he says, “But you are here” “Yes because you, you put me here.” But he didn’t want to say yes, right? “Yeah but why did you come our country, you said you love your country,” I said: “I love my country, but the United States took my country out, they put me out. They robbed,” I said even if I didn’t said it in English well but he understand. “They ruined my family, they robbed the land where I’m born. I don’t have nothing there. Nobody knows me in El Salvador because the war, because you financed the war in El Salvador”. And he said, “Yeah, but why do you come to the United States?” “I said I don’t come to the United States” “Oh, if I put you out, where are you going to go?” And I said: “I don’t know. But I don’t want to say here.” That’s why, when they put me out on the 24th, they gave me a work permit for six months. I said, “I don’t want this one,” because it is the same thing, they are going check me for six months, after six months they put me out, but they are gonna say, “Oh I gave her the six months permit.” And I asked the lawyer “I don’t want this.” And she says: “This is good for you!” And I said: “No.” “Why not?” “Well because they are going to do this for six months, and then they put me to work to pay taxes – I said that – to pay taxes, to pay everything, and after six months they put me out. I don’t want that.” Finally, yeah, the amnesty helped in that way.

At the end, I say, the people who are here, I know it’s a lot of guidance, guide people to help, but at the same time we don’t believe in nobody, we don’t believe in nobody. They don’t want us here. We know we are not welcomed here, we know that, right? They try to help but at the same we say: “This is nothing.” When you start relaxing here, to see the situation, you need to pay a high rent, you need to pay bills, you need to pay everything, and then, the job you have, because you don’t speak the language, you did not go to school, you are not educated in that position, what kind of job do you need to do? Whatever they have right? How much money you need to receive? But the same rent for others, the same amount, the same, the same everything. And we say: “How can I pay the high rent? I’m going to work double, or triple jobs. But I have children! OK, I’m going to put them in the good programs that the school has, 6 to 6. Think about, I put my children 6 to 6. And I work six to six in one job, and the second job, seven to one in the morning. And then the third job. I do that, I do that, three jobs because I have three kids to need to give something, my my two sisters at that time and my cousin, and I worked three jobs. Two different Pioneer Chicken, and one in Goldenman restaurant. Goldenman restaurant 3.25 an hour, I worked six to six, I punched my car at six in the morning and I lived in Crenshaw Blvd, it is almost more than an hour, it is three buses, I paid for three buses. I need to get up at four in the morning to stay there at six in the morning. I punch my car at six in the morning and I get up at 6 in the morning and I need to run to catch the next bus because I work at Pioneer Chicken in another place. I never have money to buy a car, I never have money to buy another pair of shoes, and I work I work I work I work, because the rent is too high, because the food is too expensive, because the necessities, we need to pay for everything. Do you know one gringo, one white people know that things to us? Nobody knows, especially the people who come from to the plane and they come to visit, or if they live here, they own. We don’t have nothing! I came when I nineteen years old, I’m 62 years old now, I never had nothing. I have faith, one day, it is going to change. I have faith. I know it is hard. I know it is very very very hard to think about that, but at the same time I think about in El Salvador when the war. When I save my family, to put my family here they are gonna kills them, because it is the same country. When I moved my sister, and said, “Please, we need to be together. It’ s hard. It’s hard.”

Oral history with Toña Rios (Part 1), 10/18/2019

Oral history with Toña Rios (Part 1), 10/18/2019


Marta Valier (MV): We are at Baldwin Park Methodist Church with Toña Rios, we are conducting an interview for the Tom and Ethel Bradley Center at CSUN. So, were you born in Santa Ana?

Toña Rios (TR): I born in Santa Ana, El Salvador. Well, I was born in Santa Ana, El Salvador, but my family moved to Ciudad Arce, which is La Libertad. I grew in La Libertad, in a small place, which is Ciudad Arce. Ciudad Arce, it’s a small, small, small city and my whole family lived there six months, and other six now months moved to Santa Ana, which is very close. Why? Because in Ciudad Arce, La Libertad, my dad has a piece of land, he was agriculture, he worked all the time. And we, they moved the family there because my grandma has little, not restaurant but a small like ‘desayunador’ space where the people everyday eat there, even if they don’t have money, my my grandma feed them because they are hungry. That’s why she said, “They’re hungry. They don’t have money, but they are hungry.” And at the time I think that we can’t understand that, because my grandmother would give them free food. But we’ve grew that way, and it was really good. A lot of people knows my grandma, her name is Ester. Always they say niña Ester, always they say ‘el comedor de la niña Ester’, and everybody knows her. But six months there and another six months moved back to the real, the real house, which is in Santa Ana. That’s why the people, people know me in La Libertad, because I grew up there. But the problems, the big problems, the war started, I remember in ’79, but I think is before. But the most is in ’79 to to ’81 when I needed to move from El Salvador. When they the bad things started, my family cannot go to that place to give food or give something to others because it was so dangerous. Dangerous. The government in El Salvador started the repression to the poor people, especially for the poor people. Because the people, the poor people, most are people that work and the churches, like Roman Catholic Church, or Lutheran Church, which is the more visible churches, in El Salvador. And my whole family worked around the church. And I started my role at 7-year-old. And I got my big group three days a week. And we pray, we sing, read a little things because at that time I was not reading, not writing, but most memory, the prayers, you know. But when I was 10-year-old, I have a brother who is a priest, and when I was 10 years old, my brother said, “You know what? You can go to the nuns’ house. It is better for you, you are going to study there, you help the family and blah blah blah.” And the first time I said no, because I didn’t want to leave my family, but, I don’t know, and I feel free outside. But when I went go to the convent, it is different. And especially because in the convent, I didn’t eat tortillas, and I liked tortillas! And oh, my goodness, for a long time, I, I missed the tortillas. Once a month I visited my family, and I have 17 brothers and sisters, with me 18. At that time not many, but every year when I visit my family, another brother, another brother. And I start see the situation, very hard situation in the family, not economically, but persecution. My dad, he worked in the field, but sometimes is ‘toque de queda’, when the government says, working from morning to 5:00 p.m., you cannot go out after five because they they kill you. My dad says, “OK, how can I work now?” And starts more problems, more problems, more problems, and more children! But when I was in the nuns’ house, I not feel good because my family, I, maybe was good there for me, but not for them. And I feel my family are outside. And I went back, left the convent, went there I tried to work with the nuns, but in different, with different congregation, and they worked more in the in the field, outside and in the villages. And I like more that than staying inside the convent. But we saw a lot of problems, a lot of dead people. The death squads killed a lot of people. The ‘orejas’, we call them orejas because they go to the meetings of the families and they pay attention to what they are talking about, and later on or the next day they kill you. You don’t know why. But the people we know, because we know that people in the community, but the same orejas is part of the community, too. We have, hm, near to my house there is a person they call Clavito, and Don Clavito was oreja. He is not part of our congregation or the church group, but he is very friendly to the family. And he sometimes said to my uncle, “You know what? The soldiers is gonna come tomorrow. You have to be careful.” And well, we need to pay attention to what he says. Not scared but at the same time you have to be careful. And yes, the next day, a lot of people killed, lot of people dead and something like that. One day, I remember he [Don Clavito] came about 4:00 pm and he said, he asked me, “Is your — because he called him dad but it is not my real dad because it is my uncle but all the time we are together and he said — is your dad here?” And I said, “No”. “You know what? The soldiers are going to come this afternoon.” It was about 4:00 p.m., and I said, “Okay, I’m going to call him”. I want to tell him and then I sent one of my brothers, he was three or four-year-old. And I said, “Go to — different places that we know — go and tell them, the soldiers are going to come tonight.” That day we got together about five families, different families from the community. They would meet together. They prayed together. They received the communion together, you know. That’s the work we do. And we tell them, the soldiers are going to come this afternoon, uhm, night. And we got together and we went, there is a big river. This is the house and there is a big river. And then my aunt came and said, “Okay, let’s go to the river.” And everybody’s got into the river. And we got like, this is the river like this, and all night we stayed in the water, in the river, but just holding it with the little bushes there. And we stayed there for all night. Why? Because we hear when the soldiers came, we heard. They had the ‘caballería’, very, very close to the house. About, well, I don’t know, one hour walking, I don’t know how many miles, but an hour walking there is the ‘caballería’. That night we went there to the river and stayed all night there and my uncle says “Maybe they’re finished.” I don’t know. Because there is not much noise, but children crying, parents would, well a lot of noises. And then, about 5:00 in the morning, my uncle says, “Okay, stay here and I come back. I’m going to see what’s going on.” Our house, they destroyed everything. Destroyed the house, everything. And there is 35 people killed, in the same village, in the same place. And fire. They put gasoline. But the people, same people started put water behind them. And, but that is why did killed a lot of people that night. And one of the people that lived there said, “They ask for – Stanislao is my uncle – they ask for Stanislao, where is Stanislao live?” And they looking for people who are in charge. They’re in charge in the community. My family tried to work like, we developed or we do school even where there is no teachers there. But we find people, the people who knows ABCs, that is a teacher because there is no more teachers. They killed the teachers when they come to different villages. And my my family build the very small house in the town, in the place and we put a school there. So a lot of children go to school. My family do like community, we call restaurant, which is not a restaurant, but community places where the people has to eat, because a lot of people don’t have food or people coming from different places like we are in the center and they are coming from oriente, or from other places. I think we’re not doing nothing bad for others, but the government doesn’t like that, because they said only the guerrilleros do the same, or the communist. But when we started to understand more the liberation of theology, communist is the work what we need to do right? What the communist said, everybody or everything in common right, that is the Bible says, in the Book of Act. Everybody put everything in common, right, and then we give to the people who more need it. If you have something, why do I need to give you. Right. But this is very hard to understand that because the government doesn’t know and they don’t like when we do something like that. That’s why it’s important to read the Bible. At that time, if you had a Bible at home, they kill you, especially the Latin American Bible. I remember my uncle and my dad has a Bible and they make a big hole in the house, outside the house, a big hole and then put it in plastic. And then how do you know? Put in there. And sometimes they they took it to read it. I don’t know how, but sometimes they have and other times they got to put it there and they put something else in there. Nobody knows the Bible is there. Or they went to the church, and talk to the priest and instead of Bible they gave us papers, which is a copy from the Bible. But you know, something like that, we need to discover how we move, how we work. But it is a lot of repression, right? It’s epression. Children need to go to school. They cannot, because they kill them.

MV: Did you go to school?

TR: We tried. First grade. Second grade. But at the third grade? No. Because they killed one of my teacher, the best teacher, in front of us, in the in the in there and the outlet, in the room. I remember that day, I was in third grade, from the window and they shot her. And we don’t know, we don’t see the people, we don’t see nothing around, but after, I don’t know, maybe five minutes, I don’t know, in the moment when we screaming and blah, blah, blah. A lot of soldiers in the street and they say, “Oh, we take care of the situation. Don’t worry about children need to go home”. And nobody wants to go because we are afraid.

And that day my my grandma, she’s selling fruit on the street, almost in front of the school and she is waiting for me because they go the a house. And that day, she knows who killed the, that teacher, not only her, three teachers that same day. And she knows. But she never going to say. Even if they ask. She’s never gonna say. And I remember she’s screaming to me, “Toñita let’s go, vámonos vámonos.Vámonos, los soldados vinieron.” And I go with her and crying and a lot of things. Five children died too. But everywhere you hear the same story, especially in the rural areas. I don’t know in the city because I don’t live in the city, but in the rural areas, especially because the teachers need to walk from the city to the villages. They walk sometimes three hours, two hours walking to go to school. And that’s why I remember my my uncle say “Okay, let’s go with the community to build a small school. Even they put a school, the name of the school there. For almost, I think, a year. We’re happy. We sell a lot things to make a fundraiser to buy books and a lot of things. But I think after a year they, the soldiers burned that village. That place. They they they burn up everything. And we feel not for the house, “Oh my God the house”, but the school because this is like a second house for us, always were there cleaning and everything, we’re happy because we had this place and they burn the place, the place over there. And that day they killed. They killed two two of the teachers, coming from different places. And they gave a note to others. If they don’t leave, they don’t leave from that place, they are gonna die. You know, with something like that, always we live scared. And the night you couldn’t sleep well, especially our house, they had no doors, no doors and, and we couldn’t understand why. But one of the time, I said to my dad, “Why we don’t have doors?” And my dad said, “Because if we had doors, they are gonna know there are people inside but if we don’t have doors, maybe they don’t know people live here.” OK, that’s what they say. At that time I moved to the nuns’ house and, and I talked to them the situation in my small village, and one of the nuns says: “You want to move your family to another place?” And I said, “But where?” For me, everywhere is the same. But at the same time, there is places more safety places, like the convent. And I talked with my family: “You want to move to Sacacoyo? I think it is better, nobody knows. And we stay in the convent”.  And I convinced them, the last time that that day, all day, four more families. One is my ‘compadre’, there are friends of the family. And they, they do the same. We work together, we try to do something together. And for the communities. And I moved them, the five families. We took them for different roads, not for the road where they walk, different places, and finally we appear on the Sacacoyo, at the convent Tepecoyo, and the convent. The nuns were very surprise because a lot of people. And they put them in the garage. They have a small Suzuki, and put the Suzuki in front of the garage and they put the people inside. Children and sick people, everybody there. And I said: “Please don’t say, no noise.” But the people stayed there and they sleep because they didn’t sleep for I don’t know for how long. And they slept. We are the normal in the convent, the normal things, you know, eat, talk, and prayed together. And there are three nuns and me. About midnight the soldiers came to the house. And then they put us on to the floor. Not just with nice words, but they threw on the floor. And then we start continuing praying very, you know, hard. They say: “Don’t make a noise!”Pah! With their shoes they would, ‘patadas’. But we continue to praying and praying and praying. And they say that “We are looking for guns, armas. We’re looking for armas, where do you have your armas?” And nobody answered. And we don’t, we don’t have nothing there. They have Bibles, and they have a crucifix. We have something there. But armas, no. And we didn’t answer, but we got together at the same place, on the floor, like this, and pray and pray and pray and cry. And I’m most of the time crying more than praying. And they stayed for, I don’t know, I don’t know, years! Because I think about 3:00 in the morning. I don’t know what, what time, but from, I know what time they came, midnight. And I don’t know what time they leave because we feel like years in there. I counted fifteen soldiers, maybe they were more or less, but I don’t know. I counted them, because I never close my eyes and even if I cry. But I especially I feel my family is in the same place on, on the other the wall. That’s what I feel. I bring my family because this is a little bit better but what’s going on now. That’s what, oh, my God. That’s why I feel bad. And. But no, they don’t go into going the garage. They stay only in the house, in the convent and that’s it. When they are gone, we don’t feel like no noise, no nothing. But I in my mind, they killed my family. They killed my family, and I start moving and the nun, one of the nun says: “Maybe they are gone.” We don’t hear nothing. They left the door open and everything. After that I think, a minute, I move, I just get up. And I said “My family” and I went there, everybody asleep, everybody. They don’t know, maybe they heard or I don’t know. And the nun decided to, well we talked and said, “Toña you need to leave from here, and we’ll leave too. We don’t stay.” They left for San Salvador, they have a house there, in San Salvador. And they said: “You need to move too, maybe you go to your brother, a priest.” But my brother at that time, especially he says, “I don’t want problems. I don’t want problems, I don’t want to do nothing because, always is problem.” But I had my family, I need to do something for them. And I took them to do the to the church where my brother is, it is very different. This is Santa Ana and I’m talking about La Libertad. And I took them, the next day, but not only then, the five families too. And he was angry, he said, “Yeah, I can’t do nothing for them.” But my family stayed there because there is not place to go. And the other families, they they decided to move to different places. My family stayed there. After a month they killed my my uncle, in the church. In the church. Another trauma for us because that afternoon my brother said, “OK, the children, but the oldest, come, they are going to watch TV.” We never watch TV, especially because we don’t have TV. But that night, this afternoon he say, “Everybody come and watch TV. But just the oldest, the little ones stay with mom and dad”. OK. We moved to the convent, to the ‘sacristía.’ And they give us, I don’t know, bread or something and then, oh, my God, we’re happy to watch TV, and then sleep there on the floor, because we started watching TV and then we sleep. About 2:00 in the morning, their soldiers came, to get my uncle. And they, they cut him in pieces in front of my aunt and in front of the little ones. That time my aunt has ten children and eleven with one in the stomach. And oh, my God it so bad that night. We hear everything, we hear when my aunt screaming, and the soldiers said the words and everything. We see everything. We didn’t ask, we didn’t say nothing. But we saw. And then the two little ones was, one was two-year-old, and the other three, they are there. And then they cry and oh well lot of mess. But they took him, my uncle, they took they took him and they disappear. Until now, we don’t know where they put him. And then my aunt she stayed there. They abused, twelve soldiers abused of her. And after that, we run to take the children’s and we took her, my aunt to the hospital. Yeah. It’s really hard because after that, my, uh, my brother says, “You cannot stay here. You need to move here. You need to go here because I don’t want problems.” That kind of priests everywhere, a lot of priests like that, especially bishops, bishop is that mentality. If you help people, you are going to have problems. Which is true. But, we move from there. We move from there. And we go to this original house, which is a not a house now, because they destroyed it and everything. But we go there because there is no place to go. And we are in the same place again. And we stay there for, I think a month, trying to survive in the same place. My grandma still made food and invite people to eat. I think the way my grandma doing this because she doesn’t want to stay alone. I think so. And that she tried to be in community. We prayed. I remember they prayed words like “Jesus, you know us, you know us. And we are continued to be strong on faith. “Oh, my God. Yeah. Yeah. That’s the way I survived.” And that time we see a lot of churches like Pentecostal churches, a lot, everywhere. And I know they preach about Jesus, but they don’t preach about gospel, and they think that is the difference. Gospel is good news. Gospel is live in community, put everything together and then if you need it, you take it. If you have more, put in it here. That’s the gospel for us. But these churches preach about Jesus. Jesus gonna come. For us, Jesus is here. For us, Jesus is working with us. The government says this is liberation. They don’t call it liberation, they say communist. Only the communists work like that, only the communists. I never forgot when my father said, “Oh, no, the comunismo is in the church. We’re going to die. We are going to die.”

And starting again, moving again moving ahead. But the situation more harder, more harder, because the government, especially United States government, they sent money. They sent help to El Salvador. What kind of help is that? They send, they send guns, weapons, what are they called, armas.

MV: Weapons, yeah.

TR: They send camiones.

MV: Trucks.

TR: And they send uniforms for the soldiers. They send food for the soldiers. Horses, very nice horses because the caballeria, the soldiers has horses, because a lot of places in El Salvador there is no roads for cars, they use horses. This is help or what? But a lot of people when they hear, “Oh, yeah. They help us. We need help. Because you know, the communists, the guerrillas is here.” You have to think about, somebody has to say, “Hey, hey. Okay. Sit down. We need to talk.” Not too many people do like that. We do it. When they help, government coming to El Salvador, the soldiers or the ‘guardias’ or whoever, they go house by house and say “You need to go and see what the U.S.A. – in El Salvador we say USA, U.S.A., USA – what the USA sending for us. You need to go, and to receive that.” But amidst other things, what I mentioned, they bring, they they bring something for the rest of the people, we call caritas. They send ‘mantequita’, ‘aceite’, or I don’t know, ‘harina’, something. I’m here now, I know what caritas means, where they are coming from, but I’m sorry, to El Salvador, we related that, it’s coming from the United States, it is coming, just to cover the rest, what they do. And then, the poor people is going to take a little piece of, you know mantequilla or tortilla or whatever. We never got caritas. But when you see that things, you have to think about where they’re coming from, why they give it to us? I remember my father is part of the caritas, he need to distribute caritas to the people. And my father, when he walked home, he cry. He said, “You know, we give this to the poor people, but they don’t need that. They need their own land, because they can put the seeds and grow to see the seeds. But the thing is we moved these people here, and then they left the land, and the others took it. That’s the way, we need to teach the people. That’s why we need to move here. Even if they come and inform us, we need to resist. That’s what the guerrilla do, right? Resist. The guerrilla incorporate the people and tell them “Don’t move. This is your land. This is your place, this is your house, ahh!!”

But after that I moved them to another church, and I decided to to move from El Salvador to Guatemala. Especially because I feel like the problem is me, maybe they are looking for me. I’m not sure but maybe they’re looking for me. That week I decided, I talk to the nuns and I said, I’m gonna leave, I’m going to leave. And I tell them because at that time is18-year-old, 18 almost 19, and my passport, I don’t have passport, even I don’t have nothing. And I tried to find how can I find a passport. And then I asked the nuns and they said, “Okay, we can help you.”Finally we got a passport without permit of my family because my family is in different places. But one of the nun signed like my mom, she signed it and I got my passport. And she said, “Maybe if you go to Guatemala, you stay there for a little while and then you can come back, you know, it is better. If you disappear, nobody knows, and we keeping in touch.” “Okay.” And I stay there for a week, and during the week, one of the girls that made the tortillas for us, they sell tortillas but they made it for us, she went to the convent in the morning crying and we said, “What happened – Anita – what happened Anita?” And then she says, “You know what? You know, I have my boyfriend, my boyfriend is ‘comandante’,” and he liked to drink a lot, and he’s drunk and he is in the home. He is only the boyfriend, he comes to visit her but he stayed a lot of time there. And then she says “She [he] sleeps on the table and she [he] drops a paper. And curiously I just got the paper and I see there is at list of the people who disappear.” There was a lot of dissapear, especially young people. But what called her attention is because her name is on the list. Her name is on the list and they disappear. There is one, two and three, four is not disappeared which is her, and then another two disappeared, and my name is the next. And they say, “And Toñita’s name is on the list too”. And oh my God, That’s is when the nun decided to say: “OK, Toñita you are leaving tomorrow [laughs]” yesterday! And they afraid too, by myself, but afraid too, the others. And that was on Thursday. And I said “Well, I’m gonna leave.”

No, I don’t want to leave but I don’t have a choice. But in those times, they killed Monsignor Romero, it was really a bad situation, for everybody, especially for the people in the churches. Because he was our leader, for everything. If we saw people killing in the street we went to denounce this to him. Say “Monsignor, we found five people on the street”. We do this and this and that. They put it in, his office put it in the record, right? That was the way we worked. We had people like, in the city Tepecoyo, one of the very small village. They put gasoline everywhere and they fired them, with the people inside. And then the nuns and me, we went to take people, whoever we could catch them. One of the times, the nuns always use big, big dress, and I used uniform, long but uniform, khakis. And we crossed the fire. I don’t know how, we crossed the fire because we see a lady over there with the five children around, crying, crying, and the fire around. And then the nun says “Okay, let’s go.” We got it like this, and we crossed the fire. My worry is because the nuns wear big dress, and “Oh, my God, how do we cross the fire?” And we crossed over there and took the children and the mom, the mom, they almost dying. And I got two little ones. I got here and one here and I said, “OK!” and then wet just crossed and we crossed it again, we crossed the fire again. How? And those people, we put them in the places, in ‘seminario’, San José de la Montaña, where Monsignor Romero working. They made a big place for refugee people. People coming from different places, and we put them there. The nuns have a small Suzuki. There are not too many people, but we fit in. I don’t know how, we fit there in the Suzuki.  And there is no door. One of the two sides, there is no door.

On another day, we find two people in the street but they are not dead. They are almost dead, but not dead. One, no arm, they cut the arm. And the other one, there is not legs. Then, we were going to the mass, at 5:00 in the morning, more 6:00 in the morning when we saw them in the street and then the nun says “Sister, we are going to get up and we are going to try to help them.” But they’re still on life. And then we moved them, we put them in the car, men! And then we put them in the car, I don’t know how and we took them. And we need to pass two checkpoints. The nuns just put the things out and then we put the men under, almost under the car and I sit in there. When I crossed, when I passed the checkpoint, I’m sitting there just like, “Good morning.” I remember now and I say, “Oh, my gosh. How can we do that?” But we did it. And I crossed the two checkpoints. And then the poor guys without nothing, oh no, and I took them to the hospital in the road to San Salvador there is a hospital, San Rafael Hospital. And I put them, and after that, and then we take them to the seminary again, to stay there for refugees. We find food, whatever. I don’t know how we find it, but we find food, and blankets and everything, from the same community. And we try to do whatever we can do.

Oral history with Mario Avila, 09/28/2019

Oral history with Mario Avila, 09/28/2019


Marta Valier (MV): This is an interview with Mario Avila for the Tom and Ethel Bradley Center. This interview is being conducted by Marta Valier at the Centre Cultural. Today is September.

Mario Avila (MA):Centro Cultural Centroamericano.

MV: Centro Cultural Centroamericano. Septiembre.

MA: 28.

MV: 28, gracias.

MV: Cuándo y dónde naciste?

MA: Nací en la capital de Guatemala. Soy y hijo de una mujer de origen de la India, del Atlántico del país, y un hombre de origen español.

MV: Puede parece hablar un poco sobre tu vida familiar, infancia?

MA: Bueno, crecí en una familia de doce hijos, fue una infancia muy bonita. Mi padre trabajaba como maquinista, como ferrocarrilero, manejando el tren con la United Fruit Company. Trajo alrededor de 50 años con esa compañía. Teníamos una vida muy cómoda porque ganaba mi padre muy buen dinero. Somos una familia de los primeros maquinistas de los ferrocarriles de Guatemala. Su bisabuelo y su abuelo fueron maquinistas también. Entonces cada uno de nosotros tuvo la oportunidad de jugar. Así que en el aspecto material no habría ningún problema. Yo te hablo de mi historia, yo no tenía hambre, yo siempre, nos vistieron bien y todo, pero mi color. Yo voy a una escuela pagada, por que mi papá pagó una escuela y le pedí que me sacara de ahí, porque los muchachos, los varones me insultaban por mi color. Las niñas, no las niñas. Yo creo que les caía bien por mi color. Las niñas más sensibles, las niñas y jugaban conmigo y los muchachitos se enojaba. Yo le pedí favor a mi padre que me sacara de ahí, apenas tercer grado de primaria, alegó sácame de aquí. Y me sacó de la escuela esa porque, porque de niño yo no entendía qué es racismo.

Mi madre tenía varios hermanos, uno de ellos, el mayor, se llamaba Antonio Obando Sánchez, que fue un hombre mutualista. Le decían mutualista a los que se organizaban para defender sus derechos. Te estoy hablando de 1932-1940 por ahí, donde se juntaban, las luchas sociales nacen de los obreros y nacen de los estudiantes. Mi tío era un mutualista. Él era un carpintero ebanista. Él hacía muebles finos y en 1928, en 1929, viaja a la Unión Soviética con Miguelito Mármol y un sastre, también hondureño, y son los primeros hombres que regresan a América Central a fundar el Partido Comunista de Honduras, El Salvador y Guatemala. Ese era mi tío. Entonces, Jorge Ubico en 1930 era el dictador de Guatemala. Él asume una dictadura y meten preso a mi tío durante una dictadura de 14 años.

Hasta que en 1944 hay una revolución que le llamamos la Revolución de Octubre. Y entonces mi tío sale de la cárcel y se comienza a desarrollar un proyecto democrático en Guatemala a través de el doctor Juan José Arévalo, que estaba exiliado en Argentina y regresa a Guatemala. Gana la presidencia en 1944, y comienza una primavera que le llamamos nosotros, la Primavera Democrática, donde se comienzan a hacer cambios sociales fundamentales para el desarrollo del país, especialmente para los indígenas, que en aquel tiempo no tenían ninguna libertad, no podían entrar a la ciudad, tenían que tener un pase especial para entrar a la ciudad, no podían usar zapatos, tenían que usar sus sus pies descalzos o sus caites, que les decimos, no podían ir a la escuela, no podían votar, no podía hacer nada. Pasa los cuatro años de Arévalo, se funda las Escuelas Normales, y luego ganar la presidencia de Jacobo Árbenz Guzman, en 1950. Y sigue ese proyecto democrático. Se casa con una mujer salvadoreña rica del Salvador, El Salvador, María Vilanova, que ella incide mucho en el pensamiento de Jacobo Árbenz porque era una mujer progresista, muy liberal, verdad? Muy, muy, muy liberal en el sentido de justicia social, y acompaña a Jacobo Árbenz en ese pensamiento. Pero también se hace el artículo 900 durante Jacobo Árbenz, que es un artículo donde de una reforma agraria que se le entregan las tierras a los campesinos pobres, se recuperan todas las tierras ociosas de la United Fruit Company, y se nacionalizan los ferrocarriles que le pertenecían a United Fruit Company. Se nacionalizan los ferrocarriles y comienza un auge en Guatemala, de desarrollo dentro la ciudad y dentro del campo. La gente vivía tranquila, la gente estaba yendo a la escuela, aseaba. Se abren los primeros comedores populares en el país porque había hambre. Entonces se comienza a atender a la gente, las escuelas se hacen proyectos muy bonitos para aprender música, arte, ciencias. Hay un desarrollo dentro de la educación pública guatemalteca, pero hay intereses muy profundos de United Fruit Company en Guatemala. Los Dulles, los hermanos Dulles, uno que es director de la CIA y el otro que tenía negocios dentro United Fruit Company, comienzan a hacer una propaganda conspirativa y comienzan a enfocarse en Guatemala, planteando en el mundo, inclusive en las Naciones Unidas, que en Guatemala se estaba fomentando el comunismo y que la gente se le iban a quitar lo que tenía de propiedad. Decían que si un niño que lustraba botas, zapatos, se le iba a quitar su caja de zapatos porque era capitalista, ese niño. Es un pensamiento muy atrasado de los oligarcas y de los Etados Unidos tambien. Entonces comienzan a pasar en la televisión de los Estados Unidos toda esa propaganda y la transmiten al mundo, de que en Guatemala se estaba gestando un pensamiento comunista. Y no era cierto. Si había gente dentro del Partido Comunista del Gobierno, pero no tenían la fuerza para desarrollar todo ese potencial, era más que todo una revolución progresista que se estaba manifestando. Jacobo Árbenz no era comunista. Él era un joven que se hizo militar y que pertenecía, pertenecía a una familia rica del occidente del país de Quetzaltenango. Él es de origen suizo. Llegaron los suizos a Guatemala, y ahí nació él. Y luego tenía un pensamiento de justicia hacia el pueblo, verdad? El veía que era un país que se podía desarrollar. Guatemala tiene muchos recursos naturales. Han pasado muchos años y no se lo sacaban todavía. Entonces el la, la, la, la pequeña historia resumida de lo que fue ese proceso de 10 años de primavera democrática, hasta que.

MV: Quel año?

MA: Se termina el ’54. Yo tenía 11 años de edad cuando bombardearon.

MV: Te acuerdas?

MA: Si me recuerdo bien, mi mamá nos metió a la cama. Venían los aviones, esos que le decían los mosquitos o sulfatos, y estaban tirando balas calibre 50 sobre una base militar. Nosotros vivíamos como a unas seis cuadras de la base militar. Entonces comienza una etapa diferente para nosotros los niños. Y comenzamos a tener una vida distinta. Comenzamos a saber cuando vamos a la escuela, en las cunetas, en las orillas del camino, cadáveres de gente adulta muertas, comienzan a inspirar en el pueblo guatemalteco un sentido de terror. Uno es niño, ve un cadáver descompuesto a la orilla del camino cuando va a la escuela y se asusta. Te crean un trauma. Entonces comienza el drama para el pueblo guatemalteco. También comienza la represión a matar gente que aparece ahí y otros que no se sabe dónde quedaron. Entonces comienzan a instaurar una dictadura militar. Había un militar que era un coronel, Castillo Armas, que el lo escapan de la cárcel, y luego los Estados Unidos lo lo lo lo apoya y entonces creando una situación compleja de intervención, que no fue como mucha gente lo cuenta, porque la intervención en Guatemala se generó a través de la publicidad. Inclusive los militares de Guatemala estaban perdiendo la guerra. Pero la media decía que estaban ganando la guerra. En la embajada de Guatemala en la Avenida Reforma, tenían aparatos sónicos donde transmitían explosiones, sonidos de explosiones, de bombardeos y de aviones que bombardean, pero no eran bombardeando nada.

MV: Verdad?

MA: Si, era orrible. Si se habían habían aviones volando y unas que otras bombas, pero en la ciudad los bombardeos se escuchaban porque tenían aparatos sónicos, para asustar a la gente, que sí se estaba ganando la guerra a través de los, de los que ven de los contras del gobierno de armas. La gente se asusta. Sabes una cosa? Guatemala tenía dos millones y medio de habitantes en aquel tiempo, éramos un paisito chiquito, y en la capital pues éramos poquitos. Y entonces, con ese sistema de los aviones, con el apoyo de la media manipulando la noticia y luego los Estados Unidos utilizando su tecnología militar, se crea un caos, crea un pánico entre la población, entonces Árbenz renuncia para salvar al pueblo de una injusticia más grande. No asume su responsabilidad histórica de seguir, sino que entrega al poder, porque también Árbenz no era un revolucionario, Árbenz fue un agente democrática. Pongo una, haciendo un paréntesis, pongo un ejemplo. No es lo mismo que Salvador Allende, que Salvador Allende hasta las últimas consecuencias se muere combatiendo por su pueblo. Árbenz no, era un hombre bueno, era otra época, era otro espacio en el mundo, y entonces renuncia y se va al exilio. Y fue trágico para Guatemala, porque la represión fue fuerte. Era el gobierno de Guatemala ya tenía todo un complejo de inteligencia desde el tiempo de Ubico, de Jorge Ubico, donde crearon un pensamiento de denuncia hacia la población. Por ejemplo, tú tenías un negocio, una tienda, y mandaban agentes del gobierno: “Mire, señora, le vamos a pagar porque nos diga si ve algo, algo sospechoso en su comunidad,” entonces quedó en un pensamiento, como decimos, de orejas que escuchaban y la gente denunciaba, denunciaban de mujeres prostitutas, denunciaban homosexuales, denunciaban mutualistas y posteriormente, después de la intervención de los Estados Unidos, crece ese trabajo del ejército, de los oligarcas del país, que yo quiero hacer énfasis en eso. Que también que toda la desgracia del pueblo guatemalteco no es solo de los militares ni el gobierno de los Estados Unidos, sino hay unas familias que llegaron desde el tiempo los españoles, que tienen un pensamiento atrasado y quieren el progreso solo para ellos, no para el pueblo. Y los culpables verdaderos son los que han vendido al país, y son los oligarcas, los Arzú, las familias Aycinena, los Castillo Sinibaldi, son poquitas familias. Hay más, pero esos son los los principales que manejan el poder económico. Verdad? Entonces, después de eso, de la intervención de Estados Unidos y que se da a otro proceso en 1960. Hay un gobierno que era un general, el general Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes, así se llamaba eso, que tenía un pensamiento de fascista de Mussolini y de Hitler, y él creía mucho en Francisco Franco. Entonces este tipo somete al pueblo a una represión tremenda. Pero los militares jóvenes que habían crecido del 50, del 50 a los 60’s, sus padres los meten a estudiar a la Escuela Politécnica y se forman soldados con un pensamiento de justicia social. Entonces hay un alzamiento en 1960, el 13 de noviembre de 1960. Entonces se alzan unos jóvenes militares que dentro de ellos son son bastante importantes en la historia del país Turcios Lima, Alejandro de León y [Marco Antonio] Yon Sosa. Hubo otro de apellido Trejo, pero no me recuerdo el nombre [Luis Trejo Esquivel]. Entonces estos jóvenes se lanzan contra la dictadura de Ydígoras Fuentes y llaman al pueblo a rebelarse, pero fracasa esa esa sublevación del 13 de noviembre de 1960. Entonces tienen que huir porque traicionan otros militares de Zacapa, por ejemplo, y ellos traicionan a esos jóvenes militares y se tienen que ir a buscar el exilio en Nicaragua. Pero en Nicaragua Anastasio Somoza los saca porque era amigo de Ydígoras Fuentes, y compartía el pensamiento de Ydígoras. Tú sabes la historia de Somoza, entonces de ahí se van para Honduras, pero también lo sacan de Honduras, se van El Salvador y lo sacan también. Entonces se meten a Guatemala por Honduras y se meten por la parte nororiente del país. Rabinal y toda esa parte por la Sierra de las Minas por allá. Y entonces comienzan a formar un movimiento insurgente y captan a varios indígenas, uno de ellos muy relevante, Socorro Sical que se va con Turcios Lima y Yon Sosa, llama a su pueblo a rebelarse y se rebelan varios, varias gentes de indígenas mayas. La represión está fuerte. Entonces el pueblo comienza a reclamar y sale a las calles en pequeñas manifestaciones, hasta que en 1962 se llama al pueblo a la unidad, y se dan las luchas sociales de marzo y abril de 1962. Entonces, en esas luchas sociales de marzo y abril, pues nosotros los jóvenes en aquel tiempo, pues nos lanzamos a la calle a protestar. Entonces, con mis amigos, mis mejores amigos de la colonia, salimos a protestar. Oscar, un compañerito, que éramos muy amigos, se lo iba a comer a la casa, y salimos los dos y nos vamos, veinte y hagamos piedras y vamos. Allá hay una avenida que se llama la avenida Bolívar y comenzamos a enfrentar a los camisudos. Decían los camisudos la gente del oriente del país, gente blanca, racista contra los pueblos indígenas, campesinos pobres que no saben leer, ladinos pero con odio hacia los indígenas. Entonces comienzan a disparar. Venían todos vestidos de blanco y venían con armas M1 y comienzan a dispararle a la gente. Entonces salimos corriendo, nos cruzamos por una panadería y salimos corriendo con él en una avenida grande y están disparando. Estamos corriendo en zigzag, pero a él le meten un tiro en la cabeza y cae, mi amigo. Y entonces, cuando veo que cae y regreso y lo agarro de la cabeza y me deja la mano llena de sangre porque lo mataron, de un tiro en la cabeza. Entonces salgo corriendo y voy a llamar a su mamá. Y entonces la mamá gritando histérica. Y es mi primera experiencia de represión fuerte. Aunque tengo una familia que siempre estuvo en la mira del gobierno por mi tío y mi casa se hacían las reuniones y todo eso cuando era niño, de los insurgentes. Entonces es mi primera experiencia. Pierdo a mi mejor amigo, que jugamos fútbol, que vamos a la escuela y mi entra el coraje. Y entonces busco, cómo participar más dentro del movimiento para poder aportado a esa lucha, pues para sacar de la injusticia a nuestro país. Y de ahí, de 1962, hasta actualmente, la represión en Guatemala es horrible, horrible. A parte selectiva. Entonces comienzan a seleccionar la gente que piensa y comienza a ser perseguida la gente. Entonces en el 62 se hacen, se hacen conversaciones con los diferentes movimientos sociales, campesinos, sobreros y estudiantes, y se forman las, como una urgencia porque se han agotado todas las posibilidades de llegar a un acuerdo para caminar en paz. Entonces se forman las primeras fuerzas armadas rebeldes, las FAR, verdad en Guatemala. Movimiento Insurgente nace de ahí, de ese, de ese contexto histórico donde ya no hay nada que hacer, más que irse a la guerra. Entonces surge el movimiento de, que es primero 13 de noviembre y luego se juntan y se forman las FARC. Y entonces comienza la guerra y comienza también la represión. Muy fuerte, muy fuerte. Me veo a través del tiempo con jóvenes que estudié en la primaria metidos en la guerra y me decía “Y vos qué haces aquí?” “Pues lo que vos hacés, defendiendo al pueblo”. De niños estudiamos, y de grandes estamos metidos en la guerra, no tenemos otro camino. Hay persecución, pero de una manera grosera. En Guatemala tú caminadas por las alles del país y sentías ese, el miedo, el terror. Se podía tocar el terror. Podría decir yo. Se tú pasas por una calle oscura donde no hay nadie y la adrenalina de tu cuerpo siente ese pánico porque te pueden asaltar, te pueden matar. Pues en el día y a todas horas en Guatemala lo podías sentir porque el ejército de los Estados Unidos regaló al gobierno de Guatemala una gran gama de camionetas Toyota, jeeps y esos jeeps sirvieron para reprimir al pueblo. No tenían placas, algunos tenían placas de los Estados Unidos. Los hombres se iban armados, con metralletas Uzi de Israel. Estate en la lucha de los movimientos estudiantiles y obreros también.

MV: Come te organizaste?

MA: Bueno, yo fue que, yo estaba clandestino, pero había que organizar a los obreros, había que organizar a los estudiantes. Entonces me fui a trabajar como obrero a una fábrica de acero y entonces me afilié a una organización de la CNT, la Central Nacional de Trabajadores, para poder organizar sindicatos progresistas dentro de los trabajadores del metal, que posteriormente esa central fue desaparecida por el sistema porque secuestraron cantidad de obreros de esa central, el único que sobrevivió a esas centrales, Miguel Ángel Albizures, que vive actualmente en Guatemala, el se logra escapar del secuestro. Creo que eran 27 o 23, algo así. No me recuerdo ahorita la cantidad de trabajadores que estaban en una asamblea y los sacan de el gobierno, cierran las calle y con un jeep botan la puerta y sacan a todos. Trabajamos en eso mucho, con un compañero Felipe Antonio García Rac, un compañero Kaqchikel, Q’eqchí perdón compañero Q’eqchí que trabajaba él en una compañía, que hacían ollas de peltre, no se si conoces el peltre?

MV: Si.

MA: Entonoces, con el trabajamos mucho. Era un joven muy inteligente, maya, muy inteligente. Él mantenía su familia, su mamá y a sus hermanitos y aparte de eso, estaba organizado. Visitabamos mucho las fábricas con él para organizar a los obreros y estábamos metidos muy semi clandestinos para poder salvar la vida. Y él en 1980, el 31 de enero de 1980, muere quemado en la embajada de España. El queda quemado en la embajada de España. Yo iba a entrar a la embajada, pero ya no entro, sino que entra él. Entonces me toca hacer otras cosas y me avisan “Mira, ya no vas a poder entrar ahí.”

El trabajo en las montañas es otra cosa, es más complejo. Estuvieron un rato en la montaña.

MV: Cuando?

MA: Estuve después de los 80s. Antes, iba y salía, iba y salía hacia el trabajo, también con los campesinos. Iba y me metía y salía. Está organizado, pero ya después de la quema la embajada de España me fui a la montaña. Y ahí me quedé un tiempo.

MV: Puede describir tu viaje en la montaña?

MA: Mira, fue, hay varias cosas. Me tocó pasar por lugares, alguien me dijo, no te puedo decir su nombre, una compañera muy linda que nos conocimos hace muchos años, era una compañera, comandante, del movimiento insurgente. Me dice “Mira, sabes que vas a pagar por lugares donde vas a ver lo que pasa contra los pueblos mayas.” Y si pasamos lugares de donde estaban colgados cadáveres, aldeas quemadas, bosques quemados con napalm y el napalm, no, en Guatemala no se produce, se produce en Estados Unidos el napalm, lo usaron en la guerra de Vietnam. Entonces el bosque era hermoso. Pero lo mataron. La gente era bella también, pero también la mataron. Entonces la relación con los campesinos de la montaña fue una relación muy bella, porque fue una lucha para crear una Guatemala diferente. Dentro de todas las fallas que tuvimos y todo, creo que fue uno de los mejores esfuerzos que hizo el pueblo guatemalteco. Para construir una Guatemala mejor. Lo que pasa es que luchamos contra un monstruo, que el monstruo no estaba solo. Habían otros monstruos que también los ayudaron a mantenerse y ahí están en el poder ahora. Pero si, mi experiencia con la gente maya fue una experiencia casi de hermanos, compartiendo la lucha, sufriendo lo mismo, luchando por lo mismo. Y bueno, fue una experiencia muy bien. Luego de ahí salió enfermo, salí, salí muy enfermo, me dio un paludismo al hígado, una malaria al hígado y salí. Yo salí pesando de noventa y tres libras de esa montaña. Era un cadáver, verdad? Salí de ahí y posteriormente a eso me ubiqué en México, o me ubicaron en México haciendo trabajo internacional.

MV: En las montañas, puedes describir un día típico?

MA: Un día cualquiera?

MV: Sí.

MA: Bueno, hubieron varios días, pero un día bien, bien, importante. Y yo pasábamos por diferentes lugares. Yo siempre cargaba mi mochila, cargaba penicilina, cargaba diferentes antibióticos, cargaba material para hacer pequeñas suturas y. Cargaba una pinza para sacar dientes también, aprendí a sacar muelas y dientes. Entonces, cuando pasábamos por ahí sólo saludábamos a la gente rápido, nos poníamos a practicar un ratito y no se. Pero en esa ocasión, alguien me dijo que estaba enferma una señora, que había dado a luz a un niño. Eran refugiados en la selva, que habían tenido que salir de su aldea. Y habían improvisado pequeños champas, pequeñas casitas de hojarascas. Entonces, la fui a ver y estaba su esposo. Estaba un niño y el niño recién nacido, y tenía fiebre, mucha fiebre y sus senos eran inflamados. Entonces me pidieron qué pueden hacer. Entonces le dije al esposo “Consigue un huacale”. Un huacale decimos en Guatemala un recipiente. Hay unas frutas que se llaman morros, que se parten y hacen huacale, tecomates. Entonces tenían varios tecomates y me trajeron dos tecomates y acortados y les dije: “Lo que voy a hacer les va a doler, pero le voy a hacer una pequeña sutura en los senos para sacarle la materia.” Entonces busqué donde no hubieran venas y salió cantidad de materia. Se llenaron como tres, tres recipientes de pus. Le decimos otra materia de infección y no hubo necesidad de coser nada y entonces le inyecte penicilina. Le dejé una jeringa al compañero de él. Le dije mira, si se pone. Le expliqué, le pedí una fruta por ahí sacó una papa y le dije “Así se injecta mira” y le enseñé. No me puedo quedar aquí.

MV: Donde tú aprendiste?

MA: Yo?

MV: Si.

MA: Pasé unos cursos sobre medicina, pasé un curso sobre medicina, este, cómo te dijera yo? Es sea medicina de guerra. Es verdad. La cuestión médica, uf, heridos de guerra, hongos en los pies, muchos hongos porqué se usaban botas de hule. Entonces, muchas infecciones que había que curar, verdad, con pocos elementos, pero ahí andabas. Entonces, ya después de ahí, salvo para hacer un trabajo en la parte de México, me ubico primero, en el lugar que se llama Comitán de las Flores. Allá hago un trabajo con otra compañera, para para poder apoyar a la gente que salía de la guerra herida. Es un trabajo con médicos de México y sacamos heridos de la guerra, para llevarlos y que los curaban. En México y un hospital en el hospital de Comitán de Las Flores. Ahí había unos médicos muy lindos, muy buenos, que nos apoyaron mucho en eso, y aparte de eso, teníamos muchos niños que habían salido huyendo. En el 83 y medio por ahí, el gobierno mexicano nos persigue adentro de México también. Y hace todo un reconocimiento de San Cristóbal de las Casas y de Comitán de las Flores y toda la frontera para ubicar la gente guatemalteca que está desarrollando un trabajo con los insurgentes. Y entonces nos matan varios compañeros, nos secuestran varios compañeros el Ejército Mexicano y los desaparecen. Nunca más apareció. Algunos los entregaron al ejército guatemalteco. El Ejército Mexicano. Entonces los persiguieron, pero afortunadamente habíamos creado toda una experiencia logística para poder evadir la persecución. Entonces yo soy el último de los guatemaltecos que hacemos ese trabajo que sale de ese sector, para el D.F. [Mexico City]. Y el último.

Oral history with Carlos Ixquiac

Oral history with Carlos Ixquiac


Marta Valier (MV): Today is November 15. We are at the Bradley Center, this is an oral history interview, with Carlos Ixquiac.

Carlos Ixquiac (CI): I was born in 1949 in Guatemala, my origins is from the Mayan roots, K’iche’ and Q’eqchi’. K’iche’ from the part of my dad, he was born in Quetzaltenango and my mom from Cobán, she is Mam. Unfortunately, although now I’m very proud of my origin, which is Mayan, I do not speak any other languages, you know, like Mam or K’iche’. First of all, my parents could not speak to each other. They could not understand, those are different you know languages and they couldn’t practice at home. And I wasn’t interested either in learning how to speak other languages, because of the discrimination in Guatemala, which is very cruel. In Guatemala it is said that the Indians are looked upon as animals, like dogs, like the worst part of the human being. So you don’t want to be called that and that hurts, and so you don’t, you don’t even want to have anything to do with your your origins. And so you deny, you know, where you come from. But I grew up in the city. My parents emigrated to the city very young and they marry in Guatemala and this is where I was born, and I grew up with what I said, what I called the Ladino culture. Because, you know, most of the people in the city are Ladinos. The Cashlan, we call the Ladinos. And so you absorb all the culture, all that racism even, you know, we are being discriminated. Then we discriminate against our own brothers and sisters. So I went to elementary school in Guatemala. And I grew up in la Colonia Bethania, Zona 7. It is a small town that was separated from the main city, but, you know, very close. So I I went to the elementary school and then later on I went to the secondary school, which was the Escuela Normal Central para Varones. That was one of the main schools in Guatemala for men, there was no no girls there. My parents were very poor. And they made the effort to send me to that school, which was public by the way. And even then, you know, it was very expensive for my parents because they were making small, small amounts of money and barely making it in the city.

MV: What were they doing in the city?

CI: Oh, yes. My father worked in a factory, sombreros factory, and my mom, she used to cook food and sell it to construction sites or individuals or families. You know, what they were earning was so little that, you know, we had a hard time at that time. So I had three sisters and one brother and I was the oldest. And, you know, we’re really struggling to survive over there with our little bit of money to buy food. And although, you know, it was in the city, which is even better situation than in the rural area, because in the rural area it was even worst. But nevertheless, my parents tried to do their best. And and they tried to support me going to the Escuela Normal Central para Varones. And the first year, I really didn’t make it because it was the transition from elementary school to secondary school, which was a different system and I couldn’t accommodate to it and I lost that year. And the second year, in the middle of the year I think, it was militarized. One day we went to, I went to school and it was surrounded with soldiers and tanks. And and they were taking some of the students away because at that time there was some organizations in the school that were participating in manifestations against some of the policies of the government and this is when I first started seeing the repression, you know, from the part of the government. The leaders were taken away and put in jails and being torturing and all this stuff. So I couldn’t come back to school anymore. We all were very afraid of it.

MV: When was this? What year, what month, do you remember?

CI: Yeah, in the year 1962.

MV: ’62?

CI:Yes, this is when actually the repression started, the military repression against the students and against the people who were organized in Guatemala. It was in the middle of the year, let’s say September of something like that. You know my memories really bad in that sense. Maybe, you know, sometimes I ask myself, you know, maybe I just try to forget, you know, that moments that really hurt. You know, this part of our brain that tries to forget what hurts.

MV: You talked about the militarization of the school, was it an isolated event, just that day?

CI: No, it wasn’t just an event, it was the part of the, let’s say, militarization of the society at the time and the repression. At that time there were many manifestations against the government because of their policies and because the government was a military government, and the people didn’t want military governments but civil governments. So the the struggle started with the students, you know, in that in that era, in those years, the main manifestations were made by the, by the that kind of schools where I was going to, you know, not the universities and not the lowest schools, but that middle you know, the preparatory schools. So this work, so the government started a systematic repression against all the manifestations in all the schools. So they decided to militarize all those schools to keep control of the students. And from there on, for many years, all the schools were militarized. You know, we had to wear uniforms as we were soldiers or part of the military. So it wasn’t an isolated incident for this school. It was part of a system that was implemented. You know, from from that time to many years later.

MV: Some people decided to stay in school and some people decided to leave?

CI: Yeah. Many, many students had to leave because, you know, they first of all, they didn’t like the militarization, you know. And secondly, they were, they were not allowed to study because of their involvement. And a lot of them were taken away. Also thrown in jail and all that kind of repression at that time. So a lot of students, you know, had to go, they couldn’t come back to school or they didn’t, like in my case, you know, they decided not to be in a military school. So we had to go someplace else. In my case, I had to go to a private school, which I had to pay for. But I had no other choice. I had to leave that kind of school during the daytime and had to work during the daytime. And I went to private school in the night. I had to pay for my own studies, trying to study and help my parents at the same time. So it was pretty hard for me. And it’s, I mean, I went on like that for many years, I became an accountant. Right after I graduated from accounting I saw a lot of my friends, the ones there were around me, that were once where we were studying together and all that stuff, they were coming to the US. And we used to criticize them because we used to call them losers, because you cannot make it over here in Guatemala and you are selling out to the U.S. But after a bunch of them left, I started feeling the need that I needed to follow them, and I came over here. I mean, it was an ordeal to come over here, you know, because I had no papers, I didn’t have a visa. I had to walk through the mountains. I was caught many times by the Immigration Department, thrown back to Guatemala. And by the way, my mom had to get a loan to cover all those expenses. And finally I made it, I crossed the border.

MV: Two borders?

CI: At that time the first border was in Texas. This is where I first came.

MV: But between Guatemala and Mexico?

CI: Oh, no, no. There was, you know,  going through Mexico wasn’t too bad at that time, although the authorities in Mexico, you know, the Immigration Department’s agents knew there were a lot of people from Guatemala coming through, and they used to take our money away or they would throw us in jail or they would take us back to Guatemala and other stuff, so we had to suffer that too. Until we got to the border of the US and Mexico and we tried to jump, you know, the border.

MV: You say “we”, was it like a group?

CI: Yes. Yes. We got together with some friends that well, the first time that I tried was because one of our friends had gone back to Guatemala in a car, and when he was coming back to the US, he said, well, “I can take you somewhere, you guys. And we just jump in there,” we organized and we came with him. And he said, “Oh, you know what? It is so easy to go, you know, to jump the border. I just drop you off next to the border. You walk, and turn around and go around the checking point. And I go, park just about a mile ahead and I’ll pick you up.” And we said, “Oh, it is so easy? Yes let’s go” And he was going to Chicago, that’s where we were heading. You know, I didn’t know anything about the US. And that never happened, we could never find him on the highway, he took off, I guess he was waiting for us. We found out later that he waited for us for a long time. You know, we never showed up. Well, we didn’t know, you know, which way to go. So we got lost in the mountains and he took off. We were caught by the immigration, thrown back.

MV: Because you got lost when you were already in the US?

CI: In the U.S., yes.

MV: In Texas you said?

CI: Yes, in Texas. So we were caught, and sent back to Guatemala. And I said, well, you know, I’m not gonna just stay like that. I’ve gathered some more money over here and I went back. I tried many times, I was caught many times. At that time I kept trying and kept trying until I finally made it, made it to San Antonio, in Texas, worked for some time.

MV: Do you remember when you arrived in San Antonio?

CI: It was in 1972. I was only around 22 years old, was very young. So I’ve been in the US for more than half of my life.

MV: Can you, can you drive us through one of the trip? How would you travel, would you travel few days and then stop and work little bit?

CI: Well, there is a whole history that I can tell you about and it would take hours because there were so much suffering, you know, walking. Just to cross the border I walked more than, I think, a week, that my feet got so bad that I couldn’t walk anymore. They were they were bleeding. I had to stay in bed for about a week because we. When I said we, I found a Mexican friend, that we crossed together. And we found a place where, they call them ‘sombradíos’, where they grow up they grow ‘sandías’, you know watermelons. And they contract people and they set up a house in the middle of the field. And a lot of workers from Mexico come to do the work and they stay there and then they go back to Mexico and other stuff. So there, that’s where my friend took me and I had to stay in bed for about a week, I couldn’t even walk. And I’m very thankful to some of those Mexican people that, you know, they helped me a lot. So it was it was really, really bad until I got well. And we started moving from one town to another, more to the north and in stages. And until, you know, we got to a main, to a bigger city, like San Antonio. Then I knew how to fix cars, and in a big city I could find a better job. Actually we didn’t, I didn’t know where I was going. I had no, no, a really special city or, you know, we just wanted to make it to one bigger city where we could find work send some money to our families. That was my, our main goal. And until we, you know, like I said, in my case I got to Dallas, Texas, and there I started working on construction and getting better paid, you know. Then I think it was by the hour, which was to me a lot of money, I could send, I could help my family. And then, after two years of working in Texas, I came to California. After I settle in in L.A., in California, I tried to help, you know, bring my my family over here. So I started, I started, you know, first I brought my my dad. He didn’t like it.

MV: Really?

CI: He went back right away. He said, “I don’t know like it, I can’t make it over here.” So he went back. And then later, I brought my sister, my brothers, and later my mom. And so my close family, all my close family is here, gladly, because I was very concerned about them, you know, what they were doing and all that stuff, and even my mom, who is now 96 is here.

MV: What about today?

CI: If I talk to you about the situation in Guatemala, we are going back to those years in the 1980s, you know when the repression was so bad in Guatemala, because the things in Guatemala are getting really, really bad with the last government, which we call a clown, who was just a puppet from the military and the oligarchy in Guatemala. You know, the people with big money. They dictate what’s happening in Guatemala. So things are getting even worse in Guatemala. Nowadays Guatemala is recognized as one of the countries where malnutrition of the kids are really bad, it is one of the worst countries where kids are dying of malnutrition. And in the case of Guatemala right now, all the people who are defending their right for the water, for the land, you know, fighting for the respect of human rights and organizing in and what they want are being repressed, are being killed. So a lot of the people, the leaders, are being disappeared or tortured or killed right now. In fact we are, in Guatemala was selected a new government, Giammattei, which is giving even more freedom, freedom to the military and more power. So we are afraid that we will be facing this next four years to be really, really bad, will be a real struggle to survive in Guatemala, mainly for the leaders who are fighting for a better situation in Guatemala. And that’s what I’m afraid of, you know, we’re going have to keep on organizing over here, and receiving and trying to help the people that are really fearing for their life and leaving the country. And also while keep  informing, you know, the North American public of what’s going on in Guatemala, really. And try to somehow change the foreign policy of the U.S., that is helping and supporting that kind of government in Guatemala. We just keep on struggling, and keep on helping, keep on working.

MV: You were just in Guatemala, where did you go, in which cities did you go?

CI: You know, I still have family in Guatemala. And so, every chance that I go, I go visit them, although they’re like, you know, not so close. You know, no sisters or brothers like because like I said I have all my close family over here, but I have aunts, and nephews, and nieces. And I go to Cobán, Quetzaltenando, Antigua, San Felipe, that’s where I have, you know, most of my family.

MV: So now that you went back, is that the impression you had, that the people, especially the people that maybe went through already a lot of repression, they fear there is a rise again?

CI: Oh, yes, yes, yes. Most of the people, that’s what they say. Well, you know, now you see the military on the streets and you hadn’t seen that, you know, for many years. And now they’re going back, you know, and then when, you know, you see the military on the streets, you know, it means repression. You know, you cannot talk, you cannot organize. You cannot do anything. And that’s why the people are fearing and are seen already, you know, because like I said, some of the leaders that are speaking up against the government, against their policies are being killed. And those men are mainly in the rural areas. So people are really scared now of the repression getting more strong with this new government, and with the military with more power.

Oral history with Aracely Garrido – 10/04/2019


Marta Valier (MV): This is an interview with Aracely Garrido for the Tom & Ethel Bradley Center, the interview is being conducted by Marta Valier at the Bradley Center on October 4th.

Aracely Garrido (AG): Mira, a partir de los años setenta en Guatemala hubo un nuevo auge de la lucha, de la lucha popular en Guatemala. Ya había habido en la década anterior una represión muy grande, muchos muertos, muchos desaparecidos. Yo sólo eso lo sé por referencia, porque yo era niña. No sé realmente cómo fue en esa época, pero en los 70 yo ya era finales de los 70 y yo era adolescente. Y empezó todo ese auge de que la gente, el todos los llamados a que la población de nuevo se organizara, verdad? En las escuela yo estudié en una escuela pública, es la Escuela Nacional de Ciencias Comerciales, Comercio es más conocido como Comercio que la Escuela Central. Y y esa escuela siempre tuvo una tradición de lucha, me entiendes? Si había problemas porque un maestro no llegaba a impartir sus clases, un director era muy autoritario o qué se yo, que faltaban escritorios. En Comercio siempre hubo esa tradición de organización y de lucha en esa escuela. Entonces, cuando yo ya era adolescente y estudiaba ahí, fue como heredar también toda una tradición de participación. Y pues ahí formamos un primer grupo que tenía un nombre larguísimo. Se llamaba CODDEPCOM qué quiere decir Comisión de Defensa de los Derechos Estudiantiles y Populares. Era un nombre muy largo este. Y sacábamos un periódico que se llamaba Ah Puchis, esa expresión en Guatemala es como, como dirían en México, qué te pasa? O algo parecido? Es como una expresión muy informal, pero así se llama nuestro periódico y teníamos un grupo de teatro también. Coincidió mi que yo me empecé a vincular con otros estudiantes en todo ese grupos, posterior a que hubo en Guatemala un terremoto en 1976. Y la gente, la gente que rentaba a vez un pequeño cuarto, un lugar donde vivían las familias trabajadoras de la capital. Muchísima gente se quedó sin donde vivir, mucha, mucha gente, y porque las casas se derrumbaron. Entonces la gente lo que hizo fue ocupar parte de barrancos alrededor de la capital o terrenos que estaban vacíos y la gente hacía sus casitas con pedazos de cartón de nailon, con lo que fueran, viviendo en unas condiciones realmente terribles, sin agua, sin servicios sanitarios. En fin, una situación muy complicada. Entonces, uno de los primeros lugares adonde como grupo de teatro llegamos fue a hacer teatro en esa con esos pobladores de esas comunidades, y de ahí surgieron de esos asentamientos era el nombre que le damos en Guatemala, de ahí mismo, de las familias, surgieron líderes que fueron organizando a la misma, a la misma población que estaba en los asentamientos y mucha gente logró que les dieran los terrenos que habían ocupado, que se vendieran y de ahí a construir poco a poco sus casas ya más formalmente, verdad?

AG: La lucha siguió en Guatemala y posteriormente también uno de los sectores que más creció fue el sector campesino. Hasta la fecha existe en Guatemala el Comité de Unidad Campesina, CUC, que nació ahí en la lucha. No recuerdo ahora, pero ellos acaban de celebrar también su aniversario. A ver, yo pienso que ellos salieron a luz, ya como organización que salió a la luz pública fue en 1978 y poquito tiempo después, el primero de mayo del ‘78, es cuando también sale a luz el Frente Estudiantil Revolucionario Robin García, que era el nombre del movimiento estudiantil de nuestra organización. Y el CUC logró alcanzar organización en muchos departamentos de Guatemala, verdad, en la costa, por ejemplo en la costa sur de Guatemala, ahí es donde están las tierras más ricas, más fértiles. Además de que es una buena tierra, el clima es cálido, hay mucha humedad. Entonces las plantaciones allí son abundantes. Se da, se da mucho. En esa época me recuerdo que el algodón era uno de los principales cultivos. Entonces, los que llegaban a recoger, por ejemplo, la cosecha de algodón o a cortar caña, también la caña de azúcar, ahí hay muchas plantaciones de caña de azúcar, eran los indígenas mayas que venían del altiplano de Guatemala, del de los departamentos que son mayoritariamente indígenas mayas de nuestro país. Entonces a la gente la transportaban en camiones desde desde las comunidades, desde el Quiché, Huehuetenango, Alta Verapaz. Los transportaban en camiones a familias enteras. Pero cuando digo camiones no son los camiones de México, no son los buses, no, eran los los vehículos donde transportan la carga, donde igual transportan ganado, madera o granos. Ahí ponían a la gente en ese tipo de camiones y la gente venía casi muriéndose, pero los trasladaban de las comunidades hasta la costa, al levantar las cosechas de los finqueros. Y vivía una situación terrible por todo ese tiempo, porque también en las fincas no les daban un lugar donde vivir, hacían como galera. Le decimos en Guatemala que solo era eran techos grandes, sin paredes. Y este pedacito a lo mejor un par de metros cuadrados es para esta familia y este otro metro es para el fulano y este otros dos metros cuadrados. Donde la gente vivía ahí en la costa, donde hay tanto, bueno, digo no solo el clima, sino muchos animales, zancudos, chaquiste. Y a la gente le costaba mucho, porque vivían de que venían de climas fríos a un lugar tan caliente, a enfrentarse a una situación, ya de por sí es difícil vivir en esas condiciones ahí por la humedad, los animales, el calor. Pero la gente llegaba, casi lo único que tenía era un techo y entonces las familias completas llegaban a trabajar. Son los, que le llamamos en Guatemala, los trabajadores temporales, porque sólo bajaban el tiempo a la cosecha pare otra vez a sus, a sus lugares, a sus pueblos, en el altiplano. Pero el CUC, como organización campesina, ahí encontró muchísima tierra fértil, porque mucha gente se organizó, muchísima, muchísima gente, o se organizaban en la costa y subían con las ideas de organización al altiplano, o se organizaban en el altiplano y ya venían con ideas de organización a la costa. Entonces fue algo en un tiempo muy, muy rico, de mucha lucha, verdad? El CUC, su planteamiento era la lucha porque, por lo menos salario mínimo les pagaban, verdad? Porque les pagaban, no recuerdo ahora, pero era una cantidad, no te alcanzaba más que para comprar una libra de frijol o una libra de azúcar. La gente pasaba mucha hambre y morían muchos porque sabes que yo siempre relato eso, porque era, era, era duro, en las plantaciones de algodón la gente estaba cortando el algodón, llevaban una bolsa aquí enfrente de otro, le decimos costal y ahí iban echando el algodón que cortaba. Pero la gente para apurarse cuando se agarran la copita, el copo de algodón viene con basura y los finqueros no querían que el algodón fuera con basura. Lo querían casi limpio. Entonces la gente por apurarse usaba una mano y con la boca quitaban la basura, echaba el algodón y la otra mano ya venía y quitaba y usaban las dos manos para cortar el algodón y la boca para quitar la basura. Pero muchas veces la gente estaba trabajando y las avionetas de los finqueros pasaban fumigando y los químicos que usaban los plaguicidas, bueno, cosas que ahora están tan prohibidas, verdad? Por todos los efectos que causan, yo me recuerdo yo vi muchas personas y llegar intoxicados, casi muriéndose a que les pusieran una inyección por el envenenamiento. Y era horrible. Realmente de verdad las condiciones de ese tiempo. Hay muchas cosas malas todavía no estoy diciendo que ahora esté mejor, sino que estoy relatando en ese tiempo como yo con mis ojos de niña miraba eso verdad? Pero bueno, el creció, creció muchísimo el Comité de Unidad Campesina, CUC. Hay hay una huelga de los trabajadores de la costa de 1980, hay fotografías todavía incluso de eso, pero eran miles y miles y miles de trabajadores que abandonaban las fincas con su machete en alto, caminando por las carreteras, exigiendo que les pagaran el salario mínimo y que les dieran otras condiciones de trabajo, donde llegar a dormir, a vivir, a comer.

MV: What was the answer?

AG Mira, en ese tiempo si, logró a la organización campesina, sí logró, que mejoraran el salario mínimo, si se lograron, por lo menos eso que era lo básico, verdad? La reivindicación por el salario mínimo si lo logran, pero la gente tuvo que luchar muchísimo. Cerraban carreteras, dejaban vacías las fincas y la cosa, por ejemplo, no se la, pues los dos, las plantaciones de algodón en la caña tienen un momento en que hay que cortarlo. Y si no se corta en ese momento se pasa. Y esa era la presión a los finqueros, verdad? O nos pagan o no trabajamos y pierden sus sus cosechas, sus plantaciones, verdad? Y sólo así se lograba, porque ese ha sido una algo continuo en Guatemala. De veras, en Guatemala no hay espacio para el diálogo, para negociaciones, o si te dicen si de parte de la burguesía dicen vamos a dialogar, es un engaño, te ponen la mesa, llegan representantes, hablan. Pero cuesta tanto abordar este, llegar a acuerdos. Y luego, cuando se toman acuerdos, no se cumplen? Entonces, para qué? Es un engaño, casi que solo hacen como entretener a los trabajadores, a la gente y hacer perder el tiempo, verdad? En Guatemala las reivindicaciones se han logrado a fuerza de movilización, de protesta, de huelgas, de tomas de fábricas, de fincas, de carretelas. Esa es la realidad.

AG: Mira, hay un hecho que es muy impactante, lo que llamamos la masacre de la embajada de España. Te cuento brevemente. A finales de los 70’s ya el 77-78 ya la lucha estaba muy fuerte en Guatemala. Ya había muchísima gente organizada. Por ejemplo, en 1978 [was actually in 1977] salió una marcha de unos mineros, los mineros de Ixtahuacán, así se conoce, que es una mina que estaba en Huehuetenango, que es un departamento al noroccidente de Guatemala y el grupo de mineros demandando igual mejores salariales y mejores condiciones de trabajo. Se vino caminando, desde la mina en Ixtahuacán, hasta la capital. Pero en el transcurso, te estoy hablando de cientos de kilómetros de caminata, fueron varios días de caminata, pero en el transcurso de la marcha desde Huehuetenango a la capital, la gente se movilizó. Ya había gente organizada o que de manera espontánea, pero muchísima gente alían las carreteras a darles comida, de darles agua, fruta, animarlos, les aplaudían cuando pasaban. En fin, y al final, cuando llega la marcha a la capital, eran miles y miles y miles de personas acompañando a los mineros, hasta llegar en frente del Palacio Nacional, verdad? Ese tipo de cosas asustaron al gobierno, porque era una demostración, entiendes? Que era una gran demostración, de fuerza, de organización. Pero además habían mensajes. Por ejemplo, las marchas las organizábamos, iban en filas de tres. O sea, tú veías en las calles y no ibas a que la gente amontonado. No, era organizado, era ordenado. Iban en fila, tres filas, tres filas de gente y llevando las pancartas, las mantas, las consignas y equipos de sonido, en fin. Y eso da una muestra de mucha organización, porque no es el ir como un grupo de amigos. No. Era organización, pero eso debió haber asustaba mucho también al gobierno, verdad? Que algo muy fuerte estaba creciendo en Guatemala. Pero posteriormente de esa, de esa gran marcha de los mineros de Ixtahuacán que fue algo histórico, después este, se vino el caso de la masacre en la Embajada de España, porque en esos años que fue la marcha de los mineros de Ixtahuacán, también en el Quiché, también en El Quiché, en en Chajul, Nebaj, Cotzal que son y son municipios también muy especiales, son municipios donde la gente ha sido guerrera realmente, ahí es población Ixil, Maya y Ixil, y esa población era de los grupos gente que bajaban a la costa a levantar las cosechas, que ya venían con idea de organización. Pero el Ejército, seguramente los servicios de inteligencia, empezaron a señalarlos, a sospechar de ellos y empezaron a patrullar las comunidades, y habían secuestros, violaciones, robo de alimentos a la población y la población lo denunciaba, y nada, no pasaba nada, no los escuchaban, ni siquiera circulaban sus denuncias. Finalmente, a finales de 1979, ya de manera coordinada, se decide que un grupo de campesinos de esas comunidades bajen a la capital a hacer la denuncia. Y es ahí donde estudiantes del FER. Y es ahí donde, cuando los campesinos bajan, un grupo de campesinos bajan a la capital, mucho del trabajo de coordinación lo hizo estudiantes del FER, yo en ese movimiento ya no, ya no participé, pero amigos míos estuvieron ahí y acompañándo no? Porque los campesinos venían tantos que tuvieron que llegar y se ocupó un edificio de la Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala para darles alojamiento. Entonces era toda la tarea de alojamiento, de vigilancia, de buscar alimentos para los campesinos. Se hicieron muchas acciones de denuncia, no ir a los periódicos, a los noticieros, a tratar de hablar en la Iglesia Católica, tratar de hablar con diputados en el Congreso de Guatemala, y adonde fueron se cerraron las puertas. Nadie quería recibirlos, nadie quería escucharlos. Los periódicos no querían publicar nada de sus denuncias. Entonces, finalmente, bueno, se deciden no? Porque ante una situación de represión allá en las comunidades, qué se iba a hacer? Sí, todas las puertas se cerraban. Finalmente, finalmente hacen un plan para tomar una embajada y la embajada que se seleccionó fue a la Embajada de España, y ahí el objetivo era llamar la atención sobre la denuncia que se estaba haciendo de lo que pasaba ya en en las comunidades, la represión del Ejército. Pero en ese tiempo el presidente era Lucas García, un militar que fue terrible realmente para el país. El ministro de Gobernación era Donaldo Álvarez Ruiz, que por cierto, hay mucho rumor de que el señor, aún con orden de búsqueda y captura a nivel internacional, sigue escondido aquí en Estados Unidos. Él era el ministro de Gobernación en esa época y también estaba Pedro García Arredondo, que era jefe de un cuerpo especializado de la Policía, que era el comando 6. Y lo que se sabe, porque un testigo desde dentro del Palacio de Gobierno que escuchó la orden de Lucas García a Donaldo Álvarez de que había que sacar a la gente de ahí a como diera lugar. Y la misma orden transmite el ministro de Gobernación a Pedro García Arredondo, que era el jefe del commando 6. Y con esos órdenes de saquen los a como dé lugar, llegaron, rompieron ventanas y le pegaron fuego a la embajada con todo las personas adentro, pues ahí murieron los campesinos, todos los campesinos que habían llegado a la ocupación de la embajada ahí murieron. Murieron cuatro estudiantes, también miembros del FER. Murió también un dirigente sindical, un dirigente del movimiento de pobladores. Todos los empleados de la embajada murieron ahí. Hasta el primer secretario de la embajada murió. El único que logró sobrevivir era el embajador en ese momento, Máximo Cajal, que salió con quemaduras pero logró salir vivo, y un campesino que quedó debajo de los cuerpos calcinados de los demás ocupantes y a él se lo llevaron vivo. Posteriormente y igual lo secuestraron del hospital donde lo estaban atendiendo, lo torturan con ese grado de quemaduras que él tenía. Lo torturan y como en los dos días van a tirar el cadáver en los patios de la universidad. Hasta la fecha ahí está encerrado, enterrado, Gregorio Yujá, que era un campesino, me parece que él era de Uspantán, en el Quiché, y ahí sigue. Ahí está enterrado. Ahí está su tumba, quizá una placa que comencé conmemora cada año. Pero, de ese tipo de cosas, eso fue tan sangriento, tan espantoso. Que ya muchos de nosotros, de los estudiantes de la capital mestizos, que hacemos? Que había que seguir metieras, porque yo pienso que parte, eso es la política de terror, de aterrorizar a la población, en todos los sectores. Era paralizarnos, pero para muchos fue la reacción contraria, tomar decisiones más radicales y mucho nos fuimos a las comunidades indígenas. Ya había todo ese contacto, te digo, por esa misma coordinación entre sectores ya había de todo esa comunicación con campesinos, con con gente de las comunidades más lejanas. Si finalmente se así fui como a parar en el Quiché, ahí viví muchos años, antes de salir como refugiada en Mexico.

MV: En el Quiché, when did you go?

AG: Yo me fui para el Quiché en 1981. Y ahí fue tremendo también toda esa vida fue algo muy, muy fuerte, pero muy, muy formativo también, este algo que no menciones, que en las organizaciones sabes que ya se empezaba a hacer mucho trabajo de formación política, de estudio. Leíamos, discutíamos y íbamos aprendiendo. Y entonces, por ejemplo, un tema como es la discriminación en Guatemala, el racismo y la discriminación, que hasta la fecha es tan fuerte. Ese era un motivo de, fue una de las causas de la guerra finalmente, en Guatemala. Y y los estudiantes de la capital ya íbamos con esas ideas, sin conocer mucho, me entiendes? Porque el mundo indígena era algo como muy, pues si conocíamos a los campesinos que veníamos, pero nos conocíamos en la lucha por los salarios, en las huelgas y eso. Pero su cultura no era algo a lo que fácilmente pudiéramos tener mucho acceso, no? Pero ya íbamos con ideas, ya que íbamos con ideas y pues muchos de nosotros cuando llegamos fue a incorporarnos plenamente en las comunidades y a conocer, a conocer su vida, aprender algunas palabras. Yo me arrepiento tanto porque no aprendí. Estuve tanto tiempo entre Ixils, entre K’ichés, y sé palabras de los dos idiomas, pero no lo ningúna. No aprendí, me hubiera encantado tanto de verdad este aprender los idiomas, porque pues el idioma es el nexo, pues puedes entender mucho más de su forma de ver el mundo, su forma de ver la vida y porque como estudiantes íbamos con un discurso o si quieren muy panfleteros, pero, este, ya ir a hablar con ellos era diferente, era era diferente porque te hacían aterrizar, te hacían poner los pies en la tierra y escuchar la historia de la gente. No sé, por decirte llegar a hablar de las grandes contradicciones es en Guatemala, es porque el 2 por ciento es el dueño de los grandes medios de producción, eran discursos que para los campesinos no hacía mucho sentido, verdad? Pero si hablabas con ellos del problema de la tierra, te decían “Mire, es que aquí, en esta sierra que es tan fría, sólo una cosecha de maíz al año sacamos, si?” Casi todo el año, siembran en marzo y cosechan en diciembre, y son unos mazorca, porque el maíz es vital para la población indígena campesina en Guatemala y era una producción mala realmente, pues poco, poco, poco maíz lograban sacar ellos de un montón de trabajo, de muchísimo trabajo que tenían que hacer, y entonces ellos decían es que como campesino necesitamos tierra mejor, verdad? Porque estas tierras ya está muy cansada, decían. Pero son laderas súper empinadas de tierra, donde hay mucha piedra que no es fértil, verdad? Que realmente su vocación es es para bosques y no para la producción de alimentos. Ese tipo de cosas te hacían aterrizar aquí. No vienes con ese discurso del del 2 por ciento de la población burguesa en Guatemala. Aquí vienes a hablar de que la tierra da o no da, o cómo es el clima. Si hay agua, no hay agua y otras cosas. Tienes que cambiar el discurso, que era siempre encaminado a lo mismo, pero con los pies en la tierra. Y fue bonito. Fue un tiempo de mucho aprendizaje, muchísimo, muchísimo aprendizaje en la vivencia con las comunidades.

AG: No era fácil estar ahí. Hacía un frío terrible y no teníamos condiciones para estar en la época de diciembre, enero. La temperatura bajaba bajo cero y no teníamos ni ropa ni cobijas suficientes. Y si, era difícil, mucho tiempo, porque el ejército ahí fue cuando ella lanzó las grandes ofensivas militares y cortaban la siembra de la población verdad? O encontraban los, le llamábamos buzones donde la gente escondía su cosecha y si lo encontraban o le pegaban un fuego o se lo robaban. Y ahí ibanos patrulleros civiles que iban junto con el ejército, cargando las maletas de maíz y frijol, de alimentos de la población y en mucho tiempo a veces solo comíamos hierbas, hierbas que la gente conocía, que crecían así, entre el sol, entre la milpas, en los lugares donde siembran el maíz o hierbas de la montaña también. El maíz, para que abundará, la gente hace lo que más pinol del maíz seco y ya ya se lo tuesta y luego se muele y queda como una especie de harina y así se come y muchas veces era toda la comida que teníamos. No era fácil. Llegaron a la parte más al sur del Quiché, Chimaltenango, y llegaron muchísimos estudiantes. Llegaron ahí con las comunidades de esas áreas, que era principalmente población Quiché, Cakchiquel. Y muchos se quedaron esos.

MV: When the military would show up, how were you organized to move out of the way?

AG: Mira, parte del trabajo era acompañar a las comunidades a que se siguiera organizando. La población estaba organizada, tenían vigilancia las 24 horas del día, entonces habían lugares este cerros altos donde había visibilidad, desde donde podían ver si el ejército se acercaba. Y usaban los cachos de los toros, se arreglaban de una manera que parecían trompetas, les cortaban la punta, nada más entonces esos cachos, cuando ya veían que el ejército se venía aproximando, los muchachos que estaban en vigilancia lo sonaba y la gente huía y ya se preparaba para salir en lo que se llamaba el plan de emergencia. Y el plan de emergencia realmente era que la gente durante muchos años, las comunidades de población en resistencia porque así fueron finalmente reconocidas. La gente en su pequeña casita, en su rancho, todos los días tenían que levantar y doblar las cobijas, la ropa y hacer las maletas, entiendes? Tenían ahí de alimento nada más lo que se iba a ir consumiendo, porque en el momento en que sonaba la señal de que venía el ejército, la gente solo agarraba su maleta y se iba a meter. Si se ponían en ese momento a estar recogiendo y empacando, no, primero llegaba el ejército antes que la gente se pudiera retirar. La gente regularmente se mantenía en estado de alerta. Si, esa era parte del plan de emergencia, no? La vigilancia, el aviso, estar preparado, te preparas todas sus cosas para poder sacarlas. Que no se perdía, porque no había dónde ir a comprar más. Estaba, todas esas áreas fueron militarizadas, el ejército tendió como un gran cerco, entonces no se podía ir a ningún pueblo a comprar nada. Era, era, era bien difícil y la gente ya sabía verdad? Que en tal lugar a lo mejor hay un caminito que solo ellos conocían y que se iba en la montaña y a lo mejor una cueva o una quebrada donde se podían esconder. En fin, ya había todo eso estaba, estaba previsto la mayoría de las veces, verdad? Para que la gente sobreviviera. Y sabes que la población, que era población civil, no combatiente, yo siempre reafirmo eso porque era eran familias completas, porque igual siguieron haciendo de niños, hubieron matrimonios, en fin, y la población después hubo que hacer una gran lucha para que fueran reconocidos como Comunidades de Población en Resistencia. Hasta la fecha ellos siguen viviendo porque, después de la firma de la paz se logró que a ellos les dieran algunas tierras en la costa para asentarse en la población, porque cuando se fueron dejaron sus tierras, sus comunidades, y mucho de esa tierra le fue entregado por el ejército a los patrulleros civiles, que eran los patrulleros. Eran paramilitares que acompañaban al ejército en las campañas militares, en las ofensivas militares. Pero bueno, es parte de la historia.

AG: Mira, realmente ahí la gran mayoría de la población indígena, campesina. En el área donde yo estuve mayoritariamente eran Ixcil. Ixcil es un pueblo maya, y yo sólo estaba. No, no, no representaba una organización, no era, nos fuimos, entiendes? Y es como irse a insertar ahí, en la comunidad. Apoyar, éramos, convertimos nuestra vida en apoyo al servicio de las comunidades.

MV: Was it hard to change so drastically?

AG: Fue difícil, fue bien difícil. Sabes que ahí en Quiché es lindo, el Quiché es uno de los lugares más lindos en Guatemala. Te digo, está en la Sierra de los Cuchumatanes, es alto, ahí bosques. Y ahí hay mucho bosque nuboso que, me encantaba por ejemplo estar arriba de un cerro y como a las 4-5 de la tarde mirabas cómo venían entrando los, yo siempre he dicho los mares de nubes porque vienen las nubes así en las joyas, abajo en los barrancos y poco a poco van subiendo y cubriendo. A veces estábamos tan alto que quedaba uno más arriba que el mar de nubes. Pero a veces estábamos un poco abajo, entonces, yo decía que andaba en el cielo. Y me recordó mucho de ese nombre, de esa película ‘El paseo por las nubes’ verdad? Porque así, así, así me sentía. Y al principio me sentía perdida, porque no puedes ver más allá de uno o dos metros adelante. Estás todo blanco, que estás entre las nubes realmente. Y yo me sentía como perdida. Pero bueno, yo seguía caminando detrás de la gente, en el camino donde iba la gente iba y me fui acostumbrando. Entonces te digo ay, fue muy duro, muy fuerte, porque teníamos que caminar mucho. Lo que tenías lo tenías que andar cargando en la espalda, no había comida, pasábamos mucho frío, la lluvia era unos torrencial, nos mojaba mucho, nos mojaba mucho, mucho. Nos manteníamos muy mojada la ropa y en fin. Pero yo a veces me recuerdo y ese ese recuerdo tan lindo de la convivencia con la gente. Habían veces, caminábamos y llegábamos de noche, empapados, mojados a un lugar y la gente en el rancho más humilde que te puedas imaginar. La gente tenía fuego y nos abría la puerta y nos decían pasen, pasen, vengan, siéntense y nos sentaban a orilla de su fuego porque yo regularmente ponen el fuego en la tierra para calentarla la casita y nos daban su lugar. Le dicen a unas pequeñas bancas que donde se sientan casi en el suelo y nos daban café o un poquito de frijoles. Los que tuvieran la gente lo compartí y te digo aprender, aprender mucho, escuchar a la gente. Yo pienso que ahí, ahí, en esa comunidad aprendí a escuchar, en general a la gente, escuchar. Y el paisaje, es una cosa preciosa, es lindo el Quiche.

MV: Why were you walking so much? Were you walking from one place to the other to see what people needed, what was needed, or just to be alert?

AG: Mira yo, yo me moví mucho entre las comunidades, entonces había un sistema de vigilancia, verdad? Sí, muchas veces con lo que había que tener cuidado era con los helicópteros militares, porque llegaban y al área donde vivía la población y pasaban bajo y ahí sí te veían, disparaban, ametralladoras o lanzaban rocket. También lanzaban mucho rock. Hubo muchos bombardeos en ese momento, toda esa tensión también por años. Pues así era la vida ahí así eran la vida ahí con las comunidades. Era, mira, para la gente de la capital, era estudiante es tan fácil perderse, se burlaban mucho, era como un chiste porque nos perdíamos tan fácil. Cuando vas caminando vas viendo para adelante, para adelante, no estás viendo para atrás entonces si te toca venir de regreso, ya no sabes por dónde ir de regreso. Y yo, yo, por ejemplo, siempre anduve con alguien que me acompañara algún día, si, siempre andaba con algún guía porque no conocía. Y ya después me acostumbré a voltear a ver para atrás y dejar alguna seña en mi cabeza, no? Una piedra grande o un cierto árbol. Y sabes que se aprende también, y eso es parte del aprendizaje. Yo me acostumbré a caminar viendo los puntos cardinales, si sabía dónde estaba el norte o de acuerdo a la hora del día, dónde estaba el sol, yo me podía ubicar. Bueno, es el este, el oeste, el norte, el sur. Todo ese tipo de cosas se aprenden y se acostumbra. Uno se acostumbra. Aprendí a caminar porque, mira, no es fácil caminar en las montañas. Cuando uno llega, camina como que estuvieras en un terreno plano, entonces cada paso, pues no, el piso no te da porque, es un espacio más abajo. Y hubo que aprender a caminar, por ejemplo, verdad? Se camina un poquito con las rodillas dobladas, no se camina recto. Si camina recto no puedes caminar de la montaña. Hay que caminar un poco con las rodillas dobladas y los pies acostumbrarte. Que sean flexibles no los vas a poner parejo, como andar en un piso de una casa, no. Los pies a veces te queda la punta del pie para arriba y solo apoyas el talón o a veces solo la punta del pie o en fin, así, así se camine. Así tuve que aprender a hacer eso también, a caminar así como caminaba la gente. Bañarnos en agua helada que no te imaginas en agua friisima, en los nacimientos de agua o en los ríos. El agua es helada, helada, helada, helada. Había que bañarse súper rápido corriendo porque que se congelaba las manos si después no podía unio o tomarse la camisa de los que estaban cóngeladas. Pero descubrí que si te levantabas a bañar a las cuatro de la mañana, por ejemplo, aunque estuviera oscuro, el agua se sentía tibia. Yo no sé porque, no sé cuál es el fenómeno natural, pero así era. Cuando había frío pero te metías a bañar y el agua se sentía agradable. No estaba tibia, pero era soportable, pues no se congelaba las manos. Pero cuando ya salía el sol te querían bañar como 10-11 de la mañana, eso era espantoso, el agua super fria. Y había un río especial que le decían, bueno, yo le puse el congelador. No estaba, en una montaña y ahí sí todo el tiempo el agua era casi congelada, estaba eso y ahí había que bañar del agua, y sufrí mucho, me recuerda, me recuerdo que sufrí mucho. Pues todo ese proceso de adaptación. Pero la gente muy linda, la gente. Y sabes que me admira mucho de que, a pesar todo lo que pasó esa población, porque yo finalmente salí de allí, me fui como refugiada, estuve en México, en la Ciudad de México, con limitaciones, pero viví en unas condiciones diferentes que como se dije en la gente, en las comunidades. Luego regresé a Guatemala y también viviendo en la capital, en una casa con servicios, pero siempre me recordaba mucho de la de la población de las comunidades. Y ellos siguen resistiendo. Después de la firma de la paz en 1996, que ya logran ellos regresar y reorganizar sus comunidades, verdad? Y la gente sigue organizada, mantienen sus comités, porque así estaban, ellos tenían comités en cada comunidad y aparte tenían como un comité general de todas las comunidades. Hacía un ejercicio también interesante de participación política, porque las cosas la decidían en asambleas y la gente discutía y votaba y tomaban decisiones sobre su vida, sobre qué hacer o no. La gente se fogueó mucho en su formación política, también como líderes. Hasta la fecha. Hay un caso de un muchacho que me recuerda mucho que, porque impulsamos este alfabetización también, verdad? En las comunidades hubo alfabetización o atención médica, hubo muchas cosas. Pero en la alfabetización, me recuerdo que había un caso especial de un muchacho que apenas hablaba español, solo hablaba su idioma y poquito a poco aprendiendo, aprendiendo. Y mira hasta la fecha el sí como dirigente de la comunidad de población en resistencia en Chajul. Y ahora lo escucho hablar y de verdad me da tanto gusto, lee, escribe, habla el español, su idioma. Y así como él, muchos, muchos dirigentes se formaron y crecieron, se desarrollaron en la lucha.

Oral history with Todd Miller, 04/19/2019

Oral history with Todd Miller, 04/19/2019


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