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.
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.