As the nation grapples with how to accommodate tens of thousands of unaccompanied migrant children crossing its southern border, an adult reflects on her harrowing journey from El Salvador a quarter century earlier.
I immigrated in the fall of 1988 during the beginning of the end of El Salvador’s civil war between the military-led government and the left-wing guerrilla groups. For twelve years innocent people were killed or vanished every day. I remember when I was about five years-old, my dad came home with bloodstains on his clothes; I was asked to go to another room. That was around 1985 or 1986 — I don’t remember. Years later I found out that it was because he dragged an injured person to safety during a battle between the guerrillas and the military. Such battles often took place on the streets. This one in particular happened right in front of my dad’s job. Young men were being recruited against their will to fight someone else’s war; young men like my uncles, one of them being practically a brother to me. A skinny bastard, the army thought, and one that nobody would care for if he went missing. But they were wrong.
During 1986-1988 my uncle Moy (as I like to call him) was drafted and placed in a cuartel (barracks) where he was being trained to fight against the guerilla army. My mother and I visited Moy twice in La Union in the south Pacific part of the country. On our way there, we took a bus that was stopped by the guerillas or the military, I don’t know. Everyone in the bus feared for their lives but this was an everyday occurrence across the country.
At that time, my mother was six or seven months pregnant. She was also studying psychology at the University of El Salvador. One of her projects included providing art therapy to the orphaned children of the war.
I remember the military coming to our house to go through her textbooks to make sure she wasn’t with the guerillas. They did this often, because they feared educated people would support the opposition. But, of course she wasn’t. My mother would never jeopardize her children’s safety. Although she would soon have to do that exact thing in order to provide us with a brighter future.
In the summer of 1988, she decided to drop out of college to bring us to the United States. After some discussion it was decided that we would immigrate to the United States.
I distinctly remember being asked what I thought about coming here and being reunited with my cousins and other family members. All I could think of was that reunion, snow and Disneyland.
My main recollection of leaving El Salvador is being in the back of a cab with my mom, sister and uncle Moy as I watched my abuelita, tia, and prima wave goodbye. I could see my grandma crying and wiping her tears with her apron. The further we drove away the smaller they became, but they wouldn’t go inside. This image is engraved in my memory, along with the rest of our journey.
We had a tourist visa that allowed us into Mexico City. We ended up at La Palma airport in Tijuana, when we arrived at the airport some of the custom officers interviewed us, but shortly after they let us go. My mom thinks that it was thanks to my sister’s big cheeks. One of the officers thought she was adorable and said she had the rosiest cheeks he had ever seen.
Once we were released, we walked outside the airport and waved for a taxi; a couple of men in a van waved back to us so we assumed it was some kind of shuttle. What happened next was not part of the plan. The original plan was that we would fly into Mexico City, transfer to Tijuana and a family-known coyote (a smuggler) would get us across the border. When we got into the van, two other passengers got in. We asked what was going on as there seemed to be some kind of confusion. We weren’t sure why there were more passengers in the van. My mom questioned the driver but he wouldn’t respond. He just shoved our stuff in the back of the van. My uncle asked if they were coyotes and they said yes. However, we didn’t know these smugglers — we were being abducted.
The driver had a gun and he made sure my uncle and the Colombian couple saw it and knew he was in charge of the situation. We were taken to a strange place that looked like a vecindario: a medium-sized complex of apartments in a quiet neighborhood. They put us in the garage and fed us quesadillas.
The following day we were taken to another facility that looked like a warehouse where at least 30 people were being held. We slept on the cold concrete floor, and again they fed us quesadillas. Eventually they put us in contact with our family in Los Angeles who were confused because the person who was originally set up to get us across was still waiting for us to contact them. My mom explained that we had been abducted by an organized group of smugglers who were now demanding money to get us across. Central American immigrants seeking to cross the border from Mexico had become a valuable commodity for smugglers.
Of course, our family in the U.S. was deeply concerned and confused because they hadn’t heard from us in days, but they were willing to pay whatever the smugglers asked for in order to get us across the border safely. The arrangement was that they would get us across the border and our family would pay thousands of dollars once we were released.
We barely slept that night thinking about what the journey would be like. My sister was only nine months old and I was now about nine years old. I don’t remember how we got to San Ysidro, the border between Tijuana and San Diego. But to this day, I have the border lights engraved in the back of my mind.
I remember sitting on top of a hill watching city lights far in the distance. I remember helicopters flying over us while we hid between bushes. I remember my skinny 19-year-old uncle clinging to my 9-month-old baby sister, and I remember my mother never letting go of my hand. We walked and hid and walked. After hours of running and hiding, we ran across a freeway.
My next memory was lying down with my mom and sister in the back of a dark car with tinted windows and my uncle all crunched up in the floor of the passenger’s seat.
We eventually made it to Los Angeles. I remember it was daytime, and we were in a different van. We met my three other uncles on the corner of an inner city street somewhere in LA. I remember the smugglers asking for the money and my uncles demanding that they let my mom, my sister and I out of the van first. As soon as they did, they handed the money over, and thankfully they let my uncle go. We all hugged and my mom broke down crying. I remember a sense of relief.
My first days in the U.S. were filled with excitement. I felt safe and welcomed by my family. But as soon as the excitement wore off, reality hit.
Once in school, I found it hard to integrate and not knowing the language made it even more difficult. I hated the sound of helicopters, and I missed my dad who immigrated months later. I developed separation anxiety. I hated school and often cried during recess and lunchtime. I kept going to the office to call home for someone to come get me. To this day, I have that phone number memorized.
After a couple of times of making my uncles waste a day’s worth of work, they stopped picking me up when I called home to come get me. I felt alone at school, and I didn’t know that the fear and stomach pain I felt was anxiety, so I hid in the bathroom stalls.
Thankfully, my 5th grade year at Plasencia Elementary School in Los Angeles was a little better thanks to my Cuban teacher, who spoke Spanish and sang to us beautiful songs like Guantanamera and De Colores. All the kids had to sing, even those who didn’t speak Spanish. I made friends with children from different Latin American countries. I also made friends with an American blonde-haired boy, who tried really hard to communicate with me. I appreciated that gesture.
Thankfully, my family and I were eventually granted legal status. The process started under the Immigration Act of 1990, temporary protected status (TPS). We were granted residence and work permits. When TPS ended in 1992, we had to apply for deferred-enforced-departure (DED), a status that maintained temporary residence and work privileges. We had to apply for extensions over and over again.
During those 15 years, my grandfather died and we weren’t able to go to his funeral because we risked losing our temporary legal status.
Finally, in 1996, we were able to apply for political asylum. It was a long and tedious process, one that we couldn’t have managed without legal support. It took 15 long years before we were granted green cards. It wasn’t until 2003 that we were able to go back to El Salvador.
I can personally relate to the current immigrant children crisis and the children who are scared and seeking refuge. They need compassion, kindness and most importantly legal support. Eventually, like me, if they are given a chance and the right support, they will be able to stay.
But they will also need mental health services and other social services so that they can integrate successfully and become productive members of society. By sharing my journey, I hope that it will inspire those who read it to take action to protect refugee children. I want everyone to know that their fear is real.
Tuly Martinez is a program manager at a regional association of grantmakers in the Los Angeles region.