It’s been nearly 40 years since the start of the Civil War in El Salvador that claimed the lives of 75,000 civilians and spanned 12 years. The war was a conflict between the military-led Salvadoran government and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front or FMLN, which was a coalition made up of five left-wing guerilla groups.
Betty Roque is among the wave of immigrants who left their beloved homeland in the 1980s to escape violence and the political and economic instability in the country.
Before leaving, she escaped a kidnapping perpetuated by a Salvadoran soldier suffering from Post-Traumatic- Stress-Syndrome. He was reportedly suffering from mental illness and was allegedly heavily medicated.
She was well on her way toward earning her bachelor’s degree in biology from a prestigious university. However, she never had the chance to complete her university studies.
Betty has not returned to El Salvador in more than 30 years and has since made a new life in Austin, Texas. She never intended to leave permanently.
Her biological mother, sisters, and nieces still live in El Salvador and are plagued daily by the dangers of living in a country with one the highest rates of violence and crime against women in the world. In many respects, El Salvador is still suffering the aftermath of the war.
She has raised three children with her husband in Austin and is a longtime daycare teacher. She made her way to Texas on her own, by foot, sometimes alongside strangers, exposing herself to a variety of dangerous situations in her attempt to reach the United States.
Despite the initial culture shock -- - she expected to see cowboys riding on horses -- - when she arrived, she mastered the English language and adapted to a new lifestyle.
Now a proud Texan, she ensures her children never forget their roots by using Salvadoran traditional recipes to inspire her own cooking, sharing stories of her youth and speaking Spanish at home. She and her husband gave their children the greatest gift of all: opportunity and education so they accomplish whatever they work toward.
She has touched countless lives including my own. My love of writing comes from her. My empathy for those less fortunate comes from her. My devotion to family comes from her. My pride in my heritage comes from her.
Though she didn’t accomplish all the goals she set for herself, she continues to see life with a “glass half-full” perspective. It is this resilient and positive attitude that allows her to confront all the obstacles in her life. She believes that a woman has control in her life in the sense of how she reacts in the moments she is tested. She has passed on this warrior-like attitude to her children.
This is my small way of paying tribute to a woman warrior unaware that she was a warrior in her heyday and who continues to inspire a new wave of warriors and feminists in the United States.
This is Betty Roque’s story as told to her relative Christine Bolaños.
The Beginning of Everything
My first encounter with the political reality in my country happened when I was in middle school. I remember I was at the supermarket by myself when all of a sudden I heard gunfire outside. I quickly got on the ground and made eye contact with other shoppers. Though I was technically not alone I certainly felt alone.
When I finally went back outside I was fearful. We didn’t know what we would find. It was very silent. We didn’t know if there were any dead. They – the government – had come to pick up the dead so no one knew what had happened. They didn’t want us to become alarmed.
During my middle school years, it was evident political unrest was affecting those around me but I continued unaffected.
Then three classmates were killed. One of them was in my class. We called him “Conejito,” or “little bunny.”
He was charismatic and friendly. We all loved him. News of his death hit us hard, especially my best friend, Jane, and me. We really cared for him.
We decided to skip school to attend his memorial service. We had to travel a long distance by foot to get there but we didn’t mind.
As we made our way we suddenly noticed a truck stop next to us. The small hairs on our arms immediately raised up. Fear sent chills down my spine and goosebumps formed on my skin.
For a moment, our hearts stopped, thinking we would be kidnapped and disappear like we heard so many people did.
But as we finally looked toward the truck we saw a familiar face. It was our math teacher, Mr. Fields.
He was a member of the guerilla force but we didn’t know it at the time.
“You leave this place right now!” he demanded. “I don’t want you to go to the service and don’t speak to anyone about this.”
We trusted him so we listened. We just looked at each other and immediately turned back around.
Looking back, I realized if we had gone to the memorial service, we could have been confused with guerillas. It didn’t matter that we were young or that we were girls. Our classmate was 13, a year younger than us, and he was dead.
But even then, I think deep down, we knew what we were doing was dangerous.
Two more classmates died shortly before I started high school. One of them was a girl a grade level below us.
There were so many things happening at that time. There were confrontations everywhere. At one point, the guerillas arrived in my hometown of Santa Ana, where there was a big confrontation resulting in their takeover of a military base.
They forced soldiers to flee and went as far as burning some of them. There was a nationwide curfew set at the time where residents couldn’t be outside after a certain time. Groups of three or more people were not allowed to congregate. It was essentially a milder version of the United States Martial Law.
We were consumed by fear and uncertainty, especially when it came to the infamous death squads. These were armed groups who killed or forced people to disappear in the middle of the night. Guerilla members were often among the casualties.
One day I got home from school to find the aftermath of a military home invasion. My family members, including my grandfather who was retired military, had been held against their will, with their arms up against the wall and searched.
We still don’t know exactly why they did that but through calls that followed we found out they wanted to use our house as a fort. It was a big house that stood out where we lived.
But, of course, my grandfather resisted. My uncles supported the guerilla movement in internal discussion, but to my knowledge, never acted on their ideologies.
Marxist propaganda was outlawed at the time but I read up on it a little. I was always curious about how the world worked and that included politics.
Had I been at the house when the military broke in, and been caught with that literature, who knows what would have happened.
You’re an idealist when you’re young. You just think about everyone’s wellbeing. I guess I thought if this can help someone why not adopt these ideologies. It was all a dream. It was not possible in practice.
The next incident involved a guerilla group that took over our neighborhood. It was the first time I had seen guerillas up close. The commander was a pregnant woman who looked to be around her 30s.
She carried a machine gun in her hands and plenty of bullets on her waist belt.
They forced us all outside our homes and blocked the central street. They turned a truck over that carried coffee beans and another that carried dairy products. I remember they allocated the dairy products among us.
We were isolated from the rest of society. The group was considerably large. I’d guess about 25 people, including men and women. They didn’t look as young as me but they didn’t look all that old. I noticed some of the members were kids -- - children of the guerillas I venture to guess.
They were there all day and night even asking us for lamps and flashlights. When it was time to head for bed we were all too scared to sleep.
We heard a loud noise in the middle of the night and then my uncle shouted for us to hide under the couches or whatever we could find.
We all thought something bad was about to happen. Then the gunfire began. Soldiers were fighting back against the guerillas.
We didn’t sleep the rest of the night. In the morning, I was the first one to head outside. I went down the three steps in our backyard because I had a chore to do.
That’s when I noticed a dead body on our property. Accompanied by my family and neighbors, I made my way toward the train tracks, which were located about a quarter of a mile from the house.
There, we saw a handful of corpses lying under the rails. I remember the body of a dead boy with a wig next to him. We didn’t know why he was killed or why he had a wig.
We figured the bodies belonged to guerillas. Supposedly, the soldiers’ bodies were picked up at night so no one would know about the government casualties.
Our house received several bullet impacts. There were huge holes. I think it may have been due to a bazooka because our house was made of cement bricks.
I was raised by my grandparents, and separate from my younger sisters, but I heard one of them was mentally affected by the war. My grandma died from a heart attack the year after these incidents. She was in bad condition, especially after she was searched and forced up against the wall. I don’t know what the soldiers told her because by the time I arrived home that day the soldiers had left.
I was with my grandmother when she died. I was only 16 years old.
Coming of Age in the Middle of War
I took and passed an entrance exam to a prestigious high school in my area. Not many students wanted to go to school because they feared for their lives. But I was resilient, took the test and enrolled in school.
One year before I started school there, five bodies were found hung from coconut trees outside the school. They had been severely mutilated and burned.
I never saw the bodies but one of them belonged to the son of a teacher at our school. His last name was Cortez. He was his mother’s first and only son. It was the work of the death squads.
Our teachers were admirable. They taught at some of the highest paying private schools in the country as well as our school. That’s why it was difficult to enter this school -- - because they taught there.
There weren’t many incidents during my high school career. There were government searches and media cover-ups. I remember the press covered the death of those people we found by the train tracks as something different from what had happened.
The public had no way of knowing exactly what was going on.
The government either had control of the media or the media was too afraid of covering what was really happening. I learned many of my middle school teachers left the country.
I finished high school and began attending the Occidental University of El Salvador – the Santa Ana branch of the national university.
It’s the only college -- - albeit a prestigious one -- - that I could afford. I decided to study biology with aspirations of becoming a biology professor.
I should mention that before going to college I tried to enter nursing school but didn’t pass the physical exam due to a heart murmur.
I remember one classmate told me: “You think they’re going to send you to war and you’ll be helping all these people.”
The youth in Santa Ana tried to live life as normally as possible. Without exact news, it was difficult also to know the situation, but we were aware it wasn’t as ideal as everyone would like. Santa Ana was protected from some of the reality of war. Surrounding rural communities suffered greater direct impact.
Students and professors were not allowed to talk about the political climate or the war because it wasn’t safe. You couldn’t even talk to your friends about it.
It took me by surprise. I was in my second semester of college. I was close to 19 years of age.
I sometimes had to walk to school. Sometimes I took the bus. The walk was three or four miles.
By this time, I had started caring about my appearance a bit more. I wore heels. I liked looking pretty. I liked that my clothes matched. I had very few clothing items but I always made sure they matched. I would get compliments from my classmates about my attire.
Though boys, well before college, expressed interest in me…that was just not something that was a priority for me. I was always focused on school and on my goals.
When I walked to school I carried my heavy textbooks in my arms. We didn’t have books in biology or chemistry so whatever we had was donated and in English. We sometimes were on the library waiting list and had to make due with only our class notes.
One day, I remember making my way toward my school, with my heavy books in my arms when all the sudden a person got close to me.
He appeared to be about 25, was dressed in military uniform, and he carried a backpack. He asked me for the address to the largest local stadium and as I was answering his question I felt something touch my back.
I remember I just heard a sound. It was not too strong or loud. But I felt something touch me.
I realized it was a pistol. The man told me to accompany him and that I was going to lead him to the stadium.
We walked a lot.
We passed in front of the house of my childhood best friend Jane. She was in nursing school and we didn’t see each other much anymore. She later told me she found nothing odd in the situation because she thought the guy was my boyfriend.
Jane saw me but I didn’t see her.
All I remember is how afraid I was. I looked at my surroundings but it was all a blur.
The man said I had to follow him. He said what he had in his backpack was a type of grenade.
I was consumed by fear and the sensation of the pistol on my back. That he could pull the trigger at any moment.
I didn’t think about my family. Or that someone would pop from somewhere and save me. I was just really scared.
I kept walking. Maybe it looked like he was hugging me. I don’t know.
We kept walking. He told me he was a war deserter. He didn’t tell me he was a Salvadoran soldier. He told me he was Nicaraguan.
I didn’t know if that was true. We arrived at a business located next to the stadium. It was a type of cafeteria.
I remember we had to climb many stairs to get to the top. When we entered the cafeteria, there was only the owner and two customers – a man and a woman.
It was about 3 in the afternoon. The most curious thing is the man seemed to know the owner. He talked to her like he knew her.
He asked for service for both of us. He tried forcing me to eat. How was I going to eat when I was so scared?
I don’t know if the lady spoke with him but after a little while she looked at me again. She then signaled me to get out.
I don’t know how she distracted him but I was with him in the restaurant for like 30 minutes.
I made a run for it and didn’t look back. I just remember I looked at the woman and she signaled me to leave.
I don’t even recall if I grabbed my books or my bag. I flew down the flight of steps. When I reached the street, I stopped the first car I spotted. It was a small pickup truck. A man was driving. I stopped him right in the middle of the road.
I told him a man with a gun was chasing me and he told me to get inside the truck. I showed him where the man was and he told me to lie in the bed of the truck.
As I lay there I noticed he had a pistol in his compartment. He realized how frightened I was and assured me not to be scared because he was a cop. Up until that moment, I had had my doubts about law enforcement, given the political climate of the time.
After a little while he asked me for my address and took me home. I was so scared and I think I never cried.
When I arrived home, he talked to my grandfather. I think my uncles may have been home as well.
I remember I was shaken up. My grandfather sent me to stay with some relatives in the capitol city of San Salvador for a while.
By this time, I was on a school break, so I didn’t get to tell my classmates what had happened until some time later.
Days after the incident my grandfather told me that the cops or the government had explained to him that the kidnapper was a Salvadoran soldier. He wanted to desert the war but he was on medication. I don’t know if this is true but that was probably why the man had acted in that manner.
After a while I began to carry on my life as normal. I never went to see a psychologist. I just tried to erase it from my memory.
Eventually, I didn’t even think about the incident. I have an internal mechanism that allows me to erase something from my memory when it has affected me so I can live life as normally as possible.
Though I think they captured him right after the incident, I never knew the details nor did I have a curiosity to find out. If you showed me his face I don’t think I’d remember it. I intentionally tried not to look at his face. I never returned to that business to thank that woman either. I wanted to forget what had happened.
It was a close call but it wasn’t like I was raised in a normal setting. I had to always hide from people, from guns. Hearing gunfire became part of my nighttime routine. Wondering who was taken that time.
It was close but it’s incredible to think that was part of growing up in that time. Maybe if it had been another person it would have affected them for life.
It affected me as far as thinking about what I saved myself from rather than to let it affect me after.
The only aftermath effect I detected was when I watched violent war movies. It was horrible. That’s when I realized it had affected me.
Sometimes it was so serious that I felt what I was watching on screen was reality. I could never watch Black Hawk Down because of this. I could relate to what was happening to the characters.
It happened many years ago and now it’s better. I don’t know if it was family support or distraction with my school work. My school work was fundamental for me. It occupied my mind.
I didn’t live with my parents. My grandmother who had been like my mom had died. I didn’t have a close bond with my sisters. My aunts had all moved out.
I was struggling in chemistry and thought I needed a break. I wasn’t going to complain that everyone had left.
One must fight for their future and not let the past hinder the future. I had to overcome many difficulties in my personal life but I always confronted them with my own set of goals. I tried not to give up.
I think if I had more opportunities I would have been able to become something greater. Sometimes one doesn’t know what’s going to happen. Sometimes your priorities change.
I want my children to accomplish what I couldn’t and not to let my past make me bitter.