Fleeing civil war in El Salvador
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
When Ismael Argueta was 17 he fled El Salvador and crossed into the United States. Here he talks about his reasons for leaving his homeland.
Argueta: There are two important reasons why I came to America. I was looking for a better life, I was escaping the war and I was looking for job opportunities so I could support my family.
Gallacher: What was going on in your country at that time?
Argueta: When I was growing up there was a civil war. It was hard for a teenager. After graduating from school there were only two choices, join the army or join the guerrillas. And, from my point of view, they were both wrong. The guerrilla could get killed fighting his brother on the other side and neither one really knew why. They only knew that one was on one side and one was on the other. A lot of people didn’t know what they were fighting for. I learned to live in the war, not to speak and be neutral.
Gallacher: Tell me how one stays neutral in a war.
Argueta: If the army came to our house and asked us for food or money we just gave it. Then, one hour later, when the guerrillas came to house and ask we gave them whatever they want. You don’t see, you don’t know anything, you just serve.
Gallacher: When did you decide that you couldn’t take it anymore?
Argueta: When I finished high school, I went to Catholic seminary. I was only there a few months when I went home to visit my family. It was then that my parents told me they didn’t want me to go back to the seminary. To be Catholic in those days was like being against the government. My parents were afraid for me.
My father told me he thought I should leave the country and go to America. I thought about it for a while and then I said yes. I planned to stay just for a little while, two maybe three years to support my family.
Gallacher: How old were you when the war came?
Argueta: I was in middle school, probably 12 years old. There were a lot of stories about friends who didn’t have the proper papers and were stopped by the army or the police. They could be killed, many just disappeared.
Gallacher: Did you have family members who disappeared?
Argueta: Yes, I lost some of my cousins. One time, my father was taken by the army. They arrested him because somebody told them that he was supporting the guerrillas. In some ways that was true because there was no other choice. He had to support both sides. Lucky for us, we were able to act fast and get him released.
In those days you had to think twice about what you said in public. That was the time when some people were getting rid of their enemies by telling stories that could get you killed by one side or the other.
In the beginning I was just a young kid in school. All of the trouble was happening in the big cities. We never thought it was going to come to our small town. We watched on TV as the groups fought against the government and, at that time, we never thought that it would be possible for them to come to our town.
Gallacher: Do you remember the day they came?
Argueta: Yes, it was early in the morning around 4 o’clock. We started hearing a lot of shots. Everyone got down on the floor. We knew that the guerrillas were taking over our town. They were fighting in the downtown. It didn’t take them very long, by the middle of the day they had taken control. We didn’t know what was next.
After the guerrillas gained control, we had to pay them money. If the army found out that we were supporting the guerrillas we were in danger from the army. We were between two wars.
When I think about the war I think of it as two wars, one of the mind and one of the fighting. I lived both. The war of the mind is when people are living in constant fear. People are telling you, “I heard that they are looking for you” or “I think this bad thing is about to happen.” You live in terror. You don’t live a good life.
Sometimes I ask myself why so many people have to die to make good changes.
(Note: Ismael and his family own and operate Taqueria El Nopal in Basalt and Glenwood Springs.)
Immigrant Stories runs every Monday in the Post Independent.
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