Immigrant Stories: Escaping dangerous El Salvador
Tony Mendez tells his story to Walter Gallacher of Immigrant Stories.
Mendez: Both of my parents fled the civil war in El Salvador and settled in California, where I was born. My dad had been conscripted into the military when he was 16 and realized, soon after, that he needed to escape or he would be killed.
My mom had her first child when she was 17 and was working as a housekeeper. She came to the United States for better opportunities and a safe place to raise her child.
Gallacher: Did they adjust to life in the United States pretty easily or was it a struggle?
Mendez: I think it’s always been a struggle for them. Even now, as a family who comes from Salvadorian origins, it is hard not to constantly worry about our relatives who still live in El Salvador.
It can be pretty scary to hear about some of the things that still happen in a country that is ravaged by violence and poverty.
Gallacher: Can you describe what is going on there?
Mendez: As you know, El Salvador had a bloody civil war throughout the 1980s. There was finally a peace agreement between the government and the guerrillas in 1992. The government was ineffective, and criminal gangs began to fill the void. Today the gangs dominate much of daily life, and people live in fear.
In 2015, El Salvador was the most dangerous non-wartime country in the world. There were 25 killings a day. We hear stories from our relatives all the time. I was actually in El Salvador last summer to visit my uncle, who was living close to the capital. My mom was terrified that something was going to happen to me because he lives near a penitentiary where a lot of gang members are being held.
Jails and prisons in El Salvador are completely different than they are here. Many of the prisoners have a lot more freedom and are still running gang activities on the streets.
Just talking about the situation down there makes me uneasy. I am remembering all the times I have been told not to talk about El Salvador and the gangs because it can not only affect my life but it can affect the lives of others. Saying too much can affect the lives of my relatives who still live there. They live in a state of constant fear.
Gallacher: It sounds like your mother had good reason to worry. What kind of precautions did you have to take to stay safe?
Mendez: We are always afraid when we go down there. We move cautiously and we only spend time with family. My grandparents are getting older and starting to fade, so we go visit them as much as possible.
My grandpa just turned 95 and suffers from Alzheimer’s. When I was a child he would always play with me when I visited, but now he doesn’t know who I am. My aunts and uncles are taking care of both my grandparents because El Salvador doesn’t have assistance for old people in their condition.
Gallacher: Your parents’ adjustment to a new country was particularly difficult because they were refugees from a war-torn country. What was that like for you as a child to watch their struggle to adjust and adapt?
Mendez: As a child I didn’t really understand, but as I have gotten older I’ve realized that I have grown up in a very different culture than my parents.
I have been lucky to grow up in the Roaring Fork Valley and go to college and graduate school. My mom and dad were never able to finish school. Because of the war, they had to leave their families and start over with nothing.
Gallacher: What degree are you pursuing in graduate school?
Mendez: I’m working on my doctorate in law. I plan to use my degree to help people like my parents. I’m currently attending Vermont Law School, which is the number one environmental law school in the country, but my focus is mainly criminal law.
I want to be able to advocate for people in a court of law. There are a lot of nonprofits in the valley who need help with their legal challenges. I don’t know what I will be able to achieve. I just know that I want to be able to help others the way I was helped.
Gallacher: You have made great strides in one generation. Were you always encouraged to pursue an education?
Mendez: Both of my parents have been very supportive of my efforts, especially my mom. I was taken to preschool when I was 4 years old. In middle school, I got involved in clubs and organizations on my own. I graduated from high school when I was 17.
Gallacher: Did you have an easy time growing up?
Mendez: I’ve had to learn how to cope with emotional issues. Growing up in an immigrant family was tenuous at times. My parents had a legal status, but it was temporary.
Every 18 months they would have to reapply for what is called “temporary protected status.” They would have to get an attorney and apply each time. So there was always the fear that our status would be revoked and we would be sent back.
That not knowing from one year to the next affected our family emotionally and psychologically.
Gallacher: What is your parents’ status now?
Mendez: They are both residents now. When I turned 21 I was able to apply for their residency status. Now, if all goes well, they will be able to apply for citizenship in a couple of years.
Gallacher: How did your family cope with the stress of uncertainty?
Mendez: We just took it day-to-day. It’s something we learned to live with. My parents’ way of coping was to go to church. It was a major part of my upbringing, but I started to rebel against it in my teen years.
Gallacher: Most teens rebel. My kids did, but it must be particularly disconcerting for many immigrant parents who see their children changing so profoundly and adapting to a new culture so much faster than they can.
Mendez: Yes, school field trips were a good example. Growing up here we had access to a lot of extracurricular activities. Because my parents were never able to finish school, they didn’t understand the value of extracurricular activities. So they didn’t feel that the time and money for field trips was necessary.
That was difficult for me as a kid. I was always trying to convince my parents to let me go with my friends and classmates. Sports and field trips are important ways for kids to bond and fit in. I think that is why I was so rebellious with my parents. I wanted to grow wings and fly, do things on my own accord and feel like I belonged.
Gallacher: Well, it looks like you were able to convince them, because you have done very well.
Mendez: Thanks. My family has supported me all along the way. I know that education isn’t everyone’s path and that there are other ways to be successful. But education has afforded me a lot of opportunities.
Gallacher: How did you get into law?
Mendez: As a kid I knew I wanted to get a doctorate degree. I thought I would end up in medicine. But when I was 19, I got a chance to work at the Kaufman law firm here in Glenwood. The more I worked there, the more I realized law was the path for me because of the work we are doing. All we do is workman’s compensation.
Throughout the time that I have worked there my parents have been going through their immigration process for residency. All my life, I have watched them go to attorney after attorney trying to get residency. That experience and my job helped me see how I could use the law to help people.
Gallacher: I read that when you were president of your Rotary club you were the youngest in the world.
Mendez: I became the president of the Rotary Club of Roaring Fork when I was 20. I was honored and humbled that my fellow Rotarians had that kind of faith in me.
Gallacher: Service to others seems to be a theme that runs through your life.
Mendez: My goal in life is to serve others, and I think that started in seventh grade when I became an ambassador for our class, and after that I got involved in student council. People have helped me throughout my life, and I will always be grateful. I guess that’s why serving others has always been a passion of mine.
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