School and Shadow
(An excerpt from The Passion of la Niña Milagros: Growing Up in the Violence of El Salvador)
Getting to school was an adventure for my big brothers and sisters. The dirt road passed through isolated coffee plantations with no people anywhere around, and no electric light. You had to walk right by the cemetery, so parents with a little money would let their kids smoke a cigarette to fend off the Siguanaba. This was a supernatural woman of great beauty who could drive you mad or make you lose your way. She was usually seen from behind, a woman with long, shining black hair, dressed in a flimsy white slip—but if she turned her head you’d see she had the face of a skull!
Fortunately, by the time I was ready for first grade we had moved to a newly populated neighborhood in the hills outside the capital, where the government established a new school. They bought a former chicken ranch with an ancient henhouse made of weathered boards and rusty chicken-wire mesh to keep the pullets from escaping. Workers put up partitions and fashioned eight tiny classrooms with a couple of narrow corridors and a large patio in front.
This new school was only a dozen blocks from our house, and a great joy for everyone—especially Mamá. My next older brother, Alfredo, started first grade there. Even now I remember how my mother herded him to school by pitching rocks at him. He didn’t like to sit in class, so Mamá followed him down the road, tossing stones at him for a few blocks so that he would get going and stay on course. He was so scatterbrained that sometimes people stopped him to point out that he was wearing his shoes on the wrong feet. Well, the problem may not have been absent-mindedness so much as the novelty of wearing shoes at all!
I started school early, perhaps because of a calcium deficiency. All the little children would begin first grade when their first milk tooth fell out. Mine fell out when I was six and not seven years old, like everyone else. Also, I was very small for my age, and rather scared of school. But the joy of my brothers and sisters was contagious, and I was very curious to know what school was.
Indeed, I was very content at the school that happened to be mine. It didn’t matter that chicks and hens had been raised there before me. I didn’t mind the rough floor of dirt and concrete or the corrugated tin roof which, when it rained, kept you from hearing what your teachers were saying. While it’s true that the teachers abused us, any change in our lives was a reason for joy: surely anything would be better!
In school it was all laughter—and sometimes tears. Why? Usually because of some punishment that had been inflicted upon our bodies at home the night before. At times our parents were in a bad mood, and in their anger or frustration they would take out their ire upon their children. The next day, in our pain and frustration, we didn’t want anybody near us.
Of course, the teachers would contribute their share to our woe. Teachers threatened to set fire to your hair if you came to school unkempt, so I tried to be well dressed. Of course, I had only my little momo—a sleeveless playsuit with a faded pattern of tiny flowers. I carried water and played in this costume every day, too. My siblings made fun of me because instead of sleeping in it I insisted on changing into a ragged old dress of my mother’s. Each morning I shook out my momo and made sure my hair was tidy. Every Sunday, Mamá would braid my hair, and I tried to wash my outfit once a month.
We children were subject to many forms of punishment. A teacher might humiliate you in front of others by throwing your notebook at your feet. Or she might bestow un coscorrón—a rabbit punch to the head—or else lift your skirt and whack you with a yardstick. Sometimes at eleven in the morning she’d put you out in the sun underneath the bell they rang for recess. For an hour or two you’d have to stand there sweltering in the sun, balancing your desk on top of your head. Other times, the teacher might give you una carrera de mico—a “monkey race,” rubbing her two thumbs up the sides of your head so that a few hairs might be ripped out. Or she might say, “Quieres ver a Dios?” (Do you want to see God?) Then she would use her thumbs to lift you up by the temples, again ripping out a few hairs. They would do this to boys and girls alike, even the little kids. Only at adolescence did they stop, when we got too big and rebellious. And, of course, the teachers threatened to expel us if we told our parents any of this.
Our teachers were from well-to-do families, very superior to all of us. They always made it clear that we would never attain their high-class status. Throughout our childhood they nurtured in us the idea that we were beings who must be completely subservient to anyone who would guide us on the road to knowledge. This was confirmed by Mamá, who had only been to school for six months in her whole life; and by Papá, who said of the teacher, “she’s your second mother.” In this way they confirmed that it would be stupid for us to refuse the teacher’s crazy whims, such as cleaning her desk, running to carry her briefcase, and doing other ridiculous things.
There are people who leave very deep footprints on your life, difficult to efface. One of these was my first grade teacher, Señorita Marina—I will never forget her name. She was a tall, slender woman with a stylish bubble hairdo. On my very first day of school she smacked me very hard on the back. She told me to move a bench, but I was so little that I could barely drag it, and I inadvertently bumped into her desk. Another time, Marina decided to punish us all because, unbeknownst to the class, two boys had stood in the doorway, looking her over like vagabonds. This had filled her with shame. She made us stretch out our hands with the palms down, and whacked us on the knuckles with a ruler. She did this to thirty-five children, although only two had offended her. But she was very fair-minded and punished the lot of us, giving several blows to each one.
Sometimes I got in trouble despite my best efforts. Part of my problem was that things would happen and I wouldn’t understand why. Maybe I was just unsuspecting. Here’s an example: Señorita Marina picked three of us children to be her servants, perhaps by chance or perhaps because we were the poorest and most neglected of her students. She would arrive quite early in the morning, and desire us to fetch her breakfast.
One day when we little servants arrived she sent us back out to bring her a cup of milk and some bread with an egg. We had to walk perhaps seven blocks to get her breakfast, and so naturally we missed class. Señorita Marina may have forgotten about us that day, or maybe we came back more quickly than she expected. Our hands full, we backed through the little wooden door into the classroom. Suddenly we discovered that our teacher had no hair! She suffered from alopecia—a malady that causes people to lose their hair and eyelashes and eyebrows. Even then I understood that it was an illness. All her life Marina had been impeccable in her toilette, but the three of us kids saw her without her wig, and that cost us her hatred. She angrily chewed us out, saying that the door was closed and we needed to knock. But how were we to knock, with our hands full of her breakfast? “Sorry! Sorry!” we said, overcome with shame. We put down her breakfast and fled.
We often wondered whether school was a good thing or not. On the one hand, we were the laughingstock of other schools because we were the poorest. But on the other hand, there were classmates who walked three miles to get there—and even though class began at seven-thirty in the morning, they were punctual. We figured that you had to learn to read, even if you could only read badly, so that later in life people couldn’t take advantage of you.
In first grade I had a fifteen-year-old classmate named Lucía. She was a simple young woman, a bit strange; much lighter in color than me. You could tell at a glance that she was from the countryside because she wore two long braids in her hair and always came barefoot, with dusty, calloused feet. She wore the typical peasant dress—a loose white blouse with a bit of elastic in the short sleeves, and a long black skirt made of commercial cloth. Of course, Lucía was much bigger than the rest of us: she was fifteen and we were only six or seven. Her parents hadn’t sent her to school because they had cows that needed to be herded to pasture.
Just as her family exploited her, so did the teacher. Señorita Marina saw in Lucía a person who could be useful to her. When we were halfway through the school year she appropriated the girl to be her personal servant. Marina sent me home with Lucía to gather up her possessions. I knew the house—a humble cabin on a very beautiful little ranchito—because I was very nosy, and Lucía was very special. We left the school at eight o’clock in the morning, forded the river Acelhuate, and then traversed it once again with her possessions balanced in a couple of small bundles on our heads. We didn’t get back until eleven-thirty—that’s how far away her house was.
Instead of helping the girl, the teacher administered one more wound. Once she had Lucía in her power, Marina restricted the girl to her house in the capital and only permitted her to go out once a month. This was how all the domestic servants were treated at that time. As for our friend Lucía, she never studied again—she couldn’t even finish first grade. How are we supposed to get ahead if we can’t study? Poor Lucía hadn’t even learned to read or write before the teacher took her away.
One thing above all remains etched in my memory. It happened in second grade, which must have been the year 1972. One day at noon we little kids came out of school, and there in the dusty road near the bakery were the bodies of three young men. All were youngsters that everybody knew, who came every week to deliver the flour used to make bread. They always took the same route, and that day they had been murdered at point-blank range.
The dirt road was narrow and the delivery truck very wide, thus we all had to squeeze alongside it in order to pass. The police hadn’t arrived, nobody had come. No mothers were with us; they were all working and almost never brought their children to school or picked them up. You’d walk to school with a neighbor, or with a brother or sister. And so we children made a circle right up close around the bodies. Somebody older, maybe one of my siblings, should have told me not to look.
One body was splayed in the dirt at the bottom of the bakery steps. A second body lay next to the delivery truck, and another underneath it. We saw the boys’ faces in the dirt, their blood spattered in the dust, and we said to one another, “They killed them!” These bleeding bodies, cast onto the ground amid white splotches of scattered flour, were the first of so many corpses I was to see.
Wow, how hard life is! I stood there looking. We just stood there, a clump of us—my brothers and sisters and neighbor kids—maybe ten or fifteen minutes, just looking at the bodies. As a little child, despite the violence that I had witnessed in my own family, it was shocking to see the bloody bodies of the three young men. They were hard workers, youths not so much older than we were, covered in dust from the rutted dirt road. I dreamed of this scene near my house for about a year: the faces of the murdered boys in that steaming noontime, and the way your body writhes when no longer directed by your brain.
For us this was the beginning of the time of violence. I don’t remember the date, but I do remember the heat, the dust, the noonday sun and the crowd of us little kids from the school. Sometimes I talk with my family about it and they clam up, especially people of my generation, because we like to pretend that such carnage only happens in films. But when you have seen these things with your own eyes, and your ears have heard the sound of a bullet striking flesh, a machete slicing into a human body—these are things that you can’t so easily forget.
We kids walked those dirt roads every single day. That day we stood in the road, all huddled together, and for us it was… How can I express it?
Okay, now as an old woman I can articulate it: This violence was something profoundly disrespectful. They didn’t harm those youths in some middle-class district. No, they had to come to our impoverished neighborhood and murder them exactly at the hour when children were coming out from school. It seemed that they did it precisely so that we kids would see what would happen. They did it consciously, to terrorize the next generation.
Before they ever reached our district, the killers had to pass through an upper-middle class neighborhood. But such things never happened there amid the pretty homes, the big houses with a garage, people who were employed. Murderers also passed through our narrow dirt streets to dispose of the bodies of people they had killed elsewhere. Perhaps they liked our poverty-stricken, outlying district because all the streets ended up overlooking the river. They tossed their victims down the cliffs so the current would carry them away. The bodies of murdered people always turned up downstream at a place called las Tres Cruces, after three crossings of the river.
As time went on we’d watch killers come and go, but nobody said anything. Sometimes I’m sad, because I wonder: Why couldn’t we talk about these things? Why did we have to keep silent when we all knew who had done the evil deed? Everyone knew it was the army—sometimes we’d even see uniformed soldiers disposing of bodies. We knew that the people with money were behind it.
The incident at the bakery was widely reported on radio and television. They said that the youths belonged to a union, which was prohibited in those days—so they had to pay the price. I had never known what a unionist was; my family unfortunately never had the connections to get work in a private company. Later, they taught us in school about unions and unionists, and then we realized that they were workers who wanted to struggle for their rights.
Who made these boys pay the price? Well, the only people who didn’t like unions at that time were those in the government of Arturo Armando Molina, the PCN (National Conciliation Party). Its slogan was “Vote for the little hands,” and to this day their symbol is two hands clasped. Those hands were stained by the blood of many people who never agreed with what was happening in the country.
A paramilitary death squad formed, the Shadow of Death. They gagged you, beat you, tortured you, and if this was not enough, then they killed you. As time went on, people took advantage of the situation to get back at neighbors they were quarreling with. All you’d have to do is talk loudly about someone, maybe saying that a certain man belonged to the green party, the PDC (Christian Democratic Party), and the Shadow of Death would come at night and murder the whole family.
As a young child I came to understand all this—what the symbol of the little hands meant. I will always remember this, and remember all the people who have never told their stories. I believe that the perpetrators thought us so stupid that we would never know who had murdered the young men at the bakery. I believe the weight of these deaths will always be on their conscience.
And so the delivery boys were dead. Their corpses had not fallen naturally into the road, and we were not going to touch them, either. What could we children have done? Mamá had always told us not to look at dead people, lest we get traumatized. After maybe twenty minutes my older sister said, “Let’s go, monkeys—Mamá must be waiting for us.” And we went running home with the news. But Mamá had already heard, and the curious were coming out to see.
A new era began the moment the bakery boys were murdered. Big changes began to take place, things that my mind never could have conceived of. Only later did we realize that a huge wave of violence was approaching. A diaspora began, of everyone who had the means to leave our little country.
Milagros and Rita have been collaborating on this memoir for several years, and as chapters are completed they are posted to the website MilagrosVela.com. Rita Moran is an active CCSF ESL Instructor. Milagros Vela is a dear friend and a former CCSF student. Milagros uses a pseudonym, to protect her identity.