In which a brave and determined young woman sets out on a dangerous journey to a new land.
Silvia stepped out of the quiet house into the village street as the first faint light of dawn was tingeing the horizon. She shivered and pulled her jacket close against the morning chill as she walked slowly down the silent street to the edge of her village.
All of a sudden she glimpsed a dark shape slumped in the roadway. She paused trembling with fear, but the huddled form showed no signs of life. As she drew near, she noticed with a shudder that it was the body of a dead man. A dark pool of dried blood spread out around the man’s head. Although a dead body was no longer an unusual sight in her town, it still shocked her to see such violence. She averted her eyes as she stepped gingerly around the corpse, and continued on her way.
In a few minutes she was clear of the village, walking warily north on the road to Chalatenango. Her anticipated destination lay far to the north, and there would be many dangers to face on her journey. She had finally decided to leave her war-torn country of El Salvador when the fighting drew close to her town. In spite of the curfew, gunfire disturbed her sleep almost every night, and she frequently woke to the gruesome sight of bodies in the street. Her aging mother who shared their small house drew her aside one morning, and begged her to go north to her uncle in Los Angeles. Silvia prepared some simple belongings in a backpack and bought a new pair of tennis shoes for a journey which would most likely require her to cover considerable distances on foot.
During the first day of travel she had to climb into the ditch several times to avoid army patrols, and she hid once in a grove of trees when she spotted some FMLN guerillas walking toward her across the fields.
She feared that they would force her to join them. She crouched shaking behind the trees until they had passed. After two days she crossed the border near Metapan, weary and faint from days of walking under the hot sun. She had slept only a few hours in an abandoned building, and she had long since devoured the meager food she carried in her backpack. She still had to travel across Guatemala, and up through the length of Mexico to reach the United States border.
On the first day in Guatemala she was lucky enough to fall in with some fellow refugees, traveling north to escape the violence. It was safer to travel in a group, and they shared what little food they had with her. They tried to make themselves as inconspicuous as possible travelling in the early morning by back-roads and trails. They found many Guatemalan villagers willing to shelter them and feed them in return for help planting their crops or doing their chores. The villagers warned them to watch out for soldiers who were at that time engaged in the ruthless persecution of indigenous people and the plundering of their farms and villages.
As Silvia drew close to the capital city of Guatemala, she had little money, and she was so exhausted that she felt she could not go any further. She said goodbye to her friends, and spent her last pennies on a bus ride into the city. After many hours of searching she found a place to sleep in a Catholic church, and the next day the kindly priest helped her to find a job washing dishes in a local restaurant. The work was hard, but Silvia was relieved to be free of the dangers of the road and the endless hours of dusty, aching marches in the hot sun. She stayed at her work for several weeks until she had saved enough money to buy a bus ticket to the Mexican border. At last she said goodbye to Father Ramiro, and set off on the next stage of her journey.
The Mexican border guards detained and questioned her at the crossing. They were suspicious and did not welcome yet another refugee to their country. When they finally admitted her reluctantly for a short stay, she breathed a sigh of relief. But her troubles were far from over. She faced a perilous journey four times the distance she had already travelled. She had little money and no companions. Many who made the journey north tried to travel on the roofs of trains because it was a fast way to cover the distance, but it was highly dangerous as robbers preyed on travelers and not infrequently raped or murdered them. Silvia, an attractive young woman of twenty-three, decided reluctantly that the train was indeed too risky and that she must continue her journey by road.
It took her three months to reach the United States border. She walked usually with mixed groups of fellow travelers. She took the bus whenever she had money, and she stopped several times to earn more whenever she could find work.
She was stopped twice on the road by robbers who took her small items of personal jewelry as well as whatever money she had.
Although terrified, she remained as calm as she could, to avoid assault or molestation. On the second occasion one of the robbers had begun to run his hands across her body. She was seized with a cold fear, and she felt sure he would drag her off to the bushes at the side of the road, but at that very moment the sound of an approaching vehicle on the road alarmed the robbers and caused them to scatter into the bushes, leaving her shaken but unharmed.
Finally, after many hot and dusty days, she arrived in Tijuana close to the border. She could not afford to hire a ‘coyote’ or smuggler to sneak her unseen across the border, so she spent several days seeking out other refugees, in the same plight as her, who were willing to try to cross over together.
One dark night a dozen desperate men and women set out through the dark hills, led by a young Salvadoran who had attempted the journey before and claimed to know the terrain. Soon, however, they were lost in the darkness, wandering blind through the night.
Suddenly there was a clatter of helicopter blades and a bright spotlight probing the night. The refugees scattered as the spotlight swept the darkness. Silvia crouched motionless in the brush, and watched as two jeeps and a truck arrived, and the border guards began to round up her companions. She held her breath, stifling an urge to sneeze as a guard passed so close to her hiding place that she could have reached out and touched him. By a miracle she avoided detection, and watched with a mixture of relief and sorrow as her companions were driven away into the night, leaving her alone and lost in the darkness.
When she woke from sleep, it was already light. Emerging cautiously from her hiding place, she made her way through the hills northward. It was quiet and deserted, and she met nobody. Grimy and dusty with only the clothes she stood up in, she wandered into a gas station and called her uncle from a payphone. He was surprised and relieved to hear her voice.
Three hours later he picked her up from a little coffee shop off the highway. They drove together to his modest home in South-Central Los Angeles where her aunt embraced her, fed her a hot meal and showed her to a comfortable back bedroom. Silvia fell asleep for the first time in months between clean sheets, safe in the house of a relative. She awoke hours later in a cold sweat to the sound of helicopter blades. For a moment she thought she was back in her country or in the hills near San Diego reliving her nightmare, but it was only the LAPD on the trail of a drive-by shooter!
It would take months for Silvia to get comfortable in her new country and make a new life for herself, but she was determined and motivated. Later she would get married, move into her own home and go back to school.
How do I know this story? Because Silvia was a student in my ESL class, and one day we had a “show and tell” session. Silvia brought the pair of battered tennis shoes that she had worn on her journey from El Salvador to the United States. She held them up like a proud trophy as she told her teacher and classmates the epic story of her momentous journey to a new life and the realization of her dreams. It is only one of many stories of courage and endurance that I have heard over the years from students who took a risk and made the long, eventful and dangerous journey to a new land. However, I believe it is one of the most dramatic I have ever heard, and I will always remember the simple eloquence of Silvia’s words and the glow in her eyes as she told her story. Her words inspired me and made me feel that my life and my work were worthwhile if I could, in some small way, help such a courageous young woman. God bless you, Silvia. People such as you are truly ‘the salt of the earth.’