Living Through Chaos: One Man’s Experience Through the Salvadoran Civil War

People%27s+Revolutionary+Army+%28ERP%29+soldiers+stand+in+the+mountains+of++Perquin%2C+El+Salvador%2C+1990.

Linda Hess Miller (via Wikicommons)

People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP) soldiers stand in the mountains of Perquin, El Salvador, 1990.

Floridei Jovel, Staff Writer

Content Warning: The following article contains graphic imagery and details relating to warfare. Reader discretion is advised. 

Jorge has always been known for keeping his word and starting his day off with a cup of coffee, Folger’s medium roasted to be specific. He wears a stern look on his face, but that doesn’t mean that he’s unwelcoming. His stocky height and quick gait reminded me of my father. Jorge also isn’t his real name; he and his wife asked me to keep their identities anonymous. 

It was an ordinary day on the porch; the autumn leaves were slowly turning orange and you could hear the sound of the neighborhood’s children crushing the leaves with their shoes. Jorge’s spouse, Maria, invited me in, but I noticed something immediately as I entered.

The entrance wall was filled with photos, newspapers, and what looked to be ration cards, which were framed along the first wall along with a bouquet of roses on the left corner floor and photos of deceased relatives in black and grey. “That’s the Salvadoran Civil War,” said Maria. Although Maria spoke with an inviting tone that tried to educate me, Jorge, who had lived through the war, was distant.

The Salvadoran Civil War (1979-1992) was between the government and military of El Salvador and leftist guerillas and civilians suspected of supporting them. The war destroyed entire villages and displaced thousands of people. Meanwhile, paramilitary death squads targeted mostly peasants because they believed that they organized the revolution against the government.

It wasn’t until the following day when Jorge’s attitude was different and I was greeted on the porch with an atmosphere that was instead gloomy and melancholy, even with the beautiful scenery behind me. Being invited to the house again, I heard a story that brought out a soft side of me. 

“You gotta learn to adapt to situations,” said Maria. “ You have to learn to live with different situations in your life, whether or not you like them or not. You have to adjust and adapt to situations, otherwise, you won’t survive.”

The look of confusion was easily readable on my face as Maria further explained, “If you don’t really learn how to live, you’ll end up crazy. Meanwhile growing up, the context of things is not the same; the children are not the same, the programs are not the same, the context of things is different. Called evolution. You can only fix so much.”

Jorge and Maria have been married for 30 years, but Maria never knew about the war until after they were married. “ My good looks attracted him,” she said jokingly. “It was only after the wedding ceremony that he opened up about the war and growing up through it. He never admitted he needed help but I noticed. I guess my ignorance subsided after he showed me the world through his eyes and that it wasn’t all puppies and rainbows.” 

Maria told me that Jorge lived with his two brothers, his sister, his aunts, and his father. “They all experienced the war, but the youngest brother was just a baby.” 

Maria recalled a time when Jorge carried his brother (the middle child) through the guards and the line of soldiers. “With the father carrying the youngest, Jorge carried his brother in front of him, protecting him and trying his best to cover his ears.” 

On the brink of tears, Maria said, “He passed away though.” Denying to take a break, she continued with her story. The middle child didn’t pass away during the war. 

“They all came to the states but the brother had a heart condition and passed away in his adulthood,” said Maria, sounding clearer now. Maria said she could feel the pain that Jorge felt, especially when attending the funeral and watching the memories play in his mind. 

The following night, I was invited to dinner again, and this time, Jorge opened up about what happened and what he saw and heard during the war. “During the night we would hear gunshots one after the other; and one day in broad daylight, gunshots were fired all throughout the day, ” Jorge said in a monotone voice.

During dinner, Maria was silent the entire time, listening, and not even interrupting Jorge so that they could take a break. “It started around 1980-81, I was 8 years old when this happened and at first I never felt so much fear in my life as I did that day,” he said.

“When the war started, it was started with ‘offensiva’ or whatever that term is called to get rid of the president of the nation or country,” said Jorge. It was obvious from his body language that he wanted this conversation done and over with because it brought up so many bad memories, yet he continued anyway. 

Jorge said that the war lasted about thirteen years and during the war, he never got so close to anyone because so many people tried to escape from El Salvador or died trying to do so. “The news respected their death on tv and on the radio. ” said Jorge “They would have the bodies in a white casket with a red cross from each end and with a white flag standing upon the head of the casket, and the casket locked shut.” 

“I went to one of the funerals,” he continued. “ I didn’t know them, but it was a very well respected funeral and we had a strict dress code to follow. A white shirt with black pants. Many people were crying and throwing flowers at the casket as it was being lowered. It even made me cry a little even though I never knew this person, but I paid my respects.” 

Jorge talked about how civilians often were killed by bombs placed throughout the country. When people stepped on them, they would explode. The soldiers would dig a deep hole and bury the deceased in the same spot but would place a bomb on top of that same spot again. Nothing would be placed on top to signify that someone died there until someone stepped on it again and they would bury it again with a bomb on top. 

“My family and I knew that once we heard that bomb would go off, someone stepped on it,” said Jorge while raising his right hand pointing upwards. “The sound of the explosion was so loud that you would feel the rumbling on the tables and, most times we all hid under whatever was sturdy.” 

Jorge said that his aunt could’ve gotten killed by the guerrilla soldiers (people in the rebel army). She went to the back of the house for the clothes. It seemed like one of the members was keeping an eye on her and she noticed. She quickly ran into the house locking it and pushing anything heavy to prevent it from opening. She told everyone to hide and then they heard banging on the door. They all hid and even covered their mouths to not make a sound. Once they got in, the soldiers ransacked the house and eventually found her. They grabbed her and took her outside, and as they started yelling in her face. A gun was placed behind her head, and they were about to pull the trigger. It was only until her twin got up, found an expensive rosary, and stepped out holding it out and yelling they were being too loud as if they saw the rosary that let go of her respectfully and went on their way after they grabbed her face, threatening that they would be back. They never came back. 

Living through this war, Jorge had to pick up on certain rules to stay alive. You couldn’t travel long distances without short hair, if so it had to be either buzzed or hidden with a thick hat. This meant you were part of a (gang) and you needed to be killed immediately. However, if you did, you’d be decapitated, regardless of where you were or you’d go missing.  “My friend Miguel said he was going to visit and come back,” said Jorge. “His hair wasn’t too long but it wasn’t too short either. He went away on a horse and I was expecting him the following month. Except I never saw him again and saw his mother in tears holding his necklace that he never left without. I even remembered that he had it on before he left.” 

Jorge didn’t want to go against the rules, so he made sure his hair was the required length. “Hence why my hair is so short, I still have the same style I had since I was young,” he said. “Maybe that’s also got me currently married to [Maria]” 

“ My father almost died from drinking milk,” said Jorge. “ We milked cows at the time and when my father went inside to bring one of the pails inside, someone put Natae (Natay) in the milk. (Natae is a poison that can make you extremely ill and if consumed in large amounts can result in death.) My father brought in the other and filled the glass. Once he finished, he turned so pale. Then he started to sweat profusely. After a while, he started to become cold and started shaking on the floor. As my aunts tried to pull him up, he lost control of his bowel and it was all over his pants. As my aunts are trying to talk to him and everything is a slur. After he was taken to bed with medicine and made him move constantly, he was able to get better. The only side effect of it is how he now has to be extra careful with eating .”

Living in fear was part of life. Jorge talked about how decapitated bodies would be lined up by the road shoulder to shoulder and people would walk around in fear because they didn’t want to be killed by the bombs. The dirt would always be in the air as jeeps drove by and with people running outside. The fear of not seeing your loved one again that day is a common fear everyone has, especially when a soldier comes knocking on your door and gives you the devastating news. This also went for the children that stepped on the bombs. Sometimes, groups of people would be taken to the river lined up, and one by one would be shot at the back of the head. With each child, adult, or even elder pleading for a chance to walk free; it would be interrupted with a shot and the next person trembling in fear and trying not to make a sound while they’re crying.

Jorge was able to escape the war but just barely. He wanted to escape but didn’t know how to; eventually, he found and paid someone to help him and other people escape. Jorge’s journey took around two months; he first traveled by boat to Nicaragua. Then he traveled straight to Mexico by bus. However, officials noticed there was something off with the bus ride so Jorge and the people stayed in a hotel for a month. Jorge felt homesick and worried about his family. He knew he couldn’t go back and had to keep moving forward. 

Eventually, they traveled to California, and Jorge immediately called his family and felt safer knowing that his family was still safe. After a few years, Jorge married Maria and had three children, and even obtained his citizenship. 

“I did feel like a millionaire in California,” said Jorge. “Because everything looked so beautiful like in the movies”.

Once the war ended in El Salvador, Jorge reunited with his family. He told me he is still grateful that nothing happened to his family while he was in the United States. 

After a while, Jorge decided to travel to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by bus and stayed at motels along the way.  Jorge still happily lives there and doesn’t regret his decision, especially after escaping from El Salvador. Although there are times where Maria has said that Jorge would have flashbacks and would tremble in fear, there were times when he just needed to be alone. 

This interview has been an eye-opener and even has taken me a trip down through history. It was amazing to work with Jorge and Maria. To visualize what Jorge went through and how he even escaped El Salvador is very insightful. I did make sure to try to not ask questions that would cause Jorge too much stress because this is his story and I wanted to remain respectful towards it. 

When dinner ended, Maria stated that I was a tad bit too thin and proceeded to make me leave with 5 large containers of their leftovers which also included pupusas, grilled shrimp on top of tostadas, thick chicken tamales, fried yuca, sweet plantains filled with blueberry filling, and some curtido. Which I’m definitely not ungrateful for. They also threw in a couple of bottles of horchata and some chicken from ‘Pollo Campero’(they literally gave me that much). 

 We don’t always pay much attention to those who went through something traumatic like war, for instance, because we seem to get so much from the documentaries or textbooks. But what I felt during this interview wasn’t like a documentary. It was more like a piece of history that could be carried down through generations, so we can value those who experienced and fought in the war. I feel that articles like these can provide me with a whole different perspective on those who went through such events. Every time I watch war movies or documentaries,I will now know that I am experiencing someone’s true story.