Miguel Ángel Vásquez, priest of the parish of Nueva Trinidad and Arcatao since 1986, sits in his church and recalls the Salvadoran Civil War. Unlike other priests in the area, he never worked with the guerrillas against the army, he says. After the war, repopulating the municipality — which encompasses seven independently governed regions scattered throughout the dense forest — was no easy feat.
“People would have good reason to hate or remember the guerrilla unfavorably, but they see the past through a different lens. They took upon themselves the struggle of the guerrilla,” said Vásquez, explaining that both sides of the armed conflict inflicted deaths in the area near Neuva Trinidad where Víctor and Aníbal live.
“If the war had gone on, we would have already died a thousand times,” said Víctor’s mother, Blanca. A lot has changed since the war, she said. “There were no manufacturers, like there are now, to give lessons to the children. We’ve suffered greatly, but we’ve gotten [international] help, shoes, notebooks, uniforms. We had no water before, but now we do, even if we do pay for it.”
Carasque, the canton surrounding Nueva Trinidad, has changed in other ways too. Students learn about peace and civic duty, the consensus against mining, and the movement for equality between boys and girls. Students complete high school and learn about their own heritage. Murals throughout the area depict the community’s strength and resilience, though the contemporary history of migration to the United States doesn’t make an appearance.
In La Playa, a narrow concrete path gives way to Aníbal Martínez’s sprawling home and convenience store, which he slowly constructed with remittances he earned through his work in the U.S. Years back, he demolished his mother’s old house, building her a room in his new, much larger home among the jocote trees. He shouldn’t eat the fruit, he says. In fact, he’s allergic to it — so much so that he has trouble breathing when he does. But it’s a guilty pleasure.
Aníbal, tall and blond, sits out on his porch with his daughter between his legs, flapping his broken plastic sandals against his heels. As he recalls his childhood hunger, he tears up. He never made it past seventh grade. When he was 14, his father died, and he was forced to work on the farm full-time to support his family before leaving for the U.S.
“I’ll be honest; I’m not ashamed. I left to support my mother, little sister, and nephew,” Aníbal said. “We had just enough to eat, but I couldn’t do it on my own. I worked from dawn to dusk, sometimes at night. I would go into town to look for work. I wasn’t the only one. I told myself, ‘To get away from this work, I’ll take the risk, because one day God will give me enough to eat.’”
Martinez suffers from a spinal injury he got while living in the United States. As he recounts the backstory, tracing back to Denver in 2012, he re-lives the pain. As he opened his fridge, he felt an electric shock in his back and crumbled to his apartment floor. It was a familiar pain from his Salvadoran childhood, when he fell from a pepeto tree and landed on his face with such force that he thought his eyeballs must have popped out from their sockets.
Twenty years later, he felt a stabbing pain in his back, a reminder of the damage to his spinal disks. He spent months unemployed, alone. The medical bills pushed him back to work. He sent money home for the house and the first two cows that he bought his current partner, a Honduran woman he met in Denver.
“You don’t quite grasp the amount of damage you carry inside until the pain gets out of hand,”’ he explains. “I think most of those who go to the United States come back injured.”