Intipucá, El Salvador – 1981
Gabriella inhaled sharply, as the tropical breeze blew her long black hair around her face. She squinted up at the house she had known for 16 years ago, and the life she was about to leave behind. Her mother was yelling nearby, trying to get her grandchildren in order as she bid them goodbye. Gabriella did not want to look – the idea of leaving these kids she had helped raise herself was unbearable. But sure enough, a small tug on her skirt brought her back out of her troubled thoughts. Her niece, Sonia, was looking up at her with curious eyes, offering a small red flower in her hand. “Be careful, Gabi,” she whispered, with a look of wisdom far greater than her years. For an 8-year-old, she could not possibly understand the danger ahead for Gabriella and her mamá. But instead of reprimanding her, Gabi crouched down and took the flower gently from her. There was fear in Sonia’s eyes because staying at this house in Intipucá could present a danger even greater than crossing the American border – the pandilleros were coming. Gabi sighed and hugged Sonia’s frail body close to her, she was all skin and bones – lately with 10 mouths to feed, there simply wasn’t enough food to go around. “Thank you,” Gabi murmured, trying to prevent the sea of tears from coming. “Cuidate también. I’ll write you as soon as I can.” She knew it could very well be an empty promise. Millions of people who embarked on this journey disappeared, never to be heard from again by their family members.
It was the voyage of no return.
If Gabriella made it to the United States, there was a possibility that she could never return to her hometown in El Salvador – she would be an illegal immigrant in America, with little to no rights, and a very limited, difficult path ahead. But she could write letters to her family members, send them money from whichever small job she managed to get, she would even have the opportunity of getting an education! And maybe… just maybe, she would see them again. That was much better than the other alternative – being raped, killed, or sold on the journey there. Little Sonia would have no way of knowing what had happened to her grandmother and aunt, she would simply never hear from them again.
But as her mother kissed her grandkids goodbye, and they hugged her long skirts tightly, Gabriella knew they had to go. This was the only chance they had at new life. Civil war was raging in El Salvador. Very soon, the rebels and pandilleros would descend on this small town, at the very least demanding money the villagers did not have, or at the most, pillaging, raping, and destroying their town.
Papá had insisted they go, determined to protect his youngest daughter and his wife, the love of his life, insisting that it would be easier for him to stay to protect the children his other sons and daughters had left behind. Gabi’s older siblings had all taken this voyage and crossed successfully, leaving their parents with the responsibility of their children.
It gave Gabi hope that she and her mother would successfully make the trip. It would take 8 days to reach the United States, and they would have to go through Guatemala, Mexico, and cross the treacherous Rio Grande in the hopes of reaching the Texan border.
“It’s time,” Gabi looked up to see her parents standing before her, the pinnacle of self-control. Mamá was holding herself rigidly, all business, pushing her emotions to the side. And papá, the softer one, had a small, uncertain smile on his face that couldn’t quite mask the fear in his eyes. He could potentially lose his whole world on this journey. But he continued, “I’m so very proud of you. Do not doubt yourself, have courage, and protect each other. We’ll see each other again in a couple of months.”
Gabi smiled, not quite hiding the tears pouring from her eyes. Her parents encircled her in one final hug together, until her mother pulled away, sniffed, and picked up their two small bags – all they could afford to bring.
Gabi looked back up at the house, this time with determination. There was no choice, it was time to go. She was no longer the small town girl who helped around the house and helped raise her siblings’ children. She must be a woman of strength, courage, and calculating intelligence to make it out alive.
And she would.