One day when I was about ten years old, while living in El Puerto de La Libertad, El Salvador, I received a package. It was a heavy winter coat, complete with fur around the neck. It was brown cowhide-leather outside and white inside. It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. Along with the package came the good news; very soon I would see my mother again.
My mother left El Salvador when I was about six years old. One very early morning I remember she woke me up and took me outside of the room we all lived in and with a bag at her side told me that she had to go to the capital city of San Salvador to see about something at the hospital. She promised I would see her soon. She gave me a kiss and left. I was too sleepy to think anything of it. As the days went by and she did not return I learned that she had gone north to the US as so many other men and women were doing at the time.
Any ways, it was more than 35 Celsius in El Puerto de la Libertad and here I was wearing this brown leather coat as if it was snowing. I was glowing. I didn’t know what was cooler, that I would soon see my mother or that I had received that out-of-this-world coat. Deep inside I always feel bad because I think I was more excited about the coat.
Some time after getting the coat I was told I would soon leave to go north to the US with one of my older brothers. He lived in the capital city of San Salvador so I barely knew him, but I knew who he was so I was not scared. I was super excited to be leaving that small town, the war, and to be leaving the care of my sisters whom I didn’t have a good time with at all during the years I was under their care.
My older brother eventually arrived to get me and we set off in an old bus to Guatemala. It took forever to get there. After all, we were planning to enter the US illegally through Mexico, so getting on a plane was not in the cards for me. Of the thirty days we spent traveling north, very few details remain in my memory. I remember being in the cargo part of an eighteen-wheeler not knowing whether it was day or night. We got on many buses, and did a whole lot of walking. We also spent a lot of time waiting around hidden in houses or really crappy hotel rooms. The image of that nasty overflowing toilet in one hotel room in Monterrey, Mexico, still haunts me. I swear I can still smell it when I think about it.
At one point right before crossing the river over to the US we were caught by Mexican immigration authorities. There must have been about twenty people in our group. They put us on a bus and everything, but our “coyotes” (human traffickers) paid a bribe to the federal officers and we were let free to go and try to cross the river. I even remember this one very large lady that was traveling in our group. The “coyotes” had a heck of time trying to get her across the river. They had rigged a rope from the Mexican side of the river to the US side. They inflated the black air bladder that came inside of car tires back then, and the idea was that you would sit with your butt in the center hole of this floating donut while you shimmied across the river with the help of one of these guys. Well, with this lady, I have no clue how they did it. I do remember when I got to the other side it took quite a while to see her come across since she was next after me.
Once we were on the US side there was more walking to do. Eventually we got into one of those really comfortable vans. The type of van that has a cushy captain’s chair, carpeting and everything. It was really cool! In El Salvador all we had was a light bulb (just one) to light our living space and a battery-operated radio. No TV, no fridge, no carpeting. You can imagine what this van must have been like for me. I felt like I was inside a castle. Plus, the engine made almost no noise as we drove on the highway. Whenever I get into that type of van now a days I always remember that ride from Texas to NY.
We stopped for gas and to go to the bathroom every so often at the large gas stations next to the interstate. I remember the signs labeled “Exit” on the side of the road and feeling like we were going in circles because they all look alike except for the number. During one of the early stops, they bought us slices of yellow American cheese, a bag of Wonderbread and a two-litre bottle of Pepsi. I was in heaven. Remember the not having a fridge, TV, carpeting, and only one light bulb where I used to live? Well, this van was becoming more and more like a castle with every stop. I clutched that bottle of Pepsi and bag of Wonderbread the whole way thinking there were no more to be seen ever.
During the rid up to NY, we stopped in different states to drop off people from our group. It was always the same scene; people would get out of the van, hug some people good-bye and turn around and hug some other people hello. It was interesting, I thought. When we got into NY I was dead asleep, and still clutching to the Pepsi bottle and bag of Wonderbread. By this point there were only a few drops of soda inside the bottle and the very last piece of bread in the Wonderbread bag. I did not want to eat the last piece of bread nor drink the Pepsi for fear it would be the last time I’d ever have any of it.
The van had stopped and my brother woke me up and told me it was time to go. I didn’t say good-bye to anyone, but I did grab my bag of bread and bottle of soda. Those were coming with me anywhere I went, I swore. We got out of the van, crossed a wide street and all-of-a-sudden were in front of a house and my mom was standing at the door. It was February, so it was freezing cold outside. As I stepped into the house the heat hit me like a boxer’s punch. My mother hugging me made me even more hot, enough to sweat. I remember there was another older brother there and my two other older sisters were also waiting. I’m the youngest of eight, so everyone is older. All were smiling; embracing, saying nice things, and making me sweat even more with their hugs. But it was cool; mainly because I had never lived with any of these characters and only knew they were my family because every now-and-again they would visit when we all lived back in El Salvador
Eventually we made our way into the kitchen of the house. That was the only place what had enough light for us to all see each other fully. They were all in pajamas and my older traveling brother and I were in our coats and I had my hands full with my trinkets from the trip; my bread bag and soda bottle.
My jaw nearly dropped to the floor when someone opened the fridge in the kitchen. There were more Pepsi bottles and bags of bread in it. I could not believe it. There was more! A lot more! I was in utopia. Only then did I drop the bread bag and soda bottle I had been protecting since Texas. It was incredible.
This was my introduction to American abundance. Before that life for me was about eating beans and rice, tortillas, and drinking water mixed with sugar to make it taste different – we called it “azucarada”. We would eat chicken meat or ham sandwiches only at gatherings we were invited to everyone once in a blue moon. Drinking soda or eating meat was totally out of our price range, so being in front of this fridge made my senses go wild. I did not know what to do with so much. I still feel that way, and very often. Whenever I walk into a supermarket, or even a 7eleven with all its full and colorful fridges makes my senses go crazy every time.
Roberto, you have an engaging style of writing that I never knew of! And your story, although well-known, told first-hand as you do is gripping. I hope you write about your first introduction to American schooling. What was that like?
I’m glad to be able to read your ¨voice¨. Keep writing! We miss you a lot here. Things went 3 steps backwards since your departure.
Looking forward to the next installment!!!!
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