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Our Mighty Interlocking Roots

The Unknown's picture

I woke up to the sound of the birds chirping, the Motmot’s low whistle carrying through the wind and the Northern Pintail’s sqawks disturbing the early morning. I could see stars thrown across the sky from the small hole in my home. Grass was growing through the floorboards.

I walked along my road; slowly passing the shacks that shaped the street. As I approached the hacienda’s security post, I could see the gun ports of the fortified bunker in the distance. Passing the gun ports, I came upon the gated entrance, reminding me of my battered clothes and warn shoes. I “left” my home, walking past the hacienda compound. Men with guns lined the wall of the building. I could feel their eyes like darts, puncturing any sense of privacy or security. The soldier’s quarters were close; we were told it was for our own “protection.”

I approached the fields with my basket over my neck, feeling light without the small, hard red berries weighing me down. The lush, pulsating forests had been stripped and green bushes lined the pathways of the plantation. The pervading emptiness where once ebony, mahogany, cedar, and granadilla painted the lush landscape, had all been removed.

I leaned down in the long, lush reddish-brown dirt. I began picking the dark red berries off the vines, starting a row that seemed to end on the horizon. The sun burned the bushes and as I popped one berry into my mouth a hot liquid oozed out. I have eaten thousands of them. The sound of the berries banging together in the sack on my hip rings in my ears.

The landowners had stolen our shade. My father had told me stories as a kid about how the land that I sunk my knees into was once his. He told me how on the fields of coffee, he had grown sugarcane, corn, rice, and had many coconut trees, but now it had been taken over and defended by men in camouflage.

A man leaned over to me, “Are you going to Pedro’s house tonight?”

I stuttered. I knew why he was going, but thinking about Fernando, I couldn’t. He was just a boy and I heard they would come and take you if you knew you went to one of these meetings.

The other night three military men went into the house across from mine. I heard loud bangs and screams, “Not my son. Please, take me.” I didn’t hear anything later that night. There was no light and it looked like ghosts were dancing through the house.

In the morning, the mother was cradling a blanket in her arms screaming as if someone would respond.  She could not even begin to think of how she would eat, where she would find food. Since then, I had to come to the plantations earlier, Maria, my wife, said we had to support her.


Our house was smaller with the people we taken in and today my oldest son, Ricardo was beside me, “Can I stop now? Dad, I’m still hungry.” I gave him half of my tortilla, knowing that was all I would eat till dark. His stomach had looked shrunken, folding in on itself with pain.

The man responded to my silence, “You have to come. It is not only about you, it is about freedom. We are tied to our land. Look, you even brought your son.”

“He needs to be here,” I insisted, still not sure if 12 was too young. Some days he still seemed like a boy. His mother had to remind him to bath and he mostly just fooled around with the broken futbol. He was slow anyways. At the end of the day, he had barely finished half a row as I completed my fifth.

We left the steep mountainside where the coffee plantations were and I walked down to the bay, where the ocean met the fresh water and mangroves sprouted in interlocking root systems on the sand. I sloshed through the muddy forest floor. I could hear the vibrations of howler monkeys, but lately I had not seen as many of them. I asked the other campesinos and they commented that just a couple years earlier, coyotes were roaming the woods, but no one had seen one in Acajutla in more than a year.

My son was right. How could I stay? Everything had been taken. My family’s land was gone and Acajutla was getting smaller and smaller. The store at the end of the road had closed without warning. People said the owner just left. He couldn’t live here anymore and went searching. No one knew exactly where people went when they left Acajutla.

As I walked home, the cows roamed into the street at the end of the road. The smell of urine wafted in the air. The sun glowed an orangey-peach on the horizon, illuminating my garden that had started out with beans, jalapeño peppers, white corn, rice, and vegetables that could not be found at the market, but now was just a pile of roots and molding crops. I could no longer tend to them as my days at the plantation seemed to stretch on and the market had stopped selling the sweet peppers that my family savored.

In front of me an uniformed man walked briskly, kicking dust into the houses around him. A womyn was peering through a curtain, seeing if it was the same guard who had stopped a boy a week ago, pinning him to the ground. There were whispers that he had been about his whereabouts as is face was shoved against the muddy earth. When he responded that he was only going to work, the military man spit on him and took him away. There were rumors of children being stolen and given to other families, boys who had been taught to carry guns, to shoot without thinking. People had been trained to kill.

 We left that night. Tripping on roots, navigating the web of mangroves. I had stepped in something soft, a little hill. My legs began to itch, but I had to be brave for my children. I felt tingling up my legs into my crotch, until I couldn’t bare it. I took off my small backpack with a couple tortillas, a blanket, and one pan. I stripped off my clothes and looked down as hundreds of ants crawled into every crevice. I screamed, embarrassed, ashamed, but mostly worried that the military would hear me. Scraping the ants away, little red bumps covered my body as I saw my son’s horrified expression, but we had to press on.

As we reached the end of the forest, we met the river. It was calm on the side, but swirling bubbles and twisted water rushed ahead of us. As I stepped to test a rock, my foot sank and I lost my balance, stumbling into the water.

“Chencho,” my wife, Maria shouted after me. I reached for a branch, but it broke. The river tore away my bag and I struggled to breath.

“Ayudame.” I couldn’t breath. The water was rushing over me, carrying me downstream. The sky looked a deep, thunderous blue, but my vision was blurred. I didn’t know what was up, where I was. My heart seemed to be beating outside my chest. I thought this was the end. I flailed my arms as my gasps became louder, faster…



They were pinning me down. Strange men in uniform had my daughter and son. One man twisted my son’s arm, folding it behind him. “Leave them alone. Please, have me.” They shook their guns at my children.

“Where’s dad? Where’s my father?” my son wailed. A man in a grey uniform kicked my son. “Mom. Help.” We were dragged to a house and taken down to a dark room.

I couldn’t see. “Where are my children? Who are you? Where am I?”

There was no reply. I was left there, shivering in the unbearable, enveloping blackness. I kept yelling until my voice became hoarse and words were drowned out as I choked on my tears. I had left the hands of one military to fall into the palm of a new one. My children were born to a life of destruction, mistrust, and vulnerability. Safety was an uncomfortable word they had never known. They were not familiar the lush diverse forests, but now only recognized sugarcane and those nasty, red coffee bushes.

I didn’t know what else was lost in that river.




Years later, I returned to a land that had been bombed. Scorched shrubs were all that remained of the rich, lust forest just a couple miles from my home. Charred stumps and splintered trees was what had become of the new forest floor. The wildlife and livestock was gone. The rich agricultural soil that had been the bed for the dreams of my husband’s crops was destroyed, poisoned. The clear, rich water had been polluted by the military.

Around me, families were struggling to feed themselves after the war left small-degraded plots of land unable to be developed.

I came to live on the Lower Lempa where I was given my own small section of land after the Peace Accords. My livelihood is tied to my environment. The wealthy release large amounts of water every couple of months and many have been flooded off the land that they were given, but we must keep growing.

I have two cows and many chickens. With many other families, we work together to harvest crops, constantly diversifying and adding new ones. Where many were only growing corn, fields are filled with cashew nuts, mangoes, oil seeds, beans, and many others. We are developing fruit trees, grains, and vegetables into a system that supports itself and is also sustainable in the face of new and more powerful kinds of floods.

There is a place in town where I buy adaptive and native seeds, hardy tree saplings, and organic vegetable seedlings. I see people from many communities there and I get to talk to them about new crops and I learn about ways to cultivate beans and various grains. I feel safe for the first time. Now, as I look out from my house, there are no guns, no one is keeping guard, but interlocking root systems lead to fish ponds and the green, mighty mangroves that have become my home.


Anne Dalke's picture

The Unknown--
Last month, you traced the political, economic and cultural history of the indigo plant—and we agreed that it had been a challenge for you to pull together the rich resources you assembled for that project into a shapely whole. So this time around—when you doing something that has a similar shape, though it’s much more delimited--tracing the migration of El Salvadoreans and their relation to their land, around the time of the Civil War—you tried a very different mode of presentation, organizing all your research in the form of a first-person narrative.

I think what you have written is very powerful; you have a good grasp of the politics and of the agriculture; the voice (well, the voices, since you shift from father to mother mid-way) are clear, and the word choices mostly appropriate (I blanched at “womyn” and “environment,” but otherwise—great!). It’s very interesting for me to see—and I admire-- how clearly you’ve been able to tie the political atrocities of the civil war to the denuding of the land, the shift in agriculture.

I’d like to see your bibliography, please—the sources on which you based this story. And now the next conversation we can have will be about questions of appropriation: on what authority do you “get to tell” such a story, if the experience was not your own? Are those sources you’ve read authorization enough? (There’s lots been written about this, if you’re interested…)

The Unknown and Persistence— give a look @ (and comment on?!) your construction of two very different personal stories