Woman, Mother, Hero

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This is the first in a series of stories about migration. The series looks into what drives people to pack up their bags and their entire lives to move to a new country and start all over.

The source declined to have her face photographed, and has had her name changed by request.

When we talk about immigrants, far too often we only talk about the numbers or the statistics. We forget that we are talking about human beings, each with their own story.

Teresa is one of these people. She’s not a statistic, she’s a woman, sitting right in front of me, telling me her life story and feeling proud that for the first time in 23 years, she is able to tell it without tears in her eyes.

Teresa, now 55, is from El Salvador. On November 11, 1989, the civil war that had ravaged this small Central American country for the past decade had come to its final and most cruel offensive. They nicknamed it “Till the end” (Hasta el tope) and Teresa’s own neighborhood was “taken” and used as a warzone between the guerilla insurgent groups and the Salvadorian Army.

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As she describes the details of that night, she looks up to the sky. She struggles to recall all the details, not because she doesn’t remember them, but out of hope of having forgotten them for her own peace of mind.

“That night, around 10:00 pm, the guerilla members marched through our street carrying their rifles, yelling and giving orders to open our doors and to give them food and water. My husband had gone to the U.S. a few months earlier, with the intention of working for a few months to make money for our family, and then returning home. I was alone that night, with my two children of 2 and 4 years of age and a teenage girl that helped me take care of them. As the guerrillas walked by, they would break all the light bulbs outside the houses so we would not see their faces…”

That night she hid her children under a bed, covered the windows with mattresses and prayed. Her biggest fear was that once the Army knew the rebel forces were there, they would bomb the area, and no one would survive.

Teresa could hear the civilian men outside helping to build barricades for the guerrillas, just a few houses down from hers. The construction work would last until the late hours of the night.

Afterwards, there was a strong thunderstorm that, as the saying goes, brought a “small amount of calm” to her neighborhood. The morning after, November 12, she heard her neighbors’ voices, people were coming out of their houses; Teresa knew she had to act fast.

She grabbed her purse, her children’s milk and bottles, a few pieces of clothing and ran out of her house. She needed somewhere to go, somewhere where she could feel the comfort and security of familiar faces.

“A few blocks from my house lived my husband’s parents and sister. I carried one of my children, and the teenage girl that helped me took the other, and we walked. We walked what seemed to me like several miles. I did not look up the entire way, because all I heard were screams, the agony of people that were hurt, members of the Red Cross running around – chaos is what I heard, chaos all around me. I finally got to my in-laws’ house. We stayed there that night. The next day, my father, who lived in a different area, came up with the courage to come get me out of the warzone”… narrates Teresa.

Once Teresa was at her parents’ house, rumors circulated of how the rebel forces were getting closer and taking over more land. This forced Teresa and her family to once again flee to safety. However, they returned to her parents’ home after two weeks because she was called back for work.

Teresa worked in a local bank. Because of the danger of the ongoing battle, the bank along with most of the businesses in the area had closed its doors. But after a few days of relative calm, the bank reopened and Teresa was called back for work. Because it was still too dangerous to return to her own home, she bought some clothing and a pair of dress shoes in a nearby market and returned to work.

A month went by. Teresa had spoken to her husband and told him about all the horrors she had seen and lived. Despite life in the U.S. being extremely difficult for immigrants, he told Teresa that she should leave the country with the children in order to be safe from the war.

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For Theresa, the thought of travelling through Mexico with her children was not an option due to the extreme danger, so she took her chances and applied for a U.S. Visa. On December 6, Teresa along with several family members went to the U.S. Embassy, and through what she described was a force of destiny, was able to obtain a visa for herself, her children, as well as her parents.

“I resigned from my job on December 15. There was only one flight that left from El Salvador to the U.S., and in order to get there on time we would have to travel by night. But because of the war, there was a curfew from 6:00 pm to 6:00 am. A few days before Christmas, they announced that the curfew would be lifted for one day, December 24. That was our only chance. I packed my bags, took my children, and we left towards Comalapa Airport without looking back. Once we boarded the plane, my mind still raced through all the scenarios that would prevent us from leaving: bombing, gunfire, attacks, because from the perspective of the rebel insurgent groups or the Army, whoever left the country was considered a traitor, a coward. But what I would tell them is that war or not, all I cared for was the safety of my family. Nothing more, nothing less. The plane took off. I will never be able to describe in words the relief I felt once the pilot said we were flying over Guatemala. We had left El Salvador…” recounts Teresa, now with a different look in her eyes and with a smile on her face, the first since she began telling her story.

They arrived to the U.S. the night of December 24 in the middle of a Christmas celebration, with nothing more than her luggage, her children and the uncertainty of having to build a new life for her family in a country, language and culture she knew nothing about.

People come to the United States for many reasons, be it for stability, opportunity, wealth or freedom. Teresa came for the safety of her family. She came here to Long Island to reunite with her husband and build a new life for her family far away from the turmoil of war.


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