On May 26th, 1979 in Chapeltique, El Salvador, Laura Marcela Zelaya Granados was born into a ruthless civil war between the military-controlled government and a large left-wing militia. Unknowingly, her childhood years would be plagued by constant bloodshed and enough terror to last a decade. This conflict showed the horrors of war and tore apart her country. Divides were created and remain between families to this day. Her family was not untouched by the war, and often tomorrow was never guaranteed. A child grew up during this war. One never wonders what the impact of war is on a child, let alone a girl. Often, we hear the stories of the soldiers, but rarely we hear the stories of those who were caught in the crossfire. This is my mom’s story.
March 24th, 1980. Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was assassinated by a rebel of the Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacional during mass. At his memorial service, in which over 250,000 mourners gathered, the radical left guerilla groups opened fire once again (“El Salvador”). This event marked the beginning of the civil war in El Salvador. How did it get to this point? After the distrust and fear of the military-led government, many small guerrilla groups formed calling arms against the government of El Salvador. Poverty was widespread and those who had money were connected to the government. After seeing the promises made by Fidel Castro and Cesar Chavez, many believed socialism was the way out. By the time of Archbishop Romero’s assassination, the groups had consolidated into one large faction called the Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacional (FMLN) (Flemion). Their desire was to overtake the military-controlled government and establish a Socialist government. With the backing of Nicaragua, Cuba, and the USSR, the FMLN had the power and support to fight this war (Allison). While the Salvadorean government had the backing of the United States (Allison).
My mother’s memory of the war doesn’t begin until around the age of five. At this point in the war, fear plagued the country. Every day had the possibility to be your last. Of the many memories she recalls, one is when her nanny picked her up from school. When the FMLN would approach towns, townspeople would announce their arrival, signaling for the people to hide. Often, when the FMLN rode into towns, they shot their rifles aimlessly killing anyone in sight. My mom recalls having to hide in some stranger’s house that one day and staying there until her dad could pick her up (Zelaya). My mother, only five at the time, didn’t understand the severity of the situation. “To me, this was normal, you’d hear the people announcing their arrival, then scrambling to find shelter which began to feel like a game,” she recalls (Zelaya). Her life could have easily been taken if she hadn’t taken shelter in that stranger’s house. This was everyday life, and she knew no different.
The FMLN rode through towns with the intention of taking control of them to serve as bases. Their main focus were large cities like San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. Through bombings and shootings, the FMLN were relentless in trying to take control of major cities. With their goal of overthrowing the government, large cities were vital to their success. Often, they’d rely on the townspeople to help them with this goal (Zelaya). Men were called to help transport soldiers and young boys were forced to be soldiers for both sides.
Late one night, my mom’s family woke up frightened hearing a banging on their front door (Zelaya). Startled, her whole family got up to see who it is. Surely enough, it was soldiers of the FMLN. Immediately, all their hearts sank, and fear filled their body. They demanded that her dad drive them to the next town over, Sesori. With guns pointed at his head, her dad had no option but to drive them to Sesori. Once he left, my mom and her family weren’t sure that he would come back, as many men during the war did not return (Zelaya). “The fear of not knowing if that was the last time I’d see my father still bothers me to this day, life was so unpredictable during the war” (Zelaya). Their Catholic faith grew strong during the war and in moments like these, prayer was their consolation. After a long night of prayer, miraculously, he returned the next morning although his truck was ruined. While driving the soldiers, they mounted their guns to the top of his roof and stood in the tailgate firing at anything in sight. At the cost of his life, the damage to their truck was worthless.
Electricity was a commodity during the war. In the crossfires, electrical wires were damaged, and many people lived without electricity for months. My mom’s family were fortunate to have cars, in which they used the car battery to provide electricity (Zelaya). News was critical during that time; it gave updates on who was winning the war and the state of their country. My mom’s family had a small TV that connected to the car battery and this was how they would get their news (Zelaya). Although there was only one channel, Venceremos, which translates to we will win. This uplifting name inspired hope and faith that one day the war will be over.
Life continued during the war. As much as it was an inconvenience, life could not stop. My mom recalls walking through the streets and seeing the national soldiers picking up the dead bodies and throwing them into a truck. Bloodstains were everywhere as rivers of blood flowed down the streets. Imagine a 5-year-old, constantly surrounded in this environment. You become numb to death and for a period believe this is what life should be like.
11 years passed from the start of the war. The citizens of El Salvador were tired. Desperate for peace, the two sides finally began peace talks. The United Nations led the talks between the two groups in Mexico in 1990 which was heavily supported by the United States (Flemion). In 1989, six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter were dragged from the University of Central America and murdered (“El Salvador”). After 20 months of discussions, the Chapultepec Peace Accords were signed on January 16th, 1992 (El Salvador).
Finally, life could begin to return to normal. In fact, my mom’s family began to make plans beforehand of what they’d do once the war is over. My grandfather planned on coming to the United States in 1994 to watch the World Cup. He also planned on retiring from his position as principal, to enjoy his family and rest after years of constant horror. Unfortunately, my grandfather passed away in November 1991. He never saw the peace accord or was able to accomplish his dream. “To me, coming to the United States served as a small accomplishment of my father’s dreams, I knew I was making him happy” (Zelaya). Her hero during the war, who showed no fear before her or her family during the war, was never able to see the end of the war. Soon after his death and the signing of the peace accords, her family moved to San Miguel in hopes of a new start after years of fear and terror.
Allison, Mike. “El Salvador’s Brutal Civil War: What We Still Don’t Know.” Opinions | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 1 Mar. 2012,www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2012/3/1/el-salvadors-brutal-civil-war-what-we-still-dont-know/.
“El Salvador.” The Center for Justice and Accountability, cja.org/where-we-work/el-salvador/.
Flemion, Philip F., and David G. Browning. “Civil War.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 20 May 2020, www.britannica.com/place/El-Salvador/Civil-war.
Pike, John. El Salvador Civil War, www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/elsalvador2.htm.
Zelaya, Laura. Personal interview. 4 October 2020.