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Guillermo Yanes was born in El Salvador to poor, peasant parents in the rural countryside. His family worked the land, deeply connected to the soil and plant life of their country. They had clear values and a strong work ethic. Guillermo grew up as someone who worked hard and had distinct morals. His family made sure of this
He came into adulthood in the 1980s, right as a bloody and terrifying civil war came into its own as well. Bombs would drop in his backyard, and people were killed every day. He thought that of all the countries to live in, El Salvador was the most difficult, had the harshest of circumstances. There were rivers of blood in the gutters. Every morning when Guillermo woke up he would see hundreds of bodies piled on the streets and the freeways. It was a traumatic time. As he puts it, “it was like life had no value at all.”
The Civil War in El Salvador consisted of the leftist FMLN (Frente Farabundo Marti de Liberacion) forces warring against the current military government. The United States, afraid of a potential communist takeover, pumped aid money into the military. The El Salvadoran government brutally repressed uprisings, and the toll was estimated to be around 70,000. It took the murder of a housekeeper, her daughter, and six Jesuit priests to jar the international community from it laconic slumber (“Enemies of War”).
The United States House of Representatives formed a special task force to investigate the atrocities that were occurring in El Salvador. The committee found that the United States had been backing a truly awful and repressive regime. This helped involve the United Nations, who helped negotiate a peace agreement and, in 1992, end 12 years of civil war (“Enemies of War”).
The economy was devastated by the instability. People left the country selling whatever they had in their hands. They fled to churches and embassies, looking for any way out of the war torn country. The only real work available was to be a soldier, and that was a deadly, brutal occupation that did not guarantee any kind of reliable pay.
Being in El Salvador was especially dangerous for someone like Guillermo. First of all, he was a young man, and as such was ripe for recruitment. If he was not taken to fight for the government, he ran the risk of being taken to fight for the rebels. Either option likely meant death, at best.
Aside from the concerns of his age and sex, Guillermo was in an even greater danger than most. Never one to stand back and let brutality run its course, he had become an activist and dissident, fighting for social justice. He saw much injustice, but as the 1980s crawled along, he saw the injustice transform into something larger, something out of control. It was not clear that any action of his would revive the country’s suffocated human rights.
Guillermo and his family realized that he was likely to forfeit his life if he stayed in El Salvador. It was his home and the place where he had his most beloved family, so the decision to leave was not an easy one, but it was the only appropriate course of action. His mother sold her family’s most precious possessions, making the choice to allow her son a future rather than provide herself with a financial safety net. She understood the possibly mortal danger that Guillermo was in.
The path to entering the United States was not an easy one. The main arenas of entrance from El Salvador were either the American embassy or the Catholic Church, but there was no guarantee of help. The United States was a popular destination due to its successful economy and relative stability. If every El Salvadoran who desired to do so had gained entrance, the US would have been flooded with new arrivals.
Despite his family’s best efforts, Guillermo was unable to secure any kind of legal path to the United States. He managed to find asylum in Guatemala in 1984, but the political situation there was precarious, so he moved again, this time to Mexico. He moved back and forth several times between these countries and El Salvador, one of those times because his mother was very ill. He was afraid that she was near death and wanted to have the chance to say goodbye if necessary. She ended up pulling through, so a grateful Guillermo turned his efforts once again toward legal immigration to the United States of America.
Although it was heartbreaking to leave behind the ones he loved so dearly, Guillermo saw that in the United States lay the opportunity for him to put his family in a better situation, at least financially. If the civil war was the factor that pushed him out of El Salvador, it was the American economy that pulled him into the country that would soon become his home. Even doing menial jobs by American standards he could help supplement his family’s meager living, and Guillermo by nature was a kind and helpful son.
Finally, in 1994, Guillermo entered the United States under the auspices of the Catholic Church. He landed in the San Francisco Bay Area and moved in with some relatives who had taken up residence there. The atmosphere was full of contention, in part due to the crowded conditions. He shared a small room with eight or nine relatives, so privacy was nonexistent. They helped him a small amount, but for the most part he was on his own, a refugee in a strange land. He does not describe this branch of family as particularly supportive. They did not encourage him to pursue a career but rather told him that he should make a living doing entry level labor.
When Guillermo first arrived in the United States, he spoke no English. Isolated in an unfamiliar culture, he was forced to work jobs that gave him no satisfaction, such as washing dishes and working at a gas station. From this experience he learned that he wanted more for himself than unskilled positions like these. He didn’t know how to go about finding a career, but he vowed to himself that he would find some line of work that he was passionate about. It was just that the language and culture barrier made things very difficult.
Life has a way of working things out, and, unbeknownst to Guillermo, his path was about to get clearer. One day, he received a telephone call from a friend in Washington, D.C. Guillermo expressed his dissatisfaction with his current situation and his friend said, “Hey, why don’t you come stay with me?” Guillermo was delighted by the prospect of an escape, so he assented.
Guillermo worked hard doing odd jobs for a Chinese man. The work was uninspiring, but it was easier to endure it knowing there was a light at the end of the tunnel. He saved up $400-$500 dollars and decided that the time had come to leave. He knew nothing at all about American geography, but he nonetheless felt fairly confident as he purchased his train ticket to Washington. His friend had told him that the train ride would be three days, so Guillermo had some idea of what to expect.
Boarding the train, Guillermo eagerly anticipated his reunion with his friend. Working to save up the money had been hellish, hours upon hours spent chopping fruits and vegetables for the Chinese man, in addition to any miscellaneous work the man might have for him. The train’s rhythmic chugging lulled Guillermo into a soft slumber. He was on his way to an unknown set of opportunities and this excited him. He needed a change of scenery.
Approximately 24 hours later, the conductor announced that the train had arrived in Washington. Guillermo caught only the tail end of his announcement and felt vaguely surprised that he had made it to Washington so quickly. He thought that the distance across country must be much shorter than he had thought. America must not be very large, to be able to traverse it so quickly.
Guillermo exited the cramped train as the conductor called out the last stop. It did not sound like “Washington, D.C.,” but it had the word “Washington” in it so it had to be right. He waited on the platform for quite some time, scanning the thinning crowd for his friend, but the friend did not arrive. Exasperated, he found a pay phone and dialed his friend’s number. “I’m here, where are you?” Guillermo exclaimed.
“No you’re not,” his friend replied. “You don’t get here until tomorrow.”
Confused, Guillermo handed the phone to a random woman who was walking by. She spoke English into the phone, then started laughing. She said something to Guillermo that he didn’t understand, then gave him back the phone.
Guillermo’s friend explained to him that there were two Washingtons, Washington, D.C. and Washington State. Guillermo had inadvertently arrived in Washington State, in a city called Seattle. He would have to stay the night there before he could take the right train, first to California and then to the East Coast. As he strolled down the street to find a hotel, the day shone brightly and the air was crisp. He eventually located the cheapest hotel he could find and settled in to spend the night.
When he awoke, it was another beautiful day. Seattle’s characteristic rain was absent; the grass was verdant and flowers bloomed everywhere. Guillermo was in love with the city already. When he went to the train station to buy his ticket to Washington, D.C., he found that he couldn’t. He made the decision to stay in the Pacific Northwest.
The decision was a bold one. Guillermo knew no one in Seattle and had a very limited grasp of the English language. Even so, he knew it was the right choice. He went to the Catholic Church and told them that he was a refugee from El Salvador and needed their help. Lucky for him, they had a program for Central American refugees that would provide him with food, shelter, and a certain amount of schooling. It was exactly what Guillermo needed, and he was pleased at the way things fell into place.
Through the Church’s program, Guillermo slowly learned English and began considering potential careers. He knew that he was not content to be in the service or manual labor industries as more than a temporary financial stop gap. He also knew that he needed to be doing something that improved the lives of others. As the years moved forward, two options emerged for him. He could be either a social worker or a landscape architect.
At first, Guillermo tended toward the social work option. He volunteered quite a bit, gaining experience in the field. One such placement involved being a counselor at a homeless shelter. He loved feeling needed, and he was good at brightening people’s days. However, he found that, at the end of the day, working in social services made him feel stressed and frustrated. There was too much bureaucracy getting in the way of being able to help people, and he knew that this bureaucracy would burn him out quickly.
Guillermo didn’t consider landscape architecture to be any less of a service to other human beings. He states that “I realized to have impact on world that there are so many things on the planet that we cannot control, but if you can plant a tree or plant a flower or make someone’s life better by giving them something beautiful to look at then you already do something great for that person.” He recognized that creating something beautiful in the world was another way to improve the lives of others.
Meanwhile, things began to come together in Guillermo’s personal life as well. Eight years into his American adventure, a friend came on exchange from Costa Rica. It was the first friend Guillermo had seen in almost a decade. The friend introduced Guillermo to the woman who became his wife. She helped support him through his budding landscaping career and agreed that it was a good choice.
Guillermo faced discrimination along the way, particularly in regard to schooling. He wanted to go to architecture school and began applying to places where his wife could conveniently relocate. He was thwarted, however, by money. He did not qualify for scholarships because he was in the United States on refugee status. Even when he told the administrators that his status was changing soon, they denied him. He never ended up attaining his degree.
Statistically, Guillermo was part of the norm. Only 9.8% of all Latin American immigrants to the United States graduated from college. This is astounding as compared to 43% of African and Asian immigrants (Portes and Rumbaut 67-102) . Given the civil war, it would have been nearly impossible for Guillermo to attain an education in El Salvador, and due to rules around citizenship, an education became equally out of reach in the United States.
Fortunately, Guillermo was resourceful and skilled at landscaping. He managed to create his own very successful business, even with a license but no degree. He did work for a clientele as diverse as a Hollywood celebrity and the master gardener at UC Berkeley. The latter saw him working and asked what school he had been to, to learn to work the land like that. Guillermo paused for a moment and then explained that he had never been to landscaping school, but that he came from generations of farmers in his own country. The master gardener, somewhat taken aback, told him that he didn’t need to go to school; he was already one of the best landscapers he’d seen, a natural.
By this time, Guillermo was located in the Bay Area, happily married and with a booming business. He received the distinction of being the 10th out of 100 best landscapers in the area, according to the Contra Costa times. He had become Americanized in several different ways. These days, on an average day, he wakes up to NPR, uses his iPhone, and watches the news. Because his wife is Caucasian, most of the people he socializes with are Caucasian as well, primarily engineers and attorneys. Although he has never been much of a drinker, he has a glass of wine with dinner. He has no desire to return to El Salvador permanently, although he misses his family and homeland.
Last spring Guillermo returned to El Salvador for the first time in twenty years. He went back twice in a relatively short span of time, as his father was dying. He was afraid to go back because of his activism. There was a very real concern that he could be killed, even though the war had ended and a tentative peace had taken hold. Going back was a jarring experience for him. He no longer looked like a salvadoreño but rather like a gringo, a tourist.
The trips reminded him of the things he cherishes about being from El Salvador, as well as the thing he loves about living in America. Among the things he cherishes are the strong set of values he received from his family.. His father taught him to work hard, and that hard work was rewarded. As a child Guillermo hated this, because waking up at 4 am at the age of six to work the fields “is no fun,” but now he respects this work ethic. His mother taught him to be honest and true, to treat others the way he wanted to be treated.
His other main tie to El Salvador is the language. At work he speaks in Spanish, and when he is angry at his wife he often finds himself using his native tongue. He does not consider himself to be particularly comfortable with English, in comparison. Knowing Spanish as intimately as he does makes him bound to El Salvador in a way that cannot be erased.
Guillermo is deeply connected to the United States even as he retains his El Salvadoran roots. He believes that there is more hope here, that America will be the next great nation. He says that “my wife laughs at me because every time I hear the national anthem or see the flag I salute or put my hand on my heart, because Americans have no idea how beautiful and how important this country is.” Having made his way through the most trying of circumstances to a country far away, he is proud that he can truly appreciate it, can truly call it home.
“El Salvador: Civil War.” Enemies of War. PBS, n.d. Web. 19 Mar 2012. .
Portes, Alejandro, and Rubén G. Rumbaut. Immigrant America, A Portrait. Univ of California Press, 2006. 67-102. Print.
Hayden Stern wrote this story as a student in Professor Maggie Hunter’s Sociology of Immigration class at Mills College.
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