CARLOS MENDOZA MENENDEZ
“Being poor doesn’t necessarily mean you will be unsuccessful.”
Editor’s Note: Spending time with Carlos uplifted and renewed my spirits in humankind! Carlos’ tragic family situation forced him to be the family breadwinner at a very young age. Nearly 80 years later he still has no desire for material wealth. He prefers working in an agency that prepares for and responds to the needs of those in crisis, the International Red Cross, where he serves as El Salvador’s spokesperson and still considers himself a volunteer 24/7. This kind, compassionate, and humble man is a credit to the organization and to his country.
What events in your life were deciding factors in drawing you to those in need?
Being a person who grew up in need myself, I can identify with others who by no fault of their own fall on hard times. My own story begins in La Paz Department with my mom born whose birth certificate reads, “Born alive of Mayan woman.” I am proud of that heritage. She was able to attend school only through third grade. My dad was a barber who died of alcoholism when I was 13. Being the oldest of my siblings, it was my responsibility to work to support the family after my mom lost our home and barber shop to her siblings in order to pay off our family debts. We ended up going to live with other people. I never owned a pair of shoes until I was 15. The teachers made me sit in the back of the classrooms because I had no shoes. As a child I never owned any toys like little cars kids play with. Now as an adult I collect them.
What kinds of jobs did you perform at such a young age to support your family?
EVERYTHING! I sold candy in the cinema, sold lottery tickets, made and sold kites during the October windy season and cleaned gravesites on All Saints Day. One of the jobs I’m proudest of is being a shoeshine boy in the 1950s and 60s because I worked outside the National Palace near the Astoria Hotel, a luxurious hotel where the guard introduced me to celebrities and international guests who gave nice tips which sometimes fed me for two days. In sixth grade I sold newspapers; from grades 6 to 9. I worked during the day and attended school at night to study accounting. I painted houses and even fixed watches.
Throughout all these jobs being exposed to all sorts of people, I observed and learned their needs while living as a needy person. I was always working to survive. At the same time I developed a sense of helping others.
Did you ever try to migrate north for better opportunities?
Yes, three friends and I decided to go to the U.S. in search of the elusive American dream. We were caught and deported to Guatemala, where we stayed working and playing soccer for two months. I returned when my mom was sick and my grandfather made me promise to never leave her alone to suffer.
In the 1980s during our country’s civil war, one of my friends went to the U.S. when it wasn’t difficult to enter. He encouraged me to come. By that time I had two daughters, and another friend discouraged me from going by advising me that if I went, I would lose my daughters. I thought it over and decided that was probably true. I don’t regret not leaving because our family may have separated and lost contact with one another. Besides, I took seriously my vow to my grandfather to care for my mom and stayed in El Salvador as he wished.
Are your two daughters here in this country?
Yes, I live with one of them and her daughter, my grandchild. One daughter works at City Hall, and one works in the cosmetics industry.
What were your dreams as a young man?
If I had had money, I would have pursued a career as a doctor within the poor communities. A friend of mine did that, and people would pay him with a chicken or fruit. Due to my poverty, I could not afford the costs of that education. I am sorry I could not fulfill that dream. However, if I was a doctor, I would not be in the position I am in now where I am invited to talk to groups about various topics, and am serving in another important way.
At what point did you begin working for the International Red Cross?
Working as a delivery milkman in 1970, I witnessed a woman giving emergency birth with the help of a Red Cross volunteer. I stayed afterward talking with the Red Cross worker to find out about the services the organization offered.
Then again in 1974 I read an ad “Save a life: join the Red Cross”; you could take a free first aid training session. I saw this as an opportunity to get involved. At the time I was in charge of a school warehouse and began volunteering for Red Cross. I joined the Red Cross as a volunteer on January 24, 1974, when I was 35 years old.
Our country experienced a horrific, unexpected tragedy at 11:49 AM on October 10, 1986. We had a 5.7 magnitude earthquake in the city of San Salvador. To this day it remains one of the most devastating events our country has dealt with. [According to the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America there were 1500 deaths, 10,000 injuries, 100,000 homeless as a result of this earthquake.] My own house collapsed; fortunately no one was inside at the time, but I lost everything. It was a workday and the high-rise buildings filled with workers inside collapsed onto sidewalks and on the pavements.
On that day I left my full-time job at school and began working full-time for the Red Cross. The needs were so great for so long.
What kinds of roles have you played within the organization?
All positions from rescuer, teacher, head of all the various departments, ambulance crew. I don’t stay home on Saturdays; I come in or go out on ambulance calls. This is my passion. I can no longer physically pick up a patient as I once did, but I can go along on the calls. We all are considered volunteers.
I am now the spokesperson teaching people how to become more prepared for disasters. I see the whole planet becoming more vulnerable to climate changes, and we have to be ready. We receive training from the American Red Cross for things such as monitoring for emergency efforts for the recent volcanic eruptions at the San Miguel Volcano. Norse and Spanish delegates from the Red Cross are here to supervise their projects. We go to the poor communities throughout the country to offer first aid for emergency training about what to do to be prepared.
What are the best and worst times in a job like this?
The moments we save lives are most gratifying. The worst are the deaths in the ambulances.
Can you share a couple of ambulance stories?
In my opinion it is more dangerous now for our drivers to go out than it was during the civil war. During the war we could rescue someone in either guerrilla or military territory by getting permission from either side. Now in gang territory it is difficult to get permission to go in to rescue, and situations are unpredictable because you no longer know who the enemy is.
One of the things we ambulance drivers did sometimes during the war was allow the reporters covering the news to use our ambulances to safely (and secretly) come inside to write their stories, keeping them free of danger. Once a reporter asked to interview me.
What is the significance of the term “international” Red Cross?
Being part of the international federation of the Red Cross is a benefit in that other countries participating in it have the flexibility and obligation to serve one another during emergency situations. It is a way to help each other out. For example, during Hurricane Mitch we went to Nicaragua when they requested our help. That is where the storm first hit. Then their workers accompanied us back here when that hurricane hit El Salvador. The trip was difficult because so many of the bridges and roads were out.
Are improvements in weather forecasting allowing you to be more proactive in your work?
Definitely. Meteorology has advanced greatly since I began in 1974. Part of our work involves convincing poor rural people who are fearful of leaving their land behind to evacuate. We often need to involve local authorities to assist in forcing them into shelters.
What is the size of your staff here?
We have 120 on staff with 2,000 volunteers throughout the country ready to mobilize.
What are some life’s personal experiences that ripped you to your core?
When my mother died ten years ago, it was so tragic for me. I lived with her for years. She was a very religious woman and I became more religious after her death.
Another family experience that rattled me was when one of my four grandkids was killed senselessly in a violent situation. A young couple living near them wanted my grandson’s phone; he wouldn’t give it up, and they shot him. He was 27 years old. He got back to the house and reported the details and lived a month longer dying in the hospital. We are a very close family, and this was such a wasted life. The couple was never found or prosecuted.
Can you share some of life’s lessons most important to you?
One of the roles in my job I most enjoy is speaking to groups such as school groups. I tell them, “Being poor doesn’t necessarily mean you will be unsuccessful.” I don’t own a car. I often don’t even have money for bus fare, but I still consider myself to be successful. Many different political parties have asked me to run for positions such as mayor, but I never accept the offers because I would not be doing what I want to do. Others have offered me money, but I do not accept that. I am faithful to my beliefs and have no political party affiliation. I would like to be invisible and go hear the conversations of politicians sometime.
Speaking of being faithful, do you have a religious life?
Yes, I am a very religious person. Every morning I listen to The Virgin Mary radio station. Every Sunday I attend worship service at the downtown cathedral of Don Rua by the Salesians of Don Bosco order of the Roman Catholic Church. It serves the poor and at-risk young people.
When you are not working – that one day a week – what do you do for relaxation?
I love to read. Gabriel Garcia Marcus of Columbia’s 100 Years of Solitude is a favorite of mine. Reading is a more constructive way of spending time than I used to –which was drinking – prior to my Red Cross days.
Are there things you still would like to accomplish?
It is my mission to inspire young people by writing a book for them. Its title is What I Have Never Told. It will include some of the stories I lived through during the war. Someone is guiding me through the writing process.
Thank you for considering me as part of your project!
Editor’s Note: Carlos’ soft-spoken and sincere personality permeates through his staff who protectively escort us to and from the taxi on the street. He is welcoming and proud of his organization. It is truly an honor and privilege to meet people like Carlos who are willing to give selflessly for others during disasters and crises.
I remember many years ago when starting out on my own feeling overwhelmed by the countless number of charities asking for donations and not knowing which ones were the best choices. My dad responded to my dilemma with some sage advice, “Caroline, you can never go wrong giving to the Red Cross. They go everywhere in the world including into war zones on a moment’s notice and have very low administrative overhead.” I’ve never forgotten that and meeting Carlos brought those words back to me.