“ I have an open mind about other possibilities that may appear. I hope things improve. I want to help my family.”
Editor’s Note: It defies my imagination how deep the tyranny of the Salvadoran gangs can infest certain neighborhoods or communities by totally disrupting the lives of their everyday citizens. Fear from intimidation paralyzes shopkeepers to the point they feel threatened to keep their small businesses open. Fear of crossing gang turf prevents others from attending church or even some from walking on the streets. Fear of choosing to interact with someone obligated to a gang frightens youth from dating. Fear of all the gang-related drama in schools precludes some students from attending school.
Fear instilled by gangs even enters the sanctity of private homes when you least expect it. That is what happened to Alfredo. What makes Alfredo different is he left that community in order to save his life, save his family, and perhaps save his own spirit. We chose to assign this young man a pseudonym for obvious reasons.
Growing up as the middle kid of six children, I have enjoyable memories of living near San Salvador spending time with family and friends. After I turned eight, we moved to a finca. My life was a repetitive routine of attending school during mornings and working with my dad in the fields during afternoons. We raised corn, radishes, squash, oranges, mandarin oranges, and pineapple. The crops sustained our family; plus we sold the extras. My high school classes met all day, but I worked in the fields on weekends.
In high school I studied auto mechanics. We took regular classes during the morning and then the technical skills, in my case, auto mechanics, in the afternoon. In my second year of high school, I apprenticed in an auto mechanic shop to learn and practice those skills. In my country public city schools are generally rated better than rural schools. Private schools provide the best educations. During high school I received a scholarship from my church to attend classes.
BEGINNING OF YOUTH PROBLEMS EMERGE:
It seems like we have national amnesia, since people forget that at the end of our country’s civil war (1992) there was still much unrest between the ex-guerrillas and the ex-military forces. No, it was not gang-related, but violence did exist.
As early as 1995 our area began experiencing unrest and difficulties among our youth. One of our uncles encouraged my older brother to go to the U.S. due to the violence as well as to find employment, since he had no luck finding a job here. He used a coyote to guide him. My mom gave him a reluctant approval and the freedom to go.
My brother’s leaving had a negative impact on me and others. His best friend was killed in a rival gang area. My brother was the only one who would protect me, so after he left in 1996 or 1997, the older boys began to hit me for no reason knowing I was more vulnerable.
EVOLUTION OF GANGS IN MY PUBLIC HIGH SCHOOL:
The high school I attended was very problematic. It began as simple rivalry among different institutions doing no physical harm to anyone. They would steal one another’s uniforms, backpacks, or belts with the labels marking the names of the institutions as trophies as innocent fun. Later, fistfights and stone throwing took place. Then territories were established, and one group was not permitted to step across the boundaries of the other group. Threats became commonplace. Rivalries and clashes made the perfect environment for organized gangs to immerse themselves. The ladder of violence quickly escalated into vengeance, injuries, and death.
In my high school four gangs were in control. Fights occurred in the cafeteria, outside, even in the classrooms. In order to protect themselves most students aligned themselves with one of the gangs. On your own, you risked the gangs attacking and injuring you. Some of my friends and I refused to join a gang and defended ourselves. The gangs looked negatively at us and accosted us but still allowed us to study. This made learning negligible.
POST HIGH SCHOOL:
I left behind a whole world I knew and worried about my brothers still in school, but I can’t do anything except counsel them to finish school. I can’t change the situation in school. After high school I continued studying auto mechanics in Santa Tecla’s two-year technical school which I completed in 2014. It is 60 km away making it possible to commute the two hours each way and live at home. I was robbed on the bus several times. It is impossible to leave our community without traveling through territory where gang members frequently stop youth taking away their ID.
OUR FAMILY AFFECTED BY GANGS:
My dad no longer farms. He sold the finca because of the gangs. He also used to have a small internet café for many years. I learned many computer tech skills by spending much time there. Again, my dad sold that business because of the gangs. My sister tried to set up a bakery in our house but gave up the idea due to the gang influence.
I no longer live at home because of a very frightening experience I had with gang members in our own home. According to them I was romantically interested in a girl who was obligated to their gang. First of all, the girl was merely a friend who I would talk to in my dad’s internet café when she came in as a customer. I never dated her. I talked to lots of girls who were acquaintances. (In fact, I was dating a girl in another town.) If she had told me she was gang obligated, I would have avoided her. Members of this gang arrived at my home one night after jumping our fence. They told me to get down on my knees, and guys on either side of me put pistols to each side of my head. I obeyed. I could have taken one of them. I allowed them to beat me for four minutes, the longest four minutes of my life. I thought I might die there. My siblings were crying. My father was pretending not to be effected, but he too was crying. I was not afraid of dying. They stopped beating me and told us not to go to the police and threatened me never to go near this girl again. My mom was not at home at the time.
Four months prior to this incident gang members had stopped me asking why I attended a church in gang territory. It was intimidation.
Everything became complicated after that night, and I said I did not want to stay for fear the next time they really would kill me. I didn’t want to put my family in a situation of always watching out for possible harm or being at risk for danger themselves. It would be too difficult for me to see the faces of my assailants in the neighborhood every day.
I forgave my tormentors and am not resentful of them. It just was not going to be helpful for me to stay, so I left the community in the middle of the night. I sought refuge with a friend.
The next morning I was scheduled to begin a job with the airlines. I was not about to miss this opportunity for employment. I showed up for work wearing dark sunglasses from the bruises of my assault the night before and never told my new employer what happened.
I was able to work as an airline mechanic for five months; however, the company let a group of ten of us go in August, and I have not worked in that field since then. The company had very strict working guidelines. If your shirt was outside your pants, they had cause to fire you. If you said one bad word, they fired you. One day members of my work group committed some errors at the airport and the company fired the entire group of ten to set an example to the other employees. They don’t distinguish who made the errors; they simply fire the whole group. The odd thing is that I wasn’t even at work that day. I was given pre-approval for time off to lead a church youth group on a retreat about climate change. I returned to find I had no job.
I wanted to work on my own as a mechanic, but the gangs would not permit that. Then a friend and I discussed working together, but he abandoned me.
Six years ago I thought I would be a successful youth by now, but I was wrong. It hasn’t been like that. I hope to be successful getting a job. I have an open mind about other possibilities that may appear. I hope things improve. I want to help my family. If I had the finances, I would like to study at the university, but that is not realistic. I am aware of a government-approved study in computer on-line coursework to teach technical skills. I’ve been studying for the entrance exam which I will take tomorrow. If I pass, it is a five-year program and almost free. You study weekdays and take exams on weekends. This is something I could do while awaiting employment.
My dream is to find another hard-working youth in my age bracket who wants to work in mechanics because it is too difficult for me to do the work alone. I have lots of projects in mind for someone who has similar interests.
I do not wish to migrate to the U.S. My brother who is there stopped communicating with our family 15 years ago. He has not returned to visit in 19 years even though he has documents allowing him to do so. My mom suffers greatly from that, and I would not want her to face the uncertainties of losing a second son.
active youth in urban church
POSITIVES IN MY LIFE:
Working with youth in an urban church in areas such as reducing and preventing violence, recreation, spirituality, small group interactions, animating the youth, and visiting the communities are all positive ways for me to focus my energy and make a difference in the lives of young people.
WHEN I PRAY:
I ask God to forgive all the errors I’ve made, for opportunities for personal and professional life, and to care for my family. I thank God for having exceptional friends, giving me life, and the chance to tell my story. Several times I’ve been faced with life and death and am still alive. I thank God for everything that has happened to me.
FREE TIME ACTIVITIES:
I enjoy creative cooking, gardening, and learning the guitar.
Editor’s Note: The gangs may have lots of intimidation techniques to instill fear in people, but some of these resilient, hope-filled Salvadorans like Alfredo have positive energy and outlook on their side. They won’t easily be pushed into oblivion.