“The best thing about El Salvador is its people who come together to help solve its problems.”
Editor’s Note: Anyone who lives to see 100 birthday candles on her cake has tales to tell. She lived during unbelievably harsh conditions in El Salvador’s history. Yet Andrea is a survivor! She survived as an orphan, survived losses of two homes – the first by natural disasters and the second as a result of war, survived when others were being kidnapped.
I’ve been collecting candid photos of Andrea over the past couple of years. Something about her endearing face draws me in to want to learn more about her. I find her enchanting and must admit to becoming a bit obsessed with this cute little old lady. When she wasn’t in a group of photos from her pastor, I would write him asking, “Where was Andrea? Is she okay? Is she still alive?”
I began to form a pre-conceived story about her simply by observing her in photos. I guessed she enjoys taking part in the life of her church and community, whether it be riding the bus or spending the day at the beach. She seemed to welcome visits by her young pastor and being part of special church events. My all-time favorite photo is one I’ve used on our own church bulletin board – Andrea holding an infant in her arms. The tender, compassionate look in her eyes moves me to tears every time.
When I asked her pastor, Wuilver Carrillos, to interview her formally, many of my pre-conceived ideas were validated. However, I never dreamed what a very difficult life she has led; and not just parts of her life, but her entire life has been filled with extreme hardships. Yet she somehow has survived through a tenacious spirit, will to survive, and belief in God.
Born on December 4, 1917, I grew up on a very poor farm in the canton of Las Termopilas of Chiltiupan in La Libertad department, twenty-one miles southwest of San Salvador. (Even today the residents of this area are considered among the poorest in the country whose average annual income is $600 or $1.64 per day).
Life has always been very difficult beginning in my childhood. In fact, I had no childhood in the traditional sense. My siblings and I had neither toys nor opportunities to play. We did not attend school. I always had responsibilities within the house, but at age ten, when my parents both died and we became orphans, I then took over many more adult responsibilities including feeding my brothers in order to survive. (Andrea’s parents both died of an illness that swept across the country. We speculate based on the timing and other details that they may have contracted the 1918 Spanish influenza, a worldwide pandemic compared to the bubonic plague of the Middle Ages in terms of fatalities. It attacked primarily young adults).
This required my working in the rice fields, cornfields, bean fields, planting coffee, and all the year-round steps involved in planting, cultivating, harvesting, and composting on our farm to ensure successful crops.
The country’s 1932 Peasant Revolt (La Matanza – peasants’ opposition to the 14- family oligarchy oppression in the country) was difficult for our community. (Leading up to that event were rumors of Communistic threats which both the aristocracy and church endorsed.) Some of the horrific rumors spreading around that I recall include Communists who would kill us and grind us into soap, and that foreigners such as Hungarians would come to kidnap children. I remember running and hiding behind “Isacanal” trees whenever strangers approached. I cried in fear a great deal during that time. (The truth of the Communist threats was unknown, but the mass hysteria the rumors generated was very real to those living it).
Another horrendous memory was during a flood. It was total darkness even during daytime and the earth collapsed from a landslide taking our house with it. Of course, we lost everything, but my brothers and I kept running and walking toward Chiltiupan. Thanks to God we survived.
The country’s civil war was tough particularly at my age. It began when I was 63 and ended when I was 75. During that time we again lost everything including our home which burned to the ground. Every day at 4 PM we hiked into the mountains to hide and slept all night feeling we were safer there unseen. It saved our lives. During the day we survived by eating tree roots. For a long time we lived in a cave and were unable to even start a fire for warmth or cooking due to the attention the smoke would draw to our whereabouts and possibly get us killed. After some time we reached a place known as El Pinal on the summits of Jayaque where some people gave us a place to stay. (According to Google maps, this is a distance of 13.9 miles going directly by today’s road systems!) I worked there as a corn grinder for the workers on the farm and also watered the crops.
My husband was a patrolman. When he became very ill, I was afraid he would die. I asked the local priest to come to our house and perform the marriage ceremony. We did not have the formal service in the mayor’s office. (Formal marriages in El Salvador are rare in poor communities; most couples live in a common law relationship.)
When I was 25, I had our first daughter. Raising our children brought me the greatest joy in my life. Teaching them to live in relationship with God gave me strength.
Fun is not a word in the vocabulary of a Salvadoran farm girl or woman. (She looks down at the ground when asked). Life’s demands and time simply do not allow for fun.
I describe myself as a formal woman, serious, and responsible.
I have no regrets in life. However, I did dream of owning a small store to survive and have cash available to run my house and live on and not have to depend on others. If there was one thing I could re-do in my life, it would be to have that small store.
Salvadorans are a good people known to work together to benefit the greater good and face their problems together. All my life I have lived in the rural districts, never in towns or cities. I have never had opportunities to meet important people like Monsignor Romero or presidents. I am not up-to-date on the news. I live a simple life. I do know enough to be aware that the politicians are not helping with the problems of the country.
My advice for young people is to have exemplary behavior, get along with everyone including their family, show respect for adults, help whenever and wherever they can, and fight for their family. (This seems to me to be ageless advice in any culture!)
Editor’s Note: Having celebrated her 100th birthday, Andrea’s body has reached the point of shutting down. Her daughter helps her reflect on her millennium through her pastor, Wuilver Carrillos, who interviews her using our questions. We thank them for helping document a life of struggle and grace. Although I will never formally meet her, I feel I know her through their eyes and words (and the wonderful photos we have been receiving.) Our hope is that by sharing her life’s story will give her the dignity she deserves.