“I have been so blessed!”
“Give opportunities for the children and women; inclusion not marginalization.”
Editor’s Note: Ruben’s eyes still get misty when he shares the childhood experience which continues to both haunt and motivate him. It is the memory of never having enough food and his dad’s quietly choosing to divide up what little there was among the children rather than eat himself even at the end of an exhausting work day.
In his own life he has felt divine inspiration was responsible for aiding his quick exit out of the country into Costa Rica and then Canada at a time when he was threatened by virtue of his job at the university. Later he spent time in Germany and the U.S., and worked in many Middle Eastern countries. He returned to his roots in El Salvador as a way to pay back what he was given.
Are you and your family from San Salvador?
No, I am from Santa Ana near Guatemala. It is considered the second city of El Salvador. My mom did whatever jobs she could such as being a maid in order to sustain our family. When my older sister got a teaching job in nearby Armenia, she turned over her entire salary to my parents to help them raise us. This was her decision, and it was a sacrifice. It wasn’t much but helped a little.
My dad immigrated from Guatemala. He was a second-generation immigrant from Spain and was a tall and light-skinned man. Dad was a strong guy able to do many kinds of work. Times were hard, and there were five of us kids. (I’m number three, born on May 5, 1948.) We were ALWAYS, ALWAYS hungry, and this moves me still when I think about my dad getting home late from work and my mom urging him to eat. He would always refuse saying, “No, save the food for the children”.
My dad got his lucky break from the Baptist high school principal named Eugene Ceberholm. My dad was the driver of the garbage truck at the school, and one day the principal asked him if he would like to work for Thompson Construction Company. This North American Company was expanding into San Salvador and my dad could do anything. My dad worked with them for the next twenty years. The job changed the lives of our family.
What did you pursue for a job after finishing your education?
The principal was committed to academics but also keen on sports. Although I had hoped to become a physician, this was unrealistic for our family to afford. Instead, there was a delegation from Japan who was training Phys. Ed. Teachers. Some members had seen me working out and asked if I would be interested in being part of their program. I told them I needed a job. In addition to training, they offered me 75 pesos a month ($10), food, shelter, and said I could visit my parents one weekend a month. I took the deal more because this offered my family one less mouth to feed and one less burden on my parents than for any other reason. I knew the Japanese would provide good intensive educational training, as well. In 1971 after two years training, I was offered a scholarship to study in Cologne, Germany, where I spent the next five years. I received my Master’s degree in Worms, Germany. I returned to El Salvador in 1977.
The Salvadoran government wanted me to become principal of the school the Japanese had left. I was there supervising 200 teachers for four years from 1977-1980. This was during a time of big educational reforms.
This is now the beginning of the civil war. Were you and your family safe, given that Santa Ana is a hotbed of activity?
One day when things got really, really bad in 1983 or ‘84, we were going to have a soccer match, and my parents were coming to dinner. Before 7 PM I was to take the money for the players’ transportation to the necessary person. Someone approached me, pushed me down, put a knife to my back, and psychologically tortured me by saying, “I’m going to fire 1 bullet only, but I want you to describe how it feels going into your brain.” I remembered I was carrying a piece of paper in my pocket from someone in Santa Ana that read, “Please consider Ruben Vasquez is our friend, and he helps our soccer team.” I handed him the paper and he respected it; he took nothing and didn’t harm me. That piece of paper saved my life.
Another time about a year later I was accompanying a group of our students on a bus from San Miguel to San Salvador. We had passed the Golden Bridge and everyone on the bus was asleep when I saw a group of soldiers stop the bus and push open the door. Our kids were caught in a crossfire between the soldiers on one side and the guerrillas on the opposite side. The kids were screaming with the soldiers firing at the bus. I started yelling, “LET’S GO SOLDIERS; FIGHT FOR THE COUNTRY!” and making lots of commotion. By this time the bus was unable to move because of the damage from the bullets. The soldiers just wanted rid of us, so they took all of us off the bus in our underwear up to a big hill. The next day a big truck came through and picked us up.
Were you taking sides at this point?
Things were getting worse and worse at the university, and I saw lots of my friends getting killed. We were not being protected at all. We had been examples in the community as teachers, and now we thought if they (military) are acting this way to the teachers, it could happen to anyone. No one spoke about it. The military had the power to do anything, and we didn’t carry weapons to protect ourselves. People like Bishop Gomez were speaking out, but they didn’t have much support. Both the military and the guerrillas were forcing us to join their causes, and we didn’t want to join either one. We felt like “the meat of the sandwich.” I’m not naïve; nothing was more subversive than the reality itself. Trying to alleviate the suffering of people was considered to be communist? It made no sense. It was perceived to be a problem if you offered an alternative. What do you do for poverty to go away? Is it fair to say that you aren’t in any ideological camp per se?
This was a moral and spiritual dilemma for me. This is now 1985, and I was married and had three young children ages nine, five, and two. What do I do now? My family’s safety was at risk. Even if I got a gun to protect myself, how do I protect my family? I was suffering. I couldn’t sleep. How do I stay safe while helping my fellow countrymen?
The decision was made for me
Today this is still in my heart and brain and I can’t solve it rationally but this is what happened. In September of 1987, I simply stopped at the Immigration Center just to feel out the situation, sharing what was happening for me. The next thing I know the woman listening to my case literally pushed me out of the country. She made the decision for me. I went without any papers straight to Costa Rica for six months. My family was sent to Santa Ana to gather some things and then to Calgary, Canada, where I met them later. I am so happy I went to that office that particular day and was assigned that specific sympathetic woman. She probably saved my life and the lives of my family. I believe it was more than a coincidence.
You carved out a life in Canada?
Yes, I lived in Calgary for 24 years, from 1987-2009. I helped refugees while living in Canada. In the middle of the night if someone needed something such as a ride to the hospital, I took them. The churches sent me to Montana to help with education, health issues, carpentry training. Meanwhile, my dad died three years after we left the country. My mom just died last year at the age of 94. I served as a professional soccer coach in the Middle Eastern countries of Saudia Arabia, Quatar, Dubai, Bahrain, and Kuwait from 1998-2007. My family did not accompany me during that time. It was too hard to keep adjusting to moves. Initially when my family moved to Canada, my four-year old son suffered from PTSS (Post Traumatic Stress Syndome). He lost all his hair, and he screamed at the sight of any policeman. It took much care on the part of his teachers, understanding police officers, and other caregivers to help comfort him.
Where is your family now?
They stayed in Calgary. My wife and I have been separated for 15 years, but we have a very amicable relationship. My kids are now 40, 35, and 31. My daughter is an architect, and my two sons are also international soccer coaches. I have two grandchildren. I have a relationship with another Salvadoran woman who is a dentist here in El Salvador.
What is the biggest problem in the country now?
We have to realize and be prepared to change. I have faith that we won’t give up. We are in a transitional democracy. In the past, government denied everything and required people to do exactly what people expected. We have to somehow instill faith back into the people.
How do you move forward for yourself?
My decision is whether to pursue a legal divorce and have the opportunity to move my present girlfriend legally to Canada with her two children. Although she is a dentist, she is willing to work as a dental assistant. It would be uncomfortable to be in the same city as my ex-wife and children. I’m 64. I have to find a job and am in conversations for various possibilities. If a job here in El Salvador does not work out, I will return to Canada in March or April.
When did you return to El Salvador and why?
I always stayed in touch to know what was happening here in El Salvador, wanting to see how things were improving. When the civil war ended in the country, I returned. I went to the jails and organized sports. I spent Christmas Day with the inmates playing soccer, dancing, and praying with them. I thought if I could save one person, it was worth it.
I returned to El Salvador to live three and a half years ago in order to give back to the country what I was given. I tried to convince the president of the general director of the National Institute to “please, don’t ask me to produce champions; give me the money to help the communities prevent violence and give them opportunities to avoid going into the gangs.” In the beginning The National Institute was all for producing CHAMPIONS! I said, “What is a small country like El Salvador doing competing with big countries like the U.S. and China? Come on. Let’s use our resources that we have to solve the more urgent problems we have. Let’s give opportunities for the children and women, inclusion, not marginalization. Those issues are killing us! Kids now want to have hope and the only way they can have hope is by being given opportunities. For me I don’t care if sports makes the government bigger; we want the communities to grow one by one to be strengthened and THEN the country will grow, not the other way around.
I have written sports policy that was never written before, and I made sure that it was written in such a way that people of all kinds were included and not excluded. Let’s let ten people get together to play a sport to enjoy ourselves, and then no matter who wins or loses, we get together and talk about the social problems within the community – garbage collection, education, employment — because the people have formed a group to discuss bigger issues now.
Along with many Calgary sponsors, I sponsor a school in Santa Ana for 130 homeless children. They play sports every week, and our funds provide them with instructors, equipment, uniforms, meals, and swimming excursions. The kids actually prefer playing soccer barefoot and wearing the cleats to school. This is a small way I feel I can give back to the community that raised me, the one in which I have roots. It is a way I can personally contribute and make a difference in the lives of young people in an area I know is effective because I have spent my career in it – sports.
“When talking with people, you learn about yourself,” Ruben concludes at the end of this interview.