What if a Violent Gang Threatened Your Daughter?

That’s a theoretical question I am privileged to ask in the safety of my suburban New Jersey home. My daughter is now 23 and was never threatened by a gang. But for many Salvadorans, the question is real, and often requires a split-second life changing decision.

As a volunteer for First Friends, an organization that provides visitation and resettlement assistance to asylum seekers and immigrants, I have hosted many Central Americans after their release from immigration detention. Much of the time, I never learn the particulars of why my guests came to the US.

Sometimes we become Facebook friends and I see the life they left behind, pictures of proud families at first communions, triumphant children smashing through finish line ribbons and silly gifs with crazy techno-colored animals. Their lives seem happy.  

Of course, I know why people leave­–the violence, the gangs, the poverty. Long feature articles from the New York Times, the Atlantic and The New Yorker about the horrors Central Americans face back home litter my bedside floor. But somehow the words on the page aren’t enough, my need to understand only deepens when a real-life Jose or Pedro eats a plate of scrambled eggs in my kitchen.

My aching curiosity compelled me to sign up for a trip to El Salvador as part of a “More To Migration” seminar hosted by the United Methodist Board of Church & Society.  Being in El Salvador made it easier to step into the story. I felt the urgency as the narrative unfolded live in the resolute voice and rapid hand motions of the person in front of me.

Representative from Cristosal, an organization that helps displaced Salvadorans

One of the storytellers was a representative from Cristosal, an organization that helps Salvadorans displaced by violence. She explained that for many, the trip to the US comes as a desperate measure after being violently displaced several times within El Salvador, ping ponging between being victimized by the gangs and the police. She illustrated her point with an animated video, La Partida (the Departure), about a family who received a demand from a gang member that they “donate” their 14-year old daughter Érica in exchange for family’s safety.

Later that week our group traveled to a school up in the mountains outside of San Salvador. A real life Érica in a neat polo shirt stood in front of us, and with the skill of a seasoned presenter detailed all the school had done for her.  Her teachers later told us she was a superstar bound for university. Érica was a much-needed point of light in a trip filled with horrifying stories.

The real life "Érica" presenting to our group

As we left the school, Érica stood on the uneven cement ramp leading down to the bus, giggling as the boys pantomimed for her attention. The light glinted off her waist-long hair as it only does for the very young. As we proceeded to the bus, our trip leader pointed to the school’s cinderblock wall and casually mentioned that the school shared the wall with the home of a MS-13 gang member. Seems there is an understanding between the gang and the school about the student’s safety. Hope lives on a knife-edge in El Salvador. As we Americans have begun to understand, it only takes the actions of one rouge actor to change everything.

"Érica" and her school mates

There’s a life-affirming joy to feeling a connection with people of another land like Érica, but it comes with a destabilizing sense of vulnerability. I saw Érica with my “mother eyes”, imagining the debilitating adrenaline surges her mother must experience when Érica returns home from school just 10 minutes late.  I understood, maybe for just an instant and in the safety of my tour bus, the animating fear behind the smiling Facebook pictures that propelled my Central American guests across the border. 

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