AHUACHAPAN province, El Salvador -- To the naked eye, Tacuba and Guaymango resemble any other isolated, poor Central American mountain villages defined by timelessness and obscurity. Mangy dogs lounge lazily near rutted roads stirring only when a rare vehicle rumbles by, and only the roosters who crow at daybreak seem eager for another day of poverty and struggle to begin. The affairs of the outside world would appear to have little bearing here.
Yet this remote outpost near the Guatemalan border has not been isolated from George W. Bush's war on terrorism. As part of El Salvadorian president Antonio Saca's decision to join the United States-led "coalition of the willing," he has sent a force of 380 soldiers to fight in Iraq. Nearly 10 percent of them hail from the rural towns of Tacuba and Guaymango in the Ahuachapan province -- three hours by travel in rickety "chicken busses" west of the capital, San Salvador, and almost impossible to locate on the map without a microscope.
Even though Saddam Hussein never posed a threat to Central America, and the national security of the U.S. is a concern only to those Salvadorians lucky enough to survive the harrowing migratory journey to "El Norte," some 35 local boys have fought side-by-side with the American armed forces near Najaf, north of Baghdad.
The war in Iraq has given them a chance to see the outside world and people far from the dusty streets of their home villages. Many have returned with the spoils of war from the deserts of the Middle East, along with eye-popping stories.
Only one, Natividad de Jesús Méndez Ramos, didn't make it home. "Tivito" died on April 4, 2004 in Najaf when his 16-member squad ran out of ammunition while fighting Iraqi insurgents, and were forced to wield knives. His body now rests in an elaborate gravesite in the cemetery outside of Guaymango, which was given by the Salvadorian military. Tivito's mother, Herminia, received condolences from her government, but today she struggles to continue forward. She is a widow and mother of five living in a humble dwelling where sickly chickens and flea-infested dogs compete for every inch of shade and drop of water.
Six-year-old José Antonio and four-year-old Marcos sleep on a dirt floor, and the family has had no stable source of income since their older brother Tivito was killed in Iraq last year.
When United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited El Salvador on November 11 of last year to thank this tiny country for its assistance in Iraq, he mentioned Tivito's death, but he did not visit Herminia. That would have entailed flying to the air base near Ahuachapan and then jolting down a series of unpaved dirt roads to face a poverty that few soldiers in the coalition of the willing would recognize.
Amistad con los Estados Unidos
The first thing one notices walking into the office of Tacuba Mayor Joel Ernesto Acosta are the American and Salvadorian flags proudly displayed side by side on his desk. The man dresses in conservative western attire -- in a pressed blue collared shirt with pens protruding from his breast pocket, wire-rimmed glasses, and a finely combed part in his dark hair. Acosta could be an accountant in any town in the U.S.
He shakes the American journalist's hand with eagerness and points with pride to the framed pictures of him attending various mayor conferences in Florida. During the subsequent interview, he uses the word "orgulloso," which means proud in Spanish, no less than seven times.
"Tacuba is tiny, but the people here, their valor is great," he beams. "We are proud to help the American army because we practically owe our freedom to them. We don't look at ourselves as independent or separate from the United States, but as a country that stands together with them. That's why our flags fly together."
In this country there are two distinctly different ways of interpreting the U.S. role in El Salvador's bloody, 13-year civil war that ended in 1992 under United Nations-brokered peace accords. To the revolutionaries, students, workers and priests in the Catholic Church who preached liberation theology to the masses, and sometimes paid with their lives, the United States under Reagan, armed and funded the military death squads who used a scorched earth campaign and killed tens of thousands to quell the uprising.
Weeks before he was assassinated in March of 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero wrote a candid letter to Washington asking the U.S. to stop funding the Salvadorian military because it was "killing our children."
But to Mayor Acosta, a member of the traditionally right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party, which triumphed over the Faribundo Martí National Liberation (FMLN) rebels in the civil war, the Americans were the only reason El Salvador didn't fall to Communism; the elephant to the north stopped the bloodshed and helped the country regain its dignity.
Perhaps more importantly, the United States poured in millions of dollars in aid money after a devastating earthquake hit western El Salvador in 2001. If a poor man remembers the most recent act of kindness the most, then there should be no mystery as to why the mayor of Tacuba and his constituents all but worship the United States. For this village is a stronghold of Acosta's party -- put simply, the pro-American political option in this country. Just contrast the state of the ARENA party's headquarters with that of its rival, the FMLN party. On a sunny day in early April the ARENA stronghold's doors are open to the public, just two blocks away from the clean and inviting Parque Central. Nearby on the street local boys jam out to boom boxes, and soldiers sit on doorsteps, cradling their automatic weapons in their laps and relaxing in the midday sun. There is life here.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town the FMLN revolutionary party's headquarters are closed and padlocked. Paint on the building is chipping away, and the whole place looks abandoned. Next door is a sleazy discotech where an obese, sweaty woman in a tight skirt dances by herself next to an overbearingly loud jukebox. Outside on the street a skinny dog lies in the dirt.
Walk up and down the streets of Tacuba and one can't help but notice several dozen houses lined with sparkling new coats of white paint that stand apart from the others like immaculate churches in the slums. Near the front door, each house boasts a U.S. Aid plaque in, naturally, the colors red, white and blue. These are homes that American money built after the old ones were completely destroyed by the earthquake.
"The people here already lived in great poverty," Acosta continues. "Many worked in the coffee plantations, but when the price of coffee fell the families suffered. There is no other source of income.
"And then the earthquake destroyed so much. If it weren't for our friends in the United States ..."
Not to mention the Salvadorians who now call themselves Americans. Largely to escape the civil war, nearly two million live in the land of opportunity, and almost every family here knows someone in the United States. Acosta, himself, has a brother and three nephews in Los Angeles. And the family that runs the Mama and Papa Guesthouse, where tourists in Tacuba stay, married their daughter to an American colonel who was stationed in Ahuachapan in the late 80's to train the Salvadorian military. They now live in North Carolina, and happy pictures of the colonel in uniform, the bride in her white wedding gown, and two lovely, dark-haired children now adorn the living room's walls.
No news is good news
It is a vicious cycle, these soldiers going off to war and then returning six months later, if they are lucky, so others can take their place. Tivito's battalion represented the second Salvadorians to land in the Middle Eastern sands. The third group, which just came home two months ago, is still gallivanting around Tacuba with smiles beaming across their faces and welcoming parades of extended family and friends into their USAid-funded houses to show off their war trophies.
In the corner of Private Wilfred Galese Amagoña's living room is a display reaching clear to the ceiling that could belong to any middle-class Middle Eastern family: stuffed camels and tigers stare down from the upper level of a green and yellow shelf table. Below them is a strategically placed Amstel beer can that was purchased in Kuwait. Behind the table on the white brick wall hangs a flowery curtain from the orient, and above that framed tapestries of the holy mosques at Mecca and Medina, lit up at night. Off to the right are posters of the Real Madrid and Barcelona professional soccer teams, and above that a plastic replica of a Kalashnikov rifle.
Amagoña's wife sits on a couch watching an old re-run on a poor quality, black and white television, and occasionally entertains her impatient young children. The soldier is not home. He went off with buddies to throw back a few beers.
But outside of town at the home of Hilda Dalila, whose sweetheart Juan Antonio Gonzalez shipped out to Iraq in February, and isn't expected back for another four months, the scene resembles that of Herminia Ramos, the mourning mother of Tivito. Worried anticipation and sleepless nights plague Hilda, who lives with her father, Angel Cortes Zacarias, and her and Juan's children, Mario Adilson, 4, and Elvis Aviel, 2. She only hopes she will be able to celebrate like the family of Private Amagoña when her own returns to Tacuba, unscathed.
Like Herminia, Hilda's family lives in a virtual shack under a sheet metal roof far enough outside of the village that one needs a durable jeep, hiking boots and a body slender enough to fit through the narrow opening in the barbed wire fence to access it. They all but live on the soldier's salary, which is deposited monthly into a bank account in Ahuachapan. If something were to happen to Juan, that money would dry up and leave the family in trouble. But right now they aren't thinking about finances, they just miss him.
"It's sadder for (four-year-old) Mario because he doesn't understand where his father is, and he cries often," says Hilda. Sure enough, Mario begins weeping during the interview, until his sobs become wails, as if he is having trouble breathing. "I told him that an airplane took Daddy away. Now Mario and Elvis want to fly away too, and go visit him. They haven't seen their father in almost two months."
Hilda thinks about Juan mostly in the evenings, when she is preparing dinner and the kids are running around the house looking for entertainment. They received one letter from him, from Kuwait shortly after he departed, stating that everything was fine ... but nothing since. The family has no telephone, and they realize that any news would be bad news. They are aware of what happened to Tivito, the poor boy from nearby Guaymango, but don't like to think about it too much.
Hilda likes to pull out photos of Juan when she is lonely: proud shots of him posing in his army fatigues and holding various weapons, several pictures of him marching in San Salvador or playing soccer as a boy, and even a baby photo.
"He's handsome to me," she says with a shy smile. Hilda and Juan have been together for five years, and they plan to marry in the local church in Tacuba if he returns ... "when he returns," she says with a smile.
The poorest coalition soldier to die in Iraq
In the morning the jeep leaves Guaymango on the smooth new highway headed for the Pacific Ocean and suddenly turns and lurches down a dirt road punctured with washouts and potholes. Mango trees appear in the fields along the road and the jeep pauses so the Salvadorian driver can get out and urinate on a stick fence.
"¿Donde está la casa de Natividad Mendez ... el soldado que murió en Iraq?" the driver rolls down his window and nonchalantly asks an old woman with a cane, as if getting directions to a popular tourist attraction.
She jumps in the backseat and beckons the jeep to halt behind a concrete building just past the Canton San Andrés country school. The woman, the driver, and we two journalists disembark and squirm single file through the narrow opening between a barbed wire fence and the corner of the house, then walk down a dirt path to yet another concrete house with a corrugated tin roof. A welcoming party of skinny chickens, dogs sucking on their momma's nipples and four filthy pigs greet the visitors.
Here lives Herminia Ramos whose son Natividad de Jesús Méndez Ramos bares the dubious distinction of being the poorest coalition soldier to die in the Iraq war. "Tivito" fell on April 4, 2004 when the ammunition his superiors had supplied his 16-member battalion proved tragically insufficient, forcing them to use knives to fight the enemy. Only four brave soldiers fended off the Iraqi insurgents after Tivito was killed and 12 others were injured, prompting the Spanish counterparts in their brigade to dub them "Los Guacamayos," a takeoff on their hometown. Prior to this, the brigade had been given the unflattering name, "Winnie the Pooh." The national newspaper, El Diario de Hoy, ran two articles about Tivito on March 31 of this year, commemorating the anniversary of his death the following week and calling him a national hero.
But any pomp or sense of national pride clearly missed the turnoff to Herminia's humble home. Her life of manual labor and raising children goes on, as if there never were a terrible war being fought on the other side of the world. When the visitors arrive, unannounced, 46-year-old Herminia is out looking for bread to feed her family tonight. Instead she has left her eldest daughter, 23-year-old Maria, to look after the toddlers, six-year-old José Antonio and four-year-old Marcos.
The young woman is deathly quiet as she scrubs dishes and clothing in the outdoor stone basin called the pisa, and says little about her fallen brother. The old woman with the cane, Herminia's neighbor, picks up the story.
"Maria was married, but her husband left. She had a child, but it died," the old woman refers to Maria in the third person as if she wasn't within earshot. "She traveled to the capital along with Herminia to retrieve Tivito's body. It was a difficult experience. She doesn't say much."
If it weren't for the two boys swinging on the hammock and giggling at the strange, tall, pale white visitors, the awkward silence at this moment would be unbearable. One wears dirty, tattered shorts. The other wears nothing at all. At their sister's request they use an open-faced plastic jug to shake loose several sweet "hocote" fruits from a nearby bush, and feed their guests.
"He was a boy on the verge of becoming a man," the old woman says. "A hard worker. This boy helped out his poor mother and worked for the good of the household."
She pauses a second, as if in deep thought, then continues: "In these parts the household is your one resource. You need to bring something home for the household every single day."
Tivito's monthly salary of $120 from the Salvadorian army was crucial for the family's survival given that his father died when he was young, and the soldier inherited the role of "man of the house." But now that he is dead, those funds no longer arrive. Unlike the United States, this country does little to compensate the widows or mothers of its fallen soldiers.
The U.S. paid for Tivito's journey in a body bag back to San Salvador, and the Salvadorian government arranged for Herminia and Maria to pick up the corpse in the capital. But neither government paid for Herminia's hospital visits resulting from the subsequent heart troubles and stress at the loss of her eldest son. According to El Diario de Hoy, Herminia paid $60 and $40 for two doctor visits, but didn't have cash to pay for a third. She will be without federal assistance for another nine years until she reaches the retirement age of 55.
When it came time for the burial, the women cooked more than a hundred corn "tamalitos" for everyone in the village, in keeping with local traditions.
"People die here every day"
To kill time before Herminia returns home from her daily food hunt, we return to the jeep and visit Tivito's resting place in the cemeterio on the other side of Guaymango. His casita is easy to spot because the one-room mausoleum built and financed by his compañeros in the Salvadorian military towers over the other gravestones. Tivito's grave is a popular draw this week during the one-year anniversary of his death, as evidenced by the two chickens pecking rudely through the arrangement of ribbons and flowers, looking for anything to eat.
Like any Latin American graveyard, this one offers an immaculate display of colors intended to please the dead as they ascend to the afterlife. Vast resources have been allocated to make this cemetery beautiful. But a closer look reveals how poor this community really is. The marble tiles on the floor of Tivito's mausoleum are clearly fake, Kat points out to me, and will be hard-pressed to last another year without cracking. The flowers on headstones are all plastic. And the ribbons tied to crosses are made out of old Ranchero chip wrappers.
Like the truth behind the colorful facade in the cemeterio, Tivito's death has convinced some local men that war is not all glory and exciting travel opportunities, admits Domingo Mendoza, the major of Guaymango and cardholding member of the leftist-FMLN party.
"There has been resistance to joining the army after Tivito's death, but sometimes that fear is overcome by the need for food," he says matter-of-factly. Guaymango is the poorest town in the Ahuachapan province, and significantly worse off than Tacuba. A whopping 93 percent of the town's populace lives outside of the village, in the campo, and Mendoza refutes any suggestions that Guaymango is somehow responsible for helping out Herminia Ramos financially in the wake of her son's untimely death.
"People die here every day. We can't just hand out money every time it happens."
"Far away from me"
We return to Herminia's house in the late afternoon and find her leaning against the pisa in a mint-colored dress, looking exhausted, but washing clothes nonetheless. She boasts a dignity in her stature, despite all she's been through. And suddenly our story is no longer about the complicated matters of controversial wars or financial compensation, but about the simple, naked tragedy of a mother longing for her child.
It's clear that she'd rather not talk about Tivito, given that guests will be arriving all week for the one-year anniversary of his death. But something in her eyes, her tired, mournful eyes, wants to speak.
"I don't want to remember how he was," Herminia says in a whisper. But I and the Salvadorian driver egg her on, prodding at her unhealed wound before the sun sets into the mountains.
"Did he work hard? What kind of work did he enjoy? Where did he get the nickname 'Tivito'?" Her youngest son tugs at her waist, needing his mother. "Was Tivito as handsome as this little one?" I ask.
Finally a response, and a smile: "He was a little chubby, actually ... he worked for five years in the fields before joining the army ... harvesting milpe and corn." She is speaking slightly louder than a whisper, and only the iPod recorder picks up every word. "He liked the army ... told of how he made good friends there."
"Did he write letters from Iraq?"
"Yes, he told of how everything was fine ... a very beautiful place where he was ... he didn't talk about the people of Iraq, though ... he was there for two months ... went with the first battalion ... yes, there was a Salvadorian priest with the battalion ... every group that goes brings one with them ..."
The child nags, needs something. Herminia's voice rises, she is becoming impatient, frustrated.
"The army has basically forgotten about us," she says. "We went to retrieve the body at the airport ... soldiers from certain bases arrived here to pay their respects ... but no one from the United States."
"No one is helping me. What happened, happened. And now we are forgotten."
"What do you think about the war in Iraq?"
"I am Salvadorian ... I don't know why a Salvadorian has to be fighting a war in Iraq when no Salvadorians are dying there." The straight face and posturing Herminia offered the national press, the military and the government is gone. At this moment she is a mother, and wearing it on her face.
"There's no reason for Salvadorians to go and suffer in another country. The Salvadorian needs to stay and protect his own country ... If President Saca hadn't signed and sold out El Salvador to the United States, then that battalion wouldn't have been sent away ..." She begins weeping.
"Are you proud of him?" the American journalist asks.
Her anguished face, about to collapse from the weight of the question, and the tears in her eyes offer the answer. But the recorder also picks up the faint words, "Far away from me," and maybe, just maybe, if it isn't just an echo, "He is so ... far away from me."
The driver motions to us that it is time to leave; the iPod recorder clicks off; and Herminia resumes washing clothes in the pisa.
Overcome by guilt, I pull out a $20 bill and subtly hands it to the grieving mother. I am violating a cardinal rule of journalism, but the pain erupting inside of me at this moment overshadows my professional obligation. Guilt for reopening these wounds with his prying curiosity, guilt for the poverty to which she awakes every day, and guilt for the blue passport with the bold white eagle on the front stuffed in my back pocket. I want to tell her that this war is wrong, that she has every right to blame the United States for her son's death, and that someone, perhaps Donald Rumsfeld himself, should have visited her home the day Tivito was buried in Guaymango.
But I don't. I just hand over the $20 bill and apologize.
She thanks me and asks her two young boys to fetch a bag of sweet "hocotes" for us visitors before we drive off into the sunset.
A shorter version of this story appears in the San Francisco Chronicle, 07/24/05.