What Could Have Been

My mother always spoke about El Salvador—about both the beauty and suffering of her home. When I was 15 years old my mom took her life. Over ten years after her passing, one of my cousins gave me a photo album she uncovered at my grandma’s house. It was filled with love letters written by my mother’s boyfriend from El Salvador—Sigfrido. 


My mother left El Salvador in December,1979 at the onslaught of civil war. She was 18, and made the journey alone to Los Angeles. In the midst of the Cold War, the United States backed a military dictatorship in El Salvador that battled against leftist guerilla fighters. My mom used to tell me that it was a matter of taking up arms, leaving her home, or dying as a casualty of war. Sigfrido left El Salvador for a period of time to study in the Soviet Union. He was a leftist, that later became a leader in the The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, FMLN). Sigfrido wrote these letters while he was in the U.S.S.R., spanning from 1979 through the end of 1980. They start when my mother was in El Salvador, and continue after she moved to the United States. They document a love, a loss of home, a distance, a separation, a hope, and a yearning for a brighter future. I imagine a different future when reading the letters, one where they both return to El Salvador, are reunited, and create a family together. The letters provoke me to imagine a world in which the left is victorious in its aspiration of creating a revolution for the people.

Much like a palimpsest, my mother’s story feels written on top of. There are layers to her narrative that I am slowly peeling away, allowing me to catch glimpses of the past. Reading these letters has become one piece of that process of reconstruction. Although through the eyes of a stranger to me, they aid me in reconstructing a timeline, and gaining insight to how she may have felt at the time.

Sigfrido writes one letter dated December 11, 1979, around the time that my mother migrated to Los Angeles. It reads, “It is a problem that the letters arrive so late… Right now I am not certain where you are: if you are in El Salvador or the United States. I sent this letter to the house [in El Salvador] so that they either give it to you, or send it to you in the USA. Write to me if only to write, and if you are not in the USA please tell me when that might be.” The unknown can be terrifying. When people migrate in the midst of turmoil, it is difficult to locate them or know they are safe. Sigfrido goes on to say, “I feel like I can suddenly lose you and won’t be able to find you.” Although this instance is from the past, when technology is limited and their best form of communication is snail mail, we see this play out in contemporary forms of migration. The journey itself is dangerous, and communication is limited during these times. It is often unknown if people will ever make it to their destination.


Not only do these letters reveal a personal distance between two people in love, but they show a distance of displaced people from their home country. They offer an insight into how it feels to watch conflict unfold, but be physically separated from it. In the letter depicted at the top of this piece, Sigfrido references watching an incident that occured on January 22, 1980, in which the Salvadoran Civil Guard attacked a peaceful student protest killing nearly 50 demonstrators. Sigfrido writes, “I was watching the news on t.v. about our country [El Salvador], there are protests outside the cathedral and other places, for the massacre that took place the day before yesterday. They also showed the demonstration, and we could see when they shot at the demonstrators.” Sigfrido is watching from the distance of the U.S.S.R. and goes on to say, “It gave us all a terrible sensation to see how they murdered our compatriots and how we are powerless here, unable to help right now.” The difficulty of conflict extends beyond the confinement of the territory. Those who have escaped being in the direct line of warfare, still deal with the devastation that it brings to the community. Finally Sigfrido asks, “Are they showing all of this on t.v. in the USA?” This is a question I am still grappling with. What was the coverage like in the USA? Were the news outlets in the United States even covering the atrocities committed by a government that they were backing? 

In a letter from April, 1980 Sigfrido addresses these issues of misrepresentation. He writes, “The changes coming to our country, are not because Cuba or the U.S.S.R. want them to like the USA says, but because the people are deciding to fight for liberty and their happiness, the people no longer support the oppression, the hunger, the misery.” Sigfrido alludes to people within El Salvador being caught between larger global forces. At the time there is a larger battle between the United States and the Soviet Union for allegiance and control of Latin America--this Cold War battle of Capitalism vs Communism. Some people within El Salvador may have been consciously waging that war, but for many it was an issue of human rights and gaining their own voice and power to govern themselves. Tired of the ages of oppression they faced, they were fighting for a future that they could actively create for themselves. Sigfrido states that the US is misinterpreting or misrepresenting this battle. He claims the US is spinning the narrative to perpetuate the notion that the Soviet Union is behind any movement of the people as a means of spreading communism. Were both the United States and the Soviet Union spinning the conflict to fit their own agenda? How can we gain an accurate representation when the information communicated is already passing through a filtered lens?
Sigfrido wrote on the back of a photograph, “This is a photo of a meeting I had with students from other Latin American countries.” These cold war disputes battled out within Latin America, extend far beyond El Salvador. Some of the most notable instances are the US embargo on Cuba, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and the coup to overthrow the democratically elected socialist Salvador Allende in Chile. As time rolls on, we often find these histories are washed over, but the underbelly of these conflicts remain a huge part of the contemporary Latin American framework. Current events such as the ousting of Evo Morales in Bolivia, or the protests in Chile, have the weight of these histories behind them. We are witnessing the conflicts of the past bubbling out into our present international network.

When we forget these histories, the discussions within the context of our current structures become misconstrued. When Donald Trump says, "Why do we want all these people from 'shithole countries' coming here?" the narrative changes towards blaming the people for their suffering, rather than recognizing the global system’s hand in the suffering taking place within these countries. To contextualize the current migration crisis from Latin America to the United States, means remembering and recognizing the United States involvement in the dismantling of stability within the region.

It often becomes even more difficult for the displaced diaspora to recognize the past. Displaced people’s histories tend to become lost, and those of us who are a product of this displacement are required to actively dig through information to try and piece it together. There are a multitude of reasons for this disconnection. The most obvious is simply being geographically disconnected from the point of origin. It is difficult to understand or grapple with something when you are physically separated from it. Immigrant communities are typically pushed to assimilate into their new country, only further precipitating this separation. Additionally, people who survive conflict are often traumatized by their experiences. Rather than reliving those traumas with their children, they commonly push their children into accepting and appreciating the better life that they have been given. The past gets swept under the rug, in favor of the future. Although this can be viewed as a coping mechanism and a means of survival, it can also be a disservice to the community at large. How are we as a community able to heal if we are unable to address the past? How can we aid one another without understanding or being knowledgeable of our past? How can we advocate for those still dealing with the repercussions of conflict, or speak against misinformation being perpetuated about our communities, if we ourselves have not contextualized our own stories?

Many people are lost in conflict, which in itself creates holes in the narratives of displaced people. In my own attempts of personal reflection and remembrance, I made candles to pray for and remember those who we have lost.

Farabundo Martí (May 5, 1893 – February 1, 1932)
Farabundo was a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary leader in El Salvador. He helped lead a peasant revolt against dictator Maximiliano Hernández Martínez in 1932. Referred to as La Matanza (The Slaughter), 30,000 indigenous people were massacred at a peaceful protest only days after the uprising initiated. Farabundo was soon after also murdered by the Martínez regime. As a result the indigenous Pipil population is nearly extinct, and has almost completely lost their native language. Farabundo’s name lives on in The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, FMLN). He stands as a reminder of the loss of the indigenous population, and the events that preceded the Civil War of the 1980s.

St. Óscar Anulfo Romero (August 15, 1917 – March 24, 1980)
Romero was the fourth Archbishop of San Salvador. Although initially conservative leaning when appointed, he later became outspoken about poverty, social injustice, and the assassinations and misdeeds of the time, which caused many liberation theologists to embrace his practice. On March 24, 1980 Romero was murdered after delivering a sermon in which he reprimanded the government’s violations of human rights. It is still being investigated who was behind the murder, but it is now know that the assassins were members of a death squad thought to be ordered by the Salvadoran government. His funeral was highly attended, and was also targeted by the regime. Years later Romero became the only priest from El Salvador to ever be canonized by the Catholic Church. He represents the peaceful who spoke out against injustice, and whose lives were unjustly taken during the war.

Patricia Cruz (December 29, 1960 - June 3, 2004)
Although not a direct casualty of war, my mother represents those we have lost due to the trauma induced from warfare. She represents those unseen, but ultimately lost because of the turmoil. She symbolizes the emotional and psychological trauma that continues throughout the lives of displaced people. These people go unaccounted for as casualties of war.

Wilbert Isaac Cruz (October 1, 1979 - June 3, 2012)
My cousin Wibby represents how the conflict continues to affect our diaspora and is passed down generationally. Without a stable government to combat them, gangs that originated in the United States, have run rampant within El Salvador. Wibby was a casualty of gang violence, and represents the continuation of violence and hardship that plagues the younger generations. Most of the migration from El Salvador today, is because of these issues that stem from the past.

The following playlist is composed of songs Sigfrido referenced within his letters.

A selection of images from this project were published in The Los Angeles Press V4