When I was young my father was actively involved in advocating against U.S. policies that were causing suffering among communities in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. I recall that when I was six years old he spent time in El Salvador with a faith/labor delegation, visiting jailed teachers who were union activists. Before his trip, we spent time with other families who would be sending delegates to El Salvador, and we children packed toys and clothes for Salvadoran children displaced by the war. Growing up in the D.C. area in the 1980s, the war in El Salvador was represented in the voices of community members hosting newly arrived Salvadoran refugees who’d fled the brutality of the Salvadoran forces. D.C. was a sanctuary city, and our communities proudly accepted into our places of worship and our homes those displaced by the war, who for political reasons were denied refugee status by the U.S. government.
As a child I was both moved and frightened by what I learned at our community’s interfaith gatherings. My parents would later wonder if they overdid my exposure to the truth of the suffering of people in Central America, as I would awake sometimes from nightmares in which I imagined myself one of the children murdered by the contras or the Salvadoran army. I slept for years with a blanket over my head to protect myself from these assailants who seemed close to my home, who I imagined were perhaps hanging out with the president at the White House, who perhaps knew how much we reviled their deeds and were ashamed by our government’s actions in their favor.
Delegations of activists and faith leaders, including Jesuits, passed through our interfaith community center on many occasions on their way to marches in D.C. against U.S. support for Central American military forces that were violating human rights, assassinating faith leaders and community activists and perpetrating atrocities. I experienced the 1989 assassinations of the Jesuits of the UCA as another tragedy in a line of barbarism emerging from a country in distress. I’d learned years earlier of the assassination of Archbishop Romero and of the Church women and of the disappearances of union activists and the murders of children. The murder of Jesuits who were tied to a university, some of whom were professors — teachers like my dad — struck close to home.
My work now has increasingly been centered on displacement and forced migration in three Central American countries where the U.S. played a role in fracturing societies during the 1980s: supporting wars in Guatemala and El Salvador, while using Honduras as a base of operations for training and equipping human rights violators. My parents’ commitment and legacy, both their civil rights work and their work around justice for Central American communities, very much shaped my interest in the legal field and in working on Latin America policy, human rights, immigration and refugee issues.