Longform

AFTER THE TORTURE

Page 5 of 6

"I once had this girlfriend in Los Angeles," he recalls. "One night she stayed over, and I said, 'I'm going to work, so make me my breakfast.' And do you know what she said? She said, 'I came to this country to get away from all that. Not you, not my mother has a right to tell me what to do. I am free.'"

"I said, 'Well, fine. If you don't want to make my breakfast, fine, but get out of my apartment.' That relationship lasted only a week, thank God."

Although as many as 500,000 Salvadorans live in the Los Angeles area, Jaco could not get used to the city. He didn't like the violence, and he didn't like the police presence. In 1992, after the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, he hightailed it to Phoenix.

Like many Californians, he considered Arizona a safer place to live.
There was no Salvadoran community to come to--no one even knows how many Salvadorans live here. But Jaco began to build a life in Phoenix, because it seemed to him his position in the United States was pretty secure. The INS had given him a new legal status--DED--and President Bush had extended it. Then President Clinton extended Bush's extension.

Jaco washed dishes at a pie shop, chopped green peppers and onions at a pizza joint. Then he landed a job as a social-service coordinator for a group of Valley churches. He earns $6,000 a year, plus room and board.

He sends money orders to his mother whenever he can--they total about $1,000 a year. "I send the money in my mother's name," he says. "I tell her to buy my father some clothes if he needs them, but not to let him get ahold of the money. He would drink it all away.

"My father wrote me a while ago and asked me for enough money to buy a little house. I did not answer the letter. I threw it in the garbage."

Jaco lives and offices in a house that offers temporary shelter to Central American refugees. Many of the guests are from the Salvadoran campo and are as confused and bewildered as he was when he arrived.

And frightened. The Salvadoran civil war took its toll on both the left and the right. The United Nations has logged numerous cases of atrocities committed by the guerrillas as well as by the military. Innocent campesinos were often brutalized simply because they lived in villages deemed to be sympathetic to one side or the other, the UN commission wrote.

This explains why so many Salvadorans are terrified of returning home. Although many Salvadorans are here simply to make money, others have fled persecution from either the guerrillas or the military.

Julio Menendez, whose family members were military sympathizers in El Salvador, now lives in Phoenix and is Jaco's friend. In 1989, Menendez says, his brother was killed by guerrillas. In 1992, another brother was killed, probably by guerrillas. In 1994, someone killed his father when he was drinking at the village well.

Although Menendez and Jaco were on different sides during the civil war, they are bonded here by their common nationality. In fact, Jaco counts among his friends a former Salvadoran death-squad member and a guerrilla who still has government bullets in his body.

"We're friends until people start drinking," says Jaco, who doesn't drink. "Then people sometimes start accusing each other of horrible things."

That's why Jaco does not allow guests to drink. It's also why he taped a sign to the wall that forbids strong political discourse in the living room.

As a social-service coordinator, part of Santos Jaco's job is to explain the new immigration regulations to Salvadorans who are at risk. In January, he held a meeting that was attended by 65 people. He told people that their work permits were good, in INS's eyes, even though they'd expired.

He tried to explain that come September, people would either have to return to El Salvador or have an asylum application in the works--that is, if they weren't married to a norteamericano. The asylum applications are complicated, he said, and people should seek the help of qualified immigration lawyers when filling them out. Then he had to explain that there was no legal aid available for most poor Salvadorans who needed help with asylum applications. What he's found is that many Salvadorans don't take the INS's change of heart seriously. The government will let us stay, they tell him. We've had so many extensions. The politics will change.

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Terry Greene