American Living In El Salvador

Column by Chris Romero

   Blood-stained scars above and below the eyes. Deep scratches stretch the length of the face. A jagged cut marks the center of the forehead. This can’t be me, I thought. A shot of anger springs from confusion: God, give me myself back. This isn’t me. My blood ceases to boil, senses ease. Although I’m hesitant, I begin to touch my face. Some of the scars begin to shed their shells of dried blood. I don’t recognize myself.

   It’s an overwhelmingly uncomfortable feeling for a person to look into a mirror and not recognize them self. Identity seems all but lost in a state of anger, bafflement and despair. A little more than six years ago I was involved in a serious car accident in the Central American country of El Salvador. I woke up the next day in a hospital room, afraid to go to the bathroom because I didn’t want to see what I looked like. I was deeply afraid of not being able to recognize myself. I suffered a broken arm and minor cuts and bruises. The doctors said I was lucky to be alive. The news reporters said I was lucky to be alive. The newspaper photos of the wreckage spoke of the magnitude of the accident.

   Life went on and my physical wounds healed. I was only 17-years-old; a junior at an American school in San Salvador. I spent a great deal of time with friends. My grades were solid and I was healthy. Not a bad life, except the friends and family I truly knew (aside from my parents) were living two thousand miles away.

   In 1998, my parents, Carlos and Isabel Romero, after having lived in Connecticut for 30 years, retired and decided to move back to their native country of El Salvador. They originally came to Connecticut to seek the American Dream—and they made it. My mother played a major role as a local Hispanic activist. One of her major accomplishments came in the mid-80’s, when she co-founded a New Haven convalescent home by the name of Casa Otonal, which still exists today and houses a couple hundred Hispanic residents. In the early 90’s she worked as a social worker in Waterbury and helped found the Hispanic Coalition. Her forte was people. She also ran a shrimp importing business in Cheshire while raising myself and my two older brothers.

   My father was a corporate man who dedicated his life to the business world and to his family. He arrived in New Haven without knowing any English, in 1969, at the age of 18. While struggling to make ends meet working at a gas station, my father graduated from the University of New Haven with a degree in engineering, and would later acquire a Masters from UNH in business administration. He finished his career working for Rexam in Massachusetts. My parents currently live in El Salvador and run a small sign printing shop. I’m proud to say they are healthy and doing well.

   During my parents 30 years in the United States they lived in Prospect for 13 years. We moved there in 1985 and I spent the next 13 years growing up in Prospect as a typical American boy. Life was good. In April of 1998 my parents made the decision to move back to El Salvador in hopes of capitalizing on the country’s booming economy and American influence. They decided to open a print shop that specialized in digital graphics and design. I had no other option but to leave my easy life as a Holy Cross High School sophomore and join the real world outside of the United States of America: the Third World. Having only been to the country three times before as a child, I had little idea of what to expect of the sudden change.

   I barely knew how to speak Spanish when I arrived to live in San Salvador, not to mention the culture. I knew little of my Latin heritage and I saw myself as an American, nothing else. Life’s challenges were hitting me hard and at a pace faster than I could ever anticipate. I had to assimilate to the culture as quick as possible.

   Assimilation is an incredibly hard process. With my suitcase in hand, all I could think was not one person in this small country knew me, and I definitely didn’t know anyone there. I was a stranger, and the people didn’t hesitate to let me know I was now foreign in their land. The people’s stares bombarded me the minute I stepped out of the airport and into the swarm of Salvadorans waiting for their loved ones to exit the baggage claim carousels. I thought they were staring at my watch, Polo shirt and lighter shade of skin. Little did I know they were actually welcoming me as a son of their land. They were proud of me, but I wouldn’t realize it for another two years.

   My first day as a student in a foreign country will never escape my memory. It was lunchtime. I waited in a short line to buy my food, but I didn’t know what to ask for because I didn’t know how to ask for it (although many teachers and students spoke some English, the cafeteria attendants did not). I knew not to ask for anything in English.

   I wanted to make the impression to others that I did in fact know the language. I wanted to blend in. Therefore, I just pointed at something that everyone else was asking for. It didn’t look appetizing, but “move on and not get noticed” was my only thought.

   I lived in El Salvador for two years. Looking back, I can’t say how I managed to adapt to a different culture. I just did. That’s the beauty of humanity. We can adapt to any circumstance as long as we accept the challenge. I came back to the United States to finish my senior year of high school and to later attend Southern Connecticut State University as a journalism major with a minor in Spanish. I am currently a senior.

   Although at first I was reluctant to join my parents in their native land, now I am confident to say that I wouldn’t take back the experience for anything. Not only did I learn a second language, but I learned that life’s greatest lessons are taught through experience. Although it may sound a bit cliché, adversity makes you stronger. I am no longer the 17-year-old teen that looks in the mirror and asks who is looking back. I now see myself as a Latin-American with a profound appreciation for my culture. I sometimes laugh in amusement when I think of the luxury I have of being able to call two completely different countries my home.

   I will be working as a journalism intern at the Waterbury Observer during my final semester in college. While at the Observer my goal is to shine a spotlight on the immigrant population of Waterbury. Immigrants have long provided the economic backbone and cultural melting pot of this country, and of our city. The majority of us have roots that stretch far beyond the American borders, and many immigrants are still making their way to America today in search of what my parents found: the American Dream.

   Bruises, scars and blood stains can’t stop anyone from recognizing who he or she is. A face only scratches the surface of the history behind a person. I’m Christopher Romero, 23-years-old, originally from Prospect, ex-resident of El Salvador, and a current Waterbury resident. The doctors and reporters were right, I’m lucky to be alive.