The Price Families Pay

Greg Smith, LUCHA Ministries and CBF Global Missions

Before traveling to El Salvador on our Mission Immersion Experience, our group of BTSR seminarians – five students and two adjunct instructors – was well aware of the immigration conversation in our country and its impact on our immigrant friends and neighbors.  What we weren’t aware of, though, was how decisions to leave one’s home in El Salvador for safety and economic opportunity abroad could devastate those left behind.

On our second day in country, Pastor Zorina Masferrer of the Iglesia Comunidad Cristiana Bautista in Zacatecoluca introduced us to six members of her congregation who bore the emotional scars of losing a family member to northern migration.  Loss is really the best way to describe it.  Even though decisions to leave were due to gang-related violence and economic distress, the pain of separation was still fresh and possibly would always be so.

Pastor Zorina told us that this was the first time some had told their stories.  She knew better than any of us what was about to take place.  She knew recounting the time when their family member left would hurt deeply and sharply.  Of course, she was right.

Sitting beside his older brother, one young man told of his father leaving when he was 8 years old.  Sobbing at times uncontrollably – hearing the words from his own lips for the first time – he relayed how his father couldn’t find it in himself to tell his sons why he was leaving.  One day, he was simply gone.  And though he sends money back home – money that has paid for the brothers’ home and the younger son’s education – it was clear that nothing replaced his father’s presence.

Family left behind worry for their relatives living and working in a strange, harsh land.  One young woman spoke of the three jobs her father works in the US, the toil his work takes on his health, and the fear that he has no one to take care for him.  In El Salvador, his family would care for him.  In the US, he has no one.  Her father left because he could not find work.  He and his wife only knew extreme poverty, and they wanted a better life for their daughters.

“Sometimes you have to make hard decisions,” his daughter, now 25, admitted, then added, “but we have to stop sometimes and wonder if we made the right ones.”

For another young woman, the departure of her mother twelve years ago may have seemed to her the right decision at the time, but at only 10 years old, her daughter begged her not to leave.  But local gang members had threatened her mother, and everyone knew when gangs target someone, they are not playing around.  You take them and their threats seriously.  So she left her daughter and seven month-old son in the care of their grandmother.

Her mother has not been able to return home since.

In the US, some might be tempted to wag their fingers at the parents and say they themselves caused their children’s pain.  They were the ones who decided to leave.  “Nobody put a gun to their head and told them to leave,” we might hear.  But in actual fact, for many Salvadorans who flee their country, someone did put a gun to their heads, figuratively and literally, by demanding extortion for the “right” to live in their own houses or operate their own businesses. Or by threatening death if they don’t join the gang.

And for others, grinding poverty suffered year after miserable year builds over time to create the need to look beyond what can be seen in order to imagine what might be possible “out there.”  Is it always the right decision to leave?  Perhaps not.  But who are we, with full stomachs and life’s amenities, to judge the economically distressed and disadvantaged?  Who are we to tell them to stay where they are?  To “just have faith?”

Yet none of us can deny the price Salvadoran families pay when a loved one migrates from home.  What loved ones may send back to pay for a child’s school supplies or repair the hole in the roof cannot approximate their touch, their smile, and their direct gestures of love.  Not even close.  The tears on the faces of their children prove that.

And the tears on our faces after hearing their stories demand of us not the guilt of feeling sorry for them, but instead compassion, respect  and a warm embrace both for family left behind and for their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers forced to give up home, nation and often their relationship with their family.