Uncle #1

I’m continuing with profiles of my family (Hispanics, one and all) by moving on to my mother’s brother, henceforth known as Uncle #1.

It’s important to note that I never met Uncle #1. He died almost thirty years ago, while he was still a young man.

He was a teacher in my family’s homeland of El Salvador. Uncle #1 was married with three kids (Cousins #2, #4, #6 – whom I will write about in future posts), and he existed comfortably in a war-torn land – an anomaly of course.

He established such a stellar reputation as a passionate, intelligent educator that he was named Teacher of the Year for the entire country. The black-and-white photo of him shaking the Salvadoran president’s hand maintains a place of honor in my mother’s home to this day.

Despite his prestige and status, he was vocal about his discontent with the Salvadoran government. Most people in his situation would have kept their mouths shut and refrained from dark asides about social injustice or rants about economic exploitation.

But Uncle #1 had the crazy notion that people should know what was going on. His insistence on educating poor people attracted the attention of El Salvador’s death squads.

These militia groups had figured out that the biggest danger to their campaign was the leftist virus of literacy. They realized that if campesinos learned how to read, they would get their hands on degenerate books that claimed they had rights or that the landowners exploited them or some other outlandish idea.

So they encouraged Uncle #1 to stop educating the poor. This encouragement took the form of a savage beating.

However, he didn’t back down in the face of threats, and as opposed to almost everyone who ever lived, he risked his life for what he believed was right –- the kind of person who gets holidays named after him or whose name is etched in rocks and said in reverent whispers. At this point, he encroached on hero status. He was the tenacious man who could not be bullied or bossed.

Still, the line between martyred idol and anonymous victim is thin in places like El Salvador. And his fierce ideals and refusal to bow down meant little to the men who abducted him in the middle of the night and shot him multiple times. The death squad then mutilated his body as a graphic warning to others.

Some members of my family wonder if he died in vain. My viewpoint is that it is impossible for people to die in vain if they have lived their principles, and if those principles improved the lives of others. Both of these are true of Uncle #1.

After Uncle #1’s murder, my cousins moved to America. His oldest son, Cousin #2, says that he still feels his father’s presence at times.

Cousin #2 was a small child when his father died, and he has said that his final memory of the man is riding on his shoulders as they cut through a field. I was not there, obviously, but I can picture Uncle #1, striding forward with his laughing child on his back and the sun shining.

He is unafraid, and he believes in the future.


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August 2008
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