San Salvador, El Salvador C.A., 1979
Anita got up early to catch her bus. She rushed in and out of the makeshift restroom to the kitchen where she sifted for something to eat. She grabbed some salt and put it on a handmade tortilla from yesterday, pushed it into her mouth, masticated, and made it disappear. She passed a hammock in the living room where the concrete walls wore a withered coat of paint. She rushed out the rusty front door, locked it behind her, and jolted down the rocky dirt road towards the bus stop.
Small dust clouds picked up from where she started running all the way to the bus stop at the end of the road. She waited anxiously and bore the bite of dawn with all the other souls as each bus passed without stopping. A woman waited with three kids. Both older ones looked cunning while the youngest stood around with chiclets for sale.
A bus approached but it just sped by. There were no bus signs, benches, or trash bins where the people waited on the side of the highway–just dirt and hope that a bus would eventually stop. Each seemed promising. People would peer out into the distance to catch a glimpse.
The road was empty for the exception of a tattered green bus that advanced from afar. Anita stood in front of the group that waited. The bus stopped but it did not open its doors. The driver only shook his head. She scurried to the backdoors where a friendly arm waited and reached out to her. Anita jumped up and squeezed in amongst the other passengers. The bus picked up speed before the doors could even close, but Anita was in. The easy part of the day was over.
The mist outside the bus was cool and dreary as riders inside stood and sat with the heaviness of the day ahead of them. Some looked attentive and likely had ice-cold water to bathe with earlier. Other riders curled and slouched in their seats as they napped. There was little room on the green passenger bus. Anita stood next to a man with a sombrero and guayavera as she held on to a seat with disemboweled upholstery—the springs spiraled like intestines. There were no handrails.
In the next town the bus stopped to let the man with the hat and guayavera off. He grabbed his shovels and jumped out of the back of the bus in a hurry as the fair collector held the oxidized doors open. He could see two men picking up dust from a distance as they ran toward the bus. One waved it down but they were too far away. The fair collector signaled the driver and the bus began to accelerate as the two men turned into the size of ants until they vanished. Everyone turned back to the front of the bus. Anita looked down at the broken pane on her watch saw the time then looked away.
Outside the window, countryside shanty houses, and banana plants appeared and disappeared like projector slides. Inside, an elderly woman in a pink apron and white headscarf sat asleep with her head down to the side. It oscillated every time the bus hit a bump. The sun began to radiate over farmlands. Anita took a window seat she was politely offered right next to the woman that was dozing. She gazed out of the broken window as the morning wind scurried past her face. She got off on the next stop and followed a dirt road up the hill. Coconut palms rose high above field stalks of sugar cane and parrots squawked as they flew overhead.
At the end of the road stood a two-story cinder block warehouse. Anita walked through the lobby as a light bulb hung from the ceiling and flickered. Anita noticed the owner was locked in his office as usual. She walked toward the back where fluorescent light fixtures were suspended over rows of sewing machine workstations. She turned the radio on, set up her station, and started work on a heap of denim pants as other employees started to come in.
The morning passed and lunch time approached. Different types of sewing machines droned away and created an oily humidity. Employees hunched over, pedaled, threaded their needles, and adjusted their spindles as the radio played a Spanish cover of “Crimson and Clover”.
Lucas and Luisa were working on a cart piled high with pants that needed pockets and zippers to be attached. As one of the supervisors, Anita started walking around, inspecting, and counting all the garments when she heard the noise of a muffled tumble coming out the owner’s office. All the lights in the warehouse cut off and machines stopped. Light from the outside broke in through warehouse windows and shone on dust particles floating in the air.
Anita treaded slowly towards her boss’s office. “Señor Quan?” she posed. “Esta todo okay?” Lucas and Luisa stopped working to go and see what the thud was. When they got to the office a young woman with straight black hair and red bandana opened the door. She waved a Makarov PM pistol in their faces and ordered them to put their hands up, turn around, and start walking towards the other employees. “What is going on here!?” exclaimed Anita. “You don’t get to ask questions,” dictated the young woman. “Be quite, cooperate and everything will be okay. I need everyone to move and sit down in the center of the warehouse”
There was a man with aviator sunglasses, talking into a walky-talky, and looking out the office blinds. Six other young men and women with rifles and military caps came in through the office back door and into the work area. Some began to move heavy sewing machines to barricade the front and back doors. Others rounded up all the employees, sat them on the floor in the center of the warehouse, and brought out their boss roped and gagged. Anita joined Lucas and Luisa amongst the other fifteen employees.
“What do you think these people want?” Luisa asked Anita.
“I don’t know,” she replied as they grabbed the owner and put him back in the office.
One of the young men wore a blue striped shirt, stood over the group, and stared at Luisa. Lucas noticed. “Why don’t you let us go?” he argued. “We haven’t done anything wrong.”
“It’s not about doing something wrong. It’s about doing something right” retorted a man with camouflage pants and AK-47 in his arms,” as Luisa began to recognize the one in blue stripes.
“Ernesto!? Ernestito?” The young man had thick brown hair, dark eyes, and looked at her with a blank face. “What’s wrong with you? What are you doing with these men? What would your mother say? Is this what you do, brainwash boys into doing your dirty work?” she looked at the man with AK – 47.
“Calm. Down. Luisa,” mumbled Anita as she nudged her with her elbow.
“No Ani, these men have no shame.” Luisa stood up and continued to scorn the one in blue stripes as he just stood there and grinned at her. The woman with the red bandana came around, got right in front of Luisa, reached behind her back, pulled out a colt python, and pointed the 8 inch barrel right at her face.
“Are you going to calm down or do you want me to calm you down?” she told her. Luisa’s eyes bulged out like the gun’s chamber. “Now sit down.” Luisa sat back down near Anita and Lucas obediently.
“What are you going to do with him,” asked Anita as her eyes pointed towards the office.
“Your boss has lost all privileges. I suggest you worry about yourselves instead of that leech that pays you cinco colones a day. Unlike him, we’re going to help you,” said the woman.
“There’s money in the safe. Why don’t you help yourself to that and go somewhere else?” said one of the employees.
“For starters that’s not his money. It’s yours. That man in the office, along with all the other leeches in this country just like him, is underpaying the people that deserve it the most,” the woman argued. “We have been had.”
The woman kept talking to the people in this manner as some looked worried and others confused. She came to the end of her thought “…farmers and laborers have been putting up with this for far too long. It’s time to do something about it or else we’ll have nothing for our futures. We must demand negotiations for all!”
She kept talking as the man with aviator sunglasses made his way towards the center of the warehouse and spoke to three of his people. “ Alright, I need Miguel and Lorena at the front, and Francisco in the back. Make sure that you welcome the second shift employees.”
Four more employees arrived for the second shift. All employees sat on the concrete floor. They were allowed to drink water from the faucet and use the outhouse with supervision. The guerillas brought in paint, banners, and had employees work on the message that would hang outside the warehouse walls.
They made a fire, unloaded a cauldron from their pickup truck, and brought it in to boil beans along with pans to warm tortillas. Relatives of first shift employees would get worried when their family members didn’t come home after work. The National-Guard eventually arrived outside and set up a perimeter around the warehouse.
All the employees became restless and looked at the supervisors. “What are we suppose to do? “ prodded Luisa as she plopped beans into a bowl, gave them to Anita, and walked away easily. The guerillas un-roped the sweatshop owner and gave him a bowl of beans and a tortilla. “Here you go,” said the man with the aviator sunglasses. “Today you’re going to eat like the rest of us.”
Anita stared at her beans but did not eat. “I can tell you are a smart woman Anita,” said the woman with the red bandana. “Aren’t you hungry?”
“I really don’t have an appetite right now,” said Anita.
“Maybe it was something that that woman Luisa told you. What did she say?”
“They’re restless and want to go home” Anita looked her in the eyes.
She went to talk to the man with the aviator sunglasses who had just gotten off the walky-talky about negotiations. “Listen. All the employees are getting anxious. I think we need to trade the supervisors too. That way the rest will be cooperative.” Brushing his beard with the tip of his fingers he thought about it and ordered the guerillas to let two female employees and one supervisor go.
There was no time for goodbyes. Only looks of uncertainty were exchanged as the guerillas escorted them out of the building. They un-barricaded the double doors in the lobby and let them go. The warm gusts of the countryside hit Anita’s face hard as she tried to inhale the thick air. She looked up to the blue sky above, drew a deep breath as hard as she could, but could only feel the empty chambers in her lungs.