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Conversation with Bertila Argueta

Argueta, Bertila
Houck, Melissa
Date of Interview: 
Overcoming Obstacles; Relationships with People and Places
Bertila Argueta talks about her encounters with El Salvadorian guerrillas.
Charlotte Narrative and Conversation Collection
Collection Description: 
Melissa Houck interviewed Charlotte residents to collect stories for a class project at UNC Charlotte.
Interview Audio: 
BA (Bertila Argueta): How should I start? [Laughs]
MH (Melissa Houck): However you like.
BA: Well, life there in the country is, nice, tranquil. I lived working all of my life with livestock. I always had to get up early, milk the cows, and, uh, run, run them, as we say, because it's a, to the pastures, until times got pretty bad, and one day, I sent my daughter to, to the pasture to bring in the cows. We brought them back in the afternoon, when I saw that, behind her there came a big group of, they looked like soldiers, but in street clothes. Then, she cam, my daughter came almost green, pale, and she said to me, "Mama," she said to me, "Those are guerrillas!" That was the first time I saw them, the gue, the guerillas. Then they went on, they didn't make it to the house. At about, about three weeks later, then arrived a group of about four, at my brother's house, and told him, that they were coming to, to be, that is to take control of the place, where we lived. Well, but that they weren't going to steal, they weren't going to kill, neither would they harm the people, but it we didn't, if we worked with them. But if we didn't want to work with them, we shouldn't get them into anything with the mil, military, such as, informing on them, or something like that. So, time went on. Then when, well, since I lived alone, only with my son, they, would seek me out because, I always had, everything, because I had all kinds of animals, including doves from Castile, uh, turkeys, ducks, hens, pigs, cows, all kinds of animals. So they would, they would always come to me, and they told me, "Ma'am, sell us milk, sell us yogurt, sell us cheese, or sell us a, a hog, a plump hog, well I had to sell them, and I am going to sell," he'd said, "If you sell them to everyone else, sell to us, too." I say to him, "OK." And that's how, I kept on, working and, with them. They there, well, they'd come from time to time to buy things, until one day, well, they already had been there for several years, when, all of a sudden along came a young fellow who went around with them whose name was Jose, they call him Chepon because he was tall, white, and all. So, he, he came looking for, yogurt, I don't know what he came looking for, for me to sell him. And when I was giving it to him, he said to me, "There's going to be, a meeting now." "When?" I said to him. "No, tomorrow at four," he said to me. "Where?" I said to him. "In Piedras de Sal," that was, like a, pretty, level, place where, they gathered. And I said to him, "I'm not going to be able to go." "Why?" He said to me. I said to him, "I have a lot to do," I said to him. He said to me, "You have to go," he said to me. I said to him, "Don't you know, Chepe, what it is?" I said to him, "That they want to do in that meeting?" He said to me, "We can't say." I said to him, "But you know, I'm your friend, tell me why." Then he said to me that, "They're going to set up a board," he said to me, "Where they're going to appoint," he said to me, "A president, vice president, secretary, treasurers," and all that. And I said to him, "And what is that for?" "Because they're going to set up a committee," he said to me, "So that when those big battalions," he said to me, "Of guerrillas arrive, these people attend, for example, the president is going to talk to the rest so that they all get food together for them. And they've picked you," he said to me. "Me?" I said to him, "Why?" I said to him. He says, "Yes, because you have less children, and can have more, time, or more, ability to get around to the people so they, will help out." And I said to him, "Yes? President of what?" "They call it," he said, "The Committee of Forsaken Mothers." I said, "Really?" "Yes," he said. So, I said, "No," I said, "I'm not going to be able to go." He said, "But, don't you ever tell, that I told you, because," he said. He motioned to me as if they were going to cut off his head. I said, "No, I'm not going to tell them." So, the next day, I left early in the morning for San Miguel, to see my daughter, and when I was coming back, I went by my brother's, which was a place in, a town called Chapeltique, and I arrived at his place, and I said, his name is Salomon, and I said, "Brother, I am here to see if you'll give me posada," we call it, like you give someone a place to live in your own house. And he said, "What's going on?" I said, "Nothing, it's just that, I don't want to be there any longer," I said, "Look, it's just that I have lots of problems with the animals, I don't even have a pasture." He says, "Really?" I said, "And do you think you can help me?" I told him, "I'm coming." "Yes," I says. That same while that I was there at my brother's, we went to look for, the people who owned land, to see if they would give me, pasture land for the animals. And, yes, they gave me some, and I left. It was getting, I got there late, like at, six in the afternoon, I got home, and after I waited for it to get dark, I went to my neighbor's. My neighbor had about four, five grown boys. So I said to him, his name is Pedro, I said, "Pedro, I came to bother you." "Uh, huh?" I said, "If you, if you would lend me your boys tomorrow." "What for?" he said. I said, "I need," I said, "I need for you to lend me them to me, tell me, and I'll pay you." He said, "Yes, you know," he said, "You can count on them, and me, too, if, if you need me." I said, "Look, I need them to, over there, about five, six in the morning, 5:30, because I'm leaving here," I said, "And I want them to take the most important things to town for me," because, since from, from my place to town was about two hours, on the road, walking, then, because no cars came through. So he said, "OK, that's fine." And, the same way I went out to another, er, e, cousin, his name is Cristobal, and I said, "Cristobal, do you have to, what are you doing tomorrow?" "Nothing," he said, "Why?" "I was going to bother you," I said ( ), "So you come with me," I say, "I want you to do me a favor." "Uh-huh?" "I want to leave," I said, "But I don't want anybody to know. If you help me," I said, "To move my livestock to Chapeltique." He said, "But, to take the livestock, I can't, I can't do it alone, at least, four," he said, "Because, it's difficult with the animals." "OK," I said, "So, how do we do it? You suggest something." "OK," he said, "Let me, wait for me here, I'm going to let dad know, and Cristobal's neighbors' friends." And he left, and that's how it was. When he came back, he said, "Yes," so, he said, "I'm going to leave here," he said, "From your house for Chapeltique at four in the morning with the livestock." And that's how it was, he left, at dawn, and he said, "See you there," and he left with the, with the livestock, with the, and the, the others who were going to help. I stayed at home, finishing straightening up, and the neighbors, Pedro's boys, already took my things to town, and, we left for Chapeltique. We arrived, at my brother's, and Cristobal, with the livestock and the rest, still hadn't arrived. They arrived at night, but they brought them for me. And that's the way it as, how I kept working there. After I worked there, then, that, I went to, San Miguel, because my daughter, also, had, she needed me. And, I kept on, and finally when I saw that life was really expensive, and I didn't have, I couldn't work anymore since I'm not a professional, then I decided to come to the US, because also, well, the, there in that area, since now there wasn't anywhere to work, I had left hidden from the guerrillas, and, well, that's what I continued. Well, and I forgot to tell you when the soldiers came, to my house, the guerrillas were there, the guerrillas went back. They hid and, the soldiers came to the house. It was, when the first one arrived, the first soldier, and he said, "Er, ma'am, make," he said, "Some four, six rations," he said, "Because plenty of soldiers have come, and I'm going to inform the other houses." I stayed, making the rations of food when a group of soldiers arrives, and when I was, fixing the food, in the kitchen, because of the sun, because of the reflection of the sun, I saw, a weapon pointing at me, so that was when I said to him, "What happened?" And he said, "Don't play," the soldier said, "Don't play," he said, "Innocent," he said, in that house, I, our house is huge, and I stayed locked up, because just me and my son lived, my baby son, tiny, and me, and well, that's all. And I said, "I don't have anybody," I said, "Hidden away." He says, "Don't let it happen to you like the people in Ateltisate," that was another area, "Where we did away with the place, because, they covered up the guerrillas." I told him, "I don't cover up anybody," I said. Then, with me at gunpoint, two behind, followed me so I opened the door, and there was nothing in the house, thank God, because there was no one there. Then, since then, I, I was, like, when I saw military, I felt like I, I, that is, a great fear, a terror of, the guerrillas, I was afraid of them, but the military, was worse. And I couldn't, well, do anything else. We lived between, between the border of Honduras and El Salvador. Then, they, the guerrillas passed through this river, that divided the countries, and it filled up, when you remembered it, it was full like any base! And then the soldiers would pass through just the same. So you couldn't tell what kind, at night, what kind of people were going by, but you could hear clatter, because even beasts full of weapons, with, everything, you know? So that time, that I told you about when the, the soldiers came, my son escaped, dying, from fear, when I go that they had me at gunpoint, and they surrounded the house, but it passed, they didn't do anything. The next time the soldiers, came through, the guerrillas were in front of the house, in the road, there's one, of those huge rocks, that you can sit on, and when they were eating. When all of a sudden, a girl went by, I was washing, a girl went by, and she told me she was going to here mom's, her name is Victoria. And when, the guerrillas, ah, well, the girl went by and very shortly she came back. And I said, "Why did you come back, Victoria?" "A huge group of soldiers are coming!" she said, "I mean, a huge group!" She said, "So I'm going." So, I came in, from where I was washing, I went in, and I didn't see what the guerrillas did with themselves, because I didn't see, they were in front, but since I went it, I didn't see. Then, you know, that in order to keep yourself out of trouble, you go in and don't, then they come, or, that was another time, that I suffered a terrible threat when the soldiers come through. And he said, "Ma'am," he said, "What did the guerrillas that were there eating do with themselves?" I said, "Sir, I've gone in, and I don't know, the house is big, and I went inside," I told him, "I haven't seen anyone." He says, "Look, ma'am," he says, "You deserve to have your tongue cut out, because you are covering for the guerrillas." I told him, "I don't cover for the guerrillas, or for you soldiers. Why would I cover for them?" So he says, "No, from the school up, are all guerrillas." I said, "The fact, you, I, you can be there," I said, "Or I can stay here and you go in," I said, "You don't see where I get off to." Then they left, they left for the mountain, they went on up. Then a huge throng of soldiers came, and they shot over the house, that, we have to, my dad always used to have a lot of, we call them cercos, of, of pure ijiote of, of, made of poles that are nice and fresh. Then every little bit, since they were shooting those bazookas, and who knows what kind of, of things, and all the tops of the trees were falling, they fell, and since the roof was made of teja. Do you know what a teja is?
MH: I don't know.
BA: But, it's like this, in plenty of shapes, I see that here, they also have some shaped like tejas too.
MH: Are they, like, rounded?
BA: No, they're long things like this, they come down to here, and here another one goes on top, yes, very pretty, like, like between, orange, because they're fired, they're made of fired clay. Well, then, the dust from the, the tiles, was falling, because, well, they were destroying them, right? Well, so many bullets, so many things. Then, and the neighbors, and a niece of mine and a cousin lived there, and bullets went through my nephew's, and he had a five-year-old daughter, who was the only one who was there, because her mom, had gone to bring water, and she stayed, because of the firefight, she also stayed inside, so that she wouldn't, the little girl locked herself in, and thank God, she survived. And when, then that was the first time that my little boy came down with, as if, I don't know, he didn't faint, but he, he turned purple here [indicates around her mouth], green and then purple, and then he stopped breathing, fell to the floor. So, then, I grabbed him, and when I grabbed him, I put him under the bed, and I went outside. In, uh, in the window in front, we have a window facing the street, there was a guerrilla lying on the ground, firing at the soldiers. On this other side where the bedroom was, I went outside, and I saw him, well, the size of the flame, when the flame from the rif, from, the bullet came out, even with a small flame like this. I told him, "Please, sir, get away from here, don't you see the danger?" I said. He sa, he didn't answer me. Red-faced, tired, and red-faced, the man, and on the other side, the other end of the house, there were two others, shooting, so that, also, also stretched out on the ground. Then I said, "Dear Lord," I said, "What are we going to do about this?" Well, they went through, they broke a soldier's leg, you could hear his moaning. Then they went through, since they were carrying him away like that. And that's the way it stayed, the firefights there, in that place, and the firefights. Well, one day, I sai, I was going from San Miguel, uh, to Carolina, my brother lived, my brother was the principal of that, of that school there, in Carolina. He worked, he's a teacher, and at that time he worked as the principal of that school, of that school, because it was a, like a high school, there was, from first to high school. So, early that morning, that afternoon, I came down from San Miguel, and I told him, "I'm going to go." He says, "Don't go. They're making trincheras," they call them trincheras, where they're putting mounds of stones near the houses, so that the bullets there. He says, "And it's going to be very dangerous and it's very late." So, I said to him, "Oh, well, I'm going to go when it's morning." My son was already two, not even two years old, like, like about, like a year and a half. So she, he, my brother and his wife had two boys too. One of the wife's brothers had come. When, all of a sudden, at daybreak, my, my brother went to, to bring a, to the well close by there, two jugs of water, his wife and he, and I stayed in the house, making coffee. That, the sun hadn't come up yet, it was still like, five in the morning. Well, it wasn't light yet when the gunfire starts. Because in the front of the two there's a mountain that they call El Volcancillo below. It's just that, what a firefight! They were shooting, shells, bomb, even from those bazookas, and I don't know what kind of weapons. Well, my brother had a, cow, tied out, and a goat, the cow's offspring. Well, he milked the cow every morning, but that day, he couldn't milk her, because the gunfire was so heavy, and because everything was falling near the house. So, my brother said, "I'm going to cut her rope, I'm not going to be able to untie her," he said, "Because it's really difficult with, by the time I untie her, they'll kill me," he says. "I'm going to cut it with the, a knife, the knot, so the cow can go and she won't die." Then, he, is, when, a shell like this falls that went into the ground, but, a lot. And the, the fragments, as they call them, cut him here, cut him here, cut his here, cut him here, and I don't know where else, but there were many, but the deepest one was this one. He didn't say anything. We were down, I had my son under me, on the floor, Ines had one, and Ines brother, that is, the boy's uncle, had the other boy under him. Only Luis Alonso had gone out. Well, nobody noticed my brother until he said, "Vieja," he said, because that's how they talked to each other, "Vieja," he said, "I may be going to die," and we turned him around to see what the, the. He had a pillow, one of those big pillows, and it looked red, all of it with blood and swollen like this. So he said, from the running down from several places, but the one that, this one, was, was too much. So she said, Ines went out, and opened the door and said, "Bastards!" She said to them, to the guerrillas, "Bastards!" she said to them, "Because of you we're going to die too, through no fault of our own!" She said. They didn't answer. She closed the door, and Ines said to me, "What are we going to do with Luis Alonso?" Now we, now we didn't, we didn't pay attention to the kids, we had forgotten about the kids, we were going to attend to my brother. But, a car was coming by with a white flag that meant peace and in that car there was a friend of Luis Alonso's and also a guerrilla came in that car. And, so they came in through the interior door there, they turned like this, and came in through the door, and, and they knocked. "Luis Alonso, Luis Alonso," says to him, Luis Alonso's friend. Than Ines says to him, "What was it?" She said. "Open the door, please. I've come to see Luis Alonso," he says. Because, well, no, Ines was putting up an argument that, when he told her, "No," he said, e, Luis Alonso, "I may be going to die," he said, "Because so much blood loss," he said. "No," he said, "I'm going to take you to such guerrillas' doctor," and they took him away. They took out all the rest, but the one in his eyebrow, they couldn't get it out. So, they tool him away, we didn't see him anymore, they took him to San Miguel, I don't know, if in that vehicle, surely in the same car they were riding in, they took him to the hospital. Then, we were left, and since they were still in front of the house, we went to a woman's home, who was a nurse, so when a big round of gunfire started, we covered ourselves up against the walls of the houses, we walked a little way, we threw ourselves against the other wall, until we could get there. And when we got there, the woman said, "Go on in to the main house," and another house father inside. And there was a wounded, a wounded woman by, by a bullet too, that they had brought, since she was a nurse, and there we were. The woman prepared food, but she only gave it to the children. All that day, we didn't get up. So, we stayed there. And then, well, we found out that my brother had been admitted, until they took out th, that, they let him come, but now he didn't come, he went to, to the department of education and asked a transfer, they didn't deny it to him, they transferred him to another place immediately. Then he came and we stayed on in the same place. Then, now, well, like I told you, there were plenty of times that, that we had encounters like that. There in, in another part of Tejutla, they also killed a brother-in-law of mine, my sister's husband, because the guerrillas also came in in the night. They had a big firefight like that, and there was my bro, er, my brother-in-law was, he also died. That's the way, way it was, they're big, plenty, if I were to tell you all the stories of what we went through, I tell you, that I'd keep you all night [laughs]. That's how it was, it was said, but thank God in the family hardly--. The guerrillas also took out a man from the outskirts near the, the place where we lived, who was called Juan. He was like a catequist, one of those people who helps the priests, and according to the guerrillas, they say that he was starting to get them in trouble with the army, I mean, he started to say where they were, so that the soldiers would go directly to where they were, and one day they took him out and killed him. And they put out the, the word that yes, they had killed him. So, and if another, another person did that, they were going to kill him too. Because, there were a lot more things. And what else do you want me to tell you? [Laughs]
MH: If you want to keep on, that's fine, but, so much time!