Families immigrate from El Salvador to find hope in the Friendly City.
STORY | BRIANA ELLISON
PHOTOS | ALYSSA ANTONIO
Packed in a semitrailer with other 183 people, he watched as frostbitten people vomited blood.
“They put the air conditioning on too cold,” Salvador Portillo says.
In May 1993, Salvador left the small, poverty-stricken town of San Miguel for the United States. At only 23 years old, he knew the decision to leave El Salvador — while hard — would be best for his growing family: his wife Aracely and son Henry, then just one year old.
At the time, Salvador was working for a small pastry shop. Though he enjoyed his job, the faulty economic situation, gang violence and civil war weighed heavily on him.
“My country is very dangerous,” Salvador says. “I went last year, but I can’t walk outside of my town because of the gangs. There’s a lot of young people coming to the United States because they — they’re looking for a better place to live.”
Relocating was done to support Aracely and Henry, but there were other relatives in the mix that made Salvador’s emigration even more difficult.
“I think I found it important, you know, not to stay,” he says. “But it was hard to leave your family over there … my parents, my grandma, my grandpa.”
Confident in the decision, and aware that he would only have his wife’s brother as a familial connection in the U.S., Salvador began the dangerous journey with 183 people to cross into Mexico. In the southern hemisphere, winter encompasses the months of May through October, so traveling conditions included extremely low temperatures.
The trailer’s tires were punctured four times throughout the journey, rendering them useless on the side of the road. Salvador and the others had to stand in the freezing rain — without any jackets — waiting for the tires to be repaired.
Of the 183 people Salvador started out with, he crossed into the U.S. with only 27 others; the rest of the emigrants were separated into small groups upon reaching the border.
In 1993, when Salvador left for the U.S., Aracely and Henry had moved to the country’s capital, San Salvador. During this time, she gave birth to their second son, Herberth. In December 1994, Aracely made the decision to leave her home country and join her husband. After spending most of her life working at home and selling food to help raise her nine brothers and take care of her parents, Aracely knew it was time to escape the poverty and provide Henry, then 2 years old, and Herberth, a year old, with a better life.
“I left because my husband left,” Aracely says via translation by Marya, their fourth of five children. “And my mother told me that if I didn’t [go], I would lose my husband, and that they wanted me to be with my husband and have my family.”
With her family’s blessing, Aracely left for the U.S. However, the journey was — and still is — tinged with guilt.
“I felt bad because I left my two young sons,” Aracely says, crying softly. “I left my family: my parents, my brothers. I never forget that big pain of having to have to abandon my children.”
Though Aracely knew she would be reunited with her sons in the future, they were always on her mind. Ten years later, once she and Salvador had settled, they sent for their two sons to come join them in the U.S. However, their reunion was tainted.
“They don’t love you the same anymore,” Aracely says of Henry and Herberth, who no longer live with the Portillos. “It’s a different feeling having raised them yourself than when they’re older. They’re already here, but I feel like they haven’t forgiven me for leaving. But that’s the life that it is when you leave your own country.”
Like her husband’s, Aracely’s journey to America was treacherous and unpredictable. She had to pass through the region of El Salvador that’s barren due to mass deforestation. She went without food often, and had to cross many chilled rivers.
“When I came, I hurt my leg and it got really swollen,” Aracely says. “There were really good people who came with me; two of the youths that were with me brought me and carried me.”
Once reunited, Salvador and Aracely moved to Long Island, New York, where their troubles continued. Rent and food were extremely expensive.
One day, while working in the offices, Aracely’s boss attempted to sexually assault her; she was pregnant with the couple’s oldest daughter Judy, now 21 years old.
Salvador “got really mad, but because we didn’t know the laws or anything, we didn’t say anything,” Aracely says.
The Portillos subsequently moved to Springfield, Virginia, but were still unhappy. Aracely’s cousin lived in Harrisonburg at the time, and Aracely made it clear that’s where she wanted to be. So they moved to the Valley.
“It’s a quiet city, you can breathe fresh air,” Salvador says.
In their quaint and warm Harrisonburg house that’s adorned with religious icons and family portraits, the Portillos have found their home. Both Salvador and Aracely work in the cargo industry, with Salvador currently working for Aerotek. Since first moving to the U.S., the Portillos have worked on assimilating into American culture while remaining true to their Salvadoran heritage. Aracely does so by making pupusas, which are homemade corn tortillas that can be filled with cheese, pork or refried beans.
Salvadoran culture is also embraced by their three youngest children: Judy, Marya, 17, and Eric, 14.
“I like to, sometimes, watch my mom cook so I can learn the recipes that she learned as a child and pass that on for my future kids,” Marya says.
Since Harrisonburg’s environment is calmer than El Salvador’s, the Portillos appreciate being able to walk around the city and through the numerous parks.
“I like it here because when I was young, I spent a lot of time fishing and swimming, and you can do the same around here,” Salvador says.
Though Salvador and Aracely miss their home country, even Marya understands the reasons for leaving.
“I went when I was, like, five,” Marya says. “I just remember that … I could walk around and walk from, like, the house to the store and be fine, but I know now that isn’t the case.”
Her fuzzy memories are reinforced by Aracely’s reluctance to return due to the danger, and Salvador’s own memories of living in poverty, struggling to keep his family together.
The Portillos also find strength in their Catholic faith, which both Aracely and Salvador were raised in. They attend Harrisonburg’s Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church and have forged bonds with two of the priests, Father Joe Goldsmith and Father Silvio Kaberia, while never forgetting about God.
“I can tell that their faith is strong and it makes them want to be better people and to give back to the community,” Goldsmith says about the family via email. “I have definitely seen them make a positive impact. Their lives are an example to others of what a life of faith looks like — people striving to be better and to do good for others.”
This dedication extends to Marya, who’s a part of Blessed Sacrament’s Youth Council and described by Goldsmith as “mature, insightful, and very responsible.”
“I go to church with them, I like to maintain being in the Catholic faith like they were growing up,” Marya says. “We have culture days at school so I like to talk about it and tell people where I’m from.”
Through all the trials to reach Harrisonburg, Salvador and Aracely wouldn’t do anything differently: All of their children are in America and family members can come visit in a safe environment.
And, although three of the Portillos’ children were born in the U.S., they never downplay the struggles their parents went through to provide them with the life they have now.
Marya wants to attend JMU and become a neonatal nurse, primarily so she can help people, since Salvador and Aracely didn’t have medical attention while making the long journey from El Salvador.
“I know it was hard for them to come here and everything … I want to be able to make money and help them out in the future like they have done for me,” Marya says. “They tell me every day to go to college so I [can] find a steady job and make my own family, and I just want to make them proud.”