Childhood scars pave way for adulthood of possibilities

Daily Sundial

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Sonia Panameno still carries the scars with her.

On her body, they mark her knees; in her mind, they remind her how far she has traveled. She still gets emotional when she recalls her journey.

“I think that I did suffer a lot, but many other people suffer much more,” Panameno said. “I just didn’t understand why it was so bad for us to cross.”

A 21-year-old junior computer science major at CSUN, Panameno left El Salvador and entered the United States illegally when she was 8 years old, accompanied only by her sister and brother.

Panameno said her parents, hoping to flee political persecution, had already left El Salvador and were thousands of miles away in the United States.

Panameno’s father, Jose, was a soldier in the Salvadoran military, a dangerous occupation in 1989. A bloody civil war was raging in El Salvador. The U.S. backed government forces and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, a leftist guerilla force, were fighting for control of the country.

Although she was just a young child, Panameno remembers the violence that surrounded her.

“I remember being at a vigil when all of a sudden we were in the center of a crossfire between the guerillas and the soldiers,” Panameno said. “We ran into our house. I remember going under the bed. That’s where everybody hides. The bullets were hitting the walls while women were crying and screaming. After a while, everything quieted down, and all you could hear was bullets above you.”

“It lasted for an hour,” she said.

Panameno said her father received death threats from both sides of the war. He fled to the United States for fear of losing his life and to find a better one for he and his family. Two years later, Panameno’s mother, Miriam, left to join him. Their three children were left with Panameno’s aunt.

After a year of working and saving money, Panameno’s parents hired a smuggler, or “coyote,” to lead their three children across El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico and into the United States. It cost the family $2,000 for each child, a large sum. The risk of losing their children was much higher.

With no real explanation about what the trip would be like, Panameno and her siblings were told to dress in light clothing, and wait for the bus that would pick them up.

“At that point, the trip felt to me like just another bus ride,” Panameno said.

But this ride was much more arduous than any other Panameno had ever taken. Stops were limited to the necessities.

“We would eat from inside the (bus),” Panameno said. “The street vendors get in the bus and sell you the food. It’s not like they stop the bus. You’re pretty much traveling all the time.

“People were so afraid to say they had to go to the bathroom, that when somebody said they had to go, all 20 to 30 people said they had to go, too.”

Once they arrived in Mexico City, Panameno was split up from her brother and sister.

“It would have been too obvious if we were all walking around together because we spoke with a different accent,” Panameno said. “They split me up with a lady and a young man and told me to say she was my mom and he was my uncle, if anyone asked.”

Someone tipped off Panameno’s group that searches for illegal immigrants were occurring in Mexico City. The entire group was forced to get back on a bus and travel west to Tijuana. They would attempt to enter the United States from San Ysidro, Calif. They would wait until about 7 p.m. and let darkness shield them from the dangers ahead.

“We began to go out in the same groups we were in before, little by little, and started walking toward the river,” Panameno said. “We had to walk by the slums made up of houses built out of sheets of aluminum. Between the houses was a big fence, and we had to crawl underneath it.”

Panameno said fear began to creep into her young mind. She relied on the comfort of having her older siblings nearby but as the night got darker, it was getting harder for her to see them. She began to realize what this trip was really about.

“They said pay close attention, this is it,” Panameno said.

Throughout this whole time, exposed to the crisp desert air, Panameno remembers feeling very cold.

Someone miscalculated the weather.

Panameno wore shorts because she was told to dress for hot temperatures.

“No one had any extra clothes, except for this young guy who had a big white T-shirt,” Panameno said. “He gave it to me to keep me warm.”

Because she was a small child, Panameno was carried across the river atop one of the coyote’s hired hands shoulders. The river was up to the man’s chest. Panameno could feel the steady current swaying him back and forth.

Five to 10 minutes after they had crossed the river, Panameno and her group heard helicopters. Panameno had become a visible target dressed in a white T-shirt, and before she could figure out what was going on, a young man next to her tossed her full force into a dry, desert bush.

Panameno was so scared she did not feel the gashes the bush left on her knees, gashes that would become scars and remain with her forever.

“I remember thinking, “If they had to push me this hard to protect us, then how dangerous is it out there?'” Panameno said.

“I kept asking for my brother and crying, until they told me to keep quiet. I was scared and I was cold.”

After what felt like an eternity to Panameno, she was helped out of the bush, and the group crossed the street into San Diego. They had made it, but their journey was not over.

“We crossed the street, and a van was waiting for us there,” Panameno said. “They took us to a hotel in San Diego, and we waited there all night. By 10 or 11 in the morning, we began to pack into the van to drive north.”

Panameno had not eaten since 7 p.m. of the night before. She was hungry. They were forced to pack into the back of an emptied out van.

“We were laid out like sardines stuck together on the floor,” Panameno said.

She recalls having people’s feet by her face. Her body was exhausted from her trip. She was starving, irritated, hot, and scared; they drove packed like that for nearly two hours.

“The smell was bad,” Panameno said. “I was suffocating in that van.”

Panameno and her siblings finally arrived at a hotel in East Los Angeles for a reunion with their mother and father. It had been three years since she last saw her father and one year since she had seen her mother. Panameno remembers how happy she was.

“When I saw them, I just missed them,” Panameno said. “I forgot about everything that happened.”

Panameno’s parents noticed a physical change in their daughter.

“My scars were fresh on my legs, so they started crying,” Panameno said.

The search for a better future, with a good education, and less violence was the main reason Panameno’s parents exposed her to the risk of crossing the border.

Today, Panameno is a U.S. legal resident.

“When we went back to El Salvador for New Years in 2003, I saw how things are, how young girls live over there,” Panameno said. “If I would’ve waited for my parents there, I probably would have five-point-five kids, having to sell jicamas on the bus to survive, with a husband that drinks and doesn’t work.”

Panameno is now a member of a Salvadoran association youth committee. She goes back to El Salvador every November to give toys and food to the needy.

Even more than the scars on her knees, the trips back home remind Panameno how far she has traveled – and how hard it was to get here.

Connie Llanos can be reached at connie.llanos.600@csun.edu.