Waiting for Peace : El Salvador: After he lost his son, he aided the guerrillas, then fled north. Here, he scrapes for work and dreams of going home. To know his life, he says, is to know his country.
Andres Candido exists only in the city’s peripheral vision--one of many men clustered here and there on street corners, shifting from foot to foot, scanning approaching traffic, holding onto dim hopes for a day’s labor.
The city speeds by, car by car, vaguely disturbed, sometimes irritated, sometimes dismayed. Soon, the clusters of men are out of sight.
Candido’s sturdiness belies the 50 years that have left him a paunch at the waist and graying temples. Unable to speak English, unschooled, illiterate and essentially unskilled, the Salvadoran immigrant nonetheless stands ready to offer hard work, respectful manners, honesty and an eagerness to try. Alert, his face registers a mix of caution and kindness.
Usually, he prefers to look for work at the corner where Sepulveda meets Pico in West Los Angeles, halfway across the city from his home in Mid-Wilshire. It’s a costly investment of time and money to get there by 7:15 a.m.--two buses and $1.35 for a long journey that begins at 6.
If Candido hasn’t flagged a job by 10:30, he says, an offer probably won’t come. But he lingers anyway, hanging out with the others who have been passed over, on the off chance a late offer may come. By 2 p.m., he heads home in defeat.
Jobs--all paying minimum wage--sometimes materialize, even some that last several weeks or months. During his three years in Los Angeles, the corner has brought him painting jobs (“just using a brush”), work as a plumber’s helper (“carrying the tools”) and minor jobs in construction (tearing up concrete or “working with iron.”)
More often than not, however, Candido just stands on the corner. Sometimes he approaches cars, asking drivers, through hand signals, if they need a worker.
“The people who drive by--some see me signal and they smile and say, ‘No, thanks.’ They are conscious of my need,” he says through an interpreter. “Others just press the accelerator. They ignore me. . . . Sometimes they look at me and they despise me. They think of me as someone low, subhuman.
“It’s because they know nothing about me.”
In the mid 1980s, there seemed no choice for Candido but to get his family out of El Salvador and come north.
“The story of my life reflects the story of my country,” he says. “In telling my story, I will tell you how the war started, why it started.”
Candido was born near the coastal city of La Libertad. His father moved the family from hacienda to hacienda, looking for work, hearing of lands for rent elsewhere and then moving on. Andres Candido went to work as soon as he was old enough to handle a hoe or machete. He was 6.
School was out of the question. No laws mandated universal education and schools were never nearby; schools were for “the sons and daughters of the rich” and the small middle class. Nevertheless, he has taught himself to read printed letters but not script, and he can slowly pick up the gist of the news in a Spanish-language newspaper.
At 12, Candido, his parents, five brothers and eight sisters went to Costa Azul Hacienda Sonsonate, an estate that grew sugar and cotton. He married at 22 and settled near his parents and married siblings.
Each month the family worked two weeks for the patron and two weeks for themselves on rented land. They paid tribute with grain they had raised and each worker received one colon (about 40 cents U.S. at the time) for a sunrise-to-sunset workday.
Says Candido, “We were working for survival.”
When a Ministry of Labor inspector visited the estate in 1975, Candido, a brother and a friend complained that the campesinos had not received the government-mandated minimum wage of 2.25 colons per day. The patron bribed the inspector, he says, and nothing was done.
The Candido brothers expanded, organized a group of campesinos, and took their allegations to the ministry. Another inspection led to a token fine--about $25--for the patron , who expelled the organizers in 1978 for subversive activity and put the word out to other haciendas not to take them in, Candido says.
Throughout El Salvador, it was a time of turmoil. Peasant farmers were forming cooperative movements and factory workers started organizations, all of which were politically suspect. Candido wandered from countryside to city, meeting with other disgruntled campesinos.
As the country moved toward civil war, he says, the times were marked by spies and informers, by rallies and demonstrations, by living under fire once the massacres and bombings started.
Often the family was separated. Candido survived by burning wood and selling charcoal. Hunted by the police and National Guard for his allegedly subversive activities at the hacienda and accused of being a communist--he says he sympathizes with the communists but never formally joined--he changed his name and found work on a coffee plantation. He later lived with his family on the outskirts of San Salvador in a Catholic school that had been turned into a refuge.
It was there that the violence and chaos became even more personal. “On Oct. 14, 1982, my 14-year-old son left the refuge where we were living in San Salvador to attend his electrician’s class. He was arrested and never came back,” Candido says.
Then, seemingly numbed, he uses the terminology all too often associated with death in war-torn Central America:
“He was disappeared.”
When the church no longer allowed men of military age to live there, Candido and his remaining son left the women and headed for territory controlled by the guerrillas.
“People began to flee for their lives,” he recalls. “They’d rather go to liberated territories (land held by the guerrillas). They thought they had more chance to survive there. The people did not choose war (or to side with the guerrillas) because they wanted it, but because the army was pushing them. Some wanted war; some did not want it.
“All fell into it.”
Candido and his son lived “under the trees” among guerrillas for two years, he says, but did not participate in military activities.
The Candidos picked avocados and oranges, and collected tortillas from local people to feed the camp. Andres Candido went into Santa Ana to buy food and collect shoes for the guerrillas. His title was “logistics commander” and sometimes “commander of avocados,” he says, smiling: “They were free with titles.”
And he received a first aid kit. Candido had once taken a course in preventive medicine and now, with someone reading the medicines’ labels to him, he treated minor illnesses and injuries and gave shots to the children.
Candido’s son, now 27, made his way to Nicaragua in 1987, where he remains. The rest of the family came north in stages. First a married daughter, who now lives in Canada, then Candido with two daughters, followed by his wife with the two youngest girls.
Their journeys were a familiar-sounding mix of money saved, borrowed and sent from relatives who preceded them, of border thefts and shakedowns from officials and common bullies.
Earlier this month, Candido and his family moved into a one-bedroom apartment in a cream and brown stucco building with security gates and an underground garage. At $525, the rent is steep. But they moved there from a studio apartment several blocks away because the rent was about to go up and the building was rundown and dangerous.
Three of their five daughters live with Candido and his wife, Maria Ercelia--plus a niece with her infant daughter. The niece contributes $125 per month and Maria Ercelia makes a little by baby-sitting; Andres does what he can.
It’s touch and go.
The VCR did not make the latest move. “Oh,” Candido grins, explaining the empty space under the television by saying they had missed a payment.
There are two brown plaid pullout couches in the living room, plus a few straight-backed chairs, a baby’s highchair and a few scattered toys. The small, modern kitchen is more alcove than separate room. A bunk bed, a double bed and a dresser fill the bedroom.
There is little else: A small picture of the Sacred Heart adorned with plastic flowers hangs high on a living room wall, and a poster of Snow White, the Seven Dwarfs and Prince Charming happily standing in a glen decorates the bedroom.
Candido wants more for his children, particularly the education he missed. He hopes they will become professionals, “or educated enough to deal with life. I hope they will be happy and have dignified lives.”
But he emphasizes his goals for them are not centered on money: “Men are valued not for what they acquire for themselves, but for what they do for others.”
His daughter Reina, 21, is married and on Sept. 16 gave birth to twins--the first U.S. citizens in the family. Maura, 19, goes to night school where she studies English and computers.
Newly arrived last year, Elizabeth and Elva Luz, then 13 and 14, attended Bellagio Road Newcomers School in Bel-Air. They did well and are now in Berendo Junior High and Belmont High, steadily increasing their English, counting among their friends classmates who are Mexican, Korean and Filipino. They rapidly are looking and acting like American teen-agers and say that although it would be nice to go back to El Salvador for a visit, their lives are now here.
Candido has faith in them but worries about what he calls the “liberal” ideas they may pick up here “from persons who do not listen to their parents.”
Candido sees little future for himself in this country and compares working here to laboring on the hacienda: “The money is only enough for survival.”
Survival can come at a high price.
For nine months--the longest he has held a job here--Candido worked as a maintenance man and guard for a video and magazine store. Only when pressed does he acknowledge that it was an adults-only sex store.
Embarrassed, he never told his family where he worked, only saying that it was in a store. Candido calls it the lowest time in his life and says he thought to himself: “God, what do I have to do to survive in this country?”
Recently he has had a windfall that seems to be good not only for his finances but also for his soul. He has been working at CARECEN--The Central American Refuge Center--for most of the summer, fingerprinting immigrants from El Salvador and Guatemala who apply for “temporary protected status.”
Candido earns $1,000 a month--"$800 after taxes"--meets interesting people and feels helpful. But the job will end in October, and once again he will return to Sepulveda and Pico.
He is here legally now and has a work permit and an 18-month “temporary protected status” card.
Still, Candido seems caught in limbo: He knows he is handicapped by not speaking English, but has made no plans to learn the language; he makes no real plans to stay in the United States and dreams of returning to El Salvador.
Last week, he learned of the tentative accords between the Cristiani government and Salvadoran guerrillas, which is supposed to end the 11-year civil war that claimed an estimated 75,000 lives.
“This means the possibility of going back is getting closer,” Candido says. “I always have that idea, but the accords must become a reality first. You know we do not trust the Army very much in El Salvador.”
The loss of his son and the uncertainty of his fate still pain him, but he says his years “under the trees” were the high point of his life. Even as he recalls the rough living and hardship, Candido’s face shines:
“Oh, yes. I miss it. I felt important then. I was providing people with something. And when I lived in the refuge the year before, I was coordinator of a housecleaning team. There were 1,700 people living there; children were crawling on the floor. I made sure the floors and bathrooms were clean so the children could play. I feel 1980 to 1983 was the most important part of my life.”
Then his expression changes:
“What I miss most now is feeling needed. Living in this country now, I would like to do something, but I’m not needed.”