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At six, I saw the gruesome details of what grown-ups saw. I knew what brains looked like after seeing gray matter dripping from walls from someone’s head being blown away.

Gabriel,  49
Incarcerated: 31 years
Housed: Northwest ICE Processing Center, Tacoma, Washington

I was born with six toes. Since we lived below the poverty line, the doctor said, “It’s better to cut it off or it will be too expensive to keep him shoed.” As I got old enough to walk, shoes bothered me. Barefooted, I was proud of my stub, showing it off in a city that had yet to be fully developed. I remember nothing of the incident, but I can somehow picture a child in pain, at least the healing part, as if a warning to all the pain that would come. It was my first introduction to raw self-awareness. When I got older, I felt angry and cheated by my sense of “uniqueness.” And angry for being so poor they removed my toe. 

One day I asked my mom why I had this scar on my right hand, “It’s a burn mark,” she told me. When I was two, my mother was a housekeeper and took me to work. I was a super active, inquisitive child. I was learning to walk, and when she left the room for a second I pulled on the extension cord of the iron she was using. I have no recollection of it- all I have is a scar from my thumb, index finger and middle finger. I don’t see scars of childhood neglect, I see a young mother doing her best. All the stories my mother told me of my childhood I keep with me to understand how I have become who I am and to learn who I wanted to be. She stopped taking me to work and started leaving me in my crib with my brother Marco who was a year older than me. I began to get out of my crib and make a mess everywhere. She couldn’t afford a babysitter – my dad worked and spent all the money on alcohol. She began to tie me to the crib. My mother said I would never quit. I always ventured into something. She said my older brother Marco managed to cut the rope with a kitchen knife because I would not stop crying. My worst of fears is being physically restrained in a harmful situation or perceived danger. I remember a lot of suffering as a child.

Life was not all bad. I remember being happy when I visited my mom’s mother, Toya, who had 24 siblings. She loved me the most and let me get away with being a child. She gave us money to go to the arcade, which we could not afford. I remember having joy and being appreciative. Everything I did was for her amusement. My grandma is physically strong, but my mother is physically and mentally strong. My grandma gave me hugs and kisses, something that as a child I can not remember getting from my mom. I did not hear “I love you” from her until I was 25, serving this life term. 

My mom and dad had an argument, he threw a knife, and she was stabbed. My grandma told her, “he won’t stop drinking and will end up killing you if you stay with him.” She knew her son. My dad never mistreated us, was actually very caring whether he was drunk or sober. He put alcohol before us. I used to attend A.A. meetings with him as I got older. He tried to sober up and took me to job interviews and then got drunk. I remember the candy they gave me at the A.A. meetings. My dad once killed a rooster that attacked me when I was three. I was probably taunting it. They had to pay for the rooster. I love my dad. He taught me my first English words. Before I came to the US, “Hello my friend, how are you?” He was an educated man with college degrees, yet overwhelmed by the sickness of alcoholism. My father died from falling on his head while drunk, hitting a rock, and was found.

My mother moved on with her life. She had a new boyfriend when I was around four, who worked for the police as a low ranking officer. He quit at the brewing of the civil war since authorities had begun to get killed. We lived in a one bedroom apartment with an outhouse. By this time, I had a younger brother and a sister. Don Francisco was a timid man, non confrontational. My mother used to fight other men because they would mess with her kids. Don Francisco would be in the background. Without hesitation my mother would always stand up for us. I used to watch her get her point across, regardless of the outcome. “Don’t take crap from nobody.” She used to fight a lot because of us. 

When I started kindergarten, I broke my arm trying to retrieve a Hot Wheels that went under the cabinet. I remember crying, thinking I was going to be punished for being careless. Punishment has been a part of my life. I was a very hyper child and always exploring. I am sure I lived through good memories, but I recall more negative than positive. 

My mom was a towering figure in my childhood. I’m sure she disciplined me as a quick solution to deal with misconduct; child abuse was the trend in a culturally built method. To solve disobedience, the worse the punishment, the better the parent you were considered to be. Growing up I was short, and according to folklore, there’s a particular day around Easter when kids of short stature are to be flogged with a branch from a particular tree so that they grow taller. I got flogged once and it wasn’t the pain that hurt but the concept of such nonsense. Yet it was encouraged. By age 4, I broke my arm again retrieving a paper airplane. I woke up in the hospital with a hand to my throat as a restraint while my arm was reset. I remember the overwhelming sense of restriction. With tears in my eyes, I passed out. 

I was five when my mother, younger brother Edwin, who’s also serving a life sentence in California, sister Ana, and brother Amilcar and I went to San Salvador. Edwin had to be seen by the doctor. While we were at the hospital, my mom had to go to the bathroom. I can’t remember why, but she gave me 10 colones (about $4.00 at that time). She didn’t know we were being watched by this glue-sniffing thug-predator. He came up to me and said, “ Your mom wants you to give me the money.” I refused, so he made a reference towards my brothers and sister. It was a lot of money to give up: our bus money back home. I knew I had bought myself a real beat down for doing wrong and not standing up to him. When she came back, I told her I had given the money to that dude. She blew up, but aimed it not towards me but towards a pursuit in search of this maliante, the thug. She began to ask around and found out this dude was a spider, always there weaving webs for flies like me. My mom found his dad, who sold newspapers. She confronted him, and he wouldn’t give the money or be held responsible for his son’s misdeeds. It was not the first time somebody complained about his son. We had no money to get back on the bus. My first lesson about payback came when my mom said, “Everyone grab the newspapers when the bus gets here.” I made sure I grabbed as many as I could, got on the bus and started selling the newspaper. It was exhilarating. In that event, I learned things can be taken care of swiftly and without authority. 

Growing up in El Salvador, situations still linger in my mind. I now understand why I was who I was. I can name my defects of character from many events. The biggest part has been dealing with the emotions. Fear was plenty and came in many forms: anger, selective happiness, stolen episodes, all overlooked by a roaring civil war. In the duration of punishment, my effort to convey truth can be perceived as manipulative and exaggerated, yet it serves no other purpose other than self-healing and willingness to change. The war made my fears comatose and sedated the pain with the natural endorphins of not caring. I quit the sense of being on edge, no longer awaiting for the next fast pace threat of death or danger. 

At six, I saw the gruesome details of what grown-ups saw. I knew what brains looked like after seeing gray matter dripping from walls from someone’s head being blown away. Charred bodies were left in the public park for everyone to go see. Left there to be an example of what happens when there are allegations of being a Guerrillero, subversive terrorists. People disappeared, gunfire would spark in the afternoon while I was in school. I remember my teacher, Miss Yolanda, would instruct us to duck under the desks as the tanks and grenades went off. I would come out to the drab silence of the streets which looked like sinister endless flashing teeth with braces as tanks left their mark on black tops. People emerged from small places used by kids as hiding spots. That day we did not make it home. We were stranded and rescued by the kindness of strangers who welcomed us into their homes to pass the night. Going to sleep to the sound of bullets was now a common theme. I often wonder if early childhood or war trauma caused me to become a bedwetter. This caused me shame and expectation of punishment. That day I got neither. In the morning, as expected, bodies were sprawled everywhere – not of soldiers, but of Guerilleros. In 1984, we emigrated to the US. I was 10. I felt like collateral damage wanting to exist.

I used to speak of my childhood experiences with pride, as if suffering were accomplishments. The injustice of being poor was always a challenge, nothing else. I feel pain and sadness, recalling and writing about it. With effort I can now express my emotions, control my behavior and not just act on impulsivity. In my younger days I often failed, and when I did accomplish something meaningful, I would not be able to build upon it, but rather become destructive, as if positivity was pulling me away from my comfort zone of negativity.

As I write this, a part of me tries to evade thinking about the past and writing it down. I believe this is because I feel ashamed, sad, and fearful of not being believed. I know it is necessary to shed these emotions and concerns in order to reach a new layer of maturity. I continue my recollection of the circumstances from my mother, Elizabeth. She’s an outgoing person with qualities I admire, not believing she is part of my truth, yet because of the scar from the iron on my right hand. I know she wouldn’t lie to me.

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