When Aurora Garcia was told that someone had arrived from the United States, she came running home down the dirt road all the way from mass thinking her husband Jesus had comes back from Washington.
But it was just a stranger who wanted to talk about why Jesus, the fater of her ten children, had left in the first place.
Clearly, his departure was not her idea. "When Jesus first said he wanted to go to the United States," she told the visitor, "I brought the priest her to talk to him."
But Jesus was determined. Local residents say that one-fifth of the village's men in this poverty-stricken southeastern corner of El Salvador have left to work, usually as illegal aliens, in Washington, D.C. The vast majority leave their wives and children behind, and many families, the village priest said, are shattered by the experience.
Until her husband headed north, Aurora said, "We never spent a night apart in 2u years of marriage."
A striking woman in flowered cotton, her long black hair pulled from her dark eyes and high cheekbones, she said she isn't interested in the money Jesus plans to make in Washington. "I'm afraid he'll forget the good things in life," she said, "all about the church and everything that is important to us."
Although Jesus now sends her as much a $400 a month from his job in Washington, Aurora said she is still paying off the more that $1,000 he broorowed to pay sumugglers to take him there.
The Garcia family lives in a dirt floor, one-room wooden house in Tierra Blanca, just outside the village of Intipuca. Along with several similar dwellings, it lies in the middle of a huge cashew plantation named "white earth" for the pale, powdery dust that seems to cover everyting, including the raggedly dressed children who play among the trees.
The family's clothes lie in boxes around the walls; a few wooden chairs stand awkwardly beneath several hammocks, strung across the room, that are used for beds.
For 33 years, Jesus Garcia picked crops on the big local plantations for $1 or $2 a day. With that money, and what he could borrow from the agricultural bank-a total of about $450 paid yearly in advance-he rented six manzanas, each the equivalent of a city block, from the plantation owner.
The corn and rice he raised using primitive methods on the arid land "didn't even support two people." Aurora said, and bad weather conditions over the past several years made things worse than usual. Despite her unhappiness at the temporary loss of her husband, she admitted "there is no work here."
Like may Latin women, she is resigned. "He has to do what he wants to do," she said. "If he stays there, I'll write to him. If he comes home, I'll welcome him."
It is after midnight in Washington and K Street is deserted. A couple of customers linger in the fashionable restaurant where Jesus Garcia works, but he is the last man in the kitchen.
The steam has cleared some by now, though he is still slipping through a film of water on the tile floor, cleaning up and setting up the food for tomorrow's morning shift.
His shoulder is hurting him and he is havein trouble reaching to some of the higher shelves to put away the big steel pans. He takes some of the pills his wife has sent him from El Salvador before he heads home.
A quiest, shy man with a greying moustache, Garcia, 45, lives on the edge of Washington's Adams-morgan neighborhood in a dimly lit, two-room apartment shared with his wife's sister, her husband, their small child and another friend from Intipuca, whose bed is crowded nest to Garcia's.
As far as he knows, Garcia said, everyone in the building, a dingy townhouse with paper-shrouded windows and a front door always locked, is an illegal alien.
When he has free time in the mornings, Jesus does his laundry or picks up his room, whose furnishings consist of the two mattresses on the bare floor. The only decoartions are a few Chrimas balls in front of a mirror and a religious calendar on the wall. His clothes are neatly hung on nails above his bed.
Since arriving in Washington last June, Garcia has rarely ventured outside the apartment except to go to the nearby Safeway store, occasionally to Spanish-language Mass on Sunday, and to work.
Six days a week, from 3 p.m. to mid-night, he works as a kitchen helper and dishwasher in the K Street restaurant, a job he took over from a cousin who went back to El Salvador after Garcia came. There is no law against hiring illegal aliens in the District of Columbia.
Although he invented a social security number when he got the job, and has no "green card" alien registration, U.S. taxes are deducted from Garcia's paycheck. Like most illegals, however, he does not file a return for fear of attracting law enforcement notice, and will not collect the tax refund due him. At the minimum wage, most illegal aliens figure the Internal Revenue Service will not miss their returns.
Out of his take-home pay of about $500 a month, Garica sends as much as $400 home to his wife and children and pays about $40 a month in rent. The rest of his money goes for food, which he described as his only luxury "I don't have many friends," he said. "I don't really enjoy the movies."
With only one year or write and speaks no English. His eyes are not good, and he syas he needs glasses but is afraid to go to the doctor because of his lack of English, his fear of the immigration service and because he can't afford it.
For the same reasons, he does not go to the drug store but instead aks his wife to send him packets of pills from El Salvador for his shoulder, which was dislocated several years ago and has never completely recovered.
"I worked for 30 years night and day in my country," Garcia said, "and I lost everthing because of bad times there. I work hard here, but it's a better life because I can send money to my family and hope they'll have a better life, too."
Six months ago, Esther Medrano remembers, her son Maximilio flew home briefly from Washington to Intipuca and said, "Mother, I'm going to build you a house so that the kids don't have to run around in the dirt."
The kids-nine youngsters who live in a two-story concrete shell next door to the wooden hut that used to be their home-belong to Esther Medrano's four sons who live and work in the United States.
Two of the children she cares for are Maximilio's, two are Gaonzalo's, one is Jose's and four, including a five year-old boy his father has never been seen, belong to Lucio.
Instead of playing on the dirt floor of their former home, the children play in the piles of construction sand and cement left over in front of the new one.
Most of their mothers, Esther siad, ran away. Some of them live here in town with different husbands, different families. Lucio's wife, the mother of five-years-old Lucio Henry, went to Washington to be with her husband shortly after his birth. They have since had a fifth child there.
Esther's sons send her a total of about $250 a month to care for the children, she said. "Lucio sent me a photo of himself," she laughed. "He's gotten quite fat."
Lucio Mendrano and some friends form Intipuca sat around his Dupont Circle apartment on a recent Sunday evening watching "All in the Family" on his new Sony color television.
"i've never had a problem," said Medrano, who has lived in Washington for more than five years. The border crossing was easy when he made it, so was finding work, and "la migra," the immigration service, has yet to discover him.
Whatever the pain of separation from his four children in El Salvador, Medrano is clearly thriving in the peculiar demimonde of Washington's illegal aliens.
The other night his wife, Rubenia, played hostess to his friends, offering them beer and coffee. His 13-month-old son, Jose toddled about in shorts and a knatty blazer, fresh from an evening mass with his parents. Though in Medrano's words his $200-a-month, one-bedroom apartment is "very small and very poor"-the furnishings are cheap and spare, a cockroach crawls among the toys on the floor-it is comfortable enough.
He has held one job in the kitchen of an exclusive Washington club for more than four years. His wife used to work ther with him, but now that she is taking care of the baby full-time, he has gotten a second job in the evenings at a Capitol Hill restaurant. Working night and day, 75 hours a week, he brings home $233 afterdeductions. Of that, $140 a month goes back to Intipuca for the children.
he misses them, he said-their snapshots clutter his tiny bedroom and Rubenia brings them out to present them produly to a visitor-but he is not sure when he will return to them. Asked when he will go back to Intipuca he said vaguely. "I'm thinking that maybe it will be next year."
Florencio Suarez, 47, has gradually realized he will never return to El Salvador unless he is caught and deported. He doesn't know if he will ever see his wife and eight children again.
He had not wanted to leave the area around Intipuca at first. His father had been a farmer and he had wanted to continue the tradition, he said, "But I was always fighting for things that were not big. How could all those people depend on me? What could I do?"
If the weather was bad, and frequently it was, his family was often near starvation, Suarez said.
"There are some things that people don't talk about. . . . I had begun to think that we would be better off dead." Without melodrama, sitting quietly in the bare white room he rents by himself, Suarez said that, for him at least, the journey to the United States became an alternative, to suicide.
He made his first trip in 1970 and earned enough money to buy a new house when he returned to El Salvador 16 months later. But he soon found himself in the same situation as before, unable to support his family on the loca economy.
He came bact to Washington two years ago an works the day shift at the same restaurant where Jesus Garcia washes dishes at night. He tries to send back about $400 a month, but since he has been renting a room by himself that costs$100, he has had to send less.
Suarez, like may of Intipuca's people in Washington, has gradually adapted to a Spanish-speaking society largely unnoticed by the bustling city arround it. Mingling with the substantial population of Latino U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, the illegal immigrants from Intipuca have their own culture, their own entertainments.
There are even amateur soccer games to watch in West Potomac Park, though there is always the lingering memory of an INS raid in 1976 that sent spectators and players diving into the Tidal Basin attempting to escape. The most popular teams, naturally, are called El Salvador and Intipuca City.
There is none of this in the region around Intipuca.
"The change in life teaches you much," said Suarez. "When people come here they don't know anything, but once you are here you learn how to live.
"My childfren could never understand the kind of things I've faced, but I would never want them to know the situation of a father who thinks of killing himself.
"I realized a long time ago that I hurt my family more by being there than being here. It's not that I want to be away from the love of my wife, but I see what the realities are."
(The names in this article have been changed to protect the identities of subjects.) CAPTION: Picture 1, While Aurora Garcia (left) and their children wait in Intipuca, By Karen DeYoung-The Washington Post; Picture 2, El Salvador, Jesus Garcia works in the kitchen of a Washington restaurant (above) By John McDonnell-The Washington Post; Picture 3, and hides his face from a photographer in his apartment to avoid identification by immigration officals. By John McDonnell-The Washington Post; Pictures 4 The children of the four Medrano brothers, whose fathers are illegal aliens in the United States, live in a new house built with the money their fathers sent back to Intipuca. The youngest, Lucio Henry, foreground, who haas never seen his father, and the tallest girl, Maria Jesus, are children of Lucio and Rubenia Medrano, who live in an apartment in the Dupont Circle area By Karen DeYoung-The Washington Post; Picture 5, (above) with their youngest child, 13-month old Jose. Jose was born in the United States. By Linda Wheeler-The Washington Post