Sylvia Rosales remembers the last time she saw her husband, Mauricio. It was midnight and the treasury police in El Salvador had come to her hilltop home. "'We want your husband,'" they said. Mauricio was wearing his blue robe over his brown pajamas as they led him to a truck. She could not see his face.

Rosales, now 31, searched for her husband for two years after that April night in 1981. Although she is now happily remarried, she said, the memory of Mauricio Aquino has been a guiding force in her three years with the Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN). As executive director of the Washington agency, which is devoted to legal services and human rights work, she has daily contact with Salvadorans who have similar stories to tell -- of personal death threats and loved ones who disappeared without a trace.

"I feel that Mauricio always inspires me," Rosales said. "When I think about why he died, it makes me feel very special, very lucky for being his wife. His disappearance was the point when my view changed dramatically. It was like a sign in my life . . . . I feel like I've lived a novel, but it's been a sad story."

In recent months, Rosales, a small, striking woman with a gracious manner, has become a high-profile spokeswoman for the region's largely illegal Salvadoran population. A former child of privilege, she now makes $16,000 a year as head of a nonprofit organization that employs 17 people. She calls the work "rewarding."

"The fact that Sylvia has been in the limelight has not changed her rapport with people," said Maria Elena Orrego of The Family Place in Mount Pleasant, a medical center for the poor. "I see Sylvia as a very hard-working woman, very steady, which is what we need right now. Her convictions are very powerful, and that tends to rub off on all of us."

CARECEN occupies an old three-story house on Mount Pleasant Street. It was founded in 1981 by Joaquin Dominiguez, a Salvadoran who moved to Washington after he was threatened with death for criticizing his country's land-reform program.

Dominiguez, now 38, immediately saw a need for legal advice among the Salvadorans living here; his hope was that the civil war in El Salvador would end soon and the need for an agency such as CARECEN would disappear within five years. The troubles in El Salvador continue, however, and CARECEN has since opened offices in Los Angeles, New York, Houston, and, two months ago, in San Francisco.

The Washington agency, which includes a health clinic, serves about 10,000 people a year, including some 2,000 political asylum cases, Rosales said. Most such cases are "emergencies, people who are about to be deported," she said; because of the U.S. policy toward El Salvador, only about 4 percent of the deportations are stopped. "For attorneys," she said, "it's very frustrating."

Rosales' office is on the third floor, up a rickety staircase. On the back of the door is a poster of Gen. David M. Shoup, commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps from 1960 to 1963, with the quote underneath: "I believe that we should keep our dirty, bloody dollar-soaked fingers out of the business of those nations so full of depressed, exploited people . . . ."

"He is very inspiring," Rosales said, "a military man with a different perception than Oliver North."

While Rosales grew up in a world of swimming pools, chauffeurs and elite Catholic schools, her social conscience emerged at an early age, she said. In one memorable instance, at the age of 11, she brought 10 poor children to her San Salvador home, fed them, then bathed them in the family swimming pool.

"My mom came home from shopping. She was very upset. 'You can't do that. We have to keep the swimming pool clean.' I remember my grandmother used to say, 'There are things you can't change.' "

In high school, her convictions deepened. "We were a group of very best friends coming from wealthy families. We used to have our philosophical discussions together. Some of us started going to the barrios to teach literacy with the priests. Our attitude was, yes, we are rich, we have everything. But look around -- so much poverty.

"My parents were very conservative," she said. "In El Salvador, the classes are so clearly drawn -- the upper classes don't ride buses. One day I said to my father, I would like to ride the bus sometime. He blew up. 'Who is putting these crazy ideas in your head?' "

At her senior prom, Rosales and her friends created a small scandal by distributing copies of a study they had done, suggesting that the poor be allowed to attend the elite school. Later she enrolled at a private Jesuit-run university where she studied sociology. Mauricio Aquino was about to finish engineering school. He was her first serious boyfriend.

"He was very . . . . " her face became soft as she spoke. "He had a very yuppie mentality. He had his nice car with all the appliances. He liked to spend money. We used to party a lot.

"He was not political. He had concerns. That's something you don't avoid in El Salvador -- everybody discusses the poverty. He used to accept that there was injustice, but sometimes he had the philosophy, 'Well, what can we do?'

"He used to say, 'You know why I like you, Sylvia? You go to the root and you make me feel there is something important.' When we were dating, we used to talk about that. He said, 'I'm a bourgeois and I love to be a bourgeois.' But he loved the work I was doing."

They married when she was 21, and settled into one of the six hilltop homes in her family's compound. They had two cars and a maid; Rosales presided over afternoon teas, but also continued her charity work. At parties, the couple openly -- and their friends cautioned, sometimes recklessly -- discussed politics. "It was the 'We need a change' kind of thing," she said.

On April 15, 1981, the country was in a state of siege. Curfew was 10 p.m. Mauricio had a bad cold. "The lights of the cars coming shone right into the bedroom. I remember feeling those lights -- what is this? I thought it would probably be a search. I said, 'Mauricio, the army is here.' "

They took him without explanation, she said. Later, officers at police headquarters told her they had not seen her husband and suggested he had disappeared with another woman.

Rosales, then the mother of an 18-month-old daughter, was granted meetings with top government leaders. She placed ads with her husband's photograph in all the newspapers, but there was never any clue to what happened.

"One year after he disappeared, I bought a new suit for my husband," she said. "I even bought a toothbrush. That kind of thing was keeping me up. That was my life. My question was, why him? I was more involved. Why not me? It made me feel like an old woman."

Rosales moved to the San Francisco area in 1983, after she and her daughter began receiving death threats, and started volunteer work with refugees there. She met her second husband, David Fike, a former refugee worker now studying for a doctorate in economics. Three years ago, she took the job at CARECEN.

Last year, CARECEN began a program to train private lawyers willing to volunteer their services on behalf of refugees; about 50 lawyers are now on the list, Rosales said. The agency also placed "a permanent representative" in El Salvador to provide information on conditions there, and started a Sponsor-a-Refugee program involving 15 area churches.

In addition, Rosales is responsible for raising CARECEN's $400,000 annual budget from private foundations, churches, and the local Salvadoran community. Increasingly, she also is lobbying on Capitol Hill for human rights and for the bill that would allow illegal Salvadorans threatened with death to remain in this country.

"It takes a lot," she said. "I get home and I can't relax. I go to bed and my head goes on and on and on. I even dream of work. But burnout for me is different," she said. "Burnout for me is to stop caring about what I'm doing. And I don't think that's going to happen."