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From Chinameca, With Love

Zooming In is a podcast that tells stories of 2020, but it’s not a COVID podcast. It’s about how life keeps going, even through a global pandemic.

A story across two generations – from Chinameca, El Salvador, to Perth, Australia.

This podcast collection was made possible with funding from Lotterywest.

Photo of Marta and Tadeo

Photo of Rafael Gonzalez
Photo credits: Claudia Mancini

[Part 1 – Transcript]

Sisonke: Welcome to Zooming In, a podcast about the lives and feelings of regular people who are like you and me. People seeking connection and love. People who are just muddling along, trying to be human. I’m your host for this episode, Sisonke Msimang.

Rafael: This Jade Pendant that I wear, I rarely take it off except for last year ‘cos it was, the string was getting old, but it is for me, it’s a connection to the country, but also a connection to my ancestors and to the country that gave birth to my family, to my, you know, my family trees. There’s also this little like, little funny quirk that I keep bringing up, it’s like: I may have been born and raised here in Perth, but I was made in El Salvador.

Sisonke: This is Rafael, Raf or Rafa for short. Raf is a Salvadoran-Australian, a writer, a comic book lover, and a proud Aspie, or someone with Asperger’s. Raf has been involved in the Centre for Stories for a few years, where he’s shared his stories and his writing with us. When we sat down to interview Raf for this podcast, we initially wanted to find out more about what 2020 had been like for him. He’d moved into his own place for the first time, out of the family home, right before Western Australia went into its first lockdown. Coming from a really close-knit family, this was a huge deal for Raf, and being indefinitely separated from his parents during that first lockdown was really, really hard. The more we chatted to Raf about this, the more we realised that his story actually started a long time ago, in a little town on the other side of the world, and that to really understand Raf, we had to go back to Chinameca, and speak to the two people who started it all – Raf’s parents.

Rafael: My Dad’s name is Tadeo Antonio Gonzalez Espinosa. Then there’s my mum. Her name is Marta Espinosa Gonzalez Castillo.

Sisonke: Marta and Tadeo’s story start starts in a small town in central eastern El Salvador. It’s a place they really love. Here they are, telling us about it in their own words.

Marta: Chinameca is a town, a big town in the hills. Mostly with coffee plantations and the best climate ever. There we grew up in like 12, 25 all the time. We knew everybody there. And when we grew up, we used to go to the market every day. Like, well, not us, but our parents used to go to the market to buy fresh food all the time. The meat, the bread, everything was fresh.

Tadeo: It was a very, very quiet city. I also, I religious, I was a very Catholic, we were going with my mum to the church, was very close, two blocks from my home. Listen in the morning, it was so beautiful, listen to the bells.

Marta: One thing that we all did, as the family, like if we make tamales, which is a big thing for us to make tamales, and we will deliver toward the neighbours. If we had, we remember we had a huge avocado tree in our house and it was a very special avocado, but then my grandma will say, “Oh, okay, now we have the avocados, this goes to this family, and this family.” So, all the special avocados were delivered. Anything that we did like, we had to share it.

Sisonke: Marta and Tadeo came from different kinds of families. Tadeo was the youngest of twelve kids. In his words, he was born at a good time. Being the youngest meant he was like a little prince in the family. His sister was even his teacher for a while in primary school.

For Marta, life was a bit quieter. She had half siblings on both her mother’s and her father’s sides, but she was raised by her grandmother. Marta’s own mum lived in the next town over, and her dad, Marta says, was a bit of a womaniser that she didn’t have too much to do with. Although things within Marta’s family weren’t picture perfect, and sometimes she felt a bit lonely, she loved her grandmother a lot. Overall, for Marta and Tadeo, life in Chinameca was pretty idyllic.

Marta and Tadeo had grown up in proximity. Their families knew each other, and there was a lot of crossover at social events and parties. Tadeo remembers first noticing Marta when they were both really young, Marta was still in primary school and sometimes her and Tadeo would walk past each other on their way home.

Tadeo: I liked her because she was so beautiful. Beautiful girl, still very beauty. Has a long hair, still had a long hair. Also, she was very social. She was very expressive, and maybe I was the opposite because I was shy. She was more open, more expressive. It was maybe the compliment.

Sisonke: It was years before their romance really started. Marta wasn’t so sure about Tadeo at first. Marta remembers one of their first encounters. She had organised a dance for the young people in Chinameca, and Tadeo was there, ready to make a move.

Marta: He came in and asked me to dance, and I said, “Yeah okay, I can dance, but I have to see that everybody is doing their shifts and everything.” But I still danced with him. And then this guy came and asked him if he could dance with me, and he said, “Yeah, only once.” And then I said, “Who do you think you are?” And he was holding me like very tight. And yeah, since then, that was it.

Sisonke: Marta and Tadeo started dating, but they were both still pretty young, and they had other plans to consider. Tadeo was studying to be a doctor in Chinameca, and Marta received a pretty life changing offer for further education. She had planned to move to the US for two years to study business and improve her English. Before she left, through sheer luck, or perhaps good karma, she met a really wealthy American family who took a liking to her and invited her to stay with them.

Marta: I lived like a princess there because they offer me when they came to, when I met them, where I worked, they said it, “You can come and live with us. Why do you have to live with one person there? You won’t learn any English. Then you have to come with us. We had a big family, we had a huge house. So there is plenty of room there for you, if you come.” And, you know, I just didn’t want to, because I was so scared. How am I going to live with those rich people and what am I going to do? So, and then I went even, and did some courses on etiquette, and how to do things, to do all that stuff. The thing is, when I got there, they were so nice. There were no, nothing to worry about it. They were so like, the best people ever. I couldn’t have a better life. It was my luck that I lived in US with a billionaire family. The man of the house, he always told me, “Don’t be stupid! Don’t go back to El Salvador! I’m going to find you a very rich man!”

Sisonke: Marta was really living the good life in Ohio, but she never really saw herself there long-term. Maybe it was Chinameca calling her back, or more likely, it had something to do with the young medical student patiently waiting for her to return home to him.

It was 1977 when Marta and Tadeo finally got married. Marta got pregnant not long after with their first daughter Anna. Three years after that, they had their second daughter, Raquel. Tadeo was working as a GP, and Marta was managing projects for Save the Children. They had a good couple of years, settling into life as a young family.

While Marta and Tadeo were living this quiet, family life, their country was falling apart. The Salvadoran Civil War started to unfold. At first, they managed to carry on with business as usual, but it didn’t take long before the conflict started to hit close to home. As a GP, Tadeo would often have soldiers from the military storm his surgery and demand to see his patient files. They were concerned that he was providing medical assistance to the guerrilla forces. Sometimes, the military would even search Marta and Tadeo’s house, looking to confiscate any medical samples that might be used to treat their enemy. It wasn’t just Tadeo who was in danger through his work.

Marta: Even, even with my work, I was always in danger. Like I, because I had to go to see all the projects in the communities and it can be like, one minute we could be like in a meeting with the people and then the guerrilla will come and then we had to run and hide, whatever. But still we thought if other people survive, we can survive. And we knew danger was there every, every day.

Sisonke: After a while, things got a bit too close to home. Remember how I mentioned earlier that Tadeo had an older sister who was his primary school teacher for a while? Her name was Maria, and she was married to a guy called Felix, affectionately known to Marta and Tadeo’s daughters as Felix the Cat. Maria and Felix were like parents to Tadeo, and parents in law to Marta. Felix was the rector at the University of El Salvador, and he was really outspoken. He criticised the government a lot.

Tadeo: And the girls, they call him papi gatto. Because Felix The Cat, you know, in Spanish, cat is gatto, yeah. And she was like a mum for us boys. Always, yeah.

Marta: We were so close with them because when their parents died, then they took us on the wings. So, they were like our parents in law, we went with them everywhere.

Sisonke: On 28 October 1980, Felix was stopped in his car a few steps away from the University of El Salvador. He was killed in a targeted machine-gun attack. This was devastating not only for Felix’s family, including Marta and Tadeo, it was a huge loss for the whole country. Even today, Felix’s murder is considered a symbol of the dark times; a reminder of the state repression in El Salvador that would continue until the 1990’s. It also made Marta and Tadeo consider their own safety, and wonder if they needed to leave the country they loved so much.

Marta: Then is when we started because at the, before, we never even thought about leaving El Salvador. And we didn’t, we were not in politics, that’s why we thought we don’t, we are not in danger, but really it, you don’t need it to be a politician there. You were in danger no matter what, which side you were into. So, it was so hard when we had to decide.

Sisonke: It took six years before they finally made their decision.

Marta: The situation was getting worse and worse and like, there were people dying, killing people every day. Like with thousands of people appearing and how people like, everywhere on the streets and people getting killed in their house, families disappearing completely like never saw them again, complete families. And then we thought, “Oh my God, this is never going to improve.” After we decided that we had to leave, we had to choose, or actually Sweden was another option. Sweden, Canada, and Australia, because I already had said no to US, but when Australia came as an option, I thought that Australia was the best place to come because it was far away and too expensive for Tadeo to go back to El Salvador.

Sisonke: Marta and Tadeo had to decide where they wanted to go. Marta had an ongoing connection with the millionaire family in the US who offered to sponsor them to live Ohio. It was a tempting offer, but she knew that if Tadeo was close to El Salvador, he would try and go back as soon as he could. This was a key difference between them – although it was still hard for Marta to walk away from Chinameca, from her home, she was more willing to let go. For Tadeo, leaving behind his big family was really, really hard. This is why they chose Australia, because it was so far away that they couldn’t go back.

Marta: I knew nothing about Australia. Very scary, very scary. But it’s like a challenge. I took it as a challenge.

Tadeo: The people go to USA, they have families, but here we didn’t know nobody, nobody.

Sisonke: But it didn’t take Marta and Tadeo long to settle into the laidback Aussie lifestyle.

Marta: What I liked the most is because it was quiet and I like it that there were not too many people. And the best is after six months, then I went to Fremantle and saw the people were very relaxed with no shoes on. Wow. They impressed me. And I said, “Yeah, why not?” And I put away all my heels, the bag of shoes that I brought, a bag of high heels, brand new ones, my collection, I never wore them. So, I said, “No way that I’m going to wear them.” So, I only left the black ones, and the rest took them to St. Vincent de Paul. And for me it was like liberation.

Sisonke: Marta was pregnant with Raf on the trip to Australia. That’s why he always says he was made in El Salvador, even if he was born here. When Raf talks about this period of time, you can tell he sees it as his story too.

Raf: It was a very long process, like very long to get the approval from the embassies and for the migration papers to be approved. I think things were just escalating at the time with the war. It was like, it was just never ending. So, a lot of people probably at the time were also walking on eggshells or were very sus about each other. They didn’t know who to trust. And mostly we would just stick to our family and only some of our close friends. So around that time, and I think my mum was very stressed at the time because she was pregnant with me.

Sisonke: Raf’s parents had to decide where they wanted to go. Marta knew Tadeo would just go back to El Salvador if he had the chance, so they considered Australia. They knew some other Salvadorans who had already migrated here, and most importantly, it was really far away.

Raf: So, they were also looking at possible places. So, they thought, oh maybe we can go to Queensland cuz the climate’s similar to El Salvador. So, when we, it was like from El Salvador, from San Salvador, all the way to Los Angeles, which was a long trip. Then getting into Australia, they said that Queensland was fully booked. They couldn’t bring any more into Queensland. So then by the time we get to Sydney, it was like, oh you can either go there or in Perth. Well, they didn’t really think much about Perth at the time, but Sydney was the one people I’ve heard about. I think my dad was told by some people in the area who were, who lived in there like, “Perth is a mining town. It’s quiet, it’s boring. It’s very isolated. Nobody will…” But, and then I think everyone went, well it’s perfect cos at least it’s further, the further the way the better.

Sisonke: Raf’s family settled in Hamilton Hill, an old suburb located about 20kms from the Perth CBD. It’s right next to Fremantle, the place where Marta saw the laidback barefoot Aussies and was inspired to ditch her high heels. The family was living here when Raf was born.

Raf: Back then in 89, I think when you think of Hammy Hill, Hamilton Hill, it’s not a very pleasant neighbourhood. I mean the are some areas of course, but then of course there are those I even, I know from reputation. But back then in 89, it was the one temporary stopover for a lot of fresh migrants who needed a place to stay. And so, I think they lived in an apartment. So that was how it was for a while. And even two months later I think ‘cos this was April 1st. So, April was probably, they were just settling in. My sisters were settling into school, cos I think Anna was probably almost ready to go to high school soon. So, I think they were just, we were just, they were just settling things. So after I was born, my dad waited in front in the apartment and when my sisters were coming, walking home from school, and he was like opening the windows, like signalling, “Oh, come here, come here!” And telling them that I was born, that’s it’s a boy, that I was healthy and that he’ll go and take them. He didn’t want anyone else to tell them, but him. I don’t really know many of the details because I only know second-handedly all the stuff that happened in 89, like the Berlin wall and well, let’s see, Baywatch started up, but I did my homework – what happened in 89.

Sisonke: In the next episode, we’ll hear from Raf. A Salvadoran boy growing up down under.

This podcast was produced by the Centre for Stories with funding from Lotterywest. Centre for Stories is an organisation based on Whadjuk Noongar land in Western Australia that believes in storytelling as a way to build more inclusive communities. Head to centreforstories.com to listen to more stories, or to make a tax-deductible donation.

Special thanks to our storytellers for this episode, Rafael, Tadeo and Marta, and to our production team: executive producer Kara Jensen-Mackinnon, audio engineer Mason Vellios, scripting and interviewing by Sisonke Msimang and Claudia Mancini.

 

[Part Two – Transcript]

Sisonke: In part one of this story, we heard about how Marta and Tadeo grew up, fell in love, got married, and started a family in Chinameca, El Salvador. All of this before the Salvadoran Civil War broke out in late 1979, and which eventually saw the family leave their beloved home country for the further possible place – Perth, Australia.

In part two, we’ll hear from Raf. The baby of the family who was still in his mum’s tummy when the family left El Salvador. He’s Australian born and raised, with strong Salvadoran roots.

Rafael: I think my earliest memory was about, I was at about two or three, I think that’s when, I think as far as I can remember. I know that there was a lady named Barbara who passed away a few years back, but she was very kind to my family and like she offered to, cos the rent that my parents were paying was like, “Oh, well I can lend you one of my houses in Palmyra.” Okay, we can live there for a bit.” But the earliest memories of me waking up in the mornings and I think I was like probably having my early sugar highs ‘cos I think back then I was allowed to have like cocoa pops or rice bubbles. I don’t think, I think my mom was okay with those, but fruit loops was like out of the question, but I think my earliest memories as well was Fremantle. Like somewhere my, because I think that was the area that my mum would or my dad when, ‘cos he didn’t have a work job at the time, he would take me to spend the day in Fremantle. Even I just remember, even a song, sometimes music I associate to, cos it helps me remember. It was a cover of Casey and the Sunshine Bands’ Give It Up, but made from the band Cut and Move, cos it was very Eurodance and all. But that song I always associate to my earliest memories

Sisonke: Like many migrants, Raf’s parents – his dad especially – left his career behind in his home country.

Rafael: My dad, he couldn’t, he struggled because he, unlike my mum, he had a struggle with his language barrier, cos he struggled the most. I mean he tried. I mean these days he’s fine, but back then it was a big struggle because while I was born, I think back and forth, my parents had to also take up English classes. So, my dad, he even had this one job as a gardener at Ardross Primary, but it wasn’t for him. So, he went back and forth up until I was a teenager and then he got a job as a carer.

Sisonke: When we asked Tadeo about this, he told us sat the exam to practice as a doctor here in Australia three times, but because of his English, he failed all of them. Eventually, he decided that he needed a new plan – he still wanted to be productive and contribute to the new country he was in – so he tried work as a gardener. He was fired from this job for being so bad at gardening, something he and Marta laugh about now. As Raf said, he went on to be a carer for people living with disability, which is an admirable job and one that Tadeo enjoyed, but I can’t help but think about how much he gave up. Language played a pretty big role across the family’s story.

Rafael: I struggled a lot because it was both my language barrier, but at the same time, I didn’t know about what my autism was like. I didn’t know. I think, but in terms of socially, I was social around a lot of people, but I was sus about some people, but also I also did my own thing and a lot of people who know me, who knew, if they’re hearing this, is that I had a habit of talking to myself a lot. Like I was alone, if there was a movie, I remember I loved watching, I’d be re-quoting it back, like throughout the whole day, like spending time on my own. A lot of people were concerned, but because I, at the time, I didn’t know about what I was, but that’s again, because most of my childhood has become a bit fuzzy to me because it’s only the only things that whatever songs were on at the time, whatever movies I went to see or anything that specifically important that I would know so well.  

Sisonke: The family mainly spoke Spanish at home.

Rafael: The reason why most, so much childhood was a bit fuzzy was because I think I was like three and a half going to four, that’s when I think I started to struggle with both languages. ‘Cos before I was actually fluent, I was fluent in both languages. Like I’d even do this prayer like before dinner. Like that’s why my dad does it because they thought it was cute because like my Spanish wasn’t that good. Cause I was still learning. Then at some point it was like for some weird reason, it’s like I stopped, like I was starting to regress. I was regressing and to a point of mutism, like I didn’t speak anything. It was like I couldn’t speak properly. And so they, around that time they found out about my speech problem was probably around the same time they found out about my autism.

Sisonke: Raf started seeing speech pathologists and psychologists. The professional recommendations were that the family communicate with him in English, in case the mix of Spanish and English was confusing. Over time, Raf started speaking again, and even though his Spanish isn’t as fluent as it once was, he still makes an effort to use his mother tongue.

Raf spent primary school in a separate class where he could get some extra support. He’d made a lot of friends. When he moved to a mainstream high school, it was harder to make friends at first. But Raf found a way of getting through.

Rafael: I remember this one particular memory. It was in year nine. It was the first period health class. So, I don’t remember what we were learning that day, but I think we got too side-tracked. I think there was something that people have known, was that I had a penchant for making, changing my voice a little bit. This is a trick that I learned from my sisters was that I could do this to my voice, and then when I did this particular laugh and it was for some reason the kids, one kid said, “Hey, that sounds like Krusty the Clown laugh!” And, so I thought, “Okay, I can see if I can pull this off. And then I did the “Hey kids! [Krusty the Clown laugh].”

I remembered that when I did that the first time, every kid in my class was like laughing their heads off. And I was like, “Oh wow.” And they were like, “Do it again.” And it was like, I did it. I think it was by recess, I think it was like, “Oh my god, Raf! It’s Raf!” Like everyone’s rushing to me. It was like, “What?” “Like do it again! My friend hasn’t heard it yet! Do it again!” And I was like, I think it was ever since I did that, it has been well, mostly bullying free for me. Like I got, like my ride around high school was like very easy, well, not easy, but at least there was less of the, you know, like, you know, like people being dicks to me.

I don’t think I really had many best friends. I had mostly acquaintances and maybe because I don’t know what it was, but there were people I hanged out with. But in terms of, I mean there have been times that some would, you know, hang out with me at some point, but maybe at some point they must have thought I was a bit of a weirdo or something, they’re thinking I’m more of a freak in some ways. Though, if they are, that’s cool, that’s fine. I remembered though that at graduation, they hosted our graduation at UWA, and I remember that when my name came up, I heard like this big applause or something, and I was like, “Wait, me?” And I was like, “Okay, thank you.” I was like, I was completely thrown off by that. I was like, I didn’t think, I thought I was just, just that one kid who could do that one voice. And it like, it turns out I was a little bit popular than I thought.

Sisonke: Outside of school, Raf would often spend time with his sisters. They’ve always been close.

Rafael: Anna is eleven years older than me and Raquel, she’s eight years older than me. Yeah, so those two have been very have been there for me since ever since I was born. I always remember what my sisters were like when I was growing up, ‘cos like when I was in the nineties, both my sisters taste in music kind of influenced me. Like all my oldest sister Anna’s side, you would, I would remember seeing posters of like The Doors and Jeff Buckley, all the indie. My other sister, she had like a Tupac, Biggie Smalls, Michael Jackson and Salt n Pepa. And like they had different tastes. And also, in terms of clothing like Raquel, she was the fly girl, like sort of like a b-girl type. My other sister, she was like, Darlene from Roseanne.

Sisonke: They were a close family, and even though they loved life in Australia, they still kept their Salvador traditions alive.

Rafael: My dad has a little shrine, an altar. He always, especially when he is concerned for us or he’s trying make sure that we’re safe. He always likes a candle. Also like if something’s good or big is happening for us, like if we’re going into a job interview, it’s like hoping, praying for luck or praying for, you know, like for good outcomes. He would always light a candle for the altar, to make sure either we are okay or that we are safe.

Sisonke: You can probably see why it was such a big deal when Raf moved out of home. He was the baby of the family, and everyone was protective of him. Home was his refuge too. His family have been settled in Atwell for a long time now. This is the house Raf moved out of in 2020, right before Perth went into its first lockdown. He moved into an apartment in a suburb close by. It’s been a bittersweet experience.

Rafael: I think for me it was different because, I mean, if it was for some people would be like, “Oh yeah, moving out, it’s like great. It’s like, I get to do whatever I want. Blah, blah, blah.” I think for me, it was because maybe it wasn’t mixture of a few things. I mean, yes, there was the backdrop of the pandemic, but I think it’s because it’s something I remember from what my dad pointed out.  He told this story one time when he used to be a gardener at Ardross. I think the person he was working under, like they said, because another family friend of ours, both men were working there under some guy who was Aussie and they were talking about, “Oh, my kids like moving out.” But our family friend, he said, “Oh, my oldest daughter is still with us.” He was like, “Why are you, why didn’t you kick them out yet?” And he was like, “Well, we don’t do that. That’s not what we do.” So, I think that’s, so getting back to that question, is that I think it’s, that’s the one thing that made us different was that we don’t force our kids out. We actually just let them, get them a chance to, you know, as long as they have, ‘cos they have a security blanket. So, I think that’s why I probably was reluctant about going out yet.

Here’s the thing, with the apartment, I only call it my apartment or my flat ‘cos the thing is Atwell is my home that’s… I always call it my home. So, even if I’m saying, “Oh, I’m just gonna go to Mum and Dad’s but it’s…I’m just saying “going home” because that’s home to me, ‘cos that’s been home to me since I was 13. So, it’s, that’s important to me and it’s been a little longest home that I remember, and I don’t know why I’m getting teary about that, but I think it’s just, it’s weird because I think yeah, Atwell, like that’s how I identify where I’m from, because I didn’t really have many a permanent address up until I was 13. So, even if one day, if I ever get kicked outta my apartment, ‘cos it’s a strata home, I always know that at least I’m not gonna be without a roof over my head because I know my parents are nearby so I can go home.

Sisonke: From Chinameca, El Salvador, to Perth, Western Australia. Raf’s family has covered a lot of ground from the time it was just Marta and Tadeo, little Anna and Raquel, and Raf still in his mum’s tummy. Although the family is a lot bigger now, with a few extra members, one thing remains the same. Home for the Gonzalez family will always be wherever each other is.

This podcast was produced by the Centre for Stories with funding from Lotterywest. Centre for Stories is an organisation based on Whadjuk Noongar land in Western Australia that believes in storytelling as a way to build more inclusive communities. Head to centreforstories.com to listen to more stories, or to make a tax-deductible donation.

Special thanks to our storytellers for this episode, Rafael, Tadeo and Marta, and to our production team: executive producer Kara Jensen-Mackinnon, audio engineer Mason Vellios, scripting and interviewing by Sisonke Msimang and Claudia Mancini.

 

Copyright © 2022 Marta Espinosa Gonzalez Castillo, Tadeo Antonio Gonzalez Espinosa, and Rafael Gonzalez.

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storytellers. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.


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