Good morning, El Salvador!

Although I’ve never visited here before, this country had significant impact on me when I was young. I often ate vegetable pupusas, a traditional Salvadorean dish, and, per local tradition, broke colored eggshells filled with confetti (we called them cascarones) on my brother’s head at Easter. Why? Because of my mother’s secret.

When I was growing up, a succession of different women lived with us. Every month or so a white panel van arrived at our house. It would drop off a “new” woman and pick up the “old” one. Some arrived alone, others came with children. Some were old, others young. Some were well-educated, others were barely literate. All they had in common were they were all from El Salvador and all were named Irene.

The Irenes lived in one of our guest rooms. My mother gave each of them a white maid’s uniform when she arrived, which each wore every day, although none of them did any housework. (That was pretty much my brother’s and my job, along with a housekeeper that came in every two weeks.) Sometimes the Irenes cooked, but not on a regular basis. Mostly they spent time with my mother and my brother and me learning English. And the Irene who stayed with us at Easter always made cascarones. (See photos below; yes, that is me breaking one over an Irene’s head.)

It was my brother who figured it out when we were teenagers, a year or so after the last Irene left with no replacement subsequently arriving. He was studying the conflicts in Central America at school, and had read about the Underground Railroad.

“I think the Irenes were wives of men who were killed in El Salvador,” he told me. “I think Mom was helping smuggle them into the US.” After he said it, everything made sense: the short tenure at our house, the English lessons. But why the white uniforms if they weren’t maids? And why were they all called Irene?

We decided to ask Mom. After swearing us to secrecy, she said my brother was right. The Irenes were widows of men who “disappeared” (which usually meant they’d been killed by death squads under El Salvador’s military rule). The white van belonged to a church in San Francisco that was a waypoint on the women’s (and their children’s) undocumented journey from El Salvador to a new life in the States.

“But why the maid uniform?” I asked. “Why did we have to call them all Irene?”

“To hide them from the neighbors,” my mother said. We lived in an upper-class, white community. She said neighbors would be less likely to notice there was a succession of dark-skinned women living with us if each were dressed as a maid and answered to the same name.

Politics aside, I’m fairly confident these women and their kids were victims, not instigators, of the violence and terror of the time. To all the Irenes who came through our house, I hope life worked out for you and your kids. And Mom, you continue to amaze me.

How about you? Any family heroics you only understood later in life?