The Helplessness of Being Here

Last night Carlos called his best friend, Lalo* back in El Salvador. Ever since we’ve come back, Carlos has called daily because this guy is like a brother to him. Our whole family grew very attached to Lalo, his wife Rosy* and their son, Lalito* – We care for them and think of them each day – living back in Soyapango, struggling to survive under difficult circumstances – wishing we could do more for them.

While we were in El Salvador, it was Lalo and his son who would come to our hotel each day to pick us up and take us where we wanted to go. The first day, Lalo apologized for the condition of his car several times, rolled the windows up and put the air conditioner on full blast. He asked me if I was comfortable even though I knew it was putting a great strain on his little, old car to run the A/C.

Squished in the backseat of a vehicle with no shocks as we drove on roads with enormous potholes, with two overgrown teenage boys next to me and my younger son on my lap, I told Lalo we could turn the A/C off – that I liked riding with the windows down because it made it easier for me to take photos. This was totally true, but I also didn’t want him to go to any trouble for me.

From the backseat of Lalo’s car. (I was taking a photo of the sign on the pasarela up ahead, which translates to “Hey you! Use the walkway” …Note the men crossing the street. Clearly the sign isn’t effective.)

At first Lalo showed us around every mall in the city because they were clean, safe, American-looking, air-conditioned, and, in his mind, very impressive.

Inside a mall in San Salvador, El Salvador.
Inside another mall in San Salvador, El Salvador.
You guessed it… a mall.

One day while eating lunch in yet another food court, Lalo put his chin on his fist and looked at me thoughtfully.
“Are you bored with El Salvador?” he asked.
“Not at all,” I said, “I love El Salvador.”
He smiled kindly. “No, you are bored. I can see it.”
I chose my words carefully.
“I’m not bored… it’s just that, we have malls in the United States.”

I waited a minute for the words to sink in. His face lit up.
“Of course!” he said, “You have all this in the United States!”

“Yes,” I said, “I like to see Salvadoran things that we don’t have. Volcanos, markets… street dogs.”

He smiled. He understood now.

Over the next few days, Lalo became more comfortable with me as he took us to rough neighborhoods, pointed out street dogs to photograph, brought us into the heart of Parque Hula Hula, on crowded buses, to the fair – and not the big fair in Consuma – the small one on Don Rua which is meant for those who can’t afford the fancy one. He was a natural tour guide with fantastic stories to share, and the entire time, he and his teenage son Lalito, kept us safe – told me when to put the camera away, grabbed my shirt to keep me from being hit by a car.

Lalo could tell that we loved El Salvador – all of it, and he became very proud to show us places tourists don’t usually go – the places he once thought of as ordinary. The places he has walked through a million times.

Streets of San Salvador
People set up for the fair before the week long Fiestas Agostinas.

My younger son gets a piggyback ride from his new “older brother” – Lalito.
Carlos, Lalo and my older son talk on the way to Chalate in a rented minibus.
Lalito and my younger son fell asleep on the way back from Chalate.

One day as we left the hotel, it began to rain very hard. We stood under the awning trying to figure out how to make our way to the pasarela without getting soaked. Rosy, Lalo’s wife, pulled an umbrella from her purse.

“That’s not big enough for all of us,” Lalo said.

Lalito took the umbrella from his mother and opened it.
“I’ll take them over and come back. We’ll go one-by-one,” he said.
“Take Tracy and the little one first,” Lalo said. “We’ll wait here.”

We started out into the rain. Lalito, who at 14 years old, is already much taller than me, walked protectively alongside us, his wide shoulders making him look very much like a bodyguard. He glanced up to make sure the umbrella was sufficiently covering both myself and my little son.

Just as Lalo and Carlos are like brothers, despite our age difference, (and probably due to a good amount of immaturity on my part), Lalito became like the brother I always wished I had. We spent hours talking about music, language, culture – all things I love – and he has a good sense of humor, too.

As we walked under the protection of his umbrella, my youngest son and I devised a quick plan.
“Want to run?” I whispered in English.
My son smiled devilishly.
“Ready, set… GO!”

My son and I ran out from under the umbrella and into the rain with Lalito running behind us yelling, “Ey!! Ey!!”

By the time we made it to the pasarela, we were soaking wet but laughing so hard that the tears were indistinguishable from the rain drops on our faces.

Lalito went back to the hotel and ferried the others across with the umbrella. When Lalo arrived, seeing me soaking wet, (he didn’t approve of getting wet because he feared we’d get sick), he shook a finger at me.

“I see now,” he said, smiling. “You’re adventurous.”

It sounds funny in English. Few people would use such phrasing, but when he said it to me in Spanish that day, it felt like the truest thing in the world. I felt loved and understood and overall, thankful for such incredible friends.

So last night, when Carlos made his daily call to Lalo, and the phone call ended abruptly with a man’s voice shouting, “Put your hands on your neck!” and Rosy’s voice in the background saying, “That’s my—”
…We feared the worst.

It was dark out already, but Lalo and his family had gone down the street to buy pupusas for a late dinner. That’s when Carlos called. They spoke only minutes before Lalo hung up, amongst shouting and shuffling noises.

For thirty agonizing minutes, Carlos called over and over, but Lalo didn’t answer his phone. We hoped it had only been stolen, but in Soyapango, the outcome could easily be much worse. We struggled with the helplessness of being here, so far from our friends.

Finally Lalo answered, short of breath.

They had been attacked, but not by gangs or criminals — by police officers. They had just been standing there minding their own business, waiting for their pupusas, when officers ran up and jumped on Lalito, throwing him to the ground and telling him to put his hands on his neck.

Rosy had been saying, “That’s my son!” when Lalo hung up and asked the police what the hell they were doing.

The police explained that there had been an armed robbery in the neighborhood earlier that evening, and that Lalito matched the description of a man at the scene with a pistol.

Lalo bravely shamed the police officers. “I’ve lived here over 30 years. My house is right over there. This is my son and he’s always with me. You can’t just jump on people like that. He’s just a kid.”

The police officers let Lalito go, but Lalo wasn’t finished.

“My house has been robbed three times. Where were you guys then?”

The police officers didn’t answer and instead walked away. The situation ended as quickly as it had began, but we were left shaken. It’s difficult to love those who are so very far away, knowing that the only protection you can offer them is hope and prayer.

Lalo and his family were there to help us navigate the streets and buses of San Salvador. They were there to literally pull us out of the path of oncoming cars. They were there to hold an umbrella over our heads to shield us from the rain… but we can’t be there for them.

From left to right: Carlos, me, our youngest son, our oldest son, Lalito, Rosy, Lalo

* Lalo and his family’s names have been changed for their own protection.


  1. I’ve always wondered why people travel only to see the same things they can see at home. Glad you guys got to see the real pueblo and not just malls. Your photography and words paint an exotic picture, Tracey. I feel the heaviness in your heart and hope you get to visit with your friends, again soon. Whether here or there. Un abrazo a ti y tu familia.

  2. I can understand your frustration but I’m sure they gained a lot from your visit too. Ideally, you would have been superman flying over there in a matter of seconds to help out and take their defense. It doesn’t work like that (sadly, although I’m sure you’d look lovely with a superwoman cape!).

    But they know you care about them and you will be there if needed.

    I’m glad the story doesn’t end too badly. I feared the worse.

  3. I am with Ezzy. If you want to go see malls, go to the mall of america or in general, if you want to see crap you see in your neighborhood, save your $ and stay home.

    Anyway, that’s one of the things that I always appreciated about seeing El Salvador with my dad. He took me to see El Salvador, not the crap that’s been built to appease people who are too afraid to deal with reality or in some cases, ashamed of their own country and people. Like I’ve told people here before, I’d rather go walk through downtown San Salvador amongst the street vendors and hoodlums, than La Gran Via and other malls. At least I know the street vendors and hoodlums are real people in every sense of the word.

    The experience of the phone call must have been really difficult to deal with. Glad to hear it wasn’t worse than it was, but nevertheless, not pleasant.

    I wish them well too.

  4. Ay amiga I almost cried when reading about all the commotion over the phone. Que horror! I can understand the pain of wanting to be there for loved ones and not being able to do it physically. But trust me, your prayers, blessings, and love do A LOT too. Be sure of that.
    You have the huggestestestest heart I know. De verdad. I know I´ve told you before, but I really admire the great couple you and Carlos make, supporting each other all the time.
    Un abrazo enorme para ti y otro para mi amigo Carlos. May all your Salvadoran friends be safe and may there be some light for them coming soon. Te quiero amiga!

  5. The malls! In Caracas we always go to malls too, that’s what the people show us it’s new. Glad he understood you and then you guys went to many other fun places.

    I was also worried reading your story, glad they are ok, que dificil :(

  6. My entire family -except for my mom and sisters- lives in Mexico or in other states of the US, so I completely understand you. My grandpa, who is more like a father to me, sliced his arm open a couple of weeks ago while working in his carpinteria. He got 33 stitches and thankfully nothing worse happened. We could’t do more than call them and send them money. He’s 87 yrs. old and still has to work to support and pay for the medicines for him, my grandma, and an aunt and uncle that have schizophrenia. The money we can send helps but it’s not enough. I wish I could just bring them all over so they could just stay here at home, relaxing and resting like they should be. But my grandpa says he’ll stop working until the day he dies. Every time something happens I wish I could just go there and be by there side… pero se que sienten todo nuestro amor! Y estoy segura que tus amigos también lo sienten!

  7. That sucks!! Could you guys “sponsor” them and get them over here? I know that isn’t the quickest process, but is it even an option? Or would they even be interested in such a thing, when they’ve apparently been established in their own town for over 30 years. Or maybe just Lalito, could he get a student Visa and go to college? That’s how my mind thinks when it comes to safety. Sorry, I don’t know any good coyotes, lol.

  8. Sometimes, just knowing there is someone out there who loves you enough to call is enough help. I’m sure they know how you guys feel.

    I love how much your trip has impacted you all as a family. It’s like it’s opened your hearts even more! :)

  9. I totally agree with humincat.

    We got a call a few months ago letting us know that one of my husbands good friends from el cantòn was killed by gang violence. I’m glad that Lalito is safe. We call as often as we can to check on everyone, but whenever we receive a call from them we worry. I wish I had the money to send for some of his family members (if they would be interested) he has so many cousins with so much potential and it’s like they hit a dead end after school because opportunities are so few and far between there.

  10. Wow, I’m sorry. This really hits close to home and I’m so glad they are safe. It’s a horrible feeling to know your family is half-way across the world and you have no way to protect them. I wish I could be there for my familia too and while prayers are so important, it never feels like enough. Thank you so much for sharing your story, this really touched my heart. <3

  11. What amazing friends you have. And how scary to have to go through that, especially Lalito!! I can’t imagine the outrage and fear his parents must have felt, seeing their son be attacked like that. And what an impossible situation, being so far away and unable to help.

  12. I love the videos that you posted. Do you have anymore? I also showed my grandma and parents your blog so that they could read it. They are going to El Salvador with us and I thought that reading your stories would show them a little of what they are in for.

  13. I understand this so much. My in-laws will never be given permission to come here, and no amount of blenders or backpacks we send will ever make up for not being able to repay their hospitality. Really hospitality isn’t even the right word. And then we hear that the traficantes are doing this or doing that, and it’s so hard when somebody doesn’t answer their phone. My husband picks silly fights with me and I know he’s just trying so hard not to let the kids know, even though it’s all he can think about.

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