by Jalynn Baker
As a nation made beautiful by immigrants, America is bursting with stories from all over the world, but are we listening to each other? “How Did We Get Here?” is a portrait photography series that addresses this very question. Each image in the series celebrates the heritage and unique story of an individual who has found a home in the United States. Whether by choice or by force, the reasons and routes that bring people to one place are vast and unique. This project provides a listening space for viewers to see, hear, and celebrate the rich culture brought by each person’s presence and experiences. By engaging in the practice of listening, photographer Jalynn Baker hopes that viewers will open their hearts and minds to love their neighbors more fully.
Benito grew up in El Salvador. At 18 years old, violence from guerrilla warfare had reached his doorstep. Listen as he describes what it was like to escape to Costa Rica, leaving his home and dreams behind him, but finding love, family, and a new purpose. When a refugee flees from war or any danger at home, they give up so much of their life to find peace in a new place. It’s hard for me to imagine being forced to leave a place that I love for fear of my life, but listening to Benito’s experience brings a tangibility to the loss that many refugees feel. Despite losing the familiarity of home, he still laughs and looks to the future with hope. I asked Benito to tell me the story of leaving his country and coming to the United States, and this was his reply.
"Well, that was in the 80’s. The new generation maybe doesn’t know, that’s history for them, but I lived that history. It was part of my life at that time, the Cold War between Russia and the United States, communists and capitalists, guerrillas and all that turmoil [in the] time that we were living in the 80’s.
So El Salvador is a small country, but it was very important to control that area. So
there was a civil war, it was a bloody war there. I was 18 years old. I was ready to go to college, but the universities were closed. The soldiers were fighting and so my life was in danger. There was a time in my life in the 70’s beginning to 80’s that I didn’t care about politics. All that I wanted was to play baseball. That was my passion. But there was a time in my life that some of my friends were involved as guerrillas.
Then, the government was soldiers. So my friends said, 'Hey, we need to get into this fight.'
I said, 'I don’t care about politics. I don’t want to get involved.'
But then they began to think, 'So why do you not want to get involved? Are you with
'No, I don’t [fight] with them and I don’t [fight] with you. I just don’t care.'
Then the government would say, 'Hey, we need you to become a soldier to fight the
guerrillas and the communists and everything.' And I said I don’t want it.
'So you are a communist?'
So it was a moment that [in Spanish we say], entre la espada y la pared (between the sword and the wall.) My life was in danger. I say right now, if I had decided to stay at that time, I would be dead right now. That's why God took me from El Salvador to Costa Rica. So at 18 years old, with two friends of mine, we decided to move to Costa Rica.
And from Costa Rica, I met my wife there. My wife is from the States, so she moved to Costa Rica to study Spanish. We ended up married in 1988. So we stayed there in Costa Rica, we lived there for 27 years or something like that. Then, I met my father-in-law. He became like my father. I grew up without a father in my country. In 2010 we visited him and he was really, really sick. He was in a wheelchair and he was in need of somebody to care for him. There were some caregivers with him, but he was not happy. His desire was to die at home, at his house.
Patti and I began to talk about it. So we decided to move from Costa Rica to the States in 2011. But my plan was, 'OK, I'll go to the States with my wife, take care of my father, and then come back to my country." But this is something you don't plan on. So we ended up in Knoxville, TN. We just took care of my father-in-law for 7 years, and then I became a missionary here in Fellowship Church. Then, we decided to stay and work as missionaries and that's what I'm doing now.
I'm Christian, so now I understand that God has a purpose for my life. Now I'm just trying to not waste my life, but to have a meaning in my life. Because there are Hispanics here in the States, and I'm just trying to go and walk in the streets and meet people and talk with people (mostly men) and try to tell them all the sacrifices you do to come to this "Promised Land" – because the United States is a promised land for so many, so I'm trying to tell them, don't waste your life doing wrong things. If you're here in the States, take that chance and do some good."