by Andrea Molina
photography by Jingyao Liang
I felt the moment we departed Los Angeles International Airport March 11, 2020, that the plane possessed an eerie atmosphere. I remember feeling the tension in the plane cabin air. There was much gossiping between the flight attendants. I knew COVID-19 was beginning to gain momentum, and rumors had been circulating regarding the closing of El Salvador’s airport. However, before departure, no changes had been announced, and I was able to embark on the flight with no major issues, warnings or complications. I truly thought everything was going to be OK. Little did I know, the world was about to come to a halt. I was oblivious to the horrors waiting for me in El Salvador.
For now, I was above it all, blissfully watching random episodes of my favorite show, “Grey’s Anatomy” and enjoying what would be my last peaceful moments for the following months. Happiness and excitement ran through me. I was ecstatic to visit my family, whom I had not seen since my winter break in December 2019. In fact, I was flying in as a surprise for my father’s 50th birthday, for whom my mom organized a big celebration in his honor with all his close friends and family.
Since moving to the United States for college, family time became one of my most important life priorities – especially since my dad is a cancer survivor. His health journey has certainly taught me that nothing should be taken for granted, as the future of COVID-19 would prove once again.
When we landed at Aeropuerto Internacional de El Salvador, Monseñor Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Gáldamez, we discovered President Nayib Bukele had issued midflight a state of emergency in the country. He had announced the border was closed. The only way to get into the country was through a mandatory three-week quarantine spent in designated quarantine centers outside of the city.
I will never forget the overwhelming anxiety when we exited the plane at El Salvador’s airport. There was a lot of shouting and confusion going around. I felt as if I were starring in a post-apocalyptic movie. I did not know what my future would hold. My family waited to pick me up in the airport waiting area. Meanwhile, for me, utter brutal chaos reigned. Police were confiscating our phones and passports. Health workers in masks were separating passengers into age groups. We were being dragged left and right like cattle with no explanation as to what was happening. Confusion clouded me as I was being dragged around like a ragdoll. We had no control or say over what would happen next, and it felt terrifying.
I was helpless and just being pushed ahead without really understanding what was happening. The whole airport ordeal felt like a bad dream from which I could not wake up. Thankfully, I always travel with two phones. I sneaked out and went to the restroom to call my mom and tell her what was happening.
To this day, I can very clearly hear her voice breaking down and can visualize the tears streaming down her face. She was out of sight, yet only feet away, separated by a wall. We both realized we would have to wait awhile until we would be able to see each other once again. In fact, as it turned out, I was not able to reunite with my family for almost a year.
People traveling with Salvadoran passports were immediately transported in sealed buses to the quarantine centers without being given a choice. To avoid a fuss from the media, the windows from these buses were covered with wood planks. In my case, I have dual citizenship, always carrying my U.S. passport. In the case of international travelers, our only choice was to buy a one-way ticket for the next morning to a city in the United States, priced at almost $1,000 a ticket. If one were unable to acquire an Avianca plane ticket, these passengers were also sent to quarantine facilities.
I think in situations like these, companies take advantage of their clients. I remember some passengers telling the airline workers they could not afford the ticket. To which they nonchalantly responded, “You have two options either pay the ticket or be taken to quarantine.” Since flights were scheduled for the next morning, we all had to sleep in the airport. Amidst tears and anger, I remember feeling exhausted. I yearned for my home more than anything in the world.
It is astonishing to think how something so small – a virus we cannot see – affected our world so greatly and took the lives of so many. The United States shut down its border soon after my arrival. In the following weeks, the world would continue to shut down. Families would be separated, and international students, like myself, would be stranded away from home with no certainty of when things would return to normal.
I remember anger taking over me, as I didn’t understand how a citizen could be denied entry to her own country. I remember feeling frustrated as there was no clear solution to my current situation. Staying with my family was no longer an option, so moving to California with my boyfriend and his family became my best choice. I will always be grateful to him and his family for opening their home to me and making me feel as part of their family. They gave me a sense of normality even amidst chaos.
Back in El Salvador, conditions in these quarantine centers were deplorable at best, something many Salvadorans would find out weeks later. If you unfortunately caught COVID, not only you but everyone in your household plus the neighbors on both sides of your house were all taken to a quarantine facility.
After you arrived, you weren’t tested for two days. Eight to 10 people were crammed into small rooms. There was no running water or ventilation system. Sometimes, you got meals, sometimes not. El Salvador is a tropical country where temperatures and humidity levels can be sweltering. The plentiful mosquitoes and insects carry feared diseases. There were also many unaccompanied minors and senior citizens detained in these centers. It is no secret that unhygienic crammed spaces are the perfect breeders for diseases and bacteria. Many people got contaminated during their stay in these quarantine centers, not only with COVID-19 but with stomach viruses.
Moreover, people in these centers had little to no contact with their families. The government’s emergency plan was very secretive and close-minded, which is to be expected from a third-world country with a socialist-leaning leader.
Thankfully, after sleeping on the airport floor, I was very lucky to gain the opportunity to return to Los Angeles on Avianca Airlines and avoid detention in these quarantine centers. Thinking back to this return flight, I was numb to it all. As a way of protecting myself, I tried to detach myself from the incident and forget about it. For months, I tried to construct a normal everyday routine even though nothing around me was normal.
Up to this day, I get anxious every time I take a flight. Flashbacks of this incident always come to my mind. I wonder whether I’ll be able to make it to my destination or something unexpected will happen. I wonder whether this plane ride will represent freedom or no freedom.
As a third-world country, COVID-19 affected El Salvador and its citizens immensely. And as a country, we have never been so in debt. Our national debt is $19.2 billion. Additionally, access to proper health care has always been a problem in El Salvador—partially due to lack of proper-trained staff and also lack of medication and equipment. Even before the pandemic there was, and still is, a lack of resources in public hospitals. Doctors and nurses lack basic medical protection and equipment, and patients lack proper medicine and medical attention.
For several months, health care workers used trash bags on top of their uniforms and surgical masks as their only protection equipment when treating COVID-19 patients, both of which they had to re-use several times due to scarcity of resources. Unfortunately, this led to the rampant spread of COVID-19 through public hospitals and caused the death of hundreds of medical staff.
Similarly, due to the strict shutdown orders imposed by our president, many local companies and businesses were forced to close, declaring bankruptcy. This situation led to thousands of workers being laid off. Hundreds of families now faced extreme poverty conditions and even homelessness, as they had no money to pay rent.
To date, anyone who visits El Salvador can see families on the street holding a white flag, which symbolizes that these people are asking for help because they are unable to even buy the basic necessities, such as food and water. Due to the poor economic situation, children who live in the countryside are often forced to drop out of school and work to help support their families.
In third-world countries, certain areas still do not have proper access to electricity and running water. Up-to-date technology such as iPhones and laptops are a privilege and a rarity among the majority of the population. The transition to online school has expanded the education gap in El Salvador. Without computers or even access to the Internet, it is impossible for a child to receive an online education. In fact, since many teens who live in the countryside could not access an online platform, they decided to drop-out and find a job.
My family owns a bakery named LIDO. It has been in business for more than 80 years. More than a bakery, LIDO has become a tradition and a family staple for Salvadorans. In El Salvador, a birthday is not complete without a cake from LIDO. Nevertheless, COVID-19 certainly complicated our operations and put the company at great risk. My family employs around 1,000 workers throughout our three factories. LIDO is a family-owned business that produces several traditional bakery products, such as alemanas, pichardines and torta tusa. Apart from traditional Salvadoran bakery products, we also produce bread and fine pastries and cakes. In the United States, you can find some of our products in California, Texas, New York and Boston at Hispanic markets.
Since there was no public transportation, my brother and father had to figure out a way to provide transportation to their workers, always minimizing COVID-19 spread. Unlike the United States, cars are still a luxury in El Salvador. Most people depend on public transportation to live their daily lives.
All workers had to be constantly tested for COVID-19, for when dealing with food no one can be too safe. Plus, any contamination of our products could result in major lawsuits and the shutdown of our company. Similarly, there was a unanimous decision to give all workers a basic necessities basket, as everything was scarce and pricey at local grocery stores. More than a business, LIDO and its employees are a big family. My family and I genuinely care about our employees, and ensuring their well-being during the pandemic was one of our top priorities.
Thankfully, LIDO survived the pandemic. Operations have been adjusted to run smoothly in the world’s new “normal.” Apart from my father, my oldest brother Manuel Roberto contributes the most to our family business. He never stopped working, not even once, during the pandemic. As an engineer, he manages the production of all the products distributed by the company. Although family businesses are complicated, after I graduate, I would like to continue the legacy my grandfather and father have built.
My personal goal is to expand the brand and introduce our products to new markets.
I was finally able to reunite with my family in late August of 2020. Seven months after my original airport odyssey reunion attempt. Once I learned El Salvador was admitting citizens who had been stranded due to the pandemic, I booked my flight as soon as possible. Nevertheless, taking that first flight after months of not returning home was terrifying. Everything was still so uncertain, and I just prayed that this time I would be able to cross the border and finally see my family.
My plane ride was definitely filled with anxiety. My main concern was not getting infected through the flight and making it safely back home.
When I saw my mom and dad again for the first time, I cannot explain the overwhelming joy I felt. All of my previous tears and stored pain came to me instantly. All those months by myself melted away in a second. Hugging my parents felt like a dream. In a way, it felt like I never left. I was finally home. In that moment, I understood the value of being able to be with your family. COVID-19 taught me to appreciate all the blessings in my life, and the importance to create unforgettable memories with my loved ones every time I get a chance. ■