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From El Salvador to Aus

Article from Issue 3, The Home Issue

Interview & photos by Patrick Walker

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Would you like to introduce yourself?

My full name? I’m Gabriela Marina Mendez Portillo. I was born in El Salvador in Central America.

When I was 12 I moved to Australia with zero English. I actually arrived on my birthday.

What was it like growing up in El Salvador?

I guess you could say it was nice. But I grew up around all the gangs and violence. But I also grew up with tradition and a colorful culture. My family was always there for me. I’m really family-oriented.

Can you describe the houses compared to the houses here?

In El Salvador, we all share walls. The houses are all next to each other, so there’s always a shared wall. I found it weird when we first came to Australia; I was like “Oh my god, we get separate houses?”

I remember we always had mess lying around everywhere. Oh! We have this cute tradition to put a cross in your backyard so the devil doesn’t dance in your backyard.

Haha! That’s so cute.

Yeah we would decorate it with fruits and flowers!

I think our houses in El Salvador are just more colourful. My house was half cream and half blue.

 Have you continued any traditions since leaving El Salvador?

On New Years, we have this tradition where you pack your bags, and you run around the block. That means that you will have a year full of travel!

 What’s something that you wish you could have brought to Australia?

The food. We have pupusas! They’re basically thick tortillas filled with beans and cheese. They’re so good. We also have this tomato sauce; it’s not like ketchup, though. It’s tomatoes with hot water and seasoning; served with pupusas.

 From your position, what are the main differences between the two countries?

I would say the culture. I know Australia has a lot of different cultures, but Non-Indigenous Australia doesn’t really. My culture is really vibrant.

What caused you to move to Australia?

My dad got engaged to an Australian lady.

 Where did you first live in Australia?

Katherine, a remote town in Northern Territory.

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 In such a big move, surely you were faced with challenges. What were some of them?

The language. I got made fun of when I didn’t speak the language and when I did learn it, I got made fun of again, because of my accent. I remember I just wanted to have everything that everyone else had. I just wanted to fit into this new place. Being in Australia made me feel out of place.

 Did you make friends that wanted to know about you and your culture?

I don’t think I ever had a friend that wanted to hear about it. I remember my first friend in Australia; she didn’t really ask me, but she also didn’t really know. But she helped me with my English; I’ll always be grateful for that.

 

 You said before that people made fun of you for trying to learn English; did that make you want to learn it even more?

Well . . . I remember thinking to myself, “I hate this language. I never want to learn it.” But I guess I didn’t have a choice. Those people that made fun of me, they just made me want to learn even more.

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 Moving countries in the midst of growing up would have been a big part of who you have become. But how did living in El Salvador impact who you are today?

Living in a third world country taught me to be more grateful. I remember one time I told my grandma that I was at school in Australia and that the kids would play basketball with fruits and throw them in the bin. She was so shocked— “Why would they do that!? We barely have any food here and they’re just throwing it away!”

I think I just appreciate things more. Little things. I appreciate everything I have right now. That’s because I’ve lived in such a limited country.

Was there something Australia has taught you?

In El Salvador, we’re not very familiar with the whole mental illness thing. I think Australia has taught me that it’s okay to have a mental illness and to accept it, and to get help. In El Salvador, we don’t have that; we don’t go to psychologists. So coming here it’s showed me that it’s normal. It’s nothing to be embarrassed of.

Is there anyone you know in El Salvador that struggles with Mental Illness and can’t find professional help?

I think my grandma. After my dad and I moved here, she went into a big depression. She wouldn’t get out of her room; she would barely eat. I don’t think she ever got help. I thinks she just . . .

Self-Managed?

Yeah, she self-managed.

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 How do you stay in contact with your family back in El Salvador?

We call each other. Every weekend. And every special occasions. On Christmas, we stayed up until midnight to call them so we could have Christmas at the same time! Then they stay up for my birthday, or we stay up for my grandma or grandpa’s birthday.

What do they think about the move you did to Australia?

I guess they were alright with it because they knew that Australia was a better place, and that I would have a better future At the same time, they were sad because I was the first grandchild and I was really special to them. I lived with them and they spent time with me everyday. My grandparents were sad, my uncles too, because my cousins would be left alone. I was sort of the one to guide them.

 

 How has your dad felt about moving around a lot?

Difficult. When we first came here, he had some English, maybe 10%? He could speak it, but he couldn’t understand other people. He got a job at a library when we first moved to Australia; he still found it really hard. He’s gone through all this stuff. I think it’s just hard for him to keep moving, and to keep meeting all these people.

And not finding a place to settle down yet.

Yeah. He definitely wants to go home: to stay and build a house for my grandparents and my uncles, and to be with his brothers. But I don’t think I want to do that just yet. I just want to finish my studies first.

6 years ago, if you could have seen the way things turned out for you here, would you have ever wanted to leave El Salvador?

I would have liked to stay. I had everything there. My friends, my family. The only thing that I like better about Australia right now is the school, and the opportunities.

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What would you say now to a young girl that is leaving her country, her home, to come here?

Well, if she were anything like me, she would refuse to go! I would tell her that it’s for her own good, she will appreciate it at the end of the day.

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8 Comments

  1. Ricardo says

    I came to the USA in 1980 I was 15 years old
    It was hard to adapt to the new country
    I never been back to El Salvador I have sad memories
    I love the USA but I never forgot my roots

    Like

  2. I think everyone is right. I left at 7 and I’ve lived in the US now 38 years. I’m proud of my Salvadorian heritage and proud to also be an American. My kids have embraced both cultures and the challenges are tough at first, especially today when Politics seems to divide us, it’s even more important to represent the best of your culture and not just what the media and politics claim that hispanics are in America. Salvadorian are some of the hardest working people I’ve seen and their effort and energy is amazing. No matter where we live, be it here or Australia, make us proud

    Like

  3. HECTOR VELASQUEZ says

    I came to the states when I was 8 yrs. I’m 47 yrs. Old now.
    I never denied where I was born. I’m proud to be Salvadoran! My advice to you to keep striving and study really hard that’s the key to your future, make your family happy. Best regards!

    Like

  4. Mayra says

    You have to always think of the future and opportunities given to you elsewhere..unfortunately El Salvador lacks a lot to be able to live a fulfilled life..I left very young too but I would never want my kids to grow up in El Salvador..it’s a beautiful country but it’s mismanaged..
    Anyone that has the opportunity to leave, should.

    Like

  5. Nelson mejia says

    No se olviden de el salvador.yo sali cuando tenia 14 anos y me encanta visitar el salvador

    Like

  6. Anonymous says

    I identify with this young girl. I left El Salvador when I was 15, yes old . I did not want to, but the sivil war forced me to leave

    Like

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