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Cheryl was immediately inspired by Antonio’s deep political conviction, and equally charmed by his mysterious, dark eyes. He was a blend of Latin stereotype (passionate, strong, macho) and bohemian intellectual (bespectacled, alternative, socialist). As their love affair deepened, Cheryl willingly was transported into another reality: nights filled with steaming black coffee served in chipped cups, Silvio Rodriguez on the tape deck, and the hopeful banter of their colleagues, the compas, discussing their plans for “after the war.” There was never any doubt that Antonio’s plans were to someday return to the country from which he had been violently uprooted.
Antonio had been a medical student, an activist leader at the National University in El Salvador before it was ransacked and closed by the military. Antonio’s mother, a woman of foresight and resolve, had forced him to seek asylum in Canada after his father had been killed in a “car accident” on the airport highway after returning from a conference at which he had condemned the closure of the university. It was well known that along that road a number of accidents had resulted in the death of activists who opposed the dictatorship, or in the death of their loved ones.
Now exiled in Toronto, Antonio joined the invisible army of night office cleaners but spent most of his time at the Salvadoran Action Centre — a basement office that on weekends filled up with the sound of squealing children, loud rhythmic cumbias, and analytical discourses from opposition leaders smuggled into Canada from el frente — the war front. Since she’d met Antonio, the Centre had become Cheryl’s second home. So when the opportunity arose, she eagerly agreed to go to El Salvador. She was assigned to perform a number of useful tasks such as accompanying people on visits to political prisoners and hanging out at human rights offices just to witness whatever happened there. She was to bring back as much as possible in the way of documentation and photos. Cheryl never really considered the possible risks. She was, after all, a Canadian. “Bad things just don’t happen to us,” she consoled Antonio who was not pleased about her decision to go, but nevertheless supported it.
“Be careful, mi amor. Even getting into the country is dangerous,” he reminded her as she prepared for the journey.
Cheryl’s recollections were interrupted by the vibration of the airplane’s wheels as they bounced onto the cracked tarmac. The plane slowed and turned towards the terminal building, taking the long way so as to avoid passing a bullet-riddled wall and spray-painted graffiti: No a la dictadura. Cheryl observed the swaying grasses growing from fissures alongside the runway and, almost invisible amongst the lush palm trees, a dark green machine gun turret. Reflexively, she reached for her purse and fumbled inside until she felt her documents — passport, plane ticket, entry visa.
The plane lurched to a full stop and the interior came alive with movement and noise. Cheryl stood up and, straining her small frame, reached into the overhead compartment to retrieve her knapsack. When the stewardess opened the front door, the cabin was invaded by a heavy fragrance of ocean salt, hot baked tarmac, and blooming bougainvillea. Like a tropical caterpillar thrusting forward in rhythmic motions, the passengers began to inch towards the exit.