Back then, in the time of guerrilleros and civil war, of scampering barefoot and washing clothes by the river, she couldn’t have told you what Houston was.
Back then, in her child’s mind, it was just another name for the United States. A dot on a map. A portal to a different world, 1,200 miles away from her village of El Zamoran in El Salvador.
A place that had taken her mother and would, someday, take her.
Back then, in the days of Frida Villalobos’ girlhood, Houston was just a dream. War and hardship and hunger were her reality.
Her mother had left El Salvador when Villalobos was two, leaving the toddler in the care of her grandmother. A violent conflict between the military-led government and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front rebels raged. Food was scarce. Fear was rampant.
Villalobos remembers that time in flashes of sights and sounds and smells.
There are good memories: The aroma of tortillas cooking on outdoor stoves. Snuggling next to her grandmother at night. The camaraderie of posadas and good food at Christmas time.
But there are also bad ones: Hiding under beds, her face pressed against a dirt floor, wild geese crowding in next to her. Children holding machine guns as big as their small bodies. Female fighters with red scarves covering their faces.
The groans of people injured by gunfire. The bullet holes and shattered pictures left by rebels who rampaged through her grandmother’s home. Bodies, covered in white linen, scattered in the streets.