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From the Front Lines to Forgiveness

Economic pragmatism is creating unexpected alliances between onetime adversaries in the Central American immigrant community.

October 23, 2000|ANTONIO OLIVO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The former Guatemalan army lieutenant sat within striking distance of the ex-revolutionary, two men who, in their previous lives, would have been at each other like scorpions in a jar.

The retired soldier, Julio Villasenor, was an explosives expert who cleared paths through rebel-dominated jungles during Guatemala's long civil war. Rafael Castillo, when he was a rebel, used to kidnap men like Villasenor. He spent years avenging the torture and killing of his uncle and grandfather by army death squads.

These days, however, Villasenor and Castillo are partners in business suits. Out of an office in east Hollywood, they run one of the largest legal counseling and job training agencies for Guatemalans in the United States. Only a few years after civil wars killed more than 200,000 Guatemalans and roughly 75,000 people in El Salvador, the two former enemies marvel at the forgiveness spreading through Southern California's Central American community. Reconciliation seemed impossible during the bloody Central American campaigns of the Cold War.

But, the men boast, that is now what distinguishes their community from, say, Bosnian Serbs and Croats. "People are realizing we are not enemies anymore," said Villasenor, 49. "We come from the same country," agreed Castillo, 54. "All of us are Guatemalans."

They and other former enemies among Southern California's 700,000 Central American expatriates have become allies in the economic fight for a claim on the middle class. Evidence of unity among Central Americans could be seen in the strike by janitors in April and the rally for general immigration amnesty that drew 20,000 to the Sports Arena in June. A pragmatic spirit has kindled a host of new relationships among onetime civil war adversaries from Guatemala and El Salvador--alliances that might have previously been thought of as betrayals.

Former leftists who once fought to overthrow the far-right National Republican Alliance government of El Salvador now host visiting party officials at local investment forums. Right-wing Guatemalan politicians solicit campaign contributions from immigrant professionals--including those who fled the country--in exchange for a chance at business opportunities in the postwar rebuilding effort.

Among the chief supporters of immigration amnesty for Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees are the same governments whose oppressive regimes drove thousands to the United States. Why? To keep much-needed remittance dollars flowing into Central America. To understand the changes, consider the old Spanish folk saying: "With money, even the dog dances."

"We're in this paradigm-smashing moment, where the left is not the left and the right is not the right anymore," observed Roberto Lovato, director of a Central American studies program at Cal State Northridge.

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This crumbling of old barriers can be seen in places like L.A.'s Guatemalan Unity Information Agency, where Guatemalan immigrants flock to educational, vocational and legal counseling programs overseen by Villasenor. He seems an unlikely candidate to lead such an ambitious social service program. The eldest son of a restaurant owner in Guatemala, he spent most of 1973 at the U.S. Army's School of the Americas, later recognized as the training ground for soldiers accused of horrendous human rights violations. The institution, located in Ft. Benning, Ga., has since changed its name to the Center for Inter-American Security Cooperation.

Villasenor enjoyed praise from his army superiors until his honorable discharge in 1977, after 11 years of service. But when he came to Los Angeles with his wife and three children in 1981, his resume made him a target of suspicion.

At that time, protesters marched through the Westlake and Pico-Union neighborhoods west of downtown Los Angeles, lugging black coffins to symbolize the Guatemalan villagers killed by soldiers. Signs reading "Keep U.S. Out of Central America" decorated street corners.

"I never approved of what the army did in some places," Villasenor said during a recent interview. Charming and energetic one moment, solemn the next, the former soldier often uses his hands while speaking, slicing and gripping at the air to emphasize his points. His sea-green eyes and pale, slender features rarely betray any emotion beyond bemused interest.

Villasenor said his unit's mission of making way for roads and bridges made it "more like a construction company. We created small towns. We were working with the people, not against them. They liked us."

For that reason, Villasenor said, "I never felt guilty. I don't have blood on my hands. I never had anything to hide." His military experience opened doors here. Shortly after he arrived, a U.S. Army general who knew him from the School of the Americas in Panama helped Villasenor win approval for a contractor's license. It wasn't long afterward that Villasenor earned his U.S. citizenship.

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