The toppling of dictators, shooting in the streets. Daily violence and chaos, anxiety about the future. Children witness the trauma of social and political upheaval, too—and the disruption of young lives leaves a lasting imprint.
It’s a story Gunther Brenes, a Scottsdale software engineer, knows well. As a young child, he and his family left Managua, Nicaragua during the conflicts in 1979 with little time to prepare and under dangerous conditions. He talks about leaving home, adapting to a new life in the United States and what he wants his own children to understand about the journey.
Vicki: You lived in Managua until you were 6 years old. What do you remember about life there?
Gunther: I remember what my school looked like. I remember the house we lived in. I remember being surrounded by family. Both my parents went to college, which was not common. I think my mother said she was the only one of her siblings who went and got a degree. She became a CPA. My dad was a mechanical engineer, so he was employed too. In Nicaragua, when you get to that level of comfort you can have people helping out at home—servants, maids. We employed people like that.
Vicki: Life was good.
Gunther: Life sounds pretty good, yeah.
Vicki: When did things change, and how did your family react?
Gunther: War happened. There was this president, [Anastasio] Somoza, and he was part of this long-running family of dictators that people just grew increasingly fed up with. That resistance grew and grew. I remember my mother told me a year before we left that she was already thinking,”We’re not going to be able to stay here very long.” She would talk to her bosses, and say, “Is there any chance I’m going to get relocated out of here?” And they would basically say, “Not really.” And she would say, “Tell me what I have to do because I have children, and I’m going to probably need to get them out of here.” It was those discussions that allowed her to get us out of the country.
Vicki: As a young child, did you notice that the climate was changing?
Gunther: Every now and then you’d see people with guns on the street, a soldier standing on the street with a gun. You have no idea why he’s there. But he looks mean, and he’s staring at people as they walk by, suspiciously, and you’re not sure what he’s looking for, but you’re afraid you’re going to do something wrong and upset him.
Vicki: One of the most dramatic changes for you, at age 6, must have been when regular routines, such as school, were disrupted.
Gunther: The school I went to was near a university. People would try to speak up against the government and then other people would show up to shut it down. Some incident happened, there was fighting and people got hurt. Our mother came and got us out of the school. After that, we didn’t go back to school anymore. All of the businesses shut down. The electricity got shut off; the water got shut off, too. It becomes very obvious something is wrong. And you start to hear bullets, shooting in the streets.
Vicki: Any thoughts on what it must have been like for your mom/dad to parent you during that time?
Gunther: When I think about it now, because I’m a parent now, it is hard to even imagine how they kept their sanity. I would be terrified to the point of paralysis. I think they felt that there was probably no room for introspection or for worrying about a parenting strategy. Life back then for them was either run fast, or you get shot.
Gunther: Survival, yeah. And when you’re operating at that level, you’re only thinking about the basic needs. They didn’t really think about how we would feel about it later. Now, as an adult looking back at it, I can see that it had some lasting unpleasant consequences. But I can’t really blame them for that. I think they did their job. Their job was to get us out of there alive.
Vicki: Do you have a picture in your mind of the day you left?
Gunther: I remember getting on the plane that took us out. It was a military plane that had big cargo doors and a ramp, benches on the side walls. I remember a lot of yelling, a lot of screaming, being scared to death, my parents just holding on to me really tight, being strapped onto this bench. I remember the doors closing, the ramp going up. And we left Nicaragua.
Vicki: What were some of the biggest challenges when you arrived in the U.S.? You spoke no English.
Gunther: That was probably my biggest problem, so I watched a lot of TV to learn English.
Vicki: What did you watch?
Gunther: “Three’s Company.” So “Three’s Company” is the foundation of my American side, my United States side. I developed a sense of humor faster than I developed anything else—like a real competency for English, or math. I would sit in front of the TV for hours and just watch how people talked.
Vicki: Was it tough to fit in with classmates as you tried to learn English?
Gunther: At the time, I really felt like being a foreigner was not cool. It was not what people wanted. It made you seem dumb. Even if you happen to be a smart person, when you’re not fluent in the language, you just don’t sound very articulate sometimes. It’s hard to come across as intelligent when you’ve got a thick accent and a limited vocabulary.
Vicki: What would you like people in this country to know about those who come to this country for economic or political reasons?
Gunther: It isn’t the cakewalk that it seems—to be relocated, sort of forcibly moved out of your country to come to the U.S. This may be the best country in the world to live in, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to leave your home.
Vicki: What do you hope your children learn from your family story?
Gunther: I hope they develop a sense of gratitude. I could have become a child soldier at 13. We could have all died there. I could have stayed there and survived, and my kids could have been born there. And they wouldn’t have had nearly the opportunities and the kind of education that they have here. I want them to appreciate just how lucky we are. I also want them to them feel this sense of duty to give back. Our job is not to wallow in our good fortune and indulge ourselves. Our job is to find a way to help those people who weren’t as lucky as we were. RAK