“There are so many motives or reasons as to why people migrate,” Mario Angel Escobar says. The 35-year-old Alhambra resident, seated in his home office surrounded by shelves of first edition Mark Twain books and photos of his kids, leans forward. “To move, to leave a country that is not healthy for the soul and does not provide opportunities and puts your whole life in danger.”
Escobar’s life in Alhambra as a professor, poet, and novelist is a far cry from his childhood in El Salvador. The father of four holds a bachelor’s degree in Spanish literature and Chicano studies from UCLA, a master’s degree in Spanish literature from Arizona State University, and is in the process of completing a PhD. But the former Salvadoran child soldier could not even walk to school in his youth without fear of getting killed.
Escobar was born in 1978 during a surge of guerilla violence against the military-led government in El Salvador. His family was divided by political and ethnic tension — his father was white, his mother Salvadoran — and many of his family members, including his father, grandmother, cousin, and uncle, were brutally killed.
“If you were out on the streets, you would get killed – no ifs or buts,” says Escobar, who had to be home by 6 p.m. every night. “Bodies were lying on the streets.”
When the violence prevented Escobar from attending the local elementary school, his grandfather — whose own father was killed in a 1932 Salvadoran peasant massacre — taught him to read and escape the violence through literature. Escobar remembers those folktales and stories about indigenous people.
“The stories were more or less to cope with the situation,” Escobar says. “You’re talking about seeing atrocities every day, over and over again. You could easily go crazy or find ways or mechanisms to cope with reality.”
But soon the reading stopped. When Escobar was 10 years old, he ran away from home to fight for the guerillas. Unable to recall details except that he may have been searching for his estranged mother, Escobar remembers he was taken hostage by paramilitaries in 1989 and rescued not long after by his maternal grandmother, who was part of a committee of matriarchs searching for missing or imprisoned children and grandchildren.
At his grandmother’s insistence, Escobar migrated in 1990 to the United States and reunited with his mother in South Los Angeles in the midst of the L.A. riots. Escobar taught himself English by watching television and reading books like Mark Twain’s "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," identifying with the vagabond title character. “He has to do everything he can do to survive,” Escobar says.
By 1996, Escobar was a single father and high school dropout who had worked his way up to a director position at a security company. Escobar had left school in fear of being kicked out as an undocumented immigrant, but enrolled at Los Angeles Trade Technical College two years later. He studied liberal arts and science, graduating in 2003 with dean’s honors. He married his wife Karla the same year.
Escobar’s love for literature and education sparked his desire to teach other undocumented students. “I think that’s a revolution right there, when you revolutionize the mind,” Escobar says. “Not just teaching someone how to read a novel, but putting literature into political, historical, cultural context.”
The aspiring professor applied to UCLA to continue his education. He received his acceptance letter and a deportation notification from the Department of Homeland Security at the same time.
“It was just torture,” Escobar says. “There’s so much pressure knowing you may not be here today, that you’re going to leave your kids.”
In the midst of midterms and finals, Escobar went to court twice a year between 2004-2006 to fight for political asylum. Each time he went to court, Escobar packed a bag with his belongings in case of deportation. Finally, with midterms on his mind and his second child only a month old, Escobar went to court in October 2006 and was granted political asylum.
“I remember my mind was blank, completely blank,” Escobar says. “For me, it was the beginning of a struggle. I was going to use my status to continue helping undocumented youth to support the dream of succeeding in this country.”
Escobar has since been an outspoken supporter of immigration reform, leading protests and hunger strikes for undocumented students’ rights. His activist poetry has been published in literary journals, magazines, and books such as "Gritos Interiores," a response to a 1994 state ballot measure that denied state and social services to undocumented immigrants.
He writes, in “Immigrant Voices:”
Shattered bodiesBurned down bodiesCut bodiesUndocumented bodiesI am an oral bookAnd the result of your apathy
Escobar and his wife and children moved to Alhambra in 2012 to be with Karla's family, and are planning to move into their own home in the city. Escobar says Alhambra's diversity and safe environment is an ideal place to raise their kids. “They get to have different cultural experiences, and I like that,” he says.
Set to start teaching Spanish literature at CSU Northridge in the fall, Escobar wants to try and inspire a love of activism in his students. “Not to cause trouble,” he said, “but to inspire people, to challenge them to dream, challenge them to dream and to understand.”