In summary

Whenever Wendy Carrillo returns to El Salvador, she can’t help wondering what her life would have been like if civil war had not driven her family out.

SAN SALVADOR:  Whenever Wendy Carrillo returns to El Salvador, she can’t help wondering what her life would have been like if civil war had not driven her family out.

It was an incredibly violent time in El Salvador,” Carrillo said. “My mother made a very courageous decision that she would go to the U.S. and seek asylum, and was eventually denied. But she stayed anyway because she understood that she had to make choices for herself and for her family.”

Carrillo’s mother worked as a babysitter, saving money for three years to bring her to the U.S.  At age 5, Wendy said goodbye to her best friend and her school, and accompanied her grandmother—first on a plane to Mexico City, and then on to Tijuana to hire a “coyote” to smuggle them into California.

“I remember I was wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt because it was my favorite shirt—it was the 80s, so it had the red sleeves and the white center with Mickey Mouse, and my hair was in pigtails,” she said. “And I remember being told to just be very quiet. And I was in the backseat with my aunt, and we crossed.”

For the first 8 years of her life in Los Angeles she was undocumented, until then-President Ronald Reagan offered amnesty. She became a legal resident at 13 and a citizen at 21.

Today Carillo—a Democratic state assemblywoman representing northeastern Los Angeles—is back, the only Salvadoran state lawmaker, and the only legislator to travel with Gov. Gavin Newsom on his first official international trip. The new governor is visiting the tiny Central American country, he says, to learn “firsthand” the reasons why thousands of people from El Salvador and neighboring Guatemala and Honduras have been seeking U.S. asylum.

“Coming back here now in this new role as a member of the Legislature, I’m trying to figure out how we can help—and how we can understand not only the remnants of the civil war, which ended in 1992, but everything that’s happened since the economic downfall of El Salvador and the violence against women,” she said. “There’s so many issues that need to be addressed.”

Carrillo talked about her family story in the 10th floor lounge of the hotel where Newsom’s group is staying—and noted that it is in an affluent part of the city that is much safer than where most Salvadorans live.

The last time she came to El Salvador, with a delegation of state legislators last year, her meeting with outgoing President Salvador Sánchez Cerén felt like a homecoming of sorts.

When he saw me, he said that he was very proud of me because I was a daughter of this country, and he gave me a big hug and welcomed me back home,” she said. “For me that was very emotional because had it not been for the war, my family would never have left.”

Her new life in California wasn’t easy. As a teen she dropped out of school, but a principal at Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles pulled her back in, encouraging her to graduate and be a role model for her four younger sisters.

She went on to earn a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Southern California and become a radio host, and she handled communications for a Service Employees International Union affiliate. She lost a bid for Congress, but in 2017 she won a special election for the state Assembly in a race against 11 men.

“Part of what propelled me to run was this idea that Salvadorans needed a seat at the table, especially when a federal administration was saying that immigrants don’t deserve to be here,” she said.

Carrillo thinks about how differently her life story might have played out were she living it today, in the Trump era. “Would I have been separated from my grandmother and put in a cage and completely forgotten about? Which is happening to many children right now.”

That will be on her mind as she and Newsom endeavor to meet with the Salvadoran president, U.S. ambassador and humanitarian advocates. She’ll be thinking, she said, about how she and California can help here and back home.

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Elizabeth Aguilera is an award-winning multimedia journalist who covers health and social services for CalMatters. She joined CalMatters in 2016 from Southern California Public Radio/KPCC 89.3 where she...