Local man works hard to forget living with horrors of war | SummitDaily.com

Local man works hard to forget living with horrors of war

SILVERTHORNE – Bernie Alvarado has a gentle smile that is quick to wrap his small, unimposing frame with a warm, welcoming glow. It reveals a broad mouth with large teeth and hides memories of headless corpses and men hacked to death with machetes.

Alvarado is kind and chronically upbeat. His energy reserves are impressive. He works three jobs with drastically varying schedules but hardly ever complains. His optimism belies an adolescence nurtured in the grips of a civil war that left his family broken and his memory scarred.

“Psychologically, it was something that just killed my feelings, my heart,” he said.

A native of Guatemala, Alvarado grew up surrounded by politics. His father, a photographer, was heavily involved as a political activist with the Committee of Peasant Union, known by its Spanish acronym, CUC, which gained prominence through the involvement of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Rigoberta Menchu. His father held elected office, as deputy mayor of Alvarado’s town, Santa Cruz del Quiche, until a Monday in February, 1982, when he was abducted while walking down the street with his wife and infant child.

The family never saw him again.

Alvarado was 16 at the time.

The civil war that wracked Guatemala for much of the past century was one of many Central American conflicts during the Cold War notorious for its brutality. It began with an armed insurrection of leftist rebels and ended 36 years later with a 1996 cease-fire agreement between the rebels and government officials. The events that steered Alvarado’s childhood were the fighting and its aftermath.

“When you are a kid, you know, you have a good life,” he said. “It’s really good to be born in the United States or in a free country. You grew up with toys. You grew up with games. You grew up with friends … free, without thinking that you’re going to get shot or that you’re gonna see dead people next to you, to your house. Or the next day you’re gonna wake up and see a guy without a head next to your house.”

“I saw hundreds of people dead. Some of them there were no eyes, no brains. The government or the CUCs, they tortured them and somebody cut off the fingers.

“I’m still hurt right now about all that stuff, you know, when I remember. Sometimes it makes me cry.”

Still, Alvarado has moved on. After his father’s disappearance and the short time he spent in the military reserves, his family left the country, fleeing at various points to the United States, El Salvador, Honduras and other locations in an attempt to escape the brutality. It was a heartbreaking cycle in which Alvarado’s mother would become convinced of finding her husband and would return, eventually fall into despair, and leave again.

“My mom, she said “No, this time I’m going to find him. I dreamed it. I dreamed. Let’s go. I need to go. I need to find out. I want to see him,'” he recounted. “We moved the whole family around.”

In 1988, Alvarado finally moved back to the United States. He settled with family in California where he worked as a machine operator at a computer manufacturing plant by day and took English classes by night. It lasted nearly seven years before he moved to Nebraska and jobs in meat-packing plants, where he worked for nearly five years. In 1998, he transferred to a plant in Minnesota where he fell in love with a woman who worked in the plant cafeteria.

A little more than a year later, he followed her to Summit County, where he worked first as a carpet cleaner, then as a housekeeper and eventually as a septic truck driver. In 2001, they were married.

Alvarado currently works as a nighttime Summit Stage driver, a job that keeps him until 3 a.m.. Before heading to bed, he delivers papers for the Summit Daily News, sometimes until 7 a.m. To augment his income even further, he works up to 20 hours per week at 7-Eleven.

“I work a lot,” he said. “(But) I can handle it. I do it because I want to see if I can keep my family ahead and do something in the future.”

The future, to Alvarado, appears bright. He has plans to return to school and the eventual dream of opening his own business.

However, even though he’s left much of it behind him, Alvarado is still haunted by his past.

He often has nightmares that shake him awake. His time in the military reserve, where he saw routine displays of torture and encountered brutalized victims of rape, is a particularly fertile ground for dreams.

One that often recurs stems from an experience in the reserves. On a walk one day, Alvarado stumbled upon a soldier interrogating another man in a tent. Watching a moment, Alvarado saw the soldier raise his hand and strike the man in a whipping motion as blood began to fly. Inching closer, he saw the soldier holding a machete and watched the man collapse and die in a flurry of blows.

“I just walked away,” he said.

Talking about his experiences is difficult, but he claims it helps. Little by little, he says, the memories become less poignant. He hopes one day to reach a point where he can return to his native country with a lighter burden of past memories. With time and help, he said, life will continue to unfold well for him.

“I’ll be OK,” he added.

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