Oral history interview with Antonio Portillo

Antonio Portillo was 28 years old when he fled Guatemala with his wife, Estella, and their four children. In this interview, Antonio recounts the horrific story of why they were forced to leave Guatemala from one day to the next and how they found sanctuary in Madison as “Rogelio and Maria Gonzalez.”

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  • Identifier: madarc-007 Narrator Name: Antonio Portillo Interviewer Name: Joan Laurion Date of interview: 1/23/2023 INDEX [00:00:00] Introductions [00:01:09] The situation in Guatemala in the early 1980s [00:03:37] What made Antonio and his family decide to leave the country [00:12:17] Crossing the border into the U.S. [00:17:25] Choosing public Sanctuary instead of secret Sanctuary [00:18:42] Antonio’s Sanctuary experience in Madison [00:21:07] Antonio’s public presentations in Madison [00:23:36] Choosing Canada as a permanent home [00:28:16] Getting to Canada safely [00:30:16] The search for information about Antonio’s family’s disappearance [00:33:08] Antonio’s impact in sharing his story over the years [START OF RECORDING] [00:00:00] Introductions Interviewer: Good morning. I'm Joan Laurion. I'm in Madison, Wisconsin. The date is January 23rd, 2023. And I'm here with Antonio Portillo for the MASCP Living History Project. Good morning, Antonio. Antonio Portillo: Good morning. How are you? Interviewer: I'm good. I'm really glad we got ourselves organized to make this interview. Antonio Portillo: [laughs] So am I. Interviewer: So Antonio and I are talking online, and Antonio, if you could tell us where you are today, and then briefly introduce yourself before we start on some of the questions about your family's time in Sanctuary in Madison in 1984. Antonio Portillo: Okay. You already introduced my name, so I'm going to tell you that I'm from Guatemala. I'm a 68-year-old grandfather who currently resides in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. I'm right now in El Salvador, and you'll hear some noise in the background, but that's because El Salvador's a very noisy place. [00:01:09] The situation in Guatemala in the early 1980s Interviewer: Okay, perfect. So Antonio, please tell us in general, what was the situation in Guatemala in the early 1980s? Antonio Portillo: Well, the 1980s in Guatemala were probably the highest, most brutal time of repression in Guatemala. There had been attempts at changing system since the '60s, where ironically some young military officers got fed up with corruption and staged a coup. They failed, and then they went into the mountains and a revolutionary war started. By the 19 — mid-70s, the army in effect had defeated the revolutionary forces, and they were in disarray and in exile, and most of them — some of them still in the country, reformulating the plan. So they came back to Guatemala, and two of the main organizations relaunched their campaigns in the late '70s — '78, '79. But the army had expedience already, besides having all the advice and material and political support of the U.S. and other countries like Argentina, Israel, and such. So they were prepared for the next wave of revolutionary struggle. And they launched, I must say, effective but very bloody campaign to get rid of the urban structures set up by the organizations. And that's when in, between '80 and '82, the highest repression wave took place. After that, you may know Rios Montt took power in a coup d'etat and then genocide happened. And then he was deposed and a succession of military dictatorships ended up finding peace, in quotation marks, in 1996. [00:03:37] What made Antonio and his family decide to leave the country Interviewer: So that's all so horrific. If you can, tell us what happened to you that made you want to leave the country. How did that come about? Antonio Portillo: My father was a political refugee from El Salvador. He was living in Guatemala since 1944. Had fought in El Salvador against the dictator of the times, Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, famous for the massacre of 1932, where most Native peasants were exterminated. But anyway, he was in Guatemala, and we grew up with a sense of social justice, of struggle to make things better for the country, not for us, for a few. All of us, because we could see, my father taught us to be kind, to be able and you know, to help others who were in greater need than we were. We weren't rich, but there were people who had it a lot worse than we did. So we were political activists, community activists who, you know, able to get people running water and electricity in the communities and that kind of stuff. And in Guatemala, if you at the time opposed any, anything that had to do with justice, you were labeled a Communist. And you know, were essentially sentenced to death. My father, on September 11th, 1981 – we were about to celebrate my oldest son's first birthday and we were going to do that in my father's house in the capital city. And we – my father; his wife; my youngest sister, a year-and-a-half old; my two nieces, 8 and 9 years old; and one family friend were – my father and I came to his house. My sister Adriana had — this is my sister whose daughters were coming with me and my father to Guatemala City, she was supposed to come the day after with my wife and my two kids. So we came to Guatemala City on a Thursday, which was September 10th, and we slept over, and in the morning, my father said, “I'm going to run some errands. Do you want to stay in the house or you want to come with me?” And I said, “I'll go with you.” And we left. And there were five of them left at the house: his wife, my two nieces, my little sister, and this family friend. And we went to my father's place of employment and I walked in there; we both walked in there. My father knew the owner of the place, and I knew a few guys because I worked in there before, years before. So while we were talking, two men came to the building. One of them stood at the door, at the front door, with a Galil assault weapon, looking at us in a very menacing way, which left no doubt of his intentions. The other walked right past us with a .45 or 9-millimeter handgun in his right hand and went into the office where my father and his friend were talking. And I couldn't hear the conversation, but I managed to hear him ask my father whether he was a [inaudible]. Say, yes I am. Says, The man who was with you in the car, who is he? And my father said, That's my son, Antonio, the oldest. Where is he? He's in the bus depot. He's waiting for his wife and his sister. And so they walked out. They walked out. He had the gun in hand, of course, and my father was a very smart man. He knew that if he looked at me, that would be a death sentence. So he just walked past us, looking straight up. They walked out the door, and I reacted, finally. I was in shock. Because in Guatemala, you knew a death squad when you saw one, right? Man who dressed in civilian clothing and with handguns, nobody but the death squads do that. And so I ran to the door, and they were introducing my father into a 4-by-4 vehicle, probably a Toyota Land Cruiser or something like that, because those were the vehicles they used at the time. And they took off toward the center of the city, to downtown Guatemala City. And there's another car that followed them, so I assumed that was their backup. And I was in shock. I just – I couldn't understand, and I didn't know what to do. Finally, I woke up. This is what trauma does to you. I don't remember how I got to my father's house, but I remember that when I got there, the whole block was surrounded by army and police security forces. And the house, of course, was under control of these people. And I walked across the street. I wanted to see if there was anybody there that I could – my father or somebody – and there was nobody, of course. But in my mind, I didn't realize that I was running a huge risk by walking in front of the house. My father had a dog, and the dog came out and smelled my legs, but then walked back to the house. To this day, I don't understand why they didn't grab me. Because that was signal enough. Interviewer: Right, that the dog knew you. Antonio Portillo: Because if I'd been a stranger, probably would have barked at me or bit me, or something. Anyway, managed to get to the corner, to the – there's a little store in there. And I asked for a drink, and then I asked the owner, You know what happened over there? He says, Well, I don't know, but there were women screaming, being taken away in cars. And then I lost it again, and I – my recollection is that I was on my boss's house. My boss used to live in the capital city. I should have said that I lived in Jutiapa, which is 120 kilometers away from Guatemala City. And I worked in Jutiapa, but my boss's house was in Guatemala City, so I went to see him. And I didn't know what was happening. I couldn't understand. I knew it was something very, very, very serious. And so I asked him to put the news on, and sure enough, at 1:00, the Hear the World newscast came on. And they said that the army — they showed a communique telling people that they have found a guerrilla [inaudible] on Zone 11 and giving my father's address. But that there was nobody there. That they only found weapons and propaganda, and that was it. That was the end of the story. We knew better, because my father was – I saw when they took him, and I saw that the rest of the family stayed in the house. They didn't go anywhere, they were waiting for us. Anyway, my sister and I finally got together in the afternoon. They came – my sister saw the people, the military and the police at the house, because they actually in fact came to look for us. My wife, children, and my sister and two of her daughters – she had four – the two that were taken by the security forces were two of her daughters. And so we spent the next two-and-a-half years, you know, in shock and barely surviving. It was just – it was horrible. It was a terrible time for us, for our family. We were devastated by the events. When you lose six members of your family, one fell swoop, it's just very difficult to process. But that's what happened. [00:12:17] Crossing the border into Mexico and the U.S. Interviewer: And so you — that made you decide to leave eventually? Antonio Portillo: Well, yes. Two-and-a-half years later, my sister and I – because she left the city. The one who suffered the most was my sister, because she lost two daughters. And she left Jutiapa and came to live in the capital city so she could get lost in the capital city. We were virtually invisible in there. But we had connected again, and she had told me there was a movement called Sanctuary that was helping Central American refugees, and that if I could make it to Tapachula, Chiapas, Mexico, they would take me and my family in, and they would take us anywhere we wanted to go. And so we managed – well, I was trying to get some money together, until one day I was selling books – until one day I was working and I stopped at a cafeteria for a drink and lunch, and this former classmate of mine came over and sat down, and, Hey, how are you? The chitchat. And all of a sudden he asked, Where's your father? Where's Carlos, my brother, who happened to have died in combat. And I'm giving him the cover story: Oh, my father is in Mexico, my brother is in Panama. And all of a sudden, he gets mad and says, you know, Stop the crap. We know who you are. You're all Communists, you're all going to die. I'll give you five minutes to get out of my sight. Pulled out a gun and cocked it. And I didn't take five minutes. I left immediately. And I told my wife, we're leaving. First bus out of the city. Had 39 quetzals in my pocket at the time. It was 2.50 quetzals for $1. That's all we had. Three kids; she was pregnant, in her ninth month. But have to leave. There was no choice. It would have meant death, because he was a member of death squad. And the only reason why afterwards I think he did that is because he wanted to save my life. He didn't have to tell me anything. He didn't have to warn me of anything. He could have just come and picked me up. But I think he — we were good friends when we were in primary school. And so he decided not to proceed with his orders. So we took off. We left by bus from Jutiapa to the border with Mexico. It's a good, probably about 400 kilometers. It was a hot day. Interviewer: With those three children. Antonio Portillo: Oh, yeah. And the army and/or police checkpoints and stuff. It was a harrowing trip. It was really stressful. And so we made it to the border and this is where things, you know¬¬—well, things started happening which I can't explain when my sister told me about Sanctuary. But at the border, we got to the people's [inaudible], right, and I asked them. I said, “How much to take us to the other side?” He said, Well, $300 per head. And I got the little money — I had 29, I spent $10 buying the kids drinks and some food. I said this is all I have, but we can't stay. This is a matter of life or death. And he looked at the kids. He said — he grabbed the money, and gave me 10 quetzals back. Grabbed 19 for himself. And he instructed us how to deal with the [inaudible], and he took us to the other side. And he took us to his sister's house. And asked her to feed us, and asked somebody to go get a taxi— Interviewer: Amazing. Antonio Portillo: —to send us to Tapachula from the border. He paid for the cab. It’s like, wow. Interviewer: Right. All of a sudden, things were going much better for you. Antonio Portillo: Amazing. We got to the Sanctuary house in Tapachula around 7:30 in the evening. We had left Jutiapa at 4:30 in the morning. But to my surprise, when I knock at the door, guess who's the coordinator of the house? My brother. One of my brothers was the coordinator of the house. He had left Guatemala. He was forcefully conscripted. And he deserted from the army and left. And so — and he got hooked onto Sanctuary in Mexico. He was running that house. So we made it to Tapachula, and next morning we took a bus and headed for Mexico City. And then we got to Matamoros, and then we got to San Benito, Texas and then we got to Dallas/Fort Worth and then to Madison. Long, long trip. [00:17:25] Choosing public Sanctuary instead of secret Sanctuary Interviewer: So what made you choose public Sanctuary instead of the safer — the safer option which would have been secret Sanctuary? Antonio Portillo: Yes. Well, at the time, I didn't feel like I had a choice. I didn't contemplate leaving surreptitiously from Guatemala. Because of the high risk we were facing — like, with all those kids, without help, they would have deported us. That would have meant death. I had no money, and I had no contacts. I had nothing. And I thought, No. But when my sister told me about that house and about the Sanctuary movement, that made sense to me, you know? And I figured well, yeah. And I knew I had to speak publicly about what was happening in Guatemala, and I don't mind doing that at all. Because the world need to know what's happening — what was happening back then, what's happening right now. Interviewer: It was a brave choice on your part. You could have just stayed secret. Antonio Portillo: I could have, but — I don't know, somehow my father's teachings come through with us, with all of us, you know? My father was one to not look away. Was always right there. [00:18:42] Antonio’s Sanctuary experience in Madison Interviewer: So what was your Sanctuary experience in Madison like? Antonio Portillo: It was awesome. It was incredible. It was just — I could never have imagined anything like it. Because we grew up in a country, you know, soaked in blood. And the people most responsible for that was the United States government and its institutions. The coup d'etat in 1954, the deposed — the government, the democratically elected government of Jacobo Árbenz, tail end of the democratic spring period, we called it a democratic spring, because it was 10 years of a little bit of change. That started the whole thing rolling again. The U.S. imposed an extreme right-wing violent group of people. And they were propping them up all along. They called them, they trained the military officer, they gave them weapons, they gave them money. They gave them political support worldwide. They connected them with Argentina. When Jimmy Carter tried to do something about human rights and weapons, the U.S. circumvented that and brought weapons in via Israel. Taiwan, Chile, Columbia. It's — I was mad. I was really mad, you know? Like, I can tell you in all honesty, I'm an anti-imperialist. I hate that kind of stuff when [inaudible] people, because the people who pay for everything are those who have nothing to do with it. Civilian, right? Most of the time. Anyway, when we got to Madison, I was just blown away. Realized that these people who actually care, how come this is happening? I mean, like, these are gringos. This is the United States. And they were so — it's amazing. It was just incredible how they treated us. How they protected us. How they helped us work through our trauma and that kind of stuff. It was awesome. It was just wonderful. [00:21:07] Antonio’s public presentations in Madison Interviewer: So you did hundreds of public presentations in Madison while you were here. Tell us about that. Antonio Portillo: Well, you know [laughs] — I was blown away by that account Bob Skloot kept. Because to be quite honest, I don't remember speaking that frequently and that proficiently in English from the get-go. Interviewer: I can't imagine that either. I don't know how you did it. Antonio Portillo: There's got to be some mistake in there, because I did speak English when I got to the U.S., right? And I learned — I must confess, I learned rather quickly, but I don't know, if Bob says it, then it happened. In my state of mind, I was very traumatized. We were all very traumatized. And my brain wasn't functioning to its fullest potential. I have many recollections, but there are many more that I can't remember. I remember in general terms my speaking engagements. For example, I went to the university. I think there was a movie being shown. I think it was El Norte. And I — most of the time I broke down, because it was so emotional to speak about this kind of stuff. It still is. But yes. It was good in the sense that I understood that people didn't really know what was going on down there. People just, you know, agape with information that I was providing. And they just couldn't believe that their government could do this kind of thing. And the corporations and that kind of stuff, right? I had trouble with some of the people who came to the presentations. I was accused once of being a KGB agent and Communist and blah blah blah. Which made me laugh, but [laughs] you have to go [inaudible]. Right? People get mad when you tell them the truth. Interviewer: Yes. Exactly. Antonio Portillo: Yes. Interviewer: It's hard to believe. Antonio Portillo: It was okay with me, I mean like — it was okay. You know, I've never been — I never shied away from controversy when it's required. You have to say the truth and that's it. [00:23:36] Choosing Canada as a permanent home Interviewer: So then it came time to get you to permanent safety. And tell us how that came about. Why did you choose Canada? Where'd you get the visas? How'd that all happen? Antonio Portillo: Well, we were doing fine in Madison. It was a year-and-a-half, I think, had gone by since we arrived. Actually about a year and probably a couple of weeks, when Estella and Joy, one of our friends in there, came running to the apartment alarmed that men that Joy recognized as probably the FBI were following them in a store. And so Joy contacted the proper people at the committee, and they all mobilized and they took us — and see, this is the memory thing. I don't remember — I read the document Jenny wrote down, and she says that they took us to a house. I can't remember that. I remember at Saint Benedict's. That I remember very clearly. Not when we got there, but I remembered that we used to — my friend Mike tried to teach me to play tennis. Massive failure [laughs]. Was a massive failure. He was really nice to me. We had a whole wing that was just a huge place for the six of us. Because Carmela was already born, was an infant. But we — so while we were at Saint Benedict's, I think Jenny was the one that talked to us about — Jenny and other members, I think it was John and Eric probably, who came, probably Laurie as well — talked to us about exile, you know, permanent exile. And they gave us the options. They said, Well you could choose Switzerland, Sweden, Australia. And like, Estella and I looked at each other; it was like, we're not going that far! [Laughter] Like, we have family down here. I said we can't go that far. We said what are the other options? Well, Canada. Well, Canada it's got to be, you know? And I said, before we make a decision, can you get me papers from the main cities in Canada? And so they got me — I think was John who got me the papers from Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver, and Winnipeg. I started looking at the papers and trying to get a sense, a pulse of the city. And when I was reading Winnipeg Free Press — that's what I liked first, Winnipeg “Free” Press. Yeah, right on! [laughs]. You know? It was pretty good. And then I started reading about government programs and the government doing this and the government doing that. And it sounded to me like I place I wanted to live in, a caring society. And I said, Yes. That's where we're going. And when I told them we're choosing Winnipeg, they said that's the coldest city in the world, Antonio. [laughter] It's minus 40 in the wintertime. I had no understanding what minus 40 meant, and I don't care. Interviewer: Yes, right. That is small potatoes. Antonio Portillo: [laughs] Yes. So that's how we chose Winnipeg. We eventually went to — I think Jenny drove us to Chicago to be interviewed by the consul. And he saw the kids and he talked to us. I already spoke English. I spoke with him, and he said, Yeah, you're going to get your visas. Once you get them, you can go. And soon after, they sent us the — I can't remember if we went and picked them up ourselves or they mailed them. I can't remember. I think we went and picked them up ourselves. But anyway — and back then, the Canadian government was providing political asylum to refugees from Central America. So we went in as political refugees. Yeah. And already permanent residents when we got there. Interviewer: Oh, fantastic. Wow. Antonio Portillo: Yes. And three-and-a-half, four years later, we became citizens. Never looked back. [00:28:16] Getting to Canada safely Interviewer: So tell us about that caravan ride to Canada in the night. Antonio Portillo: I said before that our friends protected us, and I meant it. They were very worried that even though we had papers, that while we were coming up to Canada, we could be grabbed by the U.S. authorities, who were on an offensive against Sanctuary. So they decided, No, we’re going with them. And there we are in a caravan. I think Jenny had a camper. Somebody else had a van. Somebody else had a car, I think. And there were four or five cars that came all the way to Sprague, Manitoba. We went through — I remember Duluth, so we must have been in Minnesota. Yeah. We came to Winnipeg on May 29th, 1985. I will never forget the experience of getting to the border, showing these people our visas, and being told, Welcome to Canada. Interviewer: Oh, amazing! Amazing. Antonio Portillo: It was incredible, you know, to feel free. Finally! Be able to call ourselves who we are. Not use a pseudonym. It was really good when we got our first — I got my first driver's license, and my Canadian ID and my social insurance number. Yeah! I'd been in, you know, semi-clandestinity for about four or five years already, and I was fed up with it. Part of who I am; I don't want to hide. Interviewer: How old were you by then, Antonio? Antonio Portillo: I was 29, 30? Interviewer: 29 or 30 after leaving Guatemala? Antonio Portillo: I was born in '54. So it was '84? I was 30 — 31, actually. [00:30:16] The search for information about Antonio’s family’s disappearance Interviewer: You look so young in the photos. So have you ever been able to get any information about your family that was disappeared? Antonio Portillo: I'm sorry? Excuse me? Interviewer: Did you ever get any information at all about your family that was disappeared in Guatemala? Antonio Portillo: No, no, no, no, no. Nothing. It's been 41 years. It'll be 42 this September. And they refuse — they just don't want to do it. My sister who's been driving this struggle for truth — because that's all that we can ask for now, truth and justice, she's the most amazing, strongest person I've ever met. And she's coming to Guatemala on the 20th to continue poking the bear in the eye. You know, and she's so brave. She runs a regular risk, but she doesn't care. She wants the truth and she wants justice for our family. And for the rest of Guatemala. Because if one family gets justice, the country gets better a little bit at a time. But the system refuses to give any — I mean, like, I — after 23 years of exile, I came to Guatemala with great trepidation. I was afraid, because I'm the only eyewitness to my father's kidnapping. If I died, it's over. But I went nonetheless, because I needed to provide my DNA. That was the first time I came to Guatemala, and then I went back a few years after to provide my official statement, what they call anticipa preva(??) which means a pre-dated statement, videotaped, just in case I die or I can't make it to the trial. And then I went back and I went and made my statement in front of a judge in a court of law. It took 40 years to get to that point. Interviewer: Oh my goodness. Antonio Portillo: Like, they don't want to. The cruelest torture possible is uncertainty. They took our family; they don't want to tell us what they did with them, where they are. We can't deal with the rite of passage. I mean, in the culture, when somebody dies, you mourn. You mourn and you let them go through some type of ceremony. We can't do that. It's the most brutal type of torture that can be. And I think they relish that. They like it. Beasts. Interviewer: Beasts. Antonio Portillo: Yes. I just — terrible. Interviewer: That's horrific. Antonio Portillo: Yes, it is. [00:33:08] Antonio’s impact in sharing his story over the years Interviewer: Antonio, I can't thank you enough for telling your story to us and adding to the history of Madison Arcatao Sister City Project. Is there anything else you'd like to add before we close? Antonio Portillo: No, no, no. Just thank you for your interest. This is important that people get to know what happened then, and what happens now. Interviewer: Thank you so much. We've had several people, you know, talking about the activism that came out of all this conflict and all these refugees leaving Central America and the Sanctuary movement in Madison, and they all say that your presentations, telling your own story in your own words, and being present in our community made a big difference in people understanding and being educated about what was actually going on and what our government was involved in in Central America. So you've had an enormous impact, and we thank you. Antonio Portillo: Thank you. It's good to know that the work paid off. Interviewer: It did. It did. [END OF RECORDING]