Pilar Celaya

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, September 1993,
September 1993

Author: Grace Shackman

From El Salvador to Ann Arbor with hope and good cooking

For immigrants, it's a bittersweet experience seeing their children embrace a new culture. Pilar Celaya says this first hit her when she was at the Pioneer High graduation of her two oldest kids. "When they started playing the national anthem, [the American] not the El Salvadoran one, I started crying--thinking I was only supposed to stay here one year and now my children are graduating in another country."

An Ann Arbor resident for eight years, Celaya, fifty, has a story as dramatic as that of any refugee from Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Russia. Forced to flee El Salvador because their lives were in danger, she and her family came by chance to Ann Arbor because the Society of Friends (Quakers) offered them sanctuary. A short (four feet nine) woman with slightly graying shoulder-length brown hair and sparkling eyes, Celaya arrived penniless and without knowing English. Today, she has her own catering business, her husband, Aurelio, has a permanent job, and all five of her children have earned high school diplomas. Two have gone on to college, and one has graduated.

In the early 1980's, the Celaya family (the name is an alias they chose to safeguard their identity when they arrived in the United States) was living in El Salvador's capital city, San Salvador; Pilar worked in a textile factory and Aurelio in a food processing plant. They lived just outside of town in a small farmhouse with a dirt floor, unpainted walls, and an outdoor toilet, but lots of room outside. They grew squash, bananas, and avocados, and raised chickens, ducks, and pigs--all of which they sold. They enjoyed their pets: numerous birds that flew around freely, and five dogs, one for each child. Leaders in their unions at work, they were also active members of the Emanuel Baptist Church, inspired by its social activism.

The terrible series of events that forever altered the lives of the Celaya family began on the night of February 17, 1980, when three men pulled up in a jeep and burst into their house. The men were part of El Salvador's notorious "death squads," who didn't like the family's union activism. They killed Celaya's two brothers-in-law, wounded two of her nieces, and destroyed the house. Afraid the death squads would return--all in all, death squads killed more than 70,000 people over a ten-year span--the Celaya family went into hiding.

After Pilar's brother was arrested, Aurelio escaped to Mexico. At risk to herself, Celaya waited until her brother was released from jail before she and the children joined Aurelio in Mexico in 1982. There, she found work managing a laundry, while Aurelio worked as a chauffeur. She says of their stay in Mexico, "Even though we could speak the language, we were not so lucky in Mexico. The country is poor. There are not many opportunities."

In 1985, they accepted an offer of sanctuary made by the Friends congregation in Ann Arbor. Though half a million people had fled the fighting in El Salvador, the U.S. government did not recognize the conflict as a civil war, and so denied them political asylum. In defiance of that policy, the Friends offered to help the family enter the U.S. illegally and to harbor them in the large house they own on Hill Street.

The Celayas crossed the border in Arizona, after a four-and-a-half-hour walk that included fording a river. The trip from Arizona to Ann Arbor took a month, with the Friends transporting them in a twentieth-century Underground Railroad, exchanging drivers and putting the family up at different homes.

Finally arriving, tired and dispirited, at their new home at 1416 Hill, the Celayas were cheered when Barry Lyons, one of their hosts, welcomed them in Spanish. For a week, Lyons slept on the couch to be on hand in case of an encounter with the police or immigration officials. Luckily, the authorities didn't bother them, then or later.

A month after her arrival, Pilar Celaya began speaking in public about her experiences in El Salvador, taking a translator with her, eventually traveling around the country to sanctuary conferences. Reliving the terrible events caused her to suffer nightmares after each engagement. "It wasn't easy," she says, "but I wanted to make a real effect and do something concrete."

Celaya and her family had to adjust to everything in Ann Arbor, from the weather (they had never seen snow) to the abundance of specialized stores to Americans' fondness for gadgets. Although delighted to find such previously unknown luxuries as a blender and a mixer in the Quaker House kitchen, Celaya once exclaimed to a friend in Ann Arbor, "I think North Americans don't sleep! They have to be awake to think what they can invent to make money."

When the family first came to Ann Arbor, Pilar and Aurelio could not work because, as illegal aliens, they could not get Social Security numbers. The Friends and others took care of their day-to-day expenses and their medical and dental bills. The couple took care of the house, did odd jobs to earn spending money, and took English classes. Learning English was more of a struggle for them, because of their ages and their relative isolation, than for their children.

While learning to cope with her new life, Celaya kept Salvadoran ways alive. Although her children picked up English quickly, she insisted that they speak Spanish at home. She continued to cook Salvadoran-style food. When the younger boys wanted to go on overnights, she refused to allow them, because that is not the custom in El Salvador. She also held to a strict nighttime curfew.

At first, the Celayas assumed that they would soon be returning to El Salvador. After two years had passed and conditions back home remained unstable, they applied for political asylum. With the help of U-M law professor Alex Aleinikoff and his students, they gained TPS--Temporary Protective Status. Although technically they could still be deported, the Celayas feel safe today, after eight years.

Once she knew she could be legally employed, Pilar Celaya started thinking of a way to earn a living. As a teenager and young wife, she had earned money cooking and selling tamales and soup on the street on weekends. Early in her residency at Quaker House, she and Aurelio found that they could repay people's kindness by cooking--giving tamales as gifts, inviting new friends for meals, and cooking for Quaker functions.

Celaya began her professional cooking career in 1988 by selling tamales. A year later, she moved into full-scale catering, using either the kitchen where she lived or the one at First Baptist, their Ann Arbor church. In 1990, she took a Community Development course on how to run a small business. She now does her catering out of a kitchen she rented on North Fourth Avenue next to New Grace Apostolic Church. Relatives on the West Coast help by sending authentic ingredients like plantain leaves for the tamales and spices such as azafran, borraja, and biente de leon

Two years ago, the Celayas made the big leap from the Friends house to living on their own at Arrowwood Hills Co-op. They live in a four-bedroom townhouse, with a bedroom for each of the three boys still at home.

Celaya has filled the place with tropical plants, Latin American art, including a Diego Rivera print and a Peruvian wall hanging, pots and knickknacks from around the world, and many books, in both Spanish and English.

Eleven years after their flight to Mexico, Celaya says she still misses "everything--my people, my culture, my church, my home." A recurring dream suggests her nostalgia: "I see myself in my house in El Salvador with my kids, but always they are little. I go shopping, and on the way back I remember I have to take an airplane or a bus to Ann Arbor. Then I wake up and realize I am in Michigan."

Officially El Salvador is at peace now. But Celaya knows from contacts back home that there are still killings by people who oppose the peace agreement between the government and the rebels. And there is the Americanization of her children. "After eight years of their lives here, I can't ask them to go back," she says. Her daughter, Carla, who graduated from Nazareth College two years ago, married an American in a large and festive ceremony at Cobblestone Farm. A son, Alezandro, attends Eastern Michigan. The three other sons, all high school graduates, are working and saving money for college.

Celaya herself wishes she could afford to attend college. That and opening her own restaurant are her dreams. And while she doesn't want to give up her Salvadoran citizenship, the family is applying for a different immigration status that would allow them to leave the country and return.

Celaya's friends are amazed that after all she's been through, she's still such a warm, caring person. She says, "I thank God I'm still alive, I still have my health, and my kids are good people. We're lucky people as a family. I know bad things have happened, but I'm happy with my life."