PITTSFIELD — Paulino Aguilar survived an encounter with El Salvador’s notorious death squads in the 1980’s. Aguilar taught high school students in gang-ridden San Salvador until he moved to Pittsfield in 2002. He lived on North Street and started work at 3 in the morning at the former Morningside Bakery on Tyler Street.
“They said that was dangerous,” Aguilar says, chuckling. “ I said, ‘ Dangerous? I come from El Salvador. This is very safe.’”
These days he works at a Cumberland Farms convenience store and also at the Kimball Farms Life Care community in Lenox. He&rsquo's worked at Canyon Ranch and Cranwell resorts. He taught Spanish at Drury High School and Berkshire Community College.
“ I had three jobs and I was going to school, and one of my bosses said, ‘ But Paulino, you look happy’,” he recalls. “ And I told him, ‘I work very hard, but I have a goal and I believe I am moving to that point.’ ”
His many jobs in the Berkshires paid for private education for his five children in El Salvador. His youngest was 5 years old when his father left.
“Every immigrant suffers,” Aguilar, 55, says. “The first six months you are in mourning. Leaving your family is painful. You miss your food, your culture.”
He then reconsiders his choice of words. “Maybe ‘suffering’ is a little less strong in Spanish than it sounds in English,” he says after a pause. “I really don’t want to show drama, even though you might have drama in your life.”
He was born on a small farm outside the town of San Vicente. He has nine brothers and one sister. From a young age he helped harvesting the corn, beans and sugar cane.
“ When somebody asks me what the hardest work is I ever did, it was that,” Aguilar says.
He studied sociology in college and got a teaching degree. In addition to civics and social sciences, he taught tailoring, because his high school required all students to also acquire a shop skill.
After a military coup in October 1979, El Salvador suffered a vicious civil war. As part of the government’s “dirty war” Paulino Aguilar “disappeared” in 1985.
“ I was young, I went to college and I was a teacher,” he says. “ Those three things were enough to make you suspicious.”
He got lucky. As opposed to many tens of thousands of others targeted by military death squads, Aguilar reappeared after five days.
He quietly waves off a question about being tortured. He does say that the heart problems plaguing his mother, Mirina, to this day started then. And he lights up when he describes the welcome his students gave him when he returned to his classroom.
“They were very poor. Sometimes I brought them fried chicken because many were hungry,” he says. “But when I came back they all had a small gift for me.”
The civil war ended in 1992. The vicious war violence in mostly rural areas became vicious gang violence in the cities, Aguilar says. He realized that with his teacher’s salary he would never be able to provide for his children the way he wanted.
“I didn’t see a future there,” he says. “So I came here and started a different life.”
One of his brothers already lived in Pittsfield. Another brother followed later. Aguilar’s two youngest sons, Jose, 21, and Samuel, 26, have moved to the Berkshires as well. They combine jobs and studies, and share their father’s Strong Avenue home.
Aguilar’s son Cristian, 34, lives in California. His daughter Sandra, 32, and son Saul, 27, still live in El Salvador. Aguilar is working on the papers for them to also be able to move to the United States.
“It is not easy, it is hard,” Aguilar says about his life. “But I learned something that Americans say: ‘You have to count your blessings.’
“So count what you have and that helps you to see forward.”