From Fleeing the Death Squad in El Salvador to Lutheran Pastor — Pastor Pedro Portillo Shares His Story

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Pastor Pedro and members of his church, Igelsia Lutheran Transfiguraction in Mesquite, Texas.
Pastor Pedro and members of his church, Iglesia Luterana Transfiguracion in Mesquite, Texas.

Today, I’m delighted to share the courageous story of Pastor Pedro Portillo. In the 1980’s, Pastor Portillo fled persecution by a paramilitary group called Death Squad in El Salvador. Now a Lutheran pastor at Iglesia Luterana La Transfiguracion (The Transfiguration Lutheran Church) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Pastor Pedro tells of his life in El Salvador before he fled, and how all Americans play a role in creating a stronger, more welcoming and just society.

This interview was conducted by Folabi Olagbaju, LIRS National Grassroots Director, and Clarissa Perkins, LIRS Marketing Project Manager.

Clarissa Perkins (CP): Can you tell us a bit about your journey to the United States as an immigrant?

Pastor Pedro Portillo (PP): I came to the United States in 1980 after Archbishop Romero was assassinated in El Salvador. I was persecuted because I was a surviving young boy by a paramilitary group that was called Death Squad in the ’80s. This evil military group was illegally protecting the 14 richest families who owned 85% of the common good of the entire country of El Salvador for more than 50 years.

I went with Bishop Romero to many towns and assisted him as an altar boy in the worship services. I remembered he would buy me ice cream at the end of the day.

I grew up in the farm helping my father after I would come home from school. I would take care of the chickens and the cows. I would also help plant corn, beans, and rice, very similar to the way many children do today.

Presently, El Salvador does not have civil war of the corrupt government as they did in the ’80s, but we do have a stream of violence against the children and young adults of poor families. They have been persecuted and recruited by several violent groups who have spread their wrath of destruction throughout Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Over the last 10 years, 60% of the total population of children and families have experienced life-threatening situations and have survived.

My professional life in the United States has been fruitful, but also very challenging in my ministry. My talents and gift in some way have been accepted and rejected as an immigrant who has a different skin color, culture, and a strong English accent.

CP: What do you appreciate most about living in the United States?

PP: I do appreciate from the bottom of my heart my decision to come to the United States. It has been a blessing  for my family and for the thousands of people who I have served over the last 31 years in my pastoral ministry. I got to achieve the American dream, similar to the many people of European descent who came to America. I do believe all those thousands of dislocated children will do the same to the present and to the future American society.

CP: What have been the greatest challenges of new Americans in your community?

PP: The greatest challenges that I always have faced is discrimination from some members of the elderly community and some racist people who resist any change in their community.

CP: You are a pastor in Texas. How do you welcome new immigrants and help them feel at home here?

PP: As a Lutheran pastor, I became a bridge connecting all kinds of community leaders from our neighboring cities throughout Dallas County. Through meetings and prayers, I have been helping to educate people to properly understand the newest immigrants in American society. The last 10 years, Irving and other cities in north Texas have drastically changed with the influx of new immigrants from all over Latin America, Africa, and Asia. We have over 48 different languages spoken in our diverse city. The Muslim community is also growing rapidly in our city and they come from all over the world!

PP: What has been your response to the recent surge of children from Central America?

PP: In our neighboring cities of Dallas County, I have been directly involved with many different committees. Examples are: Irving Independent School District, Dallas Independent School District, police, City Council, multiple state representatives and businesses who try to work together with us to create a strong society.

I had visited Congress members, state representatives, commissioners, City County judges and immigration officers to talk to and welcome all children who have families in Texas. I also participate in many media activities, in English and Spanish newspapers, to create peace and solidarity with these poor children in the entire community. I do believe, in family, business, political and faith community involvements. I do believe in creating awareness in business leaders and members to welcome these children of God who are coming from Central America. We need to be the voice for the voiceless in this modern world.

For more information on “welcoming these children of God,” visit www.lirs.org/bordercrisis.

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