Looking at Arturo Zamora, 43, it is hard to imagine that this soft-spoken father of seven was a sergeant in the Salvadoran army at the height of that country's civil war.
Even more difficult is believing him when he says that what he lived in those five years serving his country didn't leave him traumatized, especially since he enlisted when he was only 15.
"Suddenly, you were walking down the mountain and you could hear gunfire from all sides, and you could do nothing more than throw yourself on the ground," said Zamora, who with his wife, Marta, opened the popular Salvadoran restaurant, El Chalate, four years ago in Denver. "As you heard the gunfire, you also heard the screams of your fallen comrades, some dead, some wounded."
There are many reasons why people leave their country behind and emigrate to America, but for many years, for many Central Americans, the main reason was to escape the violence. The type of violence caused by long civil wars in the '70s and '80s that particularly punished without mercy three of the six countries in Central America.
The civil war in El Salvador lasted 12 years, and 75,000 people went dead or missing. In Nicaragua, the internal armed conflict between the Sandinistas and the Contras - supported by the government of President Ronald Reagan - also left many dead and a country without infrastructure.
The war in Guatemala has been classified as a genocide in which more than 250,000 indigenous people were either killed or disappeared at the hands of both the guerrillas and the military.
"The problem is that the indigenous people were the ones in the middle of both forces, and in any case, the most vulnerable," said Ana Patricia Ramirez, Guatemala's consul general in Colorado, adding that many of those of Mayan descent ended up in places like Alamosa, in southern Colorado. "The civil war in Guatemala was the trigger for the exodus."
The only two countries that were not involved in armed conflicts at the end of the 20th century were Costa Rica and Panama. Although it did not suffer a civil war, Honduras was affected by its neighbors' conflicts.
"As an air traffic controller, our lives were threatened by either the Sandinistas or the Contras or the military," said Patricia Boltz, who was a pioneer in her profession in Honduras in the early '80s. "I was involved in super confidential mandated operations. I would be told, 'You have to do this operation today, do not ask, simply go into the control tower, turn on the runway lights and give them the wind and that's it.'"
While she clarifies that she did not come to the United States for political reasons, she does not deny that she felt at peace here.
Honduras is one of the five Central American countries - along with Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica - which celebrate their independence from Spain on Sept. 15. Denver's Central Americans, whose numbers reach nearly 30,000 according to the 2010 census, will have a celebration on Sept. 4 at City Park organized by the Asociación Centroamericana Unida (ACAUNIDA), where there will be kids activities, food, folkloric dances and music from Panama and Guatemala.
"It's always good to know where you come from," said Roxy Hernandez, the treasurer of ACAUNIDA who is of Salvadoran and in charge of the cultural aspect of the festival. "My goal is for others to know that there are other cultures, too, apart from Mexico, which is why I am the lyrical choreographer of folk dancing."
In addition to educating the community, funds raised during the festival will be used to purchase school supplies, shoes, uniforms and desks for a school without resources in El Salvador - one of many projects in which ACAUNIDA is involved in Central America.
"We know how much need there is in the rural areas of our countries," said Hernandez, who also came here fleeing the war.
ACAUNIDA, she said, was founded in 2008 with the idea of not only helping the needy in Central America, but also other Central Americans in Denver through financial education classes and computer classes.
Helping her community here in Denver is also the objective of consul Ramirez. And so, in addition to all the consular services provided by any consulate to its citizens, the Guatemalan one also participates in projects such as Binational Health Week - a nationwide program that in October will impart information and services related to health problems affecting women, including free pap smears at Clinica Tepeyac.
Not allowing the dilution of the Guatemalan culture is another purpose of the Consulate of Guatemala.
"We are a fusion of cultures [the Spanish and the Mayan], and both are rich and important, and both are part of our identity," said Ramirez, who invites all Guatemalans to the pledge of allegiance on Sept. 14 at the consulate.
Boltz agreed and has assured that her 16-year-old daughter is in touch with both her American and Honduran cultures.
"I think that if we come to this country, we have to adopt the culture, the language, without losing our heritage," she said. "I instilled in my daughter my roots. My daughter has two nationalities and has two cultures and is proud of both."
Although keeping their Salvadoran culture alive is Zamora's daily bread, thanks to his restaurant, which serves traditional dishes such as pupusas, he says he owes his success to America.
"I love this country more than my own country," confessed Zamora, who said that had he stayed in El Salvador, he'd likely remained poor, as many of his former army buddies. "My country never gave me what this country has given me."
Tres Leches Cake
1 cup flour
1 cup sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
3 cans condensed milk
3 cans evaporated milk
12 oz. cream
Separate yolks from whites and whisk until fluffy. While whisking, gradually add sugar, yolks, flour and baking powder. Then bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes.
Mix condensed milk, evaporated milk and cream. Once the cake is cooled and and you have poked it through with a fork, pour the liquid over the entire cake.
For the topping, beat three egg whites until stiff, put three cups sugar and 1 1/2 cups water to boil until it is syrupy and then pour over the egg whites and whisk until it thickens. Use it to frost the cake.
- Roxana A. Soto