Written by Petty Officer 1st Class Jon-Paul Rios
“I remember the guerrillas coming to my home, pointing a gun at my mother demanding our chickens,” said Lt. Marvin Peña, recounting his few memories growing up in El Salvador. “It was guerrilla warfare — no place for a child.”
One can imagine fond memories during the early 1980s were few for Salvadorans. A civil war was raging in Central America. At the time, Peña lived with his mother and grandparents after his father left at the early age of six months, migrating to the U.S. in hopes of making sufficient money to have smugglers bring them to the U.S.
His father took whatever jobs he could starting as a dishwasher, waiter and pizza cook until he finally worked his way up to be a self-taught bartender. On occasion, he would record messages on cassette tapes and give them to people headed south to El Salvador so they could give them to his family. That was the only means of communication at the time. Six years passed and in 1984, Peña’s father kept true to his word and paid smugglers to bring him, three siblings, his mother and grandmother to the U.S.
”I didn’t fully understand where we were going. ‘El Norte,’ how we referred to the U.S., was just an idea of a better place, a safer place,” said Peña. “El Norte was the land of milk and honey for those south of the border living in poverty and war.”
The dangerous journey started with Peña and his family packed in the back of an old pickup truck hidden only under the cover of a topper. He remembers walking through a river and being exhausted from the long journey. At seven years old, he didn’t realize that it was fraught with danger, but he does remember making it to Mexico, hiding in a hotel near the border for days and waiting for the perfect moment under the dark of night to shadow him to freedom.
When Peña finally made it across the border he was greeted by his father, the voice he would listen to on the cassette tapes.
“He was just that, a voice,” said Peña. “I didn’t know my father, my grandfather in El Salvador played that role, but looking back I know my father’s work ethic is why I am here today.”
To this day, Peña’s relationship with his father isn’t absolute. He admits that in the last 20 years, he has spoken to him a handful of times but still attributes his success in the U.S. partially to him.
Not to go unnoticed, however, was the influence of his mother. Peña’s mother took the rigorous voyage with him and when she finally made it to the U.S., she worked five days a week as an in-home maid. On the weekends, to make ends meet she would clean houses and bring Peña along with her.
“Looking back, I know the reason why she would bring me was to spend time with me. I loved my mom and cherish how hard she worked for me and my family.”
Peña’s eyes filled with tears and he couldn’t bite his lip hard enough to hold back the bitter truth, describing his mother who sacrificed her life to work towards a better future for her children and how she tragically lost her battle with cancer at the age of 50.
However, solace remains in the fact that she witnessed her son become a citizen and enlist in the U.S. Coast Guard in 1996.
At the time, Peña was only a U.S. resident so he could only choose from five different rates. Luckily for him, Health Services Technician was one.
“I told myself I would only join if I could be an HS. I always just wanted to help people,” said Peña.
He joined for one, four-year term, all that was allowed for a U.S. resident at the time. Just before completing his first term in 2000, Peña became a U.S. citizen.
To become a U.S. citizen, he had to denounce his citizenship to El Salvador, something Peña admits was the easiest thing he has ever done.
“I will never forget where I came from, I will never lose site of that struggle, but the United States is my country now. I’m grateful for the uniform,” said Peña.
Peña worked his way up the enlisted ranks to chief petty officer, commissioned as a chief warrant officer, and took the leap to the officer ranks where he is now a lieutenant working as the Health Safety and Work-Life Deputy Regional Practice Manager for the 17th Coast Guard District in Juneau, Alaska.
Today, Peña cherishes opportunities to visit El Salvador when he can while the country still recovers from years of civil war.
Peña’s life was one of hardship, peril, love and triumph. When asked the end goal for him as a former immigrant, Peña replied, “At the time it was citizenship. As an adult, it’s to provide a better life for my children through service to my country, to educate them of their heritage and to teach them the same work ethic I observed from my parents.”