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Sep 04, 2012 | Carol E. Barnwell

Juan Rosa: Finding New Life, One Day at a Time

Juan Rosa2[Diolog MagazineJuan Rosa, 45, has spent nearly three decades in the U.S., sent here to live with a sister after escaping his kidnappers in El Salvador at age 16. The youngest son of five boys and six girls, Juan was studying to attend seminary when he was pulled from a bus by rebel soldiers looking for young men to conscript. Today he works for El Buen Samaritano, an Episcopal social service agency in Austin as the Healthy Living Coordinator, helping others to navigate new lives. He is married and has two young daughters.  


CEB: What was life like growing up in El Salvador? 


JR: I was the third youngest of 11 children. My parents were farmers [in central El Salvador]. We raised beans, rice, corn—you name it. And we had so many cows that people came to us to buy milk. We always had enough for our family and more. I remember when I was little, my mother would put me on a horse to take food to the people in the fields who were working for us. This was not so common. I learned from her that we have to see other people as human beings. 


CEB: Do you believe the values you learned from your mother have helped to shape your life and work? 


JR: Correct. Correct. Neither of my parents went to school but they knew how to read and write. My mom could do math in her head. She always had a plan to get things done—she had goals. My mom was the one who said, “This is what needs to be done” and my dad would say, “Okay, fine. Let’s do it that way.” Even though they were partners, my mom had the power to get things done. She raised pigs and chickens to sell, then cows and horses, then bought some land and finally she built a house. She was really the head of the family and she is still is. 


When I was 10, I decided I wanted to be a priest. When the priest laughed at me because I was so young, I went to see the bishop and he finally agreed to let me begin classes to prepare for seminary.  I was there for six years. 


CEB: Around 1984 the civil war in Salvador was at its peak and something happened that changed the course of your life. 


JR: Then is when my life actually started getting a little bit difficult. I was 16, the perfect age for the guerrillas. They would find youth in the street and just take them. That’s what happened—they kidnapped me. They stopped the bus, and they took 30 of us, whoever could handle a rifle. They would train you to fight against the government. We walked for the whole night but I knew the area and the next morning I got an opportunity and I just started running. I thought, “Whatever happens to me is just going to happen.”  I never believed in the war, to this day, it’s something that I hate. 


It took me almost two days to get home because—you know—they had me taken so far, and instead of coming back the same direction, I had to go around. When I made it back home, my mother said, “You’re leaving! You are out of here!” It just wasn’t safe after I ran away, [the rebels] would come and look for me. So we got my passport and I left the next day. It was a fast move. 


CEB: You spent a long time in Los Angeles. How did you go about building a new life?  


JR: I had four brothers there and I got a [part-time] job in a warehouse, even though I was just 16. The warehouse man gave me a lot of opportunities and taught me a lot of things. I worked for that company for 17 years all the way to being their warehouse manager. I received my citizenship in 2002. I met my wife at work in 1991 but she changed jobs and we didn’t see each other for 10 years. Then I ran into her brother playing soccer in 2001 and there she was. We dated for a long time and when we got married in 2006, we moved to Austin. 


CEB: How did you learn about El Buen Samaritano?


JR: I broke my wrist just before we moved and couldn’t work for a while. I was invited to a a job fair that was combined with a health fair. I ran into a promotora from El Buen Samaritano. She started talking to me like she knew me. My hand was still bandaged, she said, “We have a clinic. We have an education department. We have a food pantry.” And I said—I didn’t know—food pantry—because I had never needed it. I came because my savings were running low. They were able to help me out at the food pantry. That was a great, great help. Then my wife being pregnant, they were able to help at the clinic. I found a job at a hotel at Lake Travis and I felt like I needed to give back to the community what I had received from them and I became a volunteer. 


CEB: Volunteerism isn’t something normally done in many countries. Did it feel the same as your earlier call to seminary?


JR: Exactly! Well, it’s not something that is encouraged in our community. I found out that there were not so many males involved as volunteers, especially in the outreach. I felt so good when I started getting some training and I started going out to the community talking to people. Here is the thing: I feel nowadays that that’s my calling—helping people. I can have a smile when I know that I have helped someone or made a difference in someone that day, and being in the healthy living outreach department actually gives me that opportunity. El Buen opened that opportunity to me. I can say that it was probably something that God had for me when I had the accident and when I broke my wrist. You know? It was probably obstacles that I had to go through to find my calling now. 


CEB: So the kidnapping in El Salvador, the soccer game in Los Angeles and this desk at El Buen Samaritano in Austin are connected? 


JR: Exactly! 


CEB: Your mother was a role model to you. What does she think of all you’ve accomplished? 


JR: She is so proud. She thinks it’s amazing. Yesterday I taught a class that was based on role models. Some people see me as a role model. I don’t know. I never took that into consideration that other people were looking at me because of what I’ve done, what I do and what I enjoy doing. Here is how God works. I run into a former student who pays for my lunch, then there is an old man who comes to see me who needs help to pay a doctor’s bill. If I can help I do. I don’t have to think twice, and if it needs to be done, it needs to be done.


CEB: What would you tell to someone who had just arrived in this country today?


JR: I would say to take the chances and be positive. And when I say that—it’s education and learning English. Keep your roots, keep [your story] to share with your children. Find and use the resources that we offer because it’s actually going to help them, their kids—their family. 


Find out more about Juan Rosa and El Buen Samaritano at: Or watch this video of Juan: