By Ivan Barahona ’00
Right before my team’s first contest in the Central American Games in March, they played the Salvadoran national anthem, and I didn’t know the words. I felt awful. You should know this, I told myself, as the head coach of the national basketball team. I was born in El Salvador and claimed to be from there. But was I really?
When I was very small, during the civil war, my dad left for the United States. My mother followed after, and I stayed with my grandmother.
I remember Christmases and birthdays. Boxes would come with toys and clothes that my parents sent. I played a lot of soccer. When my grandmother, a teacher, would get her paycheck, we would go out to lunch or dinner with my aunts and uncle and enjoy family time.
A few incidents from the war resonate in my mind. But it’s been so long, I really do not know if they occurred in my life or my nightmares.
I was 5 years old when my parents and other family members in the States sent for us in 1982. I remember hiding in the bushes and having to be quiet for a long time while the coyote was getting us over the border. Someone would come get us in the middle of the night, to go somewhere else.
I was reunited with my parents for the first time in three years, and it was a great feeling. I still remember it.
In San Pedro, near Long Beach, I started playing basketball when I was 7 or 8 and fell in love with the game.
Later, my coach in AAU Boys Basketball introduced me to the coach at Pacific Hills High School, who became a mentor to me. The private school gave me financial aid and, eventually, my job. This April, we won our fourth California State Championship in my eight years as head coach.
I didn’t know I wanted to be a coach until my senior year at CLU, where I went to play basketball and to get away from home, but not too far away. At first I thought I’d go into sports medicine. But when I got close to a nasty injury at a softball game, a broken tibia and fibula, I almost passed out.
I’d always worked well with kids, so when Coach Rich Rider presented me with an opportunity to coach at Newbury Park High School, I jumped at the chance.
All during my childhood in California, it seemed that my mom didn’t
want me to know much about my other country. It was that traumatic for her – first watching her husband leave her, and then leaving me. Before going to El Salvador for basketball reasons, I had only returned once, at 15, to get my papers ready to become a U.S. citizen.
Things changed when I had kids. My wife is also Salvadoran, and we wanted them to know their roots.
About five years ago, a buddy and I started a basketball camp down there, with the idea of coaching the national team. That’s when I fell in love with the country and started learning about its history and why the civil war happened.
But I was also an American. In El Salvador, I kept thinking about how lucky we Americans are not to have some of their problems, and the luxuries that we take for granted. One time they played “The Star-Spangled Banner” for me and another American coach, and it made me tear up. I saw the American flag touching the floor and asked them to put it up high. They just didn’t know that our flag cannot touch the ground.
If you’re a coach, leading your national team is one of the biggest honors you can have. My family, my wife’s family and everyone in my hometown, San Vicente, were excited and proud about it.
After the first game in Costa Rica, I went back to the hotel and started learning the national anthem. At the last game, we ended a 25-year drought of medals for Salvadoran basketball. We did not lose the gold, as many people like to say of second place. We won the silver.
Ivan Barahona is head basketball coach for Pacific Hills High School in West Hollywood and for the national team of El Salvador.