How the Salvadorian Civil War changed the course of one teacher's life

How the Salvadorian Civil War changed the course of one teacher's life
Jessica Villeda

Although today he teachers at Granada Hills Charter, Sigfrido Zimmerman didn’t set out to teach high school Spanish. 

Growing up in El Salvador, Mr. Zimmerman was focused on biology and ornithology, encouraged by an uncle who was a botanist. After graduating from college in El Salvador, he started working as a Research Ornithologist at a local museum. He was so immersed in his job that he would routinely clock 16-hour days as he tried to soak in as much information as possible. But the reality of the Salvadoran Civil War would disrupt his dreams of being the first to discover something new as a budding Ornithologist.

Because Mr. Zimmerman worked closely with American scientists, Salvadorian guerillas presumed he was an informant for the United States. And because he spent so much time in the country’s forests and wilderness for his research, the Salvadorian government assumed he was working with the guerillas. With both sides convinced of their presumptions, they searched after him. Mr. Zimmerman had to flee his home, abandon his dream job, and start anew in America.

Mr. Zimmerman in El Zalvador

Mr. Zimmerman studies the natural habitat as a biologist in El Salvador

After arriving in Southern California, Mr. Zimmerman returned to further his collegiate studies at the University of Irvine, first studying Political Science before switching to Business Administration. But experiences with internships made it clear the business world was not his passion. He took some time to think and reflect, and he remembered once helping his aunt run a rural school back in El Salvador.

Mr. Zimmerman recalls with reverence his aunt’s dedication to her students, and how she brought hope to her community each and every day. She and her husband would donate food to aid in her students' hunger. They even hired a cook and fed her students proper breakfasts and lunches. And she kept track of each one of them, helping her students enter middle school, high school, and college. The result was that many of those once-starving children became engineers and doctors, a phenomenal achievement because, as Mr. Zimmerman puts it, “Si naces en el campo, mueres en el campo,” meaning, "If you are born in the fields, you die in the fields." With his aunt's help, those children did the nearly impossible for any rural family in El Salvador: They broke away from the cycle of poverty.

Mr. Zimmerman talks to students

Mr. Zimmerman talks to students at a local museum.

In the early 1990s, Mr. Zimmerman saw similarities between those rural students in his homeland and many students struggling against poverty, a lack of opportunity, and a dearth of Latinx role models throughout Southern California. He took it upon himself to “transform lives.”

A little luck played a key role. 

Upon obtaining his teaching credentials, Mr. Zimmerman searched for a job close to the school he was studying at - California State University Northridge. Granada Hills Charter, then Granada Hills High School, was less than a mile away. He gathered his credentials and brought them with him to the high school's main office. Just as he was dropping off his credentials, the school’s principal walked by and engaged in polite conversation. That conversation led to the principal informing Mr. Zimmerman that the school needed a Spanish teacher, which led to an impromptu interview in which Mr. Zimmerman landed the job right then and there.

A decision based on necessity turned out to be life changing. 

As he began teaching, Mr. Zimmerman witnessed many of his students hiding their Latinx heritage as a result of marginalization in society at the time. “If you deny your heritage, you will not be whole nor will you find your place in this world,” he says. So he endeavored to instill a sense of pride in his students' cultural heritage as part of his job teaching Spanish language. 

Now, more than 26 years of teaching later, Mr. Zimmerman continues to elevate his student’s emotional well-being by providing a space for them to be accepted and celebrated for who they are and where they come from. He also understands the inspirational boost he gives his students as a Latinx professor. In all the lessons and teaching moments Mr. Zimmermann has with his students, he always tries to build them up for a life of success, as well-rounded responsible global citizens. These teaching moments that many of his students clearly remember - such as discussions and sharing of personal stories like his own - help students see the value of their history and contributions they can make to society. 

Mr. Zimmerman engaging students

Mr. Zimmerman engages his students in discussion

“As an educator, it is always fulfilling to see that these kids reach their best in life,” he says. “I always tell my students ‘you are not going to be making money from your bachelor's or master's (degree), that's the "key." You never know what’s going to happen in life but at least you will have the “key” to an interview. If you don’t have the diploma, you don’t have an interview. If you don’t have an interview, you don’t have a job.” 

Although he says working through the pandemic has been one of Mr. Zimmerman’s greatest challenges throughout his years as a teacher, being able to support his students' successes continues to be rewarding. As GHC returns to in-person schooling, he admits to feeling uncertainty and fear. Unlearning old habits is difficult - he is used to walking around his class, or giving lectures from all corners of his room so students in the back are not at a disadvantage. Now, he tries to stick to teaching from his desk, behind the plastic partition, with a mask securely on.

Still, Mr. Zimmerman sees the vast improvements in educational environments and more opportunities for Latinx students since the early 1990s when he started teaching. Then, he remembers, he saw high dropout rates among minority students. So as things continue to progress, he continues the work that he has been doing for almost three decades.