The ‘Pride of El Salvador’

Death of Innocence

By Joseph Santoliquito Jul 6, 2012



The tiny car’s wheels turned slowly on the ceramic tile floor, happily pushed along by a boy’s hand. They traveled down an imaginary road that every so often quaked with violent vibrations. Small dirt plumes sprinkled down sporadically from the ceiling, too, because of the terrible concussions that rocked the building outside, though they did not seem to stop Ivan Menjivar, either.

He kept vroom vrooming along with his toys on the floor of his mother’s restaurant. At the time, “The Pride of El Salvador” was but a boy, looking at the world through the narrow prism and wide wonder of a 9-year old. No concept of death or what it is like living without electricity or running water. All he wanted to do was play.

Playtime somehow enabled Menjivar to block out the sounds of bombs exploding and spraying machine gun fire. It tuned out the yells and screams of those struggling for life on the streets of his small town in the El Salvador south-central province of La Paz, and it diverted his attention from a world where tables had to be overturned and pressed up against walls so bullets could not penetrate them.

Raging around Menjivar and his family was a civil war in his native El Salvador. The Menjivars, cooped up for two weeks in his mother’s restaurant, were caught in the crossfire during one of the battles in a 12-year conflict that eventually took the lives of 75,000 Salvadorians. Amid the bombs and bullets, the terror screams and looting gangs, Menjivar and his family somehow survived. However, the innocence of a child who once played on dusty streets for endless hours was shattered, crumbled and stepped on by furious fires and bullet holes that riddled the restaurant.

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Easton awaits at UFC 148.
It may explain why Menjivar carries himself the way he does to the cage, why he lives life the way we all wish we could: carefree and loving every next breath he takes. It may explain why the UFC bantamweight contender is grateful for his 24-8 record, why during a three-year layoff nothing truly affected him and why he is thankful to even be fighting.

He knew he would come back from the serious knee injury he suffered after his loss to Caol Uno under the K-1 Hero’s banner in Japan in October 2006. He knew he would rise again in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, where Menjivar is scheduled to take on Mike Easton at UFC 148 on Saturday at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

“Ivan is pretty amazing,” said Firas Zahabi, Menjivar’s trainer at the Tristar Gym in Montreal. “I pretty much know everything he’s been through. Most guys are begging for sponsors. Ivan doesn’t. Whatever comes is good for him. When Ivan was hurt and out for almost three years, some guys would go through major depression thinking about that. He made it to the semifinals of a world-renowned tournament fighting up at 155 pounds and got hurt. It was amazing to me how well he bounced back.”

What else could happen to Menjivar after surviving a civil war? His words spill out like life parables, probably because of the life-threatening parable he endured. He views the world with a cartoonish childlike joy. While he was recovering from the knee surgery, Menjivar worked security, drove a bus and worked at an airport. He never wavered or broke.

“Ivan is the most mentally strong guy I’ve ever seen in my life, and I’ve worked with some amazing fighters,” said Zahabi, who also trains UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre. “When I first met Ivan, I used to think he didn’t understand the dangers involved with fighting, but after I got to know him, through time, I’ve come to change my mind. He does realize and understand the risks. He’s a carefree guy that loves what he’s doing, and nothing really ever affects him.”

Everyone who comes into contact with Menjivar seems to pick up on his contagious passion for life. Mitch Mayberger, Menjivar’s manager and head of Fight House Management, could not help but be swayed by him.

“It was after I began working with him that I began finding out more and more about Ivan,” Mayberger said. “Wow! He’s an amazing human being with an amazing spirit, and I think everyone who comes in contact with him and knows him would say that. His ability is tremendous; he’s just a very well-rounded person with a great outlook on life and a great spirit.

“The reason I see Ivan and view him as being so dynamic is because I have relatives who are holocaust survivors,” he added. “I spoke to them and met them and know what they’ve been through. You either go in that dark place and hate or you survive and come out of it another way. Ivan has come out another way. He doesn’t hate. He adores his family and loves life. It’s not an easy thing to do when you consider everything Ivan has been through.”

Everything Menjivar endured helped shape the man he has become.

***


To understand Menjivar and what he experienced, one first has to go back to the turbulent early 1980s and the political unrest that was unfolding in El Salvador.

In October 1979, during Jimmy Carter’s presidential administration in the United States, the Revolutionary Government Junta overthrew the Salvador government in a bloodless coup. Following a takeover in which promises of free elections and improved living standards were made, the United States began offering military and financial aid to the new Salvadorian regime. When those promises were not met, the country exploded into civil war. Guerrilla armies formed and united to try and overthrow the government. The violence spilled over into Menjivar’s region, where, before 1980, everything was peaceful and his family prospered.

Menjivar’s mother ran a restaurant that was profitable. The Menjivars had a great reputation within their community, but, as tensions rose, his parents began taking precautions. They stocked up on water, emergency generators and French fries and beans. They tucked away bed cushions in the restaurant in case the combat entered their area. They lived with fear scratching at them constantly, but Menjivar, the middle child of three, with an older sister and younger brother, had no idea. He filled his days playing soccer with his siblings and friends in the streets. There was always something to do, until the day the soldiers came and explosions rang out.

Ivan is the most mentally strong guy
I’ve ever seen in my life, and I’ve
worked with some amazing fighters.


-- Firas Zahabi, Menjivar’s trainer

Finish Reading » It did get scary, though. One night, as the family huddled together bracing for what came next, the doorknob of the restaurant began to rattle. Menjivar’s mother apprehensively approached and asked who it was at the door, through the turned-over tables and pock marks and bullet holes.

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