When I first arrived in San Isidro, El Salvador in 1975, it was the dry season and the area bore an uncanny resemblance to a scene from a movie western depicting the southwestern U.S. There were men on horseback with cowboy hats and spurs, and others driving teams of oxen pulling two-wheeled carts. A layer of dust coated everything. As I dismounted my motorcycle, a man in a straw cowboy hat approached me and said, “Don Pedrito was your brother, wasn’t he?”
First, I should explain that, in El Salvador, Don is a title of respect commonly used by rural people, and that Pedrito is an affectionate form of the name Pedro (Spanish version of Peter) such as might be used for a child or young person. So you might translate Don Pedrito as “young Mr. Peter”.
I, of course, had no idea who Don Pedrito was, but during the six months I lived in San Isidro I would learn his story, which I recount here.
Don Pedrito, whose real name was Floyd Miller, arrived in El Salvador on May 4, 1965 as a Mennonite missionary. Ten years later, when I was a Peace Corps volunteer (PCV) there, it was still common practice to assign us foreigners nicknames that were easier to pronounce in Spanish than our original ones. My first name, Dean, was replaced with the nickname Dino. Floyd studied Spanish for six weeks in a town named Sitio Del Niño, and was given Pedro as his Salvadoran nickname. Don Pedrito arrived in San Isidro in mid June of 1965 to teach carpentry to the locals, and presumably save souls. His volunteer service was part of a land reform project in which peasant farmers were given 2 manzana (about 3.5 acre) plots of public land, from the government purchased former hacienda San Juan. With the training of Don Pedrito and others, the farmers built nice solid one-story houses of concrete blocks with wooden framing and corrugated steel roofs.
In November Don Pedrito took a trip to a beach near Metalío on the Pacific coast. Unfortunately, he took a swim at a place where the undertow is especially strong, and drowned in the ocean on November 25, 1965, just a month shy of his twenty-first birthday. The people of San Isidro, and his former students in particular, were distraught over the news of his death. One of his students, a young man, committed suicide.
A single-sheet flyer was printed for Don Pedrito’s funeral. Somebody gave me a copy. They thought I should have it, and I am forever grateful. At the top is a black and white photo of him. Beneath it is printed his real name, age at death and three paragraphs of text in Spanish. Information from the flyer that I haven’t already mentioned here includes the fact that he was born near Hutchinson, Kansas. His parents’ names are Enos and Mary, and he had four brothers and a sister. He belonged to the Center Amish Mennonite Church.
Don Pedrito is buried in San Isidro’s graveyard. Apparently the church and his parents made the decision to leave his remains where he had been working at the time of his death. We can only speculate whether their decision was primarily philosophical or financial. A young boy took me to see the grave. It was the most elaborate one in the small graveyard. The tombstone reads: Floyd "Pedro" Miller, Born: December 25, 1944, Died: November 25, 1965
That would be the end of my story, and I probably would not feel as strongly linked to Don Pedrito as I do, except that in late July of 1975 I completed my study of the peasant farmers of the San Isidro area and was reassigned to work at a demonstration and training farm near Metalío. Another PCV and I lived in a beach house for the ten months I worked there.
That means I was near Metalío, at the beach, on November 25, 1975, the ten-year anniversary of the day Don Pedrito drown. So, of course, I had to tempt fate by going swimming in the Pacific Ocean that day. Actually it was stormy, and the surf was rough, so I didn’t spend a lot of time in the water. On another occasion though, my housemate and I were taken pretty far out by a rip tide on the same beach. We were just strong enough swimmers to make it back to shore, but I doubt that either of us would have had the strength to go back in and save somebody who couldn’t make it on their own! I guess that is what happened to Don Pedrito, a rip tide took him out and there was nobody there to save him.
In Hutchinson, Kansas I doubt that anybody besides his surviving family remembers Floyd Miller. But in San Isidro, El Salvador, the story of Don Pedrito is a legend that will live on for generations. The people in San Isidro who asked me about Don Pedrito were right. He is my brother in every way that is important, and though I never met him, I’ll certainly never forget him!