You know you’re in El Salvador when…

*the  director of the school asks one of the 7th grade students if he has matches, and then asks that student to set fire to the piles of trash and leaves piled up around the school grounds during the first week of school.

*you walk into the kitchen one evening to find an iguana (with its tail cut off) tied to an armadillo rolling around on the ground.  They’ll be dinner soon.

*you get up early to go for a run at the concha (the soccer field), which turns into an even that attracts a small crowd to watch you run circles around the field.

*Mom and dad are out for the day, leaving 15 year old daughter and 9 year old son at the home alone.  The afternoon’s entertainment is making a fire in the back yard and setting ablaze to a pile of nuts that squirt flammable liquid out as they burn.

*There is not one but two laying hens in the kitchen, each in their bucket-turned-nest, laying on their dozen or so eggs that will hatch this weekend.

*you’re looking for something to start a fire with, so you grab a plastic bag

*In the span of a weekend,  you  get stung by a scorpion, heat rash, a rash from harvesting millet, and an unidentified allergic reaction that causes various parts of your body to swell and itch

*you’re sitting on the back porch and a chicken falls out of the mango tree

*you walk down the street to the store to buy a single hot dog, handed over unceremoniously in a nameless black plastic bag

The (Central) American Dream

Marcelo Walking

It has been interesting talking to different people about the United States.  El Salvador has so many of its people living in the US and the countries are so connected to each other in so many other ways that it is a source of constant fascination to discuss life in the USA vs. here.  The ideas I’ve encountered are so diverse I can’t really write a single blog about them, so instead I’ll give some little snippets from conversations I’ve had over the past 3 weeks:

I met a guy who had been in the US for several months working; he had been in Washington DC, LA, and a few other places.  He talked about how many hours he had to work and how little he got to enjoy just living.  “It’s crazy!” he said, “I was working a full time and a part time job, and still didn’t have enough to pay rent, but I hardly had time to be in the apartment I was paying rent for because I was working all the time!”   He voluntarily came back to El Salvador recently and has since been hanging around in the small town where he grew up, trying to find ways to be productive and keep himself occupied.  But at least at the end of the day he hangs his hammock close to his family, and he can enjoy a plate of steaming papusas with his friends.  He said he is happy to be back, but isn’t really sure what to do now.  For many young people in El Salvador with dreams of doing more than working the field, it can be very difficult to find a place and a purpose.

Alexi, the oldest son of the family I’m staying with, is bent on going to the United States.  At 18 years old, he’s about to finish high school and talks about little more than going to the US and soccer.  His dad, Don Antonio, was the US for several years, and always tells his glorious stories about how much work there was to be had, how beautiful and big everything was, and how he wishes he was still there.  He was deported back to El Salvador a few years ago.  Alexi is always asking me how to say things in English, like how to ask for a job, or dialogues a waiter at a restaurant might have.  Part of my volunteering here is teaching English in the school and with the youth, but it puts me in a weird position when what I really want to be telling people is STAY HERE!  STAY WITH YOUR FAMILY, WITH YOUR FRUIT TREES, WHERE LIFE IS SLOWER AND YOU CAN ENJOY LIVING AND NOT ALWAYS BE ON THE RUN!!  But why do most of them want to learn English?  So they can someday pursue the great American dream of immigrating to the United States.  Alexi is just one of many youths who think the most brave, helpful and exciting thing they could do is to go to the US and work to send money back to their family here.

The English teacher’s fascination with the United States all revolves around freedom of expression, which she frequently brings up in class whether or not it is out of context.  “In the US, things like tattoos, hip-hop, and makeup are seen as self-expression.  Here they are just judged.”  She loves dance of all kinds, and she leads the folkloric dance group with the little kids here at the school each year.  But she sees kids who get interested in hip hop or alternative forms of art, and the response of the community and of their parents is fear, because to them, those things represent gangs, drugs, alcohol, and overall loose morals.  It’s true, in the United States we have a lot of freedom to express ourselves, and that often comes at the expense of morals, but it doesn’t have to.  She is interested in visiting the US, but would never want to stay.  She loves it here in El Salvador, but thinks it would be interesting to visit a place where self-expression takes on such diverse forms.

The math teacher in the school, also in charge of 3rd grade, dreams of traveling, but not necessarily to the United States.  He wants to visit other schools around Central America and the world to see what they are doing that is working, and what isn’t working.  He is most interested in visiting Costa Rica. The thing he says he most admires about the US is the strong sense of justice that is so actively alive there.  Here any cop can be paid off, and people with money are never held accountable for anything they do.  People are murdered and things are stolen, but there’s just this overwhelming idea that there’s nothing to be done about it, so it just happens and life goes on.  But in the United States, according to his impression, people are very dedicated to a sense of justice, and the truth is sought out and people pay consequences for their actions.  I explained to him that this is not always the case, and that often times people with money and influence are not held accountable for their actions in the US like here, but it is true that justice and order are strong values in the US, and I feel that in the US if I have been wronged, there is usually something I can do about it.

I told the math teacher that to be honest I don’t really like the US, and that if it weren’t for the fact that it is where my family is, I probably wouldn’t want to live there.  I told him how often I am embarrassed by my country, and the way my country’s leaders abuse power and cause destruction around the world.  But more than that, I’m embarrassed because we make ourselves so comfortable that we don’t have to see the destruction that we ourselves are creating.  Our trash is neatly carted away so we don’t see how much waste we are creating, hybrid cars with little figures of leaves on them make us think we’re doing something about pollution, so we don’t have to see the global effects of climate change. We make laws to keep homeless people out of sight so we don’t have to see the embarrassing fact that even in the United States, poverty is real.  I’m so ashamed sometimes to live in a country where people enjoy the spoils of being one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but use that comfort to shield themselves from the reality of our brothers and sisters.  The math teacher was surprised to hear someone from the US say they didn’t like it there, but sympathized with my critique.  Here, where things aren’t so comfortable, at least we know the reality we’re living in.

Marcelo, the younger son in the family I’m staying with, was asking me all about what fruits and animals we have where I live.  I told him that people go to the supermarket to buy fruit, and that people buy special food to feed their animals.  He laughed hysterically, especially when I told him how much it costs to buy a mango at the supermarket.  “People pay $1.50 for one mango?!? Why don’t they just put a tree in their house?” he laughed.  He also could hardly imagine buying special food for the chucho, for the dog.  “You mean you don’t just feed them the same tortillas you eat?”

I’m so grateful to have my experience at Casa Marianella for this trip, so I can talk to people, especially young people, about the realities of immigrating to the United States.  I actually know what it is like for undocumented immigrants in the US, and I can tell them about the real life effects of policies and ways of thinking.  I can tell them how people get swallowed up in the great productive machine of the US, working during all their waking hours, supposedly with the idea of making such a sacrifice for their family, but in the end it is the family that suffers.  I am only one voice, but I hope I am a voice that is heard.

The Beauty of War

War is an ugly, ugly thing.  People commit crimes against their brothers and neighbors that most of us could never imagine, and people’s ideals become their masters rather than compassion.  After a war is over, the process of exposing and discovering the wounds left on people and the land seems to go on forever, and there are those that are not able to move on.

Here in El Salvador, many of the people who we meet have shared their stories with us, stories of watching their sister raped, tortured, and killed, or of watching a soldier tear an infant from its mother, toss it into the air, and catch it on the end of his bayonet.  These stories make your stomach lurch and haunt your dreams, and that’s only having experienced them second hand.  The war here ended a mere 21 years ago with the Peace Accords in 1992, and nobody who was alive at that time was left untouched by that experience.

It gets to be tiring, traveling from place to place, hearing the same story of repression, uprising, increased repression, and then the valiant but sacrificial persistence of the guerilla fighters.  Tiring, but important.  Because one of the things I’m learning is how the atrocities and losses of war brought the pueblo of this country together.  The “left” can take on all different forms, and everyone has their ideas about what is the right way to organize economic systems, distribute funds, and create a social agenda. But with the war people were united because they had a shared experience of suffering, and it was worth it to put differences aside in order to achieve peace.

And now, 21 years after the war, it remains the glue that holds people together. If not first hand memories, they remember it was their mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles who were brutally tortured and murdered, just for insisting that they as peasants also deserved a dignified way of life.

In the United States, we are protected from war and from many of the negative effects of our political structure.  We don’t really have to suffer much, for the most part.  So where does our motivation to do anything progressive come from?  War is awful, but it burns onto people’s hearts the rawness of suffering that drives changes.  And the thing is there will always need to be changes – democracy only works with an actively engaged population.  But with our comfort and apathy we have disengaged from that process, and I’m afraid that things are spiraling out of control.  So we have to look for it, look for the ways that corruption, greed, and selfishness drives decisions made in the United States, look for the dark corners where suffering has been hidden away and expose it, because there is always something better to fight for.

Solidarity

We talk a lot here at Sister Cities about solidarity, emphasizing that sister city communities are working “in solidarity” with one another, but what does that mean? And even more important, what does it look like in practice?

I’m learning a lot from this group of university students from Wisconsin that are here on a 2 week delegation.  The Madison sister city group was one of the original founders of the organization, and their sistering relationship has grown and amplified in the 20+ years since its formation.  On the ground in Wisconsin, the group has taken the form of a leftist activist community formation base; that is to say, the group is involved in a variety of issues locally from environmental concerns to national social movements like Occupy.  They use the relationship with Arcatao, their sister community in El Salvador, to compare notes and share support on these issues.  When metallic mining in El Salvador began to become an issue several years ago, one of their leading organizers in the Wisconsin anti-mining campaign immediately flew down to El Salvador to get involved in their fight.  The idea is that we are all involved in our own fights, luchas that are based on geography, timing, and culture. But they are all part of a larger struggle to protect the environment and to give a voice to the pueblo, because in the end, we are all part of the same pueblo.

So the foundation of solidarity is communication – how else can we know what is happening with our brothers and sisters around the world? But the world is huge, and no human is capable of knowing what is going on in all its disperse corners.  That is why sistering relationships exist, because although we as humans don’t have the capacity to fit the hold world in our consciousness, we are undoubtably made to be relational.  Maybe I can’t totally understand the big social and political systems of globalization and capitalism, but I can understand when a friend is suffering, and I can live in solidarity with their struggle.

That’s the idea here in Guajoyo, and one that perhaps needs some development, not just in Guajoyo, but in all the regions.  In the national CRIPDES gathering on Tuesday of this week they talked a lot about focusing more on the solidarity part of sistering relationships.  It is much easier to send money or wait for a community to ask for something specific, but that’s not the whole idea.  Communities should be communicating with one another and sharing life experiences.  They should be visiting one another, and on the US side we should remember that it was never meant to be a one-way relationship.  We have much to learn from these communities, especially when it comes to organization and active participation in government and culture.  What are our struggles in the United States? How do they relate to the struggles in El Salvador?  Just one example is the food crisis whereby chemicals and genetic modification and pesticides create food that’s not actually healthy for us, but it’s so cheap to eat it has infiltrated everything.  That’s a problem that is as urgent for us in the States as in El Salvador, and there are things that people of both countries can and should be doing to fight it.

I write this largely for the sister city in Austin, to begin thinking about what solidarity looks like for this group.  But I also write this for the rest of you, and hope you might leave this post asking yourself who your brothers and sisters are, and what does solidarity look like with them?  Are you able to let go of the idea of ‘fixing’ things and just be with them, sharing their struggles?  Just a thing to think about…

Women at the corn mill in Guajoyo, purchased with support from the Austin sister cities group

Women at the corn mill in Guajoyo, purchased with support from the Austin sister cities group

Bienvenidos a Guajoyo!

I finally arrived in my new home-away-from-home, Guajoyo: nestled in the lower region of the Lempa River in the San Vicente region, where corn and sugarcane stalks outnumber people, and where October through April is a dustbowl and May through the end of September is a torrent of rain and heat.  The highway from the capital to Guajoyo is lined with makeshift coconut stands, where the whack of a machete invites the cool refreshment of a recently plucked coconut to cool your parched throat, and now that mango season is drawing near little mango stands are beginning to line the highway as well.  “Dame ryd!” (pronounced “dah-may rie”) is shouted from pedestrians hopeful for a pickup to slow down enough to hop in the back.  Turning down a dirt road you begin to pass through similar communities one by one — I would list them here but haven’t learned the names yet — until arriving at Guajoyo, hardly distinguishable from the other huddles of cinder block homes of other communities to the untrained eye.

We arrived perfectly on time, one hour after we had planned on arriving.  The community council, called the junta directiva, was ready to greet me and dive right into a community meeting.  From all the meetings I have been to, I am amazed at how long it can take to say something very simple.  To begin this meeting, the president of the directiva offered a 10 minute description of the items outlined in the agenda, then explained to us the first item: introductions.  After his introduction of what is an introduction, each person offered their name, their role in the directiva, and similar offers of themselves and their home to me as a friend and visitor in Guajoyo.

The group is made up of men, women, and youth, some of whom are elected members of the directiva, others who represent specific committees.  I am constantly impressed by the presence of women and youth in these decision-making groups in El Salvador.  It seems very true to say that this country is carried on the backs of the women, who since the war have outnumbered men, even in birth rates now, well after the war has ended.  There were also at least 5 representatives of the youth committee, recognizable as ‘youths’ only by the absence of age on their faces, because otherwise they carry themselves as dignified individuals charged with the maintenance and growth of their community — because that is what they are.   The thing that Salvadorans have figured out is the simple fact that if you want something to happen, the surest way for it to happen is for you to do it yourself.  This came out of years of the government failing miserably to do what it was supposed to do, of the rich people who ran the country making promises to fix roads, rebuild communities, provide healthcare to the poor, and ensure that workers benefited from their labor on the land and never fulfilling any such promises.  If you wanted fair distribution of the land, you got together with your neighbors and figured out a way to divide things fairly.  If you wanted an irrigation system, you worked with your neighbors to build one.  And that’s just that.

After the welcome, I was invited to give the first of what would be many speeches of gratitude, of explaining who I am and why I am here.  I emphasized that although I’m going to help in the school and with the youth scholarship program, I am here to learn from this community that has achieved so much.  We spent the rest of the meeting working out some details, and hearing some beautiful speeches from a few community members about the hardship they have been through to arrive where they are today, and how proud they are as a community to share that with someone from outside, to show off what they have created and to share those areas where the struggle continues.

The directiva welcomes me to Guajoyo

The directiva welcomes me to Guajoyo

We walked a few hundred feed down the dirt road that runs down the middle of the community to the house of Don Antonio and his wife Candida, where I will be living these 5 months here. Buildings in El Salvador are very much connected to the outdoors, with open windows and well-ventilated spaces replacing air conditioning, but even more so here in the countryside.  Doors are left open, and shady areas in front of the house are where most of life happens, and where neighbors will come and go constantly throughout the day.  A cluster of people from the community stayed with us in the shade in front of the house for a while, chatting about this and that, while I got settled in my little room.  The family all lives in one shared open space — a large room with sheets dividing it in half.  One half houses the row of cots and hammocks where the family sleeps, the other half is the living room of sorts, with the TV, another hammock, and a refrigerator.

Hammocks and cots

Hammocks and cots

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To insert a bit about myself personally, I am a busy body; my idea of resting is to cook a big dinner or go for a long walk.  The concept of sitting still has always been foreign to me — until now.  Although everyone wanted to invite me over for a refresco or to go walk around the community, they also all wanted to let me rest.  So this weekend my days generally looked like this: wake up, eat a slow breakfast. Sit in the kitchen and chat for a while.  Poke around in the garden or chase some chickens.  Sit in a circle following the shade as it moves across the ground.  Start cooking lunch. Eat lunch.  Lounge in the hammock until you realize you are asleep, and then stay there for an hour or two.  Take a bucket shower.  Maybe go for a walk, which mostly is made up of walking 15 yards or so from house to house where you stop to sit and visit, and maybe suck on some fresh oranges.  Start making dinner.  Eat dinner.  Stay at the dinner table for an hour or so digesting and chatting.  Go to bed at the ripe hour of 8pm.

I cannot emphasize enough that time is different here.  And how beautiful to be a woman in this culture!!! The women are the arteries of the community, connected to one another over fences and over Saturday mass and over the man who walks down the main road selling shrimps or shaved ice.  While the men leave during the day to work in the sugar can or corn fields, the women stay back and do everything else, and they get to do it in the most together way imaginable.  And to be able to stop during the hottest part of the day and enjoy a hammock and a cold bucket bath, there is nothing richer!  Of course it is all idealized in my foreign eyes, and this is a very hard life, but the truth is that people are so happy here.  They have not yet forgotten — like so much of the world has — that being is so much of a greater calling than doing, although both exist in the same moment.

In the kitchen with Candida and Jaqueline

In the kitchen with Candida and Jaqueline

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can’t lie, I was terrified my first night in Guajoyo.  Right as I turned off the light in my little room I saw a huge insect that looked like a mix between a spider, a crab, and satan, hoovering on the wall just above the head of my bed.  The thin planks that are nailed up around a patch of concrete floor that make up my room provided little buffer between the sounds of creatures poking around outside, nor did they let in whatever slight cool breeze might have relived the still heat.  “What have I gotten myself into?” I thought to myself over and over until I finally fell asleep.  5 months seemed like a very very long time.

But quickly I started getting used to this new home, and now, spending the day in Poligono Solidaraidad (a slightly larger community off the highway, just 20 minutes from Guajoyo) I actually miss the rhythm of life in Guajoyo, and the hammock under the mango tree.  Even Emily, the 4-year-old and youngest member of the family, was confused about my leaving this morning.  “Y la muchacha, mama?” she asked “And the lady?  When is she coming back?”  The rhythm of it is comforting, the simplicity and the satisfaction of filling a day doing things that are tangibly useful, like going to the community mill to grind the day’s corn from which to make tortillas and papusas.

 

Youth, immigrants, and a revolutionary way of living

Yesterday was a super full day, so I’ll try to squeeze as much as I can into a little blog here.

When we think of youth, we think of possibility, we think of the future, but this is a place where the youth is very much thought of in relation to the present.  Yesterady morning at the nearly punctual hour of 8am we met with Cesar and Edgar, two of the youth leaders who, through the MPR-12, facilitate political training classes for youth in communities all over the country to give them an understanding of how to think critically and analytically of current events, and what they mean in the context of politics.  There’s so much talk here, as in much of Latin America, about el movimiento, the movement.  (And if you know anything about Latin American history, you know that the entire region spent the better part of the 20th century in a series of popular movements and military or dictatorial repression that ultimately ended in democracy to some degree)  And because there’s such extreme poverty here, there’s this massive motivation to join the movimiento that is trying to change that system.   And the youth are no exception to that eagerness to join on.

We talked a lot about gangs, mostly because in El Salvador you can’t talk about youth without talking about the gangs.  Not because they’re all in one, but because the mere fact of being between the age of 15-21 in El Salvador puts on at risk of being targeted by the gangs.  And part of why they’re so powerful is because they have some really good things going on.  They give kids a sense of belonging, they are extremely connected and organized, and they can mobilize to meet a common goal almost instantaneously.  So the idea these guys have is to offer those same kinds of things but in a way that doesn’t end with teenagers mutilated on the road or carrying heavy weapons around with them in the city. By getting youth involved in organizing their communities and starting a movimiento they get a sense of belonging, purpose, kinship, and mobilization.  It sounds extremely exciting to be in these groups of youth, where they can be the ones responsible for getting an agricultural collective going in their community or where they can become such a powerful force in mobilizing the popular vote that political parties not connected to the youth begin to take notice and get nervous.

Cesar and Edgar really challenged us to think about what we as young people and other youth even younger than ourselves could do if we were organized towards a common goal back stateside.  There are so many injustices in our system, and complacency gives them easy passage.  We talked a lot about the Occupy movement, and also about the Tar Sands blockades going on around the country.  There is already some really positive momentum started in a variety of areas, it just takes people realizing it takes the movimiento of people to make it happen.

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Edgar from MPR-12 (The Popular Movement of Resistance October 12th) asks, what defines a group of young people?

 

After this workshop and a delicious lunch on the patio, we walked over to the Museo de la Imagen y la Palabra, which was started by this guy named Santiago.  During the war, he was a recently graduated photojournalist who realized there weren’t really options for him in a country where the media was all censored, so he went underground.  He and a group of other guerillerros started Radio Venceremos (Radio We Will Overcome), which was transmitted from caves or the jungle to spread revolutionary songs, educational programs, and updates on the actual events and attacks of the war, to list a few programs transmitted.  This museum houses some relics of that war time, as well as other exhibits that showcase the untold histories of El Salvador.  It was a beautiful museum, and I was especially touched by an exhibit called Cartas del Norte, Letters from the North, which was about the immigration of Salvadorans to the United States in search of a way to support their families.

I’ll briefly jump ahead here to a talk we went to later about CAFTA.  In short, what I got out of it is that the US pressured Central America into signing this free trade agreement which resulted in the displacement of huge segments of agricultural production here in El Salvador.  See, the US can give subsidies to farmers to produce things like rice, beans, and corn uber cheaply (and often not very healthily, with things like pesticides and GMOs), and the Salvadoran producers just can’t compete with that.  So now 95% of the grains consumed here in El Salvador come from the US, whereas before they could produce most of what the country consumed.  So in effect the US pushed all these agricultural workers out of jobs with their subsidized, dirty corn, so then you have all these people desperate for work with none to be found here, so they migrate north where there are agricultural jobs and other low paying jobs.  So they work as migrant farm workers, where their rights are often violated, and where as immigrants they are not wanted in the country.

Anyhow, this exhibit on immigration was extra touching for me because of my work with Casa Marianella.  There I worked with the families who were in the lucha of making it work in the US where laws and culture worked against them, but now I get to experience the other end, those who were left behind, or those who stayed behind to continue the lucha of searching for the “Salvadoran Dream” instead of buying into the cheap allure of the so-called “American Dream.”  So many kids are left behind here when their parents leave for the US so they can earn enough to send back remittances so their children can go to school or have 3 meals a day.  And somehow these kids are supposed to know that their parents left because they loved them?  That the hardest thing they ever did was to leave their own child in order to be able to provide for them?

Santiago himself came and talked with us a bit.  He is a beautiful person and so very full of life.  This is just one of the examples of how easy it is to interact with major historical figures in this country as if they were just a neighbor, because, in fact, they are.

Santiago at the Museo de La Imagen y la Palabra

Santiago at the Museo de la Imagen y la Palabra

Santiago Radio Victoria

Santiago with Radio Victoria during the war in the 80s

 

After the museum and the talk about CAFTA with an incredible organization called Equipo Maiz (which I’m sure I’ll write more about later), we returned to the hostel where the Wisconsin group is staying for dinner and a chat with Maria Navarrete, the current Viceminister of Government here in El Salvador.  She is one of the most beautiful individuals I have ever met, and so full of life.  She is a politician now (not so much by choice as by personal petition of the President himself) but she was an active member of the guerillas during the war.  Among other things, she talked about changes she has made in government since being here, and the ones she takes the most joy in are by most measures very small.  Politicians here (and everywhere, I would venture to say) develop a very self-important air about them, she says, and it makes her sick.  They habitually treat the employees in the building where they meet like basura, and she shared the story of one elevator operator who she gave official permission to close the door and fart when a particular politician entered the elevator, because he had treated this operator so poorly.

She sings revolutionary songs wherever she goes, and leaves her ‘security guy’ behind in order to walk the 3 kilometers to work.  She is always in the communities with the pueblo, talking with people, giving hugs, making crude jokes, staying at people’s houses.  We spent nearly 2 hours talking with her but hardly touched on what it is she does, but rather how it is she lives her life and why.

Maria’s parting words to the group, when asked what her advice would be to young people and to leaders today, was this:

Ser pueblo.  Estar con el pueblo.  Porque solo el pueblo es exitoso, y ser parte de ese es tener exito.  Ese, tambien, es el secreto a la alegreia eterna.”

“Be the people.  Be with the people.  Because only the people are successful, and being part of this is to have success.  This, also, is the secret to eternal happiness.”

at Casa de Amistad in San Salvador, El Salvador

Maria and Estela at Casa de Amistad in San Salvador, El Salvador

Arcatao

Today we went to Arcatao, about 3 hours away from the capital towards Honduras, and one of the communities most affected by the destruction of the war. The whole town was destroyed, all 13,000 habitants fled, and later when they returned they began the arduous labor of starting from scratch without help from the government that had persecuted them.

A few things stand out about Arcatao (among the endless vault of things I could write about from today alone), including the strength of their committee for collective memory. This active crew of 7 individuals (2 of whom I had the pleasure of passing a lazy, hot afternoon with) is dedicated to making sure that future generations are firmly in touch with the events that went on in their community. Their main goals are to write the events in a book, to maintain a museum, and to build a sanctuary to give families a place to mourn the loss of loved ones. They are very proud of the work they do, and view it as much more than a nice gesture. To them, they are working for the security and wellbeing of future generations. That’s one thing Sister Cities does really well, they look at development with a very holistic perspective, recognizing the unique intersection of cultural, economic, infrastructural, and community development that is distinct for each community.

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Another thing that stood out was how out-and-about everyone was. Community space is something I have spent a lot of time thinking about, and how physical space and promote or inhibit interaction and connectedness in a community, and this place really has something amazing going on. In front of the church a gaggle of women, some with babies on their hips, set up buckets of food for sale. On a sidewalk corner a wobbly abuelita, a few kids, and a man on horseback convene and try to dodge the heat. Windows and doors are wide open. In the evening as we were leaving it seemed that everybody was just out milling about, stopping in the comedor to pick up some papusas or hanging out a shop window with a cocacola in hand. It’s just what you do. And nobody is in a hurry to do it. I’m beginning to think a key element to open community spaces with active involvement has to do with a culture of NOT-rushing. Who’s going to stop to talk with a stranger about their cousin’s mother-in-law if they’re both in a hurry to get somewhere?

We also encountered two young guys who Estela knows on the way, and when we picked them up to give them a ride they filled us in on the huge mess they’ve found themselves in the middle of. The US (get ready for it!) is funding some renewed efforts to boot out gangs in El Salvador, and these two guys were among a group of jovenes who they tried to arrest for suspicion of gang involvement. While gangs are a huge problem, these guys are certainly not part of the problem. They are both extremely active leaders in their community and both just got accepted to University and were given a scholarship to start when classes resume in a week or so. When they brought their evidence to the judge, she wasn’t the least bit interested in it, and denied them the right to a legal representative. These two guys managed to not be incarcerated, but a cluster of them are currently being held with no evidence against them but the testimony of the very police who arrested them. It is very curious, they said, that this has been happening to quite a few youths throughout the region, and there seems to be a pattern of them being supporters of FMLN, the leftist political party. See, elections are coming up in 2014, and these guys (and lots of other people) have reason to believe this is part of an attempt to stamp out the FMLN’s voice. The judge told them they can hold these guys for up to 12 months without any evidence in the case, and at that point can just say “whoops, sorry we were wrong” and let them go, but by then the elections will be practically over. So they are caught in this shady off-the-books filibuster of sorts, and everyone is holding their breath that it won’t keep these two guys from starting at the university soon.

In short, Salvadorans are inspiring people, and it’s no surprise that they rank in the top 10 happiest countries in the world. I’m dusty, slightly sunburned, and exhausted, so I’m signing off. Until next time!

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La Llegada

Based on the past 3 hours since I got here, these next several days are going to be full of so many crunchy gooey nuggets of goodness that I better get started writing them down now! On the drive from the airport to Estela’s house (where we were welcomed by refrescos, 2 cats, and a jumping Mochachino, the dog) she began to explain to me a bit more about why Guajoyo and all of El Salvador for that matter is in the state it is in.  It is quite possible that all of this had been explained to me before, but it’s amazing how being in a place makes things make sense in a whole new way.

Anyways, during the 70s and 80s the government of El Salvador, which had been made up of tyrants and dictators anyways, for all intents and purposes dissolved, leaving the pueblo, or the people, to fend for themselves in terms of health, education, transportation, and jobs.  While a war was being fought between the left and right, the people had to figure things out on their own.  They created these incredible microgovernments in what was called the Popular Front, where people who knew how to read and write in a community suddenly became in charge of education, people who knew about medicine organized their community’s health, and so forth.  They did what they had to do in the absence of government.  

But with the end of the war and the first democratic elections in 1994, the returning government now had a functioning and very strong popular movement to contend with.  People had been given a voice in their government, and they weren’t about to have it taken away from them.  So the result is now an extremely divided country, and Guajoyo is in the precarious position of straddling those two factions.  

Guajoyo is located in the San Vicente municipality, which has been very conservative since the war, but Guajoyo itself is a very leftist community, with an extremely active and functioning directiva, or community council.  In fact, San Vicente did not even recognize the existence of Guajoyo until recently because the municipality does not want to provide needed support to Guajoyo, such as funding for schools, roads, and sanitation (they finally did recognize its existence when a law changed that meant they could start taxing them).  So Guajoyo actually receives some support from a neighboring municipality, a left leaning municipality that is willing to provide for these ‘crazy left wing communists.’

Sounds mildly familiar, doesn’t it Austinites?

 

When we got to the house Estela gave me a great book that uses simple terms and images to explain the history of El Salvador, so maybe after tonight’s reading I’ll have a cartoon or two to offer.  But for now, just the view from the bedroom window.  There’s just nothing quite like a mountain in your backyard…

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Leaving Tomorrow!

After months and months of talking about it, planning, emailing, and imagining, tomorrow I’ll be arriving in San Salvador to start my 5 month stay as a US El Salvador Sister Cities volunteer in Guajoyo.  I’ll spend the first 5 days getting acquainted with the people in the capital before heading out to the countryside next weekend.  I’ll try to post updates about what I’m doing and more importantly what the commmunity here is doing, so check back!  In the meantime, spend some time browsing through the Sister Cities website.