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.
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!