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.
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.
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.”