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.