Que galan ser hombre…

“Que galán ser hombre aquí en Guajoyo…”

How great it must be to be a man here in Guajoyo…

I spend most of my time in Guajoyo with other women, in part because the men are generally out working or playing soccer during waking hours, in part because it’s just not quite right for a young lady to be spending time with men.  Chungita, my friend and the person I go to with questions about the way things are, tells me I could probably get away with it because I’m a foreigner, so spending time with men could be written off as wanting to experience the culture.  But for her, a 22-year-old who is still single and without children, that would make her a hussy, a flirt, a player.

Chunga with her nieces

Chunga with her nieces

I wrote previously about how beautiful life is for women here, and that is still true.  They get to be the social circulatory system of the family and of the community, slapping tortillas while talking about the latest community issues, lounging in hammocks while they share laughs about life’s simple hilarities.

But there is a freedom that women do not get to enjoy.

As girls are growing up, they are taught how to take care of a house, how to be nurturing, how to make pupusas without letting the cheese ooze out, and how to help hatch baby chickens.  Little boys run around with machetes by the time they’re 9 or so, climbing trees, playing soccer, hunting iguanas, and walking up and down the main street in gaggles.  They start working by the time they are teenagers usually, and while they’re out during the day nobody questions what they are doing, and when they come home at midday and in the evening, they are free to huskily demand their food without further commentary.  Any weekend, or weekday afternoon at 5, or holidays, men of all kinds – boys, fathers, students, field workers, etc. – will be gathered wherever there is a flat piece of land and a ball to kick around.


Women have to answer to someone about where they’re going.  Most of them have rarely ventured beyond the main stretch of town and the Rio Lempa where people go to bathe, wash clothes, and splash around.  But what was most striking to me this week – Holy week, which is sort of like spring break in El Salvador – is that the community of other men is what gives them so much freedom.

That Alexis, the 17-year-old son in the house where I’m living can call up any male over the age of 16 to go romp about in the woods or spend the night at the river or play soccer or go hunt iguana is a massive freedom.  Jaquelin, the 15-year-old daughter of the family, can go visit her friends’ houses or call someone up to go to the corn mill with her, but most women are either mothers busy with the charge of maintaining a home, or if they are not yet married/mothers, they are in training to be so, and are rarely allowed to leave behind duties like washing clothes, cooking for the family, and cleaning the house for recreational activities.

Chunga and I are in a unique position, since most young women our age are already acompañadas – moved in with a partner – and/or have children.  I spend most of my free time with kids ages 7-12, because for them neither the practices of gender roles nor the duties of age keep them from doing so.

Yesterday Chunga, her 4 nieces, and I went down to the river to spend the day swimming and lounging on the shore.  About an hour after we arrived, a group of 15 or so boys ages 10 to 20 something arrived.  Carefree and enjoying their vacation, they abandoned their shirts and raced out to the water to play games together and do flips off of logs into the water.  The 6 of us ladies sat and watched from the shore.

“I have all the freedom in the world” Chunga told me, “to go where I want, do what I want.  But the problem is with who”


I asked her if she thinks she wants to be married someday, and she says she does, but she knows how much that will mean her freedom will be taken away.  “It’s still worth it,” she says. “How else are you going to meet your own children, and what else are you going to do when you’re old?”

Mary is the symbol of grief, she was given the great joy of bringing the Son of God into the world, only to watch him suffer and die before her.  She is thought to carry the weight of the grief of the people.  For women, life is full of suffering and sacrifices, but there is a beauty and a holiness to it, and I don’t hear anyone complaining about giving up their freedom or about being housewives or about being expected to provide food when and how it is demanded.  Yet I can’t help but believe there exists a balance that includes equality and the gift of sacrifice.


You are not alone.

I posted several weeks ago a brief report based on an interview with one of the thousands of men that work in the sugar can fields of El Salvador, and about how these workers are forced to poison themselves, their families, and the land in order to produce the cash crop for absent land owners.  Since then I have found more and more articles about issues with sugar cane in El Salvador and in other parts of Central America, problems with kidney failure, flooding, poor labor conditions, and so much more.

Artwork by a Haitian artist through Project Esperanza in the Dominican Republic. http://esperanzameanshope.org/

Artwork by a Haitian artist through Project Esperanza in the Dominican Republic. http://esperanzameanshope.org/

Being here, watching the ash of burning sugar cane falling around me, sharing a meal with the men who spend their days spraying pesticides on fields that are not their own, I am enraged.  I am pissed off.  I cannot believe we can be letting this happen.

But I imagine someone far away where sugar looks more like fairy dust than an agricultural product, and all it takes to add some sweet to ones diet is a stroll down the aisle at the grocery store.  I imagine this person saying “What do you expect us to do instead? It seems that everything is an environmental threat these days.”

And the thing is, that person in my imagination is right.  Everything is an environmental threat these days, and that’s not just because certain industries ignore environmental impacts, it is because we are digging ourselves deeper and deeper into confused tunnels where we can neither see the impacts of our actions nor find our way out when we want to.  And we´re so, so afraid to say anything.

It´s not just that these sugar cane farmers are spraying pesticides, but there is also nutritional issues and overly-sugary foods that predispose their kidneys to be affected by the harsh work in the sugar cane fields.  And it´s about a pre-existing poverty that makes it so people would rather get paid $5 a day to poison everything that is home to them than to refuse to do so, which would mean more immediate suffering.  It´s about a political structure that is based on the god of the 21st century more commonly referrred to as The Market.  It´s about a world in which the earth is seen as a commodity rather than as a mother.  It´s about all these things, and we can´t talk about health or human rights or development or sustainable agriculture or youth or violence without recognizing that they are all related to each other.

I know I say it all the time, but it all comes back to the whole solidarity thing.  I´ve been in the Sister Cities office here in San Salvador for a few days this week, and I can´t help but being impressed by the interconnectedness of the lucha here even just in the office.  While Estela works on a report about human rights in Honduras, Alex is talking with Alejandro from the Roundtable Against Metallic Mining, and I´m working with youth popular education organizers about doing trainings with high school students in the Lower Lempa region, where a big chunk of the sugar cane farming happens.

And you, reader, wherever you are, I hope you are fully metido — involved in — some fight for some cause, and I hope that you read this and you know that we are connected to me, to the sugar cane farmers, and to everyone else who refuses to be silent.

One of my best friends who I´ve known so long I can´t remember a time when I didn´t know her is metida in the fight against the TarSands pipeline in the US, and today I have the huge honor of reading her beautiful writing on the Huffington Post here.  We periodically get to skype with each other, and share stories about the luchas that life has put us in, or that we have put ourselves in.

I hope that for those of you reading my blog, it is not just one more hopeless story about our messed up world.  Things here in El Salvador can be very ugly, and there is a lot that we don´t even know about.  But I hope that if there is one take away from these stories, it is that each of us can — no, each of us MUST do something.  The fact that each issue is connected to a thousand others is not something to dispair, but a source of hope, because I think that in the massive web of it all there is a place for each of us.

You are not alone.


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Poverty of the Mind

Jesse with the break dance apprentices

Jesse with the break dance apprentices

A few weeks ago I mentioned to one of the youth leaders in Guajoyo that I would love to see the theater and break dance groups perform, since I still only heard about how great they are.  They took advantage of the visit of my friends Jesse and Natasha to put on a show that was beautiful and unforgettable.  Both groups put on several numbers, and then they invited Jesse and Natasha to get up and sing a few songs (they have a band in Austin called Georgette).  At the end, everybody sang me happy birthday and came up to give hugs to Jesse and Natasha to thank them for visiting, and to me for my birthday.

Only the apprentice break dancers were able to perform that night, because a few of the older ones were out of town that night, but we went the next day to the backyard where the group practices 4 days a week on a slab of concrete that these incredible youths spent months getting money together to be able to pour.  They put on music, and then take turns doing moves, everyone from a 7 year old apprentice to the 25 year old twins who are sort of the leaders of the group.  They are incredible, words cannot suffice how unbelievable it is to watch these young people dance with cows roaming around beside them and mountains and volcanoes in the background.

We were talking with a friend who lives in San Salvador about the violence that is such an issue currently, and what he thinks could possibly happen for El Salvador to overcome the culture of violence that is debilitating the country.  He said he sees it as a poverty of the mind, that because of the history in El Salvador and the structures that define its culture, that people don’t know how to look towards the future and imagine things being better than they are.  If you grow up in an impoverished, dangerous community, how do you imagine a life without violence and a life in which you don’t have to go to extreme measures for basic needs to be met?

Projects for youth aim to address just that.  The projects themselves help the community, but more than that, they create opportunities for youths in the community to think beyond their current situation, to imagine a better life, to think about ways that they can be part of making change happen.

For the break dancers, they saw something that was inspiring to them, and they had the imagination and drive to believe they could learn to do it too.  They taught themselves how to dance just by watching videos and listening to the music.  I know I wrote about this before with the youth projects, but I think it is super important to emphasize that while money and projects are great for the opportunities and structure they help provide, what causes real poverty is hardly material.  And that is important because the same can be true anywhere.  In the United States we can poverty of the mind, a poverty that inhibits us from thinking beyond ourselves and from imagining a future that is different from what we currently know.

The honor of serving and being served


So much has happened in the past 2 weeks its hard to know where to begin.  Ill try to piece together these events and reflections little by little over the next few weeks.  But let it suffice to say that this has been a birthday to always remember.

Two of my best friends came from Austin to visit me here in El Salvador for a week, and I took them around to Guajoyo as well as to some other historical and touristic sites around the country.  It was fun for me to get to hear their reflections and impressions as first time visitors to the country, seeing with fresh eyes things that over the past 3 months I’ve been here I have learned to get used to.

Iguana dinner with my host family on our first night in Guajoyo

Iguana dinner with my host family on our first night in Guajoyo

One of the things you cant help but be impressed by is the outrageous hospitality we encountered everywhere we went.  In Guajoyo, we stayed with a different family who has an extra house (which belongs to family members in the US for when they come back), and spent our time with my host family, at the school, in the river with friends, and hanging out with the incredible folks of Guajoyo.  People were constantly saying Thanks to my friends and talking about what an honor it was for them to visit Guajoyo, something that was surprising to Natasha and Jesse.  How can they be thanking us when they are the ones who open their homes to us, cook for us, put on shows for us, take off work and school to give us a special experience, and all the other things they did for the 3 of us during our visit and in general for me in my stay here.  And while that is still a great and humbling mystery for me as well, I explained to them what I am beginning to understand about it.  For someone to come visit Austin is totally understandable — we have great restaurants, live music, good jobs, and overall its just a great place to live.  People visit and care about Austin because its got great stuff going on.  Guajoyo is a tiny community made up of around 200 families, tucked in off a dusty road at the foot of volcanoes where one might easily forget people inhabit.  Their homes are humble, their lives simple, and in the grand scheme of all the places in the world, people in Guajoyo feel like its not much to talk about.  So the fact that people from far away find Guajoyo worth visiting and worth caring about is a huge honor, and I believe it is truly with great pleasure that they receive and care about us.

Marcelo shows off the family's chicks

Marcelo shows off the family’s chicks

Everybody, kids and grown ups alike, were extremely excited to show off their community to us this week.  My host family picked the biggest, ripest papaya to give us, we roasted cashews from their stock of cashew seeds, my host dad caught an iguana for us to eat, they took us to the Rio Lempa to swim, fish, paddle in handcarved canoes, etc….  And each of these things we did was a pleasure and an honor for those who served us.

I can maybe understand a little bit as a volunteer, because I certainly feel that it is a huge honor to be given the opportunity to serve this community.  I am extremely humbled by the fact that they think I have anything to offer and always wish there was more I could do to serve the community.

The thing is I think we are made to want to serve, and it is as important to know how to be served as knowing how to serve.  I am learning how to be served by the people here, living a life where independence is a myth and everything from my food to getting around and having a place to sleep is dependent on other people.  El Salvador is a country that has received lots of support from around the world, especially since the war ended in 1992.  People send money for projects, fund scholarships, build houses, etc., and the communities are incredibly grateful for such support.  But what a beautiful thing to also give the opportunity to serve.


As always, it comes back to the core of Sister Cities and the solidarity model.  We dont just give to Guajoyo, but we are served by the community as well.  They serve us with hospitality when we come as delegations as volunteers, and they teach us about the strength of community, about our place in the global picture, and about the hope to rebuild and to dream of a better future.

Tico Time!

This is just a quick update letting all you faithful readers (whoever and the many or few you may be!) that I have not abandoned you!  I have spent a week vacationing from the heat, the busses,  and the dust, to spend a week in resort-ville Costa Rica with family and friends for a beautiful wedding.

It was a stark contrast, everything was pretty and anything that is uncomfortable was hidden or avoided.  It was a beautiful time with friends and family, but an experience that challenged my thoughts on solidarity, and what it means to be a person of PRIVILEGE choosing to share life with the POOR and those who suffer so that I (and the rest of the privileged class) dont have to.

More thoughts to come soon…

CATIE foto