The beast and the giant

In 2005, the people of San Jose Las Flores realized that workers from some company had arrived in their community and were opening fences between pastures and even cutting barbed wire, and generally snooping around on their land.  So they went to ask them what they were up to.

“We’re looking for mines,” they told them.

“Those were all disarmed after the war, years ago” responded the people from the community.

“No, we’re looking for gold mines.”

Felipe, mayor of San Jose Las Flores looks out on the site of a massacre that occurred over 25 years ago

Felipe, mayor of San Jose Las Flores looks out on the site of a massacre that occurred over 25 years ago

The community immediately reached out to ask other communities where gold mining had taken place whether it was a good or bad thing, and a neighboring community vehemently warned them against it, sending them videos and short documentaries about the harmful effects on the environment.  They quickly began the work of educating the rest of the community so they could stand united in saying that gold mining was not something they were interested in having in their community.

In the meanwhile, the workers had begun to bring in the huge machines that dig massive holes in the earth and were getting set up to go to work without any permits or anything.  Some of the community leaders invited them to come visit with them in the city hall.  These leaders explained to the man the hazards involved with gold mining until the man was convinced, and he asked their permission to get his equipment so he could pack up his team and leave.  The community leaders, glad for the communication, accompanied the man to load up his things and leave.

But the company continued to be stubborn, sending renewed forces of workers, and even showing up at the next community over to tell them that the city council of San Jose Las Flores had given them permission to continue work (much to their disappointment, the constant flow of information between communities kept that lie from going undiscovered).  It came to a climax when one day the jefe showed up with three carloads of workers and some very important-looking United Statesian and Canadian men in the neighboring town of Guarjila, and much to their surprise, a crowd of over 500 people were there to meet them at 6 in the morning, blocking the road.  The people surrounded the cars and told the men they had to get out of their vehicles and come talk to them.

“We tried negotiating with you people, but we realized that force is the only way you will listen to us.  So you and your workers get out of our community, and if you’re ever seen in our hills again I will not be responsible to what our people will do to you!” said the mayor.

And sure enough, the jubilant crowd led the procession and walked the 4 kilometers to escort the caravan out of town.  Although the struggle continued, the workers never stepped foot in the community again.

mineriaPeople prayed and fought to keep gold mining out of their community, and as a homage to their faith that God and the virgin had listened to their prayers and would continue to do so, the community carried on their backs a 500 pound porcelain virgin to set atop the hill where the men had been working, so that every year on September 14th the entire community has a huge celebration at the chapel built around her to remember the fact that their prayers were heard, and when the community told the gold miners to get out, they left.

The thing about this community is that they suffered hugely during the war, during resettlement, and in the years following.  They suffered for that land, they weren’t about to let some outsider in a nice suit destroy it.

I follow the Keystone XL Pipeline news with a heavy heart, I am so proud of all of those who are on the front lines or in the offices of TransCanada, but still the pipeline creeps forward.  The forces opposing the construction of this monstrosity of an economic endeavor are no small beast, but their numbers scarcely reflect the magnitude of the number of those whose lives would be negatively affected by the pipeline’s completion.  What would have happened if communities had the kind of ferocity and unanimity to stand up to this invader and say “No! We’ve struggled this land and love it as our mother, we will not let you destroy it!”

Instead, we hope the few will speak for us all.

I was inspired by this story that the mayor of San Jose Las Flores shared with us, given hope by the fact that a group of people saying “No!” were heeded.  But at the same time, with a heavy heart I wonder if our passivity and lack of a sense of ‘we’ might lose the battle for us.

for more information about the Keystone XL Pipeline, visit


They mess with you, they mess with us

I spent the past week with the high school students, retirees, teachers, and other inspiring individuals that made up the delegation from Cambridge, MA.  They are one of the founding sister cities relationships, dating back to 1987 when a group of brave, idealistic gringos went to San Jose Las Flores to give the message to the El Salvador military, government, and to the international world that nobody was to do harm to that community, because if they did, it would become an international outcry.

This is my second delegation to accompany, and I always find the experience inspiring and renewing, and I find myself with at least a dozen unwritten blogs in my head that I can’t possibly type fast enough to get out there.  So I’ll go bit by bit and get out as much as I can.


Members of the Cambridge delegation enjoy a swim in the Sumpul River at the site of the May 14th Massacre

The idea of delegations began with the formation of Sister Cities, when the war was still active and communities were trying to repopulate and create some semblance of ‘normal life’ in order to send the message to the military that the violence and repression had to end, no war zone in a civilian occupied area.  International groups were called in to come be in solidarity with the brave families that repopulated communities in the face of violence and the risk of kidnapping, attacks, and other forms of destruction.  But people came from other countries to say “you are not alone in this.  If they mess with you, they mess with me.”  It was a strong message, and the presence of such groups played a large part in the resolution of the war.

And now the solidarity continues, 26 years after the armed conflict officially ended, and these delegations are still saying “You are not alone in this.  If they mess with you, they mess with me.”   Now the threats are not so blatant as armed soldiers, but rather take the form of destructive mining companies, forces of neoliberal economic development, trade policies that benefit the rich at the expense of the poor, etc.  

I heard this beautiful quote at the beginning of the delegation from Lilla Watson:

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come here because your liberation is wrapped up in mine, then let us work together.”

It is a beautiful reflection of the values and purpose of solidarity.  These delegations come not so much because they feel the need to come fix a problem for someone else, but because when our brothers and sisters are suffering or at risk, we have no choice but to stand with them because their struggle is our own struggle.  What is accomplished during a delegation is the sharing of stories, the building up of this sense of brotherhood and a growing understanding of what it is that threatens our brothers and sisters.

The week is jam packed with meetings with different organizations, discussions with leaders and historical figures, visits to important historic sites, and activities in the community with the various arms of the local organizational structure.  It’s a uber concentrated mix of info about the history of el salvador, personal testimonies, current political/social/economic status, foundations of grassroots organizing and social movements, environmental activism, the role of faith in mobilizations, theories of violence and non-violence, gang prevention, and the role of the United States in international development and sovereignty.  

It’s a lot.

But for me it was also about being inspired by the people who chose to spend a week submitting themselves to this whole process.  They are high school students, social workers, retirees, 20-somethings, they are movers and shakers who have also come to the realization that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  I treasure the conversations I had with everyone on this delegation, especially learning about what they do and care about back home.  They inspired me and gave me hope to believe that change can actually happen, a hope that to be quite honest, I was beginning to lose.

A delegation can be exhausting, because it is about exposing yourself to a reality that is heavy and complex and without simple answers.  It is about compassion for the personal stories and anger at the structures that enable injustice.  But the more we know about our brothers and sisters and stand by them, the more alive we are, because to live in ignorance is not to live at all.

It is about solidarity, because my liberation is tied up in yours, so we must work together.

We are sufferers

Yesterday at 4am the water was turned back on in Guajoyo.  Spurting and gurgling, it stampeeded out of the several hundred spouts that bring life and water into the homes of the families in Miramar, Guajoyo, and Granzaso.

At 7am, my host family headed out into the dusty morning with buckets of dirty laundry balanced on their heads to go wash in the stream.  I have this idea that we get used to suffering, and sometimes we don’t know what to do when we don’t have to any more.

When I would go to the stream to haul water or to wash clothes and dishes, the conversation almost without fail came to the comparing game over who suffered most:

“I woke up at 4am to come wash all this laundry.”

“I made 5 trips yesterday hauling [6 gallon] canteens of water to the house”

“You all who live more uphill had water until last week, I haven’t had a drop for over a month.”

And so on, always followed by comments such as “Ay, I can’t put up with this any more!  I don’t know what we’ll do if they don’t turn the water back on soon!” And yet, when the water is turned back on, we load up our soiled belongings and trek down to the stream, we bring jugs to haul water on the return trip, and we try to work out how to fit in a few trips to the stream with cooking meals and other household chores.

But the thing is that suffering, whether it is good, bad, or neutral, becomes a way of life, a part of our daily being.  We incorporate it into our habits, we cope subconsciously.  Think about it as an injury, if you have an inured knee, you change the way you walk.  If all the time your knee is fixed, you will continue to walk the way you re-learned to.

But when change is slow, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Sometimes there are projects in the community that are intended to alleviate some suffering, but sometimes changing the habit of that suffering takes some time.  For example, the chicken coups project in Guajoyo started last year, giving the materials to around 50 women to enclose areas for their chickens.  The big drama in the community now, as we begin the second phase of the project, is that some people still have the materials rolled up under their beds.  Maybe they’re waiting for the opportune moment to build, maybe they’re afraid it will be stolen if they put it up, maybe they’re just holding onto this thing that is so valuable that was given to them.

Some people are angry about it, but I’m beginning to understand that change is a slow process, especially in a community where things happen slowly.  And that’s where solidarity comes in, because we accompany the process, we are interested in the improvement that the chicken coup will make, we don’t have to scold them, but we can ask them if the material is helping, and if not, why? how can we make it help?

Because who among us will be the first to throw a stone… who among us is not continuing to limp when the injury is gone, still trekking to the stream when there is running water in the house? Who has the financial means to buy local organic food yet we continue to buy junk that poisons our bodies and perpetuates oppression?  Who has the time to write a letter to a congressman to stop construction on poisonous pipelines but dont?


Today on the pickup ride from Guajoyo down to San Nicolas, at one stop the truck suddenly would not shift into gear.  “The truck won’t move.  It wants a beer” said the driver, with the laugh that spreads crinkles from the corners of his eyes.  A few moments later, a beer appears from somewhere and he’s dumping it into the engine from the cabin of the truck, and sure enough, it shifted into gear and we went along our way.

Everything has a solution.

Monday was the 8th day of the month, and every 8th the Junta Directiva – community council – meets along with representatives of each committee to discuss current projects, and often to receive visitors from other organizations – like CRIPDES or the Ministry of Health – to update them on what is going on in Guajoyo, or for the visitors to update Guajoyo on upcoming opportunities.

Like many organizations, there is a committee for everything.  There is one for water, youth, women, war veterans, health, pastoral care, and others that I don’t even know they exist.  Whenever there is a particular issue, or the community sees that a particular area needs special attention, they create a committee.  I have been impressed by the amount of initiative that members of these committees take on.

Carlitos, for example, is one of the scholarship recipients.  Every Saturday he gets on a bus at the break of dawn to ride into San Salvador to attend classes all day and return in the evening.  On Sundays, he dedicates the entire day (except the few hours in the afternoon when he plays in the weekly soccer game) to collecting people’s water payments.  When there is work to be done – like there is now with the non-functioning water system – he heads up work teams, and on days like yesterday spends from 6am until the evening organizing and putting his own sweat and muscle into making improvements for the community.

Others are equally dedicated, Don Tonio, whose house I am living in, is the president of the War Veterans Committee, but he is often the default person to convoke people to take advantage of opportunities, such as the ALBA loans that are being offered this month.  After working hard all day, he gets on his bike with a megaphone and rides up and down the streets letting people know about the chance to apply for a low-interest, subsidized ALBA loan, or if that doesn’t work, going door to door to those who he knows would benefit from such an opportunity.  It is thankless, unpaid work, and joining a committee or taking on leadership is a huge responsibility and I have been impressed by the willingness of the community to step up to that responsibility.

But there is always the frustration, and I often hear people in the community saying  “estamos fregados,” because it is always the same people who do all the work, and others in the community expect to benefit without participating in the organizational process.  They are too busy with the demands of their own lives, or many women’s husbands won’t let them participate, or they simply are intimidated by the amount of responsibility getting involved requires.

As someone with a history of being involved (sometimes over-involved), I understand the sentiment.  I know the frustration of feeling like I’m the only one doing any work, and no matter how enthusiastic I may be about opportunities to make things happen, the group of people dedicated to pursue those opportunities is always small.

But I also see a quiet humility in Don Francisco, the president of the Junta Directiva and one of the foundational members of the community since the war.  I don’t know when he has time to do work for himself – cultivating corn and millet so his family can survive – because every time I see him he is working in service to the community, or to the sector, or to the department, or to the country.  He is on all kinds of committees and juntas and assemblies and who knows what else, not to mention coaching one of the soccer teams.  He is never rushed, in fact he is one of the slowest talkers I have known, but he has made peace with the fact that he is one of the leaders of the community, which means that he will labor so that others will benefit.

We talk a lot about development of leaders here, of securing the future of the communities by building up leaders, and I think the humility that Don Francisco lives is one of the most foundational qualities of a good leader.

But as I reflect on this, I realize how difficult it is to give of oneself in US culture.  Every moment of the day is claimed by individualism – who among us (excluding the privileged class) has the luxury of spending multiple days of the week doing unpaid work?  And who among the privileged class who does have that luxury do so, or do we rather work for the benefit of our families and ourselves, or for thanks or for praise?  Our extra, free time is what we have to offer to community service, but here, where the days are longer and the clock is less oppressive, service can be a priority.

I don’t mean to say that it is easier to be a public servant in El Salvador, because I certainly believe that it is a grand sacrifice here as much as in the US.  But I do admire and respect the culture that makes space for such a sacrifice.


Water in Guajoyo comes from a spring up in the mountain, through a filter, and then carried by gravity down a 2 inch PVC pipe to the communities of Miramar, Guajoyo, and Granzaso.  The system was built in 1994 with funds from the sister city committee in Austin, which at that time was part of a church.

The armed conflict in El Salvador ended in 1992, so the water system was put in place at the beginning of the resettlement process when the populations of these three communities were still very small.  Guajoyo has since then turned into a budding young community, quickly outgrowing the census count from one year to the next.  The tiny pipes carrying precious water are hardly enough to supply these communities, and in addition to the extended break in water at this current moment, there are frequently days here and there when the communities further downhill of the system do not receive water at all.  According to those who were present when the system was built, they simply did not have the vision at that time to imagine how much their communities would grow in the next 20 years.

The system is administrated by a committee made up of elected individuals from the communities, who do this grand service on a totally voluntary basis.  They give up their Sundays to go walking door to door collecting people’s water payments to maintain the system, they coordinate with engineers when there are problems to be it fixed, and they often bear the brunt of lots of disgruntled community members when there are problems with the system.

Rio Lempa

Rio Lempa

On March 13 the water was cut off, and for a few weeks they still turned it on in the nights, long enough for the people who made the sacrifice of waking up in the wee hours before dawn to fill their pilas, which are large concrete tubs from which families scoop their water for washing, bathing, and everything else.  On Sunday of this week, water no longer came in the nights, leaving the pilas dry, and driving people to the river and springs to wash dishes and clothes, bathe, and draw water for drinking. I’m still not totally clear on what it is that happened that caused the cut in water, but from what I understand they were doing some maintenance work repairing a part of the tank, and because they didn’t cut the water off totally while doing repairs, the whole thing broke.  Now work is being done to put in place a new filter, and fingers are crossed that by April 12th we will have running water again.

The nacimiento

The nacimiento

But the two inch pipes that carry the water are still too small, and they are reaching the end of their lifespan.  Despite the hard work of the volunteer water committee, the system is treated with bandaids where surgery is needed, and I can’t help but wonder if even after all these repairs it might be broken for good.  According to most recent updates, the needed repairs for the entire system would cost about $91,000, an unimaginable amount in a community where most people don’t earn more than $5 a day.  To address the current situation, the water committee has spent this week collecting $3 from each family to cover the cost of labor for the installation of the new filter, which even if every family paid wouldn’t amount to more than about $600.

washing dishes at the spring

washing dishes at the spring

But there is something lovely about the broken water system, and that is the fact that it brings people to community spaces and creates shared experiences.  Whereas before I might spend most of the day in the house, now I have to walk down to the spring in the morning to bathe, and there are always at least a few other people there doing the same.  We talk, we splash water at each other, we compare notes on how many trips each person has made carrying tanks of drinking water from the spring to their houses.  It slows life down, just the basic needs of each day take longer when you have to walk 10 minutes each way plus the sweat and dust it costs to bring a tank of water up the hill.  So what do you do?  You enjoy the trip, you linger at the river and take advantage of the trip to go for a swim, and while mom washes clothes the kids enjoy splashing around and skipping rocks across the rippled surface of the water.

It reminds me of living in the dorms in college, and how I regret choosing to live in a dorm with private bathrooms, because a few weeks into classes I realized that without the necessity of using shared spaces – like a bathroom, kitchen, laundry room, etc – being alone is too easy, it is too easy to be surrounded by people and never know who they are.

Here in Guajoyo the heat pushes people outside of their houses, where family life is visible, where if you walk down the street, you can easily stop by and pull up a chair or hammock under a mango tree for a quick (or long) visit.  The community corn mill is located in the middle of the community and women have to go every day – sometimes twice a day – to grind the corn to make tortillas for their families, and while they mill or while they wait, they are sharing life.  Few people have their own cars, so the bus and the pickup that run up and down the main road and down to the highway are social epicenters.  The necessity of these shared spaces has an equalizing effect; when you’re perched on a rock washing your dirty clothes next to another community member the two of you are the same, sharing the same community life experiences.  And I think that has a lot to do with the incredible social cohesion here.

Perhaps the more comfortable we get the more we cut ourselves off from community spaces and the opportunity to become equals.

Holy Week

Easter Sunday marked the end of Holy Week, a religious holiday that in my protestant upbringing  went practically unnoticed, except for the sugar-fest we call Easter egg hunts.  But here in Catholic, rural Guajoyo, Holy Week is much more than just a week off of school.  Of course, my experience of Holy Week was affected by the fact that my host family is very catholic, so I can’t assume that everybody in the community has the same experience, but what else can I do but write about what I myself have experienced?

Sunrise at Rio Lempa

Sunrise at Rio Lempa

Two things defined this week: church and Rio Lempa.

Palm leaf crosses for palm sunday

Palm leaf crosses for palm sunday

The church had different activities practically every day of the week, from regular mass to candlelight processions to vigils that go late into the night.  Good Friday was practically entirely occupied by church activities, making necessity of the vacation that most people take from school and work.  I was brought to tears on Thursday night’s service, in which 12 men from the community representing the apostles sat before the congregation, and people from the community came forward and washed their feet.  That same night is the procession of silence, in which leading up to the service at the church, the men from the community walk through the community in silence carrying candles.  As they filtered into the hot, freshly-painted church, I glanced back to see solemn, creased faces in the enchanting glow of candles, and the women – some of them with towels covering their heads – who came there to feed the souls of their family just as they also feed the stomachs.  It’s hard to say exactly what it was that was so touching about that moment, something that goes beyond words, but it has something to do with the incredible resiliency of a community of people who struggle day to day just to meet basic needs, but who find happiness and hope in Christ, in the church, and in these age-old traditions.

Candle light procession

Candle light procession

The river, called Rio Lempa, is the largest in El Salvador, and a major lifeline for the bajo lempa region where I am living.  At the moment, the water system that brings potable water from a spring down to the communities is broken, so people go to Lempa to wash their clothes, dishes, and bathe.  But this week, people went to Lempa to enjoy themselves.  I think Salvadorans understand the holy concept of rest in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. Some days you work, and when you work, you work hard.  But you don’t live to work, you live to be alive and to enjoy your family and to let mango juice run down your face and to do flips off a log into the river.   On Saturday the whole family went to the river, we killed a chicken and bought the fixins for chicken soup.  We made a little perch on the shore – a table made from logs stuck into the ground and a few hammocks hung for lounging – and spent the day splashing around in the water, or simply sitting on the shore watching the sun slide from one side of the sky to the other.

Milo enjoys Lempa

Milo enjoys Lempa

Easter can be a bit of a gloomy time, all this talk about death and torture and last words, but in the end it’s a celebration about being alive, and that is what this week has been about.  We are alive, and although maybe the drought ate up half of this year’s crop and maybe there’s hardly enough coins to afford a bag of beans to fill tummies, for whatever reason we are alive, and that is something worth celebrating.