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.


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