Jose Armando

IMG_3466On June 28 recipients of the high school scholarships given by Sister Cities and SHARE gathered at the CRIPDES office in San Vicente for a scholarship assembly, among them, Jose Armando Hernandez.  That afternoon, he was shot and killed behind his house in Las Anonas. He was 16 years old.

People in Las Anonas are still in shock, confused as to how a young man whose aspirations were to finish school and support the youth organization in the community could become one among the hundreds of murder victims in El Salvador.  Usually when these kinds of things happen, the murmur that runs through the community is that the victim was involved in the gangs, that in a sense they brought it upon themselves.  But as far as anybody knows, Jose Armando was not involved in any illicit groups; people say he could always be found either at school, at home, or participating in activities put on by the youth committee.

On the Friday that he was killed, Armando had come home around lunch time from the scholarship assembly.  His mother hadn’t been feeling well, so he went to the hammock where she was resting to see if she was feeling ok.  After checking on her, he went to rest in another hammock.  After a little while his phone rang, apparently his girlfriend calling him.  He stepped outside to talk for a while in the space of land between his house, the community meeting house, and a sugar cane field.  It was there that he was shot in the chest, ran into the house, collapsed on the bed, and died on the way to the hospital in his mother’s arms.

In Tecoluca, the municipality that includes Guajoyo and Las Anonas, this kind of senseless youth violence is a new phenomenon in the last 3 years or so.  What used to be recognized as one of the cleanest, safest municipalities now is famed for filling the evening news with increased numbers of deaths – 8 in the past 3 weeks that are being attributed to gangs.

Meeting with Geramias, the mayor of Tecoluca

Meeting with Geramias, the mayor of Tecoluca

Last week I attended a meeting with the mayor of the municipality where he spoke about the current actions of the local government and what role international solidarity can play in addressing this situation of violence.  He spoke a lot without saying much, and the end the official response of the municipality is that their only role can be in promoting economic and vocational opportunities for youth through training and scholarship programs, given that gangs thrive where poverty and limited opportunities exist.  He emphasized that the role of repressing gang violence and eradicating gang presence from the area belongs to the national police, whose presence in the area is minimal.  At the moment, there are only a couple of posts in the area, with less than a dozen officers serving a region of over 20 communities where these 8 murders have taken place in the past 3 weeks.

International solidarity has played a vital role in past struggles by pressing the government of El Salvador, and local governments, to move forward on critical but difficult issues.  The lack of initiative and slowness of current government officials means that now is an ideal time for us, the informed international community, to educate ourselves further on the gang problem and insist on being actively involved in the formulation of ideas to address the issues, so that we can then pressure for those ideas to be put into action.  Sister Cities is currently working to formulate a letter to send to the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Security, as well as local government departments stating our concern and mentioning some actions that should be taken.

The one factor that has shown effective in El Salvador in combating this goliath is strong organization in the communities with active participation of community members.  It is concerning to see this kind of organization, which is such a part of the history of this region, declining at this vital moment.  It is those communities that stand up and say “we will stand together against any negative presence in our communities” that will have success in educating their youth to not be drawn by the lure of gangs, and keeping gang presence outside from coming in.

I have spoken with a few mothers of scholarship recipients in the past couple of weeks, and they are rightfully concerned about their children as they go to and from school and other activities.  Two have already withdrawn from the scholarship and will not continue studying, and others are considering not continuing next year.  It is a difficult decision for these youths and for their families, balancing their own safety with the desire to complete their education and the need to continue moving forward and organizing these communities even in the face of this threat.

In Guajoyo we continue to be problem-free, but gang presence encroaches from both sides, and over plates of beans and cups of coffee, the mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters of Guajoyo are talking about how they are concerned, but unsure of what steps to take.  I am filled with conviction, and have doubled my work with organizing the youth in Guajoyo, but also unsure of what steps to take.  We can only hope that God is with us and continue believing that a future free of violence is possible.

A poster made by the youth committee in Las Anonas, of which Jose Armando was a member.

A poster made by the youth committee in Las Anonas, of which Jose Armando was a member.

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This week while accompanying a delegation from Philadelphia, we had the privilege of having dinner with Maura, a woman in Las Anonas (a community in the same municipality as Guajoyo, about 40 minutes away) who has an incredible story.  We sat at a long table in front of her house, lit by a single bulb hanging from a tree and by the lightning bugs that danced in the sugar cane field just beyond her house. And after we ate, she told us her story.

P1010065During the war, the tactic of the armed forces was to kill all campesinos, or country people, because they were all considered either potential guerillas or supporters of the guerilla.  The guindas were those horrific moments when entire communities of women, children, and the elderly had to flee their homes and seek refuge in the mountains.  Maura and herfour  children were fleeing in a guinda when they were overtaken by soldiers.  Her four month old baby girl was ripped from her arms and two of her older children — both under 4 — were snatched away in the chaos.  All around them their friends and family members were running frantically, and many fell at the knife points of bullet impacts of the armed forces.  Maura’s three children had been taken from her.

From that moment forward she searched ceaselessly for her children — she searched 30 years and continues to search for them.  At the beginning everybody told her she was crazy for looking for them, saying “they’re probably better off” or “forget about them — they’re dead.”  Well into her seach she met a man named Father Jon Cortina who became the founder of an organization called Pro Busqueda, which has helped numerous desperate mothers reunite with their children.

Maura was reunited with two of her three children who were taken from her that fateful day.  They had been taken by soldiers who exploited their labor, told them they had tortured and killed their family, and abused them in numerous other ways.  But 30 years later, then fully adults, they were reunited with their mother and changed their last names back to what they rightly were.

One of her children is still missing, and Maura continues her tireless search.  And she is not the only other in the same situation — countless children were “disappeared” during the war and taken in by families of soldiers or adopted out to unsuspecting families around the world.  Maura’s plea is thatall families of adopted children register them, in case a desperate birth mother is searching for them.

It is a moving story, but for me as a translator telling the story in the first person with the same inflections that she used. I was impacted, and moved to call my mom after translating her story just to tell her I love her and am glad to know who and where she is.

What is most incredible is the resiliency Maura demonstrates.  Despite immense suffering she continues to fight, and she continues to be a important leader in her community.  Hers is the first house on the road into Las Anonas, and she is a welcoming smile and a warm hug to visitors.  She is the embodiment of the strength of Salvadoran women.

Fleeing Paradise

Last week I had the opportunity to spend some time in Carasque, another sistered community located in the cooler mountains of Chalatenango to the north west of Guajoyo.  Bangore, Maine is the sister city of Carasque, and a woman who came earlier this year on a delegation came back just 3 months later to bring her son to this beautiful community where hardship and resiliency grow side-by-side like two ears of corn on the same stalk.

Catie and Kati

Catie and Kati

We stayed at the house of a woman named Cruz, along with her 4 children who were also our body guards, tour guides, lifeguards, and entertainers throughout the week.  Kati, 7 years old, is a bundle of energy who loves dancing and playing cards.  We also bonded immediately over our shared name, and she was quite literally attached to my side a good portion of the week.  Denis, 14, is quiet and observant, and he bonded with Addison (the son who came with the woman from Bangore) over tossing around a nerf football and laughing at farting noises.  Ulises, 18, graduated from high school last year and has dreams of going to the university to study language and become proficient in English and French, both of which he can already speak with surprising clarity.  David, the oldest, is tall and lanky and smiles at all moments.  He is currently studying in the National university in San Salvador with the assistance of a Sister Cities scholarship.

The community council has a weekly phone call with their sister community, Bangore, Maine

The community council has a weekly phone call with their sister community, Bangore, Maine

The week was lovely and low-key; because the community is in the mountains, any excursion even just to the little window store up the street means a significant climb, so we limited our outings in a day.  That’s not to say, of course, that the community council, youth committee, womens’ committee, and church didn’t also make themselves 100% available to show us around the community they are so proud of.  We enjoyed a lovely welcoming party (complete with dancing, of course) as well as a get together with the youth committee to play games and meet one another, and a going away party that rivaled the welcoming party.

Ulises, in a feat of patience and concentration just before the wind blew it down

Ulises, in a feat of patience and concentration just before the wind blew it down

But most of the week was spent chatting away the mornings and afternoons in the shade of Cruz’s 100 year old adobe house, swinging in the hammock or helping slap tortillas and pupusas on the grill.  One of the things that is striking about Carasque is that there is a large population gap of 18-28 year olds.  Possibilities in Carasque are limited, and for many, the only option after going as far as economically possible with one’s studies is to emigrate to the United States in order to support the family.

David told us that of his group of about 17 that graduated from high school together in 2011, 14 have emigrated to the United States, and he is the only one who has gone on to study in the university.  Most of them simply do not have the economic possibility.  Ulises had also been considering going to the United States, where his dad has lived for the past 13 years and where there are possibilities to get a job and send money to support his family.

For us as visitors, sitting on the porch looking out into a tropical paradise of banana trees and mango trees and happy chickens clucking away and sturdy men and women greeting each other with a smile and a nod as they pass in the street, it’s hard to imagine choosing the life of an immigrant — one of insecurity, uncertainty, limited rights, limited freedom, and tireless hours of meaningless work — over this Salvadoran paradise.  Here the children grow up being cared for by the entire community, roaming the mountains and splashing in the rivers, and generally enjoying the freedom of living on the land.  How could it be worth it to risk everything to emigrate?

The community's soccer field is one of the best in the region. leveled out with dynamite and covered in soft grass

The community’s soccer field is one of the best in the region. leveled out with dynamite and covered in soft grass

But I also know that humans come with a built-in need to DO and to GROW and to WORK TOWARDS something.  It is the very need that I myself struggle with here sometimes; for all the accompanying I am doing, sometimes I’m desperate for an opportunity to be useful and to do something fruitful.  Maybe in Carasque it is possible to survive, to maintain.  Maybe those who work really hard can keep their bellies filled and their heads under a roof.  But what is there to work towards? Where is the opportunity to grow?

18-28 year olds are full of energy, potential, ideas, maturity, and perhaps it feels wasted on a place where the ost you can hope for is to eek enough corn out of the ground to fill your family’s stomachs.  But for those who get even the smallest push, a foothold to step up on, they take off soaring.

It is exciting to see David, dedicated to his studies but even more dedicated to his community.  This week he is on vacation between semesters, and is spending his time mowing the community’s soccer field, meeting with other youth, and participating in talks with other young people in the church about what Peace can look like and how to be a part of bringing it about.  It is so hugely important to have something to stay for.

A weekend in Guajoyo

FRIDAY

BIRTHDAY cake

Nina Teresa’s granddaughter turned 2, and in a show of the family’s economic well being (at, at least, the ability to put on the appearance of such) celebrated her grand two-ness, invited most of the town to enjoy food and festivities in her honor.  Two year old birthdays are always sort of weird, more for the parents than for the kid, who would be just as happy tearing a piece of cardboard and wearing nothing but a diaper.  But we do it because sometimes our love is so giant inside of us that we feel compelled to do weird outward things to try to express it, like dressing toddlers in gowns and lighting candles just for the purpose of their being blown out.

I arrived at the party on time, which is early by Salvadoran standards, so I put myself to work.  Before I knew it I had been recruited to lead up the party entertainment, mainly telling jokes and leading kids in games like musical chairs, a cross-cultural favorite.  As guests arrived, each was handed a tidily wrapped sandwich of white bread with a filling of chicken, cabbage, and mayonnaise, as well as a bottle of soda. Once everyone arrived, the games began and prizes were handed out.  Following the games came the pinatas: one for the girls, and one for the boys.  After the pinata everyone took their seat again to await their serving of ice cream, and after the ice cream the cumpleanera was perched on the gift table with a giant cake glowing in front of her and everyone sang Happy Birthday, and everyone ate cake.

To be throw a party and serve sandwiches, soda, candy, ice cream, AND cake is a major economic feat for families living in Guajoyo, and one of the less subtle ways of maintaining the all-important impression that we’re doing ok.  Generosity abounds at these kinds of celebrations, where clusters of adolescent (and several grown) boys gather on the periphery waiting for the generous hostess to insist that they enter and partake of the party bounty.  But this show of wealth isn’t so simple as a self-serving image booster; inside each of us is this desire to be generous, to have the ability to give unthinkingly to all around us.  It is an enormous pleasure (although it might hurt later in the month when the money is all spent) to be able to invite friends and neighbors to enjoy and to celebrate together, even if it is over a two year old who would rather be playing with cardboard wearing just her diaper.

 

SATURDAY

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When people want to fundraise in Guajoyo, the first options are always either a raffle or a carrera de cinta. This Saturday, the 9th grade class hosted a carrerra de cinta to raise money for their graduation coming up at the end of this year.  It is a dance of masculinity and femininity, and I felt like I had stepped into a page of a Marquez novel.  The corredores saunter into the soccer field an hour or two after the call time, indifferent to punctuality in the grandeur of their manliness. Meanwhile, the madrinas, their hair woven into intricate braids and their lips artificially pink or red, sit in the shade fanning themselves, clutching the gifts they have brought to hand to the winners.

Finally the announcer, who has spent the past two hours pleading over the microphone for the corredores to come register, manages to get things going, and one by one the riders’ names are called and they dash across the start line.  In order, and always one at a time, they kick their horses into motion and rush toward a rope hung over the road which has dozens of small hooks hanging from it.  Channeling all the concentration, seriousness, strength, and courage that fill the bones of a man, they stand up in the stirrups holding a pen in one hand, with the intention of hooking one of the dangling straps as they whiz by.  Each strap has a number written on it, and each number corresponds to a madrina.

Traditionally, when a corredor won a prize, the madrina would present him with his prize and plant a kiss on his rough cheek, but the young ladies of Guajoyo, perhaps turned away by the advanced age and lack of handsomness they had hoped for, prefer to hand over the prize at the greatest possible distance and scurry away as soon as possible.  I was recruited to be a madrina and reluctantly handed my prize over to the older gentleman who had already won the majority of the prizes and who reeked of superiority and pride from the top of his heaving steed.

The majority of the ten or so riders come away having won at least one prize, and the most skilled riders trot gallantly home with several dangling from the horn of their saddle.  And the 9th graders go home feeling like winners as well, after the grand profits they made from the pupusas, soda, and beer they sold to the midday crowd.

 

SUNDAY

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To follow up the grand carrera de cinta of Saturday, the youth committee hosted a community-wide trash pick-up on Sunday morning.  9 young people showed up, machetes in hand, to tackle the common areas we had identified in a previous meeting: the soccer field, the mill, the street by the school, and the church.  We loaded trash into bags donated by the local health clinic, and were amazed at how quickly our small team whizzed through each area.

This activity was important for several reasons: for one, it gives a good image to the youth committee and to youth in general.  Lots of people in Guajoyo share the attitude that youth are innate screw-ups, and that if they’re doing anything they’re likeley doing something bad.  The fact that people walking by saw 9 young people un-complainingly and un-forced doing community service is hugely important in changing the community’s attitude and in changing the very youth’s attitudes towards themselves.

Secondly, it was important to have a tangible activity to do with the youth that has a start and an end.  As with most things, the youth committee works on lots of ideas that work themselves over the span of a lot of time, and it’s easy to become disheartened if there’s nothing tangible to show for it.  Sunday we got our hands dirty, and what had in the morning been covered in trash was by lunch time cleaned up, even if only for a day.

And it was important because it was fun.  Our last site was the church, and as the last pieces of trash were swiped up, everyone continued scraping at the ground and generally finding an excuse to stick around.  The conversation was good and light-hearted, and it felt good to be doing something productive with other young people.  In the end the spaces we cleaned were filled with trash again the next day, since there is no system of trash collection and regular disposal of garbage into bags or recipients wouldn’t make sense since there’s nowhere to take it.  But sometimes it’s the process that matters more than the result.

Attention to Disgruntled Mob

Nearly all the families living in Guajoyo receive an electricity subsidy, which means they pay anywhere from $2-$14 a month for electricity to operate things like lights, the radio, and the occasional refrigerator.  Several months ago, the man from the electric company who used to come every month on his motorcycle to deliver people’s bills (there’s no mail service in Guajoyo) was assaulted en route and all the bills were stolen.  Since then, the company has ceased to come read the meters and deliver people’s bills, which means a costly trip into Usulutan (about an hour and a half in the bus and $1.25 each way) each month.

Candid and Emely relax after dinner under the light bulb that lights the kitchen area.

Candid and Emely relax after dinner under the light bulb that lights the kitchen area.

This month when people got their bills, for most they were exaggeratedly high; someone who usually owed $9 was being charged $37, and some were as high as $150 or even $209.  For most, that amount of money simply doesn’t exist at any one moment.

But the thing about a community like Guajoyo is that things don’t happen quietly, and shortly after the first person received their unfair bill, the conversation at the mill, the soccer field, and in the pickup truck bringing people to and from town was about little other than how ridiculous the whole situation was.  “I don’t know about you, but i’m going straight to the office on Monday morning to tell them I won’t pay a cent until they come and read the meters and charge us correctly” was the chorus of the heads of household.

Monday morning I loaded up on the 6:30am bus to go in solidarity and shake my fist with the rest of Guajoyo. As we waited for the connecting bus that would take us to Usulutan, the group of 15 congregated at the bus stop waved about their green and while electric bills, comparing notes on whose was most outrageous and who would lead up the talking when they got there.

The 20-something-year-old guard who met us at the door of the electric office seemed shocked to say the lease to see a mob of farmers at their door demanding to speak with a manager.  We were politely ushered into the excessively air conditioned office where a touch screen computer spit out a slip of paper indicating the order in which each individual would be attended to, since there was no option on the screen for “Attention to Disgruntled Mob.”

One by one, as the computerized woman’s voice called up people’s numbers they approached the customer service cubicles, where everyone was given the same response: “We’re sorry for the inconvenience, we’ll send someone out to do an inspection and let you know the results.”

A few seemed satisfied with this answer, but the older members of the group who know what it looks like when country folk are walked on, insisted that they came for a real response, and they weren’t leaving until they got one.  Besides, the customer service personnel said nothing about our complaints that they were no longer reading the meters and no longer delivering the bills.    Again they refused to let us speak with a manager, so, relieved to be back in the mid morning sun, we shuffled out of the office without quite knowing where we were going.

It turns out the office of the higher-ups was another 2 hour bus ride away, and a taxi driver suggested we go to the Center of Government and place a complaint in the office of Consumers’ Rights.   Refusing to pay the 20 cents to take the bus, the mob hiked the 9 or so blocks to the center of government.

To make things short, they told us that the company had the legal right to 15 days to resolve the issue, but if within 15 business days it was not resolved to our liking, we could take legal action through this office, but until then, it is a waiting game.

I have no doubt that the bills will be lowered, and the company might even start delivering the electric bills again and reading the meters, but one thing I know for sure: they have learned the lesson that Guajoyo is not a community of poor farmers to be messed with.

Milpa

The milpa is the umbilical cord that connects the hijos del maiz to their mamapacha; it is the stretch of land where families’ hope and faith are planted in the form of neon pink-painted kernels of corn, praying that the rain falls at the opportune moment and that the caterpillars don’t eat the plants before eeking out a single – or, if they’re lucky, double – ear of corn.  It is where they continue to cultivate corn even though the price of corn has fallen and the cost of planting and fertilizing has risen and so the harvest is almost wholly for their own consumption without possibility of selling.  It is also where boys become young men, working with little more than a machete and their own wiry arms that turn into solid trunks.

Marcelo, 10 years old, taking a break after working all morning clearing the milpa

Marcelo, 10 years old, taking a break after working all morning clearing the milpa

The rainy season began in full at the beginning of June, which means the ground is generally maintained damp by 3-6 rains per week.  After the first good rain storm the difference in Guajoyo was tangible; before the sun makes it over the mountains men in boots and sun-bleached work shirts fill the street and footpaths that lead to the surrounding areas where each man makes his milpa, armed with a machete and the occasional sprayer strapped to their backs.  A few hours later, once the kids have been sent off to school, the women – accompanied by a troupe of dogs – follow the same path to bring breakfast to the men.

Until the rains come is a time of rest between the harvest and the planting, when there’s plenty of time for things like soccer games and fishing for river shrimp.  But now everyone has their work to do, and the day not spent working their own field is a day to possibly be hired as a mozo to help in someone else’s field. Mozos are paid $5 to work approximately a 6 hour work day, so for my family to plant approximately an acre of corn, they paid $25 for the 5 mozos and $15 to the man who lent his oxen and plow to break the earth.  $40 is about as much as a man can hope to earn in a good week of hired work, which is hard to come by and hard to hold onto.

Father, son, and the hired mozos drop seed into the ground

Father, son, and the hired mozos drop seed into the ground

And because of this and because of the large amount of work that has to be done with no pay until the harvest some 6 months later, money is even harder to come by these days, and in my family we refer to this as “the time of the beans,” because most of the time there is only beans and tortillas to eat.  Even eggs are a commodity, because with the change of seasons comes a virus that attacks the chickens and the majority of people in Guajoyo lost most if not all of their chickens by the end of May.

A few weeks have passed since the planting, and plants ranging in size from 6 inches t 2 feet tall fill the milpas in curvy rows that are planted according to the dips and slant of the earth.  The time of the beans is passing, because as the plants get more established the workload is less heavy and the possibility of seeking paid work is slightly improved. Now is the time for fertilizing and mending fences and for going fishing in Rio Lempa, which is swollen and muddy with the rains. MILPA with ox

I have a new appreciation for the farmers’ faith, the incredible amount of faith it takes to leave a tiny seed buried in the ground and hope that the right combination of rain, sunshine, and control of insects work in your favor.  There was a 4 day stretch when it did not rain after the rains had supposedly started, and many who had planted were fearful that the seed would dry up in the ground or be eaten by insects before the rains came and the tiny kernel miraculously sprouted roots.  There is little certainty in farming, and there is a deep understanding that much of the outcome is far beyond man’s control.  It makes sense that many agricultural societies have a very mystical outlook on life; the mystery of the combination of a man’s faith in a small seed and the combined input of weather, wildlife, timing, and soil cannot be explained by logic or science alone.

About 2 weeks after planting, the corn is a sturdy 8 inches tall

About 2 weeks after planting, the corn is a sturdy 8 inches tall

When it was time for planting, I spent several mornings with Candida, the mom of the family I’m living with, hauling water from the river to fill the sprayers that her husband and son used to spread weed-killing poison on the milpa to make room for the corn to grow.  As we walked from the house to the field, then multiple trips to the river and back with large canteens of river water perched on our shoulders, we would talk about all sorts of things.   Candid has an extensive knowledge of native plants and their medicinal, nutritional, and spiritual properties.  Anywhere we go, she casually points out plants that to my untrained eye blend into one undistinguishable landscape, describing how it can be boiled or shredded or rubbed on one’s skin or smoked to heal illnesses of the body and of the heart.

One tree that overlooks the now happily sprouted corn in our milpa is, according to Candida, good for keeping secrets.  She explained that if when you have a newborn baby and they have stomach pains and cry a lot, you have to take the umbilical cord nub when it falls out, and without telling anyone where you’re going, go into the woods and find one of these trees.  Then you make a hole precisely the size and shape of the umbilical nub in the trunk of the tree, and deposit it in the hole.  With the umbilical cord tucked neatly inside, you whisper to the tree about what is ailing your baby, and ask it to heal him.  They did this for their third child, she tells me, and that is how he was rid of terrible stomach pains as a baby.MILPA jalar agua

The whole business of planting and growing and eating of what comes out of the earth makes me realize the vulnerability of these communities, but also the resiliency that familiarity of the earth and its plant and animal inhabitants gives them.  Here people have survived for hundreds of years not only on corn, but on knowing what plants are edible in times when the crops fail or war makes harvesting impossible.  Knowledge of their medicinal properties are how they survived illness before hospitals, and the milpa was school to generations of kids before the Ministry of Education built buildings and called them schools.  And I see what a profound loss it is that the momentum of the current time in history is taking us away from such knowledge; that sees crops as little more than yet another marketable good to be produced at the lowest possible expense.  And it makes me realize that the direction we’re going in makes us more and more vulnerable, even while it’s security we’re seeking.