8 Questions You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask About El Salvador

1.)  So, where is El Salvador?

You were probably right in guessing that it is in “Latin America”, that glob of countries that speak Spanish to our general south.  More specifically, El Salvador is on the Pacific side of the Central American stretch that connects North and South America.  El Salvador is a country, San Salvador is the capital, and it has ‘departments’ just like we have states.

2.) Is it safe there? Do they have dictators and communists and drug lords and stuff?

Well, it’s not exactly safe in El Salvador, but not for the same reasons it wasn’t safe 25 years ago.  El Salvador was in a civil war from 1980 to 1992, which was fought between the armed forces (which represented the government and the military, which were sort of one and the same) and the guerilla (pronounced “gorilla”, but doesn’t refer to the big hairy animal, but rather to non-traditional fighting groups whose main advantage are knowing the terrain and being sneaky).

El Salvador is a democracy and has a president, who was elected by a popular vote in 2009 — and they will have elections again in February 2014.  He is not a dictator, and he is not a communist.

The current insecurity in El Salvador isn’t so much the military or dictators, but the gangs that have brought a culture of violence and delinquency to El Salvador.  The gang structure was brought back from the US by deported Salvadorans, and caught on like wildfire because of two main causes: extreme poverty and the disintegration of the nuclear family (a lot of which has to do with so many people migrating north, which is mostly because of the extreme poverty and lack of opportunities).  Sure, there are corrupt politicians and police and military people, but not in the blatant ways that Central America was famous for throughout the 70s to the 90s.

3. Is everybody poor there?

A lot of people are, but one of the striking characteristics of El Salvador is the extreme difference between the rich and the poor.  There are rich people in El Salvador, and they are very VERY rich.  But the majority of the population is poor, and there are a lot of people who are very VERY poor.  I happen to be living in one of the very VERY poor, rural communities.  There are lots of communities like these, basically sustenance farming communities tucked into the folds and side roads of the countryside.  These agricultural workers earn $5-$8 a day when they can get work, and spend the rest of their time in the unpaid work of their own fields growing corn, beans, and millet.

Meanwhile the rich of the rich are the same families that have been wealthy for generations, mostly thanks to massive land reforms during the coffee boom in the 1800s that gave vast expanses of the most lucrative coffee growing land to these 14 or so families.  Now their wealth comes from the banks, pharmacies, department stores, and other major commercial enterprises that they own throughout the country.

4. So do they have phones and tvs and stuff like that?

Yes.  Thanks to the rapid growth of accessibility of technology, most people have a cell phone and a tv.  However, many people only use their phones to keep the time, because the pay-as-you-go phones have pretty expensive per-minute rates.  However, it is a wonderful tool for families to stay connected and for all the conveniences of being able to communicate across distances.  Buying a $20 phone is an attainable luxury, much in the way that many people in the US will buy televisions or cars or other luxury items just beyond their budget.  TVs are similar: an attainable luxury that requires saving up, but means being connected to the larger world and, not to mention, entertainment!

5. Do you eat tacos all the time?

Salvadoran food is not the same as Mexican food, contrary to popular belief.  In fact, among the 26 Spanish-speaking countries in the world, there is great variety in cuisine.  Salvadoran food is not spicy, does not use cumin, cilantro, or other common flavors of Mexican cuisine.  There are Mexican restaurants to be found in El Salvador, but mostly in urban areas.

The salvadoran diet is mainly made up of beans, corn, rice, and eggs.  Salvadoran tortillas are made of corn and are much thicker than the Mexican tortillas we know here in the US, and they are the base of their diet and eaten with every meal.  Pupusas are a typical Salvadoran dish, are are like a stuffed corn tortilla with beans and cheese inside, served with cabbage slaw and tomato salsa.



6. Do kids go to school down there?

Yes, there are public schools in pretty much all communities, or in smaller communities they are in walking distance.  These schools either go up to 6th grade or 9th grade, and after that point they can continue on in other public schools located in nearby towns.  These schools are run by the government’s Ministry of Education.

High school is not obligatory, and many kids do not go because they have to go into the bigger towns to the “institutes”, and many kids can’t afford the cost of transportation to get there and back every day.

One of the current government’s most popular programs is the school supplies and uniforms program — every kid in every public school gets a packet of school supplies, 2 uniforms, and a pair of shoes every year.  Prior to that program, many kids did not attend school because they couldn’t afford to buy a uniform and wouldn’t show up to school without one.

7. Does everybody down there want to live in the United States?

Yes and no.  Yes, it is true that migration to the United States from El Salvador is massive proportional to the population: from a country of 6.2 million people, there are approximately 2 million in the United States.  It is estimated that 700 people a day begin the northward journey towards the US (although not all of them make it). But for many, this migration has more to do with necessity than desire.  Many would rather stay where they are close to their family, friends, and customs, but in an economic system in which the poor have little or no opportunities to move upward.  For many people, even if they worked every day they would never make enough to build a house or buy land, so they take the risky journey north.

8. Do they listen to American music there?

There are some 80s songs and current pop songs that make into Salvadoran mainstream music, but most of what you hear on the radio is cumbia, reggaeton, bachata, and ranchero. A good old-fashioned google or youtube search will help you understand these genres.  Many of the bands most heard on Salvadoran radio are Mexican or from South America.


Culture Shock

IMG_5215A week ago I boarded a plane and came to the United States to visit friends and family, and to be a part of my niece’s first birthday, my best friend’s baby shower, a band mate’s moving away, and my grandfather’s surgery.  I was so excited to be back among all the people and places I’ve known as home and to recharge, but was also preparing myself mentally for the culture shock I knew was coming. And it did come.

I was in the Houston airport, a frightening place where people move without walking, a cup of yogurt costs $6, and the terminals are so far apart you have to take a shuttle to get from A to B.  I followed the arrows and the neatly groomed carpet hallways and finally climbed aboard the shuttle — a glass train with no conductor, where icy air was blasted on me despite the summer heat, full of obese people speaking English, and a robot woman warning me without emotion that the door was closing.  As the train darted towards Terminal B, I stood with one hand on my suitcase and the other hanging on for balance and I cried.

I should clarify that I’m not really a crier, I probably have about 5 real cries a year. But standing in that train, having already spent 15 minutes back on US ground without the necessity of speaking to or interacting with any human being, and having not felt the warmth or humidity or movement of the air outside, I was shocked by the ways that in this place we live isolated, out of touch lives.  It didn’t feel real, yet I knew it was a reality, and perhaps the most frightening part of a reality like this is that it is one that we have CHOSEN and CREATED — on purpose.

There are shocking realities wherever I go, but it is especially shocking when a place that once felt like home — once felt kind of normal — suddenly seems so absurd it is hard to believe.  And I guess that’s what this reverse culture shock we all talk about is based on: it’s coming back to a place that felt steady and good and realizing how desperately far it is from the reality of most or from what is good and healthy.

Air conditioning is also shocking, at the same time that it is wonderful.  I Just can’t seem to re-get used to the fact that it can be high afternoon on a summer day and I can feel cold — not just cool, but cold.  On my second day at my parents’ house, I felt an anxious, almost desperate need to get out of the house.  I had spent most of my time inside, and felt so out of touch with the passing of the day and the movement of weather that it was like I was alive without breathing, or sleepwalking or something.  We don’t feel the heaviness of air right before it rains, and we don’t sweat when the sun climaxes to the highest point of the sky, and it is very strange and disorienting.  Do we know what space we occupy?

But of course, culture shock comes in small zaps, and overall I am having a wonderful experience and grateful to re-connect with so many people and places I love. Everybody gets used to their ‘normal’, absurd as it may be, and at the end of the day, we all hope for the same thing: to love and be loved.  And I do love these places and these people.