Piropos

Cat calls happen in most places — in the US, in El Salvador, in Europe — and no matter what they cultural context, it’s just not ok.  Or at least, i’ll just never be ok with it.  And that’s because it’s about silencing a woman, about cornering her, about reminding her that men get to decide what (and who) is and isn’t valuable in this world.

After 10 months living in Guajoyo, I have gained the respect of most people in the community, and even the confidence of some.  And yet there is a handful of boys who continue to catcall me every time they get the chance.  “Hello, mamacita. When are you going to bring your dad again so I can meet my father in law?”  “Uuuy mami look at that skin, how did you get so beautiful?”  “Hola bonita, you’re looking at me because you can’t wait to be my lover.”

My first response was simply to ignore.  But it did not wane. Then, when I started getting to know (and teaching class to) these same boys, I would respond to them, telling them I found their words offensive and wanted them to leave me alone.  But my responses simply fed their flame.  They did what they wanted to, they had me cornered.

Because if I am silent, I’m asking for more.  And if I respond, it’s because I like it.

I didn’t grow up around catcalls, and I will not accept them.  But for most women, that’s just normal.  The women are the first to laugh at me when I respond with anger or frustration to these unsolicited remarks.  “Es que la Cati…” they say between laughs at the hilarity of a woman who thinks she has the right to tell a man that she does not appreciate his comments about her body or about her future.

I asked a friend, a young man and a member of the youth committee, what I could do about this problem.  He knows all these boys and they respect him.  I explained to him my dilemma, that my silence or my words condemn me.  And I think, perhaps, it was the first time he realized what a truly frustrating and degrading experience that is for a woman.

He shrugged his shoulders and said,

I don’t know.

Youth in Photos

MOVING

Exif_JPEG_PICTURELinda — which means “pretty” — rides along in the back of a truck with the rest of us members and supporters of Guajoyo’s youth theater group to their presentation of a play — written and acted by them — about family violence.  This is how you move around, clumped together with the sun on your shoulders and the wind pulling your hair out of its ponytail.  It makes you want to shout, and to be as high up as possible, and that’s what they do; they sitting on the edges of the truck bed, shouting like heathens, and everybody’s in it together.  This is how you move the youth of El Salvador, letting them feel so alive and so close to the dangers that stride alongside the beauty and shouting, climbing on top of things, and being together.  They’re heathens, they’re rambunctious, and they want to move in this country, in this world.  This is how we move.

SPEAKING

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREThe mayor of Tecoluca — the municipality that claims Guajoyo and dozens of other communities — has invited children from the region to come together and identify their reality and what changes they think need to be made to make their world a better place.  It was a methodical process, picking kids of all ages from schools scattered throughout the region and inviting them to a series of sessions where they played games, made songs, and drew pictures about the good and bad according to the ninos.  Nobody was telling them to be quiet.  Nobody was telling them this was adult business.  They were speaking, and the mayor, the NGOs, the community leaders, and their peers were listening.  These kids created a 27-page document that describes the outcomes and proposes actions to be taken by the alcaldia — mayor’s office.  These actions include encouraging space for artistic development, education for parents about kids’ rights, Kids have the right to play, to study, to not work, and to live without fear.  And today, these kids practiced their right to speak.

PLAYING

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREMiramar is the community up the road from Guajoyo, but to the untrained eye there is no way to know when you have crossed from one community into the other.  This Sunday, the youth committee put on a part for all the kids, celebrating Kids Day — or rather, Kids Month, which is celebrated during the entire month of October.  There were games, prizes, dancing, and most importantly, pinatas.  And at the end, when the floor was covered with torn paper, candy wrappers, and empty juice bottles, we escorted the children out of the casa comunal and closed the doors for the Youth Afterparty.  These young men, usually quietly tending to the fields or swinging in their hammocks, grabbed hold of the mic and started karaoking along with the music, even breaking out with some beep boxing in a moment of inspiration.  I pulled out my camera, thinking they would shy away as soon as they saw it, but their unanimous reaction was this.

Mural!

On Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, our team of 12 youth worked tirelessly to put our drawing on the HUGE wall outside the cyber cafe facing the school.  We had no idea what we were doing, but with the support of Erik — the brother of the CRIPDES youth promoter in the region — we managed a decent job.  Take a look of the photos!

 

Thanks to the Austin Committee (you didn’t know you were supporting this project, but I diverted some of my volunteer funds for it) and to Vox Veniae for making the project possible!  The response in the community has been GREAT and people of all ages have been remarking about how beneficial it is for the community in its appearance and in the participation of the youth.

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Mural — Phase I

About a month ago, the youth committee made the invitation to all artists in Guajoyo to participate in a contest to select the drawing to be painted en grande on a mural on the outside wall of the cyber café.  On Monday, the four drawings were turned in, and on Tuesday – following the take-over of the clinic – 150 community members placed their vote for the drawing they wanted to see permanently in this public space.  Here’s the drawings:

Symbols of a rural community and Salvadoran icons.

Symbols of a rural community and Salvadoran icons.

Organizational structures, agriculture, and patriarchy behind the youth of Guajoyo.  (This one is my drawing!)

Organizational structures, agriculture, and patriarchy behind the youth of Guajoyo. (This one is my drawing!)

Salvadoran landscape and wildlife

Salvadoran landscape and wildlife

Oscar Romero and Farabundo Marti -- two of the martyrs and important icons of the lucha in El Salvador.

Oscar Romero and Farabundo Marti — two of the martyrs and important icons of the lucha in El Salvador.

This mini project was funded in part by my church, Vox Veniae, which is a community of artists as well, and by Catie’s Special Fund – the money I don’t spend every month of the amount budgeted to me.  The Austin Sistering Committee supports me as a volunteer, and I see their donation as funds that belong to Guajoyo, so whatever I do not spend on food, bus rides, and phone calls, I set aside for little things that come up in the community.  When the suggestion of painting a mural came up among the youth as a way to create a space for young artists, I jumped on it.

In the end, my drawing won, some say in part because people wanted something left behind of me when I leave in 3 weeks.  Others liked it because it represents all the different organizational structures of the community.  Still others, because they were part of making the drawing.  In the midst of the excitement of the coup de clinic, I was rushing to finish the drawing, and several people young and old helped to create the finished drawing.

We’re scheduled to start painting on Saturday, with the support of a young man from a neighboring community who has some experience painting murals.  More pictures to come, showing the progress of the mural, so stay tuned!

Collaborative effort to finish the winning drawing in time for the vote!

Collaborative effort to finish the winning drawing in time for the vote!

Took the Clinic

Exif_JPEG_PICTURETuesday morning at 7:30 the doctor at the Eco Familiar in Guajoyo was scheduled to arrive to see patients.  As per usual, he showed up over 2 hours late, only to find a crowd awaiting him at the entrance, the gates chained closed, and a sign that read: “In agreement with the four communities, we will not let the doctor pass due to mistreatment of his patients and irresponsibility.  We deserve to be treated with dignity!”

Don Pablo explains the community's perspective to Dr Cabelleros

Don Pablo explains the community’s perspective to Dr Cabelleros

This was not the angry kind of protest where people yell things and badmouth; it was calm and dignified, with a selected delegation of people to discourse concisely the concerns and demands of the communities.  The demand was simple: that he turn in his key to the clinic and not return.  With the support of the head doctor for our region, the now-ousted Dr. Caballeros turned in his key, gathered his things, and rode away in the Ministry of Health’s pickup truck.  Unfortunately, I believe he will simply be transferred to another community, even though in the viewpoint of these four communities he is not suit to work as a doctor in any clinic in any community.

Nina Blanca was among the first women who showed up to demand dignified treatment at the EcoFamiliar

Nina Blanca was among the first women who showed up to demand dignified treatment at the EcoFamiliar

In a country where corruption is widespread, favoritism in well paid positions is rampant, and classism that places professionals above the normal person, these kinds of collective actions are often necessary.  It is simply part of the way things work that a strike is more effective than a well thought-out letter, or problem-solving meetings. But that doesn’t mean in a different context the same kind of actions aren’t necessary.  In the US, there are certainly public employees who don’t do their job well, doctors who mistreat their patients, and other functionaries who overstep their power and lack respect toward the general population.

The difference is that we in the US have great faith in the bureaucratic process, that process of “I’ll pass this along to the appropriate powers.”  And sometimes that’s really great, and our bureaucratic processes function a lot better than many of them here in El Salvador do, but that same faith can also blind us to the civic duty to react, to do something ourselves and not wait for someone else.

Dr. Cordoba, who is the regional head doctor and boss of Dr Caballeros, showed up to resolve the situation.

Dr. Cordoba, who is the regional head doctor and boss of Dr Caballeros, showed up to resolve the situation.

The same thing happens here, and although the activity on Tuesday morning was a success in many ways, it was also disappointing.  The four communities served by the EcoFamiliar are made up of over 200 families, each family usually consisting of 6-9 individuals.  Yet at the strike, only about 50 showed up to take the clinic and demand dignified treatment.  Community leaders face this frustration more and more as people get comfortable, and as their needs feel less and less urgent.

When El Salvador was in the throes of the armed conflict, people often could not get food and would go a week without eating.  People’s homes were bombarded and they were left with only the clothes on their backs.  Family members disappeared, children were kidnapped, sons left to serve in the guerrilla, and other forms of loss and familial disintegration.  People felt the need to demand their rights, they felt the need to show up to meetings, to work together.

Now, many of those families live in houses that keep rain and animals out; they do not fear bombs being dropped on them at any moment; they are able to do normal things like send their children to school, do the laundry, and make tamales.  Mostly, these things are thanks to the hard work and organization of community leaders.  But sometimes, these things come as handouts.  And these handouts create a culture of “assistance-ism”, the disappearance of motivation to work for the common good, the expectance for things to be given freely without a counterpart of work and commitment.

It’s complex, because on the one hand there are basic needs that are being met by these ‘handouts’ – houses, shoes, basic grains – but on the other hand, without the involvement of the people being benefitted, they can actually become very disempowering.

That’s why Sister Cities works through CRIPDES, whose focus actually isn’t projects, it’s community organization.  So when a funder shows up to do some sort of project – whether it be building houses, installing a community bakery, or giving out agricultural supplies – we go through the community structures in order to find out what the community’s needs are, and to figure out what will be the community’s counterpart.  Will people volunteer their labor to build the houses with donated supplies?  Will individuals dedicate themselves to the maintenance of the donated equipment?  Is the project something that the community itself has solicited?  Because that way the community becomes the owner of the project, of its success or failure, and it is clear from the beginning that without continual hard work, the project will not thrive.

It’s not perfect, and we don’t always do solidarity well, but it is the model we follow, the goal for which we aim.  Because it is the organization and the active participation of community members that will carry communities like Guajoyo into the future.  And that is the tireless work of the community leaders to inspire, to encourage, to educate, and to reach out to an increasingly comfortable population in an effort to never forget that a healthy community is built by active participation of each of its members.

Taking the Clinic

The new government implemented a program in El Salvador called Eco Familiar, which is essentially theidea of bringing preventative medicine to remote areas to keep disease from reaching emergency state, at which point overcrowded, underfunded hospitals are usually the only option.  It´s simple, it´s genius, and it´s working.

Except in Guajoyo, where the doctor assigned to our EcoFamiliar no sirve — he doesn´t work.  It began with complaints that he wasn´t respecting his schedule and would show up or leave whenever he wanted.  Then the complaints about disrespect or refusal to see patients started to surface.  Now, 9 months later, this doctor faces a community of enraged peasant families who tomorrow morning at 7:30 will take the clinic and refuse to let him enter.

When the situation first began to prove problematic, the community council called a meeting with the doctor and his boss to let them know what the complaints were so he could improve.  When he didn´t improve, we talked to his boss´s boss, whose response was to instal a log-in book in the home of one of the community leaders for the doctor to sign every day when he arrived and when he left the community, for accountability of his working hours.  The doctor signed the book, but habitually falsified the hour.  He would show up at 11:30am and leave at 1, but according to the book he was there from 7:28 to 3:32.  The boss´s boss reverted to the beaurocratic process in order to not deal with this uncomfortable situation.

But meanwhile people in Guajoyo and the neighboring communities were getting sick, and most refused to go to the clinic because of the behavior of the doctor.  Some patients were given incorrect medicine.  Some patients came to the clinic at the crack of dawn to wait to be attended, only to be denied service and badmouthed by the man whothey came to see.  There was one woman last week who gave birth in the hospital and when she came back home, realized the hospital had left something inside her, and she was at risk of infection and tons of other complications.  The doctor refused to go visit her, saying bruskly to the nurse who informed him of the situation “You´re not my boss to be telling me where to go”.

The stories are countless of his mistreatment of the people, but the important part is that this community, an organized community, won´t stand for this kind o f mistreatment.  Which is why tomorrow morning I will proudly  be standing by my friends blocking the entrance to the EcoFamiliar to demand dignified treatment.  Just because this community is poor does not deny them the right to be treated with dignity, and that is a lesson that we should all learn — that we should never stand for anyone for whatever reason to be denied dignity.

Photos to come soon, and an update on how the strike went!

Niña Marta

There are certain routines that define the passing of time in different places.  When I am in Guajoyo, the passing of the tarp-covered pickup truck marks the passing of the hours.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays the young boys´soccer team practices.  At 4 in the afternoon every day everybody is in the street — some are waiting for the pickup truck, the students are getting out of class, and the women young and old are walking with bowls of corn balanced on their heads to the community mill, while men who recently finished working in the fields come out with renewed energy to play soccer on the muddy field.

Now I have a new routine that marks the passing of each of the last 5 weeks of my stay in Guajoyo: at 2 I walk next door to the house of Niña Marta, one of the historic leaders and a force to be reckoned with in Guajoyo.  She is organizing groups of women in 4 different communitites to get together and talk about how to create the El Salvador we — and they — want.  Last week was the first meeting, and a huge storm came in at 1:45 in the afternoon.  Nevertheless, women trickled in under the pouring rain with an eagerness to learn that was energizing to me.

In view of the presidential elections coming up in February of next year, we reflected on the achievements and shortcomings of the current government — the first left wing President in El Salvador.  The women piped up energetically about the huge  benefit that the “school packets” program has been, which gives uniforms, shoes, and school supplies to every student, so that no child has to miss out on education due to financial limitations.  They talked about the support to small agriculture, and the new institutions that serve and empower women.  They also chimed in about the work still to be done — that high schools should provide meals to their students, that envirnomental measures need to be taken and made into law, that the wealthy of this country should be held accountable to pay their taxes, and that legal action must be carried out against public figures who steal — or “divert” — money.  They were full of ideas, and by the time 4:00 rolled around and the meeting ended with a snack of bread and juice, the conversations were still rolling.  I was awed by the maternal power that filled that space on a dreary Wednesday afternoon, and it filled me with hope for this country that is working seriously hard to listen to that maternal voice and create spaces for maternal power where the patriarchy has historically reigned.

Then at 4:30 comes the hour of Niña Marta´s granddaughter, another example of a powerful woman in this community.

Wendy is 17 going on 18, a scholarship recipient in her second to last year of high school, and she is leading a litteracy group with older women in the community.  This is one of the requirements of scholarship recipients through CRIPDES, and Wendy has started up with gusto.  About half of the group of women who come to Niña Marta´s group stick around after bread and juice to make up for the opportunities they didn´t have in a childhood that demanded work and submission instead of offering opportunities to learn.  Some learned a bit through the radio-transmitted educational programs that the guerrilla radio stations would broadcast during the armed conflict.  These groups understood that this was not a war to be won with arms alone, but also by educating and empowering the population.

The current government has made literacy a priority, and dozens of municipalities have already been declared “illiteracy-free” thanks to the efforts of people like Wendy, and with the support of the government.  Wendy gives each woman a workbook, and they laugh their way through the hour-and-a-half of copying sentences, drawing pictures, and sounding out written words.  The themes of the lectures they study include reproductive rights, parenting, agriculture, and citizen-centered democracy.  These women have vast knowledge to share on the subjects, and the literacy groups are a horizontal exchange of knowledge.

I love this routine of Wednesdays, of learning with these women who are the arteries of this community, who are thirsty for knowledge and eager to share the profound knowledge and wisdom they have collected through their decades of living.  And I am proud to be a neighbor to Wendy and Niña Marta, who take an active role in the growth and improvement of their country.

Don Tacho

José Anastasio Ayala Molina

José Anastasio Ayala Molina

I remember that day, the 5th of November 1995, when we arrived with 21 families – some from the coast and others from a community called Tres de Enero near Comalapa.  I came from the coast, where we began preparing the trucks the day before with the wood half-ruined sheet metal that people had, and the few other belongings we had.  That day, the day that we celebrate still, the people from the coast waited for the group coming from Tres de Enero in San Nicolas so we could all venture up the hill together, making the road as we went because everything had grown over during the war

We dumped out our things we had brought right there where Nina Mercedita lives today, and everyone started to make their little hut.  We spent that first night under a huge conacaste tree that used to be here where my house is today, and that night under the conacaste tree I felt security that I hadn’t felt for a long time.

On the morning of November 6th, we had a meeting with all the people that had come, with Marina – who was the CRIPDES coordinator at that time – and with the other people who had come to accompany us.  People came from other communities, from cooperatives, and from the church to be with us, and we felt very good that they were there.  There was still lots of activity of the armed forces in these hills, but we decided to have a dance the second night we were in Guajoyo; everyone was so happy.  We played the music and everybody was dancing.  We were so content in that dance that we didn’t even care when a helicopter passed overhead to drop a bomb.  It passed by looking for the guerrillas and dropped a bomb on the hill called La Campana, just up the road from where we were.  The next day all the people from nearby came to see if we were alive, because they heard the helicopter and thought they had killed us.

We were no longer afraid, and that’s why we kept dancing.  We had lost our fear of the imperialism of the armed forces.

The first work

Well, after that was when the real work started in this community, since when we got here on the 5th there weren’t trees or houses or streets or anything.  Shortly after our arrival, organizations started to send building materials – wood and sheet metal – to make huts.  We formed work groups of 8 to 10 people, and they would make one hut and then another.  We started here where I live and worked our way up the road making huts for each of the families, and after we had made huts for all the 21 families, we went back and helped build homes for the families that came after.

We formed a cooperative, because in those days they still hadn’t given out land to the people.  The cooperative here in Guajoyo was called La Venadera, and it lasted 4 years.  In the coop we would work the land, everybody together, so that everybody in the community had food to eat.  I remember the first year we worked the fields the corn was huge, and practically without fertilizer.  And all these trees that are here now – coconuts, mangos, oranges, avocado, jocote, eucalyptus, papaya – we planted all of them, and some of them came through projects to benefit the community.

Another important job we had in the first months was making the street, because the street that was there before the conflict, and which was in the same place where the main road passes now, had been lost.  It was really hard work, especially making the road that goes into Guajoyito now, but all of us worked together and we felt very content in our new community and proud of our work.

But the most important thing in those first months was the formation of the first directiva, or community council.  In 1992 we had a directiva with a president and everything.  I was the president when the Peace Accords were signed in 1992, and I remember going out on foot to La Florida  and Las Pampas for meetings, since there wasn’t any transportation still.  We were organized by CRIPDES, and they did a lot of work with the people in the communities here.  People would always seek me out as a leader here, but of course there were also always envious men.  They never let me become legalized as president of the directiva when it was legalized.  But at the same time, lots of projects came our way and they always sought me out to work with them.  There were grand projects that came to Guajoyo in those first years.

I had worked with CRIPDES and in community organizing quite a bit; I came to this place with a long history.

Before the repopulation

I was born in San Juan Buena Vista, a small village, in 1927, but I grew up in Honduras.  After my grandmother died we went to Honduras – I was 7 and my 3 sisters went with us.  We went by foot all that distance because there were no cars.

After the war in Honduras, I came here in 1971. I was 44 years old.  In Honduras I had a wife and kids, but I had to flee because there were people who wanted to kill me for being a campesino and because I was poor.  Some members of my family stayed to be with our family, but they killed them.

In 1972 I met the woman who I am still with today, and we spent the whole war together together and today we’re here still together.  Only with the FPL – one of the organizations of guerrillas – sent me to the north of San Vicente to work with the boys there did I leave her side, but I came back quickly to be with my family.  We were always moving from here to there because of the violence, and sometimes in the guinda we would have to flee very far and hide in the wilderness.

It was around that time, when everybody was running all over the place, that they tricked us and brought us to the coast.  There were 60 families that they told there was a place of refuge there on the coast, but on the way there we got lost in the wilderness for 3 days, and when we finally got there there was no refuge.  They sent the people to various different places.  But for better or for worse, we stayed there, and they put me in charge of forming a PPL – that’s what we called the community councils back then – but hardly anyone showed up at first.

The thing is that there was lots of division between the different groups that made up the FMLN.  We were part of the FPL, the organization that had the most people, but there were others, like the ERP – which had lots of fighters but very few people from the regular population – the PC, the PRTC, and the RN.  But there was a great level of organization in the coastal zone, and that’s where I learned how to organize and lead.

The FMLN wanted to send me away to work with them, but I didn’t want to go, so they left me there working as the coordinator of the church.  The church coordinated with CRIPDES, and that’s how I started working with them and was named as member of the departamental team of CRIPDES.  I was in charge of finances, and there were lots of development projects like the cultivation of shrimp and tilapia.  From there on the coast I eventually moved to San Carlos Lempa, where I got involved in the cooperative there, called El Coyol.  But I quit that work to come here to Guajoyo.

Our sister cities and projects

In 1992 and 1993 was when the sister relationships started.  We were invited to a meeting in the national university in San Salvador.  They asked me a ton of questions about how things were in Guajoyo.  There were three sister cities: Buffalo, McAllen, and then later Austin.  The group in Buffalo was rich – they had lots of money – although it didn’t last that long.  All three helped so much, and I admired these people who would arrive by foot to the community to support us and to get to know our community.

One day I went to one of the meetings in La Florida, and an organization called Fe Alegria was there and was offering a project to build schools.  I had to really put myself out there in that moment, because we really had a great need and lots of children who needed a school.  They were receiving classes from the popular educators in the community under a tree, but they got wet when it rained.  The schools had already all been given away when I got to that meeting, but one was given to a community called El Porvenir, and they ended up not wanting it, so it was given to Guajoyo.  In order to build that school we all worked hard.  From Sunday to Sunday we would hold assemblies to encourage the people who were working until it was completed.

Then came the water system project, in which the sister cities were extremely supportive.  We searched and searched for a good water source, because the springs near where people lived produce very little water.  Finally we found the vein up in the hills, so we went to search for the owner of the land to tell him we wanted to buy it from him.  In those days we were always tromping around all over the place like crazy, all over these hills and then in town to do all the paperwork, looking for good water for our community.

When we contacted the man who owned the land, he told us that he wasn’t willing to sell just the part of land that had the spring on it, that we would have to buy all of it – and it was huge.  He asked for 370,000 colones, and we ended up paying 300,000 colones.  A big portion came from the sister cities, which had given $60,000 to buy some oxen and carts for the cooperative.  But we wrote them a letter and together decided to use that money to help buy the land.  By a miracle and with lots of support we managed to buy all the land.  Then we sold parts of it, and 14 acres stayed in the hands of the community.  That land is still there, and we haven’t used it for anything else but where the water tank is.

All these cement block houses you see here are also from various projects.  My house was from a Swiss organization after the earthquake in 2001. The house of my sister, Marta, is from a project that was called San Vicente Productivo.  And sometimes the projects weren’t that good, and the houses were easily destroyed.  There in my plot of land you can see a cement foundation, which was the foundation of a house that was given to me, but a year later the walls fell.

Everything here has been achieved through the organization of the people, and with lots of support from people from the other communities and organizations here and in other countries.  I feel content now in my little home with my land and my wife.  Community organization today isn’t the same as it used to be, because now people expect just a handful of people to do everything, but that’s not what it’s about.  But I maintain hope that this community will continue to move forward, and that these youth can overcome all the difficulties that they are living today.