Thoughts from the Air

First of all, I have not posted in such a long time because I am now working full time as Co-Coordinator of US El Salvador Sister Cities, and I don’t seem to find as much writing time as I did last year as a volunteer. So, for what it’s worth, that’s why.

IMG_5549As I write this, I am sitting in a plane crammed to the brim on its way to El Salvador after spending just over 2 weeks popping all over the US – New Jersey, Philly, Annapolis, and Texas.  People often ask me what I think about the US when I come back to visit, if it seems totally bonkers, if I seethe with judgment at the excesses that abound in my home country.  The truth is yes, it does seem pretty bonkers, but no to the seething part.

I start out by telling people that there are things I find absolutely insane in both countries, and assure them that I am not “anti-American” (a common concern among family members who read my blog).  Have I learned things that make me critical of many US foreign policies and parts of our culture that the more my eyes are opened the more I see that they are killing us a slow death of depersonalization? – Certainly. But I also think that being critical of my nation and its policies, practices, and peculiarities is one of the most American things I can do. I love my country, and I feel a deepening sense of belonging to it (especially to the beautiful state of Texas), but the worst thing I could do as an American is blindly accept and approve of it all.

The first thing that always hits me when I come back is how depersonalized things are – at the Houston and Dallas airports, there is an ongoing effort to reduce all human interaction as much as possible. You step off the plane and follow arrows pointing you to where to go, push buttons on machines to pass through different checkpoints, and even food court restaurant menus are increasingly electronic.  But it doesn’t stop when I finally self-direct my way out of the airport – people get directions and recommendations on their electronic devices, grocery store check-outs are self-service, and we do not know our neighbors.  I have little doubt that this kind of isolation and dehumanization has something to do with the kind of mental health disasters that make the news all-too frequently these days.

Another thing that is always shocking is how much we feel we need to be in control – it makes us feel safe, and by all means we must feel safe. We plan everything down to the last minute, and we like to know what is coming.  We make our living environments as sterile as possible, and we depend on technology to tell us what is coming – with the weather, driving directions, and social events – so that we will never be surprised and we’ll never have to not know what’s going on.  We even control the temperature around us, losing touch with the seasons and the movement of the sun across the sky. I feel disoriented by these things, not perhaps because they are bad or good, but because they are in stark contrast to what I am used to in El Salvador and how I connect to each moment and my surroundings.

It is difficult to see the excesses that people have, but not because I am angry at people for having too much while so many other have so little.  Actually, the excess stuff that fills the lives of so many Americans makes me profoundly sad for them. I see a desperate search for security, belonging, self-value, and acceptance that will never be satisfied by the things people seek to fill them with.  I wish they could experience instead that the practice of generosity and the ways that giving away more than you have can be filling and life-giving.  Studies show over and over again that the more people have, the less they give. I see this in El Salvador where friends, neighbors, and strangers who have very little are so extremely willing to give of themselves and their belongings. But we have been taught that our stuff equates to our security, that we must have a thing for each possible need, want, or whim. Meanwhile we’re talking to machines and rolling around in air conditioned hamster balls and wondering why we still haven’t gotten there yet.
IMG_1020These are the things that being away help me see about my home, about my culture, much like the way that when you’re baking you don’t notice the smell until you step outside and come back in. But just like the baking smells, there are rich, delicious things I notice as well. First of course is family, and the fact that I will never be loved and belong like I do here by my own family. I also love the cultural diversity and open-mindedness that is the result of living in a country of immigrants, a country that has absorbed the rejected, the innovators, the ahead-of-their-timers for over 400 years. I love being able to have tacos for breakfast, curry for lunch, and General Tso’s for dinner. I love that nearly all kids learn art and sports, and that schools are becoming increasingly holistic and work year by year to become more fertile ground for growth, creativity, and imagination. I love that we have public libraries, and I love bike lanes. I love that there are places and people who work to instill a love for nature and dirt and clean skies.

So please, don’t read my blog and believe that I am anti-American.  Read my criticisms and observations as affection for my home and for my people, as the practice of hoping that we can and must make our world a better place each day. And join me in trying to do so.

Back in El Salvador, and Elections

Alright, I’m overdue for an update.

Visiting a scenic rock formation near the cost in La Libertad with some leaders in local community organizing.

Visiting a scenic rock formation near the cost in La Libertad with some leaders in local community organizing.

My excuse is that I just got hired as the new US El Salvador Sister Cities Coordinator, so for the past month I’ve been training and diving headfirst into all the work that needs to be done. And before that I spent November and December with my family in Texas, eating lots of breakfast tacos and taking hot showers.

I came back to El Salvador on  New Years day, just one month before the Presidential Elections.  It has been a very exciting context to be working in, and as seems to always be the case here in El Salvador — I’m learning a ton.  There is a lot riding on these elections — each of the candidates have very different ideas about how to address gangs, what economic development should look like, how to help poor farmers, and whether or not to let mega transnational companies wreak economic and environmental havoc on this tiny country at the waistline of the Americas. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced an election that feels like it has so much at stake as this one.

There are 3 main candidates, which in and of itself is unique from elections I’ve experienced in the US.  El Salvador does not have a 2 party system, and new parties are being born all the time. Also, they held a presidential debate for the first time ever this year — and all the candidates participated.  Granted, it was severely lacking in organization and direction, but that’s a major step towards a true democracy in which citizens are considered intelligent beings capable of making informed, educated decisions.

It is most impactful for me to think that an election could have such an impact on a country, and how in the US so often we have great high hopes for people who represent our interests, but who in the end somehow manage to all be pretty much the same.  Not to say that El Salavdor has only altruistic, independently thinking candidates — I’m not that naive.  But it does feel like making changes is really possible here.  Maybe it’s because it’s such a small country.

I’m excited to see the outcomes of these elections, and proud to see my friends con animo about practicing their right to vote as part of the process of creating the El Salvador that each of us hopes for.

Immigration and Immigrants

This weekend I went down to Houston to visit my host brother.  The last time I saw him he was riding into the sunset in the back of a pickup truck, leaving El Salvador to try for the American Dream.  I stood beside his mom, who at 33 years old, had just put the title to her home and small piece of land on a loan so her oldest son could go to a place where he might have a future.  She didn’t cry until the next day, her son’s 18th birthday, because he wasn’t with us.

Now he is in Texas, and so is a whole clump of young people from Guajoyo.  He shares an apartment with about 6 of his friends from back home, who when I showed up, talked for hours about how much they miss fishing in the Lempa River, growing corn in the foothills, and living life slowly and deliberately with their families.  Some of them have been here for 9 years, and some just got here less than a month ago, and several of them have children who they left back in Guajoyo, and who motivate them to work construction jobs and live in hiding so they can send back a few hundred dollars — a fortune — to their families each month.

We went to  a sort of Chinese-Central American fusion all-you-can-eat place filled with latinos on a Sunday afternoon in the outskirts of Houston.  People in El Salvador love to talk about the buffets, where you can fill your plate as many times as you care to, one of the many legends from the Land of Possibilities.  Over plates piled high with pupusas and general Tso’s chicken, they asked all about Guajoyo, the weather, the crops, the fiesta, the gangs, the soccer field.  In a way, their lives are not their own.  They have sacrificed ‘home’ so their families can survive, and everything they do  is for those people who stayed behind.

From the buffet, they took me to the place where many of them work making wooden pallets.  On the grounds of the work site is a small trailer home, and when we went inside I was met with another clump of Guajoyans, a few of them young women who I was hanging out with not too long ago back in El Salvador.  They have created this little community and support network that feels just like an arm of Guajoyo in this strange land of unlimited Chinese food and English-speaking employers.  They envy me for the fact that I can go back and forth between these two worlds, and they welcomed me into their world just as their families had done the same for me in Guajoyo.  In a way, I am able to connect the two worlds, bringing tokens of love from one to the other, bringing encouragement and news.

While it is exciting to see these friends in my home state and see that they are doing well and supporting one another, it breaks my heart to know that they have left a gaping hole of youth in Guajoyo.  There are hardly any young people left between the ages of 18 and 30 who haven’t made that northern journey, and I have a hard time imagining anything but the crumbling of the social structure with such a huge hole in the middle of the whole thing.  What a tragedy that so many thousands — even millions — of people have to leave their homes, their families, and their communities to seek any kind of future.

I’ve written a few times about how my perspective on immigration has changed as a result of this experience.  I came at the beginning of this year with the idea of convincing young people in Guajoyo not to immigrate, that it was a better option to stay in their communities and work for a better future in El Salvador.  But I have come to experience what it means to live in a place that does not offer a future, to understand that those young immigrants know they are signing up for hardship and suffering, and yet that is a better option for many than staying where there are no jobs, where climate change jacks up the precariousness of subsistence farming, where being young is a crime, where the innocent pay the price for the corrupt.  And while I wish they weren’t coming here, somehow now I can’t blame them.

No means NO!

Gold mining is bad — it’s as simple as that.  In industrial quantities it requires the use of toxic chemicals and irrational quantities of water, and inevitably results in illness and suffering for the population, and environmental effects that are lasting and non-erasable.  And thanks to the insistence of the Salvadoran people, El Salvador is uniquely gold mining-free.

The Mesa, or the National Round Table Against Metallic Mining, presented the text of the proposed law before media and representatives of various organizations on Tuesday of this week.

The Mesa, or the National Round Table Against Metallic Mining, presented the text of the proposed law before media and representatives of various organizations on Tuesday of this week.

There used to be active gold mines around the 1880s to 1970s, but the fad waned and it didn’t seem to be that profitable of a prospect in El Salvador.  The sites of those mines are still plagued by contaminated water and devastating levels of disease in the population. But then in the ’90s as gold prices began to rise and interest was renewed, transnational mining companies began wanting to poke around in El Salvador again.  In 1995 a law passed in El Salvador allowing mining exploration, which gave companies permission to do studies in areas where it was thought that mining was viable and then request permission from the government to get digging.  Luckily, the noise made by the people ensured that no permits were actually granted, but these greedy companies were not deterred.

There is definitely current exploration, but no current extraction in El Salvador.  The Canadian company Pacific-Rim has even gone so far as trying to sue the country of El Salvador for denying their request for a mining permit (which was denied on environmental grounds), citing Free Trade agreements made in the mid 2000’s as grounds for the denouncement.  The current government has stood firm against such pressure, but elections are coming up in February, and who’s to say how the next government will respond?

That’s why the National Round Table Against Metallic Mining presented their new proposed law on Tuesday of this week, which will be presented in the legislative assembly on October 1st by a mass of people who are planning on marching the decree right up to the front door of the legislature.   I like this law, because it’s simple.  In 8 articles the law says:

There will be no metallic mining (exploration or extraction) in El Salvador.

There will be no exceptions made that might allow metallic mining in El Salvador.

Any further laws — past or present — that might seem to make it seem like mining is ok are overruled by this law.

No means NO!

Plain and simple, just like that.  Mining is bad, and it doesn’t have any benefits for El Salvador, so why would we want to allow it?  Wouldn’t it be amazing if we approached other issues with this attitude?  The pueblo has a capacity for seeing things with this kind of clarity that perhaps lawmakers and businessmen do not have.  And that is why it is eternally and extremely important for people to be aware of what is going on around them, and to stand up when something is wrong.  We can’t expect lawmakers and businessmen to make right decisions on their own, and that is what the United States needs to learn from El Salvador.

When we will say No means NO?

Independence Day

Exif_JPEG_PICTURESeptember 15th is Central American Independence Day, the day that the Republic of Central America declared independence from Spain in 1821.  Over the course of the next several decades, the Republic began breaking up into different countries.  There was a group of people who were proponents of a single Central American republic, and many of those people were concentrated in the area now known as El Salvador.  But the forces of division were stronger, and by 1859 El Salvador was the last chunk of Central America that hadn’t broken off – hence its tiny size – and that year El Salvador declared itself an independent, free, and sovereign nation.

Students at the school in Guajoyo from 4th through 9th grade participate in traditional folk dance at this year's Independence Day Celebration.

Students at the school in Guajoyo from 4th through 9th grade participate in traditional folk dance at this year’s Independence Day Celebration.

Independence Day is an ironic holiday though, because many of us argue that El Salvador never really achieved independence, and certainly is not functioning as a sovereign nation today.  Ever since its independence in the 19th century, El Salvador has been at the mercy of the economic whims of the world’s super powers.  In the 1870s, Central America saw the construction of the first railroads, which made it possible for agricultural products to be easily transported to the Atlantic coast and exported to Europe, where the thirst for coffee was insatiable.  These railroads were built with money mostly from England, a project that made millions for English investors in coffee and the handful of Salvadoran coffee plantation owners, while stripping the population of lands and indigenous identity.

Then in the 19th century the United States emerged as a superpower, and took on the role (which we still maintain today) as international police and powerhouse of all the Americas.  The US built the Panama Canal – another major project of economic interest – and needed to protect their dominance in the Central American region so they could keep getting richer off the exportation and transportation that their new canal enabled.

Students dressed in traditional attire and donning symbolic items that represent the heritage of El Salvador paraded through the community on Saturday.

Students dressed in traditional attire and donning symbolic items that represent the heritage of El Salvador paraded through the community on Saturday.

The US dug its hands deeper into the pockets of El Salvador by giving loans to the government that were paid by the country’s import and export tariffs, and began buying off the railroad and mining companies that formed the backbone of trade and wealth in El Salvador.  In that way, the gringos managed to get their hands on great power in El Salvador, and with the support of the Salvadoran government.

See, it’s been the same story for centuries now: the people who control business and most of the land in the country are those who are in political power, and it is in their favor to maintain strong ties with the United States because their businesses and products benefit from the US market or the loans given by the gringo government or institutions.  But the problem is that this kind of relationship has historically only been beneficial to that small group of people who maintain political, social, and economic power.   In theory, the way international politics works is that each country is looking out for its own best interest, and will make policies and agreements that favor their national interest.  But the flaw in that theory is that countries with less power – like El Salvador – are often handed over by their own leaders to the whims of the global superpowers so that a few can benefit.

So, according to theory, can you really blame the US for looking out for its own best interest?  But in practice, can you really expect countries with a weaker economy and less development to stand up to an economic power like the US?

Here are some of the examples of how El Salvador is not operating as a sovereign nation today:

  • Even though El Salvador is a country of agricultural production with capacity to produce all the basic grains consumed within the country, increasing percentages of basic grains (including corn and beans) are imported, and mostly from the US.
  • Infrastructural development – like roads, electricity, and water – depends on projects funded by organizations in other countries.  The Salvadoran government is easily manipulated by the governments of those countries, who might say something like  “if you want the $$ to build these roads, you should probably pass ____ law…”
  • Most of the major products consumed by this increasingly consumerist society are made by mega international companies that dominate the market and make the emergence of Salvadoran companies for Salvadoran (and international) consumption impossible
  • Free Trade policies that enable more powerful countries to benefit from cheap labor in El Salvador – which perpetrates poverty instead of ending it – while making it easier for already wealthy international companies to dominate the Central American market as well.
  • A Canadian mining company is trying to sue the country of El Salvador for refusing to allow them to mine gold in El Salvador, due to the detrimental environmental and humanitarian effects.  El Salvador should have the right to deny foreign companies from getting rich at the expense of Salvadoran wellbeing.
Kilmar, one of the youth who participated in the Peace Band, bears the heat of the midday sun.

Kilmar, one of the youth who participated in the Peace Band, bears the heat of the midday sun.

So this Independence Day perhaps what we are celebrating is the struggle for independence, the struggle that began long before 1840 and continues today.

Thinking Like a Westerner

After a 2 week tour of the places that are home to me in Texas, I came back to El Salvador, this time with my dad, so he could see this place that’s grabbed ahold of me and won’t let me go.  I had fun introducing him to my host family, presenting him at the church in Guajoyo, walking down the streets with him, and even walking to see the milpa and pick some young corn to bring back and make tamales out of.  And he, of course, got the celebrity welcoming that Guajoyo (and really all of El Salvador) has gained fame for.  Since everybody in the community knows me and sees my comings and goings, they were all attentive to the arrival of my dad.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREHis Spanish is a bit limited, so he did a lot of observing and gesturing and playing with young kids.  I tried to check in regularly to see how he was doing, if he was feeling good and not too isolated.  One day I asked how he was doing because I noticed he was being particularly quiet.  “I’m fine,” he said, “I’m just thinking like a westerner.  I keep trying to think about how I can make their lives better.”

His comment struck home with me, and I think comes from a way of thinking that we could all identify with – “we” in the sense of me and you, my westerner readers.  We like explanations, and when there’s no explanation to inequality we want to fix it.   And I really think that’s a great quality of our culture, that we are raised to be innovators, we seek solutions, we seek resolution to dissonance.  But – because there’s always a but – we don’t always need to fix everything.

Being a volunteer with an organization that funds development projects and other kinds of projects, I think a lot about what is the most productive use of money.  What is it that we’re ultimately after?  For many of us, we step into situations of poverty and we see all the things that we have and they do not, and that makes us uncomfortable.  Why shouldn’t this family, which is full of love and fun and so hard-working, be able to have a house free of mosquitoes, a vehicle so they don’t have to wait on the bus, a flushing toilet, and more than a few changes of clothes?  They deserve such comforts as much as I do, or even more than I do.  We want to fix poverty by filling that gap between what we have and what they don’t have.

Cousins of my host family who want to be when they grow up (from left to right): an engineer, a nurse, and a doctor.

Cousins of my host family who want to be when they grow up (from left to right): an engineer, a nurse, and a doctor.

But is that the most productive use of money? And we still haven’t answered that question of what we’re ultimately after.  Is equality really the main goal?  I think we’ll just find ourselves frustrated if that’s what we’re looking for.  I think what we really mean but just hadn’t thought about is that what we really want is equal access to basic human rights for all.  For me, it is unacceptable that a person has to leave their family and place they are from to work illegally in another country in order to hope to save enough money to build a house for their family.  A dignified shelter is a human right.  It’s unacceptable for entire communities to be exposed to diseases because of unclean water sources, because water is a basic human right.  That shelters be made of cinder block instead of sheetrock, or that water be delivered via a communal well instead of to a handful of sinks and bathtubs inside each house to me is much less of an issue.

And so living here in Guajoyo, that’s what I keep my eyes opened for: in what ways are people denied access to actual human rights?  Of course, we’ll probably never all agree on a single all-inclusive list of what those basic human rights are, but that’s not really the point.  And each of us, knowing that there are others who live much more comfortable than we do or have more than we do will probably want to have more or be more comfortable.  We always feel our house is a bit small, or our phone is a bit janky, or our wardrobe a bit outdated compared to others.  The same goes here, and there are always people who want their house to be more spacious, their TVs bigger, their shoes more comfortable, their distance to the store shorter.  But really, look at life in the US, where our access to THINGS is truly impressive.  Does that really make us happier?  I think we’ll all agree that those who find happiness do not find it in the things they have.

Yes, we think we can fix poverty with things, and I guess that’s what thinking like a westerner looks like sometimes.  We look at all the things we have and think, well I could give so many of these things to people who have less than me and it would make them so happy because they have so little.  And I guess it would be fun for a little while, but it wouldn’t really change anything.  We’ll continue to have more than we need, and they’ll continue to be systematically denied the right to work and live in peace, with the only difference that we are now exporting the faulty mentality that we need more things to feel satisfied.

“Well what am I supposed to do then?!?!?” you’re probably shouting at your screen, gnashing your teeth and threatening to close this tab and peruse facebook instead.  Stick with me; I’m a solutions-oriented westerner too, so I’ve got some ideas for you.

1) Get educated.  You’re taking a great step by reading this blog, learning about the reality of people who live outside your socio-economic and cultural bracket.  Know what poverty in your town looks like, and if you don’t know, maybe try riding the bus one day and just having conversations with people, do your grocery shopping in a poor neighborhood, or offer a ride to a young mom waiting on the bus.  Poverty isn’t that far from any of us, and certainly not just in El Salvador.

2) Think about your basic rights and what you really need to be satisfied.  Chances are, most people would say more or less the same things once we get down to it.  Keep in mind, I’m not talking about comfort here.  That we have a right to be comfortable is a huge lie, so stop believing it.

3) Combine steps 1 and 2.  As you educate yourself – by reading news and blogs and by meeting people and seeing what poverty looks like close to you and far away – look for the places where groups of people are denied those same basic rights you identified for yourself.  Why don’t they have access to those rights?  What kinds of things are being done to address it?  There are lot of really smart people in the world who are very interested in making the world a better place, so chances are you’ll find someone who is doing good work in the areas that caught your attention.  Find out what they’re doing and how you can get involved.

4) If you have money, donate.  Tithing is a central pillar of the Christian faithful, and in many ways it’s more about loosening our grip on our stuff than it is about giving to the right church or charity.  Generosity is a practice, and if we’re in the practice of thinking that we don’t have enough (which, let’s face it, each of us has bought into that lie at some point or another), then even when you really can give in a way that is impactful, it’s unlikely that you will recognize it or be very willing.  Studies show that it is consistently those who have the least that are the most willing to give.  If you’re in that upper 40% that has plenty (if you’re reading this blog, you probably are), let’s work on turning that statistic upside down.

5) Look into what ways your practices are hurting the human rights of others. If you make it to step 5, you’re getting really advanced. One person choosing to buy fair trade items doesn’t actually do anything to the global market, but when that one person turns into an entire movement, then we’re talking about some impact.  You might also think about this in terms of how you vote on local issues.  We usually each vote for what is most beneficial to ourselves, but start thinking about ways that things that benefit you might negatively affect others.

There you have it, an extremely westerner response to the question of how to not think quite so much like a westerner!

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

You are not alone.

I posted several weeks ago a brief report based on an interview with one of the thousands of men that work in the sugar can fields of El Salvador, and about how these workers are forced to poison themselves, their families, and the land in order to produce the cash crop for absent land owners.  Since then I have found more and more articles about issues with sugar cane in El Salvador and in other parts of Central America, problems with kidney failure, flooding, poor labor conditions, and so much more.

Artwork by a Haitian artist through Project Esperanza in the Dominican Republic.

Artwork by a Haitian artist through Project Esperanza in the Dominican Republic.

Being here, watching the ash of burning sugar cane falling around me, sharing a meal with the men who spend their days spraying pesticides on fields that are not their own, I am enraged.  I am pissed off.  I cannot believe we can be letting this happen.

But I imagine someone far away where sugar looks more like fairy dust than an agricultural product, and all it takes to add some sweet to ones diet is a stroll down the aisle at the grocery store.  I imagine this person saying “What do you expect us to do instead? It seems that everything is an environmental threat these days.”

And the thing is, that person in my imagination is right.  Everything is an environmental threat these days, and that’s not just because certain industries ignore environmental impacts, it is because we are digging ourselves deeper and deeper into confused tunnels where we can neither see the impacts of our actions nor find our way out when we want to.  And we´re so, so afraid to say anything.

It´s not just that these sugar cane farmers are spraying pesticides, but there is also nutritional issues and overly-sugary foods that predispose their kidneys to be affected by the harsh work in the sugar cane fields.  And it´s about a pre-existing poverty that makes it so people would rather get paid $5 a day to poison everything that is home to them than to refuse to do so, which would mean more immediate suffering.  It´s about a political structure that is based on the god of the 21st century more commonly referrred to as The Market.  It´s about a world in which the earth is seen as a commodity rather than as a mother.  It´s about all these things, and we can´t talk about health or human rights or development or sustainable agriculture or youth or violence without recognizing that they are all related to each other.

I know I say it all the time, but it all comes back to the whole solidarity thing.  I´ve been in the Sister Cities office here in San Salvador for a few days this week, and I can´t help but being impressed by the interconnectedness of the lucha here even just in the office.  While Estela works on a report about human rights in Honduras, Alex is talking with Alejandro from the Roundtable Against Metallic Mining, and I´m working with youth popular education organizers about doing trainings with high school students in the Lower Lempa region, where a big chunk of the sugar cane farming happens.

And you, reader, wherever you are, I hope you are fully metido — involved in — some fight for some cause, and I hope that you read this and you know that we are connected to me, to the sugar cane farmers, and to everyone else who refuses to be silent.

One of my best friends who I´ve known so long I can´t remember a time when I didn´t know her is metida in the fight against the TarSands pipeline in the US, and today I have the huge honor of reading her beautiful writing on the Huffington Post here.  We periodically get to skype with each other, and share stories about the luchas that life has put us in, or that we have put ourselves in.

I hope that for those of you reading my blog, it is not just one more hopeless story about our messed up world.  Things here in El Salvador can be very ugly, and there is a lot that we don´t even know about.  But I hope that if there is one take away from these stories, it is that each of us can — no, each of us MUST do something.  The fact that each issue is connected to a thousand others is not something to dispair, but a source of hope, because I think that in the massive web of it all there is a place for each of us.

You are not alone.


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The Daily Grind

Representatives from organizations and communities that work with sistering relationships

Representatives from organizations and communities that work with sistering relationships

I have spent this week in San Salvador, as much to get better from having a skin parasite as to help out with the mountain of work that needed doing here in the national office.  The week has been full of meetings of all sizes and configurations, and it has been interesting to see what the day-to-day work of Sister Cities looks like.

The role of Sister Cities is to facilitate solidarity relationships between US and rural El Salvador communities with the purpose of promoting social justice and sustainable development in both countries.  That’s a mouthful.  But how does one do that??  Sister Cities itself, made up of a network of committees and supporters around the US, is staffed by 2 ladies here in El Salvador and 1 in the US.  On the ground in El Salvador, Sister Cities is part of a network of progressive organizations working to improve the conditions of human rights, health, agriculture, democracy, gender rights, non-violence, etc. in the country.  Check out the glossary section for more info on some of these organizations.

The main organization they work through is called CRIPDES, a Salvadoran organization that is charged with development in rural areas.  CRIPDES works in 7 of the 14 regions of the country, and their main goal is to support the organizational process in communities; helping communities themselves identify and advocate for their needs.  Some of CRIPDES’s current areas of focus are:

  • Political Advocacy (topics include water rights, food sovereignty, anti-mining, tax reform, election observation)
  • Youth Organization
  • Human Rights
  • Solidarity and Human Rights in Honduras
  • Women’s Organizing
  • Risk Management

CRIPDES does their work on the ground through regional organizers (who are, of course, overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated, but they are true heroes in this country) working with the Junta Directivas, or community councils.  Sister Cities does practically nothing outside of CRIPDES, because CRIPDES is made up of Salvadorans, and dedicated to meeting needs as defined by communities, using methods defined by communities.

But beyond CRIPDES, Sister Cities works with a whole boatload of other organizations, only a few of which are listed on the glossary page.  This week was spent in meetings because the daily work of Estela and Alexandra, the staff members here in El Salvador, is about knowing what’s going on in the country, in each region, and in individual communities.  It’s about knowing who is working on what, and how we can come together to support common goals.

A great illustration of this connectedness came in the form of 10 youth organizers who were arrested in December and just released this week, thanks to a press conference held by Sister Cities and supported by several other organizations.  They were arrested for suspected gang involvement, a common problem for youths who are involved in the organization of their communities, the very youth who are actively working against the gang culture of violence and destruction.

One of the released youth organizers with his sister and nephew

One of the released youth organizers with his sister and nephew

More info on their case coming soon 🙂

So, moral of the story, sometimes doing incredible work means sitting in lots of meetings and working slowly because of the interruptions of all the people you’re connected with.  But it’s such, such good work.