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.


Salvadorans, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

There isn’t anybody who doesn’t know a Salvadoran, or at least, someone who knows a salvadoran. At any rate, a wise teacher was once asked “What is a Salvadoran?” His response was the following:

Oh, the Salvadorans! What a difficult question! Salvadorans are among you but are not one of you. Salvadorans drink from the same cup of joy and bitterness. They make music of their cries and laugh when they hear music. Salvadorans take jokes seriously and make jokes about serious matters. They don’t believe in anybody yet they believe in everything. Don’t even think about getting in an argument with them! Salvadorans are born with wisdom. They don’t need to read, because they know everything! They don’t need to travel, they’ve seen it all! Salvadorans are sort of like the chosen people, chosen by themselves. Salvadorans are characterized as individuals for their understanding and intelligence, and as a group for their impassioned shouts.  Each and every one of them has a spark of genius and geniuses don’t get along well with them. Getting Salvadorans together is easy, but unifying them almost impossible. Don’t talk to them about logic, because that implies reason and measure and Salvadorans are hyperbolic and exaggerated. For example, if they invite you to a restaurant, they don’t just take you to the best restaurant in town, they take you to the best restaurant in the world. When they argue, they don’t say “I don’t agree with you,” but rather “You are completely mistaken!” They have anthropographic tendencies, hence “Se la comio — He ate it!” is an expression of admiration, and to eat a beautiful woman indicates an favorable situation. Saying to someone “eat shit” is a lacerating insult. Salvadorans have so much love for contradiction that they call a beautiful woman “culo– ass” and a scholar they call “animal.” If you are afflicted by any health situation they will advise you “Brother, you should have talked to me and I would have taken you to a buddy of mine, he’s a badass doctor!” Salvadorans offer solutions before they know the problem… For them, there is never a problem. They know what must be done to erradicate terrorism, prosecute poor countries of the Carribean, eliminate hunger in Africa, pay the external debt, who should be president and how the United States can become a world power. They don’t understand why others don’t understand their ideas that are so simple and clear, and they’ll never understand why everyone doesn’t want to learn to speak Spanish. Oh, Salvadorans! We can hardly live with them, but it is impossible to live without them!

Dedicated with much affection to the inhabitants of the best country in the world,

Gabriel Garcia Márquez.marquez

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.

Catching Fire

I just saw Catching Fire at the movie theater, and its impact was much more profound than the first movie and reading all three books, and it has everything to do with El Salvador.

katnissThe difference is that this time, watching the second film in the series, I knew that it is all real, and it was shocking to see l reality on a large screen while I reclined in an excessively cushy theater seat.  I know it is real because I have been living in El Salvador, where revolution and repression and uprising are part of regular vocabulary, where the violent incarnation of this is still fresh in the memory.  I was reading a movie review that said:

“Catching Fire makes use of the simply horrific circumstances of this futuristic world and calls us out on the things that could go wrong. This isn’t mere fantasy: Suzanne Collins (the author of the books) makes it feel like this could actually happen, if we let it.”

occupy fistIt could actually happen?  Futuristic? This is something that is happening, and that has already happened.  It is the history of revolution.  Think of the film as representing the Occupy Movement, with The Capital as the 1% and all the districts as the 99%.  And the game? It’s capitalism and global economics.  Because the thing is that everybody’s playing the game, but the odds will ever be in favor of The Capital, because they created the game.  The game of capitalism is designed in such a way that only the 1% (the mega-rich, the owners of everything) can ever really win, and the rest of the districts will constantly be pitted against each other for meager winnings.  In this game of survival, the genius of the creators of the game is that the other districts turn into one another’s enemy, while The Capital maintains this sort of protector-provider role, even while they are the ones coordinating the carnage.

El Salvador, like most of Latin America, is a country of extremes, and has historically been divided into a numerically tiny upper class that controls nearly all of the economy and property, and a giant lower class that has hardly anything but their numbers.  Similarly with global leadership, there are the leaders of the few wealthy countries that control the economy, then there’s all the leaders of  rest of the world.  In the 1970’s and 1980’s in El Salvador, thousands of people decided that it was no longer ok that the few feast at the expense of the famine of the masses, and so they started demanding changes. (things like possibilities for poor farmers to own land, end to indentured servanthood, fair democratic government…)

The people who held the power were afraid of these ‘deviants’, so they started responding violently.  Leaders of other bigger, more powerful countries were also afraid that this kind of ‘deviant’ behavior could catch on in their own backyards and disrupt the fragile system that was working so well (for those few of them).  So they sent millions of dollars to combat the movement.  But for every movement leader that was killed, a hundred more desperate campesinos came up in their place, much in the way that Rue’s death spurred the bold actions of her fellow District 11-ites, who suffered death for daring a 3 finger salute.  Meanwhile, the powers that be were fighting desperately to distract everybody else from what was going on.  The desperate campesinos were portrayed as uneducated terrorists in the limited media coverage they got, and meanwhile the rest of the world was being urged to consume more and more, for each man to fight his personal battle of achievement and wealth.

The violence and in-humanity of the conflict in El Salvador was far more grotesque than that of The Hunger Games, and like in the books, there is little resolution in the ending.  In  El Salvador, the revolution is still happening.  There is still poverty and hunger and wealth and excess.  I know this because of the brave people I work with there who remember their history, and who work every day to create a world with justice and equality for all.

And I challenge any of you who have seen the movie or who are going to see it, think beyond the scary flesh-eating monkeys or the complicated love triangle (although, I wouldn’t dare deny that those are important and valid parts of the film) and to consider how it might actually reflect our current reality.  In what ways might we, the privileged classes in the U.S., beThe Capital?  In what ways might we be distracting ourselves from what is really going on in the world around us?  Where are the District 12’s?  Who are the Katnisses of our world?

Going Away

Dear, dedicated readers,

I have disappeared for a brief while in the flurry of final days living in Guajoyo and first days being back in Texas.  My time as a Sister Cities volunteer came to an end on November 7th when I flew back to the United States.  The good news? I have officially accepted a position as the new El Salvador Coordinator for US El Salvador Sister Cities, starting at the beginning of January.  So as I loaded my giant lime green suitcase into the truck that took me to the airport, the sweet sorrow of parting was sweetened by knowing that I would be back — very soon.

I could not have asked for a better last couple of weeks as a volunteer.  November 2-5 was the festival in Guajoyo celebrating the anniversary of when the community was started by those 21 brave, displaced families.  There seems to be a direct correlation between hard working and partying hard, and this community that astounds me with their work ethic continued to impress with this festival, which began at 4am each day for 4 days, and cost hours of lost sleep, sliced fingers, and unthanked errand-running for the community leaders who pulled it all together.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREWe started on Saturday, November 2nd with a 4am serenade and fireworks, in which musicians made their way up the main road of the community, stopping in front of houses to sing romantic songs and shoot off fireworks to wake everybody up.  By 6am, the musicians had made their grand traverse and ended up at the school, where sleepy-eyed children and young men stand in line waiting for the hot coffee and sweet bread that is given to everyone who wants some.  The women who prepare this early morning refreshment had been there since 4, when the singing and fireworks told them it was time to start the day.  This was how each day began.

equipoSaturday was also the day of the men’s soccer tournament, which lasted  the entire day and included a dozen or so teams from all over the area.  I was the “madrina” for one of Guajoyo’s teams, which is something between a mascot and a sponsor.  I was given a glitter-encrusted banner to wear, and was escorted out on the field before their first game to present a new soccer ball to the players.  It felt very old-world, like I was the young maiden for whom the strong, valiant players would fight and win.  But despite their undying devotion to me, our team came in 4th place.  The winning team took home a cash prize, but my team will keep the soccer ball I gave them, and it will be one of the few they have to use in practice every week.

Exif_JPEG_PICTURESunday the 3rd was another day of tournaments, this time the kids and women.  The boys’ teams went first, some of them playing barefoot in mix-matched shorts and t-shirts, and others with well-kept cleats and matching uniforms.  The teams were mixed with boys from 9 to 13 years old, and the difference in size is amazing just in that 4 year range.  But the little boys and the young men played together with their all, and the winning team took home their cash prize.  The women’s tournament was the same way, and only some teams sported coordinating uniforms.  There were significantly fewer teams than for the men, but these young women made up for their numbers in hutzba; the soccer field was their battlefield and they were all in.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREAfter the tournaments wrapped up came the greased pig competition, which isn’t unfamiliar to any of you who grew up in a rural area.  The idea is to cover a young pig in lard and set it loose in the middle of a ring of young men who throw themselves without abandon on the slippery swine, and whoever manages to grab hold of it gets to take the pig home as their prize.  This year, either the pig wasn’t sufficiently greased, or the number of chasers was too great, but once the pig was released the whole spectacle didn’t last more than 10 seconds.  The true entertainment, however, was watching the pig being carried away by the 5 beaming men who managed to wrap hands around it first, and before an hour had passed, the animal was slaughtered, sliced, and distributed into 5 more-or-less even portions.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREMonday was a frenzy of work and play, as the men and women responsible for the next day’s lunch slaughtered, cleaned, and cut up the two cows that would soon be turned into soup.  Amid that excitement was the presentation of the 2 candidates for Queen of the Fiestas.  Dressed in evening gowns and standing in the back of a rusty pick-up truck decorated with balloons and streamers, they paraded up through the community accompanied by a crowd of children begging them to throw a Exif_JPEG_PICTUREpiece of candy their way.  The school band and twirlers led the parade up the dirt road to the end of the community, and the two young candidates got to feel like princess for the day.   Later that evening, the community’s young performers — the clowns, theater group, and break dancers — put on a show lit by the moon and a single dangling light bulb for the 200-or-so community members who showed up.  At the end of the night, the winner of the pageant was announced and presented to the audience with gracious curtsies and waves.

Exif_JPEG_PICTURETuesday, November 5th was the big day, the actual anniversary of Guajoyo’s birth.  The women are the true heroes of this day of festivities, as in many ways they are the true heroes of this community, where they not only nourish and care, they are the stable foundation and intertwined roots of the families that inhabit Guajoyo.  The day started, as usual, with the 4am wake up call and handing out coffee and bread, after which the same women stuck around to start preparing the soup that would feed the 800 attendees of the afternoon’s event.  We sliced vegetables, cut meat, and stirred the 9 giant pots that sat steaming over small fires scattered across the schoolyard.  Meanwhile, the men began setting up chairs for the ceremony that took place at 11.

The ceremony represented the reason for the whole celebration: it honored the past and recognized the heroes of the past and present who are part of creating a society of justice and wellbeing for Guajoyans and for Salvadorans.  Julio recalled the events surrounding that historic day on November 5th 1991, and invited the veterans to stand and be applauded.  Speakers from the Table of Honor stood up and made a call to the young people of Guajoyo to chose to be a part of that legacy by making good changes for the community.  For me, it was a very special moment to witness this part of historic memory — the intentional practice of remembering and recognizing that where we came from is part of where we are going.  Although Guajoyo is not alone as a community that faced hardship and regeneration during the armed conflict, there are few that continue to celebrate their anniversaries as Guajoyo does, and that important history becomes farther away and slowly forgotten.  For Guajoyo, however, the dream that those 21 families had back in 1991 is very much still alive today, and is the driving force behind the incredible work that they continue to do today.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREAfter the ceremony, everybody in attendance was invited to a lunch of beef soup, which was the climax of the organizational frenzy of the whole week.  Making sure everyone only got their fair share, that the elderly were served first, that each bowl had a piece of meat in it, that everyone got the flavor of soda they wanted, that kids didn’t sneak back into line for seconds — was an impressive and exhausting feat.  When all the soup was served and the schoolyard was abandoned by the 800 guests, all who remained were the same women who had been getting up at 4am every day, and who had been working in the outdoor kitchen for 10 hours with hardly any rest.  We cleaned up and went home for a brief rest.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREFor the young people in the community, the highlight of the fiesta is the night of the 5th, when a huge truck backs onto the soccer field and unloads the speaker stacks, lights, and tarps for the dance.  Under a star-filled sky, a couple hundred people of all ages crowded around the DJ and danced cumbia, salsa, electronic, reggaeton, and rock.  This was my going away party, and I felt the love of this community pulsing through my body just as the vibrations of the music were pulsing through my limbs.  The boys who caused me hell in English class or who irritated me with their cat calls when I walked by the tienda danced with me respectfully, and we lost ourselves in the goofiness of jumping up and down in a crowd up sweaty people.  I’m a dancer, so this is how I connect with people and the world, and the experience of sharing a dancing space and losing all sense of pride and insecurity with the movement of the pulsing beat was perfect.  I will hold on to that memory for the rest of my life.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREThe next day we were all sort of in recovery, and I was trying to get the spiders out of my suitcase to make room for all my things.  In the afternoon, the youth committee called a “meeting”, and when I showed up they had planned a full-out going away party, complete with a cake, pinata, and each person standing up and saying words of appreciation.  As I looked around the cyber cafe at the faces of my friends, I realized how much this place had become home for me.  It was a sort of bitter-sweet realization, because I know that I have set myself up for a lifetime of broken heartedness, with one foot always in one place and the other foot in another.  It is similar to the plight of immigrants, who do not belong fully to the place they came from nor to the place they have gone to.  I am not Salvadoran, and will never really understand the daily realities of the people in Guajoyo, but I am also changed from the east texan girl who I used to be, and a piece of my heart will always be in this community.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREI write this post from my old house in Austin, where most things are the same as before I left, as if it were all a stack of Jenga blocks that I pulled myself out of, only to slide back in a few months later.  I’m visiting the people and places that are my other home, here in the United States, before starting my new position as a Sister Cities employee.  And already I can feel the change, that impossibility of wholeness because I straddle two different worlds.  But for people like me, we find wholeness in the decision to pursue that thing that split us in two — for some it is the dream of being able to work and support their families back home, for me it is the dream of fighting injustices anywhere to create justice everywhere.

Watch a video of  Guajoyo’s anniversary festivities here

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.