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.

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Youth in Photos

MOVING

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

SPEAKING

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

PLAYING

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

Mural!

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

 

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

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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.

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.

Jose Armando

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

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

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

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

Meeting with Geramias, the mayor of Tecoluca

Meeting with Geramias, the mayor of Tecoluca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poverty of the Mind

Jesse with the break dance apprentices

Jesse with the break dance apprentices

A few weeks ago I mentioned to one of the youth leaders in Guajoyo that I would love to see the theater and break dance groups perform, since I still only heard about how great they are.  They took advantage of the visit of my friends Jesse and Natasha to put on a show that was beautiful and unforgettable.  Both groups put on several numbers, and then they invited Jesse and Natasha to get up and sing a few songs (they have a band in Austin called Georgette).  At the end, everybody sang me happy birthday and came up to give hugs to Jesse and Natasha to thank them for visiting, and to me for my birthday.

Only the apprentice break dancers were able to perform that night, because a few of the older ones were out of town that night, but we went the next day to the backyard where the group practices 4 days a week on a slab of concrete that these incredible youths spent months getting money together to be able to pour.  They put on music, and then take turns doing moves, everyone from a 7 year old apprentice to the 25 year old twins who are sort of the leaders of the group.  They are incredible, words cannot suffice how unbelievable it is to watch these young people dance with cows roaming around beside them and mountains and volcanoes in the background.

We were talking with a friend who lives in San Salvador about the violence that is such an issue currently, and what he thinks could possibly happen for El Salvador to overcome the culture of violence that is debilitating the country.  He said he sees it as a poverty of the mind, that because of the history in El Salvador and the structures that define its culture, that people don’t know how to look towards the future and imagine things being better than they are.  If you grow up in an impoverished, dangerous community, how do you imagine a life without violence and a life in which you don’t have to go to extreme measures for basic needs to be met?

Projects for youth aim to address just that.  The projects themselves help the community, but more than that, they create opportunities for youths in the community to think beyond their current situation, to imagine a better life, to think about ways that they can be part of making change happen.

For the break dancers, they saw something that was inspiring to them, and they had the imagination and drive to believe they could learn to do it too.  They taught themselves how to dance just by watching videos and listening to the music.  I know I wrote about this before with the youth projects, but I think it is super important to emphasize that while money and projects are great for the opportunities and structure they help provide, what causes real poverty is hardly material.  And that is important because the same can be true anywhere.  In the United States we can poverty of the mind, a poverty that inhibits us from thinking beyond ourselves and from imagining a future that is different from what we currently know.

Scholarships

One of the major projects that Sister Cities and other similar organizations in El Salvador are working on is offering scholarships to rural youth for whom money is a barrier to attending high school or university.  But the idea of the scholarship program is not simply for kids to go to school, although that’s a lovely thing in and of itself.  The idea of the scholarship program is to give the support necessary to raise up new leaders in these communities that otherwise have limited access to such opportunities.   The hope is always that these young people will use the knowledge and experience they gain from formal education to improve their communities.

That’s why in addition to getting good grades at school, scholarship recipients are also expected to attend assemblies that provide training in diverse topics such as leadership, gender issues, and political formation.  They are also expected to get involved in the organizational process of their community, which means joining the youth committee or participating in the junta directiva.  Because here, having an education is great, but it’s not going to change the situation for these communities.  Those who are lucky enough to get a solid education and a job have to leave the community, because there are no jobs there.  So perhaps that family benefits by having a family member with a salary, but the community stays pretty much in the same.

But if you are selective about who the recipients are, and if you emphasize that the purpose of the scholarship is to build up leaders in the community, then you’re getting into something bigger.  Then you get young people thinking critically about their situation and immersing themselves in the process of figuring out how to improve their communities overall.  And then the resources invested into one person are spread throughout the community.

Meet Wendy, one of Guajoyo's 8 high school scholarship recipients.  She's also my neighbor

Meet Wendy, one of Guajoyo’s 8 high school scholarship recipients. She’s also my neighbor

Tomorrow we have the first assembly of the year with the high school scholarship recipients, and it will mostly be like an orientation to the scholarship program.  The main goal is for the students to understand that by accepting the $25 a month that cover transportation and food expenses to get to school each week, they are committing to attend each of the monthly assemblies and become actively involved in their communities.

Future assemblies will cover topics like popular education, gender issues, organizational tools, political formation, risk management, etc.  We’re currently working on planning these future assemblies with youth leaders from MPR-12 (see glossary for more info!).  These are young men and women 18-26 years old who already have years and years of training and experience being involved in the social movement and popular education in El Salvador.  They are incredible and inspiring, and exemplary of what we hope to achieve with these high school scholarship recipients.

This relationship with MPR-12 is a new one, and one I’m really excited to be a part of facilitating.  Sister Cities and CRIPDES are in the process of shifting their focus from being project-based to being more formation-based.  Just as scholarship recipients will be expected to attend these trainings, in the communities we are hoping to offer more opportunities for leadership formation, giving tools and building a community of leaders with men, women, and youth who are already involved in the organization of their communities.  It is a process founded in the idea that the best support for the communities is within the communities themselves.  By offering tools and support to community members, you are equipping the true experts to take part in this process of development.

More photos will come soon, don’t you worry.

In other news, the mangoes on the trees are getting bigger and beginning to paint themselves yellow, and I couldn’t be more excited.

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.

Youth, immigrants, and a revolutionary way of living

Yesterday was a super full day, so I’ll try to squeeze as much as I can into a little blog here.

When we think of youth, we think of possibility, we think of the future, but this is a place where the youth is very much thought of in relation to the present.  Yesterady morning at the nearly punctual hour of 8am we met with Cesar and Edgar, two of the youth leaders who, through the MPR-12, facilitate political training classes for youth in communities all over the country to give them an understanding of how to think critically and analytically of current events, and what they mean in the context of politics.  There’s so much talk here, as in much of Latin America, about el movimiento, the movement.  (And if you know anything about Latin American history, you know that the entire region spent the better part of the 20th century in a series of popular movements and military or dictatorial repression that ultimately ended in democracy to some degree)  And because there’s such extreme poverty here, there’s this massive motivation to join the movimiento that is trying to change that system.   And the youth are no exception to that eagerness to join on.

We talked a lot about gangs, mostly because in El Salvador you can’t talk about youth without talking about the gangs.  Not because they’re all in one, but because the mere fact of being between the age of 15-21 in El Salvador puts on at risk of being targeted by the gangs.  And part of why they’re so powerful is because they have some really good things going on.  They give kids a sense of belonging, they are extremely connected and organized, and they can mobilize to meet a common goal almost instantaneously.  So the idea these guys have is to offer those same kinds of things but in a way that doesn’t end with teenagers mutilated on the road or carrying heavy weapons around with them in the city. By getting youth involved in organizing their communities and starting a movimiento they get a sense of belonging, purpose, kinship, and mobilization.  It sounds extremely exciting to be in these groups of youth, where they can be the ones responsible for getting an agricultural collective going in their community or where they can become such a powerful force in mobilizing the popular vote that political parties not connected to the youth begin to take notice and get nervous.

Cesar and Edgar really challenged us to think about what we as young people and other youth even younger than ourselves could do if we were organized towards a common goal back stateside.  There are so many injustices in our system, and complacency gives them easy passage.  We talked a lot about the Occupy movement, and also about the Tar Sands blockades going on around the country.  There is already some really positive momentum started in a variety of areas, it just takes people realizing it takes the movimiento of people to make it happen.

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Edgar from MPR-12 (The Popular Movement of Resistance October 12th) asks, what defines a group of young people?

 

After this workshop and a delicious lunch on the patio, we walked over to the Museo de la Imagen y la Palabra, which was started by this guy named Santiago.  During the war, he was a recently graduated photojournalist who realized there weren’t really options for him in a country where the media was all censored, so he went underground.  He and a group of other guerillerros started Radio Venceremos (Radio We Will Overcome), which was transmitted from caves or the jungle to spread revolutionary songs, educational programs, and updates on the actual events and attacks of the war, to list a few programs transmitted.  This museum houses some relics of that war time, as well as other exhibits that showcase the untold histories of El Salvador.  It was a beautiful museum, and I was especially touched by an exhibit called Cartas del Norte, Letters from the North, which was about the immigration of Salvadorans to the United States in search of a way to support their families.

I’ll briefly jump ahead here to a talk we went to later about CAFTA.  In short, what I got out of it is that the US pressured Central America into signing this free trade agreement which resulted in the displacement of huge segments of agricultural production here in El Salvador.  See, the US can give subsidies to farmers to produce things like rice, beans, and corn uber cheaply (and often not very healthily, with things like pesticides and GMOs), and the Salvadoran producers just can’t compete with that.  So now 95% of the grains consumed here in El Salvador come from the US, whereas before they could produce most of what the country consumed.  So in effect the US pushed all these agricultural workers out of jobs with their subsidized, dirty corn, so then you have all these people desperate for work with none to be found here, so they migrate north where there are agricultural jobs and other low paying jobs.  So they work as migrant farm workers, where their rights are often violated, and where as immigrants they are not wanted in the country.

Anyhow, this exhibit on immigration was extra touching for me because of my work with Casa Marianella.  There I worked with the families who were in the lucha of making it work in the US where laws and culture worked against them, but now I get to experience the other end, those who were left behind, or those who stayed behind to continue the lucha of searching for the “Salvadoran Dream” instead of buying into the cheap allure of the so-called “American Dream.”  So many kids are left behind here when their parents leave for the US so they can earn enough to send back remittances so their children can go to school or have 3 meals a day.  And somehow these kids are supposed to know that their parents left because they loved them?  That the hardest thing they ever did was to leave their own child in order to be able to provide for them?

Santiago himself came and talked with us a bit.  He is a beautiful person and so very full of life.  This is just one of the examples of how easy it is to interact with major historical figures in this country as if they were just a neighbor, because, in fact, they are.

Santiago at the Museo de La Imagen y la Palabra

Santiago at the Museo de la Imagen y la Palabra

Santiago Radio Victoria

Santiago with Radio Victoria during the war in the 80s

 

After the museum and the talk about CAFTA with an incredible organization called Equipo Maiz (which I’m sure I’ll write more about later), we returned to the hostel where the Wisconsin group is staying for dinner and a chat with Maria Navarrete, the current Viceminister of Government here in El Salvador.  She is one of the most beautiful individuals I have ever met, and so full of life.  She is a politician now (not so much by choice as by personal petition of the President himself) but she was an active member of the guerillas during the war.  Among other things, she talked about changes she has made in government since being here, and the ones she takes the most joy in are by most measures very small.  Politicians here (and everywhere, I would venture to say) develop a very self-important air about them, she says, and it makes her sick.  They habitually treat the employees in the building where they meet like basura, and she shared the story of one elevator operator who she gave official permission to close the door and fart when a particular politician entered the elevator, because he had treated this operator so poorly.

She sings revolutionary songs wherever she goes, and leaves her ‘security guy’ behind in order to walk the 3 kilometers to work.  She is always in the communities with the pueblo, talking with people, giving hugs, making crude jokes, staying at people’s houses.  We spent nearly 2 hours talking with her but hardly touched on what it is she does, but rather how it is she lives her life and why.

Maria’s parting words to the group, when asked what her advice would be to young people and to leaders today, was this:

Ser pueblo.  Estar con el pueblo.  Porque solo el pueblo es exitoso, y ser parte de ese es tener exito.  Ese, tambien, es el secreto a la alegreia eterna.”

“Be the people.  Be with the people.  Because only the people are successful, and being part of this is to have success.  This, also, is the secret to eternal happiness.”

at Casa de Amistad in San Salvador, El Salvador

Maria and Estela at Casa de Amistad in San Salvador, El Salvador