This is a blog for the Stanford delegation to El Salvador, a travel immersion experience for the students of the "Issues in Liberation" class. We are here to listen and to learn and to bear witness to the suffering of the people of El Salvador and the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Presente! We welcome posts and comments.
Thursday was one of my favorite days of the weeklong experience.We’d spent a packed Wednesday night speaking with our host brother, mother and sister, and learning a Ballet Folklorico dance for the entertainment of what seemed like the entire village of Colonia Redondel. The day began bright and early at our host family’s house.Though I am definitely not a morning person, at this point in our trip it was surprisingly easy to wake up to the chorus of roosters crowing outside our room at 5:45 AM, especially knowing that our Salvadoran friends had been up for hours already.Despite some fleeting trepidation, I found the process of taking the shower outdoors, using a bucket of water as the source of shower water, was not only an enjoyable process, but it also put our own wasteful and comparatively extravagant comforts into perspective.After a delicious breakfast and another long talk with our host family, we were all picked up from our host families.It was truly eye opening to put faces to the horrific war stories we had already heard of from past speakers, but it was even more poignant to see that despite all their hardships, the people that we met were genuinely happy and hopeful.The newly reunited delegation shared our wonderful experiences on the way to our next stop, the Casa Comunitaria in Cacaopera.
Miguel Angel Amaya y Amayo
One of the things that really stood out for me when I compared El Salvador with my time spent in Guatemala was that I did not see anyone wearing traditional or indigenous dress.In Guatemala, though the indigenous communities face an uphill battle against extreme racism and discrimination, they have been able to reclaim their indigenous dress, languages and customs.In contrast, Miguel Angel Amaya y Amayo told us that not only does the government not recognize indigenous identity, but that indigenous themselves have rejected the dress, customs and even the label of indigenous as well.Miguel Angel Amaya has faced an uphill battle to gain rights and recognition.He told us about his incredible attempt to save the basically extinct language of Cacaohuera, resurrecting 3000 words from the memory of 15 ancianos (elderly) who themselves referred to it as the “devil’s language.”He taught us a few phrases, such as “Warakalan, Sajuwin” or “Light in the mind and peace in the heart,” and an embrace: “en la kech” and “ah la ken,” or “you are my other me and without you I cannot live.”It was really inspirational to hear his efforts to save the indigenous identity, and how we can really bring attention to this issue.Our attention and awareness of this issue can really help in this case.I am really interested in issues of indigenous identity and discrimination in wartime and its aftermath, and I was very moved by this talk.
Anais Berland & Kia Thorn at the Rio Sapo
After our lunch at the Church and a goodbye to the Catholic Community, our much smaller delegation departed for Rio Sapo to have some fun camping and swimming with some of the young members of the OSCA youth group, including my host brother Leonidas.Our Liberation class took over some tents in honor of Kiah’s first time camping and after quickly changing into shirts and shorts to swim in.After a beautiful afternoon splashing in the rock-lined river, we had a delicious dinner complete with lightening and icebreaker games with the Salvadoran kids.After dinner, we finished the day with a bonfire talk with a former guerilla fighter and child soldier, and then headed to bed in our cozy tents.
The time we spent in the country was very different from our time in the city, but really gave us an opportunity to get a better feel for ordinary life in the country.It felt very organic to spend this time in Morazán.After studying genocide and mass atrocity issues, it was so wonderful to see all the optimism that still exists, even in the harsh realities left in the aftermath of the Civil War.
On Wednesday night we were all dispersed around to various communities in Morazán, apparently the poorest district in El Salvador. We spent the afternoon in an airy church at the base of a hill, a church with a ceiling that reminded me of a circus tent and broad white shutters evenly spanning the circular circumference. Introductions were punctuated by giggles from both sides at miscommunication errors, mostly derived from language differences, and then the heat took over and the room was soon serenaded by flapping, makeshift pamphlet fans. The games of “conejo en el conejero” may not have been intended to be bilingual, resulting in some initial confusion, but we most definitely were not too old to run around trying to catch “conejos” in our two-person “conejeros.”
Edith, Geoff and I met our soon-to-be guide, Javier, right outside the church. Sixteen years old and sporting a shirt advertising for a Spanish rock band (“Los Arboles?”), Javier was not disposed to conversation at first, though he opened up when we pressed him about his favorite rock bands. Edith’s house appeared first, and Javier entered and brought out a woman with a bright pink shirt and an amiable half-grin on her face, though at the moment this half-grin was slightly furrowed in confusion. It surfaced that she had in fact not been expecting a visitor that night, though she shrugged her shoulders, saying, “Sí, claro que ella puede quedar aquí, en una hamaca o en una cama.” (Yes, of course she can stay, in a hammock or a bed.) So, depositing Edith’s water in her unanticipated home, we trekked on, all of us searching for small talk topics to grasp onto. When I mentioned that I played violin in a mariachi band, Javier’s face lit up and he said that he had always wanted to learn to play violin, but now he was learning guitar for his band.
The host family for Geoff and me, however, had been anticipating us since five o’clock. I don’t know if one and a half hours late is acceptable even by Salvadoran time, and so I offered to help chop onions for our dinner. My onion-chopping techniques are usually reserved only for my own personal dishes, and I have a strong feeling the smile on my host mother Salvadora’s face after I handed her the unevenly chopped onion was one of amusement. But she made no comment, and we joked a bit about how I mistook “llorar” (to cry) for “llover” (to rain). Sitting down to eat scrambled eggs, beans and of course the ever-present tortillas, Salvadora recounted (in response to our many queries, for she was at least as taciturn as her grandson Javier) how she had lived in a Honduran refugee camp for nine years, and had lost her husband and four sons to the conflict.
We deposited Edith and her host mom Daisy, who had come to mingle and chat, back at their home down the street, lingering a while to watch television. The soap opera playing reflected a world completely separate from that which we fleetingly inhabited. As glamorous, bleach-blonde women adorned with glittery bracelets and fabrics fought with their fickle lovers, equally well-adorned, I couldn’t help but wonder at the Morazán Salvadorans’ reaction to the bickering and excess of the program. Had I lost my husband and children to a war that pushed me into a refugee camp, I would be outraged by the pettiness of the make-up-laden characters. Was it perhaps so unreal to them that the lifestyle portrayed melted into the fictionalized nature of the plot itself?
After returning up the hill, Geoff, Javier, Salvador (one of Salvadora’s son) and I all collapsed onto the brick patio that divided the two components of the house. Their dogs Chiki and Lova wiggled from person to person, soon joined by companions from the streets. A peaceful and less-forced conversation lazily flicked back and forth, finally settling onto the theme of music and resulting in the appearance of Geoff’s iPod. The mutual appreciation of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin proved to be a strong connection and much more tangible than that of the future. The future is uncertain. And a university degree is contingent on resources, resources as fleeting as our time in Morazán. While Javier’s favorite rock music brings us to the truth of the present, a truth that speaks to the reality of hardship and tribulation. In a strange way, I feel that there is a comfort and hope in listening to someone singing about the universality of difficulties and obstacles that connects even the most divided peoples.
Last night we were introduced to one of the most remarkable people we met in El Salvador. Sister Peggy at the Centro Arte Para La Paz has lived in Suchitoto since the 1980s, when she and the other Sisters of Charity (although Sister Peggy prefers “Sisters of Justice”) struggled to raise enough funds to maintain control of the old convent and school which now house the Peace Center and guest house. They were some of the few people in Suchitoto willing and able to risk caring for wounded guerrillas during the war. In return, they received death threats in the form of mutilated bodies on their doorstep. Any commitment to social justice at that time marked you a subversive and made you an easy target for torture, assassination, or forced disappearance.
Sister Peggy explained that it was the sisters’ privileged status as Americans and church workers that protected them despite the risks they continued to take. They knew that any violence against them would be a ‘black mark’ on whoever had committed it, so their doors remained open and they persisted in the work they knew to be necessary and right. These days the Center offers yoga classes, guitar, saxophone, and harp lessons, and parenting workshops for people in the city of Suchitoto and the surrounding 82 communities—all free of charge.
Sister Peggy’s candid explanation of how her privilege protected her came at exactly the right moment. A lot of us, I think, have been dealing with the uncomfortable suspicion that we may not have any right to be in El Salvador, which is in many ways the victim of the American empire’s unethical economic and political policies. Who are we, as relatively affluent students at a prestigious university, to take an interest in the situation in this country? I am reminded of my host mom, whose sister was kidnapped at the age of nine months and adopted by American parents. This is just one case in which the good intentions of Americans exacerbated the atrocities being inflicted upon Salvadorans. I can think of many others. But perhaps there are ways to accompany people without trying to save them. To accompany without presuming to direct. To look at our privilege with eyes wide open and yet not become paralyzed by it.
Sister Peggy asked that we go home and try to feel gratitude instead of guilt. Gratitude is by far the more difficult posture, I think. How easy it is for us to cynically disengage from issues of global injustice because we realize that our country has helped to create them. And how humbling it is to refuse to look away, to refuse to stop the conversation there. I admit that I spent much of this week unable to be fully present in conversations with the people we met because I was so overcome by the feeling that my presence was doing more harm than good in a country where American bodies have been the vehicles of violent injustice, much of it masked by a condescending desire to ‘make a difference.’ Now I feel challenged to put aside the detachment I’ve been feeling and start fresh, discerning what my role will be in the healing of the world. Whether that role is in El Salvador, the U.S., or some other place I have yet to visit, feeling guilty and detached will not help.
Last night Sister Peggy asked our group what we aspire to after this journey. We sat on the floor of the old church and each of us wrote an answer. I cannot speak for the others in our delegation, but maybe our shared experience will have led to some shared conclusions. Here are some of the aspirations I wrote down during that reflection:
-to be faithful to those who need me, actually engaging in the essential and un-glamorous work of community building;
-to let myself be inspired by other people’s stories;
-to not allow myself to become paralyzed by adversity or by privilege;
-to do no harm;
-to act out of love and not out of fear;
and most of all: when in doubt, create beauty everywhere.
It has been an incredible eight days.
The next part of the journey will be just as wonderful.
It is difficult to know where to start because we have been so busy, constantly moving and going from one meeting to another, from one historic site to another, from one location of tragedy to another.
Swimming in Rio Sapo
We spent last night at the Rio Sapo preserve which our guide, Serafin, said is in the middle of an ancient volcano. This seems quite possible since the entire area was made up of basalt outcroppings which are the extrusive form of lava flows. The students stayed in tents while the adults stayed in a cabin. I woke up a couple of times in the middle of the night and it was blissfully quiet, no roosters crowing or dogs barking or traffic. We had to hike into the camp about 45 minutes so we were hot and sweaty so the best part was swimming in the Rio Sapo which was quite warm and refreshing.
Our guide, Serafin, was also a former guerilla fighter for the ERP, one of the armies that formed the FMLN. He told us about his time as a soldier starting at the age of 11 years old. He was part of the intelligence and counter-intelligence division of the ERP.
Serafin talking around the campfire
One of their biggest successes was setting a trap for General Monterosa in 1984 who was responsible for the massacres at El Mozote and elsewhere. He was considered a highly professional soldier by the US military. He was trained at the School of the Americas and was implementing a “scorched earth” policy or also what was known as “depriving the fish of water.” This term refers to the policy of eliminating the civilian population (water) through genocide and massacres and dislocation so that the insurgent guerilla forces (fish) have no one to support or hide them.
The ERP was successfully broadcasting Radio Venceremos (We Shall Overcome) throughout the war to publicize their victories and message to the people and the Salvadoran military was unable to locate them or their radio transmitter because they kept moving it. But the ERP heard that General Monterosa liked to collect trophies of war so they thought this might be an opportunity to entrap him.
They allowed word to get out through a known informant that the radio transmitter was going to be in a particular area at a particular time. They staged the area around the phony transmitter to look as though a battle had just taken place and the transmitter had just been abandoned. When the army found the transmitter, they immediately radioed back to General Monterosa for instructions. As the guerilla expected, he wanted to come and personally retrieve the radio transmitter. He brought a large contingent with him of journalists and even a priest in a separate helicopter so they could have mass to thank God for allowing them to have this victory over the guerilla of retrieving the transmitter.
Finally, when their celebrations and press conference was finished, the general loaded the transmitter into his helicopter and took off. Less than a minute into their flight, the guerilla exploded the bomb hidden in the phony transmitter. General Monterosa and his advisors were killed and this sent a shockwave through the Salvadoran and US military establishment because they had totally underestimated the creativity and capability of the guerilla.
The wreckage of Monterosa's helicopter
Monterosa was responsible for the massacre of thousands of civilians, many of them family members of the ERP guerillas. So that night there was a celebration at his death, though many say that it was too easy of a death for him.
After only two full days in El Salvador, I feel so overwhelmed with conflicting emotions, the impact of passionate stories and lack of sleep that I can hardly write. This place and the particular experiences I have been having in this place have rattled something loose inside me and I´m not quite sure what that will mean for my future. For me, this week will be less about reacting and more about recording. The impact of my time here is something, I believe, that will be only uncovered with the passing of quite a bit of time and after even more reflection. Like another great lady I´ve heard of, I look forward to pondering these things in my heart.
The Rose Garden
Today began bright and early with a visit to the University of Central America (UCA) here in San Salvador where we were joined by members of the South Bay Sanctuary Covenant. We were fortunate enough to receive a guided tour of the Oscar Romero Center and Martyrs Museum on campus given by an esteemed journalist who was present on the site of the Jesuit slaughters mere hours after the attack. Upon seeing the torn and bloody clothing and other personal belongings of the 6 murdered Jesuit priests, a Bible torn apart by bullets, and patches of grass with the blood of the martyred men, I felt the nearly irresistible urge to run or scream or find some way to be anywhere but there facing the horrible truth of the depravity of mankind. I was uncomfortable in a way I have never been uncomfortable before. I was uncomfortable in a way that was exactly the way I should have been made uncomfortable.
Prof. Tom Sheehan @ UCA Chapel
After the tour of the museum center, we visited the university chapel where we heard from Thomas Sheehan, a personal friend of Ignacio Ellacuria, one of the martryed priests. Like many churches and chapels here in El Salvador, the university chapel had posted images of the Stations of the Cross. However, the UCA chapel depictions of the Stations were drawn to specifically incorporate images of the body tortures that the Salvadoran people had suffered during the civil war. Some of the images where highly realistic and graphic in their depictions, but the university remains adamant about keeping these images posted as a reminder of the sufferings of the Salvadoran people.
Robert Hueso- Stations of the Cross
We grabbed a quick lunch and then settled in for my favorite discussion thus far. Sra. Julia Evelyn Martinez, professor at the UCA and staunch defender of women´s rights, shared statistics about the high incidence of sexual violence, teen pregnancy and maternal mortality within El Salvador. However, most importantly, she shared with us her views on the underlying structural and societal causes behind these alarmingly high numbers. Women´s lack of access (and therefore lack of participation and representation) in academic, political and economic life in El Salvador all contribute to the cycle of poverty and abuse that is all too often perpetuated throughout generations. She ended her presentation by imploring all of us to make a personal effort to do whatever we could to support the furthering of women´s rights in El Salvador and not to underestimate our potential impact.
Rounding out our day of heavy hitting speakers was Supreme Court Justice Mirna Perla. Justice Perla spoke with us at length about security and the prison and judicial systems in El Salvador. The grand theme of her discourse was impunidad (impunity) and the effect that this perceived (and actual) sense of unaccountability has on the continuation of a deteriorated public security situation.
Finally, over dinner our group was regaled by the musical talents of Freddy, a local guitarist and composer. He shared thoughtful, inspirational and occasionally irreverent J local songs. It was a joyful and optimistic end to a long day of learning about the ongoing struggles of the Salvadoran people. Kiah Thorn
It is the second day of our trip to El Salvador and I have had quite an impactful, beautiful experience throughout the course of just one day.
To start off our day, we visited a park where El Monumento a la Memoria y la Verdad stands. This memorial lists about 30,000 names of homicides, disappeared, and found individuals from the Salvadoran Civil War. The wall has a gold, brown, tannish mural with an image representing Salvadoran history from the 1930s on protruding from the cement.
The mural depicts the theme of death as integral to modern Salvadoran history. Bullets are shown flying over the heads of figures hugging each other. There was also a group of women illustrated toward the center of the mural who held a portrait of Monsenor Romero, and whose eyes held the most intense, almost accusatory glance. The vast amount of names was daunting, especially since I had never visited a similar memorial, and it was impactful to think that there were a lot more names that were missing. I really appreciated an image at the end of the mural which represented those whose names were not etched into the mural.
We also attended mass today for the first time and at first I was a little hesitant because even as some of us kneeled and went along with the prayers our group was more or less conspicuous as a delegation. Further, we arrived in the middle of mass which I hadn’t expected. For some reason, I thought we would attend the entire mass, and while that may not have really been the point of our presence or perhaps even possible due to our tight schedule, I couldn’t help but think what the Salvadorans in the church might have thought of a group of American youth strolling (not literally, of course) into the church mid-mass. I come from a family that finds late-comers somewhat rude, and while that’s most likely not a widespread feeling, I couldn’t help but wonder whether we might be unintentionally perpetuating possible stigmas regarding the fleeting, not earnest presence of the United States as in solidarity with Latin America.
Not that such misconceptions can really ever be avoided without conversation and a mutual search for understanding – and no doubt Salvadoran’s perceptions of Americans are much more nuanced to generally judge a gringo harshly from the get-go. In general though, the service was a great experience – I heard songs that I grew up with such as “Cordero de Dios” and “Entre Tus Manos,” which was truly an uplifting experience especially since I realize that these same songs are played throughout Latin America, or at least in Chile, Mexico, and El Salvador. The sense of community and general spirit they brought to the room seemed to me to be a testament to religion’s potential power for bringing people together for positive change.
After lunch, we listened to Jenna and Maria, two young women who work with Salvadoran youth who are incarcerated, helping them express their harsh, jarring experiences through creative writing. The talk the girls gave was impressive – I also really appreciated their new method for maintaining attention during lectures – moving about or spinning around quickly, etc. etc. at 15-minute intervals. Their talk was fascinating, as was reading the Salvadoran girls' poems, and several students mentioned the similarities amongst the incarceration system in the US and that which Jenna and Maria shared with us in the workshop.
After that, we heard Jean, a journalist, and his wife, Guadalupe, give their accounts of their experience in the civil war. Guadalupe's tale was extremely touching and despite its gravity she managed to be extremely expressive and animated, smiling throughout and, at the end, recognizing her family's fortune in being protected by god and also describing the humanity of those who perpetrated grievances against her family. She said that there were both FMLN individuals who harmed her but also some "with big hearts."
We closed the day with an equally impactful group reflection. I am excited for what the rest of the week will bring.
We are happy to report that we arrived in El Salvador without any delays or problems. The weather is relatively mild, in the mid 80s and delightfully cool at night in San Salvador.
This evening we participated in the march in commemoration of Archbishop Romero. We had a great time walking with the people of El Salvador, talking to young and old alike. It seemed to me that there were more people participating this year than last year and it was more fun. They were mixing up the march by inserting waves of people crouching and then standing with our arms raised as the wave caught us. It was really fun. One placard quoted Romero: "Unless the church is the church of the poor, it is not the true church of Jesus."
When we got to the Cathedral which is where they have always concluded the march with a mass, the Cathedral was closed because war veterans have been occupying the Cathedral to protest a lack of access to their pension or benefits as veterans. But even worse than that was to see that the front of the Cathedral with the beautiful fresco had been totally removed. The story is that the local bishop of San Salvador is attempting to remove anything that might suggest support for Archbishop Romero and indigenous culture. It was removed between Christmas and new year when people were away or focused on other things. There has been a lot of criticism about it in the local press and it was actually a violation of law to remove something that was considered part of their cultural heritage. It is such an abomination that it left me speechless. It reminds me of the Taliban blowing up the Buddhas in Afghanistan. Compare the picture at right with the one from last year on the right margin.
We also met with Ernesto Garcia today and we had a good overview of the history of El Salvador since 1932 when the massacre of the indigenous people occurred.
We are all very tired and most are already in bed and I'm using toothpicks to keep my eyes open right now. Pace e bene, Geoff