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.
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