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.