|Eve & Digna|
Wednesday, April 3, 2013
Blog Post for Wednesday, March 27
My Experience in the Amanda Lopez Community
In the process of puzzling out why we are here, I have been thinking about what it means to share stories, especially painful ones. Talking about the past has the potential to be cathartic and empowering, but it can also exploit the storyteller if she feels pressure to share the facts without processing the feelings or to share things she’d rather not share at all. Before we arrived in Amando López, a compesino community along the lower Lempa River, I was concerned about how I could come into my host family’s home and talk about the war in a way that did no harm. What is my role there and how much do I ask? Do I want to talk about the war because I’m curious in an academic but impersonal way or because I’m greedy for exciting plotlines? I was wary of these reasons, but what I really wanted was to be in solidarity with my host family, whatever that meant, so I decided to wait and see what our communication was like and follow my family’s lead.
When we got off the bus at the community center in Amando López, I sat down next to a woman who introduced herself as Digna. She is a literature teacher at the community school. We chatted a little and she invited me to stay with her. One of the first things Digna told me on the walk to her house was no tenía infancia–I didn’t have a childhood. She joined the FMLN at age 16 in 1985, but even earlier she was immersed in the culture of resistance. Her father had been organizing since the early seventies, long before the official start of the war. Digna became a radiodista, responsible for communicating between groups of guerrillas. She said it was common for sixteen-year-olds and even younger people to join the military or guerrilla forces but that she happened to be the youngest in her group. These details came up when we were talking about her children’s ages and mine. Digna wove the war into conversations about ordinary things–I think this demonstrated how it entered into her daily life. I took it as a cue that she was fairly open to talking about her experience in the war.
Later that afternoon we sat at a table in a concrete courtyard area between her kitchen and the main building of the home. Chickens were pecking around and Digna’s cat, Dago, and her dog, Nexi, lounged on the ground near us. Digna asked me what I wanted to have for dinner and whether I had any food restrictions. She said she has to eat regularly but she can’t eat too much or have certain foods because she has a stomach illness that was caused by going for days without food routinely during the seven years she fought in the war.
Every day, every meal, the war affects Digna. I can’t stop thinking about all of the stories people carry inside. With all this history rattling around, it’s miraculous that we can connect once in a while and understand each other, or even just function and talk about what’s for dinner. But I can’t sum up Digna in her pain and assign “guerrillera” or “victim” as her only identity–this would be the exploitative way of receiving a story. Digna is a mother of two teenage sons, Rona and Erick, and the daughter of a woman named Carmina and a literature teacher and a cook, and she has so many roles that I don’t know. Our lives only intersected for a couple days.
From the way Digna describes it, the war seems like a major formative experience, but it does not negate all of her other identities and stories. I really enjoyed talking with her about her education and her career as a teacher, because I share her interest in literature. She mentioned that she reads some Edgar Allan Poe and Shakespeare with her students but mainly focuses on Salvadoran authors. She teaches excerpts in compilations rather than full texts because it is hard for the school and the students to buy the books.
We discussed her observations of the historical memory of the war among her students. After seeing young people chanting about Archbishop Romero in the streets of San Salvador last Sunday, I was surprised to hear that Digna has plenty of students who aren’t interested in the war or who don’t know much about it. Digna reminded me that there is no single story of the war or of the years since then. Being so focused on the war in class, I hadn’t fully grasped that another generation, my generation, has grown up in the 21 years since the peace accords were signed. Digna was dismayed by the gang violence that plagues many communities in El Salvador–though not Amando López, she said with relief. She does not feel like the recent truce between 18th Street and MS-13 has made a great impact in reducing the threat or increasing opportunities for young men.
Digna and I stood up from the little table and I hovered as she began to prepare dinner. I quickly realized that I was a nuisance and liability in the kitchen rather than a great help, but I got the hang of washing dishes in the pilla and stuck with this task. I wanted to feel better about accepting Digna’s generosity by doing household chores, but really I could not compensate her kindness.
Throughout the trip we have been talking as a group about what it means to accompany someone or to be in solidarity with a community. Coming from a university that offers plenty of service trips and a country that tends to swoop into poorer countries to fix things, I often found it hard to shake the urge to help. For me, getting over this self-interested urge was part of being in solidarity. It was harder than I expected to be open to receiving, but once I gave up the hope of earning my keep, I was able to listen more openly. I was grateful to learn about Digna’s family and work as well as the war and the current political situation. I was not the perfect person to accompany Digna–a complete stranger, far from fluent in Spanish and ignorant of many Salvadoran customs, staying for just two nights–but the idea of solidarity became clearer to me as I let go of the need to feel like I was helping. Just being with someone without trying to fix their problems and accepting gifts without scrambling to deserve them, these are practices I would like to incorporate into my life.
Posted by Geoff at 6:31 PM