I am very happy to say that I arrived home to Nicaragua from El Salvador safely yesterday and I am now enjoying (not really) the oppressive Managua heat and humidity. Ahhh… home sweet home. This past week in El Salvador was one of the most emotionally trying ones that I’ve had in a while. The purpose of this excursion was to study El Salvador’s revolution and civil war from of the 1970s-90s and compare it’s history with Nicaragua’s, as well as study their effects on Salvadoran society today. We did and learned so much, so I’m going to try to give a good day-by-day explanation of the past week.
But first… a little background on how we ran our trip. El Salvador is not exactly a super safe country… it has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. According to the Global Burden of Armed Violence 2011 study, El Salvador was the country most affected by lethal violence in 2004-09, followed by Iraq. Yep… you read that right. El Salvador = #1, Iraq = #2. Needless to say, security was a MAJOR part of our program and SIT did an excellent job with keeping us safe. We only traveled by private minibus and we only walked when deemed safe and appropriate. We always had to stay with our group and any outside movements had to be cleared by our program director and the hotel owners and/or Christina (I’ll talk about her later) ahead of time. It was a pretty major change, since we were all so accustomed to our freedom to move as we please around Managua, but it was really comforting to know that the program was doing everything in its power to keep us safe and that they’ve never had a security issue in the past. Ok… now that I’ve sufficiently scared all of your (sorry!) here’s a bit of what we did, broken down by day.
Thursday, October 18 We hopped on a TACA (a Latin American airline) flight at 12:40 out of Managua and arrived in San Salvador (El Salvador’s capital) about an hour later (note: our plane had 12 rows… and propellers… I guess I was a little nervous!).We checked into the Oasis Hotel, an adorable little hotel that we had all to ourselves! The couple that runs it is absolutely wonderful and the women who work there became our Salvadoran moms for the week. Later that afternoon, we were visited by Carlos Garcia, a representative from Equipo Maíz, a local community and cultural organization, came and gave us a little lesson on the history of El Salvador from pre-colonization up through present times. After that we met Christina Starr, the woman who organized our entire program. She is originally from the States and came to El Salvador in solidarity with the peasants and indigenous being oppressed by the dictatorship prior to the war. That is actually not her real name; her work put her in danger, so she had to choose a new name for safety reasons. She has lived in San Salvador ever since and is in charge of coordinating our program’s excursion to El Salvador each semester. She’s also seriously awesome. Anyway we had a little orientation to El Salvador (fun fact: El Salvador uses the U.S. dollar. It was so weird seeing and handling U.S. money after spending so much time using córdobas) and then watched “Romero” in preparation for the next day. Archbishop Oscar Romero was the archbishop of El Salvador during the civil war and stood up for the poor people and activists being massacred by the army. He was eventually assassinated but he remains a national hero in El Salvador for his courage and desire to protect his people. Also that night, I felt my first earthquake! We were all up in our rooms when everything started to shake for a few seconds. When we all realized that we had just felt an earthquake, we ran outside with the rest of the hotel staff in case there were any aftershocks. Everything was fine, so we all went back inside. We checked online and found that there was a 4.0 earthquake with the epicenter in San Salvador. Nothing was damaged and no one was hurt, so it wasn’t such a bad introduction into the world of Central American earthquakes.
Friday, October 19 We went to the Divina Providencia to see where Archbishop Romero lived and was assassinated. In the church where he was shot, we spoke to a nun who works there who told us more about his life and took us to his small house, which has since been turned into a small museum in his honor. After, we went to la Universidad de Centro América to see another museum dedicated to martyres of the civil war, many of whom were religious figures who spoke out against the violence perpetrated by the army against the people. That night, we were visited by Guillermo Cuellar, a national folk musician, who gave us a private concert in our hotel.
Saturday, October 20 We began the morning with listening to the testimony of Damián Alegría, one of the owners of our hotel and current representative of the ruling FMLN party in the country’s General Assembly. We heard his experiences during the war, as well as some of the horrible human rights abuses committed by the army and the suffering of the people. In one case, his aunt was hiding with her infant from the soldiers, so she put her hand over the baby’s mouth to keep him from crying and giving away their location. When she removed her hand a few minutes later, she found that she had accidentally suffocated the baby. After the hotel, we went to visit the main cathedral in the center of San Salvador, which is where Archbishop Romero is buried. We left the cathedral and boarded our bus with bags in tow for the department of Cabañas to the north near the Honduran border. The place where we would be spending our next few days was much like the campo in Nicaragua: a small, rural, agricultural community with dirt roads and chickens. Lots of chickens. We arrived in the town of Victoria and had the option of hiking down to the town of Santa Marta through the hills and cornfields. It was absolutely beautiful and we could see into the mountains of Honduras during our hike. Unfortunately, the previous rainstorm left the trails really muddy and slippery and the combination of the mud with the rocks caused a little bit of a problem… my sandals broke! So my only other option was to continue the hike barefoot. When we got down to the part on the dirt/gravel road many of my friends shared their shoes with me and walked in barefoot solidarity. It was a beautiful moment. We finally arrived at Santa Marta and were cooked a lovely and much-needed dinner by the woman whose house would act as our “home base.” We then were all split up into pairs to go meet our host families for the next two nights. Janet and I stayed with a husband (24 years old) and wife (21 years old) and their year-old baby girl. The baby was really cute, but alternated between being kinda shy and afraid of Janet and I and a bit aggressively playful (she kept trying to hit Janet with a little horse on a stick). While we were still in a campo region (i.e. latrines and dirt roads), this campo was a bit different from San Pablo in Nicaragua. Our house was made of brick and concrete and had real floors. In addition, our kitchen had a gas stove, rather than a wood-burning one. We were pretty exhausted that night and were both trying not to fall asleep while we watched a Mexican comedy movie that our family had on DVD.
Sunday, October 21 We woke up and had an early breakfast with our family and then met up with the rest of the group to listen to Walter, a man from the community tell us about Santa Marta’s experience in the war. The town was invaded by the army in search of local guerrilla fighters. While there, the army killed and tortured the people of Santa Marta. They would pull out people’s fingernails, rape the women, and cut open the stomachs of pregnant women and use the fetuses for target practice. The people eventually escaped across the Lampa River to Honduras, where they lived in refugee camps (note: when the army saw many people crossing the river, they opened the dams and drowned many of the fleeing people). In 1987, though the war was still going on, many started to return to Santa Marta to rebuild the community that they had left behind. He also took us to see a tiny room that was dug into the side of a small hill that served as a makeshift hospital during the war. After we finished (many of use teary-eyed), we walked back for lunch and then talked with a representative from a grassroots development program about the future of Santa Marta. For dinner, our “mom” taught Janet and I how to make pupusas! Pupusas are practically the national food of El Salvador and are corn tortillas stuffed with various fillings. Ours were filled with beans and cheese and were served with a red salsa and were sooooo good!
Monday, October 22 Today we said goodbye to our host families and drove up the hill to Victoria to work at Radio Victoria. Radio Victoria is a community radio station run by youth from Santa Marta. They play music and talk about issues that affect their community, such as health, education, and environmental issues. They have recently spoken out against Pacific Rim, a Canadian mining company that is trying to open a mine in Santa Marta that could have devastating impacts on the environment and local water supply. Since then, many of the young people who work at Radio Victoria have received death threats, but they still continue their radio show. We had a chance to produce our radio show. I partnered with three others in our group to produce a short spot about el Día de la Mujer Rural (the Day of the Rural Woman) and express concerns about the state of rural women in El Salvador. Other presented news stories and other commentary and later we got to hear our voices as they aired on the radio! You can check out the radio station here. After we had lunch in Victoria and boarded our bus for San Salvador.
Tuesday, October 23 Tuesday morning we woke up early for a morning meeting with Kay Andrade at Catholic Relief Services about migration from El Salvador to the United States and the reasons behind it, including unemployment and lack of opportunities for high school graduates. From there we went to the house of Doña Beatriz for a lunch of delicious bean soup and a meeting with Jan Morrill from Mesa Nacional Frente a la Minería, an anti-mining organization in El Salvador that opposes environmentally destructive mining projects. After lunch we returned to the hotel and met with representatives of COFAMIDE, an organization for families of disappeared migrants. That night, we went to the local movie theater for the premiere of documentary about a rural community and memories of the war. Since the movie ended late, we walked back to the hotel and ordered pizza delivery (another thing… places only do delivery until 9 PM there, since it’s too dangerous after then).
Wednesday, October 24 Wednesday morning we traveled to Equipo Nahual, a community-based violence reduction program that aims to reduce both isolated and gang-related violence in San Salvador. They partner with communities to improve resources for young people and work with gangs to reduce homicides and other violent attacks. From there we left for Suchitoto, a beautiful colonial town with cobblestone streets to the north of San Salvador. The town was ravaged by the civil war and has since looked to rebuild itself and heal from the destruction. We first visited el Centro Arte para la Paz (Art Center for Peace), a non-profit organization dedicated to alternative education, artistic expression, and the development and maintenance of peace. For one thing, I am so happy that we had this day in Suchitoto and the opportunity to visit this center. After nearly a week of such difficult and emotional themes, it was refreshing and (in my opinion) essential to spend some time in such a peaceful space. We first spoke with Sister Peggy, the center’s director. She is a nun who originally hails from New Jersey (she mentioned her love of pastrami sandwiches with brown mustard on rye!) and she gave us the best talk that I think we’ve ever had in this program. She has such a beautiful presence and explained the necessity for this center in the town. Sister Peggy continued with probably some of the best life advice I’ve ever heard. She’s incredibly progressive and encouraged us all to “pig out on life.” After so many days of heartbreaking stories, Sister Peggy’s sense of hope and inspiration was a breath of fresh air and I think it left all of us much more at peace with ourselves and the beautiful country. If anyone’s interested, you can find the center’s website here. Please consider making a donation, as they always need funds to pay art and music teachers and are looking to expand to serve more people. After, we got to explore the center a bit and then head into town. A few of us found our way to the dock with incredible views of Lake Suchitlán and the surrounding mountains. It was so hard to believe that such a beautiful sight was literally Hell for the townspeople just a few decades ago. We then wandered into the pretty downtown area to do some exploring before going to dinner at a really nice restaurant (I was lucky enough to sit next to Sister Peggy!). After dinner, we set out for the long bus ride home and I collapsed on my bed not long after returning to the hotel.
Thursday, October 25 Thursday morning we visited Las Dignas, a women’s and youth center in San Salvador to meet with a representative and learn about issues facing women in the country and efforts to promote gender equality, opportunities for young people, sex education, and many more. After we left for the campus of the Universidad de El Salvador (the city’s public university) where we were each paired up with a different university student from Santa Marta, who would be our guide for the day. I was paired with an English student named Cruz María and we spend the next five hours eating lunch and walking around the campus and the city. We got to watch a soccer game and then we visited Equipo Maíz and El Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen (the Museum of the Word and Image). After, we all reunited at around 5:30 and we all went for dinner at a pupusa restaurant. That night, we wanted to spend some more time with our new friends, so we met them at a local café that has music at night and we spent the entire night dancing salsa and bachata.
Friday, October 26 Friday was our last day in El Salvador. We had to wake up extremely early and load up all our stuff onto the bus before heading out to the National Assembly, the Salvadoran government building. We got to meet first with a representative of the FMLN party (the current ruling party and the party of the revolutionaries that just gained power in 2009) and ask questions about foreign policy, crime reduction, and development. After, we sat in on a solidarity meeting for the Cuban Five with the Cuban ambassador and the sister of one of the men still imprisoned in Miami. One of the girls in our group who was originally supposed to be on the SIT Cuba program before it was canceled at the last minute addressed the crowd and the ambassador addressed our group and thanked us for coming to study in Central America. After, we had our meeting with a representative from the ARENA party, the right-wing party that had been in power for 20 years prior to the 2009 elections. On the wall in the quite lavish conference room where we had our meeting was a picture with many members of the party. Oddly, several of them had black “X’s” over their faces. When I asked one of the women there why, she said that there had been a divide in the party and that some people had left it. It seemed a little eerie to see the marks on the faces like that. We asked this representative many of the same questions we asked of the FMLN representative and it was interesting to see how the answers differed. Once we finished, we got back in our bus and set out for the airport to catch our flight (also on a propeller plane!). When we finally arrived home to Managua, all our host moms prepared a little surprise party for us in the study center with food and cake to celebrate one of the student’s birthday.
Whew! Ok that was a veeery long post! I have to apologize but I haven’t been able to post any pictures. My camera of 6 years finally died so I didn’t have a functioning camera for the entirety of the trip. Luckily, so many other people took pictures so I will be stealing them and posting them to my Facebook album. I haven’t been able to do this yet, but it should be all set within a week or so. Be sure to look for them at http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.1869690821974.2045784.1232190724&type=1&l=9629e7f55e . Well, that’s all for now! ISP period is coming up pretty quickly, so I have to start preparing for that. I’ll be sure to let you all know as soon as I’ve finalized my study topic!