Light was filled in the room when I woke up in my second day in El Salvador, and the exotic sound of birds chirping woke me up before my iPhone’s alarm. There’s a bird that chirps with a sound similar to a harmonica and it sounds heavenly. It honestly seems like I’ve been here for three days because each day is full and takes much energy to tackle and process. Breakfast was great as usual and our first agenda item was a testimony from Damian Alegria, who is now a deputy of El Salvador. His testimony was powerful and talked about his journey into FMLN during their civil war and their fights against ARENA (similar to the United States’ democratic and republican parties respectively). In short, he was captured three times and escaped because of the loyalty he shared with his comrades. The ARENA (who controlled the El Salvadorian government at the time) used dictatorship to control the country and now Damian still works to improve the country to this day.
If there are two main exports El Salvador (ES) is known for it’s indigo (blue dye) and coffee. Because indigo was soon synthetically produced, coffee became the main export, and many internet searches will frame this in a positive light. However, it’s far from positive. The ES president at the time valued the marketability of coffee to the extreme by claiming land where coffee could grow and hiring basically the equivalent to slaves to grow and harvest the coffee. My group spent much of our day at El Jabali Coffee Cooperative, where the coffee is fair trade (genuine labor and prices) and organic (meaning no chemicals were used in the growth process). The owner Miguel, similar to the hospitality of other El Salvadorians, offered us coffee are afternoon. I truly like coffee, and his was so delicious I could drink it without cream and sugar. It was smooth and very flavorful. We got a tour of the area and learned about ALL of the logistics involved with growing coffee: from how they are planted to exporting details.
The attached photo is of a coffee plant infected with a fungi know as “Roya”, which thrives on the leaves of coffee trees, choking off the source of nutrition for the coffee cherries that encase beans. Afflicted trees produce fewer cherries, and harvested beans are sapped of flavors. Because this coffee farm is organic, they cannot use chemicals which could get rid of it because it would go against their organic farming and they could lose funding. It is indeed bittersweet, and was truly an enlightening session. The lunch we were given was as flavorful as what I’ve quickly grown to expect from ES food. I bought 5 bags off coffee and cannot wait to brew it.
The last stop was to an open market area called Paseo El Carmen, and it was an urban, exciting, and bright place. As usual, we received smiles and attention from El Salvadorians and were always treated nicely. I bought a ton of souvenirs and want to make as many purchases as I can to remember this amazing country (it also helps give back to the communities because many crafts and items are handmade). What truly impacted me this day was a little adorable El Salvadorian boy who walked up to my group and handed us little pieces of paper, which in summary were asking for money so he could buy food for his family.
This honestly broke my heart because he was so young, yet had a business ethic and strategy to obtain money. However, I was left with many questions. Was he being exploited by his parents? Did he do this on his own? How did he get these pieces of papers typed up via a computer, printed, and cut? During our debriefing our group was reminded of solidarity, which means understanding someone where they are without a hierarchy and as social workers and educators we cannot “save” the world, only help as best as we could. Would giving him money have helped? Did they eat tonight? These are the types of questions I just cannot help asking myself. Hopefully, and truly, I hope he did.