“Santa Marta” – El Salvador Days 7-9/15

Making generalizations of a whole based off a piece will never give an accurate representation, nor set constructive expectations. My first full weekend in El Salvador would be in a community known as Santa Marta, though first our group had a very important stop to make.

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Ciudad Mujer is an organization focused on women’s services for health, employment skills, legal rights and child care if needed for the clients. Because this facility also supports women who may have been abused in some way by their partners, I was thankful that the other males and I could partake in the tour. The facility is very modern with high-tech equipment and the most up-to-date services for the women they serve. Health literacy, work skills, legal counsel, and other empowerment activities were the foundation of Ciudad Mujer. After touring the facility our group had lunch at San Rafael Cedros where we stocked up on supplies before heading to the rural Santa Marta.

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After driving for about an hour or so, we reached Radio Victoria, which is close to Santa Marta and will be detailed later. Our group had the great opportunity to hike to Santa Marta from Radio Victoria and the sights, trails, and views were amazing. I had to keep reminding myself I was in another country as I looked at the scenery and reflected on this new area. The mountains, volcanoes, trails, and vegetation all looked new and historic, leaving me in awe with each new area or path I encountered. I was personally thankful for this opportunity and wondered what new college students would see these same sights in the future.

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Later this night, I met the host family I would be staying with, and it was a phenomenal experience. Foremost, their living area was not as modern as I was used to, yet was filled with organization, love, community, and spirit. After touring the area, my roommate/classmate and I met the family, and this would become the highlight of my trip this far. There was a high schooler, college student and an elementary student. I connected with the 10-year-old not through Spanish communication, but through video games.

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He liked Pokémon (just like me) and had a Nintendo DSi (I had a Nintendo 3DS) and we momentarily traded games to play and played a multiplayer racing game. It was genuine bonding and we both connected on a very high and relevant level even though we spoke different languages (video games was the common language understood by both of us) . While I liked the experience as a whole, connecting with him really reinforces my notion and advocacy that video games are teaching and educating tools, and I was glad to be able to share it with such an awesome niño. We also colored in a coloring book together and I gave him a drawing of a Pikachu which we colored together after I sketched it out.

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Santa Marta is a very strong and resilient community. I cannot do it justice in a brief paragraph. In between staying with my host family, we heard testimonies for residents who lived through the civil war struggle, political corruption and brutal deaths and action. I would recommend researching the El Salvadorian civil war, and getting context for what these residents were speaking on. The most impactful aspect of their stories were two aspects: The first was they were still smiling, still positive after dealing with such inhumane actions and giving hospitality to us as United States citizens, who aided in prolonging the civil war due to providing funding to ARENA, the fraction fighting against FMLN, the party which supported and protected them. The second is how EVERY person said in some way we cannot stop talking about this to remind the next generation and others of these actions. Where I’m from (and this is a generalization) my country is moreso focused on presenting one in a best light, focusing on the positive, and not heavy speaking on non-positive actions for the best portrayal possible. This reminded me that both the positive and the negative historical acts and experiences are needed for growth, learning, and teaching.

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After saying goodbye to our host families, fully exploring Radio Victoria was our last stop before heading back to Hotel Oasis. This was an impactful talk because my pre-study abroad project was on the effects of mining in El Salvador. Radio Victoria started as tape recorded talks and advanced to a full radio station that is still currently played around the community. Listening to the struggles of the staff being threatened, stalked and even some murdered because of their reporting on negative mining effects was heartbreaking, and from 2009 to present, there has been no prosecution for these crimes. Though I was content when the two speakers made it clear they had the support of the community and the US though solidarity visits such as ours. We ended the talk with my classmates and I giving positive comments live on air on their radio station to the community. It was an unforgettable action and I was so thankful to be apart of their struggle and fight for protection, equality, and safety. Aren’t these protections all humans should have? When I return to my community, I will be motivated to be much more inclusive, giving, positive, willing, patient, and trusting: trusting that anything is possible with the support and commitment of others.

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“Día de Trabajo” – El Salvador Day 6/15

Today was an important day in El Salvador. Unlike my previous days where there was much to do in one day, only one activity was planned for today: attending the workers day march on May 1st, which is somewhat equivalent to our Labor Day. This was not a protest or parade; it was a march where El Salvadorians could come together and celebrate their right to work and express opinions, thoughts, and politics that affected it. I was also told our group would be looked at even more, including photos being taken and interviews conducted.

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The first aspect I noticed was how this was celebrated compared to my home country of the United States. Labor Day there is still celebrated, but more individually or between close family members and friends. El Salvador’s celebration seem much more collective and simply looking at the crowd of people (those in the march and those watching the march) can convey the unity between these citizens. My classmates and I all take different messages from what we see, and mine was there were young adults and university students there supporting the cause. This was great to see, and really reinforces their term of solidarity into an action instead of just a word.

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I felt I was drawing attention to our group, and many bystanders of the march would take my photo, and I poised of many of them either by myself, with them or with classmates. At this time I wondered what they would do with those photos. Would they say to friends they met a North American? Were they happy with our presence here? Was there more we could/should have been doing instead of just watching?

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Nevertheless, everyone was friendly so hopefully our presence was positive and supportive. There were moments, however, when many would gather to take photos quickly, similar to a paparazzi shoot. I didn’t care for this because I felt it took the focus off the marchers and put them on me. I was only watching, and it should be the hard-working marchers who get the attention.

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I was interviewed about three or four times, within minutes of our professors telling the class to brace for it. The first interview, a young adult about my age had a pad of paper and asked why I was here and why did I support this. I responded that it was great to see such collective effort and I indeed supported this gathering. The second interview was from another young adult who asked basically the same question, only this time he held his cell phone up to me so I can only assume it was recording. I responded the same way and tried my best to convey myself accurately and responsibly.

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This was a powerful event, and what made me most happy was that I saw MANY groups and individuals who my group met with since I’ve been here. One of the masculinity facilitators, the ACSYECA speaker, the community leaders who spoke on caring/changing behaviors for the gangs, and even our Hotel Oasis staff were there and greeted us. The unity I felt was so moving, and I could only image the native citizens sharing this feeling on an even more powerful level.

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“Perseverancia” – El Salvador Day 3/15

Even though my birthday was a few days ago in El Salvador (ES), like most individuals I didn’t feel more mature after it. I mature as a young adult and practitioner in education every moment my limited perception is expended by the testimonies and experiences that shaped current societies, and thankfully ES has helped me with this greatly. After another excellent breakfast and fellowship with my classmates, we left for a community, one of many community settlements where ES gang members lived. My initial framework of what a “gang” is will forever be changed, or at least a negative connotation will not be automatic. Foremost, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang members, one of two top tier rival gangs of ES (including simply troubled youth) lived with their family and friends there. There is a complex, systematic hierarchy built in their operations that only members know. The leaders of this community house in Selva told us about their current affairs with the ES government and how the gang members fit in. Their artistic mark was all around the community, and as an artist the skill they must possess in art is all too apparent.

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The military are tasked with routine checks to maintain order. When the military and the youth (I will use the term youth now because not all of them are in the gang, even if they were once affiliated with them. They could have a brother, girlfriend, etc., affiliated with them, simply be a troubled youth, or a full gang member) interact, they do not just search them; they beat them–even in front of friends and family with no probable cause. Additionally, some military members are drunk during these moments and attack the youth because they are “bored”, with the youth not doing anything to them. The community leaders and youth themselves also report it is difficult to reenrolled in schools because the military tasked with guarding the schools harass the youth at school via threatening and encouraging them not to go. Because our arrival alerted the military, the youth stay away from them if possible and we were unable to meet them in the community house (where events, parties, meetings, etc., happened) we had the opportunity to walk through their community and meet them, and I felt so safe; safe in an area full of youth involved in MS-13 gang activity. I was the first of my group to interact with them and they were so young, smiling, shy and talking in Spanish about “Americanos”. I asked one if he liked video games in Spanish and he smiled yes. Following this we heard their individual stories, and one of the older young adults pulled up his shirt and showed us brutal marks from when a military officer attacked him a week prior. This instantly hit the entire group about the severity and reality of their struggle; it’s one thing to hear a claim, and another entirely to witnessed the effects of it. In no way am I justifying gang activity, however, I can honestly understand why the youth would feel the desperate need to “band together” and fight back because of their circumstances. After we thanked them and left a little boy was jumping fence and I asked to take his photo. While he was posing, I quickly prayed that he wouldn’t have to go through what those in his community did.

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The next stop was to ACSYECA, a non-profit community organization that supported surrounding communities with health care options, education, and environmental issues. It was a small building, yet an aura of hope could be felt there. ACSYECA staff helped anyone, no matter gang / political affiliation or financial stability with care and medicine.

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The unfortunate piece here is it was voiced not all supported this organization, and wanted to turn it into a place for fun, sex, and dancing. Even though some clients don’t pay their bills, they still care for their needs. They also work with schools to teach health literacy and academic subjects. At this time I asked, “How do you all stay so positive and smile under these circumstances.” The speaker replied their perseverance, hope and fulfilling the legacy of those before them, and this was said with a smile as well.

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We had lunch at the beach and it was beautiful. The sun was shining, the water was clear and the scenery of the area was just stunning. I had fish, chicken (both delicious!) and spicy veggies that just made this breezy afternoon perfect. A group of performers similar to a mariachi band approached the table twice, once to request a song from our group and the second time specifically for me. I recorded one and truly enjoyed their musical talent. During the first two sites we visited today, two new students were with us for the day: Maria and Alejandro. While Maria talked with the women, Alejandro and I really hit it off. He was 25 and was a senior studying Psychology at an ES university. After realizing he liked video games, I showed him my Pokemon tattoos and he got 2/3 of them right. For the rest of the half hour we talked and I taught him English and he taught me Spanish (though we could both speak the other language fairly well). We talked even more on the ride back, and I learned how ES universities differed from those in the US, such as not having student organization because they don’t need that structure to have activities with friends. I also explained how snow affected the climate and social structure of the United States, and he voiced that he really wanted to touch and experience snow and a winter season because ES is hot all year round. Alejandro said he really liked technology, so I gave him my digital LED watch that told time via blue stacked lights instead of hour and minute hands. He was thrilled to have it and we promised to hang out again on one of our free days.

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The last stop was to a workshop on masculinity gender roles. This was located in the heart of downtown El Salvador and the facilitators were excellent. We started with an ice breaker, small group activity, then full group debrief, all centered on identifying how masculinity was formed, how it was associated with femininity, and how these labels were affecting males and females. The most striking aspect about this session was how it was linked to the other two sites we visited. Gang and military activities could be seen as masculine, status building decisions because males are suppose to be “tough” while Acsyeca supports victims of violence, health issues and decisions made from persons lacking education. My professors said that almost all issues are linked, and I could clearly understand both why and how.

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After saying our goodbyes after taking photos and exchanging information, we were shown Iglesias el Rosario (church of the roses) and it is the most beautiful interior of a church I have ever seen. I was in a trance looking at the stain glass, just wondering what this city has actually gone through, and what will happen to it next.

“Café Delicioso” – El Salvador Day 2/15

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.

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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.

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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.