“La Playa” – El Salvador Day 14/15

The beaches in El Salvador are just amazing. This post will be mostly recreational in content, with my last reading similar to an essay. Enjoy the photos, and hopefully they give you context for this amazing last moment of this grand adventure.

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This is an upper view of the beach, though I would moreso call it a mini resort.

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There’s so much to see and do while walking the beach, I picked up a ton of seashells and took photos of nice scenic places along the way.

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The waves and ocean is just breathtaking. A photo cannot do it justice.

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I had a blast just walking the beach, and took a few keepsake photos.

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I got a massage while looking at the ocean, just an incredible experience.

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At night this place transforms! It was such a surreal experience.

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There were also a ton of animals living here, and this is one of my favorite shots of them.

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Finally, the staff and food was amazing. This is lobster stuffed with shrimp, and yes it was delicious!

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“Universidad Premio” – El Salvador Day 10/15

It is truly difficult to know what you want to dedicate your life to, and it can be even more difficult to have a support system to help navigate this challenge. That is why I chose to work in higher education and student affairs; working with young students to navigate their career paths invigorates, energizes and gives me personal fulfillment. While this study abroad experience is grounded in a Social Work framework, there is much overlap in higher education and student affairs with administration tasks, teaching, and mediating and/or counseling for those we work with. Today, I was able to visit the Universidad Centroamericana “José Simeón Cañas (UCA) and learn about its rich history and meet with the students.

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UCA has a powerful history and presence in this country because of its association to political and social happenings. Again, it’s best to research this history on the internet because a quick summary cannot do it justice. A tour of a museum within the university was our first course of action and we learned the Jesuit history of the institution and the brutal history associated with this beautiful area. These actions were very depressing, and the last stop at the chapel area was just a final testament to the struggle this place and supporters faced. Admittedly, I cried because of the overwhelming heartache I can’t even articulate. However I was quickly comforted by a very special person I will expand on later.

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After quickly returning to my positive self, I was able to freely explore this awesome campus. The first area I stumbled upon was a classroom where a professor was giving a lecture. The students were engaged and a few students smiled and waved as I looked into their class. As I walked around I noticed the beautiful architecture and just wondered about the vast amount of knowledge that was shared between students and professors.

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While exploring I asked every student I could in Spanish what they were studying. Like most El Salvadorians they were receptive with a smile and I quickly learned that Sociology, History, and Religion were among the most common. When I heard many majors and was able to reflect on this for a moment, it makes sense that these were the most common areas of study given the history of this institution and the tradition that most El Salvadorian give back to their communities anyway. While these were just a few common majors, it’s easy to realize these areas of studies are connected to understanding the historic events here and preparing students to give constructively back to their community, rather it’s teaching this history to others or providing programs or services to mend the hurt caused by political, governmental, and military strife. Knowing students were here to educate themselves just energized me and reminded me again that these are the types of students I want to work with and support, internationally or domestically.

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My last stop was to the bookstore to buy some university-specific items. I met some students who spoke English and we talked in length about what we were studying, our home countries, and general interest. The student I conversed with most showed me where the bookstore was and I gave him my Facebook information per request. After spending about an hour there, while leaving he and his friends yelled “adios Mario” and I vowed to come back to this great university at some point in the future.

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Our next stop was to the Fernando Llort art gallery, a locally owned art gallery where all kinds of detailed, handmade items were created. I spent more money here than anywhere else, and knew these funds would be going right back into their community. Our last two stops really raised my awareness of issues El Salvador currently faces, with the United States tied almost intently with them. The first was on mining, environments, and ecology issues and their negative effects on the country. My pre departure report was on this topic so while I had much context, I learned to really be aware and inquire where my items may be coming from and ponder where they produced ethically. The second talk was on immigration, where I learned about remittances, current international affairs, and how aspects such as student visas may affect my profession of higher education and student affairs.

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Tonight was a night to debrief, though before that during dinner one of my classmates found out that the guest traveling with us for a week and who was leaving today was actually a genuine celebrity named Melissa Leo, a Golden Globe, Emmy, and other award winning actress. This entire time my classmates and I treated her like a normal person, when in reality we have all ALREADY met her informally in motion pictures and on popular television shows. My biggest memory of her, while still not knowing her celebrity identity, was comforting me at UCA when I was most vulnerable from hearing all these El Salvadorian struggles. However, my classmates and I agreed that if we knew, we would focus on her celebrity status, asking for autographs, and not treating her like the normal person we thought she was. I will never, ever, forget being in a foreign country, crying in my most comfortable environment and being comforted by Melissa Leo. Wow.

“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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“Educación Superior” – El Salvador Day 5/15

For me, a photo can capture the appearance, but it can’t capture the essence; my feelings do while my memories retain them. With that said, “You cannot unknow what you know” & “Knowledge is power” are two phrases that perfectly convey my stance on education, specifically with higher education. My 5th day in El Salvador was filled with reminders of why learning is a necessity for an empowered, broadened, and informed life. Just being still and observing life can teach you just as much as a professor, teacher, mentor, and other educators. However, understanding the past and prior experiences in general are among the the greatest routes for learning, and I was able to do this the entire day and due to some excellent connections. When I teach my freshman students next year, I will also motivate them to learn from the world around them on their own accord as well.

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The first stop was to Divina Providencia where Arch Bishop Romero lived and was assassinated. He was an individual who supported El Salvadorians of the lower class who struggled due to unjust and inhumane treatments. It was heavy depressing to be in the actual place he was killed, and I took photos of the church only, not the gruesome, explicit photos of his death or his personal effects.

For me, a photo can capture the appearance, but it can’t capture the essence; my feelings do while my memories retain them.

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This was enough for me, and I took a photo of a soothing bird that made me feel constructive peace in a place that witness such destructive actions.

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The next location was a talk with David Morales, Procurator for the Defense of Human rights. This was a detailed conversation that was broad enough to cover the necessities, yet detailed on each point. The piece on El Salvadorian higher education was of course where my interest was. The equivalent of a bachelors degree in ES takes five years, and there is one public university and many private institutions, yet it is difficult for many to get here due to inadequate primary education. Also, their focus in majors is on law, medical, philosophy and theology, with technology, sociology, and the arts almost entirely removed from major offerings. I was so discontented after heating this. The world is a diverse learning space, and by limiting the knowledge available to these students is actually LIMITING their learning, and the contributions they can make to their society and communities. Traveling to the USA to study is an option, but immigration and limitations on foreign students hinders more than helps. It is a vicious, limiting cycle that need to be reformed.

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Our last location was a park where my group planned activities and games for elementary to middle school-aged girls who are and/or were victims and/or survivors of human trafficking. We played basketball, soccer, and a few ice breaker games and they had a fun time. I was hesitant as a male to do too much interacting with them due to their possible bad experiences, but the group climate was great and we just had fun playing without worries–I was happy to see the kids having the type of fun kids should have. At this moment I realized I’ve interacted with ES gang members and victims and/or survivors of human trafficking, and they all had smiles during our interactions. I really cannot articulate how I feel, or should feel, about that. I know one thing though, my little niño friend who I played catch with really energized me and kept my focus on having fun with the kids. He is an awesome little guy and won’t be forgotten.

“Despertado” – El Salvador Day 4/15

Education, opportunity, privilege, resources, and motivation are just a few components to understanding the world and all its historic events and happenings. Today would bring these five together in a way I’ve never experienced. During breakfast, our professor let us know one of our classmates would be heading back to Michigan for health reasons. We have a tight group, so while we understand the reasons, nevertheless the person will be missed and hopefully our group interactions will still be full of energy, perspectives and excitement.

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Our first stop today was to Equipo Maiz an organization known for El Salvador (ES) publications, education and advertising, to learn the history of El Salvador from their earliest recorded to the present. I cannot summarize hundreds of years of knowledge and events, but I can highlight some key factors. The indigenous natives of El Salvador (the Pipil) spoke a language known as Náhuat, though when the Spanish arrived and colonized (took) their land, the Pipil were stripped of their traditions and cultures. The Spanish also raped many women, and that is one reason why the majority of current El Salvadorians are of blended Pipil/Spanish heritage. The speaker used detailed cartoon drawings given to each of us to convey key pieces of history in chronological order, and I encourage readers to research their history further, including the civil wars, political fractions (FMLN & ARENA) and the part the United States played in this struggle.

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Our next activity was an economic exercise at the San Miguelito market. Our group split up in groups of threes and we each took a list of items to buy. The inside of the market was filled with fruit, veggies and common household items. After getting what was on the list, A saleslady held up some boxer briefs and smiled, and I soon found myself saying “no gracias” a lot. As usual, people were all nice though and knew by my culture, clothes, etc., that I was from abroad. After we returned with all our items, we debriefed as a group about how much the foodstuff cost, minimum wage prices, and calculating logistics of working enough hours to make enough money to by food that can sustain a person or family. Like the history talk, it raised awareness of this system.

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We had dinner and got to explore Suchitoto at the end of day. Though first we visited the Art Center for Peace to talk with Sister Peggy O’Neil. This community was beautiful and sister O’Neil’s witty, honest and compassionate talk forced me to pause in my adrenaline rush of studying abroad to reflect on who I am, what I’m doing, and who/what is affected by it. Though I am a Christian, it has been a while since I’ve been to church, and her words were like nostalgic hymns I had once memorized and almost forgotten.

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Her words and anecdotes made me feel vulnerable, they made me think about thoughts I needed to reflect and process but haven’t. Who am I? I’m a young adult aiming to work in higher education and student affairs. I’m at my absolute best when I’m in this environment, and I just have this internal feeling that this is where I belong: helping new college students navigate their new environment. What am I doing? I’m trying to be the best, excel, never lose and always succeed. This is where I need work. Her talk conveyed there are more important aspects of life and professional work than winning–it’s what’s learned that matters, and mistakes are a part of this process. I’m far from perfect and only allow others to see the “best me”. While it’s nothing serve, I did learn it’s best to solve internal/external problems to avoid them in the future and focus on succeeding.

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Her last point, who is affected by the work I do was the biggest question poised, and I only have half an answer. I want to positively work with college students. However, how will I process this El Salvador experience when I leave? Honestly, life is not what I thought it was growing into a young adult living a very sheltered, privileged life (even while being a minority of oppressions via Africa/The United States). The systems of oppressions globally, lack/fabrications/omissions of education globally, and dictated hierarchies anger me–they make me feel angry because of the unnecessary suffering attached to them. My classmate leaving for home may be gone tomorrow, but that person said something that will alway stay with me:

“I may not be able to change the world, but I can change the world of one person.”

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I sat in my El Salvadorian environment and thought about this for hours, because it made me happy. Happy that there are social workers, educators, and other individuals out there trying to make a difference. If enough people took this type of ideology, then the world really could be changed for the betterment of equality and justice. The machete I bought represents this: though the blade is sharp and capable of destruction, if handled correctly it can be used for good and no harm sheathed. This is pictured against my College Student Affairs Leadership M.Ed. binder. While I am not a social worker, I am an educator, and by working with college student I hope to impact them to make positive choices domestically and remind (or introduce to) them that there is work to be done globally.

“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.

“Feliz Cumpleaños” – El Salvador Day 1/15

El Salvador is a country rich in vegetation, hospitality and community. Immediately after landing the burst of heat hit the group, with temperatures reaching 85 degrees (give or take 10 depending on the day). I am an avid coffee drinker, so when I saw coffee being sold at the airport it was the first item I bought. This, however, was not the best decision to make. Coffee was El Salvador’s first main export to other countries, so there is a strong sense of justification and respect in regards to it. Not only was the coffee $12 (1lb) but it was not fair trade coffee, which is the coffee type that should be bought instead. Tomorrow my group will visit a fair trade coffee shop, where the coffee is of a better quality and only $3.50.

My first step off the plane also got me smiles, winks and stares from the El Salvadorians who saw me. We drove to lunch via the driver who will take us around for the next few weeks and my first meal here were huge shrimps, chicken breast, and rice. It was delicious and tasted different, more flavorful if I had to describe it. Here I learned that calling myself an “American” is politically (and technically) incorrect. El Salvadorians are Latin Americans, so the term isn’t a good descriptor: “US citizen” is. The meal was so great I inquired about tipping, and was advised not to. While US citizens are typically individualistic, El Salvadorians are more collective, so leaving a tip to a specific server can causes imbalances in their group dynamics, because someone is achieving more than another. It’s about the collective effort, so the tip is added to the overall bill to distribute evenly.

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Next, we went to the beach and saw a Pacific Ocean route. It was beautiful and the waves crashed as forceful as the sun shown down. It was refreshing, but not as refreshing as the mangos I bought on the sand. Two adorable little girls were selling mangos; 5 for 25 cent (know that kids as young as 7 and up start working to help support their families). I only had a dollar, so just bought 5 and told them to keep the change (really, I didn’t need 25 of them and a dollar alone isn’t worth much to me–and El Salvador uses the US dollar fyi, since 2009). It took a bit of communicating to let them know they could keep the extra 75 cent, but they were happy when they realized it.

The next stop was to an open market the was such a culture shock. As mentioned before, El Salvadorians are a collective, inclusive community and it show with how all vendors were helping and supporting one another. As expected, when my classmates and I walked by all eyes were on us, with vendors offering wares and wanting photos. I gave my attention to the kids, there were so adorable and kept walking up to us and selling stuff. I bought so many things from them, and will have to work on saying no if needed. We didn’t get carded buying alcohol and they carted to us, making our group the center of attention. We left after drinks and made our way to Hotel Oasis, the place we would be staying for the trip.

When we arrived at Hotel Oasis, the serving staff was outside and waved us in. I’m just in awe at their hospitality. We began with the study abroad orientation and expectations, then had a delicious dinner. After eating with great conversations, the lights went out and everyone thought there was a power outage. To my surprise, the staff came out singing happy birthday and presented me with a delicious carrot cake. This made my night, and further confirmed their hospitality was some of the best I’ve encountered in my life.

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“Los Problemas” – El Salvador Day 0/15

I’m an American. I’m a young adult. I like video games, drawing, writing, and research. Then there are El Salvadorians, who have vastly different values and priorities than myself. El Salvador (which mean “The Savior”) is a beautiful country which lives up to its namesake. Rich in Myan and Aztec culture due to their close proximity, El Salvador is a country were it initially was able to embrace its culture without outside influences; this means traditions, customs and languages were rich between the Pipils, the earliest known group that would soon become modern-day El Salvadorians. However, with the rest of the world industrializing and expanding, this culture would soon change in many ways. 1524 brought about the first wave of intrusion by the Spanish, and since then there has been constant clashes regarding El Salvador ownership and identity.

 

Today, El Salvador is classified as a two-thirds world country, and issues such as inequality in work, political corruption, human trafficking, and gang scuffles flood this beautiful area, just to name a few. For myself, this study abroad experience will be a balance between noting the positives of this rich culture with lavish landscapes while simultaneously accepting the negative foundation of current events and historical acts that contributed to its current state. I was told that as an American, many natives will want to take a photo with me, request specific items unobtainable there, and inquire about my views on politics. While here, I can treat this experience in two different ways: I can be passive. I can simply listen to the speakers during sessions and take notes, take photos while touring the country, and buy as many survivors as I can afford. I can also be active. I can do the before-mentioned actions while also inquiring the “whys” and “hows”. I can use my research skills to do strategic planning for organizations with limited resources. I’m no solider fighting for either country. I’m not a millionaire able to contribute greatly, nor do have access to staffing resources to address major issues. However, I do have drive, and even though I cannot positively impact the country, a city, or an organization, I’ll make all efforts to positively impact that one, single, individual or issue. Also, this experience isn’t necessarily about “me”. I’m a guest of this county and to achieve  solidarity this must be remembered. I may not be “The Savior“, but I will be active in the work I do here.

 

Asociación ~

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