“Adorables Niños” El Salvador Day 11/15

H. Bart Merkel, Vice Provost of student affairs at Grand Valley State University says: “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” Indeed, how you grow up has so much influence on your childhood, adolescent years, and young adult path. I was home schooled and had the fortunate opportunity to grow up free of mental/physical abuse, bullying, peer pressure and dictation. Exactly on the contrary: I grew up doing what I liked, which is drawing, playing video games, and helping others. My tattoos, hobbies, friendships, and profession echoes this testament.

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For this study abroad experience there are three placement sites where my classmates and I could work for the next few days. The first is with current and ex gang affiliated youth, the second is with girls who have been victims and/or survivors of human trafficking, and the last site was working with kids 2-7 in a preschool program. I, of course, chose the most educationally focused placement. Ironically and iconically, I asked for wisdom via our celebrity guest Melissa Leo before she left us what was the best way for new college students to possibly realize what their place in life is and how to commit to a career path. Her response: “Ask your mother or father how you genuinely acted as a kid and how you developed naturally, and where might this lead.” This was powerful because in summary, how you acted as a kid is a natural representation of your true self. I kept this in mind as I reflected on my own constructive childhood and for the kids I would encounter today.

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After dividing and getting to our placement sites, the school was a beautiful building surrounded by vegetation, bight soothing colors, and posters and paintings of Mons. Romero. We met two North American coordinators and they explained that this building started as an orphanage, gives scholarships to needy families, aims to provide holistic care, includes a health checkup which is “preventive focused” while other health clinics are “curing focused” with natural medicine a priority, detailed commitment that all children have access to a genuine counselor/physician, and equal access to education that will prep students for elementary school.

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As soon as I entered a classroom on our tour, the kids gravitated to me and began jumping, talking in Spanish and grabbing me to follow them to different places around the room. My two classmates and I said our names in Spanish, and because my name is a common Spanish/Italian/Hispanic/Latino name it was easy for them to pronounce, albeit said in a slightly different way. I was placed with 5-year-olds and our first part of the day was recess.

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Playing with the kids was truly a genuine moment of this study abroad experience when I interacted with innocence in the most absolute of context. El Salvador may have many ecological trials and political challenges, but these kids are able to have fun without the cares of murder, drugs, etc. Playing on the swing, climbing play ladders, sliding, high fives and playing with toys with them filled the bright, breezy afternoon and I had just as much fun as those adorable kids did.

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Inside the kids were learning about careers (the irony of this day is just unimaginable) and the children learned how to pronounce and articulate careers such as firefighters, police officers, doctors, etc., and we drew and colored in what these careers were visually. I drew a police officer and colored it in as the kids kept showing me their drawings and I would give them their deserved affirmation. I ended my time with them by playing with blocks, puzzles, stuffed animals, and other toys before leaving. I hoped to myself that these innocent kids could grow up free of violence, sexual abuse and other injustices we heard about during our orientation here. I want to know each and every one of them can go to college if they want and can pursue the careers they have a genuine interest in and drive for.

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Our last stop was to a few home visits, where the two coordinators would visit the homes of the parents and chat about their academic performances and behavior–both praises and concerns. We took the city bus to the first stop and it reminded me of home because I took one so frequently there. Interestingly, it was only 20 cents per ride. We got off and met a young women with an adorable 2-year-old son and we walked to their home to chat about casual, random conversational topics. We played with toys at their house and I let him draw on my 3DS and watch the intro to Tales of The Abyss, one of my favorite RPG games. The second visit was similar, though there were two older teenage boys with the youngest an excellent anime artist and the oldest owning close to 30 swimming medals! I congratulated them both and hoped that like the kids I met today at the preschool, they could make a living out of what truly makes them happy.

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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.

“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.