Friday, December 23, 2005

Campo vs. Conferencia

So I’ve had a taste of the Salvadoran world for the last four months, and now I have some time to relax and reflect (some of the things that I do best). When I first got here, everything was adjustment. Someone would ask how I was, and I would just say that I was adjusting. Which is quite true, considering all the things that are so very different about El Salvador. I mean, walking out the door every day here, is more than an adventure, it can be downright alarming and exciting all at once. Not to mention that fact that, the simplicity of a single moment can evoke great reflection and questioning. Imagine having lots of these moments in one day!
The first month here was all over the place, and sort of unsettling. I was living in someone else’s home, I didn’t have a routine to begin adjusting to. In some ways, the month of September was all about me metaphorically dipping my toe in the water.

At CARECEN (work) life was intense. By my first week, I was looking at our human rights files, of people who disappeared in transit, or who died. I’m talking pictures of dead bodies, personal letters, pictures...the whole nine yards. Talk about putting a face on migration! That experience alone will stick with me for the rest of my can’t really forget something like that.

At any rate, things have slowed down a bit. I’ve had time to collect myself (daily), I’ve picked up a routine of sorts, although that is sort of relative in this mas o menos land! I’ve become familiar with the city, the busses, what to expect in terms of the weather, and how I can feed myself on a slim budget (I LOVE Pupusas).

I’m figuring, that this next part of time after Christmas is when I really get into it. I’m really looking for something different. Don’t get me wrong, being in the CARECEN office has some advantages, but I need to be with the people more instead of behind a computer. A lot of the work we do in the office is boring really. Phone calls, computer searches, collecting data, writing name it. Life in the campo is with the people, those who have or will migrate, working with their families and talking to them about their reality. Because the thing is, there really are two realities here...

Campo vs. Conferencia

There is the life that is lived by the people...those that struggle everyday and are forced to reckon with the pressures of a global economy and the abuse of US consumerism everyday. A lot of these people don’t have options. They don’t have a job, their family struggles, and their only idea is go north and find something else...anything else.

Then there is the world of people who do a lot of talking about "issues". These individuals may have been part of the campo reality at some point, or they work with those in the campo now, but are now working within the realm of "professionalism". They talk about the reality at conferences, at fancy hotels, where the level of water in your glass never goes past a half full before a waiter comes by and fills it. In the reality of Conferencia, you try to get really important people to come so that they hear the message...and maybe even give your organization some extra credit. You spend a lot of money to make some people comfortable while they learn and explore the facts. You pack them with information, bring in the press, have your break time for side chatter and future planning, and you have yourself a successful movement underway.
So what the heck does this mean for me?

Well, I’ve experienced a lot of the Conferencia reality since I’ve been here. I’ve been to all the major hotels, I can spot the human rights Lady a mile away. I’m beginning to recognize who is important and who is REALLY important. And most importantly, I know what bus to get on to get to each hotel, because really, it’s all about being there (and for me, experiencing the other half).

But where I really want to be is in some canton that I can’t even pronounce the name. I think that public education work is really important, but I want to be the one experiencing things and then writing it all down. When an important UNDP document says that nearly 600,000 people have left the country from Jan. To May, I want to be able to know that I had contact with at least some of them on a personal level. I want to know that they had a cartilla in their hand, that I shook their hand and wished them a safe trip (instead of learning about them on a general basis at a conference).

As the year 2006 approaches, I am thinking that there are a lot of things left to know and experience. I want to take the year and make it a challenging one, so that by the time I leave in February 2007, I can say that I know what Salvadoran migration looks like from both sides of the coin. It’s all about having a well rounded experience...and that’s what I am aiming for.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Entre Amigos

A few years back in college, I decided I was going to do a paper on the history of homosexuality in Latin America (it was for a Latin American History class). Well besides the fact that I was a little bit ambitious, I did learn a great deal about the culture of homophobia in Latin America in general (and I learned even more about Cuba, after a narrowed my topic down). Who knew that paper would end up manifesting itself into further exploration and discovery later in my life?
At any rate, I remembered that I had read some articles on an organization in El Salvador called ENTRE AMIGOS, an organization devoted to the GLBT population of El Salvador. In my reading, I discovered that the founder was one of the few openly (and public) gay figures in El Salvador at the time. I also remembered that he had received death threats and such for his work with the GLBT community.

After my personal research, I found nothing else to note about the group and figured that it had fizzled out, thinking that maybe it was suppressed by the government, or maybe the founder just decided to go back underground. How very wrong I was...

About a week ago I was having lunch with a coworker and she was sharing some pictures that she brought from home. Pictures of when CARECEN first started (the organization I work with), pictures of her family and some of her friends. Then she showed me this one picture taken a few years ago. The photo captured her with about five other men, including an drag queen (depending on the culture, you might also refer to her as transgendered). My coworker continues to explain that these are her friends from "AMIGOS" and that they are all gay. She specifically points out the other woman in the picture (besides her) and says, "that’s a man!"
I smiled and told her that I knew...

We continued on with our conversation about her friends, about the GLBT population here, gay culture, and the misc. people who come into our office that are gay. Apparently there are a lot, and she knows them all! In addition, she has a lot of friends who are in the sex industry here, both men and women. He tells me about so and so who sells things at the market by day as a woman, and at night she is a cross dressing prostitute....or some of the men she knows that don’t even hide their identity and dress in women’s clothing, sell things at the market and also provide sexual favors. She knew a lot more about gay culture here than I had ever expected I would learn as a "Catholic" volunteer.

In my curiosity, I asked her how she knew all these gay people. She proceeded to tell me that she only hangs around gay people...she doesn’t really like straight people (even thought she identifies as straight). This I found interesting. But basically, her extensive knowledge comes from the fact that she has been involved with ENTRE AMIGOS for a long time, the same group I had thought fell off the face of the earth.

Much to my surprise, ENTRE AMIGOS is flourishing here in San Salvador, and by the next day, I was on an official tour! As it turns out, EA is so close, that I pass the office everyday on my way to and from work!!!

What I learned...
At EA, we had a long conversation with one of the directors, Joaquin. He talked about the history of the group and what they do now, which includes advocacy work and a lot of community education in relation to homosexuality in general, and also a safe sex campaign. EA is the only group in El Salvador that works directly with the GLBT population and does HIV / AIDS education. Basically, the conservative administration here won’t even touch the population, and EA is forced to tackle the reality alone. While other AIDS organizations get a ton of money to do education work, EA has to rely on private international donations. If you want to talk about human rights, look at the inequality of funding will make your head turn!
Joaquin told us about their creative campaigns and the extent of their work. As it turns out, even our organization has worked with EA in the past, helping HIV + migrants, travel in a safer way. I also learned about their charlas they do (little chats) in the parks and areas where there are a high concentration of gay people (who probably aren’t being educated correctly).

At any rate, I gave Joaquin my name and number and told him that I would be interested in helping the organization. I explained with a smile, that although I am a Catholic volunteer, I still have a life and free time to work with other people..and have diverse experiences. The way I see it, the GLBT community is one of the most oppressed and marginalized populations here, and so I think it’s my job to learn more about them, and be a witness to their struggles.
So when I actually start doing something with ENTRE AMIGOS, I will let you know.
On another note...and related to the topic at hand.

I went to a mass on World AIDS Day at the Cathedral here. I noticed that there was a person on the opposite end of pews who would be identified as trans. I couldn’t help but think to myself, "Man, she has a lot of courage to step into this church, with the culture of homophobia surrounding her!" She was surrounded by people when the mass started, but as the mass went on, people gradually got up and left their seat for another location, so that by the end, she was all by herself.

My heart was very affected by this observation, and it has sat with me ever since. I think it’s kind of funny that a week later I was introduced to ENTRE AMIGOS!

Everyday, I learn more and more about the culture here...including the things that people don’t normally talk about. Even though I am Catholic, I am glad and grateful that people have been comfortable enough to share such personal, and sometimes controversial things about their lives. I am a better person for it all.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Padre Jon Cortina

(Google Images)
A good man died today and now a country mourns his presence. Padre Jon Cortina has never left the Salvadoran people. Even with death threats and the assassination of his fellow Jesuits in 1989, Cortina continued living the Gospel of Jesus by accompanying the people of El Salvador through a war, disasters and picking up the pieces to begin a new life. Romero was killed along with the Maryknoll church women, and still he picked up his cross. Jon was a champion of human rights, when the US government broke every rule in the book. He accepted his calling with dignity and a kind heart, while impacting the souls of those he spent his full life with.
Even after the war, Cortina continued the investigation of human rights for the people of El Salvador. He formed an organization called Pro-Búsqueda, which helps families locate children who were disappeared or kidnaped during the war. It was one of the many ways Jon helped the Salvadoran society grieve and pick up the pieces.

Padre Cortina spent a great deal of his time in northern El Salvador, an area greatly affected by the war. There, communities are still isolated from US materialism, as they struggle to put food on their table in the mists of a condition of poverty that the government still neglects in some ways. His love for the people can be seen in their faces, as they talk about the amazing relationship he had with them.

A few days ago, I attended a mass at the local Jesuit university where Cortina taught. The mass was to celebrate his birthday and pray for his health. And the pews were packed...people flowing out of the chapel. Just the presence of so many people was a testament to his great love. But there was much more than that. The emotion in that room spoke volumes; as I looked around, I could see people taking deep breaths as they tried to emotionally grasp the reality that they would soon face. I sat next to one woman who cried through the whole mass, start to finish, and her body shook as I hugged her for the sign of peace. There were students, professors, community members, families helped by Pro-Búsqueda, and volunteers just like me, sharing at a table of a collective memory.

The Salvadoran people have faced death head on with the destruction of their past. A vivid memory paints a picture of a culture formed in the image of suffering, and as one of the spiritual healers has died, one must ask "how much sadness has to exist?"

Many will say that Padre Cortina is a prophet, others will declare him a saint...but such labels are not important in retrospect. The important this is, we was there through it was his presence...and something tells me, he will never leave.
For more info on Padre Jon check out this blog from a friend.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

A Connection

Do you ever have these moments, when you meet someone, and you are forced to think just a little bit more about everything in your life? It’s because of who they are, the conversation you have with them, the way you are attentive to their words and the way your heart peacefully reflects on their presence. There is something intrinsically perfect about their personality and how your soul craves a certain magnetism of spirits. It’s not about who you are, but who you might become. It is about the moment you meet and every second after. It’s a connection worth having, worth remembering (even if it was just that moment).

I met such a person...I had this experience.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Vatican Document

Some of you might have been checking the blog periodically for my upcoming thoughts on the Vatican´s document about gay seminarians. There is a long story about all of this, that is better left to fireside chats by the beach with a cup of coffee. However, I will say a few short things and then leave you to think for yourself.

In my humble opinion, the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, does not know their community very well. In addition, it is my belief that they forgot about what Jesus taught in regards to judgment and love. Furthermore, this new document is not only sad, but is also a powerful display of the institutionalize homophobia of Catholicism, and most of Christianity for that matter.

As a Catholic who believes in the unity of humanity and the true vision of the Universal Church, I am not prepared to give up when the going gets tough…and believe me, there is a tough road ahead of us. Instead, I urge you to speak to your priests, bishops, and laypeople of your communities. Let them know what you really think, and let them see the vision that you have of one unified body. In addition, pray for our priests…especially those who are being forced back into the closet…that their hearts may stay close to those that love them well.

My heart is sad but my spirit is strong…