Monday, September 18, 2006
As if poverty was not violent enough, the people of La Chacra face the terror of armed violence, rampant drug use, domestic violence and a slew of other text book cases of the ills of society.
My time in La Chacra last week was to visit the Fe y Alegria schools (a Latin American model of schools founded by the Jesuits in 1969). I have visited other Fe y Alegria schools in Guatemala, and to experience this type of community in El Salvador was a real treat. I enjoyed the time with the children which was a change from my usual day in front of a computer. And by the afternoon, we were able to sit down with the parish priest for a little lunch.
Just as we were finishing the meal blessing, repetitive shots demanded out attention. Different from the usual fireworks that go off every now and then, these shots were deliberate and distinct. As Padre Luis made the sign of the cross, praying that no one died, our group felt a certain fear knowing the shots were only about a block away.
We decided not to leave the house for the rest of the afternoon and skip the planned house visits that we were going to go on. Instead, we rested, and waited for news to arrive throughout the afternoon. As I learned, this kind of lunchtime violence is almost daily in La Chacra. On this particular day, it was a drug deal gone wrong. A man about 25 years old tried to escape down the river bank and was shot and killed. We heard the police sirens about 45 minutes after the shots and I am not sure that this particular murder made it to the media.
The truth is, rarely does all the violence in the city make it to the media. This kind of thing happens almost everyday in La Chacra and places just like it. It’s the poor who suffer the most and it is the poor who are killed. If you want to talk about the Crucified Christ, go to La Chacra.
Wednesday, September 06, 2006
There are family members of those left behind. Their loved ones tried to go to the US through Mexico to find a job and now they have dissapeared or they have died during their time of transit. In the organization I work with, CARECEN International, we help look for those individuals who have died or dissapeared, but the process is not easy.
Today was the first march of COFAMIDE (Committee of Family Members of people who have died or dissappeared or died). Today, we marched to the Mexican Embassy to demand that they help us build a database that looks for migrants who have been found in Mexico. Tomorrow we are going to the Salvadoran government to demand that they finance and maintain this database.
As 700 Salvadorans leave their country every single day to find better opportunities in the US, our work is cut out for us. With the help of COFAMIDE, we will keep looking for people, but this time there are specific stories behind every request.
Today, some members of COFAMIDE could not come to the march because it´s too difficult. It´s too difficult to talk about the poverty that drove someone they love to look for opportunities in other countries. And its too difficult to imagine that thier loved ones have died. In Solidarity they were with us today as I hope you were as well.
Monday, August 28, 2006
Imagine living in El Salvador, a place where a foreigner is not the only target. In other places around the world, someone who looks different is always an easy money maker for random robberies. But here in El Salvador, everyone is a target...and robberies turn into murders.
El Salvador has a culture of violence and trauma reinforced by a history of a brutal civil war; a war that ended with some peace accords that basically lied to the people by saying things were going to change. It is true, things did change. Many say that the poverty rate is worse now than when it was in the war. Imagine that, the people have gotten poorer? The rich polititians have brought in their neoliberal politics and trade agreements (CAFTA) to benefit their friends in corporations. And the people are slowly losing their right to march and protest the injustice going on in their country because as the government likes to say, the protests of the left are terrorist acts, so now there is new terrorist legislation.
Then there are the gangs. The gangs of El Salvador originated in the US, but with the slick deportation process of the US government, El Salvador found a new problem to deal with. The gangs are neither leftist or rightist, but Tony Saca likes to think the gangs are all leftist (even if Arena does pinta y pega with gang members during the elections). And so, with the easy solutions of the Arena government, all the youth of El Salvador are a target. So much for treasuring your future!
So when you couple a history of violence with a people in growing need for food, shelter and jobs, youth who are being targeted, gang members who target everyone (especially busses), and the slow political process that takes human rights away one by one, one might find a breading ground for a whole mess of effects brought on by this culture. One such effect is widespread violence.
A lot goes on in this country every day. Busses are attacked and burned if they didn’t pay the gang fare. Patrons of busses are robbed or killed every day. In the night there are shootings, and we have a homicide rate that is through the roof. Occasionally there are protests, but the last one turned into a police instigated riot with helicopters equipped with gunmen.
Now take all of this into consideration when you decide to leave your house. How would you prepare? What would you bring with you, and how would you act? These are the questions I’ve been asking myself everyday for the last year, and realized in the States that I didn’t need to worry about that!
I live in a pretty nice residential neighborhood with a gate and an armed guard. My area is pretty middle class, and they have luxuries like a car and pretty gardens. I have a pretty garden too, but I ride the bus. When I leave my house to start my day, I make sure that I have my wallet with not much more than $20. I have some money in my wallet, and some money outside of it (just in case if the bus I am on is robbed, I can just give them the few dollars I have that is not in my wallet...but because I am white, I might get hassled more because people think I am rich). In addition to my wallet I carry my visa card that is issued by the government. Because I have this special document, I don’t need to carry my passport like other foreigner friends of mine. If I am stopped by migration people, I pull out my card, have a little conversation with them and I am on my way. If any of my friends are stopped (and chances are they don’t have my same visa because it’s really hard to get) then they might be fined or even brought to migration, or even forced to leave in 48 hours.
I have my wallet and visa in one pocket and my $30 phone in the other pocket. I also carry a bag with an umbrella, water, my notebook and my agenda. I don’t carry much more than that because it could be stolen. When I am on the bus I try not to let myself drift too far off into daydream land. Sometimes that’s hard to do, but for the most part, I try to stay alert and be aware of who is getting on an off the bus and where I am in proximity. But the reality is, anyone and everyone is in danger at times. These same rules of being alert apply to walking in the street. I am usually very aware of where I am and who is near me when I am walking. I always pass men who have some cat call to project, but it’s safer to just keep on walking instead of saying or doing something that might feel OK in the States. I make sure that when I pass drunk men, that I am polite but that I keep walking, and I try to be aware of the places I can walk into in case there is a problem.
At night, the whole dynamic changes. Everything is more dangerous and people are more on edge. If I do go out at night, I try to go out with a group of people, I don’t ride public transportation after a certain point and if I am really far, I take a taxi home at night.
And then, because I am in El Salvador, the political situation has to be taken into account when leaving the false comfort of your home. There are always protests, marches, demonstrations, road blocks and the like going on at seemingly random moments. However, nothing is really random here, and it’s best if you can catch these hand ups quickly. As a foreigner, I can be arrested and deported if seen at a protest, so I steer clear of them for that reason. However, marches and demonstrations can easily turn into protests and those can easily turn violent, which is something I would rather not be a part of. The July 5th protest that I previously spoke about was not very far from where I conduct a lot of my life, and so it’s important for me to be aware of what’s going on before I leave the house (if at all possible).
You know, the reality is, living here is different...its difficult. But I am only here for a short while and basically I can leave whenever I want. What about the people who can’t leave...the people who can’t make enough money to move into a safer neighborhood where people aren’t being found dead in the morning? What about the women I know, who were waiting for a bus on pay day at the GAP maquilador that they work at, and they were robbed and rapped repeatedly? What about the young teenage boys who are afraid to leave their houses to go to a crafts workshop held by a church group, because the police will pick them up and even abuse them as targeted gang members (even if they really aren’t gang members at all)? What about the bus driver who didn’t pay the gang a special tax and so he gets shot and killed in broad daylight while his bus is set to flames? What about the man lies sprawled out on the sidewalk in a nice neighborhood with a gunshot in his head?
I am not trying to scare you with these thoughts and these stories, but think about it...a really large percentage of this world lives like this. Then take places like Iraq and Lebanon? What about the neighborhoods you never go in? The North end of Hartford...the projects...you know the places that you hear about on the news.
I mean, shouldn’t people have the right to be safe? Shouldn’t people have the right to FEEL safe?
I am leaving El Salvador in 6 months and I will be living in a place where I can breath again. I can go to work with a bunch of useless junk in my bag, my pockets full of money and money cards, I can listen to my MP3 player as I ride public transportation...and if I wanted to, I could escape and forget about it all.
Tuesday, August 15, 2006
Dear Friends, Family, and Supporters,I send you my greetings to you from El Salvador. I am still here working as a long-term volunteer, teaching English, coordinating youth sports programs, and organizing around environmental issues. I want to thank you all for your generous donations and your emails. I am inspired to report that the children here are putting the donated sporting equipment to good use on a daily basis and everything is going well Sadly, my motive for writing today is not of a joyful nature. I feel compelled to share this experience because this time, the danger we all face on a daily basis has come close to home.Around 3:00 am on Saturday, August 5th, Esper was leaving her job at a factory just outside the city of San Salvador. She and two co-workers were attacked by a group of armed men. It was payday so Esper and her co-workers had their monthly salaries of $150 cash with them. The men physically threw the three young women to the ground, beat them, and stole their money. They raped them repeatedly, taking turns. After, the men drove away.All three victims are currently in the hospital, recovering from their physical injuries and receiving medication to prevent the development of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. The anti-HIV medicine will cause them to be physically ill for the next few weeks and requires a proper diet which they could not afford on their current salary, let alone if the medication makes them too sick to return to work.My best friend Marina is Esper's sister. Marina is a full-time teacher during the week, and a night student at the University of El Salvador. She wants to take this semester off from her studies, so that she can work a second job to support Esper and her family through her recovery. If Marina stops studying this semester, she will delay getting her teaching certification, which in turn would get her fired from her teaching position, leaving her in a worse position than today.I can personally speak to how hard this entire family works to stay afloat financially, and to try to make a better life for themselves and their children. They are fighters and survivors, but this weekend’s violence has pushed them beyond their limits.It is not easy to hear stories like Esper's. There are a few things we can do to walk in solidarity with these women. First and foremost, we can send them our positive energy, and keep her and her coworkers in our thoughts and prayers.We can also ease their financial burden. Each woman lost a month’s salary, and may not be able to work while in recovery. My goal is to raise a minimum of $1,000, the equivalent of three months wages and medical costs for Esper’s family, and to give anything above that amount to the other two women who are also suffering. Please, consider committing to give $20 a month for the next three months to help out it would be the equivalent of giving up one movie night (no popcorn), or a week’s worth of Starbucks each month, and a wonderful way to contribute good karma to some very deserving people. I know that money is always tight, and I am as grateful for your positive energy, and for passing this email along to anyone you feel may want to participate, as I am for any donation you can make. I will continue to update you on Esper’s condition through my blog. You can donate by clicking on the link I put below. Please feel free to contact me with any questions you may have, or even just to pass along good wishes to Esper.Thank you, with loveSally Hansensalstar17@hotmail.comPlease feel free to pass this along to your friends, family, schools, and places of worship.
Monday, June 26, 2006
The month of June is International Gay Pride Month. In large metropolitan cities like New York, Chicago, London or Paris, there tend to be large parades and events celebrating the diversity of sexuality, gender, gender identity and the millions of individuals who have struggled for equality and positive visibility. June is a month of awareness and acceptance for gay communities all around the world, in hopes that one day, people won’t be violated, discriminated against or shunned by their families. It’s a month of education and empowerment, of entertainment and conversation and maybe an extra push for some, to finally come out of the closet.
Here in El Salvador events for the month of June within the gay community are on a smaller scale, yet still alive and growing in vibrance and visibility. And this year, the big day was the 24th of June. The morning began with various groups setting up tents in the central park of El Centro, across from the cathedral. There, these groups displayed their work and held education forums on issues ranging from STDs, HIV / AIDS, condom application and other safe sexual practices.
(Side commentary: I was disappointed to find that the majority of conversations and information were based on sexual practices and disease prevention. On one hand, this heavy emphasis certainly reinforces certain stereotypes of the gay community, but on the flip side, the highly attended educational campaign reached individuals ranging in sexualities and sexual practices. I would have liked to have seen more conversation on gender identity and sexuality as a whole, however, I was quite surprised and impressed with the amount of people who courageously participated in such a taboo event in this homophobic country of El Salvador.)
Some highlights to this part of the day included the passing out of free condoms (male and female). I also got to watch one man transform into a woman (and a very attractive woman at that). I watched as another man applied his makeup, as they picked out his outfit and later, as she marched in the parade (notice the pronoun switch from he to she).
In addition to learning some new things about AIDS in El Salvador, I also had a lot of personal conversations with people who were willing to share their stories of being gay in El Salvador. I met one man, who I will not name at this time, who is a soldier in the Salvadoran military. This young man talked with me about his time in the military and his boss who forced him to have sex. He spoke about how his boss hit him and threatened his life if he did not engage in relations with him. In addition, when he reported the incident, the military denied the incident took place, and now there is a lengthy court case which could result in this soldier being put into jail. At the moment, this young man is not only suspended from the military while his case is pending, but he can't apply to any other jobs to make money because he is tied up in this case. He has been kicked out of his family (a military family) and has been staying with his grandmother. He further explained that he just wants this all to be over with, understanding that his boss will never be brought to justice with the amount of corruption here, and that he just wants his life back.
I met a lot of people who had similar stories of being shunned by their families, of moving from their pueblos to the city and finding acceptance among a few people here. The stories are not unlike many other gay people I know in the US and unfortunately, this seems to be the reality.
However, I did meet a mother who accompanied her son to the march because she wanted to support him. I met another young boy who guided us from the bus stop to where the march would take place, and he had many interesting things to say, at the ripe ate of eight. We asked him if he was involved in the movement at which he happily replied "yes!" We then asked him if anyone in his family was gay.
He nonchalantly replied, "No, I just have an uncle who dresses like a queen."
We later saw this boy walking through the march as if he had no care in the world. He seemed to know a lot of people, including a lot of the other men who dress like "queens". And I couldn't help but hope that this young boy, and his attitude, would develop into the future of this country and the handling of homosexuality.
In all, I had a really good and interesting time at this march of solidarity. I certainly had a unique experience that other foreigners were not getting. I found myself being very grateful for the community I have in the United States, and yet I also realized that there is a lot of work that needs to be done in the US as well. And so, as June is coming to a close, I wish all my GLBT friends and those who support us, a Happy and Healthy Gay Pride Month.
Thursday, May 11, 2006
Even though I am accustomed to celebrating Mothers Day on a different date, I still did a little bit of reflecting as Salvadorans honored their mothers (and mother figures).
I am finding in my life, that who you call Mom, says a lot about you. Here in El Salvador culture with a mix of poverty really changes the family dynamic. There are many single moms here and many women who have children with multiple men. I won’t explain the how or why of this (this is not the time of discussion), but I will say, that the role this woman plays in the child’s life is even more important. In addition, there are times when one or both parent leave the family to go North to support the family. Sometimes the family still stays in touch with the person who migrated, but that is not always the case.
I read a story recently in which a mom emigrated to the US to make enough money for the family. As a mother, she was the primary breadwinner for her family, but she was not the primary caregiver. Instead, the older sister assumed the role, which leads me to wonder. Who do Salvadorans call Mom? And when exactly does a woman become a mother?
Here, there is a strong presence of influential woman with strong character. I have met women here who are a definite force to be reckoned with and are seen as the matriarch of a whole family or community at times. These are the women who keep careful watch over every child (no matter what age) and keep the men in line and on their toes. In such a machismo culture, I find this reality to be surprising and a bit refreshing.
As a feminist who is blessed with many different individuals who have assumed mothering roles in my life, I often wonder what kind of mother I will become someday. Although I admire these strong Salvadoran women, I am not sure I want that kind of responsibility. It is my hope however, that my future partner and I complement each other in such a way that the typical mothering characteristics are distributed among the two of us. I feel that if life works out that way, then our child (or children) will understand that traditional gender roles do not need to be fulfilled to raise a healthy child, or to have a healthy family.
So in closing, Happy Mothers Day, to all those women and men who care for children and raise them to be happy and healthy adults. My blessings, gratitude and awe go to you…
If I decide to go to church, I do the normal life thing of getting dressed and all that jazz. I also eat something (even though it is against church teaching) and then I begin the journey. I jump on the number 46 bus…it goes from one poor neighborhood to another…I am somewhere in the middle of the line but economically speaking I stand out! I love riding the bus, and somehow that seems a bit strange to me…but never the less, it’s a part of my life. It’s such a real experience, passing through the different neighborhoods, looking at the people getting on and off, wondering where they came from and where they are going. That in itself is a spiritual experience. Its the reality of liberation theology right in front of me without ever stepping into a church. I wonder what the Vatican thinks of such revelations?
I’ve learned about the layout of the city by riding the buses and the images I have gathered run through my head when I think about the things I love about El Salvador. Mostly, its about the people….I have fallen in love as Arrupe would say. As the bus passes the big parks, and the hospital Rosales, I can’t help to feel a tug at my heart. People say that Rosales is the hospital for the poor and that you go there to die. It’s not a pretty sight and the people waking in and out of that place don’t really look alive. I don’t know how you could when dignity is handed over as admission. Someday I will go there to see it for myself…but for now, I just look at the reality from my bus window.
From Rosales, the number 46 goes down the hill to El Centro. And within minutes the streets are full of people and little booths of vendors selling everything from fruits and veggies to bootleg DVDs to clothing and tools. You can find anything at El Centro and for cheap. I love El Centro…I love that it’s dirty and raw…and real. To me, this is San Salvador. And after a while I can see the top the Cathedral which is my stop. My cute to get up is the stop light right before the central park. And when I do, I feel like I am stepping into a new reality. A change from observation to living.
It’s the Cathedral where Romero’s funeral mass was, when over 40 people were killed as the government opened fire. The Cathedral is where I was when I saw my first protest, when some people overtook the tower to protest the conditions in the prisons. The Cathedral is the only sight seeing place I went to when I first came to El Salvador back in 2001 after the earthquakes, and so every time I go to the Cathedral, I remember that experience. For me, the Cathedral is a central point of reference…or reflection and of internal conflict.
There are two religious services at the Cathedral on Sunday. The formal mass is held upstairs in the ornate décor of what you imagine a church to be. The doors are open and its loud and I call it the hierarchy mass, because that is the mass for the people who follow the Catholicism of the Vatican. Downstairs in the cripta is where I go to the Misa de los Pobres (The Mass of the Poor). This is the place where Romero’s body now rests and people come to pray at the monument that memorializes him. The people gathered are normal Salvadorans, many of whom are very poor and travel a bit of distance to celebrate there. This is the people’s mass and the people have to fight to keep it. The funny thing is, there is nothing out of the ordinary at this mass. The readings are the same, the offerings are the same, the priest has the same teaching…but the hearts of the people are different. Every Sunday, the people at this mass convert the readings and Romero’s past reflections into real soul food. They take the message and apply it to their life…the life that struggles to create social change. And I guess the hierarchy is threatened by that…
My Sunday trips to the Cathedral certainly don’t resemble the times I go to church with my family…but then again, my life here doesn’t really resemble the life I have anywhere else.
Monday, February 13, 2006
(El Mozote building destroyed)
Rufina Amaya, the woman who will remain in my heart for the rest of my days. If you know anything about the history of El Salvador, it is possible that you may remember the name of Rufina from reading a book about El Mozote, and the massacre that took place there in December 1981. The tragedy at El Mozote killed more than 1,000 campesinos, and Rufina is the only survivor. Her testimony is simple, it is real and it is full of a certain pain that she has carried with her every since.
Today I met Rufina, and looked into her eyes for the first time, knowing that my own heart will remain connected to hers. I’m not sure I will ever think of the history of El Salvador again, without thinking of her. As I walked through the streets of this small town in northeastern El Salvador, I had to remind myself to take deep breaths, so that I wouldn’t cry, in encountering the reality that Rufina once lived.
(church where men were killed)
We walked these dirt streets, accompanied by neighborhood kids, and the truth was revealed with the bullet holes in buildings. We walked past the home of Marcos Diaz, the richest man of El Mozote at the time, who convinced the families of the town to remain in the area on one particular day (the day that the Atlacatl battalion arrived), despite other intelligence that said something bad was going to happen.
We took pictures of the center square, where the town was forced to congregate before being divided by gender. I walked into the church, and prayed, the place where the men were brought and killed. We walked the path that the line of women took as they were escorted to a home where they would be raped and killed. It was on this path, that Rufina managed to find refuge and escape. It was on this same path, that soldiers walked day and night, dragging bodies (including Rufina’s husband and children).
I saw the tree that Rufina hid in, and the foundation of the house, where the bodies of women were exhumed. Nearby, was the giant crater from a 500 lb. bomb that was dropped by a US airplane just a few days before, and a perfect view over the trees, of the church in the center of the town.
The reality in this tragedy, is that everything was planned with the purpose of terrorism. The fact is, the soldiers of Atlacatl, were trained at The School of the Americas in Fort Banning, Georgia. They learned the latest technology of terror, fresh from the analysis of the Vietnam War. Basically the idea is, if you take away the towns where the guerrilla forces are strong, the guerrillas will also die of hunger. Thus, in the master minds of the six Americans that accompanied the Atlacatl battalion, killing everyone in El Mozote was a strategic move against the opposition. Never mind, that women were raped, children thrown into the air and shot, and the men decapitated. And never mind, that US tax dollars paid for this important education, as well as the guns and ammunition.
Today when I met Rufina at her home, she spoke to us a bit about her experience (minus the details, because there is no need to repeat it over and over again). We talked about her life now, the poverty of her family and those around here. We talked about the oppression that still goes on today and her hopes for a more liberated future. She explained that even thought the peace accords were signed in 1992, the root causes of the war were never addressed, and today she thinks it is even worse. With CAFTA, privatization, electoral fraud, and the dollarization of El Salvador, some things only got worse. Yet somehow, she still remains hopeful, that someday, the Left will take power and eradicate poverty in her country.
When asked about her faith in God, Rufina responds that her faith has always been strong. Even during the war, and during the massacre, God remained in her heart. She attributes her life, to her faith.
The images at the top, I took while I was in El Mozote. I’m not very fond of guided tours or being a tourist, especially when it involves the lives of real people. However, I felt that for this time, my photos might tell a visual story, of the history of El Mozote, and the memories that fill the heart of Rufina Amaya.
Monday, January 16, 2006
Last month I met a man who wanted to migrate to the US, and so on the way to my home, I told him about his human rights as he is in transit. I wished that I had brought the little pamphlet with me that explains his human rights, but for some reason I didn't have any, so I told him to call our office. I don't know if he ever did.
This morning when I woke up, I was feeling a little hurried, as I had an early meeting to talk about the work I will do for the next six months or so. When I was packing my bag for the day, I noticed the little yellow cartillas (pamphlets) sitting on the floor, and so I grabbed a few and tossed them into my bag, thinking that they might come in handy.
My day continued on, and was a regular manic Monday with just a hint of frustration, because I felt like I wasn't being productive enought with the extra chaos of a new schedule that has come into my life. Nevertheless, not being too hard on myself, I decided to see a film with friends, and catch a cab later on.
This evenings taxi ride was another important one, because I met a man who will be leaving within the week. He explained that it's been really hard for him and that he's decided to go North to meet some family in New York, who can get him a job flipping burgers. He's planning on traveling alone, but will meet a coyote (a paid guide) in Mexico. I asked him how much the coyote costs and he told me $2,000. My taxi driver doesn't know the coyote, and later asks me if learning english is hard. I reach into my bag and pull out a cartilla, which I so carelessly tossed in my bag 14 hours early in the day. I flip throught the pages as he drives, and I chat with him a bit about his human rights and the places where he can find a meal and a place to stay while traveling. I also explain that he can call our office for more information or more cartillas for his friends.
My taxi driver this eveing is leaving a country that he loves, to continue on a trip that will be very dangerous. He will probably hold that cartilla very close to him in the coming weeks, and ask he tells me about Santa Ana (where he is from), I say a little prayer for him, because I know it's not going to be easy.
This man is 27 years old, and he is leaving his family for a job in the states that pays minimum wage. He's risking his life to enter into a country that says he is not welcome, and vigilantes on the border will tell him in many ways. He asks me if New York is beautiful, and I tell him that it is, but it's expensive. And when I leave the car this evening, I extend my hand and tell him to be careful. He says "Rest well Megan." And I wish for him to do the same.
I think that 10 minute conversation was the most important thing I did all day.