I had a short visit to the States a few weeks ago, and when I was there I realized something about myself. I realized that I had been living my last year in El Salvador in a heightened state of awareness. And in some ways I sort of knew this, but it became all to real when I felt like I was finally able to breath and articulate my thoughts.
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.