El Salvador Update – September 1996

El Salvador Update – September 1996

Joy from Victoria has passed on to us this email from her brother and sister-in-law, who are working in El Salvador with the Mennonite Central Committee. It gives a good picture of what conditions are like down there right now:

15 September, 1996


There is a T-shirt in Seattle which says, We don’t get wet, we rust. This pretty much sums up our last few months with one little addition – We don’t rust, we just mildew. Yes, we’re finally nearing the end of the rainy season which despite the daily torrential rains, still offers welcome respites of sunshine in the mornings. After being flooded out of our house once, we encircled our domicile with trenches, giving the appearance of a medieval moat, only lacking a drawbridge to complete this vista.

These past few months have been times of transition for us – of beginnings and endings. The Centro Infantil has officially finished their first full successful year of school. The women in the gardens are facing their greatest challenge as they struggle through their first rainy season. We have shared our first experience of ushering in another new life (one of the many more to come) among the women of the community. We shared in the grief of one of the first pastoral workers to die of cancer in this post-war period. A disease which evidently is predicted to rise in El Salvador, along with domestic violence, now that there are fewer outlets to release pent up emotions and pain. In addition to the cycles of life and death, we were also able to share in the joy of a new marriage which is a rarity in these parts, as couples usually live together as compañeros; as much guided by the culture as by the exorbitant fees and legalities instilled by the Roman Catholic church and the government.

All of these things seem a fitting end to our first year here in Perquin. As we enter into our second year of working with MCC, the clarity which we expected to come still seems as elusive as ever, and life has taken on a series of paradoxes. The more we understand about poverty, the less convinced we are that we will can change anything. The more we learn about the North’s role in globalization, the more aware we become of our own personal contribution to an even greater exploitation and marginalization of the South. The more we see that churches are guided by power and politics, the more amazed we are that people still continue to experience grace within it. This has caused us to feel lost as to our place in the whole realm of community development. What is it that we can offer to the people in this community that is to be our home for the next few years? How can we move away from imperialistic models of development and focus more on empowering people and increasing their options in life? How is it that although we came here as volunteers – we’ve been offered and shown more grace and love than we could have ever given and in fact, are the ones being transformed?

These are just some of the questions, doubts, and ponderings in our lives lately. Our team is in a process of putting together a 5 year plan for MCC in El Salvador. We’ve been struggling and trying to define our mission statement and trying to clarify in what ways we can be the most effective as internationals in this country of transition from war to peace. During this whole process, a recurring theme for us has been one of accompaniment. What exactly does that mean? It’s a combination of all those subtleties that go into making someone a good friend – being present, hanging out, sharing in the joy, tears, and fears of the other, being silent together, and simply allowing your life to become intertwined with that of another. For us this has been crucial in thinking about our time and presence here in El Salvador. That despite whatever monies, technologies, theories, trainings, or techniques that we may be able to give to the campesinos, perhaps that most profound gift that we can offer is ourselves and our friendship, as they do to us. Realizing that changes don’t occur because of what we know or what we can do, but they occur when we allow ourselves to be transformed and connected on a level as friends.

In Latin America, virtually everything in society and town life is centered around the Roman Catholic Church. In August, there was a celebration of the of the local patron saint, the Virgen de Transito. Instead of celebrating, however, the preparations for the festival erupted into a village feud. On the outside two story wall of the local church existed two stunning murals – one depicting the martyred former Archbishop Monsignor Romero and the other a portrayal of children frolicking together in a park. These murals were white-washed by the affluent right wing ARENA (current ruling political party) supporters in town, most of whom fled the pueblo during the conflict to continue their livelihoods in less dangerous, secure ARENA controlled areas. It’s thought that their actions were instigated with the intention of creating controversy and confrontations before the upcoming Perquin elections. It didn’t make sense to us that a scene of children happily playing together could be at the center of such bitter tensions and yet, it is a clear indication of how deeply conflictive and divided the war has left local communities. Everything is politicized, to the point where one buys a soda pop becomes indicative of a person’s personal political affiliation and ideology. All this to say that as foreigners, we find ourselves walking a very tight line in trying to maintain a semblance of neutrality and openness.

(To many of the poor, the left wing former guerrilla combatants of the FMLN and those of us involved in social justice issues, Romero signifies a voice and inspiration for the marginalized and dispossessed to this day. Not because Monsignor Romero was the Archbishop of El Sal, but because of his courageous transformation from a traditional, out of touch mouthpiece of the Catholic hierarchy into a compassionate, leading figure and spokesperson of the injustices occurring in his country. He was murdered by the death squads with a single bullet while giving mass in 1980, provoking the conflict to rapidly escalate as many lost faith in the whole non-violent political process.)

On the positive side of things, I suppose a increasing familiarity and identification with community conflicts and struggles could be interpreted as a higher level of integration with the local people and a deepening of friendships. In that sense, we are grateful although there certainly are times when ignorance would surely have been more blissful.

Life with the Centro Hogar has slowed down significantly for me (Eugenia), as the children are on vacation for the worst months of the rainy season. We’ll be entering school again in the beginning of November. Interest seems to be building as more parents realize that the school is to be permanent addition to the community and are starting to have their interest sparked in early childhood education. All of this is very encouraging and exciting as I see parents taking more of an active interest in their children’s education and well-being. Unfortunately however, the Center is in the midst of a leadership crisis at the moment. There has been a lot of conflicts (here it surfaces again) and struggles over power with a local community organization and the sponsoring agency of the school. Hopefully, this will get ironed out during the vacation months and we will be able to started again in November as a more unified team.

In the meantime, I’ve been working with the women’s congregation in San Fernando (a small pueblo about an hour away) attending their monthly meetings and learning more about their life. This is also one of the groups of women that works with David on the gardens. I’m excited about the friendships that are developing between some of the women and I and feel that it has become one of my energizers in life here.

We are looking for different craft ideas to do with the women and children (from ages 2-13). I would GREATLY appreciate any ideas that you may have to offer. We will be starting school in November and the teachers are always looking for new ideas for crafts or games to do with the children (ages 2-6). Currently, some of the women are learning to knit and there’s a possibility of maybe starting some macramé classes in the future. But I would LOVE to hear any ideas, or suggestions that you have. Thanks!

For me (David), I had the experience of having a scorpion fall on my head from our ceiling while getting into bed. Luckily Eugenia flicked it out of my hair before I got stung and then I bashed it with a broom. This then prompted constructing a Scorpion Shield which hangs over our bed for protection, as they have a history of lingering around ceilings. Luckily these kind supposedly aren’t the killing people variety, but they’ve been reputed to leaving a pretty nasty bite!

Our gardens have virtually been tidal-waved with this inundation of agua. We have lost a few women due to frustration and despair, but have also learned some things for next year. We are still evaluating, but I’m under the impression that this may be a 6 month summer project rather than a full year endeavor. I’ll be moving into supporting small businesses along with the gardens, as a couple of bakeries have started up in the area and there is interest in selling marmalade and pickled vegetables by a group of women. Last month we were approached by the development agency, US AID to change our gardens from our dozen or so types of vegetables to Non-Traditional Agricultural Exports, which would consist of growing only one product such as ornamental plants, melons, sesame, or green peppers for sale in the USA. They say that they can provide technical assistance to ensure that our small plots will successfully be converted over and make more money for us. What is more, since they have market connections, we would clean and package the products and they would take care of transporting and selling these goods.

What do you think? It sounds realistic to specialize in one type of plant most conducive to the environment and temperature where we grow, and then have someone else take care of the marketing. But wait a minute, how can poor, war-torn El Salvador be growing food for the richest country in the world? With all these children running around with pot-bellies due to malnutrition and here we are selling Uncle Sam even more, and at measly wages at that! Well, it is happening all over Central America, and the world for that matter. These policies are implemented to earn more hard currency to pay off foreign debt; forcing small scale farmers who have traditionally grown beans and maize to plant crops which perhaps you and I buy when shopping at Safeway. At this moment, we are unsure of what we will do, as the paradoxes continue to grow in our lives.

We are trying to take advantage of this lull, since school is out and gardening is slow. We’ll be heading back to Guatemala for a 2 week refresher course in Spanish, as we attempt to reach that incessant goal called fluency.

We’d also like to give a plug to an excellent magazine. It is a progressive monthly publication which reports on numerous issues in the fight for world development and is first rate; well worth the $35 USD.

The New Internationalist

Write to 35 Riviera Drive, Unit 17, Markham, ON, L3R 8N4, CANADA
PO Box 1143, Lewiston, NY, 14092 USA.

Until sunnier days ahead. !Salut!

Love, Eugenia & David