Monday, March 18, 2013


Last Saturday marked the halfway point of this trip. I can't believe that it has already been so long and I also can't believe that we still have so long yet to go. I feel like I could go home tomorrow and have experienced enough stories, adventures, learning, and beauty to last me a lifetime. I can't imagine what Nicaragua will bring, as right now I feel like I'm so full of experiences that I can't hold any more. 

I want to share more about what we have been learning lately. These past eight weeks I have slept in 13 different beds, spent time varying from a weekend to a month with four different host familes, lived in two countries, visited numerous towns, cities, churches, and masses, climbed 2 volcanoes, learned to surf, taken a Spanish class and a Liberation Theology class, had countless mind boggling and stretching discussions with the 15 other students in my program, and met so many people that have impacted me in a way I can't wrap my mind around. It has been such an intense experience because it has combined so many fun and exciting adventures with so many testimonies and so much new historical knowledge that is so heavy and so difficult to know. 

I haven't shared as much about this more serious side as I would like to for a couple reasons. First of all, its been nearly impossible to find the time to write it all down. But I also just want to be able to share it in a way that is meaningful and helpful. So many times I feel like the passing on of such histories non-firsthand just results in people "feeling so bad" for suffering. I don't want to try and recount someone's trauma or suffering just to tug on emotions. This kind of grief isn't to be used as a personal catharsis or to make you feel so thankful you live in a "free country". I want to challenge anyone who reads this to do as our program has done- force us to look at WHY these people have suffered so and to realize that the darkness within political and social structure is not a part of the past, but it is something that continues as we speak. 

To elaborate on this, I will tell you about the life of Rogelio, a man who told us his story this past weekend. When he was nine years old he was one of the only people to survive a massacre of 160 people in his town. His community organized and went to the city to have a demonstration demanding the government to address the poverty, lack of resources, and injustices their community was facing in 1983. Several weeks later the community was in the woods hiding from the army that marched to their pueblo to kill them. The army found their hiding spot and killed many right there. Rogelio described hiding behind a tree and watching grenades and guns blow arms, legs, and heads all around him. The survivors were eventually gathered and marched for days in abhorrently cruel ways. They teased them with bread they couldn't eat, made them march barefoot through the hottest parts of the day, and eventually raped and killed many of the young girls while their parents were forced to keep walking. They stuffed them all (I believe there were about 50 alive at this point) in a house and made them be silent. Mothers with crying babies had no milk, and Rogelio said many ended up suffocating their own babies when they were forced to put cloth in their mouths to stop the crying. 

At the end of their journey, there were three planes waiting for the order to kill them after this senselessly cruel journey. They divided them into three groups. Rogelio was in the third. This first two groups were killed. He managed to find an aunt and his sister in this group and proceeded to see them both shot as bullets rained everywhere. During the commotion, he managed to dive into some grass and avoid the guns, though his leg was wounded. While the soldiers from the El Salvadoran army, (trained to kill "insurgents" by the United States) celebrated annihilating 160 Salvadoran men, women, and children, Rogelio spent the next day hiding and trying to keep another boy alive whose leg had been broken and wounded. The boy died. Rogelio walked past bodies and body pieces of his community, trying to find help. He managed to find an uncle. He has survived to share the tale and help rebuild life in this pueblo. He now has a family and a beautiful daughter. 

I was thinking back on Rogelio's story and many others that we have heard over the last eight weeks. I thought also about three books in particular that have had a great impact on me sometime during my life: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, Night by Eli Wiesel, and A long way gone by Ishmael Beah. These books, in different ways, share stories of deep, deep human suffering inflicted on people by other people. I realized that each of the kinds of suffering I read about in these books have been represented in firsthand accounts from Guatemala and El Salvador: rape, murder, torture, starvation, death marches, and betrayal. People kill their own people every day, everywhere. 

The names of the men, women, and children killed in the massacre.
As Americans, we have all these campaigns to stop using children as soldiers, to end genocide, to feed the hungry, and to help the poor. We all support human rights, right? But have you heard the latest statistic on the number of civilian casualties in Iraq during our war there? Do you know how many Pakistani civilians US drones have killed in the last year? Are you aware that Starbucks buys a pound of coffee beans for a little over $1? (yep, you paid $10-12 for it.) Did you know that the School of the Americas continues to train armies from all over the world in the most efficient ways to kill people? (I'm sure El Salvador was the only time these armies used the techniques to kill women and children, right?) Did you know that 50,000 people have been killed in the last ten years along the US/Mexico border in relation to drug violence? Do you know that its nearly impossible to find corn or soybeans that haven't been genetically altered? If you don't think that is a problem, do you know that gluten allergies are becoming so common not because people are necessarily allergic to the gluten, but because they are allergic to how it is modified? Did you know that there are more people in slavery today that at any point in history?

I'm not being condescending or patronizing if you don't know these things; most people don't. But we HAVE to know. Choose not to bother because you can't change anything anyway? True. You can't change these things all by yourself. But widespread awareness and commitment to not support these egregious injustices are the ONLY things that will make tomorrow less violent and oppressive than today. I am choosing to live my life in a way that does not exploit others. I can't help the suffering that Rogelio was forced to endure. I can't give him or his family anything to directly help alleviate the poverty they face. I do dream of a career that will in some way fight oppression. But even aside from that, my decision to be an ethical consumer and an informed United States citizen is how I choose to respect the testimonies I have experienced this spring.

 This is a process, it is nearly impossible to live outside this system. But I can start by making sure my coffee purchases support the men and women who produced it. Then I can support politicians who support human rights. Then I can buy my clothes from responsible manufacturers. Someday, I can have my own garden so I don't eat all those pesticides or contribute to the 4 energy calories on average used to transport me 1 calorie of food. We are each very responsible for our own choices. Thinking it won't make a difference is not an acceptable excuse. It's like leaving a kid drowning in a pool because so many other kids will die today anyway. Just because you can't see the man or woman suffering from not being paid for the crops he or she picked for you doesn't make it less real. Your indirect participation helps perpetuate these systems of oppression. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Nueva Esperanza

This weekend we spent Thursday through Sunday in another rural community. It was another incredible experience, but in a very different way.

This community has quite the story. In 1980, a group of about 400 people, most from Chalatenango, the area up north where I was last weekend, had to go into hiding or be killed by the military during the war. The 'Earthquake Core Plan' as I believe our speaker called it, was a strategy from the military base nearby to to just wipe out literally everyone in the campo to flush out resistance. This included women and children. So the group fled to San Salvador with the help of the 4 religious women from the US who are very famous down here. They hid in a church basement for a few months and then many of them journeyed to Nicaragua, where they lived in a refugee camp for 8 months.

On April 15, 1990 during a Bible study tge women read a passage in Jeremiah that talks about God returning the people to their home. They took this to heart as a sign. In order to get back, they had to pressure the government to give them passage. They rejected offers for passage for one family at a time and demanded that they all be able to go together. They occupied the embassy until it was granted. They aroused the interest of many different countries in the process and continue to rally foreign support today.

Once back in El Salvador, they were granted land that previously belonged to one of the elite families. With this land, they have built an incredible community. They grow corn, sugarcane, and coconut enough to feed the community and hold profits from selling sugarcane communally to benefit social projects in the community. After seeing the success and ideas of these people, they have received aid or support on specific initiatives or buildings from 'their Canadian brothers', the Dutch, England, scholarships from Spain, solar panels from Pittsburg, septic tanks from the UN, a health care clinic from Cuba and El Salvador's National University, Sweden, Puerto Rico, and Japan. They have schools that surrounding communities attend, a bookstore, a church, a community center, dance classes, music classes, a soccer team (and pick up games daily where I was welcomed!), and each family has a home. Decisions are made through community wide voting and a council that included women and men from the start oversees the community.

This community is incredibly progressive. The environmental and social sustainability seen here is phenomenal, particularly considering they built it from the ground up in the last 20 years. Their standard of living is still incredibly modest and It is not to say that they are not struggling. However, it was very inspiring to see how they are working to overcome the unspeakable things they saw and experienced during the war and create such wonderful opportunities for the next generation as well as serve as a model for surrounding communities. It is also encouraging to see how they are clearly developing, but are doing so in a way that is Salvadoran, rather than following a US or European development model, socially and economically. Currently, one of their biggest struggles is the start of the transition of handing the responsibilities of maintaining and improving the work of the community to this next generation. This is a huge task, because many young people aren't excited about working the land and want to seek other job options. I hope to keep up with the progress of this community to see how they deal with these coming challenges.

The community keeps their history alive through art. Here are some of the many murals found around the pueblo as well as some photos from our tour of their fields.

Coconut trees! They said they don't really profit much from them, but they feel committed to using part of their land to keep the trees and give back to the environment.
Agropastorialism- take notes, everyone!
We got to try some sugercane!

This mural on the church depicts their personal exodus story.
They've even got some solar panels.
This depicts their relations with the "German brothers".

This was part of my host family's corn crop.

El Salvador Congress

Our first week here we visited the congress building and talked to some important people about politics in El Salvador. Here are some photos of the building! The last one is one of the art pieces hanging up in the hall, I found it pretty interesting.

Sunday, March 3, 2013


I'm really tired but I want to post about this while it is still fresh and I have internet. So disregard the rambling and spelling errors, I may or may not correct them later. 

So, I simply cannot believe I have already been in El Salvador for a week. What a crazy time! It is so different here in so many ways, but I think I need to save that for another post on another day. After spending the week in the city of San Salvador, we headed out in small groups to do a week of "church accompaniment". This basically consisted of shadowing various clergymen and sitting in on community organizations for the weekend while learning about how Liberation Theology has impacted their community. I went with three others from our group to a community called Arcatao. In my own words, Liberation Theology is a movement in the Catholic Church to declare that the Church believes that God wills a just and free life for all on this Earth. This contrasts a stance that a person has the lost in life that God has willed them, something that perpetuated socio-economic oppression and structural poverty. Liberation Theology, in contrast, aknowledges that the sin of humanity has created pervasive injustice in terms of poverty as well as various demographically- based forms of discrimination. This view took hold very strongly in Latin America, supported by the Vatican II. 

Spending the weekend in Arcatao allowed me to really experience why this movement has been so important to Latin America. The violence these nations have experienced is unspeakable. They have faced oppression from outside nations (culprit #1, United States), devastating civil wars, dictatorships, repression, disappearances, and widespread poverty and lack of resources that continues today. This form of theology has given them a starting point and a structure to base their communities around fighting against these injustices. In the 1970's and 80's it rationalized the participation in armed conflict. Today, it is the foundation of lives lived in the name of solidarity with the poor. We saw countless examples of organizations within the community that work not to hand things out to hungry people, but to do the dirty work of fighting the causes of poverty and working to better society from the foundation. 

This blog would not be complete without discussion of Monsenor Romero. He was the archbishop of the country and publicly declared his support for the poor and for fighting structural injustices. This was not popular within a Church of wealthy and powerful elites who reaped the benefits of land and resource monopolies. He was assassinated on March 24, 1980. I couldn't understand how deeply this impacted El Salvador until being immersed in the church in Arcatao this weekend. It definitely caused a widespread culture of fear in a land where people were already being disappeared by the government daily. (It is believed that up to 1% of the country's population of 6 million were killed or disappeared during the 11 year war). If they killed the archbishop, who wouldn't they kill?

Anyway, Monsenor Romero lives on essentially as a saint to El Salvador. His pictures are everywhere the community of Arcatao reveres him as such. He is a symbol of honesty, courage, and martyrdom, much in the same way as Jesus. 

The community of Arcatao emptied out during the war because the army was killing and disappearing many of the people in the area. Before the war, the population was 12,000. Now, it is 3,000. There was several massacres in the area and most people we met in the community had lost at least one immediate family member in the conflict. This experience is what it took to let me realize how deeply engrained into their lives, culture, and religion. They draw distinct parallels between the life, persecution, and death of Jesus and their lives of suffering and death. This is why liberation theology is so important to them. It gives them a hope for a better future, and they are fervently pursuing it. By no means did the war fix the injustice and poverty of El Salvador, but it is very apparent these grassroots organizations are taking hold and affecting change here.

Okay, one more thing I can't leave out. On Saturday morning we got to sit in on a conference of college students from around the country. They are all involved in community projects and meet once a month to talk about their progress and such. It was so cool and inspiring to see something that wasn't a presentation prepared for us, but a genuine interactions of lively, motivated students talking about what they are actually living and doing! We even watched an hour long movie they produced about the life and social problems in a country that is seeking out their cultural identity.

Then, on Sunday we travelled to two other, smaller communities with the priest. He is responsible for 3 masses, one in each of the communities each sunday! So, we heard them all! By the third, I think I understood it all. The accents here are so strong and they speak quickly, chopping off parts of their words. I am really struggling to understand things here, even after getting to where I could understand the vast majority of what was said to me in Guatemala. But don't worry, Padre Miguel let us each introduce ourselves in front on the entire congregation at each mass, as well as the student conference and the meeting of all the church clergymen we attended (this one included personalized questions about our area of study!). so check off my public speaking in spanish for the year. or maybe my lifetime.

Volcan Santa Maria

Last Friday, for our last day in Xela, three friends and I did the lasted thing we realllllly wanted to do in Guatemala... climb that volcano!! 

We started our climb at 5:30 AM and 2,333 meters and ended at about 8:30 and 3772 meters. I don't know where that rates as far as mountain climbing goes but it was really steep and pretty difficult, especially since we started out at a high altitude! But it was WAY more than worth is, as you are about to see. 

Right as we got to the top the baby volcano, Santiaguito, was erupting!!

"ahhhhh, that's where we just were"

El campo

Well, due to some unfortunate incident that involves getting my laptop stolen by a team of five crooks in Antigua, I am very behind on my blogs. However, I still want to blog about the two weeks because it was incredible. I will add picture to the blogs later although that is really the coolest part. 

We spent last last week (yes, two weeks ago) out in a rural village where we used outdoor latrines and cooked on a wood stove. It was incredible. We staying in pairs with a host family. Jalicia and I stayed in a house that is home to three generations of family members. Our host mom, Estela, is a beautiful, beautiful women and called us her daughters. We have an open invitation to stay there anytime we are passing through the campo! Her husband, like many in the community, are woking in the US in order to sustain the family. It was quite an experience to get to share in their lives and understand the way families work in this extremely remote place in the Guatemalan highlands. One of Estela's daughters is 15. She taught me so much about the country and their lives. What a wise young woman. She made us many of our meals and told us all about her fiance!!!

These pics are in a random order, but I'm just pumped I have enough internet connection to post them!!

Jillian and Carolyn and their adorable siblings! Since it is an indigenous community, most of the women dress in traditional Mayan outfits.

Laundry day!!

We took a cooking class

We made fresh chamomile tea

and attempted to make tortillas... its much more difficult than they make it look.

Awesomely detailed carrot chopping

Alas, the envuelto! Egg white covered and fried veggies, a new idea to me and it was delicious.

Our house

One of the many fields on the campo

We had a casualty. How does that even happen? 

It was simply gorgeous, it is unfortunate that pictures will never do justice.

The community's church

We drove up into the clouds to go to some volcano heated spas.

That folks, is Santa Maria! You'll find me at the top in the next blog!

This is Max!

These are my host brothers, Juanito and Kevin. They were shy at first, but they came around.

And the brown dog is Scooby-Doo :)

Definitely one of my favorite pics from the trip.

La fogata! Campfire with the whole community. I got attacked by all the boys for the s'more supplies!

Most of our host family. Okay so like half of them really! It was hard to get everyone in the same place at once.

Chaco tan+ dirt from a day of tea parties in the field, futbol with the local boys, and tag with Juanito.

Sunset on the campo. This is also Santa Maria.

Our host sisters! They even drew us pictures. It made me miss my real-life sister! :)