Central American Journey

El Salvador and beyond…


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An Observation about Cultural Differences, Context, and Chairs

When I started classes in graduate school, everyone was required to take the same class for the first two weeks of the semester, called Organizational Behavior 1.  It was a class about group dynamics, cultural differences, and how to work together.  One of the concepts we read about was the difference between high context and low context cultures.  Low context cultures tend to be pretty heterogeneous, and the communication is characterized by being more explicit and spelling things out more.  More of the communication takes place in the actual words said.  In high context cultures, people tend to be more homogenous and the communication takes the shared culture into account.  More of the information can go unsaid, because the people around you are already aware of or observing the non-verbal cues, historical perspective, etc. to make sense of what is being said.  In general, the U.S. is on the lower end of the context spectrum and El Salvador is on the higher side, while the campo (the rural portions of the country) is even higher.  Keep in mind that high/low context is on a spectrum, it varies a lot within and between societies, and it interacts with a lot of other things in a given culture.  So, why am I writing this really academic stuff right now?  Because I’ve seen this play out in really interesting ways in El Salvador, especially in our time in el campo.

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The ubiquitous plastic chair.

I am fat. (By the way, I don’t consider this an insult, but a statement of fact. Read here for more background or do your own internet search. ) In many places in El Salvador the only furniture available is those molded plastic chairs with arms. Because I am wider than the average person, I don’t fit into those chairs (or many chairs with close-set arms).  Then there is the fact that they are also pretty unsound structurally and that an average-sized person can cause them to collapse.  I had a conversation about this fact with one of the organizers of our delegation with the Washington Ethical Society (WES) before we left the US.  I spent sooooo many hours (really!) looking online for a foldable/portable stool or camping chair that I would be able to easily carry around, which had a sufficient weight limit and fit within my budget.  I couldn’t find one.  It’s important to me to have a comfortable place to sit and those plastic chairs aren’t it.

So, this is to let you know that I have frequent problems with seating (in the U.S. too) but most people are not aware of it.  It is a function of relative-thin privilege (read here for what that is, or do your own search) that many people don’t have to think about whether they are going to fit into the seats of a given restaurant or theater or those in the house of a generous host family.  Many, many people aren’t even aware that this is a difficulty that exists.

Now what does this have to do with being high or low context?  In El Salvador I experienced people doing things to make my life easier without even talking to me about them first, which I don’t experience in the US.  Many of these incidents involved chairs.  Luckily, the house in El Rodeo where we ate our meals had a set of wooden, armless chairs. I used one of those during every meal, at the head of the table to minimize my discomfort.  Of course, it still had the problem of being very tall, so my legs would go to sleep the longer I sat in it.  The women who cooked for us seemed to know why I was using that chair and seemed to expect me to sit in it. (I say “seemed” because my Spanish was bad enough that I didn’t communicate with them very well.)  Whereas, some members of our delegation used the chair as a place to hang things (bags, clothes, etc.) which made it more difficult for me to move around for our various meetings that happened in the same space.

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My view, from a hammock in El Rodeo, of a stack of plastic chairs. Properly hung hammocks are super comfortable!

At one point, we met with some of the people who collectively run Radio Victoria, which we talked about previously.  They had those same really common plastic chairs for us to sit in.  Shortly into the meeting, Elvis (Head of the ADESCO in El Rodeo and a member of the collective who runs Radio Victoria) got up and went into another room and returned with a wooden bench (without arms) for me to sit in.  I didn’t even notice him look at me to see my discomfort with the chair.  Without speaking a word with me, he did something which made the rest of my time in the meeting so much more pleasant.

While we were at CIS, during our Spanish classes, I witnessed two people fall from their chairs because the legs bent and dumped them on the floor.  Some days, when I couldn’t find the plastic chairs without arms, I sat on a big bucket with a lid because it was more comfortable than sitting on the edge of the chairs with arms.  One day when we had been unexpectedly called into a presentation in another room which only had chairs with arms in which to sit, I fell in the same manner as the thinner people.  The front legs bent because all of my weight was on the front and I hit the floor.  I decided to stay sitting on the floor because it too was more comfortable than the chair.  The next day, the coordinator of the school brought me a chair (with a metal frame, plastic seat, and no arms) from her office, so I sat in that for the rest of the week.  Unfortunately, it was also too tall and my legs kept falling asleep.

For a story unrelated to chairs, we talked in an earlier post about how our host father in El Rodeo spent several hours one day completely redoing the path from his house to the main path, because he saw me slip on it one morning.  (The residents seemed to have little difficulty with the frequently slippery dirt paths – I’m guessing it’s because they had a lifetime to get used to the particular balance it requires to walk on them.)  He cleaned a bunch of mud out and then located and placed stones to create a new walkway.  If we were in the US, he might have said after I slipped, “Be careful! Don’t hurt yourself,” or commented about the inevitability of mud during the rainy season, or worried about his homeowner‘s insurance. I doubt that he would have taken that project on, especially without me saying that it was a problem for me.

As a contrast, in the US, we are fairly low context and require people to advocate for themselves if they need something.  At WES we have a couple of short people who use a small collapsible foot stool during activities that require sitting in our stackable (and thankfully arm-free) black chairs.  I, too, am short enough to need one of these, but I don’t think the stool would hold the weight of my feet/legs on it, even if most of my weight is on the chair.  That stool brings people’s awareness to the requirements of short people with a visual reminder.  Most people don’t notice when I am sitting on the very edge of a chair because my hips don’t fit into the arms.  When I bring it up, people usually are happy to make accommodations, or switch seats with me, but not everyone remembers the next time (or the next) when we are in the same room meeting in the same chairs.

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That just doesn’t look sturdy enough for me.

One time in the US, I was attending a workshop about racism being led by two women, one white and fat and the other black and relatively thin.  I noticed that the facilitator who was fat was having the same problem with the provided chairs that I typically have.  I had already scouted out armless chairs elsewhere in the building because we were going to be there all day.  I offered to get her a different chair and she gratefully agreed.  But over the course of the workshop, the thinner woman kept sitting in the armless chair, even after being asked to move the first time it happened, not aware that her colleague was quite uncomfortable in the other chair.  I would like for us in the US to be more aware of differences in people and the resulting needs they have.  It would not only help people with different needs than ours, but it would also help us to become more aware of our own needs.  I have only been doing this practice of asking or looking for a different seat for a couple of years now – before, I just suffered through it.  Despite the fact that I have not yet had a negative reaction to my request for a different seat, it takes a particular kind of resolve to constantly advocate for seating that fits me.  Every time, I steel myself for the possibility that someone will say something that will hurt me.  I have a long history of being bullied and denigrated for my fatness.  I have to work against the life-long, trained response to be ashamed of being fat.  I have to work against the desire to not be made the center of attention, especially for my size.  It’s not easy work, but it is becoming easier.  And I think that in my asking, I have brought other people’s awareness to the issue.  I know Andrew, my husband, thinks about it now, when he didn’t before.

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That is me, sitting while fat, on a bench of dubious structural integrity.

I am sure I also have gaps in knowledge around the every day things that other people struggle with.  I am sure at times it seems like I am oblivious or unintentionally hindering other people, and I am.  I am sure I don‘t recognize things like that maybe the chairs people sit in cause them constant pain.  While I could say that this isn’t much of a problem because I have “good intentions,” for the people my actions or inactions are hurting, that doesn’t really matter (this is a challenging idea for a lot of us; I highly encourage you to read this post for starters).  This is a problem with privilege.  I don’t know exactly where my gaps in knowledge are.  That’s why I try to be more observant and challenge myself by reading things and experiencing things that are not in my comfort zone (like going to El Salvador).  And when someone points something out to me that I was previously unaware of because of my privilege, my job is to try to understand it and change my behavior going forward.  I do think, though, that being from a low context culture, I would feel more comfortable asking people first before I did something I thought would make them more comfortable.  I know that sometimes I guess wrong about what people are experiencing or misinterpret what I do observe.

So, what do you think?  Do you have stories, thoughts, or feelings you’d like to share in the comments?  If you would like more resources about the stuff I linked to, I can send you some.  Just email me or write a comment.


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Our week in El Rodeo, part 3 (of 3)

For the last two posts we’ve written about the history of El Rodeo and what it was like to live there. For this post we’ll write more about why we were there and what we did. The reason we were in El Rodeo was because we were part of a delegation from the Washington Ethical Society (a humanistic non-theistic religious congregation that explores what it means to be good human beings, and does a lot of things that religions might do, such as sending a delegation to do solidarity work in El Salvador). We have to admit that before coming to El Rodeo we did not have a strong sense of what the situation was between this community and our delegation.

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A typical breakfast-time view with most of the delegation.

The work of the delegation involved a lot of meetings, a lot of planning, and some ongoing projects. The discussions we had were mainly focused on two community goals. 1. to develop a reliable source of clean water and 2. to fund scholarships for youth. We discussed two proposals that could help provide the water. For the scholarships the issue was a little more new and a little more complicated.

The ongoing projects included a dental clinic. People in El Rodeo do not ordinarily have access to dental care so once a year the delegation provides cleanings, extractions, and instruction about oral hygiene. One member of the community has also been trained to provide fluoride treatments, which he does six months after our delegation leaves. Another project is called the Historic Memory Project. This involves filming and documenting the histories of people in the village.

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Here is la Clinica Dental Susana (Susan’s Dental Clinic). Susan at her regular post with Justin assisting. We made the sign for the clinic. Thanks to Karen for this photo.

Last year the delegation found that a lot of people are suffering from trauma after the war. This year there was a psychologist in our group who talked with people about their experience and demonstrated some self-hypnosis techniques which could help create calm and deal with the effects of trauma. Those instructions were translated into Spanish by Maya, so they can be taught to more members of the community. This year some of the delegation did a book making project in the school in which students told their own stories. Some of the older students, who are members of the Ecological Committee, came with us to El Mozote, the town we wrote about in our last post that had the most destructive massacre during El Salvador’s brutal civil war.

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This shows some of the children working on the book project with Karen and Maya from our delegation. The books were laminated to protect them from the humidity. For some of the children, their finished masterpiece would be the only book in their house. Thanks to Bill for this photo.

For us (Danna and Andrew), the biggest challenge was not being certain about the culture, and struggling with the language. We came to El Salvador with a sense that we were somewhere in the middle of the group in terms of Spanish ability. Certainly we were able to survive and to feel as though we could contribute something. However, conversations with Salvadorans often involved us standing in shock as a wall of rapid Spanish overcame us. It was hard enough to distinguish words from each other let alone understand them.

For all meetings there was a translator, although it still felt as though much was missing. Conversations through a translator are not fluid but choppy, very long, and the translation never captures the entirety of what someone means. We also knew there was a culture barrier, and even if we fully understood each other’s words we would not necessarily understand what those words signified within the context of this village in El Salvador.

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During our visit, some of us spoke on the air, thanking our host families and the people of El Rodeo for their hospitality. That’s Danna and Bill with Christina again, who is the in-country coordinator for the delegation and frequent translator for us.

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During our week in El Rodeo, we also visited Radio Victoria. We met with some of the people who collectively run the Radio. That’s Christina, who helped to found the station during the war. And Elvis, who has been working at the station for more than 15 years and is also the current head of the ADESCO (the community council) in El Rodeo.

Our trip still had meaningful connections. One experience that sticks strongly in our minds came from the father in our host family, Sebastian, who was frequently outside working from maybe 5AM to 9PM (with regular breaks throughout the day). One day Danna slipped on the small muddy hill which led from the house to the main path. Sebastian saw this and then decided to spend a portion of his work day clearing out the mud on the path and replacing it with rocks that were much more stable to walk on. It was a kind and supportive act. Danna didn’t have the Spanish vocabulary to express the gratitude she felt for this meaningful gesture which was solely to help us, since the family and other residents of El Rodeo didn‘t seem to have any trouble with the slippery paths. Sebastian did many kind and supportive acts during our stay. When we got up before dawn to prepare to leave the village, he was there to say farewell and to help us take down our hammocks/insect netting. It was an emotional goodbye, even though we had great troubles understanding each other (our difficulty in understanding Sebastian’s Spanish was harder because he had very few teeth).

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Here are the insect net/hammocks that Sebastian helped us set up with a ladder. We slept inside them on top of the beds, just like regular bug nets, but they could also function as hammocks if there were a place to hang them.

Also we had fun and began making connections with people as we struggled with communicating, ate meals together, made tortillas, peeled potatoes, and learned how to wash our clothes. We were very grateful for the women we spent a lot of time with at Esperanza’s house, who would speak veeeeery slooooowly for us so that we had a chance to understand them. They also seemed entertained by our attempts to understand them and respond in Spanish. So many people were accommodating. When one person in our delegation got sick she commented about how it was like she had 7 mothers with all the people who came to take care of her.

All in all El Rodeo was an experience that we are still processing. We would like to go back with a greater mastery of the language. Because of the communication challenges we experienced, we decided we had to focus more deeply on learning Spanish. In our next post we’ll write about how that’s going.

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A final picture of cute inter-species napping.


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Our week in El Rodeo, part 2

We want to go a little deeper into describing the history of El Rodeo, the small sister community of the Washington Ethical Society where we spent our first week in El Salvador.  It is a very interesting history, with great significance for our lives in the United States as well.  Although we will warn that in many ways this is a very heartbreaking and disturbing history, and could be triggering.

El Rodeo is a small village just outside of the larger community of Santa Marta, neither of which appear on maps of the country.  The people of El Rodeo and Santa Marta share the same history during the time of El Salvador’s bloody civil war which lasted from 1980 to 1992 (with much government repression occurring prior to 1980 as well).  Some of the major issues which led to the war included land reform (with most land being in the hands of very few people, and many people not having rights to the land they have lived on, sometimes for generations), economic inequity, and severe repression targeting those who spoke out against the economic situation and in favor of land reform.

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A mural depicting some massacres in El Salvador. “To not forget”

In the Santa Marta area there were people who spoke out and the community was targeted for repression.  People were harassed by the government, tortured, raped, and murdered.  Eventually the government destroyed the entire area using “scorched Earth tactics,” which basically means to kill everyone you can (to leave zero witnesses), burn down the houses and fields, kill the livestock, destroy all property, and leave nothing behind.  The Salvadoran military was greatly supported by the US government who sent weapons and also provided military training at the School of the Americas (which has trained many repressive Latin American regimes).

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“The Faceless Repression
The Naked Innocent”

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These two photos are from the Museo de la Revolución Salvadoreña in Perquin, Morazán, E.S. These posters are from during the war. The black and white one is from CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) which is headquartered in Washington DC.

The destruction of whole villages and other massacres are often discussed in El Salvador as people remember the civil war.  During our week in El Rodeo we actually took a trip with many of the youth to the village of El Mozote, which was the site of the bloodiest massacre in Latin American history.  The El Mozote Massacre saw over 1,200 people killed (the majority children).  Only one survivor, Rufina Amaya, lived to tell a tremendously heart-wrenching tale of what had happened as she witnessed every person in the village, including her husband and children, being tortured and murdered.

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One of the memorials at El Mazote. The blocks on the wall list the names of the adults killed during the massacre.

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This plaque is found in the memorial garden for the children.

During one meeting people talking about how Santa Marta (and El Rodeo) would have been another El Mozote had the people not been prepared for the government’s attack, and practiced in cooperation.  When the people heard news that the government would attack, they left their villages in order to find safety across the Honduran border.  They walked by foot through the mountains.  Many died on the journey.  To get into Honduras they had to cross the Lempa river, most of the people not knowing how to swim.  Those who could swim went first and made a way for others to follow.  Then the government blew up a dam which caused the river to flood, and many more died in that flood.

Those who made it to Honduras settled in a refugee camp.  We spoke to a man a couple of days ago who described the Honduran refugee camps as being like a prison, complete with barbed wire fences around them.  This was a time when there were many repressive Latin American dictatorships which cooperated with each other and disliked the same sorts of people.  For example there was a different massacre where people fled from Salvadoran troops, across the Honduran border, only to find the Honduran troops waiting for them in ambush–thankfully Santa Marta and El Rodeo were spared that fate.

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An embroidered history of Santa Marta which we took a photo of in Radio Victoria.

The people of Santa Marta and El Rodeo lived as refugees for a number of years before returning to El Salvador, while the war was still going on.  Many of the people then joined the anti-government FMLN guerrilla forces.  The FMLN launched an offensive targeting San Salvador, the capital city where we currently live.  The guerrillas were not able to take the city but were able to force the government into negotiating with the rebels.  In 1992 both sides signed a peace accord, the war ended, and the FMLN transitioned from a military force into a political party.  In 2009 El Salvador elected its first president from the FMLN.

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Sign for a former guerrilla camp near El Rodeo.

It is an astonishing history that the people of El Rodeo experienced.  It is also a story that has spawned a lot of trauma which people have to deal with as they go about their daily tasks raising children, doing laundry, working in the fields, etc.  We wanted to tell this story so you better know the context of El Salvador because we believe it is an extremely important story, which most of the people here lived through, and it is also very relevant to the United States because we funded and aided the repression.

In our next post we’ll talk a little bit more about the people we met in El Rodeo and the delegation of which we were a part.


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Our week in El Rodeo, part 1

We have now spent around 2 weeks in El Salvador.   We spent a week mostly in El Rodeo, the small sister community of the Washington Ethical Society which we are members of.

el salvador with departmentsEl Rodeo is a small village in the hills of El Salvador’s Cabañas department (like a county), very near the Honduran border.  There are around 30 households.   The nearest town that appears on most maps is Victoria, the site of the community radio we visited.  There are no paved roads in El Rodeo.  You travel from building to building along dirt paths that get very slippery due to frequent rainfall during the rainy season (and it is currently the rainy season).   Here are some pictures of us walking down the slippery path.

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The houses have no running water.  Water is gathered in rain barrels or collected in pilas (large concrete containers about the size of a big bathtub).   The local water supply is contaminated, but the extent is unknown because recent water testing hasn’t been done.   Either way, we are gringos who aren’t used to the microorganisms that live in the water, so we had to trek many 5 gallon water bottles down the hill for us to drink (with help from the sure-footed residents).

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This is the local stream which is contaminated.

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Andrew standing behind a rain barrel

People cook outside on stoves heated by burning wood.  In the house we stayed in they also had an indoor stove like in the US, but we didn’t see it in use.   In the house where our food was prepared they used the indoor gas stove to make tortillas for every meal as well as other things.  Most of us took turns making tortillas during different meals.  It takes a lot of practice to make them perfectly round.

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Ross Wells took this beautiful photo in a previous delegation. This is a tortilla being shaped by hand.

The bathrooms are latrines, located various distances from the houses.

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A view of the latrine from outside the fence surrounding the property. The white cloth covered the entrance. You can see the back of the house just beyond it.

Every house keeps a retinue of chickens and dogs (which they call chucho, not perro), who are not pets.  Frequently there are also cats and horses.  And there are many insects that scurry and fly along the paths, into the houses, and into the latrines.   Danna, as always, was much loved by the mosquitoes.  Neither of us liked getting bitten by the the various types of biting ants.

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Leaf cutter ants – keep your distance!

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Here’s one of the cute kittens to help you forget about the biting insects. Danna partly overheard one of the women explain in Spanish what the kittens like to eat, but she misunderstood and thought the kitten’s name was “Tortilla.”

Before we came, we were under the impression that El Rodeo didn’t have electricity, but we were incorrect.  They do.  They also have many electrical appliances.  The lovely women who cooked for us made our frequent meals of refried beans with the aid of a blender.  Our host family had a flat screen tv which they watched some nights.

El Salvador 038The views were glorious, particularly from atop the hills where farmers grew corn (called milpas).

So here’s a bit of the lay of the land, a brief overview of what it was like to live in El Rodeo for a week.  In our next post(s) we’ll go into a little more detail about the people and history.

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