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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.