Central American Journey

El Salvador and beyond…

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Learning Spanish

Spanish is hard to learn.  Really. Harder to learn than it seems when it first seems hard to learn.  A complete language has a whole lot of words, different grammar rules, and different colloquialisms.  In Spanish class in the United States it seemed pretty simple.  It was a relatively easy class, where you just came in and talked to your classmates.  There was nothing really riding on the experience. There was no one there to stare at you in bewilderment as you attempted coherence, because everyone was struggling just the same.  But the classroom of life is much different.  It made us realize viscerally that we were actually infants in this language, and the prospect of becoming semi-fluent seemed unimaginable.  Yet, at the same time, this awareness of our limitations also came with the awareness of how much quicker we were learning in El Salvador than we did in our courses in the United States.

After our week in El Rodeo (see these three posts) we knew we had to learn more Spanish in order to make the most out of our time here.  Helpfully, two members of our delegation from the Washington Ethical Society recommended a language school in El Salvador, CIS, which stands for Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (Center for Exchange and Solidarity).  It was in San Salvador.  They did intensive classes with 5 people or fewer at a time, based in the popular education model. They had a program to connect us with a host family and a place to stay.  And we heard they were really nice people.  We were sold!

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Iglesia El Rosario, a very modern looking church with rainbow stained glass. We visited during one of the afternoons with the CIS political-cultural program.

CIS has an interesting, at times fun and at times heartbreaking program; designed by leftists in a country that recently experienced a neo-colonial civil war.  In classes we spoke about parts of the body, occupations, what we did yesterday, things we would like to do in the future, as well as the murder of Trayvon Martin, genocide against the Indigenous people of El Salvador, and assassinated martyrs who worked for the people.  CIS also has a political and cultural program which took students to various locations in and around San Salvador, including the nearby volcano, archeological site, museums, NGOs, as well as the locations of massacres and assassinations.

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This is a piece of art in the chapel on the campus of the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA). It was painted by Fernando Llort, who is perhaps the most famous painter from El Salvador.

In terms of our host family and living situation, that was a bit of kismet.  CIS connected us with Melba Jimenez, a mother of three grown kids with a nice home near the National University.  She worked as a nurse during the war and now gives workshops on Nonviolent Communication and Focusing to help people mentally heal from the present and past violence in El Salvador.  This was a good match, what with our interests in social justice and conflict transformation, and our experience with nonviolent communication.

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Danna, Andrew, and Melba in San Fernando, Chalatenango

One of the first things Melba said to us, while we were meeting in the entryway at CIS, was how for a long time, she didn’t want to learn English because people in the United States were sending money and weapons to kill the Salvadoran people.  This delighted us immediately, although there was no easy way for us to communicate this to her with our yet to be expanded Spanish.  It was like a quick code to reveal that we came from similar values.  The sentence was honest, assertive, revelatory of critical thinking, and oriented towards ethical views.  We knew we had found a good match.

So we settled in with Melba and eventually got to meet all of her kids, Susana, Yara, and Nicolas.  Another person from the US, Rachel, was also staying with Melba while she volunteered with CIS over the summer.  We’ve had a lot of good conversations with people in this house. Bit by bit our fluency grows.  The rapid speech becomes more comprehensible and at times actually seems to slow (at least to Andrew).  Yet the destination we wanted… simply to reliably be able to speak clearly and to understand the speech of people we would come in contact with… this still seems very far to reach. We’ll talk more about our various activities in the next post.

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These are some CIS volunteers during our visit to a small farm. Rachel is the one partially hidden by the cloth.


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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.