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 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.