This page is dedicated to the diary that I wrote during my time in the program. Below are all of the entries that I made in my journal during our time in El Salvador. Please note that these were not entries made to explain what we did on any particular day, but to explain how I felt about what we did. I tried to focus on one specific topic and introspectively explored that topic. I publish them here for you to read, not because I feel the need to, but because I want to. I share this with you because by sharing, we increase our collective understanding.
April 26, 2014
Today was a lot of what I expected, and some of what I did not. I expected new sights, new sounds, new smells, new weather, new people, and new food. I even expected that while we were out, kids might try to sell us items. What I did not expect was the little girl who followed us around, for the duration of our stay at the docks. She quietly carried her shredded mango, asking us to buy only by her presence, not with her words. She quietly watched us. I imagine she was wondering what our lives must be like, as we were wondering the same about her. I know that many will pity her, but I wonder if that response alone shows our ignorance of her situation. Will she ever become CEO of a Fortune 500 company? Probably not. Does she want to? That’s not for us to decide. She is eight years old, spends her days by the beach with family and friends, and is even learning a bit about sales in the process. I wouldn’t fault her one bit for enjoying her life exactly as it is. I hope the best for that little girl… not my best, but hers. She does not live my life, so why should I expect her to share my desires?
April 27, 2014
Connections. That’s one of the main themes that I took from today’s experiences. Hearing Damien’s testimony this morning, I felt as if I could have sat down and talked with him for hours. It’s easy to hear about someone being a former guerilla, involved in the war, captured and tortured, and think that you have nothing in common with them. However, hearing Damien speak, he’s not so different from many people that I know. After that, it was listening to Miguel speak so passionately about something that is both close to his heart and a part of the majority of my mornings… coffee. I found myself fascinated by his knowledge, wishing that there was not a language barrier between us, so that I could have spent more time “picking his brain” about coffee. Finally, the tourism police officers who accompanied us. They were always present, rarely interacted with us, and yet, I felt a connection to them too. To hear them laughing with us at the end of the night, shaking our hands and calling us “amigos”, I realized that you don’t need to speak the same language or spend weeks with someone in order to feel a genuine connection. However, I have both of those with my classmates, and look forward to connecting with each of them in the coming weeks.
April 28, 2014
What do you want for your kids? This thought went through my head a few different times today. Much of this was probably brought on by thoughts of my own children, on my daughter’s first birthday, but I mostly thought about this as a general concept. Someone asked that question of one of the gang members that we spoke with today and his answer was both standard and complicated, “I want her to have a better life than I do”. Almost every parent thinks that, but what do we actually do about it? I remember an anti-smoking campaign from Thailand (http://youtu.be/gugjMmXQrDo) where children would walk up to adults who were smoking and ask them for a light. The adults would tell the kids not to smoke, inform them how awful it is for your health, and even warn them of death. The kids would then hand them a piece of paper asking them why they care so much about a child’s health, but not their own. That gang member is in a similar situation, engaging in a life that he does not want for his child. When faced with difficult questions in life, we should all ask ourselves what we would tell a child to do, if they were faced with the same scenario. It can be easy to give up on ourselves, but we universally hold out hope to younger generations, and that hope is exactly what we need.
April 29, 2014
Pig out on life! Rarely do I hear better advice than that. I’ve always had a hard time with the idea that striving for happiness should be our life’s goal. On the one hand, I want for it to be true. If you don’t love your job, quit and do something else. It sounds so easy and satisfying. On the other hand, pushing ourselves to achieve success is not always a fun thing to do, but it is necessary for progress. This becomes even more of a reality when others rely on you to survive. As it is with most questions of this nature, the answer lies somewhere in the middle, not pure happiness, not pure achievement. However, I learned today that if you inject energy and passion into what you do, not only will you enjoy it more, but others will feed off of it as well. All living things are connected, that’s something that I’ve always believed, but Sister Peggy’s comments on that subject really hit home with me. She has shared her knowledge with so many that, long after she is gone, her spirit will live on in those who continue her work. Her passion and energy is contagious and has a wide reach. I hope that at the end of my days, I’ve touched lives in a similar way.
April 30, 2014
Bravery. That was the word that I used to describe Monseñor Romero when Cristina asked us this morning. It was mostly just a reaction, the first word that popped into my head, but it applies well here. The sacrifice that he made, for the benefit of others, was perfectly representative of the idea of solidarity that we’ve heard so much about since we’ve been here. Putting the welfare of others before yourself. This is an interesting concept to me because it both is and is not in our nature. Humans seem to generally help others, when convenient, but not to their own detriment. We’re always looking out for ourselves and it takes a lot of bravery to move beyond that, to a point where you’re willing to sacrifice your own welfare to improve the situation of others. Even more bravery is required when those others are strangers. I once read a book of questions which posed a scenario like this: If you had the power to prevent either a car crash that would kill your best friend, a tornado in your community that would kill 100, or an earthquake in another country that would kill 3,000, knowing that the two you do not choose will happen, which would you choose to prevent? Monseñor Romero seems like an earthquake guy to me, and I hope that if I was ever the decision maker, I would be brave enough to do the same.
May 1, 2014
Unity. That’s what I saw today at the Worker’s Day March. Many people coming together to support a single cause. In an odd way, the march reminded me of being at a college football game. Crowds of people supporting both the cause and each other at the same time. In either case there are people supporting the other side, “the enemy”, but in that moment, nobody cares. In that moment it feels as if you have the support of the world on your side and it’s easy to believe that you can do anything. I saw this march stir emotions in people, from tears to a rush of energy. I also love that you can look around and see people from all walks of life. Male, female, young, old, the march doesn’t discriminate. We are social creatures who need the love and support of others in order to thrive. Nothing shows this better than getting a crowd together for a common purpose, whether that purpose be as complex as human rights or as simple as sports. When we stand together, we are more powerful. I appreciate events such as these, which give us a chance to feel that power in a very real way.
May 2, 2014
Uncomfortable. That’s how I felt when we first met our host family in Santa Marta. There is a great quote in our study abroad promotional video that says “there is no growth in a comfort zone and no comfort in a growth zone”. When I look back on the times in my life when I’ve grown the most, they all involve a situation that initially made me uncomfortable. Knowing this, I try my best to embrace these situations and not let a lack of comfort bother me. Despite my efforts, I still run into situations that make me uncomfortable, and this is one of them. As I told the group in Santa Marta, when I’m at home, I can do what I want in my house. Even Casa Oasis provided me with my own space, but a host family drops me square into the middle of someone else’s comfort zone. The room they gave us was fine, the bed comfortable, and the family as sweet as can be, but all of that does little to help me feel at home. Discussing this with Melissa, she brought up a point that I hadn’t thought of before. She mentioned that this was an opportunity for me to try to understand how those without homes feel. There are people out there with no space to call their own, and I was getting a brief taste of what they constantly experience. And there it is once again… my lesson to learn from being uncomfortable.
May 3, 2014
Whether they are forced to participate in the bloody struggle, or lost to it, the impact that war has on children is harsh. This reality becomes more clear to me with every testimony that I hear. Watching Aida weep for the daughter that she lost really drove this point home for me today. Parents should not have to bury their children. Any time a parent outlives their child, it is a sad occurrence. For a period of time in El Salvador, this was much too common. It is still much too common. Younger generations are the ones that we look to for hope. In them, we see a better future. So what future is there for a community who has seen their children killed? I love the idea that in every child who is born, the potential of humanity is born as well. There is also a responsibility placed on us as parents to help our children reach that potential. This is why these deaths are particularly hard to accept. Not only are you losing a family member, but you are losing part of that hope for a better future.
May 4, 2014
Protection and privilege are two things that I have a lot of, because of where I was born and who I was born to. This is not a new concept for me, but one that was reinforced while listening to the workers at Radio Victoria. When they spoke about receiving death threats, they spoke with a fear that I’ve never known. They were genuinely concerned for the safety of their families and friends. Then, as we drove through the town today, I heard someone yell “Hey! Hey!” from the side of our bus. As I turned my head to see who was yelling, a man sitting in a group on the side of the road raised his arm and pointed a finger at me, with his eyes locked on our bus. I don’t know what he wanted. Maybe he wanted to sell us something, maybe he was pointing out a sticker on the bus, or maybe he was pointing at the gringos rolling through town. The point of the story is that I was never really afraid of him. But in that moment, I thought of Radio Victoria. If I had been one of those workers whose lives were threatened, an interaction like that would have been absolutely terrifying. That fear was a constant reality for them, and nobody should be forced to live like that.
May 5, 2014
Animals don’t respect the dead. I was pondering this thought as I stood alone looking at the rose garden planted in memory of the slain priests and women. This seemed like such sacred ground, the site of a powerfully tragic event. And yet, as I stood thinking about the lives lost, squirrels were crashing through the trees, birds were chirping away, and a line of ants was even carrying leaf fragments through the garden itself. In that moment, the thought that ran through my head was, “Animals don’t respect the dead”. Do animals understand death? Maybe. Elephant mothers have been known to break their tusks trying to lift a dead calf. They may even stay at the site of the death for a day or two, but eventually, the herd must move on. And so it is with all of the animal kingdom… life must go on. The vast majority of animals are not phased by death, having accepted it as a reality of the impossibly difficult life that they lead. This stands in stark contrast with human beings, the one animal who dwells on death more than any other. As humans we cry, we remember, we build memorials, we keep the dead in mind constantly. Watching the animals going on with life as usual that day in the garden, I couldn’t help but wonder if we know something that they don’t, or if it’s the other way around.
May 6, 2014
The innocence of a child. This has always struck me as a powerful thing. Something that crosses national, cultural, racial, and ethnic boundaries. Even when children judge each other, it is an innocent judgement and one that is fairly easily corrected. Children don’t hold on to hate or anger in the same way that adults do. This was just one of the many beautiful things that I saw while working with the kids at ANADES. Did the children argue and push each other, fighting for our attention or for the popular toy? Sure they did. But just minutes later they were running together, throwing a ball to each other, and genuinely enjoying whatever caught their attention, together. They were living in the moment and that’s something that they taught me which I hope to incorporate more into my own life. Enjoy each moment for what it is. Don’t unnecessarily complicate the moment with history, background, and context that don’t apply. Don’t let one bad moment snowball into others. Start each day, each interaction, and each moment anew. Live with the innocence of a child.
May 7, 2014
The kids that we’ve been working with have taught me a lot about myself and the way that I interact with others. One thing that I’ve been especially aware of is my ability to physically interact with others. Though I’ve never been much of a dancer (at least not sober), I’ve always loved sports. I feel comfortable when playing sports and I think a lot of that is due to my comfort physically interacting with my environment. I also love how this transcends human boundaries. Today, the classroom that I worked with had many kids who tried speaking with me, but due to my limited Spanish, I couldn’t always understand what they were trying to tell me. They would yell, speak slower, and even try speaking into my ear, to no avail. Then we went out into the large main room and the teacher dumped out a bag of balls. After that, the kids and I ran around, I played keep-away, with the ball behind my back, touching them on the head with it when they tried to grab it. Then they chased me, pulling on my shirt from all directions as I spun in place. After that, I picked them up one-by-one, by the arms, and swung them around. At one point they even tackled me, with the entire class jumping on top of me until I stood up, carrying four or five of them in the process. No words were needed. At some point, the teacher, probably fearing for my safety, said something to the kids and they backed away a bit. I couldn’t help but see that as a case of language ruining interaction, once again. Those moments with the kids, I had more fun with them, and connected more with them, than I ever could have with my language. That’s where I learned that physical language can be every bit as powerful as verbal language, maybe even more-so. I have the children of ANADES to thank for that.
May 8-10, 2014 – No journal entries.
Final Reflection – May 24, 2014
What have I taken back with me from El Salvador? This is a question that I have asked myself often since my return. Sure, I keep the water off while I am lathering soap, when I wash my hands, but this is more of a habitual change than a change in my mindset. I have always known that wasting water is bad, but have become more aware of how I waste water since my return. I would hope that after all that we experienced in El Salvador, I took home more than this.
For some, I am sure that witnessing extreme poverty and hearing the powerful testimonies of our hosts stirs an emotional side of them which causes pain that lingers long after the experience is over. However, this was not my first experience with extreme poverty. Likewise, I have heard and read plenty of testimonies of despair and loss. I understand that terrible things take place in this world, but because I expect them, they do not shock me. I have adjusted my expectations, and once you expect that something occurs, how can you ever truly be shocked by it? Hearing about the death of a child, or of the eradication of a community, are things that I absorb in what some might call a morbid curiosity. I take these as opportunities to inform myself, to increase my understanding of the people who share this world with me, not necessarily to share in their direct emotional pain. While I understand that I am hearing stories of incredible grief, things that I wish had never occurred, I sympathize more than I empathize. I suppose this is just my own personal way of dealing with emotion, to attempt to understand it internally, rather than battle it externally.
No, it is not the habits or emotions that have impacted me most since my return from El Salvador. What I would say has had the greatest impact on me is my understanding of solidarity. Before our trip, solidarity was a word that I only had a surface-level understanding of. I might have been able to give you a definition of solidarity, but it would have been a shallow one. My definition would have been the kind that you give for a word that you have heard only occasionally and seen referenced in writing very infrequently. It would not have been the definition of a word that I had given much previous thought to. Now, after my brief time in El Salvador, I feel that I have truly lived solidarity. I now feel that my understanding of the word has gone beyond what can be captured by a definition.
Elie Wiesel, writer, professor at Boston University, political activist, Nobel Laureate, and Holocaust survivor, once said that “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference”. I am quite sure that none of us hated El Salvador before we journeyed there. We had no reason to hate, but we were indifferent. Now, I truly believe that this indifference has turned to love for a country and a people who invited us into their homes, delighted in cooking us their food, and lovingly shared their experience with us. That is what we will all take from this experience into our future lives. That is an understanding of solidarity that El Salvador has taught us which we will never be able to forget, and which we never want to forget.
Just as so many of the individual moments from this trip have woven together to increase our understanding of the collective experience, I also began reading other quotes from Elie Wiesel and immediately related many of them back to our experience in El Salvador. Here are a few of my favorites:
“An immoral society betrays humanity because it betrays the basis for humanity, which is memory.”
My first thought, reading this quote, was of the red book at the UCA. The idea of having that book is to share the most graphic pictures, not to sensationalize, but to remember. As I wrote earlier, these are experiences that I will never forget, and never want to forget.
“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Once again, the idea that we must never forget what has happened. Change only happens when those who oppose oppression have the courage, and feel the duty, to act. If we do not speak up against the wrong that we see in the world, we are only prolonging its presence.
“As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our lives will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.”
The last line of this quote struck me as particularly powerful, “…while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.” Solidarity does not give us the option of leaving some behind so that we can be a part of the group that prospers due to their suffering. It is all or none. We all prosper, or we all suffer. Solidarity…