Lessons from Cinquera

White dust billows up behind us as we lurch and jolt down the road.  Everything is seco, seco (dry, dry).  A dog runs across the road as dirt turns to bricks.

Over the course of my time in El Salvador I’ll be spending just over two weeks in the small Salvadoran community of Cinquera.  Ethan, my pareja (partner), and I are staying with a family, working with the social organizing organization in the area, and bumbling our way through life there. I am humbled to be welcomed so graciously by so many.

Cinquera is perched on a steep hillside with distant views of lake Suchitlan.  Home to roughly 700 people, Cinquera was leveled by the Salvadoran Civil War of the 80’s and 90’s.  After the war the only structure left standing was a single wall of the church, pale brick pock-marked with bullet holes.  One day when we are sitting in the square eating papas fritas (french fries), the women making our food begins to tell us about her life and connection to Cinquera.  She was a guerrilla during the war, taken into custody and tortured several times.  She says that when they first came back to Cinquera after the war there was nothing but broken, twisted buildings.  In the night she says they could hear tiles from destroyed roofs falling and shattering on the ground.

Today Cinquera is a quiet village.  Nationally, many Salvadoran communities are plagued by gang violence, but Cinquera remains a safe, close-knit community.  The ease and comfort that both residents and tourists experience in Cinquera is in large part due to highly effective community organizing done by the ARDM (Association of Reconstruction and Municipal Development).  The ARDM works on projects related to youth, environment, sustainable agriculture, tourism, and historic memory.  The ARDM organizers I have encountered are dedicated, rooted, and highly visible in daily life in the community.

Tourism is part of the ARDM’s work and they are hosting us, two gringos who speak faltering Spanish, in part because we have promised to write and promote Cinquera through English-speaking venues on the internet.  In politicized, radical circles in the US, tourism in places like El Salvador is often viewed as an exploitative industry driven by the western world and not necessary rooted in the community itself.  In Cinquera, however, the projects and industry of tourism feel distinctly designed and utilized by the people.

The ARDM owns and manages a hostel and restaurant that sits just outside of the community center.  In the two weeks I’ve spent in Cinquera our two white faces have been the only foreign faces I’ve seen at the restaurant.  Every day at lunch, however, the line for food snakes out the door.  Faces I recognize from around town, as well as Salvadorans on various tours, crowd around tables to eat fragrant, tasty food. The hostel also has a large community meeting space, tucked down in the shade by a creek, that is used for meetings, trainings, and workshops.  This is not some tourist trap that lays quiet until the gringos descend.  The hostel is a living, breathing facet of the organization and function of Cinquera.

The Ecological Park is another example of a project that appeals to tourism and is rooted in the community. Before the war, all of the land around Cinquera was used for farming corn, beans, and maicillo.  During the war these ventures were abandoned as the people either went into hiding, joined the resistance, or left the area altogether.  Trees began to grow, creeping up along the crests of hillsides and down into the hollows of rivers and streams.  The guerrillas who lived and fought here depended on these trees for shade and safety.  The people who stayed in Cinquera during the war were able to remain here because of the shelter that the forest slowly and steadily offered them,  After the war, the people worked to form the Ecological Park in hopes of saving it from deforestation for agriculture and firewood.

Today the Ecological Park offers visitors a rich view of the environmental and human experience.  The lush forest contrasts starkly with the land surrounding it.  There is a cool pool to swim in, observation towers, and winding, well-kept trails to hike.  The history of the people is also a central part of the Park.  It is a historic memory site and the presence of guerrilla resistance is well represented. The recreated guerrilla kitchen and campsite assert that the struggle will not be forgotten.

Everyday that I walk around Cinquera I think about all the people who have worked to create this community and the odds they have faced.  I am struck by the many functions that community organzing projects serve in Cinquera.  This community would not exist without organizers who understand the importance of preservation and also value the importance of creation.  The ARDM projects I have seen thus far serve a variety of needs: jobs, space, recreation, community, environment, economics, the list goes on.

A gringa organizer who works here in El Salvador told me that there is a culture of community organizing in El Salvador that is unique and markedly stronger than that in the US.  Being in Cinquera and experiencing the projects that community organizing has created and maintained I think she is right.  Everything was destroyed in Cinquera.  The community that you see and experience is a direct manifestation of the dreams and work of the people.

This is something we all can learn from.






Encounters with Oscar Romero

The chapel sits next to a cancer hospital.  Outside of the small building, bright flowers spill onto the sidewalk with graceful ease.  The words next to the crucifix translate “On this alter Monseñor Oscar A. Romero offered his life to God for his people.”

Between 1980-1992 El Salvador boiled with civil war. Entire villages were leveled, thousands killed, the physical and mental landscape of the country changed.

Our first day in El Salvador we visit a museum dedicated to the former archbishop, Oscar Romero.  In 1980 Romero was assassinated while giving a sermon in the small chapel near where he lived.  The doors of the chapel were open and a car drove by the front, a shot was fired, and the car sped away.  For many, the death of Romero was the spark that solidified the need for change and began the Salvadoran civil war.

The small museum, which was his home, displays the usual artifacts of a home that made been into a museum: a bed, books, pictures, a peek into his bathroom.  These artifacts seem to be presented as proof of his life.  In the front room are artifacts of his death.  Someone had a camera on the day he was assassinated and a series of 4×6 photos show him slumped over the altar with blood pouring over his body, falling to the floor with others crowded around him, being carried from the church.  The pictures read like a series of news stills, a slow motion replaying of the event.  In one glass case hangs the robe he was wearing the day he was assassinated.  It is stained pale reddish-brown with his blood.

Much of the narrative of the museum is left to the viewer.  There are no fancy videos or signs telling you how to feel.  As we leave the museum a group of school children file quietly in.

In the days since that visit I have tried to imagine a similar museum in the United States.  When and where we would be brave enough to display the bloodstained clothes of our martyrs?  I can not imagine we would have the courage to offer the story without heavy-handed propaganda insuring the desired message.

Over a week later I am riding in the back of a pickup truck up a steep, rocky, dirt road.  Crowded in the back with roughly ten other people we sway and bump into each other as the truck climbs, holding onto the truck and to each other.  Each time we pass a house, the community organizer driving the truck beeps the horn and calls out to the people inside.  “We’re showing a movie about Romero at the school in El Tule.  Are you coming?”

The school sits next to a house and as far as I can tell is the center of El Tule.  I am told roughly 30 people live in this community.  The trees near the school are heavy, heavy, heaving with mangoes.  We throw rocks up at the branches to knock ripe ones down and then sit on the side of the road and eat juicy ripe mangoes as well as the more tart “sason” mangoes, which haven’t reached full ripeness but are delicious nonetheless.

As dark approaches we gather at the school for the movie.  We sit on plastic chairs brought by community members and on the floor as night birds and insects dart out of the darkness to flash across the screen.

The film was originally in English but this version is dubbed in Spanish.  Watching it in this tiny community I cannot ignore the ways that Romero and his legacy are still alive.  The area where we are was a hot zone during the war and the older people around me lived through all of this.  As light dances across their faces I wonder how the Romero’s death and the war live on for them in their day-to-day.

At the end of the movie we eat pan dulce, sweet bread with fruit filling and crusty sugar on the outside, and drink coffee out of small styrofoam cups.  Climbing back into the truck we all sit closer on the way home.  Night air flashes across our faces and the rocks on the road jar the truck.  In the distance a fire blazes against the night sky like a small sun falling below the crest of the horizon.

The memory of people like Romero lives on in museums and community life.  It takes the journey of the people, the light of memory flashing across their faces, and the retelling of the story to younger generations to keep it alive.

Writing Home

As I sit down to write I can imagine the questions my family and friends have for me.  In the almost week since I arrived in El Salvador I have been asking myself what I will say, what I will write home about?

It is hillier than I expected. San Salvador has winding streets that twist tightly with cars parked on both sides.  The air smells like wood smoke and exhaust.  Trash bags, sunglasses, and toothpaste are sold by vendors who stand on the yellow dividing line in the middle of the street.  Most of the houses and neighborhoods are gated.  It is hot and dry but there are still flowers everywhere.

Cinquera, the Salvadoran community where we will be volunteering and learning a, is about two hours by car from San Salvador.  Situated in the the midst of steep semi forested hills, Cinquera was almost completely level by the civil war.  When the people began to come back only one wall of the Church remained.  It is amazing to walk through this community and imagine that about two decades ago none of this was here.

Yesterday we went down to the river in the heat of the afternoon.  Our feet pooled in dust and dead leaves as we approached.  Clear and shallow, the water felt like cool silk sliding across our skin as we waded and splashed. As we sat in the dappled shade a farmer started up a gas pump to take water to his crops, the motor buzzing louder than insects.  He gave us green mangoes that we peeled with a machete and ate with salt.





Buen Viaje: mental grit and going to El Salvador

I do not like doing things that are hard.  The first time I went on a sea kayaking expedition I spent a significant portion of the time thinking I would quit. That expedition was an exercise in mental grit and agility. Staring myself in the eye every morning I cajoled, yelled, and shamed myself to put on cold wet neoprene and get in the boat.  I was capable but had to fight hard to convince myself of that.

There is this split in all of us, a divide of what we can do and the lengths we go to prevent ourselves from doing that.  When I say I do not like doing things that are hard, I mean that I do not like putting these two sides of myself up against each other.  It is uncomfortable and embarrassing. In order to be my greatest, to do all the things I am most proud of, I have had to fight and kick and shove myself out of the way.

For the next six weeks I will be in El Salvador.  I am going to see the life of my sister friend Catie (see her blog for more about her experience in El Salvador) and to be a guest, observer, and listener of the solidarity work being done by US-El Salvador Sister Cities (see their blog for more information on their work).

During my time there I will be involved in sustainable agriculture projects in the community of Cinquera.  I will participate in a delegation of Salvadorans and internationals witnessing a community consultation seeking to ban metallic mining on a community level.  Plans for eating pupusas, playing on the beach, and improving my Spanish swirl throughout all of this as well.

I will also be writing about my experience in El Salvador.  US-El Salvador Sister Cities was founded around the concept of solidarity and importance of witnessing the lives of others.  This blog will be part of both my solidarity and witnessing. I invite you to read it.

When I get on the plane tomorrow I will shove the scared, doubting part of me out of the way in order to board.  Upon arrival in Mexico City I will elbow the shy, whining part of me aside as I ask for directions to my connecting flight in faltering Spanish.  In order be a person of courage I admit to being a person of fear.  We are all both.

Buen viaje a todos.