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.