Global Learning, International Exchanges

Messages from El Salvador

A delegation of Northwest School students and faculty are in El Salvador for two weeks, learning about the country and its history. The NWS group meets with leaders of SHARE (our partner organization in El Salvador) and hears about the work SHARE undertakes to secure basic human rights for the people in their region. We will be publishing periodic updates from the students as they arrive.

March 20, 2018

The day started off with us getting up at 8 and getting ready for a breakfast of the usual eggs, beans, rice and cheese with a bowl of fruit on the side. Following breakfast, we all got into the van and made our way to Museo de la Palabra y la Imágen (museum of the word and image) which was founded by "Santiago" ... a famous guerrilla who ran the radio during the civil war in the 1980’s and early 1990's. The museum tells the history of La Matanza (massacre) in 1932 of mostly indigenous peasants who fought the government for economic justice. The exhibits also included Romero’s personal photo gallery archive which had some fascinating images. Finally, we were able to look at a short film in which we saw how the radio ran during the civil war and how it affected the people. We were fortunate enough to see Santiago, the director of the museum, and took a photo with him.

After visiting the museum we went to Christian base community called El Pueblo de Dios en Camino, which is a center for faith-based gatherings within one of San Salvador's vulnerable neighborhoods, with about 30 people who gather there to discuss how their faith relates to the current reality of El Salvador. We talked to one of the women who ran the place, named Ana. She told us, “the most important thing is the community.” The work they do including helping to get water service to smaller communities who live up on the volcano and have no running water. Even though this proves a difficult task, since they don’t have a lot, they still do it. On top of this, they hold several different community meetings to help people such as a literacy workshop to help teach people to read, and also a place where women can gather and talk since there are little to no places within marginalized sectors of Salvadoran society which offer this sort of thing. On the weekends they hold a modified church for people. This is just some of what they do to help the people around them. There are 9 other base communities in San Salvador which do the same work. One big take away from this experience is that when you first entered the base community there was happiness; everyone said, “Hola” and was smiling and welcoming you, which made being there just that much better.

Following this we went for a late lunch to Nelly’s, which is a buffet style restaurant with very good food. Then we drove to El Boqueron for a volcano walk along the top of the crater. The view was amazing, and the clouds just rolled right over the ridge, grazing you as you walked. We did this for about an hour, then went back into the town where there was a little street market and looked around at everything they were selling, then went for a pupusa dinner. This concluded another amazing day in El Salvador.

- Felix H.

March 19, 2018

The day began with visiting the Parroquia Maria Madre de los Pobres (Mother Mary of the Poor Parish). We were greeted by the amazing staff, who gave us a tour of the whole project. This parish enclave includes a school, health clinic, dentist office and pharmacy, which provide services to the community. The parish will be celebrating its 34th Anniversary soon. It was founded by Father Daniel Sanchez in 1994 with very strong values that address social issues, along with teaching the Christian faith and its values. We ended our tour by eating lunch with Padre Jose, a friend and fellow priest who was visiting to assist the current pastor, Padre Luis. Father Jose was very open to answering our questions and telling us about his past. He seemed like a very kind man whom the parish is lucky to have helping out for the next few weeks.

After lunch we went to the ASPIDH-Arcoiris, which is an organization for LGBTQI people in El Salvador. Their main goal right now is to pass laws that recognize transgender people for who they are rather than what is on their birth certificate. We were spoken to by three women (Amber, Brittany and Monica), who were passionate about LGBTQI rights. They talked to us about how their community in El Salvador is experiencing overwhelming violence and, specifically, hate crimes. So far this year, four trans women have been attacked and killed in the country, and the government has not pursued any real investigations into these killings. At the end of this paragraph are a few links to their organization, if you would like to give any donations or hook them up with any organizations you may know that are fighting for LGBTQI and specifically trans rights. Their fight for recognition was very inspirational and made me personally realize that this fight was not just a US issue, but a global issue that needs to be addressed.

The final meeting of the day was at Equipo Maiz. This non-governmental organization was created to educate marginalized communities about the history of El Salvador, gender equity, sexual health, and much more. We met with a representative of the organization who described to us the broad history of El Salvador, making sure to connect what she was talking about to the situation today. We learned how the government functions, the leading causes of the Civil War, and the sources of conflict today. The day ended with us eating pupusas at a mountaintop restaurant, looking down on all of San Salvador. Every student took a picture of this view, so make sure to ask them to show you!

- Ben W.

March 18, 2018

Today on the way to Perquín, we stopped at Radio Victoria, a community radio that actively fights injustice, in Victoria, Cabañas. They are most commonly known for speaking up against proposed metal mining in their regional department by Pacific Rim (a Canadian mining company now known as Oceana Gold). We talked to Chavelo and then Pablo, both of whom had worked at the community radio through the conflict with Pacific Rim and both of whom were wonderfully passionate speakers. The hardest period for the radio team was when Pacific Rim realized that their speaking up on the negative environmental effects of mining was influencing the views of the communities in the region. Pacific Rim started by approaching the Radio and offering to build them an improved building in exchange for allowing them to broadcast the company's publicity on their radio, offering to also pay them a stipend of $8,000 a month for operating costs. This would have been hugely beneficial to the Radio that had very little funding; however they refused, realizing that to take the money would be against their principles and would betray the trust of the communities. Upon this denial, Radio Victoria employees started receiving death threats and eventually there were three assassinations of environmental activists to scare the Radio into backing down. The first assassination was of Marcelo Rivera, an environmental leader and cultural arts teacher in his community, who was tortured, murdered and half-buried in a well. Later, Dora Sorto, another environmental leader, who was eight months pregnant, was also murdered, as was her fellow activist, Ramiro Rivera Gomez, a few days later. This pushed El Salvador's Commission on Human Rights (a new office of the government since the Peace Accords) to employ 24-hour security guards for the at-risk employees. Eventually, in response to a large wave of support from both popular solidarity groups and the Catholic Church under Pope Francis, the government passed a law banning heavy metal mining in all parts of the country. Today the Radio fights injustice in communities and works to strengthen the recently passed law, which is vulnerable to being reversed under a new legislative Assembly.

The representatives from Radio Victoria spoke passionately about what they believed in, and personally about the fear they had experienced. I was inspired by their insight and strong belief in standing up for the right thing. In today’s world, especially because there is so much corruption, it was refreshing and inspiring to hear their story of standing up to a huge international corporation that was in pursuit of profits regardless of the damage. This was especially impressive for a small community radio that isn’t largely sponsored or expansive. One thing that really struck me when I was listening to Pablo was how the employees of Radio Victoria stood up to threats and constant fear by continuing to speak up and reach out to communities. The main thing that I reflected on after the meeting, however, was the power of a voice for the people in the face of corruption and the effect that it can have on legislation. During Pacific Rim’s attempt at mining in El Salvador, Radio Victoria stood as a pillar for the welfare of the people and the environment, to protect its country's future.

- Claudia C.

We arrived in Huisisilapa mid-afternoon, and as soon as we got there a big crowd formed, especially of kids, who were all very curious. As we pulled in, some boys started running behind the bus and holding on to the back. Some of the kids that came to the basketball court where we grouped up were in school and had just walked right on over. While we were waiting to be sorted into our host families, we played chase with the kids and said hello to people. Then we got assigned to our families. I was with Trinity because we are both vegetarian, and we went with a woman named Norma and her five year-old daughter Alondra to their home. The space was very open and pretty big, I learned later that 10 people live in the house. When we first got there, we put our stuff down and sat with Norma and talked as well as we could with her. It was really difficult to understand because she spoke way faster than I'm used to, so I had to listen extra hard all the time to make sure that I was answering the right question. In general, that is how most of my conversations went, along with a lot of smiling and nodding and saying, "Thank you."

Then we all met back at the school for a welcome ceremony, where students and faculty from the school greeted us with speeches, music, singing, and both of our country's national anthems. Afterwards, we played chase with the kids again and then, with our family, Trinity and I walked to the soccer field. That was a fun and worry free moment, because we played hand games and tag with the kids, which didn't require verbal communication, and helped us let out our stress. After that, we went to the building that they use as a health clinic to talk to the community board of Huisisilapa about their journey as a community through history. Then we had dinner and watched some soccer before a welcome night of sleep. 

The next morning, we had breakfast with our families and met at the school to visit some of the classes. We would go in to a classroom and introduce ourselves and talk a little bit with them. With the 1st grade class we talked about our favorite animals, with the 3rd graders we talked about our favorite classes, and with the seniors we talked about our favorite things to do in our free time. One moment that I thought was really interesting was when the director who accompanied us to our classes told the little kids that we had flown in an airplane to get there, and that if any of their family was in the US, they would have driven or even walked. Another fun moment was in the class of seniors when we were talking about music, and they asked us if we knew the song Color Esperanza. Those of us who were at NWS in Middle School sang it in Spanish class and at graduation, so we all sang a little bit of it together. After recess, and more games of chase with the kids, we visited the preschool, where we sang, danced, and played with the kids. Before lunch, we talked a little bit more about the community clinic and radio before taking a walk to the river. After lunch, we only had a little bit of time left, so Trinity and I played with Alondra and Fatima (a friend of Alondra's and a member of Scott's host family). Trinity brought sidewalk chalk, so it was fun to draw with them and talk. Those two were especially sad to see us go a little while later, and I can say that everyone is excited for our return!

- Natalie T.

March 17, 2018

We began our day at the Museo de la Revolución Salvadoreña, built by two ex-guerrilla members in 1992, the same year as the signing of the Peace Accords. With us we had our guide, Serafín, who first joined the guerrillas at the age of ten, and had shown us the site of the El Mozote massacre the day before. At the museum, Serafín explained that Perquín, where we had been staying for the past few days, served as the central guerrilla headquarters throughout the war. Useful in its hilly landscape and Northern location (near the Honduran border), Perquín was the first town captured by the guerrillas, and was nearly destroyed by bombings at the end of the war in late 1991.

The war itself began in 1980 for three reasons: social, economic, and political repression; armed attacks on resistance leaders, including religious leaders; and genocidal attacks on civilian communities. Before the beginning of the war, around 30,000 people had already been killed throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s. Among those were Rutilio Grande in 1977, and Oscar Romero in 1980. Out of the repression sprang social organizations for justice, inspired by liberation theology, the FMLN, and its military wing, the guerrillas. On the opposing side, the US-backed Salvadoran military were carrying out torture, killings, and forced disappearances, often leaving the bodies of victims in the streets. The military had been trained, under the Reagan administration (and before that since 1946), at the notorious School of the Americas, often with Vietnam War tactics. Serafín explained all of this as we moved through the seven rooms of the museum, saw an old clandestine radio station, and stood at one of six large bomb craters still left from the war.

After the museum, we walked across the street and up the Cerro de Perquín (Hill of Perquín ), observing a less violent but more current issue facing Salvadorans today: deforestation and environmental deterioration. The hills surrounding Perquín and throughout Cabañas are filled with three main species of pines: pino oocarpa, pino caribe, and pino pseudostrobus. Two years ago, the bark beetle infestation, to which no pine species has immunity, devastated the region, killing countless trees and provoking forestry managers to cut down thousands more to reduce the spread of the disease. The region’s recent growth in tourism has aided the struggling local economy, but it is also detrimental to the environment in a number of ways. Tourism leads to contamination and general wear and tear of the land, with tourists sometimes stealing the natural flora of the region (such as orchids). Forest fires started by cigarettes, campfires, and agricultural fires have often spread through the dry pines. In the past 20 years, the average temperature in this traditionally cool, mountainous region of the country has gone from 16 Celsius to 28 Celsius. This is particularly sad because Perquín is the cleanest area we have seen on our trip, while San Salvador, for example, is filled with incomprehensible amounts of plastic.

On the hill we saw more bomb craters, fox holes, and small trenches, serving as constant reminders of El Salvador’s war-torn past. It makes me worry for what seems to be the inevitable nature of human suffering and abuse of the earth. However, hope is maintained. Cabañas , Chalatenango, Morazán, and San Miguel, all regions most affected by the war, now have the lowest violence indices in the nation. On the environmental front, six months ago a national Environmental Court was created to enforce reparations for environmental damages. Last year, 160,000 new trees were planted in Cabañas, with plans for as many as 450,000 more this year. Human rights and environmental awareness are slowly being forced into the mainstream consciousness.

- Grace P.

March 15, 2018

We returned from our first visit to Huisisilapa this evening, and took some time to start reflecting on our experience after dinner, followed by a surprise birthday cake for Nurya, who turned 17 today. We will continue our travels tomorrow in Victoria and Perquin, visiting the folks at Radio Victoria and staying two nights at a simple hostel in beautiful Perquin.

On our way out to Huisisilapa we visited the Cihuatan ruins with a young scholarship recipient from Huisisilapa, and then visited the offices of UCRES, the union of rural communities that includes Huisisilapa and that manages the scholarships that SHARE supports. We are encouraging the students to discuss and reflect on their first impressions and subsequent discoveries from the community visit and home stay experience. In the process, we are all made awareness of the material reality of El Salvador as well as the cultural richness of communities like Huisisilapa.

During these next two days away from the capital, we will learn about the Environmental conservation and protection efforts taking place in the Northern part of El Salvador, which also happens to be the mineral rich part of the country. This has made it particularly vulnerable to international pressure from mining interests. We will also visit the memorial to El Mozote, perhaps the most widely known of 127 communities to experience state-sponsored massacres during the Civil War. We expect to have some access to wifi out there, and will at least send a brief message that all is well in case that wifi is limited.

Here are a few photos. The first includes our friends from UCRES, including the indomitable Maria Carmen, a leader for the Women's Empowerment efforts at UCRES. The next few are from our arrival at Huisisilapa . Blog posts and student photos to come in the next few days...but an early departure tomorrow means a brief message is all we have time for tonight.

We send our love,

Suzanne, Scott, and Azucena

March 13, 2018

We started off our day today by choosing between sleeping in or getting up with the sun to get in some exercise at the park across the way before our day started. After enjoying fruit, beans, and omelettes for breakfast, we piled into our bus and drove to UCA (University of Central America) for a tour. Our tour guide (a political science student in his final year at UCA) walked us through exhibits displaying the clothes of Oscar Romero, photo albums showcasing details of a massacre, and many more relics, complete with plenty of facts and stories about the history and its connections. After the tour we explored the small campus library, discovering the Spanish translations of books we knew well alongside new ones spanning over every course of study at the university. There were several benches outside the library, and while sitting on them waiting for the rest of our group, several of us were approached by a young student who was studying English and wanted to talk with us. He asked us questions about English pronouns and when we told him that “lavar los manos” translated to “wash hands,” he sighed and talked about the English test he’d just taken and the questions he’d answered wrongly. It was a small interaction, but this young man’s friendly approach and genuine curiosity towards about our group felt like a regular conversation with a college student, while also being interesting and powerful. Our next stop was lunch on campus, where we ate potatoes, steak, and vegetables, and enjoyed watching the UCA students eating and going about their days all around us. This first half of our day was educational, surprising, and meaningful, and we miss you all back home.

- Ella H. '19

After our beautiful lunch at the university, we talked in depth about what to expect from our visit in Huisisilapa with our host families, whom we get to meet tomorrow! One short but HOT bus ride back to the hotel later, we had the pleasure of meeting Isabel Hernandez, the accomplished El Salvador director for the organization we are partnering with, Fundacion SHARE. SHARE is an El Salvador and US based organization that focuses on human and environmental rights. Although the few hours we spent with Isabel went by fast, she was able to share her wisdom from a variety of topics, such as how SHARE was originally founded to support refugees during and after the war all the way to what they are working on currently in the scope of women’s rights.  SHARE was started in 1981 by Salvadoran immigrants living in the US, during the time of the civil war in El Salvador. So many citizens were fleeing because of the violence and were able to come to the United States; however this came at a bad time in American history when the U.S. was seeing a rise in imprisonment of people of color, as well as hostility towards mass immigration. This was combined with the phenomenon of displaced citizens from El Salvador fleeing into Honduras to escape the conflict. These thousands of displaced citizens did not go unnoticed and SHARE was able to join together solidarity and sanctuary groups to accompany and support the refugees as well as to help raise awareness in the US about the (US-backed) repression in El Salvador during these years. 

After that early phase during the war, SHARE continued helping communities after the war ended. Isabel shared with us the impact that organizations such as SHARE have had on helping communities with getting resettled and with being organized and unified, which allows them to reject outside pressures for their youth to become gang members. Another big part of what SHARE does is support different women’s organizations to end gender violence, cultivate economic independence for women, enforce women’s rights laws, and boost women’s empowerment. An important project that they are working on currently is fighting for the rights to safe and legal abortions. With the rise in ultra religious conservatives, women in El Salvador and elsewhere have been seeing their reproductive rights shrink, and it has gotten to a point where women in El Salvador can be arrested and imprisoned for miscarriages, or for seeking medical attention after unreported abortions, even in cases where the women have life threatening health conditions or have been victims of sexual assault. This has been the reality for 17 women, whose cases have been charged by the intensity of this debate. A few of them have even had to flee the country, despite being released from prison. 

After an in depth discussion with Isabel, we had a fun and lighthearted dinner of traditional pupusas which we have all been looking forward to! I now need to go pack up for tomorrow when we will meet our host families. 

- Allegra A. '19

March 12, 2018

Hello Families and Friends,

Yesterday when we arrived we were greeted by a beautiful sunrise with colors you can't imagine. You step outside the airport and the first thing you see are the families and friend's picking up loved ones. Beyond that you see a large tree covered in bright green foliage and birds. While we were waiting for the van (which turned out to be very spacious) we got to see one of those birds up close. It was midnight blue with a silky coat and just stunning. Soon we met Claudia, our SHARE Coordinator, who exuded a very warm personality, and Samuel, our driver, who was very helpful and kind in helping us navigate the crazy streets. We drove for about an hour, completely exhausted, to the hotel, with stunning views out the window. Unfortunately I did not recognize their beauty until after our first nap.

Following the nap we went to the nearby park, where many of us will spend the next few days getting some exercise, and the rest will get to read or see lots of people. There was a group of young dancers having a class in an outdoor area, with a lot of people standing around watching. After the park, we came back for a little bit before leaving to see two churches downtown. The first was the National Cathedral and Romero's Crypt, and the second was called El Rosario. They were two very different churches. The first was very grand, where we learned that there used to be two sections: the upper floor for the wealthy, having beautiful stained glass windows; and the second floor, for the poor, being underground. It was interesting to see the differences. When we were there, a ceremony was happening in the lower floor where Romero's tomb is located. A few blocks away was the second church. From the outside it was rugged, robust, and stony. The glass blended into the rock and from the outside it didn't look like it would hold much. Walking in was a completely different experience; the sun shone through, creating waves of rainbow light catching on the edges of the walls and lining the floor. For me it felt like the equivalent of walking into heaven.

Today, we got up at the early hour of 6:00 and ate a quick breakfast. Leaving by 6:20 we were on the road, surrounded by normal Monday traffic as we made our way to El Paisnal. After reflecting later today, many of us said the drive was one of the most surprising and delightful experiences we have had. We could see so much through the windows of the van. In El Paisnal we were able to walk around before starting the walk to an eco-park for a mass to commemorate the 41st Anniversary of Padre Rutilio Grande. While walking around before the procession, we went into a church where outside in the courtyard there were a few interesting things, the first was a statue of Padre Rutilio with a family, and the second (which we all had a lot of fun on) was stand up swings attached to a large tree. It was a nice break away from the hot sun to just swing.

There were a lot of interesting people we met while walking around. For me the most memorable was a historian, who began talking to us about the Lewis and Clark trail, and the gold rush. He also rocked a Beatles hat. The walk began, and music was played through speakers on cars the whole way up. It was so amazing to see the everyone singing along to the songs, or cheering "Que Vive!" in response to the names of Rutilio Grande and Oscar Romero. It was powerful to hear so many people joining together in faith and community, singing about bringing everyone to the table. At the top we found shelter in the trees along with many others, and some of us even went on a seesaw that was up there. To me the most striking thing was the way in which the service was conducted. Everyone was very respectful, but still was able to talk and meet with their community members. It was very different of my (very limited) view of how a religious service is conducted.

We had lunch at Nelly's back in San Salvador, a cafeteria styled restaurant, before heading back to the hotel. We had some siesta time, during which many of us took naps, before meeting with Hilary Goodfriend -- a Northwest School alum who is a journalist in San Salvador. We heard about her life story, along with more of the political climate in El Salvador. She was very impressive, knowing a lot about El Salvador, and answering all of our many questions. Soon after that we went to Romero's house, and the Divina Providencia Chapel, hoping to meet with one of the nuns who live there. Unfortunately, there was not a sister available for a tour, so we came back early. We will visit again tomorrow and I at least am very excited.

This is just a little bit of what we have been doing here. I believe everyone is having fun, the food is AMAZING, and the weather (though hot in the day) is very pleasant at night.

-Trinity D. '19