Last year was the first time that I had visited El Salvador since the mid-1990s. I traveled both last year and this year with a volunteer group representing ESNA (El Salvador-North America) Village Network. The significant changes that I observed in these two years can be attributed to the efforts of many people. Those who have led the way include Mauricio Funes, the current president of El Salvador, and Blanca Orellana, the mayor of Caluco, a small town in the western part of the country.
This year’s trip had a number of highlights for me. Always, I enjoy the cultivating and the deepening of relationships with the Salvadoran people whom we meet and get to know better. Alvaro, the in-country director of ESNA, and Guillermo, his assistant, are both bilingual and bicultural, as they have lived previously in the U.S. for a number of years. Rodrigo and Andres, also bilingual, joined them to handle the logistical coordination for our group of 24 participants.
In the capital of San Salvador, we met with Ana, a Salvadoran nun, as well as Gustavo and Hector from the base community who live and meet in the San Ramon neighborhood of the capital. Our conversation became animated around the fact that Ana had, since last year’s visit, started a microcredit program in which she loans $100 each to a number of women to start tiny businesses of selling various food or craft products. She charges the borrowers $5 interest, so that the loan can be paid off via five monthly payments of $21. El Salvador uses U.S. currency, so these are the actual amounts involved.
We visited a few sites to get more of a cultural and historical perspective of the country, e.g., a museum that explains how the indigenous population was mostly eliminated in a massacre in 1932. That massacre continues to be comemmorated annually. We also visited Mayan ruins and a program to continue the usage of indigenous language and customs.
Out in Caluco in the department of Sonsonate, we met with Mayor Blanca Orellana, a powerhouse of a woman who gets things done to improve the lives of the people in her town and in the outlying areas. Then we continued to Suquiat, an outlying area where we had visited and worked last year. We had a warm and wonderful welcome at the school, featuring the teaching staff, the engineer coordinating our work project, and the students with whom we worked and played soccer. Thanks to the combined efforts of the seven ESNA groups from around the U.S., we were able to see the completed version of a classroom on which we had worked in the initial stages last year. It was wonderful to observe it being used.
This year’s project was to start the construction of a kitchen near the school, where women will cook meals for the students. The trenches were dug, dirt and debris removed, reinforcement bar installed, the cement that we mixed was poured, and the first cement blocks arranged in the form of the walls that will be made and finished by future groups.
During the second week of our visit, we traveled to Cerro Alto, an isolated village at the top of a hill, that we had visited last year. This year’s visit, with the significant transformation of the people’s lives via new structures and improved living conditions, proved to be the most memorable experience I had on the trip. Last year, when we brought school supplies and clothing donations for the children, the school and the living conditions were deplorable. The classroom had a dirt floor, no air was circulating, and the room was dark. This year, another two classrooms had been built by the government, the room now had a tile floor and electricity providing lights and a fan, and the people were noticably feeling better about themselves. The students all had uniforms and had received shoes, a noticeable lack a year ago.
In addition to the work project and scheduled visits, my two favorite outings were a waterfall in Santo Domingo de Guzman and a water slide in Caluco. It was great to watch the young people enjoying themselves in the various ways that water-based activities can be enjoyed.
I hope to be able to return to El Salvador next year to experience more of the same.
A note from Lee Van Ham:
John Poole has been welcomed to JEM’s blog with previous posts on his activist trips to El Salvador and Palestine. My spouse, Juanita, and I lived with John in the Peaceweavings intentional community in Chicago from 1999-2002. His commitment to poor people of El Salvador has been made more poignant by U.S. policies that have supported Salvadoran rightwing governments that systematically oppress those impoverished. The 1989 movie Romero gives an accurate backstory on what John reports here. Welcome again, John.