Students travel to Central America to study liberation, human rights struggles
Traffic looms on either side as police officers attempt to direct the crowd off the street, too large to be contained by the plaza. Spanish words buzz past my ears at speeds too fast to comprehend, so instead, I focus on retrieving my bagged dinner and candle for the vigil.
Just before 6 p.m., the chaotic crowd transforms into three orderly lines drawing people down San Salvador’s main avenue. The march in honor of El Salvador’s martyr and unofficial saint, Oscar Romero, has begun.
People of all sorts flow past me in the sea of celebration: Salvadorian youth energized for a man of another time, Salvadorian elders who remember their hero with pride, international students and workers affected by the legacy of Romero and us, a group of 20 Americans attempting to build solidarity with the Salvadorian nation.
As participants and professors of the winter quarter class, El Salvador: Liberation Theology and Human Rights, we were joined by members of South Bay Sanctuary Covenant (SBSC), a local religious group committed to creating social justice in Latin America, for a week of confronting the past and present realities of El Salvador.
Throughout the week, we met with social activists about the evolving tension and violence in the Cabañas province due to mining and environmental issues. We heard from a variety of voices detailing El Salvador’s current drug, gang, female inequality and immigration problems. Though 19 years have passed since the end of its civil war, many of the issues prompting it remain unresolved.
At the chapel where Monseñor Romero was assassinated, we stood with our hands on the altar, each offering a word of what the man, a conservative, Roman Catholic archbishop turned liberal voice for the oppressed, represented for us.
“Faith.” “Hope.” “Love.” “Justice.” Each word is said with conviction, as if a strong voice could will these words into being.
“The transformation of our people and our society is in our hands. Not in those of Obama nor those of Funes,” offers our guide, a Carmelite nun, in closing. “Rather, change is brought about through my hands and the small decisions I make each day in which I act with justice, peace and solidarity.”
After five days of meetings in San Salvador, interlaced with good food and good conversation, we packed up our mini bus for the two-hour drive out of the capital and into the rural countryside of the Lower Lempa. Every time the bus stopped along the shack-lined roads, we were met with a chorus of “Mango! Pan dulce!,” as sellers thrust food items towards us through the open bus windows.
When the bus pulled into Comunidad Octavio Ortiz, a partner community of South Bay Sanctuary Covenant, signs and general excitement welcomed us. After introductions, we jostled through a rendition of “Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” for the children.
“You do realize this means we’ll never be able to run for public office,” a fellow Stanford student joked, upon realizing we were being taped.
Soon, as the energy dwindled down, I was following my host brother down the main road toward his home. We approached a house with two girls preparing dinner near the outside fire, a dog sleeping quietly beneath it. A quick peek into the house revealed hammocks as the only furniture, besides a table or two, upon which sat a stereo and a blaring television.
As the girls chopped vegetables, preparing a soup for dinner, I took in the scene around me. Laundry hung on multiple lines. A heavy duty truck stood alone on one side of the lot; firewood was stacked against the house, and a pile of freshly picked corn lay waiting to be husked, while four dogs, a cat and many chickens snuck in the house, only to be shooed out.
A dog approached me, and when I asked for its name, my host brother looked up from his work, smiled and said “Gringo,” the irony not lost on either of us.
The next two days passed in a blur of tortilla and jam making, sugar cane processing, soccer games, mishaps with outdoor showers and latrines, loud music waking us up at 5 a.m., a developing hatred for cockroaches and my own attempts to avoid butchering the Spanish language.
After living with my host family, meeting with the community board and partaking in the community’s Celebration of the Word, what speakers in San Salvador had alluded to became a reality for me: the Salvadorian people welcomed our solidarity. Young and old alike passed “La Paz” after service, and few of us were without a little girl climbing onto our laps or laying siege to our hands.
On the last night, at a concert celebrating Romero at the University of Central America, stood the very same segments of society from the march a week prior, only this time, our group was not interested in building solidarity. Instead, I smiled, realizing that we embodied it as we echoed back the nationalistic responses in the song, “Sombrero Azul”:“Dale salvadoreño, (dale) que no hay pájaro pequeño, (dale) que después de alzar el vuelo, (dale) se dentenga en su volar.” “Let’s do this Salvadorians (let’s do this), There is no little bird (let’s do this), That after take-off (let’s do this), Stops in its flight.”