Friday, August 8, 2014

El Mozote

The following is yesterday's journal entry after a visit to El Mozote in Morazán, El Salvador. The town is best known as the site of the largest and most brutal massacre to occur during the Salvadoran 12-year Civil War. On December 11th, 1981, the Salvadoran military systematically tortured and murdered between 800 and 1,000 men, women and children. The military unit, trained by US advisers, arrived on the 10th, ordering all residents and those who had sought refuge in the town to remain in their homes or else be shot on sight. On the 11th, the soldiers called everyone back to the square, separated the men, women and children into groups, and then proceeded to interrogate, torture and machine gun the men. Around noon, they moved on to the women and girls, separating them from their children and raping them before killing each one. Finally, in the evening, they proceeded to decapitate and kill the children, throwing some in the air and spearing them on the ends of their guns. They then lit the bodies on fire, making it more difficult for forensic teams to identify the number and age of those killed. The military's purpose was to kill guerrillas, and "the best way to kill a guerrilla is in the womb." The only survivor, Rufina Amaya, escaped and later shared her testimony on the clandestine Radio Venceremos.

August 7th, 2014

This morning we woke up in Flori Luz's home. I walked out onto the porch and looked out at a mountain of Eden, birds, roosters and sunlit jungle greenery. Breakfast was delayed, making the cuajada (a rich, homemade cheese) sharper, the frijol (beans) and crema a perfect combo of salty sweet. And then we arrived in El Mozote, and I listened superficially to the facts, with neutral observations running through my mind.

"Was this cobble stone road the same that the military took all those years ago? What were they thinking at 4am, knowing what they were about to do? Probably excited..."

Over 1,000 murdered. That number, the tiered center of the square, hypotheticals running through my head about the Church and how it was all carried out, like Spielberg planning out a movie scene in his mind. Much like reading about Palestine... numbers, deaths, nameless faces... then flip the page and move on to the weather.

We pay to enter the flower garden at the side of the Church, and I follow my friend in. On the side mural there are names and numbers. I saw the first column - the youngest of the list - and I felt the outlines of my body shrink inwards. 6 months old. 2 years old. 2 years old. 6 years old. 14 years old. (Writing this too seems artificial - it shouldn't be able to be articulated and preserved so easily). There were hundreds of them, names stretching along the wall beneath a tiled mural of faceless children playing, dancing... They were torn from their mothers, thrown in the air and pierced like celebratory hams or detached piñatas. 8 years old, 3 days old... KIDS. Brutally, inhumanely, maliciously...

Every sentence feels more inadequate than the last. I couldn't stop crying. I looked for the 14 year olds - somehow my baby brother always seems 14 - as if they couldn't possibly have killed someone so easily. Not someone like Travis. But the names were there all the same.

I cannot replicate the experience in words, only with the conclusion that a life lived in the pursuit of justice is a life lived fully. Anything less is a shallow existence that demands willful ignorance in order to survive. Nunca más/Never more. These aren't words for politicians, peacekeepers, official suited men in UN vans. Squatting in that garden, eyes sore and blurry, I watched the yellow flowers swaying in the wind, imagining the children were still here in some way. Letting us know they're ok. Nunca más is for us. We are the witnesses.

The plaque in front of the flower garden and memorial to the children murdered at El Mozote.

Friday, July 18, 2014

A Response to the Child Migrant Crisis

Last week in El Salvador there were 13 murders within 12 hours, many within 10 minutes walking distance of my house here in San Salvador. The thing is, I had no idea until I saw the newspaper the next morning. El Salvador has recorded over 2,000 murders in 2014 alone, but I never see it because of a few very intentional lifestyle choices. I only travel in private taxis or in cars with friends. I live in a gated community with a guard who patrols at night in a house where you have to unlock three separate doors to get in. I avoid buses and the most dangerous areas of the city. If I walk at night, it’s always with a large, male friend and only in areas I know. These behaviors are now as routine to me as my morning coffee. And so when I hear about the incredible regional violence where homicide rates exceed those in Iraq at the height of the insurgency, I feel I have about as much personal experience to lend to the conversation as those living in the United States.

The truth is, however, that my reality is incredibly revealing about the social conflict unfolding in the Northern Triangle of Central America. As Salvadoran gangs go to greater and greater lengths for territory and power, the resulting violence, extortion, and abuse is concentrated on those least able to defend themselves. I have the means and resources necessary to keep myself safe. The poor, the marginalized, the displaced, the unconnected, and the invisible do not.

El Salvador is a place where your ability to exercise basic rights, including the right to life and security, is directly linked to your money and connections (which often are synonymous). The key to the gangs’ power is their impunity. They target those with no political or economic power, those whose resistance poses zero threat to the status quo or who can quickly be eliminated if necessary. It is no coincidence that the majority of minors traveling to the U.S. from the Northern Cone are young men aged 14-17. This is the demographic most heavily recruited by gangs in their battle for territory and power. Join up or die.

In contrast, I am safe. I am shielded from these threats by the simple coincidence of being born white, wealthy, and in the United States.

When I consider the true difference between my life and those targeted by the present conflict, I recognize one critical difference: choice. I have the ability to choose my life, whether that be my level of education, my career, my faith, or the place I choose to call home. For those whose rights are not guaranteed, no such choice exists. I don’t share this reflection as another contribution to the expansive literature on white privilege or guilt. Rather, I hope it sheds light on the deeply interconnected nature of the current child migrant crisis and human rights.

When faced with a humanitarian crisis, particularly one that involves children, we want that quick fix. We want to know there is something simple that can be done to stop the suffering of the innocent. The bad news is that the latest headlines reveal only the symptoms of deeply entrenched structural problems that encourage a culture of violence, extortion and impunity.

In a recent piece written by Lynette Wilson for the Episcopal News Service, she quotes Cristosal’s Executive Director, Noah Bullock, as he explains the complexity of the crisis:

Both internal and external displacement… have common causes: lack of well-being in Salvadoran communities, generalized violence and the state’s inability to safeguard people’s lives and impose rule of law by prosecuting criminal organizations.

You will find no quick fixes or recipes for reconciliation here. What I can say is I am grateful every day for my safety and that of my friends and family. I am grateful for the opportunity to do targeted, meaningful work that in a small way works for structural change, to build community organization, resilience and independence. For those of us with the inexplicable fortune of growing up in a society where our basic rights are guaranteed, this crisis is a rare illuminating moment for what that privilege truly means: safety, opportunity, and above all, choice.

To learn more about Cristosal’s work to address the child migrant crisis, see our most recent newsletter or email us at

Thursday, June 26, 2014

San Isidro Lempa

Despite El Salvador's tiny size, my routine is dominated by a few distinct locales: my house in the hipster/student haunt of the San Luis, the office up the volcano in Escalón, a capoeira gathering at the National University, and visits to our partner communities in the campo. So when a friend invited me to a mysterious family reunion in a land far far away, I jumped at the chance. I did not entirely understand the logistics, but oh well! Que sea sea (what will be, will be).

Turns out we were going to San Isidro Lempa in Santa Ana, a department one hop over from San Salvador. My friend's cousin had just gotten married, which meant all the aunts from the US were in town, plus their children, distant cousins, the brothers of wives' husbands' second dog's owner's best friend from High School... a blur of genetics and hospitality. 

After a 2 hour drive from the city, to arrive a two metal tracks barreling into the distance, 7km in total. And so down we plopped onto a 4x4 wooden slab, grounded by four rickety wheels that managed to grip the tracks the whole hour-long journey. Mom's and aunts, despite the pedestrian nature of their transport, elegantly sported sunglasses and umbrellas, gossiping and rocking back and forth from a mix of uproarious laughter and the swaying wooden trolley. We traveled through jungle, hollowed-out hillsides with a tunnel barreling through, the sudden switch into the shade much needed relief from that otherwise oppressive afternoon sun. Occasionally there were breaks in the tall maize plants or towering trees draped in greenery, and the Rio Lempa would emerge, rushing and quick, a brown snake dominating the valley.
It was only afterwards I realized that through whole day I never felt like the white chick. I simply watched as people kissed me, nearly pushed me into a chair and placed an entire roasted gallina in front of me, oozing the common stereotype of Italian or Jewish grandmothers... one chubby baby nestled in their left arm while the right flips forward as if swatting a fly: Coma! Coma! Eat! Eat! Only the grandfather stared at me sideways, trying to understand how I fit in with the mass of Salvadoran kisses, hugs, and stories that inundated the entryway. "Pero sos tan blanquita/But you're so white..." he said. One of the aunts put her arm around me. "Dont' worry," she explained with a wink. "She's adopted."

Just through the corn plants, you can see the massive Rio Lempa snaking through.
This was the only photo I could manage of the kids playing a very mobile game of Tug-of-War. Must reset my camera flash settings to go faster...

It struck me that amid all the stories of violence, of homicides and gangs and corruption and disrepute coming out of El Salvador, here was this Eden all the same, huddled in the jungle of Santa Ana. It was calm, serene... kids ran from one water pump to the next, nearly plunging headfirst into the metal play structure, rearranging their shirt with a sheepish grin (you know, that Holy crap! I almost died! But I didn't... Yeeeesssss! look that only 8-year old boys get after a near death experience). There was nothing to accomplish, nowhere to be. Just to observe and, more than anything, allow myself to become a part of the community that was inviting me in with open arms.

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