Friday, January 16, 2015

The Double Life

In Spanish, we say la gente está viviendo una realidad de violencia...
"the people are living a reality of violence." As if this were only the flavor of the week, and there will be a new reality tomorrow.

In my day-to-day, this reality is always present: in my friends' Facebook posts, in the curly-cues of an "MS" or "18" graffittied on street corners, in the horrific stories of families broken, women abused, and impunity paraded through the lives of those I love and know. I have seen bodies mutilated on the side of the highway, and the first thought is always gangs or traffic accident? 

This violence has never touched me. I have never felt unsafe. I have no past experiences for these stories to latch on to, no emotional response to equate with what these families experience. I am deeply grateful for this and would never wish to be in these people's shoes. But in the words of Oscar Romero, "there are things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried."

I feel at the same time ashamed and immensely grateful for my own immunity... for the privilege of my skin color, the wealth and the passport that protect me. But what do I do with that privilege? How do I account for it? For now, I go to work every day, I lend my gifts any way I know how, and often at night, revel in the simplicity of crime shows where you know the bad guy will get nailed in the end.

At Cristosal, we assist victims of gang violence, particularly those forced from their homes due to threats of extortion, kidnapping, rape, and death. The suffering is unbelievable, the lack of justice infuriating. Cristosal's work is to make it possible for the Salvadoran state and the international community to assist these victims - to build a future in which these people receive the justice and protections they deserve. I believe in this mission with every fiber of my being... but that future is still many years away, and this reality is being lived today, and tomorrow, and the day after that...

I am learning to receive this sadness, to hold someone's suffering, and to accept my own limitations without calling it failure. I want to fix this. I want to free a woman from being unjustly held in prison, save young girls who grow up with the expectation that at 12 they will be raped... it is the gang's right. I am learning patience in the face of sorrow, and the uncomfortable need to just turn off the bad news, cook and paint your nails as if the outside world did not exist. This post holds no answers, just the expressed discomfort of knowing there is no quick fix.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Feliz Año Nuevo!

In El Salvador, New Years means fireworks. The first lane of nearly every roundabout in the city has been occupied for the past week by pop-up plastic roadside stands selling colorful explosives. There is nothing official or organized about this process. The noise begins on New Years Eve right after lunchtime, with sparklers and foot-long cylinders wrapped in newspaper and filled with confetti that explode with a spectacular BOOM. There's no official countdown or Dick Clark on the television, so sometime between 11:45pm and 12:15am the sky is filled with fireworks... the real kind you get on the 4th of July... that people set off from any convenient street corner.

I spent New Years with Bianca's family, chowing down on absurdly delicious turkey at 10pm and learning how to dance the robot from a precocious 7-year old. This morning we had "breakfast" at noon, a house gathering around cinnamon pancakes and individual omelettes. As everyone went their separate ways, for the first time in what feels like months I was alone. I left the house and began walking, turning down random streets that even within the last year, I had never noticed before. The sun was setting behind San Salvador's volcano, turning the entire sky a brilliant pink striated with purples and magentas.

The neighborhood where I live is filled with cement square homes with metal gates and chicken wire, yet beyond these "apocalypse-proofed" exteriors, inside there is always a news station or salsa music playing into the street. The walkways are filled with large-leafed palm trees and tropical flowers practically popping out of their buds, swallowing the faraway bus and car horns. When I pass people on the sidewalk... many are elderly wearing leathered skin and a stooped spine... they look at me like an animal escaped from the zoo, a gringa walking alone, unsure what to say or do. Turns out all you need is a big smile and a "buenas," and it's like cracking open a safe releasing enormous toothy grins and a surprised glee that creeps into the crows feet bordering their eyes. It reminded me that some days, all you have to do is simply be.

Monday, December 8, 2014

San Isidro Labrador

Two weeks ago I went with six other international election observers (aka my buddies) to San Isidro Labrador, a town in the department of Chelatenango where international companies have threatened, and some have already started, to explore and extract gold. This is a very dirty process, using and then dumping massive quantities of arsenic into the water supply. And from my former life, let me tell you, arsenic is REALLY hard to get out of the water once it’s in there (think dried Play-Doh on a shag carpet – it sticks to EVERYTHING). Mining in El Salvador threatens not only to extract resources without any pay-back to the people, but to contaminate the country’s largest water supply, the Río Lempa.

The election in San Isidro, though small, was the second ever community consultation in the country. Although the past three presidents have upheld a mining moratorium, communities are afraid that if a new president comes into power, the moratorium would go bye-bye, as would their water supply. And so communities are taking advantage of a constitutional right to hold their own consultation. Us foreigners were there as election observers to uphold that the election was clean, and that everyone who wanted to vote could. And it was… all but three out of 250 voted NO to the mine, with two YES and one null.

Being an election observer, especially on an issue that is so near and dear to my heart, was an exhausting but important opportunity. In the heat of the moment (literally the sweltering, sticky heat), it ain’t all that glamorous. You sit and watch, you write a report, you go home. But what it meant is far bigger. These communities are following the lead of environmental movements in Canada, in Australia, and in the U.S. (Exhibit A: Keystone Pipeline), where in the face of political paralysis, communities take it upon themselves to openly declare what is often the unanimous will of the people. In El Salvador, I am not “the people,” but I can use my unique voice as a gringa to validate and affirm the voices of those clamoring for things to be different.

You can read the full story here (with another nice mug shot of yours truly).

This was just too good not to photograph.

One thing the State Department doesn't tell you... El Salvador is GORGEOUS.

And so we woke up to this. Life is rough... real rough.

Cori (roommate) is really excited.

It's like Indiana Jones but better... we get vests.

Lining up to cast the ballot.

Then you have to ink your finger so no one can vote twice.

Cori is excited... again.

One of the voting centers was held at a school... thus, tiny chairs.

Now all my grammatical errors are recorded for posterity.

For the very old, a little assistance is necessary.

Catie, our fearless leader.

Management had to come in and hold down the fort.

San José Las Flores says NO to projects of exploration and exploitation mining.

In case you can't tell, that first column is NO, the second column is YES. They're convinced the person who voted YES had dimentia.

Real fascinating stuff, I know.

They held up each vote as it was removed from the ballot box and showed it so everyone could see.

Press conference the next day to report on our findings. "It was a clean and transparent election, with an overwhelming majority against the mine."

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