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.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

When Immigration Hits Home

At least 120 unaccompanied children are crossing the U.S. southern border every day. This surge is fueled by “increased violence in Central America, the desire to reunify with parents and false rumors circulating in their homelands that unaccompanied children can stay indefinitely in the United States” according to a recent LA Times article. Most of these children come from the Northern Cone of Central America: Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. I hear this stats daily as part of my work with Cristosal’s Human Rights Office, which is the only institution in El Salvador to provide legal advising and assistance to those fleeing situations of violence in country. Until this Sunday, however, those words barely hit home. But after visiting Abbott House, that all changed.

I am in Tarrytown, NY with Susan and David Copley from Christ Episcopal Church. As part of our visit here, Susan brought us to Abbott House, a center where the State Department sends unaccompanied minors caught at the border after spending a week or more in detention centers. When we arrived, there were 19 young boys between the ages of 11 and 18 (though many appeared much younger), playing soccer, running around in flip-flops or waddling around in tennis shoes without shoelaces and too-big basketball shorts. Later we found out the detention center in Texas intentionally removed all their shoelaces and drawstrings so the boys don’t use them to commit suicide.

During the small Sunday service Susan led, we bore witness to the unbelievable dual reality these boys live. At face value, you would think we were in latino summer camp… until they started to tell their stories. One young man, smiling at me, explained his story in Spanish with awkward mannerisms so akin to that of my own 16-year old brother. He had traveled from Honduras alone to the U.S. in the hands of a coyote, then caught at the border he was placed into a windowless jail cell for 11 days, never seeing the sun, sleeping on the floor with one meal a day consisting of white bread and butter. This boy is barely 16. He was not allowed to contact his family in Honduras or the United States during this time. Then he jumped on a plane for the first time in his life to fly to New York (though his father is in New Orleans), which is how he happened to be sitting across from me. Noah and the boy talked back and forth until we asked why he had come. The boy just smiled awkwardly and shook his head. He didn’t want to answer that question.

As a part of the service Susan led for the boys, she asked them what they were thankful for (para qué damos gracias?). One by one, eyes closed and brows furrowed in concentration with hands clasped at their chests as they knelt on the cheap carpet, the boys chimed in: the health of my family, the staff at Abbott House, having passed through to the States safely, mi Mama, mi Papa... And I bit my lip as hard as I could to keep tears from flowing down my face, filled with anger, despair, and disbelief.

Saul Alinsky said action happens when we see the world as it is, and compare it to the world as we think it should be. No child should ever have to leave their family, no child should ever be forced to fend for themselves at 11, nor sit in a jail cell wondering if someone is waiting for them on the other side. It is unbelievable, yet it happens. By the tens of thousands, it happens. And there is something we can all do, even if it simply means reading that next New York Times article from start to finish. Or in my case, to return to my work at Cristosal with renewed purpose and vigor, supporting organizations like Abbott House who provide these young men with the basic services and care that they so desperately deserve, and those like Cristosal that seek to directly address those problems which had them flee in the first place.

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