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."

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Day In The Life

Yes, we are WAY overdue for some blog posts. Last time we checked in, I was slightly less-than-enthused about returning full speed back to El Salvador. Or, in the words of my very wise little brother, "the honeymoon period is over."

Since then, things have been looking pretty great. But rather than tell you, I figured the best way would be to just show you.

Memena welcomes me back to El Salvador with an appropriate bouquet of vegetables... cilantro, brcooli, red pepper... the woman knows me so well.

Sorry folks. Nothing but blue skies and sunshine down here... hearing tales of Buffalo's horror 6-8ft simply makes me chuckle.

A good friend from capoeira moved to the United States a few weeks ago, and in his honor, some buddies through him a going away party ("despedida"). But not just any despedida... oh no. This is a part thrown by professional chefs, which means of all things, homemade sushi.

But seriously... homemade sushi.

Burro, in green, is one of the masterminds behind the whole affair. He also happens to be my neighbor... you might want to get a napkin to wipe that drool off your chin.

So this happened.

And this (that green spiral is perfectly prepared cucumber art)

And that was all she wrote...

This month Cristosal had two extraordinary staff additions with Susana Barrera (left) and Celia Medrano (right) joining the ranks. It is such an inspiration to be able to work alongside both Celia and Susana. Every day I learn more and more about the type of human rights advocate, and even the kind of woman, I want to be by watching them.

I also had my first gig as a professional translator! Here is a group working with CRISPAZ, a solidarity NGO here in El Salvador, with the two board members I translated for. What a neat opportunity to get to know another organization's work, and do good at the same time.

 What a small world it is! David Boeri from WBUR, NPR's Boston member station (and my go-to choice for Mass Pike traffic) came to El Salvador to speak with Cristosal staff on our work related to protecting victims of forced displacement caused by violence. I have no shame in admitting I was COMPLETELY star struck.

And the latest staff photo... that's all for now with more to come! 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Home Sweet Home?

In many ways you'd think coming back for a second year would be easier than the first. My clothes are already put away, I know my way around, my stomach is accustomed to the everyday bugs. But these first two weeks back have been the most difficult since I first arrived in San Salvador over a year ago.

The big difference is how much I'm willing to let myself fail. I remember when I first arrived. Every moment was unique. It was beautiful. It was a learning opportunity. I was risking something extraordinary, and so every success was a celebration, every setback a sign of positive change, of moving forward.

Despite my latest blog post, I have not been treating this second year as separate. I go to work at Cristosal with the highest of expectations. I come home and move on to the next thing - jump back into capoeira, clean my room, meet the roommates, go on adventures, re-embrace the Salvadoran diet, have everything handled. And predictably, it's exhausting.

I remember sitting in the sunshine during my first week in El Salvador, holding a small bowl of yogurt and fresh papaya. I remember savoring this odd, new fruit, and just listening, watching the flowers in the garden, feeling the warmth on my skin in the middle of October. I remember feeling filled up.

Now that I have a routine, places to be, things to do (and no "excuse" to slow down, to take things slow) those moments are few and far between. And now the trick is going to be to learn how to give myself the same grace period without the wonderful excuse of I just moved to a new country.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Faith and Reason

Last Sunday I was in Seattle for Cristosal’s Executive Committee meeting. We were hosted by St. Thomas in Medina, where the Rev. Lex Breckenridge spoke during the Sunday forum about the intersection of religion and science. Lex was one of the first folks to open my eyes beyond gut reactions to words like conversion, transformation, even Jesus. To the idea that these are just words, and spirituality is a personal experience, and therefore a personal interpretation of what we want those words to mean to us. They can be offensive, neutral, healing, transformative, challenging… it’s up to you.
 Much of this past year has been a personal journey to unify three seemingly disparate worlds that I walk in: the lofty scientific, the inner spiritual, and the very real lived experience of Cristosal’s human rights work with marginalized communities in El Salvador.
 Lex highlighted the problem that when we choose between scienceor religion, we hold these fields to a moral ideal, an absolute standard as the answer. Yet both are flawed: technological innovation brings us nanotechnology and the hydrogen bomb, religion inspired the globe-shifting acts of both Martin Luther King and the Crusades. To pursue one without the other (faith without reason, reason without faith) is to lose those checks and balances that mean we make choices for the benefit of others, not solely ourselves.
DSCN1363 DSCN1358
  One of my favorite philosophers says that change happens when we look at the world as it is, and compare it to way we think it should be. And that starts with recognizing that we don’t truly understand the world as it is. Lex highlighted recent studies in quantum physics showing that our world does not operate as mechanistically as we’d like to believe. Quantum particles, separated over light years, continue to have an inexplicable influence over one another, to be connected despite every basic law that would suggest otherwise.
I moved to El Salvador with the understanding that reason alone would not allow me to understand the world, nor give me the complete skill set I needed to change it. One of the great opportunities of working with Cristosal is the opportunity to understand human rights in a faith-based context. I’ve realized that our work is truly an expression of faith – a belief that all humans are created equal in dignity and rights. We then take that belief and design programs to ensure it is upheld in realty. Which quickly becomes a very messy, and very human, process. And through that experience, I have made a very calculated, and very comforting deduction. It cannot be done alone.
In a culture where we value individual achievement beyond all else, I (like those quantum physicists) have come to the conclusion that nothing exists in isolation. Whether we pursue a better life, a better world, through science or faith (and any other field besides), we will find that nothing can be achieved without the other.
A dear friend of mine Ashley Cameron, who just returned from her YASC year in the Philippines, sent me this quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu that sums it up perfectly:
“A person is a person through other persons. None of us comes into the world fully formed. We would not know how to think, or walk, or speak, or behave as human beings unless we learned it from other human beings. We need other human beings in order to be human. I am because other people are.”
Noah, Lex, and I outside of St. Thomas
I return to El Salvador on Monday for my second year with YASC. Though there are arbitrary date markers of start and stop, this year will continue as a process, a continuously evolving product of the relationships I share and the conversations we have together. Thank you to all of you who have been a part of that incredible process so far, and I hope you will continue to join me in the year to come.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Las Bravas Noticias - Post #1

(This is an old post that somehow got lost amid the travel and the crazy. Apologies!)

Post: September 27th

I spent the past week in Syracuse, NY - my first time up to this glorious upstate hermitage (also home to the great orange and black, but we'll ignore that for now). I saw a Wegman's for the first time, I met an ex-ambassador, I gave several lectures, I bought my first suit, and while doing all these wild and scary things, I was very, very far away from the people who otherwise support me and tell me it will all be ok... my family, my boyfriend, my friends, my mentor.

It was just me.

And that's the first time that's really happened before. I've always had others to mentor me, give feedback, tell me what's right, what's wrong, where the boundaries are, someone to fall back on, someone I know will catch me if I screw it all up. But this time, there were no dear friends as I pushed onwards unto the breach. I just had to inhale deep, cross my fingers, and in the words of my favorite high school teacher, fake it 'til you make it.

So that's why Las Noticias Bravas, right? 'Cause it means brave?

Actually no. Nice try though.

When I attended my first Episcopal service in Spanish, they didn't translate "the good news" as las buenas noticias, but rather la buena nueva. Not news like newspapers, but "new" as in fresh, never-done-before, hot-off-the-presses. I always thought "the good news" was like the Jesus version of extra, extra, read all about it... Jesus has come, he's got some good stuff to say, so listen up.

But no, in Spanish we get this whole new thing. La Buena Nueva - like a fresh horizon, a fall-out type tidal wave of invisible karma that washes the world clean. I imagine people sitting in the aftermath of the shockwave, simply pausing, observing their surroundings, and smiling a rich, deep smile. They had smiled before, but the richness of a new experience, of a new perspective, of a new hope, makes the everday fresh and bright.

Still, I wasn't about to call my blog post La Buena Nueva. (I think that not-so-subtely would imply that I am the bearer of the Gospel via blog... let me set the record straight... this ain't no Gospel). So I kept googling Spanish adjectives until I came toLas Bravas Noticias - a term used in a Brazilian newspaper as slang to refer to the messages, the gossip, the propoganda passed within a company. Like the inside scoop - the dirty, gritty, security clearance type stuff. Plus it's from Brazil... do you know anything from Brazil that isn't awesome? The correct answer is não (pronounced "now" ironically enough).

So welcome to Las Noticias Bravas - an inside look at the year to come. I could call it a second year, but already I know that would be inaccurate. The next 365 days will in no way replicate the past 365 days, and I in no way can prepare you for what will come (because I certainly don't know myself). You might just have to sit back and follow along for the ride...

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Home Again Home Again Lickety Split

Yes, this post is a tad overdue.

I've been home for about a week and change. That strange title you see above is a darling phrase of my mother's. For the first time in a year, I can use it and no one looks at me like I'm a crackpot. Ok, that's not true. But fewer people look at me like I'm a crackpot.

Rather than postpone the inevitable, waiting for some lightning of inspiration or insight to strike and perfectly sum up my YASC year into a Nobel-worthy oration of Hemingway proportions, I have finally succumbed to the basic fact that such a thing does not exist. And whatever I write will just have to do (it is September for goodness sakes).

Also, SPOILER ALERT. I'm staying a second year. I return on October 20th to San Salvador, and until then, I am making the most hodgepodge route across both coasts sharing Cristosal's work (on a map it looks like very enthuasiastic but very drunk hopscotch).

So, how was it? That's like asking how it was to be a teenager. So if I give you a deer-in-the-headlights expression, it's not you, it's me. Because it is very difficult to sum up what has so far been the greatest and, I would say, most influential experience of my life, not because of one pivotal moment, but because the whole is greater than the sum of each individual part. And you don't realize that until you land in the United States, and like the Millennium Falcoln dropping you off on your home planet, after the rush of wind and debris, you look at your surroundings and think, well that was sweet.

Unfortunately, I suppose sweet isn't a great summary, nor does it do jutice to Cristosal, my friends, or even to me. The grand moral of the story is I left to be a concrete part of, participant in, and contributor to global justice. And I wanted, at the end of my year, to have a far mor specific and personal understanding of just what this "global justice" thing really is.

And I feel deeply blessed to have found that place. I fill a role in Cristosal that allows me to engage with, contribute to, and to be taught by a truly unique group of individuals that are, in many ways singlehandedly, reshaping the way we think about mission and citizen engagement in Central and North America. Though Noah (Exec. Director boss-man) warned me we would fail 9 times out of 10, I showed up just in time to witness that elusive number #10, Edison's 2,000th try at the carbonized cotton filament lightbulb.

When the child migrant crisis hit, I like most North Americans had that deep blow to the intestine somewhere above the belly button that went something like this, "How aful! What do we do? Someone tell me what to do!" In moments of crisis, we need people with that very rare combination of skill, experience, vision, connections, and a stubborn-bar-nothing will to never give up. In my own unbiased way, I say that is exactly what Cristosal represents. The ability to transform first-hand experiences with victims of violence in El Salvador to a regional strategy with the potential to save lives and demand good governance, all the while empowering state actors rather than take center stage... this is an art form, a dance both carefully choreographed and oxymoronically (yes it's a word) open to improvisation, and I have a VIP pass. No scratch that, I get to be on stage too. 

That's what sweet means. (If you want to learn more about Cristosal's strategy to address the child migrant crisis, please email me at, check out our website at and sign up for the monthly newsletter).

Another thing you can do is... drum roll... DONATE! As you might have guessed, second year with the Young Adult Service Corps = fundraising. But there's good news! Only $8,000 this year, to pay for stipend (food and liquids), safety considerations, housing, flights... you know the drill. 

In all seriousness, and with as much humility as possible, I am asking you to consider giving to support my second YASC year, and another 365 days with Cristosal. The last 365 days have given me a deep and inescapable love for El Salvador, which at the end of the day, I think is more valuable than any amount of correctly conjugated verbs or points on a resume. Because I now know how to be in El Salvador, how to speak to someone in such a way tthat hey feel respected, honored, and comfortable enough to work with me as an equal, and not just a crazy volunteer gringa.

If you donated last year, please consider giving the same amount (plus $25 for you over-achievers). If you did not give last year, there’s no time like the present! Please visit Cristosal’s website at (your gift will be designated to support me) or mail a check to:

Foundation Cristosal
Memo: Hannah Perls YASC
9641 Carousel Center Drive
Syracuse, NY 13290

As they say in El Salvador, "Thank you for reading me."

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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