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More Students Reflections
By Alexandra Vasquez · Casa Fall 2013
It takes only a few moments spent with Angelica to realize the magnitude of this woman’s inner fortitude and strength of spirit. She is the rock of her family-both immediate and extended-that lives in the cantón of La Javia, Tepecoyo. It is difficult in words to describe what Angelica Portillo does for her community, it goes far beyond the reaches of providing food for the children; she is the embodiment of accompaniment in her manner of interacting with community members. She is always willing to lend a helping hand, a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold, and her heart to listen.
La Javia is a small cantón in the municipality of Tepecoyo, before recently, La Javia was a mostly agricultural community in which most families (including Angelica’s) harvested coffee and corn to earn income to survive. With the collapse of the price of coffee however, this form of income earning is not nearly enough. This left many, many families in La Javia unable to work and therefore unable to provide for their families. This is where a need became present, child malnutrition became-and continues to be-a major issue in this community. Malnutrition on its own was not the only issue, however, as the lack of food began to affect the children’s performance in school.
Where a need created a hole in the community, Angelica saw it as her purpose to fill that need. In the early 2000s she was working as a community health promoter on a volunteer basis when she noticed a large number of children in her immediate surrounding community that needed just the most basic nutrition, many didn’t eat anything but rice, beans, and tortillas. Being the innovative and driven woman she is, Angelica looked for resources to be able to provide the nutrition for these children, even though she on her own did not have abundant financial resources. She teamed up with the Sisters of Charity whom gave her the initial economic investment to start up a comedor that would not only provide children with nutrition but provide their mothers with the opportunity to have a space to work together and discuss the issues plaguing their community. This continued for a good while, but eventually the financial support from the sisters was no longer available. Unfortunately, the comedor was inoperable for a while even though there were many children who still had this need.
Angelica never gave up hope, however, and around 2007 the comedor opened once again with the help of a Casa Alum who donated enough money to buy the supplies necessary to start up again. This is where Angelica finds herself now, relying on outside donations to run the comedor. This doesn’t dampen the fire burning inside her though, she is constantly looking for ways to make the comedor more sustainable-not for her sake but for the sake of the children. Providing nutrition for the children in her community is one of Angelica’s greatest joys in life, she says that it is what motivates her every morning to seguir adelante: the hope that what she does will positively impact her community and empower the children in La Javia.
Martyrs, Las Nubes, and Light
By Emily Landes · Current Casa student from Marquette University
Each of us held up a candle and together we walked through the streets of the UCA to remember the martyrs. Standing on a hill for a moment, I looked down below me and a river of light beamed in the darkness. All around me were people who gathered from different corners of the world to remember this dark time in the history of El Salvador, when eight people were killed for intensely loving those on the margins and refusing to compromise their mission and abandon the oppressed. In this moment I felt a genuine solidarity and community with people gathering year after year to refute this message of violence and to keep living the message of the martyrs. Earlier in the week during spirituality night we reflected on the meaning of the word martyr and where we see martyrs in our experience. For me, a martyr is a person with steadfast conviction, a person wholeheartedly devoted to creating a new reality in which those who are oppressed are no longer cast from society, a person who is able to still love the marginalized even in the face of personal danger.
In my praxis experience I have been searching for light and hope in the midst of suffocating poverty. In the time I have spent in Las Nubes I have desperately wanted to understand what motivates the people in this community to continuously live lives of generous love and warmth while they live on the edge. The women especially inspire and challenge me to question reality and to be angered by it. I have witnessed them in their daily routines of making tortillas, washing clothes, hauling water, taking care of children, and never seeming to tire of this way of living out their days. The gender roles and machismo have never been so evident in my personal experience as I have seen in El Salvador and in Las Nubes. The lack of encouragement for intelligent young girls to go to school, the way children are raised from a young age to continue sexism, the expectations for women, and the acceptance of this social hierarchy has been one of the greatest challenges for me in these three months. But the love these women have for three American girls who struggle with Spanish, for their children, family, neighbors, and spouses has shown me a new meaning of martyrdom. These women are not recognized for their ability to live each day with graciousness, warmth, and humility and I will continue to be inspired by them in ways that I never will be by other martyrs, because they will not be recognized for their sacrifices in a march that draws thousands of people. In addition to the martyrs of the UCA, truly wonderful and inspirational people, I held up my candle for the women of Las Nubes, and women everywhere whose strength and compassion will not be recognized.
Today in praxis I saw light in Las Nubes. Electricity has come to this community for the first time. During my praxis week I felt like I had never experienced darkness before spending a night in Las Nubes but now they will be protected from the night. I cannot help but wonder what changes this might bring to Las Nubes in the future and the ways that this investment in the community will ripple in their lives and give hope to these people who are immersed in the reality of suffering and poverty. I have trouble imagining what it means for the people of Las Nubes to have lived their life with electricity and to suddenly be able to turn on a light, to live a life where little ever changes to seeing such a spectacular transformation overnight. For me it has helped me find hope. Change is possible. And I have seen it within myself as well. After lunch this week my praxis coordinator Hector asked us how we have changed in these three months. I said that I am starting to grow in conviction, that I have more confianza in myself. And he agreed. As I live into this reality and this experience I am starting to see the light and love of the martyrs being manifested in daily acts of sacrifice and courage. Although the reality is difficult and constantly challenges me, I find hope in these moments of light and strength to continue to engage these questions in an attitude of solidarity.
Since the beginning of the semester, the loving and generous Salvadorans I have been accompanying in the community of Mariona have continued to say, “Somos familia.” We are family. Somos familia is an invitation for me to be open, to build relationships, and to allow my community here in El Salvador to be home for me. I had the opportunity to spend an entire week at my praxis site (usually I am only there on Mondays and Wednesdays). By the end of the week, I truly felt that Somos familia isn’t just a phrase of hospitality, it speaks to the reality of the relationships that I have been developing here over the past 2 months.
It was such a joyful, challenging, and grace-filled experience for me to participate in the daily life of one of my praxis families. I spent the week with Lolo and Aida, and their two daughters, María José, who is eight-years-old, and Karen, who is ten-years-old. Some of the most meaningful time that we shared was during meals. Most mornings, Aida and I shared a classic Salvadoran breakfast of beans, eggs, tortillas, and coffee, while Lolo took the girls to school. I cherished these breakfasts; they were a wonderful way to begin the day and spend more time getting to know Aida. Family dinners were also so precious. We usually shared a simple meal of beans, rice, tortillas vegetables, and fruit, and the simple actions of eating together and conversing about the day made me really feel like part of the family.
In the evenings after dinner, Lolo, Aida, and I spent time chatting and relaxing before going to bed. On two evenings, Lolo and Aida each shared the stories of their lives with me. Everything that I have been learning about El Salvador—the injustices and violence committed against the poor, the suffering of the civil war, and how communities have continued to struggle and move forward—became even more real and present to me through Lolo and Aida’s stories. They were both refugees during the war after escaping from areas of the country where the Salvadoran military, supported by the US, committed intense repression and massacres. Their stories are stories of suffering, but also of great hope and faith. Learning more about their lives, their love for each other, and how they continue to struggle and sacrifice for their family was so deeply moving. Their openness and willingness to include me in their family continues to fill me with gratitude that we are accompanying each other over these 4 months. I feel excited to continue investing and seeing how my relationships at praxis and in community will deepen during the second half of the semester—the best is yet to come!
I’ll end with this quote from Jon Sobrino, a Salvadoran Jesuit theologian. I feel like it captures much of was so sacred and impactful for me during the week at my praxis site.
By Catherine Rose Grimes · Current Casa student from Santa Clara University
This past week, all the Casa students were detached from our middle-class lifestyle of Antiguo Cuscatlán to enter into an attachment to special families in different rural communities. Living without electricity and running water in shack homes on a volcano, I stepped into the Salvadoran reality of extreme poverty. For a week, I witnessed many people in the area of Las Nubes, even strong old women in their 80s, who carry firewood, water jugs on their heads, and baskets of corn and coffee beans from local fields. Receiving ridiculously low wages, they work so hard to pay for their needs. Yet in the midst of these physical struggles, it is absolutely incredible when all of the families support one another as one big community by sharing food, supplies, and confianza (both trust and pure love). In addition to my observations, I have enjoyed physically accompanying the families such as listening to their testimonies, sharing smiles and laughs, taking trips to local water tanks, washing dishes with them, shucking corn off the cobs, and making pupusas (thick corn tortillas with beans and cheese inside). Spending six consecutive nights at my praxis site, as opposed to my bi-weekly day visits, has given me a more thorough experience of what life is like in such poverty.
But how am I suppose to feel about that week? Guilty for my privileged American lifestyle? A desire to fix all of their problems? How does this relate to my future goals? I definitely have more questions than answers about the world of the poor and its connection to me. However, these healthy feelings of curiosity or frustration help me to reflect and then to develop a broader perspective on past and current situations. One of the most important lessons I have learned during praxis week is having genuine and authentic relationships. These relationships incorporate a Salvadoran "confianza" with actions of honesty, openness, and vulnerability toward family and friends.
This past week, I have been honored and immensely grateful to be in the presence of the families of Las Nubes, and to also be a witness to their incomprehensive struggles to survive. These families have generously taken me into their homes as one of their children. Before going, I was a bit nervous about how they would react toward a white, blond-haired American girl with a different culture. Yet, I was quickly welcomed with warm hugs of friendship. Their infectious love fills me with joy and inspires me to live in ways that are life giving.
Over the course of these four months in El Salvador, I hope to make more sense of my difficult questions and experiences as pieces of my life puzzle.
Exploring El Salvador
by Ian Layton
This past week has been incredible and filled with exciting and insightful experiences. Our group split up and ventured in many different directions for our free weekend. With me, were the CC’s and a few other students.
We travelled to Playa El Tunco, which is situated about 45 minutes south of San Salvador. We arrived at 8 in the morning and were met with rain, and a grey sky. However, the waves were incredible, and it was more or less completely emptied of tourists. Our group situated ourselves at a hotel and restaurant that was up on the cliff. The view was tranquil, and there was a small pool that sat right at the edge. It was a paradise, and all we had to do was buy a few teas and coffees to be able to spend time there.
A few of us rented boards and attempted surfing. The swell in El Salvador is world-renowned. There are three different breaks at El Tunco. One was for experienced surfers only. I attempted to catch a wave there, but was too rusty and got worn out within 20 minutes. As I walked to the point break, which was much more manageable for someone with my skill level, I saw Joe and Gianni catching a couple waves off of the beach break. It was awesome to see them going for it.
We moved to another restaurant and played cards and had some fun for a few hours. Then some of us paddled back out. I had a lot more luck in the afternoon, being fortunate enough to have a solid number of long rides. It was one of the best days of surfing I have had in years, at a beautiful location. The view from the ocean toward the landscape was breathtaking. Mist was weaving in and out of the lush mountainous crevices. I felt fortunate to be a tourist that day, but thought about how unfortunate it is that many of El Salvador’s poor do not get the chance to spend time at the beach as it is a daily struggle to come up with enough income to feed their families.
The other group of explorers went on a two-day trip out to Juayúa. There they went on hikes, discovering lush forests and elegant waterfalls. In addition, they indulged in some local shopping and dining. The pictures made me jealous that I wasn’t able to visit Juayúa.
The weekend was definitely needed for us to recharge and get ready for our upcoming week at our praxis sites. Judging from a few conversations I have had with other students, the general sentiment is excitement. We are all looking forward to full immersion, but there is also a sense of uncertainty. It will be a week full of challenges and intense insights into the lives of those we have been getting to know. I think that we are also realizing how different and difficult it will be to be separated from each other for a whole week. I guess that is a testament to how close we all are to each other. For this, I feel very fortunate.
May I also add that here at the Casa, our days are packed full of activities and class. Just after I wrote this weekly report, our History class had a two-hour session with a retired soldier who was a member of the Atlacatl military group. It was infamous for the massacres it carried out against the Salvadoran people, and members of the FMLN. Moments like these remind you of how incredibly confusing and complicated the situation was here. Someone who you had pictured as a bloodthirsty killing machine, appears in front of you as a gentle human being, who was caught up in a situation greater than himself. It reminds us of how every person entangled in a war suffers, no matter which side they are fighting for.
"La Memoria Histórica"
By Sean Orr · Current Casa student from Marquette University
A phrase often-mentioned by community organizers and activists in this country, la memoria histórica refers to the absolute importance of holding onto the struggles, hopes, and pains of el pueblo, the people of El Salvador. To never forget the massacres, the martyrs, and the devastation reaped upon a people who simply wanted a better world to live in. It is for this reason that, when you visit the homes of many Salvadorans, their walls are decorated with images of the martires – Archbishop Óscar Romero; Fr. Rutilio Grande, or any of the other priests assassinated by the government; local FMLN comandantes killed in combat; or simply local youth who were dragged from their homes in the middle of the night to meet a gruesome death in some unknown place.
More than 70,000 people lost their lives during the “official” civil war from 1981 to 1992, yet many thousands more were slain before the guerrillas launched their first offensive, executed by a government fearful of losing its decades-long hold on power. To raise your voice, to express the inherent power of the people, was a death sentence in the 1970s, and yet thousands of campesinos, workers, women, and students continued to speak up against the injustices that plagued their society. For many that we have visited and heard the testimonies of, the civil war did not begin in 1981; their civil war began in the 1970s when the government turned their guns on their own people.
This weekend, our group visited Chalatenango, a departamento of rolling green mountains, stunning views, and clear rivers, but also a departamento that suffered greatly at the hands of the Salvadoran military. We get divided up to stay at the homes of several bacarios – Salvadoran scholarship students with whom we live in community – to spend a day and a night with their families in order to better understand their reality. My group stayed at the home of Victor, in the small town of Guarjila. His parents and cousins greeted us warmly, and we enjoyed some great meals and lessons about life in Guarjila from them.
The towns of Chalatenango and their residents were victims of the armed forces’ scorched earth campaign during the civil war – in order to eliminate any potential support for the guerrillas, the military would surround towns, bomb them, and then move in and kill anything living that they could find. Women, children, the elderly, and even babies were not spared. This left the population few options – hide in the mountains and try to survive on whatever could be found; stay in the town and accept whatever happens; or flee to neighboring Honduras and find shelter in a refugee camp. For Victor’s parents, this final option became their reality for years, as they and thousands of others were confined in inhumane conditions by the Salvadoran-allied Honduran military.
But if there’s one thing that the Salvadoran people are, it is resilient. In the early 1970s, a newly-awakened Catholic Church brought the spark of organizing – of collective power – into the barrios and cantones of El Salvador, igniting a social movement that created such fear in the ruling class that there was no hesitation to unleash the military forces of the government upon the majority of the population. This spark is what turned many poor men and women into guerrillas seeking to transform their country, and it was this spark that repaired much of the country following the Chapultepec Peace Accords of 1992.
In Guarjila, the people that repopulated the town – including Victor’s parents – came together under the mantra of working together for the benefit of everyone. They started by clearing the remains of the town of undetonated bombs, and then proceeded to create some semblance of a decent life for the residents. New houses were built, a free communally-run health clinic was established, and many families were given enough land to be able to feed them for the entire year. In many ways, life in Guarjila seemed better than what we have seen in the San Salvador area, where many poor people are forced to work in the massive coffee farms and factories to scrape together enough money for food.
After spending the night at Victor’s home, we woke up at 5:30am to see the sun rise from a corn patch on the side of a mountain and went for a peaceful swim in a nearby river. Saying goodbye to his amazing parents, we all went and met up with the rest of the Casa group and drove up to Arcatao, a small town a mountain away from the Honduran border. We stayed at a retreat center dedicated to preserving la memoria histórica of the people’s struggles in Arcatao during the war, as well as the memory of the Massacre of Sumpul. In 1980, more than 600 civilians were slaughtered in a joint offensive by the Salvadoran and Honduran militaries. Salvadoran soldiers poured down on those seeking refuge on the banks of the river, while Honduran soldiers gunned down entire families that tried to swim to safety across the Sumpul River that borders the two countries.
From Arcatao we went to Nueva Trinidad, a town built on the ruins of Trinidad following the repopulation of the area. There we met Julio, who, at the age of seven, witnessed the Massacre of Sumpul, during which he lost twenty members of his family. He told us in vivid detail what he saw with his seven-year-old eyes from his hiding place, how he heard women after women scream, “¡No somos guerrilleros!” as they watched their babies be bayoneted. He has dedicated his life to sharing la memoria histórica, to sharing his own story of unknowable pain, so that it may never happen again.
The pain of the stories sits with you. You cannot shake it – it demands to be shared, and those that committed these acts, in the name of “democracy” and “freedom” and “fighting Communism”, have to be held accountable. At least this was the message left with us by the community members of Nueva Trinidad, who spoke with hope that one day one of us would enter the U.S. government and stop it from arming militaries like the one that committed massacre after massacre in El Salvador. In Arcatao, the director of the retreat made sure to point out to us a collection of rusted bombshells and bullet cases in the museum they have. Made in the USA, and used against women and children.
The people of this country want to ignite you, want you to know their pain and their suffering, but they do not want you to wallow – they want you to struggle for the better world that so many died for in this country. That spark that ignited a flame in this country back in the 1970s, that ignites people in this country to this day, is being passed onto those of us that choose to accompany and choose to walk with el pueblo of El Salvador.
Learning about "happiness"
By Elizabeth Duff · Current Casa student from Boston College
Today was absolutely amazing. In fact, I have a new definition of happiness: the feeling of perfect contentedness that comes from the recognition that one is exactly where one is meant to be. That was my day today.
I will share my quote prematurely in this post, because it corresponds with a long conversation I had with our driver, Salvador, on our ride home form praxis today. “La vida es como una caja de chocolates. Nunca sabe lo que va a ser.” If I tell you that quote is from Forrest Gump, I bet even you non-Spanish speakers could figure it out.
I draw on this quote specifically today because we experienced surprise after surprise and could do nothing but roll with it. Our day started with our trek to Mercedes’s house up this awfully bumpy, narrow dirt road. About halfway there, we bumped into Mercedes riding in the back of a red pick-up truck. “Vamos!” she yelled. “Vamos al mercado” (we’re going to the market.) So Jen, Anna, and I looked at each other...and got in the truck; what else? So we’re bopping around in the back of the truck when Mercedes introduces us to this girl sitting in the front seat who’s from Guatemala. “Who is she?” we ask. “No sé,” she responds (I don’t know). She just needed a ride.
So we show up at a cultural art museum, ate pupusas and drank café with the ancianas (old ladies) there, and listened to their stories. One had shingles and the clinics kept giving her the wrong medication. One’s son went crazy and he won’t leave his room so she gives him plates of food through a hole in his bedroom wall. Another’s husband spent every last penny she had. But they were the sweetest little things every. They blessed me so many times I almost feel holy.
And then we left and meandered around the municipality. We went to the mayor’s office because Mercedes had to get some paperwork signed for a rally she’s organizing next Thursday to protest a car battery recycling factory that’s polluting the air and causing a lot of illness (I think we’re going to try and go), then we went to a library and listened to how sex ed is approached in the school, did puzzles with kids, went to the market and ate questionable chicken soup that was delicious, went to the agricultural center and waited as Mercedes helped a man recently deported apply for a loan so he could own a small plot of land to grow corn for himself, ate the most delicious pan dulce de plátano, and finally went and got another cup of café with Mercedes and listened to her tell us her life story about how her husband left her with their 5 kids when they were little, didn’t give her any money, and she worked her whole life to put them through college.
She says it frustrates her when people ask her, “How do you have so much money? You have a nice house and your children have a good education.”
“I made sacrifices,” she said. “That’s how. For me, my children were always worth those sacrifices.” And then as I mentioned, on my way home from praxis I was talking with Salvador about social classes, laws, and taxes in El Salvador. Taxes here are determined by the neighborhood you live it. It seems to me that this only reaffirms the social and socioeconomic discrepancies that exist. It seems that the only way change here can be brought about is if the rich (which is .01% of the Salvadoran population) give up some of their privileges. Which is obviously the battle that has existed, without much movement forward, for generations.And today, we were planning on just hanging out with Mercedes, making pupusas and visiting people in the neighborhood. So obviously we got a small taste of this exciting life she has built for herself and her family, with a plan that is always changing. So many different flavors of chocolate.
“Let the poor break you, then let them heal you, and may your life be ruined forever…”
By Ali McCandless
As I read through my journal and my blog posts since being here, I am reminded of all that we have done since arriving here in El Salvador. From visiting everyone’s praxis sites to learning about the model and mission of Casa, there is no doubt that these last 2 weeks have been filled with change and intense emotions. Concrete changes for me would definitely be ridding myself of the things we take for granted in the States such as hot water and washing machines, so that we can really live in simplicity. At first, those were the things I did find difficult, but now I find the cold water refreshing and doing laundry as bonding opportunity with housemates.
I think it is safe to say that the intense emotions stem from the initial shock of the reality of El Salvador. And not only seeing it as the reality of the Salvadoran people, but the realization that because we will be here for four months, it will become our reality as well. One of the first nights here in El Salvador we were introduced to a very important man named Dean Brackley. Dean was a Jesuit priest who came to El Salvador to fill the spaces of the Jesuits who had been killed at the University of Central America. From that moment on he fell in love with the people of El Salvador. A man of much wisdom, he often told the students of the Casa program that “Let the poor break you, then let them heal you, and may your life be ruined forever…” This insight is something that will stay in my heart and in of those in our group as well.
Upon reflecting on this quote, it has come alive here the first two weeks here in El Salvador. One moment that I felt my heart breaking, yet slowly healing through the hope of a family we visited in Zacamíl, I witnessed the incredible faith present in this country. We met Giovanni, who 4 years ago was paralyzed due to an accident at his job in the Nestle factory where he was left for dead and following received inadequate medical attention. Instead of becoming depressed and wallowing in self-pity, he paints beautiful pictures while holding a paintbrush in his mouth. His mother, Daysi shared her testimony about this accident as well. She spoke of how hard it was for her while her son was enduring so much pain. But she persisted and visited him everyday. While sharing this experience with us, she kept repeating "Y Dios siempre estaba..."- and God was always there. Each time she said it I felt my heart breaking deeper and deeper. I then looked down at my mustard seed necklace that I received in 5th grade at bible study. The significance of the mustard seed comes from Matthew 17:20- "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can move this mountain this mountain from here to there and it will move. Nothing is impossible with God." At that moment, I got up took off my necklace and put it on her neck. God has really moved mountains for me to be in this country and nothing is impossible with him. I pray that she continues to be a testament to faith, as her and Giovanni “siguen adelante”—a Salvadoran phrase that means moving forward and is an expression of hope.