Friending in El Salvador and Tanzania: An Education in Solidarity

by Hilary Titus '11 |

Tuesday, November 2, 2010, the Day of the Dead, I stood among the hundreds of burial plots in a cemetery in Ayutuxtepeque, San Salvador, surrounded by what seemed like thousands of joyful families who had come to celebrate their late loved ones. I anxiously hoped I wasn’t unwittingly standing on top of any of the crowded graves.

The atmosphere was gay, but our party could not be. My friend Iberica had lost her baby girl eight months into her first pregnancy.

When I met Iberica, she was just pregnant enough that I knew I could ask her the due date—it would be right around the time I would be leaving four months later. Every day, I wondered whether or not I would be able to meet this new baby. We talked about her checkups, her impending motherhood, everything.

We weren’t going to have time to visit Iberica’s house that Monday, but I suddenly had an urge to check on her. Excitedly, I stomped down the uneven earthen stairs to her home, but I only saw her younger sister, Oneyda. Something was wrong, and I began to run. We held each other and cried while she told me what she knew. The baby was gone. Iberica wasn’t well.

I didn’t know what I could do. Visit the hospital? Go to the vigil that night? I made calls all evening and found out we could attend the funeral if we wanted. I didn’t know what I would say. I didn’t know if I would bring the right flowers or wear the right clothes. But I had to go. Of course I would be there. It was all I could do.

I was in it with Iberica, of course not the way she was, not the way her family was, or the way I might be if I had been there longer or spoken her language fluently, but I was sharing with her in this life-shocking moment. This was accompaniment, a relationship of mutuality, solidarity.

I must admit, I did not choose Santa Clara for its Jesuit values. I don’t come from a Catholic background and four years ago I could not have told you what made a Jesuit education different from any other. I now, however, can only express profound gratitude for my very Jesuit education. As I recently wrote in my graduation announcements, I would not be who I am today without those Jesuit values which have become the most entirely life-changing aspect of my time at Santa Clara University.

I came to Santa Clara looking for the “typical” college experience. It took me about two months to realize that wasn’t what I was in for. My Western Culture class with Jesuit Michael McCarthy fostered such spirited discussion about the enduring questions of humanity that conversations spilled out of the classroom door with us to lunch and into our evening conversations. Outside the classroom, a friend invited me to his residence hall’s Tuesday Night Liturgies, where I found a space where spirituality intersected with our daily lives. I also found the question that would shape my years at Santa Clara and probably my whole life: What does it mean to live in solidarity?

Photo courtesy of Hilary Titus


I must admit, I did not choose Santa Clara for its Jesuit values. But now, four years later, I have profound gratitude for my very Jesuit education. I would not be who I am today without those Jesuit values which have become the most entirely life-changing aspect of my time at Santa Clara University.

I had never heard that word, solidarity, before coming to Santa Clara. I wasn’t exactly sure what it meant; I certainly wasn’t sure what it looked like in action. At first, I was too embarrassed to ask about it. It seemed to be part of the accepted vocabulary on campus. Naturally, I became incredibly curious.

So how did I get to that cemetery in San Salvador? After two years of participating in Campus Ministry’s Simple Meals (modeled after Catholic Relief Services’ Simple Meals), conversations with friends off to serve with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, and an immersion experience in San Francisco that left me reeling and confused about how to discard those notions of otherness, July 2009 found me packing my bags for Tanzania. Backed with a Jean Donovan Fellowship,(1) I set off determined to come home well versed on this whole idea of living in solidarity.

While I was there, I learned that some of the student’s fathers had eight or ten wives and up to 80 children but only six cows. Another student listed “digging to find food” as one of his daily chores. I found out that my favorite student, Anna, was only one among many whose parents died when she was very young, probably of AIDS; so she now shared her modest cot with three younger cousins. But in six weeks I visited one student’s home. I didn’t learn about all of their histories or spend time with their families. Their reality was tragic—but ultimately abstract. I came home even more uncertain about solidarity than when I had left.

I knew I couldn’t give up on this journey. If anything, the questions pursued me more doggedly than ever. I decided to spend the fall of my senior year in El Salvador with Santa Clara’s study abroad program, La Casa de la Solidaridad.(2)

In the first few weeks, I wasn’t sure El Salvador would break my heart the way Dean Brackley, S.J. (faculty member at the Universidad Centroamericana), told us it would, the way I’d hoped it would. I didn’t know if this time would be any different, if I would actually experience solidarity. I had no idea how completely, down to their very foundations, my walls of misconception and separation would be pulled apart. I didn’t foresee the bonds of love, acceptance, and shared struggle. I was wrong: My heart was broken by the people of El Salvador, and friends like Iberica helped me enter into friendships of accompaniment and mutuality that before I’d thought were only some kind of faraway hope.



Hilary with Anna, student at Orkeeswa Secondary School, Tanzania. Photo courtesy of Hilary Titus

I have Salvadoran friends and family. I don’t understand what they’ve lived through, but I love them and they love me. I will never fully understand their reality. I can learn about it, I can listen to them talk about it, I can accompany them through it, but it will never be mine. Iberica had to walk forty minutes down a volcano in labor, ride on a public bus to the hospital, only to face giving birth to a baby who had already died, on whom the doctors could run no diagnostics. They were unable to tell her what had happened to the baby she had felt kicking just days before. For me, I know that if I ever become pregnant, anything less than the best health care seems an unlikely possibility. Yet she and my other Salvadoran friends want to share their lives with me, and I am trying with them.

Superior General Adolfo Nicolás, S.J., is right. In this information age, we, especially those in my generation, are tempted more than ever to stay on the surface. Everyone can make their voice heard, but instantaneous response is often the medium. We are in need of constant stimulation, but it’s often the type of stimulation that keeps us insulated from the realities of the world rather than engaged in them, and it certainly doesn’t leave us with much time to reflect or delve deep. Even as I wrote this article, I couldn’t help but periodically check Facebook, Twitter, and news accounts on the military action in Libya and rescue efforts in Japan. Clearly these things are not bad in themselves. They keep me informed, help me stay in touch with my friends in El Salvador, and enable grassroots movements in Egypt and all over the world. But they can foster very short attention spans and limited engagement with the concrete world around.

My education in solidarity has not been easy. It has been long, difficult, confusing, and it is only beginning. It will require continual stripping of the notions of individuality that I was brought up with and society continually reinforces. This education is not an education of instant gratification. It takes deep thought, feeling, action, and reflection.

An education in solidarity isn’t a superficial thing. It takes real, repeated engagement and deep, hard reflection, the kind of thinking and feeling that can’t happen on the surface.

Colleges and universities hold a unique, privileged position for educating young people in a life of engagement with and reflection upon the world, in a life of solidarity. Students arrive with many different expectations and aspirations. But no matter how they come, they are about to enter a period of great personal change. “There is no such thing as a neutral education process,” writes educator Jane Thompson (drawing on Paulo Freire).(3) Education can help bring about conformity to the mainstream, or it can become “the ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”(4) My Jesuit education has brought me in direct contact with realities of the world, and that is why it has been so transformative. I have been called to witness reality, to engage it so that I may be changed and in turn become part of the greater change.


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