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El Salvador: From Rebellion to Reconstruction

02-10-2009
El Salvador Chicken Coop

It’s not every day that a group of University of San Francisco students sits down with a leftist rebel fighter to talk politics and empowerment. But, that was the case for students of USF’s summer El Salvador Today program.

The program, which can be taken for two or three credits, immerses students in national and international factors that have shaped El Salvador’s history and post-civil war reconstruction. The country, the smallest in the Americas, was one of the many battlegrounds around the world where the Cold War played out, pitting socialist rebels (supported by the Soviets) and hardline dictators (supported by the United States) in a civil war.

From 1980 to 1992, 180,000 Salvadorans died on either side of the civil war, including many Catholic priests, nuns, and American missionaries. Among them was Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, who was assassinated in March 1980 when he was shot through the heart by a band of government supporters as he delivered Mass. Archbishop Romero, after whom a USF student leadership award is named, was well known for speaking out against economic injustice and military repression in El Salvador.

“We encountered many monumental figures and saw things that changed all of us forever,” junior economics major Carla Laurel said of the trip.

For her, the most remarkable encounter occurred when she and the other students sat down with former leftist fighter and cofounder of the rebel music group Los Torogoces de Morazan, Sebastian Torogoz. After recognizing Torogoz on the street and approaching him, Francesco Rivera, instructor of performing arts and social justice at USF and a faculty member on the trip, invited him to meet with the group and talk about the civil war over dinner one evening.

“Sebastian was so knowledgeable and came off as an everyday guy,” Laurel said. “Speaking with him, he told us that we have so much power.”

Such heroism by everyday people in standing up to a repressive regime put life in perspective, Laurel said.

El Salvador Today is a month-long immersion that includes classroom instruction at the Jesuit University of Central America in San Salvador, El Salvador. Classes cover topics such as liberation theology, Archbishop Romero’s life and influence, environmental degradation, women’s movements, and contemporary economic realities.

"The sociopolitical changes in El Salvador, from a recent civil war to a process of pacification and economic development, present our students with unique opportunities to explore the development of a civil society and the human and personal costs brought about by rapid growth and uncontrolled, industrial globalization,” said Sharon Li, director of USF’s Center for Global Education.

Students also took part in field trips to museums, historic sites, and shared stories face-to-face with people who lived during the revolution, said native Salvadoran Marco Pernavarre, on-site coordinator for the El Salvador Today summer program and USF visiting lecturer.

Students visited a coffee farm, once a bastion of El Salvador’s agricultural industry, and helped level the foundation for a chicken coop, a service-learning project to help a village in the country’s north begin a chicken farming business.

Describing the trip as “amazing,” Laurel said she didn’t know much about the U.S.-El Salvador relationship before the class. Now she understands the U.S. influence more clearly. “El Salvador is a little country with a lot of problems that I can say the U.S. definitely was a part of creating.”

Not surprisingly, that kind of response brings a smile to Pernavarre’s face, whose goal is to “open students’ minds to realities that are not part of their experience, but powerful enough to make them want to change what has to be changed in the world.”

Written by Edward Carpenter »usfnews@usfca.edu