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Day 3 in El Salvador - Don Lito and the UCA

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Day 3 – Friday June 17

We stay at the hotel for our first speaker.  Don Lito has come from a remote town and it has taken him 4 hours to get here by walking and bus. His is a story that is gripping – he tells of growing up in a society that cheats its poorest workers. How thousands of people would work 12 hour days in the coffee plantations, the atrocious living conditions, and be cheated by the owners of their pay.

He tells of the violence of the police and National Guard as a way of life in the country. And he talks about events in his town leading up to the civil war. The intimidation, the outright lies that the government perpetrates on these people.  Don Lito is a spellbinding storyteller and his history is told in the book Don Lito of El Salvador by Maria Lopez Vigil.

After listening to Don Lito, we have 1 ½ hours before we are to eat at the UCA. Why such a long break? Well, when it takes 4 hours to get to the big city, you must take advantage of it and go shopping. Bob is taking Don Lito to the market and stores and will meet up at the UCA.

John Koeplin and I go for a walk through the neighborhood, past the UCA, and down to the main boulevard. We pass five or six places with armed guards – men with semi-automatic rifles slung over their shoulders (our hotel has a 24-hour guard, too). The day is quite pleasant as there is a tropical storm forming off the coast and keeping the temperatures down. We meet up with the group and go to lunch at the UCA cafeteria. Several of us are struck at how it feels like we are in a high school. The seating is on benches and tables with a covered seating area. There are many young people – younger than at USF. We realize that high school ends at 11th grade so many of the students at the UCA are 17, possibly even 16 years old.

We wander over the UCA bookstore. It reminds me of a small town independent bookstore. There are no shirts, mugs, or any other kind of merchandise we have come to associate with a North American university bookstore. We head up the hill and go to the museum of the martyrs which is built next door to the house where the 6 Jesuits and their housekeeper and her daughter were assassinated. We listen to Father Jon Sobrino, SJ, the one surviving member of the Jesuit community of that time. He escaped being killed as he was in Thailand giving a talk. We then wander through the museum itself and then outside the house where the priests were murdered. It was quite moving, and chilling…

On The wall in the chapel where the priests are buried is a poem which was part of a memorial service marking the 20th anniversary of their deaths. Bob translated the poem for us and broke down when he reached the list of names of the priests. It struck me then how intimately tied to the events Bob was. He may not have been a participant, but as a reporter, he was an observer of all the violence, chaos, injustice, and brutality of the war. I wanted to go up to him and hold him…

We go to the office of the president of the UCA, he is known as the ‘Rector’ of the university. The rector spends about 45 minutes telling us about the current state of the university. He is a young Jesuit and is feeling a bit overwhelmed in his new position – he has been rector for only 5 months. We take a group photo and then head back to the hotel.

Before dinner we have a reflection/discussion. We are asked to tell the group about the one image that has most impacted us during our first two days in El Salvador. Some mention the squatter community we visited on the first day, some about the horrors of war, the images of torture and murder that were painted for us by our speakers. I mention seeing Bob break down as he is reading the poem, as his emotion brings home to me for the first time the human impact of the war. Hearing the retelling of the stories I have maintained some emotional distance. The people who speak to us have survived and are Bobrally healthy. But every day we have been hearing more and more about Bob’s observations of El Salvador over the past 31 years, and the layers are peeling away like on onion. His breaking down in the chapel showed some of the first true emotions on our trip and I was deeply affected…

We go to dinner at a Pupuseria next door to the Universidad Albert Einstein. Pupusas are hand-made thick corn tortilla stuffed with something such as cheese, vegetables, beans, and combinations of these. They are delicious.

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