Stephen Morris Blogs

Day 7 in El Salvador

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Day 7 – Tuesday June 21

Roberto Rubio, an economist, is the head of the second largest think tank in El Salvador. We hear a little of his background, of how he was the political spokesperson in Europe for the FMLN and he returned to the country after the civil war. He talks about the current political situation and how El Salvador is poised between democracy and not…He equates the recent act of the Assembly requiring unanimous decisions from the Constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court as a coup d’état (the first we have heard that concept used here). It is quite an interesting viewpoint.

We ask ‘What would you do if you were the economic minister?’ He goes on to elaborate on several ideas he would implement. Obviously, his think tank has been working on many problems for the past 19 years and he has a wealth of ideas to implement. Bottom line: he would set forth a strong vision for the country and explain to the people why ideas such as tax reform need to take place, where the money would go, and what it might do for the country.

Our second speaker has cancelled as he fell and broke his elbow in two places. Instead, we drive by the  U.S. embassy which is a huge complex in San Salvador. As I pull out my camera, I am told “Don’t take any pictures, they’ll arrest you!” Wow. OK, I won’t take pictures – I’ll go to Google earth and check it out…

We take a long busride into the countryside. It begins raining and I think “Uh-oh, I don’t have any rain gear with me.” But neither does anybody else. It is supposed to rain in the late afternoon or at night, not mid-morning. But it stops raining about 10 minutes before our destination which is the gravesite of the four churchwomen who were abducted, raped, and murdered by the military on December 2, 1980. A monument and chapel have been built at the site and we hold a memorial service for them and all of the martyrs of the war.

We continue on the road to a place outside the town of Zuatelecuo, Los Marinitos. We join a meeting where community leaders of the surrounding villages gather each Tuesday afternoon. People arrive by bus, on bicycle and horseback. They discuss the latest projects, the one of most immediate concern is changing the bed of the local river. It is only by accident that the villagers have found out about this (amazing how some things never change) and they have demanded that their voices be heard. It is possible that the river project will flood several villager’s lands and the people are demanded more discussion and study of the issue before the town proceeds.

We are given coconuts to drink from, the tops and bottoms of the outer green husks have been lopped off, a hole to drink from cut into the hard shell at the top, and the hole is covered by a slice of the husk to keep insects from getting in. We drink from the coconuts during the meeting as the day is hot and humid – much hotter than San Salvador. As we are leaving, we notice a computer with a make-shift antennae grabbing signals for the Internet. It is remarkable what the locals can do to connect to the modern world.

We get on the bus and begin the long ride back to our hotel. I start dreaming of the pupuseria that we had gone to several nights before. I find out others are interested in going, too, and we are all excited when we hear that, indeed, it is to the pupuseria we are to have dinner.

Day 6 in El Salvador

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Day 6 – Monday June 20

We meet in the hotel to listen to Margarita who lived in El Salvador in the early days of the civil war. She told us of the persecution by the right-wing party and of their attempt to capture her, even though her family had ties to the military. She fled to Mexico with her children to escape the war, but one winter holiday, her children begged her to let them go home for a week or two to visit their friends. She relented and after only a day, her two oldest children were ‘disappeared.’ For three days she had no word and lived in agony that she would never see her children again. There was an international effort to free her children, and her family used their connections to intervene. After three days, one child was released, but the other was sent to prison – her only crime was that she was related to someone who had been close to Archbishop Romero. She appealed to a U.S. Senator who was visiting both Mexico and El Salvador, and, after he visited the child in prison, he (apparently) intervened and the child was released.

The experience destroyed the family unit – she underwent a divorce and the children have had a rocky relationship with their mother ever since.

We watch a documentary on Jean Donovan, a lay church worker, who was murdered along with three nuns. They were picked up by the military, raped, shot execution style, then buried in a mass grave. The incident became international news, and although the lowly soldiers who carried out the crime were eventually convicted, the higher-ups who ordered the killings were never prosecuted. Father Paul Schindler, who is in the documentary, visits with us and gives more background and details of the incident. A number of people in the group are quite moved…

After lunch at the hotel, we go back to the neighborhood where we had attended Mass the day before and visit Fe y Alegria. We are met by a Sister of the Sisters of Charity. From their website, “Fe y Alegria is a ‘Movement for Integral Popular Education and Social Development’ whose activities are directed to the most impoverished and excluded sectors of the population, in order to empower them in their personal development and their participation in society.”

Fe y Alegria is a school where students can be in a safe environment. We see students in their uniforms hanging around before classes start and we move into a classroom for a talk. Unfortunately, the area has just been fumigated, a music lesson is starting a few feet outside the door, and we move to another classroom. We hear stories of hope as well as a story of tragedy. Of kids who begin an ascent out of poverty, and of a star student who was killed by gang violence. We are told of the building of a wing of the school and how, almost by divine providence, funds become available.

Our last stop of the day is with Rick Jones at Catholic Relief Services. He has a wealth of information about present day El Salvador and what he sees as many of its problems. He lists as his top five issues: a) the economy (unemployment); b) violence; c) emigration (to the U.S.) as splitting apart families; d) global warming; and e) health care. It is insightful and articulates what we have been trying to define during our stay. The problems can seem insurmountable, but there are people like Rick who are fighting a daily battle to make people’s lives better all over Central and South America.

Day 5 in El Salvador - Pollo Campero

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Before heading out for our first trip to the countryside, we stop at Pollo Campero (your companion chicken!) and have lunch. It is a large KFC-like place with lots of fried food. There are lots of service staff in the place – I have noticed that many places, including the supermarket, have what we would consider an over abundance of help. But the Salvadorans are not looking for efficiency but rather full employment. In the supermarket, there were two people in every aisle ready to assist you!

Two U.S. soldiers walk in to Pollo Campero as we are leaving, startling many of us. I ask what they are doing in El Salvador, since U.S. army personnel have not been stationed in the country for years. They are support staff for a group of U.S. Special Forces that are competing in a ‘Pan-American’ competition. Evidently, many countries in the Americas have sent soldiers to this competition and this year it is being held for two weeks in June in El Salvador.

We take a 50 minute ride into the countryside where we meet Vladimir, the FMLN guerrilla we saw in the documentary Enemies of War. The bus stops on the road and we hike up a short way to the small adobe brick house Vladimir has built. He lives there with his children and grandchildren, his wife having passed away from cancer shortly after the documentary was filmed in 1994. He regales us with stories of when he had to go to the capital to get documents and pretending he was not a guerrilla. The time with Vladimir is all too brief – many of us feel that we could have stayed all day and into the evening listening to the stories he has to tell.

Day 5 in El Salvador - Sunday Mass

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Day 5 – Sunday June 19

It is our earliest day yet – be ready for the bus at 7:30am. We drive to a very poor community in San Salvador where we are going to hear Sunday mass. We pass through many neighborhoods and head down a steep incline, through winding, narrowing  streets. We cross a one lane bridge across a river and the bus backs up a narrow street and stops in front of a house. A woman emerges and will take us to where the mass is being held. Walking through the town reminds me of some of the villages in Tuscany with the houses closely packed along twisting walkways, though the houses in Tuscany are much nicer.

The mass has started and is being held in the middle of a main street of the area. It is somewhat of a carnival atmosphere all morning long. People are walking by with baskets on their heads with goods to sell, futbol players heading off to play. Roosters crowing, someone trying to start their car over and over again. People dressed in their Sunday best arrive at a house next door for services of another denomination – I cannot believe how many people they must have packed into that little house next to the ‘church’ holding the mass.

The priest, Father Luis, asks us to introduce ourselves to the crowd of perhaps 150. Belinda, whose parents came from Mexico and is fluent in Spanish, tells the congregation where we are from. People get up and give us their chairs to sit on, though many of us prefer to stand in the shade across the street. Bob translates the homily as we listen with our earpieces. Off in the distance we see a drum corps walking towards us with their instruments. They stop in front of us and line up in the street. They are introduced as a community group formed by the church to help students stay on the straight and narrow. And then they play for the crowd – I feel like I am back in college listening to the band as they march out onto the field. They are pretty good – considering they were formed only two months ago!

After the service we go inside the storefront church and talk with Father Luis and the students from the drum corps. We ask questions about life in the community, their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. The first one tells us he wants to get out of there, to build a better life away from poverty. Another tells a moving story of how his best friend was murdered simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Of how he did not find out about the killing until after the funeral was held and is still grieving. But the Mass and the whole morning experience is one of joy and exuberance and is a highlight of our trip.

Day 4 in El Salvador - the Supreme Court

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We arrive back at the Hotel Alicante to watch a documentary filmed just before the FMLN offensive of November 1989. The film follows a guerrilla leader of the FMLN as she and her group both plan for the offensive and keep moving to avoid the Salvadoran army. What is remarkable is not just the documentary, but we hear a little of Maria Serrano’s (her nom de guerre) story since then. During the film she mentions several times that after the war she is going to go back to school – it is her lifelong dream. After the peace accords in 1992, she went back to school and became a teacher. In 1997, the FMLN party begged her to run for an assembly seat and she won. But she was not happy in the post and saw the corruption of the political process up close. She left politics to return to teaching, but several years ago she was named the Vice-Governor of her province. Then earlier this year, she was appointed to the President’s cabinet and is now the Minister of the Interior for El Salvador. And we get to speak with her on Tuesday as part of the immersion… pretty cool!

After lunch at the hotel we listen to a Justice of the Supreme Court , Sidney Blanco, who was elected in 2009. What makes his election so significant is that there were four people elected that year who are honest and incorruptible, and all four were put into the Constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court. That is, they rule on the constitutionality of laws in El Salvador. There are other chambers that rule on civil, criminal, and administrative laws. Sidney Blanco was an Assistant Attorney General in the late 1980’s and was involved in seeking justice for those Jesuits who were murdered in November 1989. When it became clear that the then-Attorney General wasn’t going to pursue the case, he quit and became the legal counsel for the Jesuits. His reputation in the country is spotless.

He and his other honest colleagues have made a number of rulings over the past two years that have really angered the ruling parties, so much so that the Assembly passed a (unconstitutional) law two weeks ago that stated that all rulings must be unanimous (there are five justices in the constitutional chamber one of the justices who has been there before is of the old school – hmmmm, shall we say less than honest? ) so the four new justices would be stymied. The country is in an uproar over this law (though the constitutional justices have ruled it invalid), the people have been protesting in the streets (helped by Facebook and Twitter!), and the party that passed the law in the assembly is now furiously backtracking as the people know that their rights are being taken away and they know who is responsible.  We could be living during a true turning point in the history of the Salvadoran people.

We dine at Chevys, though not the chain from the U.S. Some of us drink margaritas…the food is ok but the price is right (very reasonable).

Day 4 in El Salvador - The Hospital Rosario

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Day 4 – Saturday June 18

Day started early – we are on the bus at 8am and off to Hospital Rosario, a free public hospital where the poor of San Salvador go for treatment. We are met by Dr. Virginia Rodriguez who is head of surgery at the hospital and she takes us on a tour of the wards. The hospital opened in 1902 and has survived the four major Salvadoran earthquakes of the 20th century. I ask if I can take pictures and the doctor says yes – she doesn’t impose any restrictions on taking pictures of the wards or people. I think this is a bit odd, but I am willing to take pictures.

The hospital is clean, but like most hospitals in lesser developed countries, people are crowded into open wards. There may be 40 or 50 people all lying on beds next to each other in some of the wards as hospital staff move among them. There is essentially no privacy for anyone except there are curtains that can be drawn between beds in some of the wards. The concept of a private room doesn’t exist at this hospital. I realize why I can take pictures with impunity. Everyone sees everyone else – literally dozens and dozens  of people could go by a bed in a day. The intake area is filled with people on gurneys and on chairs. Yet we are told that, because this is a Saturday, relatively few people are there. Dr. Rodriguez tells us it is usually really crowded with patients, and I think, ‘This isn’t crowded?’  But I refuse to take any pictures in the intake ward. I feel it is too intrusive – an invasion of privacy and a line I will not cross. I can take a distance shot of a ward with people on beds, but the intake ward is too close, too personal.

The hospital reminds me I am in another country, one that is in the developing world, and I am both impressed at the incredible dedication of the nurses and doctors and appalled at the lack of health care facilities. The hospital is strapped for funds and cannot hire as many doctors or nurses as they need, nor do they have enough beds for the patients.

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.

Day 2 in El Salvador - the Hospitalito

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We leave and stop at a Mister Donut (the El Salvador franchises of Dunkin’ Donuts). I eat a cheese crepe, though I ordered one with chorizo. I am not going to send it back.

After lunch, we go to the hospitalito where Archbishop Oscar Romero lived the last few years of his life and was assassinated by the right wing military and upper class establishment. We are met by Eva, a woman who is a nun and who had known Romero, both when he was a parish priest and the archbishop. She told a story of how the nuns went out into the countryside and brought some education to the people. The people wanted to learn how to read and write, to understand the origins of the Bible. The nuns taught them to read, but also taught them to have skills other than subsistence farming. The women learned to sew and cooperatives were set up where some bought the cloth, others sewed, and still others sold the finished products. The men in the village were a bit jealous and wanted to learn a skill, too. The nun asked what they wanted to do. Well, they said, we see big things called cars. How about learning a skill to work on them? So they taught them welding skills and some mechanic work, so when the men went into the city of San Miguel, they could claim to have a skill and be hired.

After an hour talk we tour the chapel and Romero’s house. The house is simple, just as Romero wanted it. The nuns built it for him but it had to be simple or he would refuse to live in it. Two bedrooms, a sitting room, and a bath. I take pictures as I realize I am the unofficial photographer of the trip. I am the only one with a decent camera (most take pictures with their smart phones) and I will put the pictures onto CDs for the group.

We return to the hotel and listen to a student, Efraim, who has received scholarships from his rural community and the Jesuit foundation at UCA. He tells his story of his family moving from his village in the early days of the civil war to avoid the death squads. Of losing his mother soon after he was born, his father leaving to marry another woman and raise a different family,  and being raised by his grandparents.  He tells of his botched medical procedure when he was two – a doctor severing some nerves in his hip which will ultimately lead to his losing his left leg before he is 30. He puts our parent and grandparents stories to shame (you know, the ones where they had to walk miles through the snow to get to school) as he recounts his 3 ½ hour walks each way to a school in another community. And that is in the dry season. When the rains make the river he needs to cross impassable at the usual place, he must walk an additional ½ hour to a bus which takes another 30 minutes to get to the school. And only if the bus is running and hasn’t broken down. Otherwise, he had to walk the rest of the way himself.

His school only goes to the 9th grade and he stops school for two years. Then a neighboring community opens up a high school and he finishes high school. His community decides to give him a scholarship to go to college – he goes but after two years he realizes that it is too easy and isn’t what he wants. He transfers to UCA and the Jesuits give him a scholarship for room and board. He has struggled with some of his courses, he loses his leg and now has a prosthesis. But now, as he is nearing 30 years old, he will finish college this year.

One of the conditions of getting a scholarship is returning to your community after finishing college. But no one from his community has ever gone back – until now. He is determined to be the first of his community to return and give back. And he has a girlfriend and an 11-month old son waiting for his return. He will be fine…

Day 2 in El Salvador - the UCA

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Day 2 – Thursday June 16

Slept well – a good 8 hours. Got ready and went downstairs at 7am and moved to the patio with my computer. I figure 1 ½ hours of work before the immersion day begins. I answer some email – uh-oh – a student says they cannot see the homework assignments I set up the day before. I try to check the course website to find out what is going on. The Internet connection is soooo slow and I feel I am back in the 1990’s with a 56K modem. But the assignments are there but I did not set one up correctly for the students to upload their assignments. I fix the assignment on both class websites and email the students the corrections.

We get on the bus at 8:45am and head down the hill to the University of Central America, UCA, pronounced ‘ooka’ by the locals. We go into a nice brick building and I am struck by how pretty it is inside, with an atrium-style courtyard and breezeway. We go into a small classroom that barely fits the 13 of us to watch the documentary Enemies of War.  The film brings to life some of the people and images we read about prior to our trip, and we will meet some of the people interviewed. The film includes the story and struggle of a typical campesino (peasant) and his family who fled the death squads and fought the rebels. Parts of the movie brought tears to my eyes – it was moving and graphic, showing the dead unsanitized as is usually the case back home.

We leave UCA and drive about 35 minutes to a squatters camp called Oscar Romero. There we find a community of 75 families who are trying to make a subsistence living on a few acres of land. We are regaled by several leaders of the community of their tale of woe. Having lost everything in the earthquakes of 2001, over 200 families take over a piece of government land. They hear that the government will help build houses for landowners who lost their homes in the earthquake. But there’s the rub – they lost their homes but did not own the land. So they took over some government land in the hopes of getting help. The story that emerges is one of corrupt government bureaucrats and ever changing requirements. A large cement company is buys an adjacent parcel of land for several dollars, yet the same government agency tells these people that it will cost them over $8000. Evidently, the agency thinks they will never come up with the money, but a foundation helps them and they come up with the money. Surprise, surprise! The land is no longer for sale but is being deeded to another government entity. After years of battles with agencies and government committees, the group, now down to 75 families, buys the land. But their troubles don’t stop there. Now the government is refusing to supply the community with clean drinking water and children die of dysentery and other water-borne diseases.

I leave with a greater understanding of how a nation such as ours that is governed by the rule of law makes life and living so much easier. How do you bring a concept such as the rule of law to entire peoples who have entirely different traditions. Latin American nations such as El Salvador have over 400 years of corruption, brutality, and a division of classes. Might makes right, and I do not have any simple answers…

Day 1 in El Salvador - Settling In

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The hotel is the Alicante. It is like a nice motel – with three stories and built somewhat like a rabbit warren. Stairs go off in different directions and the room numbering system – wait, I am not sure there is a numbering system. The hotel may have undergone various stages of building and when new sections were added, the room numbering continued where it had left off. It is cute and has a very nice courtyard and smallish pool.

Mike, Bob, and I sit in the patio to have lunch. I have a chicken sandwich and try the local Pilsener beer – not bad! Afterward I go to my room and post homework assignments for my classes, and then take a siesta. I had gotten only two hours sleep the night before, and after an hour sleep I wake up groggy. I go downstairs and Mike and I order dinner in the dining room before Bob shows up. We eat hurriedly  and then we head back to the airport in our rented bus to pick up the rest of the group. The first arrivals have just emerged from customs and we greet them. Bats are flying around, eating the insects that are attracted to the bright lights of the terminal. After about 20 minutes, the rest of the group shows up from another flight. We get on the bus and return to the hotel.

We are in the early stages of getting to know one another, so there is small talk on the bus. When we arrive back at the hotel, people check in and there is some amusement over trying to find rooms since there is no relationship to the room number and its location in the hotel. The porter is extremely helpful and brings bags and people to their rooms.  There is only one of him and 10 of us, so after several people give up trying to find their rooms on their own, the porter comes to their rescue.

We gather back in the dining room for sandwiches as the new arrivals have not eaten. I pass on the sandwiches but do indulge in the fries! We are told about the next day’s tentative itinerary, what time to meet in the morning, and then it is off to our rooms. I go back to my room pretty tired and then go to sleep.

Day 1 in El Salvador - Arrival

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Day 1 – Wednesday June 15

Arrived at the San Salvador airport at 11:15am. Went through customs easily and waited for my bags. As always, after seeing lots of bags go by that were not mine, I have a little apprehension that my bag did not make it. But the bag arrives and I leave the terminal.

I see a throng of locals crowding around the barricades that have been put up – they await the arrival of their loved ones. A blast of hot, humid air greets me as I try to find the people who will pick me up. Taxi drivers are shouting at me, trying to get a fare as they see my look of bewilderment. But it is a look that tells of my initial confusion and discomfort of trying to find my way to the front of the terminal. Just as I get to the curb, I hear my name called – Mike  and Bob have just pulled up in Bob’s old, desert yellow Jeep.

I get in and we take the drive back to San Salvador, about a 45 minute trip. We talk the whole way, so I barely see the countryside. I notice a row of roadside stands with huge, neatly stacked piles of coconuts. Most of the drive is like a parkway with trees planted in the median. There are occasional glimpses of houses, but as we near San Salvador, more houses appear. We come to a stop light and there are people selling food and mosquito zappers. Bob tells them gracias and we drive off, arriving at the hotel a couple minutes later.