A Reflection by Riley Weber
The organization Christians for Peace in El Salvador, or CRISPAZ, hosted myself and ten other University of Dayton students for one week in January. Throughout this week my peers and I experienced the daily routines of those living in the fast-paced atmosphere of San Salvador, the capital city of El Salvador, as well as the town of San Jose Los Flores, a small agricultural village with dirt roads and one large church at the center. I had anticipated that my time in El Salvador would be a life-changing experience, but I had no idea that these eight days would change my perspective on faith, service, and international relations.
Representatives from CRISPAZ sat down with us on the first night in El Salvador to discuss the purpose of the mission trip. They explained that while we were there we would not participate in what people consider traditional service. We would not be serving food, raising money, or building homes, but instead, we would spend our time in meetings with different organizations in order to gain the knowledge necessary to spread awareness about the issues in El Salvador and the current state of Latin America. Our duties in El Salvador included being attentive listeners, empathizing with the stories of the people we met, and absorbing as much information as possible. The representatives from CRISPAZ referred to this as a “reverse mission” in which our service began when we returned to the United States. We had the privilege of hearing personal witnesses of civil war soldiers, mothers of missing immigrants, and many other people who have spent their lives advocating for human rights causes but have not had their voices heard. Because of these experiences I now see opportunities for service during conversations where I can advocate for those I met in El Salvador and their causes.
One of the most influential organizations which we met with in El Salvador was ORMUSA which advocates for labor and gender rights, especially for those who work in sweatshops or other workplaces with inadequate wages or conditions. I had little knowledge of the conditions of factories in Latin America and the extreme pressure employers put on workers to produce goods with no breaks or other accommodations. This organization’s work included publicly denouncing companies which have been discovered mistreating their workers and lobbying for better conditions such as the installment of cafeterias and restrooms within the factory. During a question and answer session with the representatives from ORMUSA, our group discussed the economic consequences of refusing to buy products from companies whose supply chain leads to mistreated laborers. Due to the economic recession in the United States in the past five years, factories in Central America closed or relocated which left thousands of people without employment and without their promised salaries. In this same way, if consumers of the United States decide to boycott products, or if the demand for these products naturally decreases, then factories will close and their former employees will have less than what they began with. The root of the problem with labor in Central America deals with conditions within factories due to the demand for cheap production; therefore, ORMUSA encouraged us to take part in the action of advocating for better labor conditions by publicly denouncing companies as well as spreading awareness to peers and government officials who can begin campaigns to make labor rights a high-stakes issue in global politics.
Another influential organization which we met with, Cofamide, advocates for the rights of immigrants and the families of immigrants who have died or disappeared. The decision to immigrate to the United States is a difficult one and sometimes the only option for people who cannot find employment or provide for their families. No matter the reasons for immigration, the journey to the United States contains dangers all along the way. One representative from the organization was a mother whose son had migrated to the United States but never made it to his destination. She has searched for her son for twelve years and even traveled to the United States to attempt to trace his footsteps and find his location, but this has remained a case of a disappeared individual who may or may not have died during migration. Too many families have similar stories as this and Cofamide provides services for these families by marching together and marking empty graves for those who have died and had their unidentified bodies sent back to El Salvador. One reason why this presentation resonated with me was because I am an Education major and as a part of my education includes working with English Language Learners, a growing population of students learning English as a second language. It is important to remember that many of these students may be first generation American citizens or may have made the journey to the United States from a Latin American country themselves. These students could also have a member of their families who died or disappeared during migration. Learning about this has helped my professional development as well because I am currently writing an undergraduate thesis which focuses on the assessment of English Language Learners and their placement in gifted and talented programs. An important aspect of this research involves the how cultural differences and personal experiences of immigrants affects assessment as well as their interactions with other students and how these factors affect the success of the students in the classroom.
The most life-altering experience I had during my time in El Salvador was the three days I spent in the countryside of San Jose Los Flores with a Salvadorian family. San Jose is a small and impoverished town which has a long history of involvement in the Salvadorian civil war during the 1980's. On our first full day in San Jose, we took a walking tour of the town and realized that there were no convenience stores or tourist locations which was a contrast from the busy city of San Salvador. Although the town had witnessed many years of economic struggle, there were projects in place to encourage employment within the community. First, CRISPAZ partnered with the community and employed some of the women in the community as artisans who create jewelry, bags, and even hammocks which are then sold for fair prices at the CRISPAZ office in San Salvador as well as at the artisan workshop in San Jose. These women bond over their motherly duties, the activities at the Catholic church, and share stories of their experiences during the war. Second, an abandoned building near the center of town was renovated into a bakery where fresh goods are made daily and sold for reasonable prices.
Projects such as these are established from within the community and work better than any outside organization which may come in and attempt to fix the remaining problems. Along with these amazing improvements we also stood at the highest point in the city and saw the mountain range and river which separates El Salvador from Honduras and was also the sight of a massacre during the civil war. On our second day we traveled to the site of this massacre and listened to a survivor of the massacre describe his experience and the realities of many people who lived in the woods and the mountains to escape the soldiers during the civil war. During his witness, a camera crew arrived to document his story; the filmmaker told our group that she was creating a documentary about the Salvadorian civil war and its many massacres because so many people in the world had no idea that this tiny Central American country had gone through so much turmoil during the 1980's. She had been interviewing Salvadorians who lived through the war for several years and intended to publish the documentary so that the people whose stories had not been heard could be told. This resonated with me because I felt as though our group was spending time in El Salvador so that we could do the same deed as the filmmaker.
I have returned to the United States to tell the stories of my mother in San Jose whose mother died when she was ten years old and who joined the guerrilla movement as a cook two years later and gave birth to two children while living in the woods with her husband who was a soldier. I have told the stories of my San Jose father who was paralyzed on the right side of his body due to a grenade explosion and had friends who volunteered to carry him in a hammock for over a year instead of leaving him behind. I have told stories of our translator, Kali, who is the only native Salvadorian translator for CRISPAZ and told us about the constant fear she lives in due to the active gang life in San Salvador. I have so many stories that I feel privileged to share, but I also want the people I share them with to fully understand the lives of the people who these stories belong to. I want them to understand the amazement I felt when these people who had experienced so much violence and terror in their lives told me that they never lost faith in God because they had spent all of their time praying to God and had no time to be angry with him. I want the people I returned home to to feel the appreciation I felt when the Salvadorians welcomed me into their homes even though my country was responsible for the destruction of theirs. I live each day with these experiences in mind and I hope to continue to have these opportunities of growth and leadership as I continue my education.