I hope you are all enjoying this holiday season – I’ve made it to the States and will be here, spending time with family until I come back to London for New Year’s Eve. My time in the US was first spent with a couple days in Ann Arbor, with a necessary trip back to my old coffee shop to see old friends and co-workers.
I’ve been back in the States for a week and a few days so far, and it’s definitely an odd feeling returning to the US after making the UK feel like home. I love seeing my family, especially being able to hold the new baby in the family (Uncle x2 with baby Amelia!). As you might have been able to quite obviously tell, I’ve been a bit behind on the posts – we’re given our essay assignments for after classes end and before the next term starts. Alas, I should have started earlier, but I’ve managed to stay on track with four essays due soon. Two down, two to go!
What I do want to address, though, is a piece of news that came to know a day after I had come back to the US. I was spending a bit of time at the old parish I used to go to, St. Mary Student Parish, speaking to some friends that I hadn’t seen in a while. To give some back story, one of my main pieces of involvement at this church was participating in what SMSP called their alternative spring break (ASB) program. This program consisted of about eleven trips that (probably obviously) occurred over our spring break, all of which involved some type of service. These trips were seen as “alternative,” to, say, going home for the week or spending time abroad or down south basking in the warmth and sunlight that Michigan (really) lacks in the wintertime.
One of the sites that SMSP usually has people go to is in El Salvador, with an organisation called CRISPAZ. This organisation was set up mainly to establish a relationship between the United States and El Salvador in the name of solidarity. Without delving too much into Salvadoran history, it’s worth saying that the US-backed Salvadoran military managed to kill, maim, and massacre many innocent people in El Salvador in the 1980s. Hence, the mission of CRISPAZ is to tell the story of El Salvador to those not from the country by teaching about recent Salvadoran history, then to basically have foreigners meet various groups in El Salvador who work towards furthering human rights and solidarity within and outside of the country.
The trip to El Salvador was cut for this year. I’ve asked around and have received various reasons regarding why the trip was cut, ranging from “there weren’t enough people” to “the country is too dangerous.” (Side note: if you hear the “danger” excuse about any Latin American country, I would questions these sorts of claims. Perhaps another post can be devoted as to why I may use this sort of caution.)
Regardless of the answer, I think this decision was a deep mistake. I’ve been lucky enough to go on a couple different international volunteering trips in the past – I’ve been to the Dominican Republic (DR) and El Salvador on these trips, and have spent about ten weeks outside of this working with various internships in the DR and Haiti. All of the international trips that SMSP has have their individual merits, and I wouldn’t be in the place and mind-set that I am had I not been to the DR and El Salvador. However, I do think that, if one trip should remain while the others go, is should be El Salvador. Why? Because in El Salvador, we look more into why (largely) white Americans like to go down to Latin America to do “God’s work” and “help those less fortunate.” From my personal experience, both the trips to Nicaragua and the DR are dangerous in the fact that they don’t really address the dangers of voluntourism (as it’s affectionately called) and the massively detrimental effects this practice can have on the people involved in this matter.
I don’t want to slander the other trips that SMSP holds, but I do want to show that El Salvador’s effect has been utterly essential to my understanding of international relations between the US and Latin American countries. Without my time in El Salvador, the experiences that I had in the DR and Haiti would not have carried as much weight with me as they do today.
Here’s the difficulty with El Salvador: when you come back from the trip, the conversations go like this:
Interested family friend who is mildly interested in what you’re up to: “What’d you do in El Salvador? Were you helping the poor? Did you see a lot of poverty there?”
Me: “I mean, sure, I saw poverty, but more clearly, I learned about the storied past of El Salvador. I was also really surprised to learn about US involvement in this country, something I surely didn’t learn about in my history classes in school…”
Family friend: “Oh, okay.. so.. what did you do? Did you build a house, or..?”
Me: “No, there are plenty of Salvadorans who can build a house, or do any other sort of labour that may be needed in El Salvador. But have you heard of liberation theology?”
Perhaps a piece of my writing from soon after I arrived back from the trip could help explain. This is an excerpt from a letter that I wrote to family and friends who helped me out with funding to go to El Salvador, and exhibits what I felt about the worth of this trip upon returning.
I am attempting to describe an idea, a motive, a truth that can’t be done justice with only words. An experience in El Salvador happened to me last week, and I really do think this trip has been pivotal but I just don’t know to where I’m pivoting at the moment. I’ve learned so much, being among a people so shaken and torn by a past so devastating that even their youth are experiencing PTSD from a war they did not experience first-hand.
This impact has left me feeling in a state of numbness, something like the feeling adrenaline gives after one has broken a bone. I know something is broken, that it should be hurting so incredibly badly but all I feel is a blanket of numbness in place of the pain. What’s broken is my heart, part of my soul. I’m waiting for the moment when the adrenaline ceases, when I can really encounter the pain of a broken heart – I happily await this moment.
The time taken to break my heart was filled with meeting Salvadorans of storied backgrounds. We met a representative from Cofamide, an organization that works for finding those who have “been lost” on the way to the United States from El Salvador (“been lost” refers now to the act of someone “being lost,” a.k.a. being displaced by the Mexican or Salvadoran government and killed or sent to jail). We met artisans who described their story by what they make with their hands, filling blank canvases with hope, which many times manifests itself via the face of Monseñor Oscar Romero, the substances integral to Salvadoran agriculture, like corn stalks, or flowers of the Salvadoran backcountry. We lived with families in a rural community, Guarjila, working to share our lives in solidarity and learn of the torment they had to endure in the compo (countryside), in which too many atrocities were committed against these people. We took the time to see that among the many innocent lives lost, thirteen of those belonged to six Jesuits, four American nuns, a mother and her daughter who were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the assassination of Oscar Romero.
I want to describe more of what we did and experienced, but your time is most valuable, and my descriptions would be more meaningful in conversation than through prose. We were, however, exposed to a truth so disastrous to our minds that we will be forever broken by what we’ve heard – Rosa holding her near-dying sister in her arms amidst a massacre of her people in the Sumpul River, children being tossed up in the air and more abruptly being taken out of that air by gunshots ensuing from a military soldier’s gun, a perfectly planted exploding bullet hitting the heart of Oscar Romero directly after he finishes proclaiming the truth that was so hard to hear for the haves but was gospel for the have-nots, religious sisters being raped, killed and left by the roadside by the Salvadoran military – embedded in all of these occurrences is a hard truth we all must face, the truth of a broken world that lies right under our noses.
This point I’ve reached upon returning to this trip is very much worth your contribution, and I do appreciate what you’ve done for me. The money you’ve donated to this trip is an act of love, care, peace, and solidarity. I know it’s hard to read what I’ve written, but these few events that I’ve chosen to slightly describe to you (also knowing that they are not exhaustive – surely there are more atrocities worth being told) are only for you to fell how much my heart has been broken.
Something is stirring in my soul and I can’t name it at this moment. Looking to a brighter side of my trip, I felt such a strong connection to Oscar Romero, a man elected as archbishop of San Salvador (the capital city of El Salvador), who was elected to this position because he was seen as easily persuadable. However, after one of his close friends, Rutilio Grande (a Jesuit priest), and two Salvadorans were assassinated on their way back from the compo, Oscar Romero was instilled with a drive to fight for the people of El Salvador, against the oppression and injustice that was being doled out by the Salvadoran government. Oscar Romero fought for his people with the peace, justice, and love – he was given the power to speak a truth that nobody wanted to hear, willing enough to give his life for this truth. I hope to pray more about this and delve deeper into why I felt such a strong connection to this man, soon to be saint.
I want to leave you with a story, given by Sister Peggy on our last full day in El Salvador. Sister Peggy came to El Salvador during their war to be with the people of the countryside in a town called Suchitoto. This town was well-organized (by the Salvadoran women, mind you), and had gained knowledge that the Salvadoran military was on their way to conduct, presumably, another massacre of The People. All those in Suchitoto dropped whatever was at hand and gathered in the bed of a sand truck to haul out of town and run away from the military. The driver of the sand truck ended up taking a wrong turn, causing the sand truck to topple over.
After these people scattered into the surrounding area, away from the overturned truck, Sister Peggy ended up in a tall grass field with two other Salvadoran women, one of which had a new-born with her and for the sake of breastfeeding her child, had brought along a bag of tortillas for sustenance. That night the woman with the new-born wanted to share her tortillas with Sister Peggy and the other woman, but they both wanted her to keep the tortillas so she could keep breastfeeding her new-born. However, this woman told them no,
“Tonight, we share our food
and tomorrow, we share our hunger.”
This is true solidarity, friends. The head of CRISPAZ, the organization that facilitated our trip to El Salvador, described one of the aims of these immersion trips. These words describe what I feel, what I have experienced and what is surely to come in the future:
“Surely, we hope this trip has done at least three things for you. The first – that your heart
is broken. Second – that you have learned how to fall in love all over again. And third –
that you are ruined for life.”
True, true, and true. Friends, I will have more to tell you in the future, and I really do look forward to where life takes me – I trust that I can find the truth and work to find that truth for others, exposing the truth in the name of justice. I hope this letter finds you in peace and love, but also with an agitation to use the beautiful works this world has to offer in repairing all that is broken in our world.
And with that, I will conclude this post. The main point to take away from this post is that decisions are to be made with proper foresight, enough inquiry into as many possible points of view, and, most importantly, one’s decisions should be justified. I’ve been learning a lot in my philosophy classes lately, and one of the take-home messages from a favourite class of mine is that whatever position we hold, we must be able to justify that position. If we uphold a weak justification, we cannot simply expect to let others believe in our position (and subsequent decision making).
This trip to El Salvador truly kicked my life path in a different direction, and I highly doubt that I would be here today had I not learned about this little country when I did. I am incredibly disappointed in the decision to prevent others from experiencing El Salvador, and I do hope that those in leadership positions at SMSP will thoughtfully reconsider their decision.
I’ll try and get some more writing out to you in the next week. I hope you all are having a wonderful time in this holiday season!