Wednesday, February 15, 2017

El Salvador in the Trump Era

Hello, my name is Rachel Kutler and I am from Baltimore, MD. I first arrived at CIS in September 2016, looking forward to being able to work towards a lifelong goal-- learning Spanish. I had just quit a very chaotic, busy job and decided to move to El Salvador with my partner, who is working for another human rights organization. I was excited to be able to focus my energy on learning Spanish and learn about Latin American history and social movements.

I began taking classes in Spanish and volunteering as an English teacher in the evenings. While it was a tiring schedule, I enjoyed learning everything I could about Salvadoran history, society, and politics. Wilmer and I spent our mornings discussing the history of the union movement in El Salvador and learning the subjunctive, while I spent my afternoons figuring out how to teach the conditional to my English students. I appreciated the welcoming environment at CIS, and the way in which we are encouraged to discuss and confront challenging social and political issues.

And then the US elections came. The days following the election were like a daze-- my emotions fluctuated back and forth between fear, anxiety, and denial. It was really difficult to be away during such a tumultuous time in the US. I wanted to be marching in the streets with my comrades and organizing against the Trump agenda. While I still struggle with how to be engaged in US politics while being abroad, my family at CIS was able to give me interesting perspective.

I've primarily encountered two reactions to the election of Donald Trump-- my students are scared about deportations and what it will mean for the income they rely on coming from their relatives in the US. We discussed how the country does not have the capacity or infrastructure to be taking in thousands of new people a week. And the other reaction is that people have been remarkably calm and level-headed, offering me wisdoms about what this moment means. Wilmer, my Spanish teacher, told me that "in El Salvador, we know how to laugh during times of crisis." Salvadorans have dealt with so much between the civil war and political upheaval, that they have a certain ability to take on crisis as it comes. In the days right after the election (when I was really losing my mind), I was surprised that people seemed so non-chalant. I think this is part coping-mechanism and part intrinsic understanding that the struggle for economic and social justice is a long and difficult one and therefore we must laugh. It reminds me of a movie we watched in class about an ex-FMLN comandante, called “Maria’s Story.” Despite losing a daughter in the war, being separated from her family, and constantly running from the bombs dropping overhead, she was constantly smiling and cracking jokes with the other guerillas.

Another student of mine shared, "It's better this way, because at least our enemy is out in the open." I thought that was an extremely apt analysis, and has proven to be an accurate prediction of the organized opposition in the first few weeks of the Trump presidency.

Being at CIS, and being able to have cross-cultural conversations about it all, has been a gift. It has helped understand this moment in US history in context to other liberation movements, and it has given me strength and inspiration to continue engaging in the fight for social and economic justice.

Friday, November 25, 2016

First Impressions

Friday, November 25, 2016

Thanks Melanie for sharing your experience.

First Impressions

I first found out about CIS through my university which has an internship program where we get to work at CIS for three months on various projects. While they have a plethora of social programs from their clean water project to their youth scholarships and women's enterprises, their English school really caught my eye. I particularly liked CIS's focus on incorporating social issues into the curriculum to empower students to provoke change. I had never taught an adult class before so I was a bit nervous, but as I quickly found out, there was little I had to worry about.  

I didn't really have any expectations going into my internship besides being super excited about being immersed in a completely different environment and culture. Plus, I really wanted to learn Spanish and what better way to do that than living in El Salvador! Of course, I had some reservations about coming to El Salvador. On the other hand, my school has been sending people over for internships since 2008 and students had always had a great experience. 

My first week in El Salvador has gone by superfast. Everyone at CIS was very friendly and helpful. It was quite relaxed as I got acquainted with the area and the different projects. The biggest thing I had to adjust to was the weather since it's much more humid than what I'm used to in Canada. Since it's the rainy season there are rain storms at least every other day, which cools things down considerably during the night. I'm also constantly amazed at the amount of animal and plant life in an urban area like San Salvador. Every day as I walk to CIS I see so many different types of exotic flowers and fruit trees as well as all sorts of birds, including chickens just minding their business on the side of the road. And everywhere you go, you get a cool view of the San Salvador Volcano!   

                                Living in San Salvador

The food is delicious here and extremely affordable at an average of $3 USD a filling meal and drink (usually a fresco, aka natural fruit juice). There are fruits galore here, many of which are exotic ones rarely see in North American supermarkets, and all of them delicious. There are at least 3 or 4 comedores where you can get lunch around CIS so there's always plenty of options (breakfast and dinner are provided by the host family). My go-to lunch is roast chicken with rice, relleno de quisquil (chayote stuffed with cheesse... mmm) and a tortilla or two. And the frozen! I love how affordable the ice cream are here! I can get a double scoop waffle cone for $1.60. There’s also a tienda near CIS where they sell delicious fried things like freshly made fries, fried yuca (which honestly are better than fries), pastelitos, empanadas, and my personal favourite, Chocobananos, a whole frozen banana dipped in chocolate and sprinkled with peanuts, choco krispies, or spinkles. At 50 cents apiece, you can’t go wrong and it’s the perfect way to cool down on hot summer days. 

On a field trip with the Cultural Program through the central market in San Salvador. 

The two biggest things I've had to adjust to have been the humid heat and the mosquitos. Bringing breathable pants is something I would definitely stress, because the humidity and sweat coupled with long pants was uncomfortable to say the least. I’m also very glad I packed my hoodie since there were days were it  felt like 20°C, especially in the morning. And if you get cold easily, you’ll definitely want something warm while watching a movie at Reforma; they really crank up the AC there. There was even one time when two of my fellow CIS volunteers had to bring a blanket, it was so cold. Of course, it might’ve also been because it was a horror movie and they wanted some barrier between them and the scary nun in El Conjuro 2. I may or may not have used that blanket during the movie as well, to keep the cold away of course.

As for the mosquitos, a good investment is to buy one of those plug-in mosquito repellent things for your room, especially if you don’t have a mosquito net. They’re only $5 at Super Selectos  (the most common supermarket here) and they last around a month. 
Overall, the transition has been quite smooth. The wonderful people at CIS have definitely made the transition much easier and my host family has been really supportive. Everybody is always helpful and giving bits of advice about where to eat and cool things to do. Another thing that really made a difference was CIS’s Cultural Program because it allowed me to understand the history of El Salvador better and become more familiar with travelling around San Salvador.  

Melanie Zhang - York University Intern and volunteer with the English School 

Friday, November 4, 2016

A delegation experience, in pictures.

Ever wonder what its like to come on a delegation with the CIS?
Check out these amazing pictures and summary of the trip of a lifetime.
Special thanks to the ST. ELIZABETH'S/ST. PETER'S JAN 2016 delegation for making this beautiful Adobe Spark document and sharing it with us.  The photography is amazing.
We hope this trip was as important and life changing for them as it was for the communities they visited and continue supporting.
Solidarity forever.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Tibby: Women's Small Buinesses Volunteer

Let me open with a poem, since it is, after all Poetry Mondays at the CIS. At the end of the poem “I know why the caged bird sings” by Maya Angelou, it says…

“The caged bird sings with

A fearful trill of things unknown
But longed for still and his
Tune is heard on the distant hill
For the caged bird sings of freedom.”

Are we caged birds, caged by what? These big questions and more occupy my mind here in El Salvador. Caged by society, international oppression by Core countries like the U.S.(a little Dependency Theory for ya), and our circumstances which I see firsthand here in the communities that I visit with the CIS. I have amazingly, wonderful, eye-opening opportunities to work closely with 2 communities “caged” in different ways, Comunidad Romero and San Isidro. But with the support of the CIS (including MEEEE!!) and the initiative of some kick-ass women we’re learning to grow vegetables and indigo organically to combat some of these disadvantages that exist here. Break down the cage, however you can! 

What is the unknown, and why does it call to us? El Salvador was certainly unknown to me, and I would be lying to say that I wasn’t nervous coming to live here. My largest fear is not being liked, fitting in, and being able to build a community of friends. Getting to know new people and deeply sharing our perspectives is one of the beauties of life that calls to me. I have found El Salvador to be the place that I was meant to be at this time in my life; it is really, truly, a blessing to be here. Why? I guess you have to come here to find out!

Ok, now I guess I’ll introduce myself. Hi! I’m Elisabeth Miller, but everyone calls me Tibby. I volunteer at the CIS through Brethren Volunteer Service, and will be here for 2 years. I am so so so excited to see what this time will bring, and to be a part of such good work going on in the world.

Let us sing of freedom!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

My time in El Salvador: (Delegation experience)

While in El Salvador, I experienced many things, but the one thing that stands out in particular is the people. The country is full of kind, spirited, hardworking, colorful people and every moment spent with one of them was one to remember. I can recall reading up on the country before visiting and
seeing all the stories about how welcoming the people were and how kind the country was as a whole. I experienced this feeling firsthand the minute I stepped off the plane and saw our wonderful CIS guide waiting with a smiling face and a waving hand.

I was visiting El Salvador with a few other classmates from the University of Toledo in Ohio to install a water purification unit in the village of San Pablo Tacachico. The process was long and grueling, but the locals did not mind and they stayed with us until the end. They were gracious enough to feed us lunch and keep us company throughout the day. I will never forget the moment when clean, purified water ran through the pipes. The locals’ faces lit up and their joy was immeasurable. It was so heartwarming to see the people of El Salvador become so grateful for something that many take for granted. This moment and the people I experienced it with changed my life and the way I view things. In fact, El Salvador changed my life and the way I view things. If given the chance, I would return to this beautiful country in a heartbeat and I know I would be graciously welcomed, once again. Thank you El Salvador and thank you CIS for the amazing sights, people, and experiences. Que Viva El Salvador!

Kylee Kramer – University of Toledo student and Water Program Delegate

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Scholarship Forum 2016: Salvadorian Youth discussing immigration

** This blog post was written by Anta, an intern from York University in Canada, who has been helping us with the scholarship program for almost 3 months.  Thanks Anta for all your hard work and dedication.  We hope you have received as much from this experience as you have given.

Immigration is real issue affecting the population of El Salvador, as many people have now left the country in order to seek better economic conditions in foreign countries.  Indeed, many Salvadorians believe that leaving their homeland and immigrating to countries such as the United States, Australia or Canada, will allow them to have a better economic status, and a better quality of life. A good percentage of the people trying to immigrate are usually young people, who on their ways to crossing the borders face tremendous difficulties, and exposed themselves to serious risks.

Understanding how central the question of immigration is to allow the country to develop, CIS dedicated their 7th edition of their Scholarship Forum, to analyze with scholarship recipients, which factors cause immigration, and discuss about ways to create a community in which every member will feel included. Therefore from Friday July 22nd to Sunday July 24th the scholarship forum was held in Coatepque, and gathered youth from every community to discuss about the question of immigration.

The forum has been beneficial to both CIS and the students, allowing both sides to gain more knowledge on the subject, and find possible solutions to help address the issue. Indeed, the forum helped raise awareness about the danger of immigration to the students, and made them realized the danger to which they are exposed within the process. Throughout a series of workshops conducted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), students got a chance to learn about difference about immigration and emigration, the dangers to which people intending the process illegally are exposed to, and which rights are guaranteed to immigrants and people in asylum. On another hand, the forum helped CIS collect testimonies from young people, explaining why so many people choose to migrate, and how it affects their families and communities.

 Additionally, the forum was a great opportunity for students, as it allowed them to meet other students within the program, and share their experiences. Indeed, each community in which CIS has a scholarship committee, had to send representatives to take part in the event, where they would spend 3 days together in Coatepeque. During the event, students had to share habitations and take part to activities with others that were not from the same communities as them, which made them get to know each other, and share with each other their experiences about the program.

Finally, the forum was also an occasion for students to make member of the delegations know more about Salvadorian culture. Not only was the event an encounter between students from different communities and CIS members, but also an opportunity from CIS partners supporting the scholarship program, to take part in the forum, hear what the youth think about immigration, and gain more knowledge about Salvadorian culture. Indeed on Saturday night, a cultural night was held, where the different groups of students from each community made a performance related to illegal immigration, as well as showing an aspect of the country`s culture. Throughout the night, members of the delegation saw dances, dramas, poems performed by the students, in which they tried their best to present their culture and their point of view over illegal immigration.
In conclusion the 7th edition of the scholarship held in Coatepeque about the question of immigration, was a nice opportunity for the youth of El Salvador to share their ideas about the issue, for CIS students to meet other young people within the program and share their experience, as well as for members of the delegation to discover more aspects of Salvadorian culture.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Tom Bright – UK- England

I can’t remember exactly how I found CIS’ website. I was studying at university at home in the UK, and looking for a chance to be involved in language learning. There is no shortage of specially arranged programmes to students- companies promising to arrange all sorts of experiences in all kinds of locations. But when I read CIS’ website, I knew it was something special. It wasn’t a product being sold by a “voluntourism” company- it was the opportunity be involved in a social movement that empowers local people at the same time as extending links of solidarity across the world.

Tom and his Spanish Teacher, Vicenta
I had been interested in Latin American politics and history for a short while before, but knew only a little about El Salvador. El Salvador is not a country many people in the UK know much about. My friends and family mostly knew only about the gangs, or nothing at all. Some people thought that it was a dangerous trip for me to take, but I didn’t encounter any trouble in El Salvador. I was given a lot of good advice on how to be safe, and once I was accustomed to the city of San Salvador, felt comfortable. I did some reading before flying to El Salvador, but it was at CIS where I gained a more detailed understanding of the country’s history, because I was surrounded by knowledgeable and passionate people to learn from.

Staying with a host family during my stay was a great experience for three reasons. Firstly, it gave me plenty of opportunities to practice my conversational Spanish, secondly, it gave me the chance to understand and be involved in family life and culture in El Salvador, and thirdly my family were lovely, generous people, who were so kind and supportive to me.

I was a little younger than most of the people who had come to be involved in the English school- and I was very nervous about the responsibility of the role of facilitating a class. As the start of the teaching cycle grew closer, I started to think that perhaps I had taken on too much of a challenge, as I had no previous experience. But everyone at CIS- staff and volunteers, did so much to help me and make me prepare and feel much more calm. I was still a little nervous on the first evening of classes, but the friendly enthusiasm of the students relaxed me very quickly, as well as the support gained by sharing the experience with the other volunteers.
Tom and his English Class

Something else that helped me to feel more calm was that classes at CIS don’t operate with a traditional, rigid set up of an “expert” teacher and the students who just listen and follow. The classes are based on discussion- of society, politics, and ideas- and the content of the classes comes from the experiences of everyone attending. Students are split into classes by level of English, but the approach remains the same for all of them.

Planning classes was an interesting challenge. Each week I learnt more about what worked well, what didn’t, and what new ideas we could try. We had group conversations, presentations, music, role plays, and more. If you’re a creative person, then you’ll probably have lots of great ideas for activities. But if you aren’t, then that’s not a problem, as you’ll have lots of help from other volunteers with thinking up ideas. And you’ll probably surprise yourself with how much you can think up.

It’s important to give support with grammar- practising what’s already known, and introducing new grammar too, but volunteers at the English school at given a lot of help with this, so it isn’t something to be worried about. You’ll learn a lot about the grammar of your own language! And it will help you to get to relate to and understand grammar in Spanish.

Like the other English School volunteers, I took Spanish classes at CIS, where we had the opportunity to discuss El Salvador’s history and current social and political challenges at the same time as improving our Spanish speaking and comprehension. (They also help you with ideas of what you could include in your English class, and how to be an effective facilitator.)


These classes were a pleasure to be a part of- we talked about a range of historical and contemporary issues, and were encouraged to consider them in relation to our own experiences, and our own countries. Because I was at CIS for an eleven week teaching cycle, I met so many interesting people from different parts of the world during Spanish classes- as people visiting El Salvador come and join classes for a week, a month, or however long they are staying for.

You are placed in a class with others of a similar Spanish level to you, so you won’t need to worry about being left behind or not being helped to progress in your ability. At one time my class was just me and one other student, and one there were around ten of us. Both class sizes had their merits, but I remember that the most common number was three. The small class size is a huge help, as it allows you plenty of time to speak each day, and ensures that you get all the help you need. The atmosphere is always friendly and supportive- but intellectually stimulating at the same time. You’ll definitely look forward to the discussions in class, and without a doubt you’ll make very significant progress with your Spanish.

My time at CIS changed me, and was the most exciting time of my life. My life and its commitments make it difficult to return for the time being, but I think about El Salvador regularly and I hope I can come back to CIS soon. There’s so much I could write about here- taking a trip to Guatemala during a break in classes, visiting community groups and historical sites on day trips organised by CIS, all of the interesting people I met….. I can’t recommend it enough, and it doesn’t matter where you are from or what age you are- the friendship and solidarity between everyone involved in CIS is a wonderful thing which I will never forget.