Friday, March 23, 2018

My Visit with CIS Scholarship Students in San Rafael Cedros

In the context of CIS 25TH anniversary celebration August 2018, we invite people to share testimonies about solidarity work with CIS.   CIS began supporting grassroots organizing in San Rafael Cedros in 2001 as part of recovery and reconstruction after the 2001 earthquakes.   In 2006, after the visit of a member of Our Lady of Presentation Church a scholarship and youth leadership program began in 2007.    Rosa Maria Santana was  a first time visitor and March 2018 election observer wrote the reflection below after her meeting with CIS-Our Lady of Presentation Scholarship students.  (March 2018)

By Rosa María Santana                                    
My Visit with CIS Scholarship Students in San Rafael Cedros


With their enthusiastic smiles and insightful perspectives, the approximately 30 CIS San Rafael Cedros student scholars stood up, one by one, to proudly speak of their respective academic projects that touch on a myriad of complex topics. Climate change. Preserving drinking water. Consumerism. Environmental justice. Curbing poverty. Accessing community healthcare. Social justice. 

Some students hesitated talking about themselves. Others showcased their free-spirited personalities by welcoming the chance to elaborate on their research and on their respective lives. One young man—the first in his family to go to college—said his dad couldn’t read or write, so he was determined to do well with his studies. Many female teens said they’ll be the first woman in their families to earn a college degree. Another admitted streets near his school are rife with drugs. One aims to study the social sciences. Another wants to pursue an engineering degree, while another wants to teach. As they spoke, no one could deny each student’s commitment to community service and academic excellence—despite the fact that many of them face personal challenges. Each scholar’s optimistic outlook was infectious.

“What I enjoy most about my project is the chance to work with younger students,” said one male teen scholar. “I get to teach children the importance of clean drinking water and how that can affect the well-being of a community—and of our country.” 

As they delve into their subject matter, these teen-aged scholars create lesson plans to teach younger students what they’ve learned. One female student said teaching what she’s learned helps her remember facts and details more vividly. And, this also challenges her to present her research in a creative, engaging way that captures the imagination and interest of children. These talented CIS scholars represent El Salvador’s bright future. Not only do they seek solutions to weighty topics, but they also share their knowledge with younger minds. They serve as positive role models to children who may also be the first in their families to go to college. Their optimism and dedication moved me because these teen scholars want to change their nation, one mind at a time. They rely on knowledge to improve the lives of others. While listening to them, I beamed with pride. El Salvador lies in astute, aspiring hands.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Propaganda in the El Salvador Elections

                Propaganda, in all its controversy, is an integral part of each election in El Salvador. For the departmental and municipal elections this year, candidates have already begun their animated efforts to sway voters. Navigating the electoral code and assessing the recent situation of transparency help with understanding El Salvador’s electoral propaganda.

                El Salvador’s updated Electoral Code denotes the regulations surrounding the election, including when and how candidates can display promotional advertisements for their campaign. According to the Code, senators running for office may begin presenting propaganda two months before election day, while mayoral candidates must wait until one month beforehand (Art. 172). Violations from any source of electronic or physical media (i.e. radio, TV, rallies, demonstrations, flyers, loudspeaker announcements)(Art. 175) will involve a fine between ten to fifty thousand colones, the previous currency for El Salvador. This translates to $1,114- $5,714.
                The Electoral Code also lists the rules for promotional content and means of display. No party or individual candidate may advertise on public buildings, national monuments, trees, artwork, traffic signs, or on the walls of houses or buildings of which the owners did not give permission (Art. 179). The Code only allows candidates to hang posters and photos that are easy to take down- no paintings or permanent hangings (Art 173). Lastly, candidates cannot do damage; either in the form of insults and defamation to other candidates, or by promoting public disorder or property damage (Art 173). Common law deals with these violations.

                Although the Code seems to clearly list the regulations surrounding propaganda distribution and displays in the country, questions of transparency still arise. For example, with only one to two months of campaigning, candidates have little time to advertise. This time limit could be positive, in that all candidates receive equal promotional time and citizens live free from a year-long bombardment of campaign messages. However, it also means that citizens have little time, and limited resources to research the candidates. There exist virtually no websites listing the candidates and their platform, and even if there were, many Salvadorans in the rural communities live without internet access. Most Salvadorans see only propaganda advertised on their streets, some of it illegitimate,
breaking the electoral code rules (ex. being displayed too early, billboards painted on walls, etc.).
In addition, CIS observers have noted that the propaganda teaches people how to mark a ballot for a candidate or party, but as mentioned before, there is no message of political content or platform (pictured to the left and right). People are only told who to vote for and how to vote, but not why. This is another transparency issue that leads to misinformed voting.
                Each of El Salvador’s eight leading political parties use propaganda cleverly, and sometimes even illegally, all in hopes of gaining more votes. Historically, elections in El Salvador have been a time of unrest and potential, wrought with heightened emotion of all descriptions. Today’s propaganda keeps that intensity alive as the country eagerly awaits the final results.

Written by: Sarah Hammaker 

Friday, November 3, 2017

Meet some of the CIS volunteers 2017

The CIS has a variety of different volunteer opportunities availability, depending on the interests, the organizational needs, and Spanish ability. We strive to meet the needs of our students and the communities we serve; therefore the CIS is always looking for mature, flexible, open-minded volunteers.

In this opportunity we want to share some of the experiences from the volunteers 2017

Meet Ashley Hannah-Roma, a volunteer for the Clean Water Campaign that CIS runs. Ashley is a university student in Canada, she participated in this program, as it combines her 2 majors: engineering and international development. Watch the video below to hear about her experience here at CIS. Apart from the English program, CIS runs multiple programs such as the Clean Water Campaign. There are multiple ways to volunteer at CIS.

Meet another English School Volunteer, Brian Powell from the United States. Back in Louisiana he also teaches English to students, many of whom are immigrants, and for Brian teaching English at CIS has equipped him to have better understanding of and greater empathy with those students who are learning a new language as well as cultures.

Meet Sarah Hammaker another English School volunteer. For Sarah, teaching English enhances her Spanish learning. In her English class there is mutual learning, in which she teaches English to her Salvadoran students and they reciprocate by teaching her Spanish. Watch the video below to hear about her experiences here at CIS.

Meet Justin Weidman, a English School Volunteer. He was a teacher for a second cycle teaching English at the CIS. Watch the video below to hear about his experiences!

Meet another English School volunteer, Marie Claire Olson. She is a university student at University of New Brunswick in Canada majoring in leadership studies, and she was one of the best English teachers at an intermediate level in El Salvador. Watch the video to hear about her experiences with CIS!

Meet Russell, another English School Volunteer at CIS. In Canada, he is a psychology student at York University. Watch the video below to hear about his experiences in El Salvador.

Meet Brittney an art therapist in the United States. She was in El Salvador volunteering as an English teacher at CIS. She also had the opportunity to meet with some of our artisans with whom she shared and learned from different experiences. Watch the video below to hear about her experiences teaching English!

We are looking for energetic people with a commitment to social justice to volunteer with us in the following areas:
- English teachers
- Election volunteers
- Grassroots Community Organizing Intern

The CIS offers half-price Spanish classes to our volunteers.

To apply for any of our volunteer positions, we request an application that you can find in our website: www.cis-elsalvador. Also, you can send us an email to or for further information.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Education is everything, and this summer, I had the chance to re-learn that for myself.

Yesterday I got back from San Salvador. I'll be processing this summer for a long time, and right now, I'm missing it so much that I almost don't want to think about it. But my spirit is very full right now, and I want to tell you what is filling it.

My spirit is full of gratitude. I'm grateful for the generosity of my family, friends, and colleagues. Asking for financial support for a project like this is a vulnerable thing. It meant a lot to me that so many people-- including folks I've never met-- donated to my campaign, shared it with their networks, and / or passed along encouragement. I'm also grateful to the team at CIS-El Salvador. They are doing vital work, and doing it well. I cannot recommend volunteering with this program any more highly. I'm thankful to the volunteers I worked with-- a diverse, inspiring crew who managed to challenge me and make me laugh each day. But most of all, I'm thankful to my students. The language school at CIS operates under the philosophy that "everybody teaches, everybody learns." This was certainly true for me. The "students" I taught were clearly committed, from day one, to generously educating me about the cultures and realities of their country. They took me out to see the city, they invited me to their homes, fed me, gave me books to read, and patiently answered a lot of stupid questions. They became friends.

My spirit is also full of new perspectives. I came to El Salvador because many of my students are immigrants from Central American countries. I wanted to learn more Spanish and gain a deeper understanding of the cultures and political realities that some of my students and their families have faced and are facing. I learned a lot. Such as: learning a language? Hard. I knew quite a bit of Spanish before I came here, but for the first few weeks, when people tried to talk to me, I froze up every single time. It was so intimidating and so frustrating. Teacher friends who are serving emerging bilinguals: please understand that "the silent period" in language acquisition real. Just because a kid is not talking does not mean that they are "lazy." I'm not saying I have all the answers for how to better support our students who are learning English, but I do know that sometimes we ask the world of our students and not enough of ourselves. We can do better, and by we, I mean me. Also: I already knew that U.S. imperialism in Central American countries has been devastating. But that abstract knowledge became a little more real for me when I stood in front of a monument in El Mozote and listened to two local women talk about the massacre carried out there during the Salvadoran Civil War in the '80s. Do you know this story? More than 800 civilians-- men, women, and children-- were systematically executed by a U.S.-trained battalion. Shortly after whispers of the massacre at El Mozote began making their way to the U.S., the Reagan administration officially certified that human rights conditions in El Salvador were improving under the current military regime. News of civilian massacres were inconvenient for the U.S; after all, the war was a big investment (at one point, we were giving $1.5 million in aid every single day to the Salvadoran government). The point is, before I started planning this trip, I knew none of this. So what else do I not know? And how does my knowledge of my own ignorance inform the way I view issues like "illegal" immigration from Central American countries? Also, how does it affect my commitment as a public school English teacher to do better for my many students whose families from countries that have suffered as a result of U.S. policies?

Finally, my spirit is full of memories. So I get home after work one day, and I realize I forgot my key. Because it's a June afternoon in San Salvador, it naturally starts pouring rain. I'm standing out in the street, not sure what to do, when the next door neighbor's door cracks open, and an old woman gestures for me to come inside. I spend the rest of the afternoon drinking coffee and chatting with a lovely family I have never met. They have two little girls: one is dressed in a Wonder Woman costume and wants to show me her superhero poses, and the other is crayoning pictures she keeps insisting are for me. Three hours later, there's a knock at the door. It's my host, but she's not looking for me. She had no idea I was there; she was just dropping by to give her neighbors some little pies she had baked. There is something instructive and implicating in the purity of moments like this. And there were a lot of moments like this. Planting trees on a misty mountain in Chalatenango with a group of local yoga practitioners, or participating in a giant, ridiculous dance circle with internationals and locals at a local bar until well after midnight, or watching young men participate in a rap cypher at a downtown skateboard festival, or marching in a massive sexual diversity pride march that made me feel more hope than I have felt in a long time-- when you want to learn about all the negative narratives that are stowed away in your subconscious, step out of your own social location and note what surprises you about the folks you meet. I am ashamed and grateful to report that I was surprised pretty much every day. It's a feeling I need to keep chasing.

It's a cliche to describe international travel as life-changing, but I do feel different. It was hard to leave. My work and my home are here, though, and I'm glad to be back. So once again: to everybody who helped make this trip be what it was for me: thank you. And yes, I wrote this as a five-paragraph essay with obvious transition words. I teach 7th grade English, and I want my students to understand that the writing structures we study are worth knowing, and not just to regurgitate information about context-less passages on a standardized test. Education is everything, and this summer, I had the chance to re-learn that for myself. Teacher friends: see you in a few days. 

Everybody else: I love you and I hope I see you soon.

Writing by: Brian Powell

Friday, March 3, 2017

Ants and dirt! Observations from the Brethren Volunteer Service Volunteer, Tibby Miller.

Photo: Women from Comunidad Romero work together with a Brethren Volunteer Service volunteer (me) and volunteers from York University preparing newspaper cones for seeding. Right: Margarita worked on a coffee plantation and had years of practice doing similar work seeding coffee.

Women from the SEW project Comunidad Romero this past week came together to prepare the soil for their indigo nursery. Last year they attended weekly workshops on organic agriculture including how to make “cones” from newspaper, which serves to recycle and use an easily accessible resource. The cones are filled with a mixture of soil and bocashi (a kind of compost) and then will be planted with indigo seeds. The seeds themselves are tiny, and must be planted carefully, not too deep or they won’t sprout, and not too shallow or the ants or birds will carry them off.

Speaking of ants! Farming in El Salvador, you encounter a problem you would never think of. Carpenter ants! The giant ants love cutting poor, tender, new sprouts and carrying them off in pieces to their lair. It would be funny if it wasn’t so destructive. The women in Romero planted approximately 500 cones and the indigo seedlings were doing nicely. After about 2 weeks they needed more sun than they could receive under the awning of their shed. So we moved the seedlings to an area nearby with more sun. As we were moving them I noticed a single ant carrying his prize: a yellow flower. It was only a couple days after Valentine's Day, and I thought, “How cute! He’s late, but he’s bringing flowers to his lady friend!”

That night, all 500 seedlings disappeared and the cones were left completely bare.

Not to be deterred, the ladies in the Comunidad Romero project working with organic indigo, replanted the next day and are planting several thousand more cones with seedlings. Finding organic methods to control problems like carpenter ants can be a huge challenge in tropical countries. Options include using uncooked rice or finding another carpenter ant burrow and sprinkling some of the material on the area you want to protect. Apparently ant colonies steer clear from one another and respect each other’s territory, a characteristic that can be exploited.

Learning to coexist with potential damaging plants, animals, and microorganisms is a fundamental part of the agroecology movement. On the other hand, the tendency in El Salvador is to use quick-fixes to solve problems that involve the heavy use of pesticides, burning brush and weeds, and chemical fertilizers. The effects certainly have a large role in the widespread contamination of rivers and freshwater sources, erosion of soils, and declining soil fertility, to name a few.

Written by: Elisabeth Anne Miller

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