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 




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