Monday, July 15, 2019

What the US Media Gets Wrong About El Salvador

Article written by Elisabet Eppes 
Spanish Student and English School Volunteer at CIS

I recently returned to the US after volunteering and taking classes at el Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (CIS) for 11 weeks. I had an incredible experience at CIS, and I would highly recommend CIS to people interested in learning Spanish and/or volunteering in a Spanish-speaking country.

When I decided that I wanted to take Spanish classes at CIS last fall, some of my family and friends were worried and discouraged me from choosing El Salvador as the place to learn Spanish. As you probably know, the mainstream US news paints a rather bleak picture of El Salvador, not to mention the US State Department’s travel advisory. Articles in US news outlets that focus on El Salvador tend to define the country in terms of statistical superlatives: “a homicide rate among the world’s highest for a country not at war”; “one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman”; “the most water-stressed nation in Central America”; etc. And while these statistics are true—many Salvadorans do suffer from poverty, violence, and lack of access to basic resources—like all statistics, they fail to paint a complete picture. The picture these statistics paint is one of constant violence, desperation, and chaos. But that is simply not the El Salvador I experienced.

Granted, I did spend the bulk of my time in the capital, San Salvador, where gang activity is less visible than in other parts of the country. Also, the citizens of San Salvador have much greater access to water and other resources than residents of the countryside. Even so, in the broader narrative about El Salvador, the capital is often included as a place that is violent and unsafe.

The country I experienced, contrary to the morbid statistics, was vibrant, loving, and passionate about social and political causes. One of the first things that stuck out to me during my first few weeks in El Salvador was the warmth and kindness of the people. Whether it was my host family, the people who work for CIS, or my Salvadoran students, the people I met were extremely friendly and generous with their time.

When people discovered that I was only going to be in El Salvador for three months, they would take it upon themselves to ensure that I had an amazing time while I was there—offering to take me on excursions, showing me around San Salvador, giving me recommendations for things to see and do. Considering how short my visit was, I developed several strong friendships that I hope will continue well into the future.

Another aspect of El Salvador that became clear from the outset of my trip was the political passion of the people. On my very first day in the country, I had the opportunity to join a march celebrating Saint Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvador from 1977-1980 and one of the most cherished historical figures in El Salvador. Even though the event was not explicitly political, the people marched to urge the government and their fellow citizens to continue advancing Monseñor Romero’s fight for equality and social justice.

I continued to learn about the political realities of El Salvador through my Spanish classes at CIS, including the ways in which grassroots movements are pushing for justice for women, LGBTI people, workers, farmers, refugees, and Salvadoran youth. My Spanish teachers also placed the current realities in El Salvador into the country’s historical context of revolutionary struggle. El Salvador has a long way to go with regard to both formal and informal respect for the rights of people with marginalized identities, but I am glad that CIS highlighted the movements that are fighting for these rights.

About midway through my trip, I had the great honor of participating in one of the marches celebrating International Workers’ Day. It was incredible to see all of the different unions, student organizations, and worker associations come together to advance the intersectional struggles for better treatment of workers, public ownership of water, better housing, and others.

One of the great things about CIS is that in addition to taking classes and volunteering, I was able to participate in a number of social and political excursions led by a member of the CIS staff. CIS organized trips to Panchimalco, Izalco, and the Mayan ruins during my 11-week visit. During each excursion, our CIS tour guide provided historical and contemporary context and answered all the questions my fellow volunteers and I had. Going on these excursions allowed me to experience parts of El Salvador outside of the capital that I otherwise may not have had the opportunity to visit.

On these visits, as well as in San Salvador itself, I was exposed to the culture and beauty of El Salvador. I fell in love with the food, art, and music, and was in awe of the natural landscapes – the mountains and volcanoes, the vibrant trees and flowers, the colorful birds and insects. Even though El Salvador has suffered from massive deforestation, the vegetation that remains is lush and vivid.

One of the main reasons I chose CIS as the place I wanted to learn Spanish and volunteer was their emphasis on popular education techniques based on concepts pioneered by Brazilian scholar, Paulo Freire. Unlike more traditional teaching techniques, popular education involves a process of mutual teaching and learning and focuses on the development of critical consciousness so that participants are empowered to transform their lives. Being able to apply these techniques with my students was an extremely rewarding experience for me, and has improved my skills as an educator. My students taught me a lot about the realities of life in El Salvador and stretched me to think in different ways during political discussions. A number of my students were inspired to volunteer with CIS as a result of taking English classes there.

Even though I only volunteered as an English teacher at CIS, it was nice to be teaching and learning at an organization doing such great work outside of San Salvador. I had the opportunity to learn about the CIS Clean Water program, Salvadoran Enterprises for Women, Election Observations, the Youth Scholarship Program, and home-building efforts in the Romero Community. When I come back to CIS in the future I would love to get involved in some of these other efforts.

I want to encourage other people from the US that may be interested in volunteering or taking classes at CIS to do so! If safety is a concern for you, please know that I did not feel unsafe at all during my three months in San Salvador. I did take precautions like not walking around alone at night, paying attention to my surroundings, and traveling with other people as much as possible, but these are precautions I would take in any large city. CIS takes good care of its students and volunteers, and any trepidation I might have had before coming to CIS melted away within the first few weeks of being in El Salvador.

Please keep in mind that the ways El Salvador is portrayed by the US media and government are flawed and often racist. Statistics could never tell the full story of any country, and this is especially true of a country like El Salvador. I cannot wait to come back to CIS in the future as a student and volunteer.

Clean Water for the World / CIS / University of Toledo engineering students Water Purifier Installation Report

Location: Fe y Alegría School, La Chacra, San Salvador 
Installation Date: March 5, 2019 
Report written by Cameron Clark, Brethren Volunteer Service / CIS volunteer
This Saturday I visited the Fe y Alegría Catholic School in the community of La Chacra, San Salvador with a delegation from the University of Toledo. The delegation was made up of engineering students who have helped design some of the water filters that the CIS water program together with Clean Water for the World provides, so they came to help install their own design at an underprivileged school in this poor community on the outskirts of the city.

We arrived at the school at 9 in the morning and were met by the school principal. We met with him in a conference room and talked about the history of the school and the community’s needs over coffee and snacks. He was very grateful for the delegation’s and the CIS’ support for what he described as a “marginalized community”.

He told us that the school’s enrollment has fallen from a peak of around 1000 students due to violence. The school is currently responsible for the health and safety of 432 students, and they have recently been struggling with a typhoid outbreak because of a clean water shortage in the community. The school also struggles to meet other needs of the community. They are blessed by cooperation with a sisterhood of nuns who run an after school program for numerous students whose parents work late hours.

After all our questions were answered, we toured some of the facilities and examined an existing filter that serves the grade school students before relocating to the kindergarten, a separate facility where we were to install a new water purifier. We found that the kindergarten already had a filter installed, similar in function but different in design from the ones CIS and Clean Water for the World install. The principal explained that this filter often broke down and the company that installed it didn’t often venture into the community for repairs because of safety concerns.

Luis and the delegation got to work replacing the old filter with a more reliable model.

After a few hours’ work, we celebrated a job well

After the installation, the principal brought us to the public water source. Families who don’t have water in their homes get water from a public reservoir fed by a pipeline from a stream up the hill. Like most water in the country, the spring is contaminated, and worse yet, the flow of water has decreased rapidly in the last decade due to climate change, and it can no longer meet the community’s needs on its own.

Finally, we returned to the grade school, where we were all treated to lunch and had a chance to hang out with the students. Some even came to practice their English.

Monday, March 4, 2019

"Everyone teaches, Everyone learns."

It's taken me more than four years to get to CIS. I retired in June of 2014; four days after my last day of work, I was in Moldova as a Peace Corps Trainee. That two-year stint, along with studying at the Himalayan Institute for almost a year, plus family responsibilities, kept me occupied and always with a reason to postpone coming to El Salvador. 

I arrived in San Salvador on January 1, 2019, started training as an ESL teacher using the Popular Education approach. Popular Education wraps around language learning, highlighting the reality of the country and its people. In the classroom, we discuss the environment, gender (in)equality, water issues, gang violence, to name a few. Together, as we learn language, we explore the causes, responses, and possibilities of Salvadoran reality and how it affects us, individually and as a community.

I signed on to teach in Cycle One and was offered the Intermediate B class. Students go through Basic A, B, C and Intermediate A to get to Intermediate B. "My" students include an attorney, a bookstore owner, an insurance agent, a library archivist, and an office worker. Each of them is motivated, intelligent, committed, dedicated to making the most of the ten-week cycle. And lots of fun! The CIS English School motto is "Everyone teaches, Everyone learns."

As Cycle One moves into the last six weeks, I realize that I don't want to leave. I'll be here for Cycle Two, as well. Yes, the Wisconsin winter weather is a factor, but more so is the joy of teaching, being taught, and sharing in the profound mission of the CIS. 

By CIS Volunteer, Ellen Swan.

Friday, March 1, 2019

CIS Clean Water Meeting Summary, Caserío Valle Nuevo, Tonacatepeque

CIS Clean Water promoter, Luis Aguillon, Brethren Volunteer Service and CIS volunteer Cameron Clark, and Romero Community President, Raúl Acevedo attending

We arrived in Valle Nuevo well before the start of the official meeting and were welcomed into the home of Estéban, president of the Community Development Organization. We spent that time talking casually about some of the community’s struggles over water and land rights, organization and development, and other unrelated topics. Also, drinking hot chocolate. After community members arrived at the church across the street, the official meeting began, with Estéban presiding. 36 adults were in attendance.  CIS and Romero Community organized the meeting together with Valle Nuevo Community, thanks to a donation of Sawyer Water Filters donated by PeaceHealth after last year’s medical brigade.

Estéban began by summarizing the committee’s recent meeting with the mayor, during which they talked about land rights and obtained credentials for the directors of the newly-registered Caserío Valle Nuevo Community Development Organization. He also spoke about the importance of working through legal channels to improve the community. He then summarized a fundraising plan, which amounted to soliciting $5 per family per month. Finally, he spoke about the importance of clean water and introduced Raúl.

Raúl began by outlining the process of working with the CIS Clean Water Program, including a letter from the Ministry of Health backing the Sawyer filters. He spoke of the potential for new plumbing for the school, and the community, which he has discussed with an engineer, and the need for the national water utility (ANDA) to modernize the community’s water system and piping. He went on to ask how many women were involved in the committee’s work and talk about the importance of having more women involved in the project. Finally, he briefly recounted his personal experience of the benefits of filtered water.

Next Luis stood to introduce the CIS and its various programs and the PeaceHealth Medical Brigade before going over some possible water contaminants, including parasites, and their effects. He then gave a summary of the water filter distribution process, including mandatory training on the filters’ use, hygiene, and care of the environment. He talked about the importance of storing drinking water in clean “virgin plastic” before giving a demonstration on the assembly and maintenance of a filter. Finally, he reiterated that there was to be one filter per family, and that someone from each family must attend the training.

To close this section of the meeting, Estéban stood again to thank the CIS and PeaceHealth and once again speaking about the importance of clean water for the community. A woman on the committee then took the names of each family present who wanted filter. Attached is a photo of the attendees after those wanting filters were asked to raise their hands.

By Brethren Volunteer Service BVS/ CIS volunteer, Cameron Clark

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.