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.

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