As I was watching a TED talk today by Anna Deavere Smith* I was reminded of many conversations I’ve had with rural Salvadorans over the last few years. Conversations with humble people who, despite their often limited education and access to good information, shared with me some of the most poignant insights I have ever heard about violence, healing, determination, poverty, and society. For those not familiar with El Salvador’s bloody recent history: this year marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the peace accords which officially ended a long, violent civil war. It is estimated that nearly 100,000 Salvadorans were killed during the war that lasted more than a decade (officially 1980-1992), and was the main cause for the mass emigration of Salvadorans (particularly to the US) as refugees.
According to the Salvadoran government and international press, the last twenty years of El Salvador’s history have been peaceful, bringing more trade and tourism to the country, not to mention political stability. And in many ways, El Salvador IS in much better shape than it was in 1992. However, emigration- both during and after the civil war- has done massive damage to the Salvadoran family social structure, and arguably caused the alarming rise of gang violence in this tiny country, (whether you believe the gangs to be an export of L.A. or not). That, combined with a lack of jobs and fair pay, the “dolarizacion*” (which has caused inflation), and government corruption have now led El Salvador to the brink of being one of the most violent (if not the most violent) country in the world, according to a report issued by The Geneva Declaration* in 2011, with neighbors Honduras and Guatemala also in the top 10 ranked countries.
Salvadorans, especially those living in poverty (including rural poverty), have a lot to say about their society. Perhaps because of the two countries’ close ties, Salvadorans often (unfortunately) compare their country to the US, and find it wanting. They are acutely aware of the lack of social justice which the FMLN promised to provide the lower classes when it became an official political party in 1992. The post-war generation of young adults- with better access to both basic education and information than ever before- thanks to cell phones and satellite television- see what they are missing. They see injustice. They see the huge economic divide in their own country. They see the families of infamous leaders of the wartime paramilitary death squads continuing to wield enormous political power. They feel a strong sense of frustration about the future because of the high level of government corruption and violence. Many feel that continuing their education is pointless, as they will probably never find work. Many simply want to escape and join family members in the US and Canada. The increasingly dangerous journey North seems a small price to pay to escape the lives of their fathers: breaking their backs in the hot sun cultivating corn for $5/day, exposing themselves to dangerous chemicals and respiratory disease by cutting sugarcane for $6/day, living in fear of being killed for not paying outrageous ‘rent’ to gangs in order to keep struggling small businesses, I could go on, but you get the idea… I believe that because this generation is much more literate than previous generations, (something the post-war government has managed to succeed in doing, although perhaps with unintended consequences), they are able to read news stories, understand reports, and they are unwilling to accept this future of violence, both economic and social, that their country is now offering them.
During my time in the caserío of El Pital as a Peace Corps volunteer, I watched the nightly news countless times with my friends and neighbors. The domestic news always included at least a few stories of bodies that had been dumped in a cornfield or the like, of a family or bus driver that had been shot for failing to pay ‘rent’ to the gangs, or bus crashes that left many people dead or injured. They would always turn to me tell me how the violence sometimes seemed worse now than during the war: less predictable. We would talk about the corruption in the government, and how the peace accords seemed to have little effect on their lives: they still received unfair wages and were much vulnerable to violence than the rich politicians who controlled trade, business, politics, even transportation and, as popular rumor would have it, the gangs themselves. I had many discussions with a brilliant community counterpart about the social and economic struggles of his country which had greatly affected his personal life. Once an employee of an NGO program in our local school for youth with learning/behavioral disabilities, he was now unemployed because the government cut the program instead of maintaining it when the NGO finally withdrew support. Even though he had a high school degree, he struggled to find work, and eventually lost himself to alcoholism. Once a bright community leader, he was too frustrated to continue looking for work, and when I finished my service, we had barely spoken for months. There are few opportunities for a man like him, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he has tried to immigrate to the US by now. He talked about immigrating as his last hope.
The violence that is strangling social and economic progress in El Salvador does not seem to be ending any time soon. Even after the supposed ‘truce’ bartered between the government, gang leaders, and the Catholic church last year seemed to lower the rate of reported homicides, my training group was forced to close our service five months ahead of schedule. It was explained to us that because of rising violence in the country, and in spite of the recent ‘truce’, we would be forced to leave our communities so that Peace Corps Washington could dramatically scale back the program with the goal of keeping fewer volunteers in only the northern zone. At the time, it seemed unreasonable to me. But over the next year, and after moving with my husband to San Salvador, I think the decision was ultimately the correct decision. The ‘truce’ has became more of a transparent political stunt; as the homicide rate has decreased, cases of missing persons, extortions, and violent assaults have actually increased, according to reports published by national newspapers based on government data. It would seem that the gangs are killing each other less, but are terrorizing innocent citizens more and more. Not only that, but the foreign drug gang, the Zetas, are now active in El Salvador, recruiting so they can control the increasing wave of drugs and guns that pass through Central America. Many people live as though there is a war going on; they live with a much higher level of anxiety than is normal; they are suspicious of nearly everyone- including neighbors; they almost expect to be robbed or assaulted (they keep all valuables out of sight including in their cars); they avoid going out or using public transportation at night; and they are desensitized to the violence around them: I’ve watched groups of schoolchildren led past uncovered bodies in the street, and neither the children nor their chaperones reacted in alarm. This is not normal, but it has become so for them. It became normal for me. And that is terrifying.
When I moved back to Maryland three weeks ago, I felt like I was walking around in a parallel reality. I still feel that way. It makes me nervous that my mom’s house doesn’t have bars on the windows on the first floor. I walk into convenience stores with my guard up; I stare at people who take out their phones in public like they are insane. And I worry endlessly about my husband who is still living in El Salvador until his visa is granted. But even when he is able to move here with me, there will still be millions of people living there. Some of them are my friends- dear friends who treated me like family, even taking care of me when I was sick (which was most of the time). What about them? What about their stories, and the reality of their daily lives? What about the violence that they live with every day? Why is no one paying attention?! It seems the developed world is so focused on the crises in the Middle East and North Africa that they are ignoring the atomic-sized, multifaceted, fast-growing crisis in their own ‘back yard’. My rural Salvadoran friends tell me that in the 70s and 80s, they came to the US to escape the violence. Then in the 90s and early 2000s, they came for economic opportunity. Now, they say, the trend is reversing; they are leaving to escape the violence again; they are leaving because they cannot live with the threat of being killed for not paying ‘rent’ or watching their children being recruited into organized gang crime. They leave because they do not see a future for themselves if they stay. How can I help tell their stories? Who will be interested in listening? At a recent conference in Washington DC, a speaker talked about the problem of the “sleepwalking American public” oblivious to the everyday realities of the developing world; How can I wake people up to the reality of El Salvador and give my friends a louder voice to tell the truth of what is happening in their country? The Salvadoran government has a social campaign slogan that reads, “Hablemos bien de El Salvador”, or “Let’s speak well of El Salvador.” While you will never hear me speak ill of Salvadorans, I will tell the truth about what is happening there, because they deserve better than this; most of all they deserve to be heard.