Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Easter in El Salvador

A new mural in Santa Marta that commemorates all the people who were killed in the Civil War.  
Holy Week and Easter have come and gone for another year.   Easter was difficult for me this year for a number of reasons.  I have always been very uncomfortable with Good Friday.  While I understand the importance of Christ's torture and death to my faith, I'd really rather not think about it.  When I was in Mexico it seemed that crucifixes were literally everywhere.  I find the image very disturbing. Perhaps that is its purpose.

This year I am in this beautiful land, with lovely people.  The older people here have survived a brutal war where torture and death were common place.  Its memories are everywhere - in the art of people, in the scars on the bodies and the land and in the way life is lived.  I am living among people for whom Good Friday is a not just a part of a faith, but rather was a part of their lives.  When I think too much about all of this I become overwhelmed by the pain and misery of it all.

I am also living among a people who live out the hope and beauty of the Resurrection.  The people of Santa Marta who rebuilt their community from literally dirt are a testament to the belief that life can start again after death and that even in the most terrible circumstances there is hope for better futures.  The people that I work with at ADES, who despite lack of resources, huge systemic challenges and overwhelming poverty come to work every day with a smile on their faces ready to do their part to make the world just a little bit better.

Holy Week and Easter are religious holidays here.  They are not cultural holidays, as it is Canada.  I was a bit surprised when I realized that even at the "big mall"  there were no Easter decorations.  There were no displays of chocolate, Easter stuffed animals or Easter decor.  Partly I imagine that this is because it is not Spring here, it is in fact Summer so the images of new life and fertility do not resonate here.  A friend from Canada sent me Easter pencils to distribute as is  my personal custom at my office in Kitchener.  While people here gracious accepted the gift they did not understand what a pencil with cute bunnies in pastel colours had to do with Easter.  However, my friends and colleagues here did warm up to the idea of receiving gifts of chocolate at Easter.  Chocolate is not common here and is relatively expensive.  I found some "Hersey's" products in one store and stocked up.

This was my first "holiday" away and I have to admit to periods of homesickness.  I was also really missing my Mom and thinking about last Easter which was just a few weeks after her death.  I read a lot of my "special book" and I have to say it helped a lot.  What an amazing, funny, inspirational group of friends and family I have.  Thank you.  I also went to the local grocery store and bought some food I could use to make "Canadian food".  It is amazing how much a tuna salad sandwich (with Hellman's mayonaise) and a grilled cheese sandwich with ketchup can do to perk me up!  I was missing the dill pickles with the grilled cheese and have since learned that pickles are available in El Salvador, so I have a new quest!  I also went to my first movie here, a funny comedy with Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler, where she plays his fake wife.

On Easter Sunday afternoon Jenny's cousin Marie Angeles and her fiance Oscar came by.  Jenny made an incredibly tasty lunch of beef with stir fried onions, green peppers and tomatoes and rice.  Later while Oscar and Jonathan did stuff with Oscar's car, Jenny, Marie and I played cards and then watched a movie.  For dinner we had Pollo Campero (the Salvadoreno equivalent of Kentucky Fried Chicken).   I have come to agree with the Salvadorenos/as that Pollo Campero is better than KFC (less grease, more flavour).  In many ways Sunday was not unlike my tradition in Canada - pleasant time spent with family and friend, eating good food and hanging out.

It was also nice to get back to my "ADES" community.  In general people are looking refreshed, although just like at home, everyone was tired after their "first day" back.  As my friend Lynn says, holidays are nice, but really my soul craves the structure of routine living.  I think that is true for me too.

The Spanish reads "People who forget their history are doomed to repeat it."  This panel commemorates the crossing of the Rio Lempa, as the people were chased out of the village of Santa Marta during the war.  Soldiers followed on foot and in helicopters and shot at people as they were fleeing.  The whole community vacated and lived in a refugee camp in Honduras before returning to rebuild in the area leveled by the Army.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Life and Death in El Salvador

Thank you to everyone who took the time to reply to my question of Canadian cuisine and staples in your kitchen.  I am still compiling the results, so if you want to respond with your list of the 10 things you'd most often find in your kitchen, you still have time to send me an e-mail.  Next week, Holy Week is a week long holiday here.  I am not sure how often I'll be able to check e-mail or if I'll be able to write my blog.  If there is no posting next week don't fret, I'll be back with even more to write about the following week.

Today, as usual, I ate lunch with colleagues from ADES.  One of the people I sat with was Hector and today is his 38th birthday.  In order to help him celebrate many of us gathered this afternoon to eat cake in his honour.  Both lunch and cake were great.  Interestingly Hector has been or will soon be (this is where my Spanish can get rough) by CBC Radio on the impact of Mineral Mining in Central and South America.   Hector has promised me details of the programs airing time and I will of course pass these on to you as soon as I know about them.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to show Hector my blog from last week.  We copied it into Google Translator and he was able to read it in Spanish.  This was a particularly profound opportunity for me because Hector was the man that the Judge had excluded from the Courtroom in last week's blog.  Sadly he concurred that having a Canadian in the audience on the side of the defendants was really important because justice is not impartial here. Hector would know, he is a lawyer himself.  After reading my blog Hector explained to me that I hadn't quite understood two things.  The Judge did not dismiss the charges...rather he stayed them for a year to give the Prosecution the option of bringing new evidence.  The lawyer for the defendants was paid for by the "Mesa" of which ADES is a member, not by ADES directly.

I had the opportunity this week to attend a press conference and a meeting of La Mesa National Frente a la Minera Metalica (Mesa) - The National  Working Group Against Mineral Mining.  I watched Hector at the Press Conference and in many ways was reminded of the work that I did in Canada.  Hector is a knowledgeable and articulate spokesperson for a cause in which he passionately believes.  He does public education events, press conferences and speaks to members of the government about the reasons why he and many others believe that mineral mining is not a good option for El Salvador.  There is one huge difference between Hector's work and mine - Hector lives with the knowledge that his work might one day cause him to be seriously hurt or killed.  Hector received death threats in January, 2011.  See the United Church of Canada website for more information.  In fact most of the people who are members of the Mesa have received threats and 4 members have been murdered in recent years, including the brother of Miguel, another ADES staff.

One of the focuses of the anti-mining work, is in trying to prevent the re-opening of the El Dorado gold mine.  It is owned by a Canadian company called Pacific Rim, which is headquartered in Vancouver, British Columbia.  When the company began its exploratory work in a community very near to where I am now living, the residents started to learn about  what it would mean if mine began full operations.  Many community members, organizations and Churches have come to the conclusion that the environmental and social costs are far too great to justify its operation.   The Salvadorian Government has listened and at the moment is refusing to grant operational permits.  This action has resulted in Pacific Rim suing (through its American subsidiary) the Government of El Salvador for 70 million dollars through the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).  This process is on-going.

In March, 2006 about 100 people gathered at a Pacific Rim site to protest.  The protest got out of hand and some machinery was damaged resulting in about $1600 (possibly a lot less) in damages and there was a fight between Salvadorenos employees of Pacific Rim and the protesters.  No one was seriously injured.  As a result, 7 people were charged.  This was the case I observed last week.  In then end, there was no evidence presented to suggest that these 7 people had been the people to damage the machinery or who were in the fight.  However, for the past 5 years they have been the victims of intimidation and threats.

At the centre of it all sits Pacific Rim, a Canadian company.  Pacific Rim denies any involvement in the violence here and in fact denies that there is any connection to the deaths, threats, injuries and intimidation suffered by many anti-mining activists.  There is a very small group of Salvadorenos who will profit immensely from the mine opening.  However, it is very hard to know the source of all of this violence because none of this has been thoroughly investigated by the PNC (Federal Police in El Salvador) or by the appropriate departments in the Government.

For a few years now I have been learning about the mining issues and the violence here.   However, this week it became personal because the stories weren't just about faceless people in country far away.  I don't know if I will ever forget the moment that the pieces fell into place and I realized that "my" Hector was the same person in the action alert issued by the United Church in January.   He is like many other people here, neither naive nor foolish, but rather deeply committed to working on issues vitally important to the health and well-being of the people of El Salvador.  When I told Hector this week that I thought he was brave, he replied in his calm and modest way that the work is important.

Hector and I 

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Few thoughts about Privilege and Hope

Once again, apologies for the late posting.  I have been out of the office Tuesday and Wednesday and so today (Thursday)  is my first chance to write my blog.   Before I get into the story I want to share, I am hoping that you will be able to help me with something.  I am often asked about what typical Canadian food is and I have to admit I have a hard time answering that question.  Here, there are about 10 things that would be found in every kitchen all the time (beans, rice, potatoes, eggs, tomatoes, green peppers, onion, garlic, cheese and tortillas). I am interested in knowing what are your 10 basic staples?  Please post a comment on my blog or send me an e-mail ( with your answer or thoughts on Canadian cuisine.  

As some of you know, one of my motivations for coming to El Salvador was a response to an my overwhelming feelings of white privilege and guilt about this fact.  In training in Toronto, one of the other participants commented that many of us are partly doing this as response to white guilt, but that this experience will likely only deepen these feelings.  I had honestly never thought about it that way, I have hoped that this time away would help to resolve not strengthen these feelings.  Our training leader challenged us to focus not on the guilt, but the responsibility.  Truly, I really didn't understand that comment but this week I feel like I have had a glimpse of what this might mean.

Tuesday I had the opportunity to accompany two staff from ADES  to Criminal Court- a lawyer doing human rights work and another staff member who is a highly skilled and competent advocate and spokesperson on issues related to mineral mining.   There was a case against a group of 6 campesinos (peasant farmers)  that ADES has been very interested in and in fact paid for the lawyer for these people.    Ultimately after the proceeding today the charges were dropped essentially because there was no evidence.  This case is the result of charges laid in March, 2006.  This has been going on for 5 years!  On Tuesday, I learned that  unlike in Canada, the courtroom is not open to the public here.  The Judge literally stood at the door and decided who came in and who didn't.  It all happened very quickly.  In the end the Human Rights Lawyer and I were allowed in and the other staff person wasn't.    It was explained to me that "observers" are very important in a Salvadorian Court and can influence the outcome simply by their presence.  I was asked to go because I am a white Canadian.    I was okay with that.  I even figured out that I needed to not say anything to anyone while we were waiting because it was important that they think I understand Spanish.  The Human Rights Lawyer from ADES, who did the talking to the Judge at the door, explained to me later that the Judge didn't want any observers but didn't feel like he could exclude him, a well known Human Rights Lawyer in the area and me a representative of the United Church of Canada.  However, there was no reason to include the other staff person.  As a result, the white Canadian with little knowledge of the case, no connection to the defendants and limited understanding in Spanish was inside the court room while the other staff person, a bright, educated Salvadoreno who knows the case and is well connected to the defendants was excluded.

I know that my skin colour and my passport create a huge amount of privilege for me.  I am acutely aware of that in just about everything I do here.  However, this is the first time that I have experienced discrimination that was this blatant.  I feel very badly for the staff member who was not permitted in the court room.  He has been in meetings outside of the office for the past few days, so I have not had the opportunity to connect with him, but I will.  I think it is important for me to say, I understand what happened, I don't think it is fair or right and I'm sorry. 

However, this is not enough.

I have been asked to write about this situation to my Canadian friends and Church.  This whole situation is particularly disturbing to me because at the centre of this case and many other issues here, is a Canadian company.  I am still gathering some information, as I want to make sure that I understand the issues before sharing it all with you, but that will be next week's blog.

I talked to a salvadoreno friend about this situation the day it happened when I was feeling quite sad about it all.  He reminded me of two things, one is that by the work that we do every day we try to make the world a bit more just and secondly, the final kingdom of God will be just and our hope comes from our belief in our Salvation.  It is so easy to understand why Archbishop Romero is such a hero here.  He preached the radical idea that God is with the poor and that in God's ultimate kingdom there would be peace and justice for the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized.
On the weekend Jenny, Jonathan, Nelson (Jenny's boyfriend) and Jorge (Jenny's Uncle) and I went to Lago Ilopongo.  It is a beautiful small lake near San Salvador, as you can see in this photo!
This is the entrance to the main building at the ADES compound.  You will notice Gus and Negro, the two agency dogs who both provide security (although generally they like to lay around) and company for ADES staff and visitors.  You'll notice the Christmas garland is still the agency for me or what?!

Twice a month, the "economia local" team organizes a "feria" (a market) in our agency parking lot,  where the people that they work with to increase local food production come and sell their goods.  In the blow up pool are live tilapia (fish) that you can buy and take home for dinner.  Behind the pool, in the white crates are live chickens.  I asked a colleague how people take the live chickens home (as the fish get put in a plastic bag, but they are relatively small) and apparently people just put them under their arm!

This is the dish washing area at our office.  In the white and blue barrels are water.  Dirty dishes are placed on the tree stump, washed using a solid cake of soap and a sponge and then rinsed using water from the barrels.  In the blue barrel, you will notice a small plastic basin floating.  This is used to pour the rinse water over the clean dishes.  I have learned that the secret to washing dishes in cold water is to use lots of soap!

This is our favourite lunch spot.  Everyone in the picture is staff at ADES.  You'll notice Alonzo front and center and  that is Jenny's back in the front.    The "restaurant" is in Morena's house and the tables are on her front porch.  Everyday she makes 2 different entrees and generally rice, potatoes, beans and a salad of some type.  The "private dining room" is literally the dining room of her house. 

4 of my teammates in the "Area de Organizacion" office - from left to right -
Edith, Gilma, Rosa and Tita.    

Friday, April 1, 2011


Sorry for the late posting this week, we've had some power and internet issues here!  As I am on a very short time frame for posting this, I'll forgo adding pictures this week but will make sure there are lots next week!

First of all, I want to say "bienvenido mis amigos/as salvadoreno/a".  This week one of my colleagues asked for my blog address.   With the help of GoogleTranslator a few colleagues here have visited my blog and read some of my postings.  Jonathan told me that he particularly liked the section about him setting up my cell phone! In all seriousness, I am very pleased that people in my ADES family are reading along and I hope they will let me know when I inevitably get things wrong!

This week I want to write about two experiences.  The first involves a lovely young family - Mom, Dad and two daughters ages 7 and 2.  Dad is involved in a program at ADES to help him increase his family's income.  Through that service it became known that his daughters have medical issues that need more attention.  Dad got introduced to my boss, Gilma (pronounced Hilma), and she has been working on the medical issues.  One day I had the opportunity to accompany Gilma and Oscar, another staff person, to the local hospital to discuss the situation.  In the end, Gilma got the Director and the Head of Pediatrics to see the two daughters and to make the referral (complete with free x-rays if needed) to the children's hospital in San Salvador.    Gilma arranged a meeting with the family and to discuss the next steps.  I was able to accompany her and Oscar on this community visit as well.   

The place where the family lives is in a rural village about 40 minutes by pick-up truck from our office.  The last 8-10 kms of the trip is really, really rough road.  We found the family waiting for us by the side of the road.  The girls are really cute.  Both girls have deformed hands which are particularly pronounced for the 2 year old.  The girls also have feet and eye problems and have recurring serious lung issues.  They are very, very petite and the 7 year old is only slightly taller than her 2 year old sister.  We decided to accompany the family to their home.  This is a 40 minute walk literally down a mountain on a steep footpath.   The 7 year old walks this daily on her way to and from school.  It was tough going in parts and at one point, Gilma, while telling me to be careful, slips and falls.  She was fine, but I think about how difficult it would be to get someone out of here if there was an accident.  

We eventually reached the house.  The location was stunning.  Much to my surprise, there was some electricity - lights and couple of plugs.  Of course, the house is unbelievably clean but it is literally on the side of a mountain in the middle of nowhere.   As we walking back up the mountain, Gilma explains to me that the girls problems are the result of chronic malnutrition and gestational malnutrition.  I feel like I am in a World Vision commercial, it is the first time I have looked into the eyes of a beautiful child who is malnourished.  This week Gilma accompanied the family to the local hospital, where the little girl was diagnosed with ongoing lung issues.  The referral is being made and they will both see pediatric specialists in San Salvador, eventually.  In the mean time, the father continues to work with staff in the “economia local” program to increase the family’s income.  There are no practical supports available to this family so it is likely that the lack of food problem will persist for the foreseeable future. 

My emotions are all over the place about this situation.  I am very pleased that ADES is the type of organization that “goes the distance” with families.  Even though this is not her “job”, Gilma’s advocacy has made sure that two girls will get medical care.   At the same time, I am deeply saddened that in this world of plenty these two beautiful girls and their parents, just don’t have enough.  I have also been told that this situation is not unique here.  I know that and that my reaction, over time, will be less visceral.  However, I suspect that I will carry this family with me for a long time.

Later last week, I went to an event to commemorate the assignation of Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvador on March 24, 1980.  At this event, my job was to get everyone to sign the attendance sheet.  They needed to print their name, the name of their community and sign it.  Gilma also gave me an inkpad in case people wanted to make a thumbprint rather than a signature.  This was a group of about 80 adults of various ages.  In the end I managed to get 64 signed the attendance sheet.  I have worked with people with low literacy levels in Canada, but I had never seen a group of people work so hard to print their name and their signature.  Each person literally took about 5 minutes – once they understood what they needed to do.  Probably a dozen or so put their thumbprint.  Once again, I realized how privileged I am to have the literacy level I have in a second language. 

In terms of what ADES does...You have already read a bit about the work of my team with women and youth.  There is also a “economia local” team that works with households to increase local production through small home based businesses.  Another group of people are working to improve the education system and a fourth team is working on issues related to mining and water and there is one person working on human rights issues.    Finally there is a group of people in administration who, like their counterparts everywhere, keep the agency going on a day to day basis.  I will talk more about the work of ADES in future blogs as I understand it more.  Just let me say that I feel deeply honoured to work with this passionate, committed, fun and highly skilled group of people. 

As part of the popular education, staff at ADES have many, many shirts and other items with logos and sayings on them.   On Wednesday, I was asked to pick out a shirt from a small selection in the “Economia Local” office.  I got wind yesterday of a conversation about me getting a “camisa de ADES” manana.   I carefully put the shirt in my backpack thinking that I received it to wear at an event the next day, but as it turns out I will receive another shirt for that event.  I learned this when someone stopped by to ask if I didn’t like my new shirt, because I wasn’t wearing it!  I am just about to go for lunch, and wearing a new shirt is way too much pressure…sure to slop…so I’ll put it on after lunch!  I am very pleased to have my first “ADES” corporate wear.   It feels like another step in the integration process.