EMAIL 8: November 5, 2005
El Salvador... USA's 51st state?
"La dignidad y los derechos humanos de los migrantes no tienen fronteras" - Carecen International
(The dignity and the human rights of migrants do not have borders)
Hope everything is going well with everyone! Sorry for the very late email, but surprisingly I've been really busy- and for some reason I have not been as motivated to go to the internet cafe in the nearby shopping mall even though it is a faster walk that the cafe in Guatemala. I have had a hard time finding a way to present what I have learned or experienced in the past 3 weeks because of its strong political and economic content. And there is enough happening in US present politics to keep anyone busy. I promise to send another update next week and once my journals/pictures on line you can have a more detailed picture of how the last 3 weeks have turned out.
I am pleased to report that my transition to El Salvador has been smooth and things are going great! I don't know where to start because as you can imagine San Salvador, the country's capital, is completely different from Santiago and Guatemala City. In reality, I am living in any USA city with the exception that everyone speaks Spanish.
Upon arrival on Sunday October 16th, I was greeted by my new host family and quickly noticed significant changes between Guatemala and El Salvador in addition to the hot climate here. (I looked ridiculous walking out of the airport in a hooded sweatshirt.) I unpacked my things and took a nap before heading to my family birthday party for my host family's niece's 3 year old son. I have never been at a more elaborate birthday party at Wendy's in my life? I had no idea that a trip to Wendy's could be labeled as a "cultural experience."
San Salvador is different from Guatemala is so many ways. First, there are no signs of an indigenous culture here in the city and the rural indigenous population is quite small. There is not a strong presence of indigenous culture, language, or dress anywhere in El Salvador. Actually, it appears that Salvadorans are quite proud of their Ladino culture- If you can call it a "culture." It is quite sad how "cultureless" San Salvador appears. You must head out of the city to appreciate El Salvadoran life. (However, anyone that visits El Salvador will quickly appreciate their "popusas" which is the prominent typical food that closely resembles a quesadilla.) Secondly, it is uncommon to hear salutations or greetings by strangers, whereas in Guatemala it is very rude to pass by someone without saying hello. Third, Salvadorans are outspoken, politicized, and very up to date on current and international events. In Guatemala, most people do not talk about the civil war and surprisingly I never spoke about US politics either. Overall, the major difference is the level of "Americanization" that has occurred in El Salvador.
Since my arrival, every day I am more shocked by the level of American-US influence here. To be blunt, it is sickening. I am living in a marketer's dream world.
For starters, El Salvador is dollarized, which means the US dollar is the primary currency. However, you will rarely come across 20s, 50s, 100s in circulation unless you go to the bank. The ATM dispenses money in $10 bills. They use all of the coins as well. Some criticize dollarization because the change in exchange rate of prices from the Colon to the Dollar only increased prices of goods and services, but it did not increase salaries and wages. Secondly, not only do they use the dollar, but El Salvador is a consumer country. They do not export anything, but import everything! As a result, every U.S. company, chain, or brand has made their mark in the city. Since the end of the war, U.S. companies and advertisers have infiltrated El Salvador.
The scenery of San Salvador is a sea of lit billboards, rotating signs, mini strip malls, and enormous fast food restaurants. There is everything from TGI Fridays and Tony Roma's to Levitra ads and 6 English television channels. For example, literally, EVERY fast food restaurant is a mini-adventure theme park for children with enormous jungle gyms and you can buy any product imaginable in the grocery store?obviously at a higher price.
According to many, the dollar, consumerism, migration, lack of job opportunities, and free trade agreements are hurting El Salvador's economy. Many locals predict that the country is turning for the worse and violent events are inevitable in the near future due to the economy, poverty, gang delinquency, and the violent nature of El Salvador.
In addition to the US consumer influence here, almost everyone has family or friends in the United States due to migration. Roughly 700 Salvadorans leave everyday for the North, and there are 2.5 billion Salvadorans living in the United States. As a result, family remittances represent 15% of GNP for El Salvador or $3,000,000,000 in 2005. I have yet to meet to someone who has not been to the U.S. or already has a family member across the border. (In addition to the United States, Salvadorans migrate to Canada, Italy, and Australia).
As you can clearly see, it is evident that El Salvador is dependent on the United States. Actually, Salvadorans have suggested U.S. statehood in the past. Likewise, the U.S. has strong ties and economical and political interests here as well. As a result, the majority of the money that is received through remittances is reinvested into the US/foreign economy through the purchase of goods. Therefore, the dollar returns to the US.
As a US citizen, it has been very interesting being here - and it's only been two weeks. I have talked more about politics and the economy than any other time in my life. Salvadorans are very political; they protest and they fight. Not only do we talk about the current political and economical situation in regards to El Salvador, but we also discuss all U.S. policy and President Bush and the civil war/US presence. I don't think I have gone a day without talking about all of these topics.
Without sparking a political debate with this email, my opinion is that the US presence here is hurting El Salvador - because they have no identity - they have the identity of marketers and the dollar.
In addition, many still resent the presence of the United States during the Civil War. The US sided with and financially supported/trained the government/army. Some hold the US partially responsible for the brutal deaths of 900 Salvadorans in Morazon, which makes it the largest massacre in Latin America. Obviously, this represents a more leftist perspective of the US's role in the civil war. One must also remember that although the US was supporting ARENA, the rightist government in power, the leftist guerillas were in part supported by communist forces. Lastly, many have expressed discontent with President Bush's economic interests here today. On the other hand, his TPS migration policy will aid Salvadorans, but also encourage more people to leave and send remittances. Not to mention other US/Salvadoran influences including the presence of US military at the San Salvador international airport, Salvadorans serving in Iraq, the passage of CAFTA, and the inauguration of the International Enforcement Academy in El Salvador.
Overall, it completely depends on who you talk to about post-war progress and the United States. Due to the polarized nature of this country, I have yet to hear a more middle ground opinion or consensus about the war's events, etc. It is important to mention that today ARENA, the right, is in presidential power and it is about 50/50 ARENA/FMLN on the local/department level.
Although I have spent the last 2 weeks or so discussing all of these issues, I know it cannot be the most exciting to read it via email and it may spark some political/economic debates. So, let me give you some insight on what I have been doing the last two weeks outside of discussing the civil war.
First, as you can tell, migration is a huge issue here in El Salvador. I have spent the last two weeks observing Carecen International, an international NGO with U.S. offices in Houston, LA, San Francisco, and smaller partner offices in Chicago, Boston, and other cities. The role of Carecen here in El Salvador is probably the most important and surprisingly it is the newest Carecen Office.
Carecen does not support or oppose migration, but rather they provide insight and educational charlas to communities across the country. Currently, they launched a campaign the day I arrived to give roughly 100 charlas or small talks over the course of the next two months in order to target migrants who are fleeing in response to the recent hurricanes and the explosion of Santa Ana volcano. The charlas target all sectors of the population including high school students, young children, mothers, and local municipal government leaders.
In addition to learning all about migration and sub issues, Carecen has given me the opportunity to visit towns outside of the capital to give the charlas. I have really enjoyed leaving the city and visiting other walks of Salvadoran life. Furthermore, I have had the opportunity to get to know Luis, who is an elderly gentleman who gives the charlas. Even though I would like to change his charlas to be more effective, Luis is an incredible man with a long history of the war. On my car ride to Suchitoto, he explained to me how he lost his hearing in his right ear from a grenade and how he spent 4 days locked in a prison with 3 friends and escaped death for no reason. His three friends were killed. Luis was not affiliated with either ARENA or FMLN. He was selling goods in a local town when he was arrested. Lastly, I have learned about the differences in remittances between men and women, the risks of the journey to the US, human rights violations on route or during deportation, and the affects of migration on families. Most shocking, many migrants have two families and two identities: their family in the US and their family in El Salvador.
In addition to Carecen, I spent all of last weekend at a human rights conference focusing on migration. Well, at least that was the premise of the conference. The conference was interesting (even though we never addressed the main themes) because it focused on a Christian and Biblical perspective on migration. Pastors and church goers from Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, and El Salvador attended in addition to five token gringos. I knew Christian groups were attending the conference, but I though they were Christian based organizations and not religious leaders. The conference really challenged me because I had to put my faith on the table during open discussions of Biblical verses, devotional prayers, and casual conversations of Jesus as a migrant. It was interesting to meet new people from different countries, but I was disappointed that we never discussed the issue at hand: migration today or any human rights issues. Lastly, as a Catholic, it was even more challenging because of the strong Christian focus and the fact that the conference was scheduled to also overlap with the celebration of the Reformation of the Church here in San Salvador, etc.
In addition to the conference and working with Carecen, I have been fortunate enough to visit other organizations including those that work on solidarity building, domestic violence and women's rights, one searching for disappeared children during the war, and an education based scholarship organization. More exciting is that Ive been able to participate in many cultural events including a cultural preservation festival, celebration of Day of the Dead (which ill elaborate on in my next email), and another human rights conference.
To wrap up, I have also been blessed with another great living situation and more great "built-in friends" here in San Salvador. I live with a divorced and retired Salvadoran lawyer, Margarita, and her 22 year old son, Omar. They recently moved back to El Salvador after Margarita spent 25 years and raised her son in Mexico City. She left for Mexico in order to go to college during the beginning of the war. The Salvadoran universities were occupied by the military. I happen to be there first foreign student living with them, so I think it's been an interesting experience for them. Specifically, Omar enjoys asking me 1000 questions about US life mostly my dating history, past boyfriends, ideal guy, etc. (I made the fatal error of saying I was single, however he now thinks I was engaged last year- so I am not seeking a "Salvadoran" boyfriend during my visit.)
And I have had the pleasure of meeting great new U.S. "built-in" friends here. Meg, a Catholic Relief Services volunteer, works with Carecen. She really helped orientate me to San Salvador and introduced me to her roommate, Karen, who is a Fulbright scholar here. In addition, I have met two other Fulbright scholars and one scholar's husband and another recent graduate, Noah, who is studying human rights here. It has been great and everyone has been very welcoming.
Have a great week! I cannot believe that I have already spent 9 months away and only have 2 weeks left here in El Salvador.