El Salvador Update – March 1997
HOLA, HOLA, HOLA!
“Let us take our inspiration from dolphins, who defend themselves and their offspring through an instinct to mass together in the face of danger – attacking power with wisdom.” – Jacques Cousteau
Mango season in El Salvador. The buses are filled with venders selling baby mangos, green and fresh from the vine. Added to the natural tartness of the fruit, is a pinch of salt and hot chili sauce. Hmmm. Although we still have not gotten accustomed to such a topping, the arrival of mangos signals the beginning of the end of summer. Whereas northern countries measure time by four distinct seasons, the passage of time for us is closely linked to the livelihood of many in this country. Oranges, coffee, maize, beans, lemons, avocados, and mangos – each food having their place and time in nature’s cycle and are what help maintain the daily supplement of rice on the tables of the local “campesinos” (farmers).
Despite the apparent rhythmic and cyclical nature of life here, we are constantly surprised by the sudden interjections of events which abruptly disrupt the tranquillity of the pine trees. It was during orange season, in November, as nearby fruit trees were sighing from the burden of ripening fruit, when we first heard of the demise of our friends, Samuel and Claudia. They are the parents of 6 children in one of Perquin’s nearby hamlets. Asking around, we started to slowly piece together some of the tragedy that had befallen this family. Acting on a personal vendetta, a nephew falsely accused Claudia and Samuel of chopping up his irrigation hose. Later on, he obtained several false witnesses who testified to ‘eye-witness accounts’ of Claudia and Samuel, not only in the actual act of cutting the hose, but also of them purportedly up-heaving it from the ground and stealing it. No evidence, only allegations.
Regardless of any disparities in the story, and despite our friends’ reputable character and vehement denials of the false accusations, the accusing nephew was able to obtain an Arrest Order from the town judge. Superficially, this may not seem to be such a complicated situation – taking for granted that one is innocent until proven guilty. Samuel and Claudia should have had nothing to fear, as the belief in their innocence was strongly held in the community. They should have been able to present their side of the story in a fair and unbiased hearing, explain the well known history of this personal vendetta, and deny the outright lies.
Unfortunately, this was not the case. Knowing that the police was to arrive at the house with arrest warrants, Samuel and Claudia looked to the woods for security, abruptly leaving their children in the care of an elderly grandmother. Stories may have explained to the young children about their parent’s mysterious and sudden disappearance, but nothing could satisfy their fears or account for armed policemen repeatedly arriving at the house, often at 5:00 AM, in search for their parents.
What was hoped to be an interval of several days, of hiding and playing musical houses in the dead of the night while relatives worked with lawyers to annul the arrest warrant, turned into weeks and then months. The lawyer’s most vehement advice, however, was that they should do everything within their power to avoid being arrested and imprisoned. Why? If they were to become imprisoned, advised the lawyer, the cost of their freedom would skyrocket with the under-the-table bribes necessary to set them free.
It is almost fours months later and the seasonal fruit cycle has brought us mangos again. Last Friday, Samuel and Claudia tasted the bitter sweetness of reuniting with the whole family. They have successfully played the justice system’s game, escaped arrest and proved their innocence! They are the winners but what have they won? Besides being emotionally, relationally, and economically thrashed, the lawyer’s “small” price for their freedom is 7000 colons ($900 USD) – a phenomenal amount when the daily wage is only $2.50 USD. Their children still suffer from neglect and anxiety, plus an ongoing fear that the police might reappear at any moment to take their parents away. We only hope that they can rebound as the price of this year’s coffee beans have. Samuel now looks his worn out age, and Claudia, a once vibrant and passionate woman, is carrying the scars of one recently traumatized.
What happened to Samuel, Claudia and their family is not unusual. Many others have suffered the same fate, also disappearing mysteriously for weeks at a time. The judicial system is one where you’re guilty until proven innocent, and where innocence at times carries a higher price than guilt. It is not then surprising that El Salvador is reportedly now believed to be the world’s most violent country, as we read in the March 8, 1997 issue of The Economist. Unfortunately, few people in El Salvador would dispute it, after witnessing and hearing about many personal accounts of ill-fated victims. The still raw PNC, National Civilian Police force, made up of ex-soldiers, ex-guerrillas and civilians appears to be stymied about how to curb the violence, apart from adding to the already overcrowded jails.
On a personal level, I (Eugenia) have been pulling back from some responsibilities as the social worker at the children’s Centro. It has been frustrating to work at the school while at the same time feeling that my presence has been more of a hindrance than a help. At the kindergarten, we have about 30 students that are attended by a staff of 7 and also receive outside medical consultations. Although I see great value in having a high staff to student ratio, I feel that my presence causes the teacher to rely on outside help to resolve issues with the parents of the children rather than utilizing the many resources which already exist within the school. It is a delicate issue, however, to try and balance a healthy retreat by turning over some responsibilities to the teachers themselves, without arousing feelings of abandonment. Nevertheless, filling any spare time isn’t a problem. Since February, I’ve started meeting bi-monthly with groups of women in 5 different communities for knitting and craft classes. Although the women are excited about learning a new skill, I’ve been renewed just by the sheer power of women creating brief moments of community together, especially in a culture where a natural space for “women’s issues” doesn’t exist.
I (David) continue to find myself frolicking in composting chicken manure in my vision quest to become enlightened by a Praying Mantis. The organic gardens have been going commendably, as have the women who impress me by there determination to keep going, blisters and all. We have had problems with water as of late, but are working on irrigation systems to keep green. I have been supporting 2 bakeries by teaching some administration, but which have not failed to give me headaches as they have severe market limitations in their locations. The women don’t wish to go out and sell, but prefer to wait until buyers come knocking on their door. Barring prodding them with a cattle iron, I am baffled about what to do, except to continue accompanying them and look for ways for them to realize their predicament and take initiative. Taking risks is hard for everyone.
In the beginning months of ’97, we have been especially touched and refreshed by the visits of family and friends. Although we know that most of you will not be able to make it to this beautiful mountain top, we are continually strengthened by your presence and solidarity, along with the people amongst whom we live.
Until next time……SALUT!!
Love, Gina & David