Thursday – from Blanca and Lily
Thursday was another day full of wonder. We learned more about the history and present day struggles of El Salvador as we met with, and gained inspiration from, additional individuals sharing powerful stories.
*Over breakfast, Jenna Knapp of CRISPAZ, presented an overview of her work with gang-involved youth in San Salvador. Jenna uses art therapy and poetry workshops with these youth, many of whom are or have been incarcerated under inhumane conditions, especially in the detention centers. These young men and women are especially vulnerable to extra-judicial executions by the police.
*We spent the remainder of the morning in a riveting conversation with Francisco Mena Sandoval, a former member of the Salvadoran military, who defected at the start of the Civil War to join the FMLN in 1981 as a guerilla fighter and captain. (Francisco is the father of current CRISPAZ Director, Francisco Mena Ugarte.) Mr. Mena Sandoval told us of his experience participating in election fraud in 1977—a trigger event for the rise of the Salvadoran people in protest—at the direction of his military commanders. It was at this time that he came to know Roberto d’Aubuisson, a member of the National Guard and later a major in the Salvadoran army, who became the ruthless political leader in the onset and early years of the Civil War (from 1980 to 1985) and the principal proponent of assassinations by death squads. (Roberto d’Aubuisson is widely believed to be the mastermind of Archbishop Romero’s assassination in 1980.) Three times during Mena Sandoval’s military tenure, he received training from US military personnel – twice in Ft. Benning, GA at the School of the Americas (SOA) (renamed in 2001 as the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC)) and once in Argentina. Mena Sandoval explained his intense internal moral conflict during his time as a military leader. Pivotal to his change of heart was his personal relationship with Archbishop Oscar Romero. At the risk of death, Mena Sandoval met with Archbishop Romero on a weekly basis and provided information about the atrocities being committed by the military, which Romero then reported in his Sunday homilies. It was after refusing to conduct a massacre of innocent and poor people in 1980 in Rosario, a small town in the Morazán district, that Mena Sandoval defected from the military and joined the FMLN’s liberation army in the Morazán district as captain of an elite force of guerrillas. During the Civil War, Morazán was able to become a liberated district.
*Before lunch, we had a brief opportunity to visit the CRISPAZ office and appreciate the handcrafted arts made by communities of Salvadorans as part of a program to promote local artisans by providing a marketplace with fair trade prices.
*Over lunch, we met with three people involved in a nascent LGBTQ advocacy movement in El Salvador. The LGBTQ community is also vulnerable to extra-judicial executions. These three individuals are focusing their efforts on creating an official organization, collecting data on human rights violations, seeking funds to hire a lawyer to represent members of the LGBTQ community, and advocating for enactment of anti-discrimination legislation with provisions to enforce those statutory rights.
*Thursday afternoon we made the two-hour drive to Bajo Lempa in Morazán where we met Noemi Ortiz, Elena Jaramillo and Father Pedro LeClerq at the Cultural Center of Oscar Romero. The three discussed their experiences working with Christian Base Communities (CBCs), which are organized around principles of a people’s theology grounded in the reality of oppression of the people. Over the past several years, Union’s very own Jenn Wilder has worked alongside CBC community leaders in various communities in Morazán. Morazán is a rural and very poor region of El Salvador where the people live mostly by the land. The end of the Civil War did not usher in economic reform and this region continues to face difficult socio-economic and environmental challenges. Rooted in their reality, the CBCs live out the Gospel of Christ by organizing economic cooperatives and other community, even infrastructural, projects to improve their lives. It is this type of Christian praxis, not dogma, which characterizes the CBC’s ideal of what the Church must be. During our conversation, Father Pedro talked about the importance of “touching the Earth.” This community’s way of living in reality, struggling and working together, and celebrating life and their accomplishments impressed us as genuinely joyful and inspired us.
*Following our meeting at the Cultural Center of Oscar Romero, we drove to the small village of Nueva Esperanza in Morazán. That evening, we had a lovely dinner at the home of Nina Conchita. Then, we danced the night away at our hostel with a group of local young musicians who played both traditional and contemporary dance music!
Space does not permit us to do justice to how moving this day was for us. That said, we’d like to add just one reflection. It cannot be gainsaid how unjust our own incarceration system is. Still, it was absolutely horrifying to hear of the typical detention practices in El Salvador where detainees, mostly young members of gangs who bear childhood scars of neglect and abuse, are held for months without even being charged with an offense, are kept in such crowded conditions that they must sleep standing up, and are not fed. Family members must bring food and drink, which is often confiscated by the correctional officers. It is not uncommon for detainees to have to drink their own urine. It is in the context of these extremely dehumanizing conditions, that Jenna Knapp seeks to uncover and preserve the humanity and dignity of these young people through the healing powers of art, poetry and narrative work, which gives these young men and women a means of expressing themselves and processing their traumatic experiences. With Jenna’s permission, we share one of the poems published by FESPAD in a recent book titled Duras Lecciones (Hard Lessons). As Jenna expressed, not only does this art prove hugely meaningful for the incarcerated youth, it also helps reveal the humanity, dignity and profundity of these youth, who are so often demonized and associated only with violence. To us, the poem also represents the spiritual profundity of the Salvadoran people, who despite the extreme repression and atrocities committed against them, maintain hope and their dignity, while also speaking to so many situations around the world.
Justicia. ¿Quál justicia?
Si la juventud se pierde cuando nos cierran las puertas
y nos dejan como guitarras.
¿Cómo esperas de tu justicia una rosa
si lo que siembras son espinas?
¿Cómo esperas escuchar
si nos exigido silencio?
Nos has cerrado las puertas,
nos has quitado la libertad
y nosotros solos pedimos una oportunidad.
¿Por qué nos das la espalda cuando te pedimos una mano?
¿Cómo nos pides amor
si nos has arrancado el corazon
y los tienes en una jaula
de la cual no puede salir?
¿Acaso no fuiste joven?
¿Acaso no cometiste errors?
Pero a nosotros nos dejan en el olvido,
Nos hacen perder nuestra juventud.
Siembran odio y quieren cultivar amor.
¿Por qué no extiendes tu mano y le das a mi corazón libertad?
Justice. What justice?
Youth is lost once they lock the doors
and leave us like guitars without strings.
How do you expect of your justice a rose,
if what you sow are thorns?
How do you expect to hear,
if you demand of us silence?
You have locked the doors,
You have taken our freedom,
and we only ask you for one chance.
Why do you turn your back to us when we ask you for a helping hand?
How can you ask for love
when you have ripped out our hearts
and keep us in a cage
from which we can not escape?
By chance you were never young?
By chance you never made mistakes?
But us you leave in oblivion,
You make us lose our youth.
You sow hate and want to cultivate love.
Why not extend your hand and free my heart?