Austin – Guajoyo Sister City Project

“The U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities Network is a grassroots organization of U.S. citizens and residents working in partnership with small rural communities in El Salvador. Through these partnerships, which began in 1986 as a citizen-based response to the U.S. intervention in El Salvador’s civil war, Sister Cities members work to develop economic and social justice throughout El Salvador and in their own communities in the U.S.  Sixteen sister cities from across the United States are paired with Salvadoran communities in 5 of El Salvador’s 14 provinces. The U.S. committees and their sister communities share political and moral solidarity, and strategy and advocacy for common struggles for peace and justice.”  U.S – El Salvador Sister Cities Orientation Packet for Delegations


Welcome to Guajoyo

Reading the Fall, 2012 Austin – Guajoyo Sister City Project Newsletter, I came across an item stating that Jennifer Long was planning a trip to Guajoyo in the next few months and inviting Newsletter recipients to contact her if interested in tagging along.  Jennifer is the Executive Director of Casa Marianella, an emergency homeless shelter in East Austin serving recently-arrived immigrants, asylum seekers and asylees and has been a member of the Austin – Guajoyo project since its inception.  While my wife Sharla and I have contributed modest financial support to the Austin – Guajoyo project for many years, and have discussed visiting, we had never done so.  But with a more or less open invitation staring me in the face, I decided that this could be the year.

A few emails and a couple of meetings later our delegation was set.  In addition to Jennifer and I, John Brickley, who grew up as almost a second son to Jennifer and her husband Walter, being one of their son Walter’s best friends, also signed on.  Unfortunately, due to inescapable work responsibilities, Sharla wasn’t able to come along.  Having filled out our Delegate Profiles and Waivers, reviewed the Delegation Orientation Packet and submitted our $325 registration fees to the U.S. – El Salvador Sister Cities Network, we boarded a seven a.m. flight to San Salvador on May 9.

Coming out of customs at Comalapa Airport around noon, we were met by Estela Garcia, the Salvadoran Co-Coordinator of U.S. – El Salvador Sister Cities in El Salvador, and Catie Johnston, a recent graduate of St. Edwards University with a degree in Social Work, and Austin’s first volunteer in Guajoyo, meaning that she will be living and working there for up to a year, or until November (to follow Catie’s adventures, go to  Estela and Catie would be our hosts, facilitators and translators during our week-long visit. Estela was basically in charge of logistics and navigation, as well as our orientation.  Catie was our driver and primary translator, although Estela translated as well.  Exiting the airport into the humid heat of El Salvador’s coastal plain, we made our way to the small SUV that would be our transportation from there to Guajoyo, the mountains of the northern department (state) of Chalatenango and back.

Our first stop was the Los Pinos Casa de Huespedes where Jennifer, John and I would be spending the night.  Located in the center of town near the Camino Real Hotel (now the Intercontinental) that served as the unofficial headquarters of the international press corps when Sharla and I lived here from 1987 – 1989 and I worked as a freelance photojournalist, Los Pinos is liberally decorated with FMLN memorabilia and photos of guerillas, leaving no doubt about where the proprietors stand on the political spectrum.  Airy, with a small inner courtyard, it offered a comfortable start to our trip.  John and I would share one room, at a very reasonable $20 each, and Jennifer would occupy another.  The agenda for our first afternoon was lunch, a visit to the Museo de la Imagen y la Palabra (Museum of the Image and the Word) and orientation.

The Museo was started by Santiago, one of the driving forces behind the FMLN’s Radio Venceremos (Victory Radio) that broadcast primarily from a cave in the remote, northeastern department of Morazan during the war.  The museum featured some of the broadcasting equipment used by Radio Venceremos as well as a collection of guerilla portraits.  Additionally, the museum had a map showing migration routes to the U.S. and letters from Salvadorans who had made the trip.

Orientation began with Estela going over the information contained in the Delegation Orientation Packet.  This covered health and hygiene, personal security, cultural issues and the group process.  The information concerning health and hygiene was pretty much familiar to anyone who has travelled in the developing world.  Don’t eat unpeeled, raw fruit or vegetables, uncooked fish or basically anything for sale by street vendors.  Always drink bottled, purified water.  Sealed drinks, such as soft drinks and beer, are okay.  Put toilet paper in the trash can provided for that purpose so as not to clog up the plumbing.

As for security, Estela emphasized that San Salvador in particular is a high crime zone.  This is partly due to the serious gang problem and partly to common street crime.  She suggested that we not go out walking around after 8 p.m. and that we always exercise normal preventative measures.  Among these are not going out alone, always being aware of our surroundings and dressing modestly and inconspicuously.

Regarding cultural issues, Estela pointed out that we should always greet and shake hands with the people we met.  Also, when entering a room or someone’s home, we should always take the offered seat.  To decline indicates unhappiness in being there and a desire to escape as soon as possible.  Finally, in meetings, we should be prepared to introduce ourselves, stating who we are, what our position is and perhaps a little something personal about ourselves.

In explaining the group process, Estela offered a little background on CRIPDES, the Salvadoran organization with which the Sister Cities Project works.  Established in 1984 in the midst of the Salvadoran civil war, CRIPDES (then known as the Christian Committee of the Displaced) was formed to support displaced people returning to their homes.  It began organizing repatriations in 1986, accompanying and supporting refugees who had been living in Mesa Grande, Honduras in their return to San Jose Las Flores in Chalatenango, an active conflict zone.  In San Jose and the other communities CRIPDES supported, it assisted the residents in organizing to govern themselves while pushing for a fair resolution to the war.

When the war ended in 1992, CRIPDES became the Association for the Development of El Salvador.  Its mission now is to aid economic, social and political organizing in rural communities still struggling to achieve a just society.  CRIPDES works with local community councils (junta directivas in Spanish) as well as international and other Salvadoran organizations, to advance women’s empowerment, youth organizing, political participation, advocacy and the protection of the environment.  There are currently 300 rural communities organized through seven regional organizations under the CRIPDES umbrella.

This explanation essentially confirmed what I had suspected, that the Sister Cities are FMLN communities, populated by former guerillas, their families during the war and now their children.  Estela would later say that the current organizing principles are basically the same as those developed by the FMLN during the war when the FMLN in effect created a parallel society in the communities it controlled, although the Salvadoran government never acknowledged any such communities existed.

The last item in our orientation program was a cultural sensitivity role playing exercise.  Estela split us into teams of two and gave us two situations we might encounter and had us discuss how we might react.  Both situations were similar, the second, for which Catie and I and Jennifer and John were teamed, was that we notice that in a poor community where most people have very little, a few have expensive cell phones.  Without much difficulty we all agreed that given our limited understanding of the situation the thing not to do was to jump to conclusions.  As we were in El Salvador to learn about the lives of the residents in the communities we visited, we concluded that perhaps the best course of action would be to try to subtly figure out why the situation existed.


Panel discussion at the Metallic Mining Conference

Our first scheduled activities were dinner that evening and a conference the next morning with the International Allies Against Metallic Mining in El Salvador.  The conference, at the University of Central America (UCA), was attended by a diverse group of environmental and human rights activists, union leaders, policy makers, academics and journalists representing more than 30 countries and four continents.  It focused on the human and environmental damage produced by mining for gold and other metals.

In El Salvador, as well as Honduras and Nicaragua, mining companies often lure people into selling their land with false promises of good jobs.  Then, once the companies obtain the land, they strip it bare in the process of mining, adding to the problem of deforestation.  In addition, the run-off of the water used in the mining process, which contains heavy metals as well as other toxins, flows into rivers and streams.  One particularly chilling fact is that over 80% of El Salvador’s water comes from the Lempa River, which is already at risk from mining in Honduras and would be even more so if mining proceeds in Chalatenango.  As of now, mining there is blocked, largely thanks to the brave resistance of local communities, but there is great concern about what might happen if ARENA, the party of big business interests, regains the Presidency and control of the National Assembly in 2014 and 2015.

After having lunch at the conference, we went to a nearby grocery store to stock up on drinking water, roughly five gallons each, to carry us through our five days in Guajoyo and Chalate.  The back of the car completely filled with luggage and water, we set out on the roughly two and a half hour drive to Guajoyo.

Guajoyo is in San Vicente department, southeast of San Salvador, about two-thirds of the way from the western to the eastern border.  A community of approximately 200 families, it consists of small, mostly one room, houses strung along a dirt road.  The Catholic Church and the school, on the main road through town, and the community corn mill and soccer field, down an intersecting road, provide the community’s civic and social anchors.  On our arrival, we were treated like visiting dignitaries.

A welcome song

A welcome song

A good part of the community turned out in front of the church, holding signs of welcome.  We were ushered inside to a place of honor at the right front of the church, just in front of the altar where we were seated in plastic chairs, three of only 50 that the community owns.  Members of the junta collectiva made welcoming speeches, lauding Austin’s contributions to Guajoyo.  Then there were songs by a local band consisting of two guitarists and two singers and games that were actually as much, or more, in honor of Mothers’ Day, which was that Friday was in El Salvador, as our arrival.  Finally, it was our turn to perform.

Jennifer, being our delegation leader both by virtue of her involvement, having visited the two prior years, and her superior Spanish, went first.  She thanked the community for our welcome, told them how happy she was to be back and said she was looking forward to learning what was new since her last visit.  I went next and just said, in Spanish however, my name, that I’m a photographer and that I was very happy to be there.  John batted clean-up in much the same vein.

The official welcoming ceremony concluded, we left the church for a tour of the community.  But before we could leave the churchyard, Jennifer was accosted by a woman wanting to know why a bakery, a proposed project to be funded by the Austin group, hadn’t been built.  This served as John and my introduction to the local politics of the relationship.

As we were walking through the community, Julio, one of the singers in the band, and the religious coordinator for Guajoyo and a couple of nearby communities, asked me if this was my first time in El Salvador.  When I told him that I had been a photojournalist during the war and had visited San Vicente during that time, he mentioned that it had been dangerous.  I agreed, telling him that a colleague had been killed there on the day of the presidential election in 1989 when the army attacked while he and some other journalists were with the guerillas.  After that Julio got quiet and then changed the subject.

But that evening at a dinner of corn tamales and pupusas at Marta’s house (Catie and Estela had arranged for us to have dinner at a different person’s home each night), Julio was there and the fact that I was a journalist during the war came up again.  This started a round of war stories, beginning with Julio telling one about the guerillas essentially saving a group of journalists who lost all their equipment and very nearly their lives during an army attack at the Sumpul River in the early 1980’s.  Then he segued into the story of an attack on a patrol of the Atonal battalion of the army that he participated in when he was 19.

The Atonal was one of a half-dozen or so elite counterinsurgency battalions trained by U.S. Special Forces.  In Julio’s story, a group of 30 or 40 guerillas encountered a patrol of roughly the same number of Atonal troops and in the initial balacera, or firefight, 14 of Julio’s comrades were killed.  But the remainder withdrew and ran to get into position to ambush the Atonal on their way back to base, which they did, killing all but one, who escaped.  Then Julio sang a song he had written at the time about the battle.

Julio sings a "cancion de combate" as Marta and her husband, Oscar, look on.

Julio sings a “cancion de combate” as Marta and her husband, Oscar, look on.

Marta, and her mother, also had a story, about having to flee their home and live under a bridge where soldiers killed people and threw their bodies into the river.  Apparently there was another bridge controlled by the guerillas within shooting distance and firefights were frequent.  Marta reported that eventually the guerillas told the army that if it didn’t stop killing civilians on the bridge they would blow it up, which they ended up doing, fortunately not while Marta and her mother were under it.

After dinner, around eight o’clock or so, we retired to our accommodations.  We were staying in a three room cinderblock house owned by someone from the town living in the U.S.  It’s absolutely one of, if not the best, house in town and the only one with a flush toilet and shower, albeit in a separate building a short walk away.  There were three beds, one in each room, and a hammock in the largest room.  Estela and I took the two smaller rooms and John and Jennifer shared the larger one, with John sleeping in the hammock.  The first night Catie stayed at home with her Guajoyo family, but shared Jennifer’s bed, which was full size, the next two nights.  With the fans we had brought, the sleeping was fine.

Clockwise from lower left, Catie, John, Estela and Jennifer at our guest house.

Clockwise from lower left, Catie, John, Estela and Jennifer at our guesthouse.

The next morning after a breakfast of eggs, beans, tortillas and coffee, brought to us by Dona Carmen, the woman who lived next door and owned the property our guesthouse sat on, it was time for our meeting with the junta directive (community council) and communal committees.  Don Francisco, the mayor, was in charge.  We began with introductions and an overview of the agenda.  Then we proceeded to reports by the various committees, the three most important being the Youth Committee, the Women’s Committee and the Water Committee as these were all involved with projects that Austin had funded.

The Youth Committee, represented by a thin 17 year old named Darwin, was most excited about the Cyber Café.  Austin has provided materials, including a half-dozen or so old computers and modems to allow access to the internet.  The café is located in a building close to the soccer field and the Youth Committee was attempting to get it up and running while we were there.

Projects such as the Cyber Café are important in order to give young people something productive to do.  Even in Guajoyo, gangs are a threat.  The hope is that activities such as the Cyber Café will provide sufficient diversion that kids won’t go looking for trouble, or attempt to go illegally to the U.S.  In the same vein, Austin provides eight scholarships for young people to attend high school and university.  These, along with all the other projects are administered by CRIPDES, although the junta directive chooses the recipients.

For the Women’s Committee, the most important projects are the corn mill and the fencing for chicken coops.  But the corn mill is their pride and joy.  Located in a building across from the Cyber Café, it can run on either electricity or gasoline, having both an electric and an internal combustion engine.  Not only a huge physical effort and time saver, it has become a sort of community water cooler, where the women gather not only to grind corn, but also to socialize and exchange news.

The corn mill

The corn mill

A third potential project, the aforementioned bakery, is also of considerable interest.   There are a couple of differences of opinions regarding the bakery.  Promoters believe the bakery could be a success because it could serve not only Guajoyo, but two or three nearby communities as well.  Currently, the nearest bakery is in San Nicolas, a fifteen or twenty minute car ride away.   Although that bakery sells bread in Guajoyo and the other towns nearby, it sometimes runs out before everyone who wants bread gets it.

Skeptics worry that the bakery might be a major investment that fails.  They note that another community bakery failed because it turned out that people wanted French bread and the bakery wasn’t able to produce it.  And some just believe the money that would go into the bakery could be better used for other things.  Then, there is the split between the Youth Committee and the Women’s Committee.

It turns out that both committees want to be in charge if a bakery is built.  The Women’s Committee feels that baking is something traditionally done by women.  But the Youth Committee believes it would be a great opportunity for young people and that perhaps they would be more attuned to people’s desires because, well, they’re young.  Finally, a compromise proposal that the two committees could share responsibility was offered and seemed acceptable to both.  However, there’s still no active project to build a bakery.

The big news from the Water Committee was that the town had basically constructed a new system to bring spring water to Guajoyo and its neighboring communities, Miramar and Granzaso.  Over the course of roughly a month, the residents had worked shifts in teams of 15 for 12 to 15 hours a day to lay pipes and put in a 20 odd foot deep natural filtering system made from sand and gravel on a mountain roughly an hour’s walk from town.  On a less positive note, the plastic water tank that Austin had provided to Guajoyo, located adjacent to the soccer field, was leaking and could not be fixed.

Marta's chicken coop

Marta’s chicken coop

At the conclusion of the meeting we set out to visit the projects that had been funded by the Austin Committee.  We began with a visit to a home whose yard was neatly enclosed by a chicken wire fence roughly six feet tall.  From there we proceeded to the corn mill, passing by the brightly painted violet and orange Cyber Café that was not yet ready for an interior inspection, being still under construction.  Although no corn was ground during our visit, the gasoline engine was cranked up to full throttle, billowing great clouds of smoke and almost breaking Darwin’s wrist in the process.  Our next stop was the water tank, suspended on a stand eight or ten feet above ground level, and, indeed, leaking.  Our last visit was to Marta’s neat chicken coop, occupied by a number of plump, healthy looking chickens.  This, however, was somewhat deceptive, given that a recent epidemic had wiped out a large portion of the local chicken population.

After lunch, we strolled down to the Lempa River with members of the Youth Committee for some riparian entertainment.  The river at Guajoyo is about half a mile wide, flowing at a fairly languid pace.  We all went in for a refreshing dip and everyone but me went for a ride in a genuine dugout canoe.  After a snack of a homemade licuado made of purified water, local fruit and sugar, we headed back to town.

The remainder of the afternoon until dinner was open except for an optional 5 o’clock mass that only Jennifer attended.  John and I, in the meantime, took pila baths, there being no water flowing to the shower.  A pila is a large sink, usually located outdoors and usually filled from a spigot.  The water is used for almost everything, cooking, washing clothes and dishes and bathing, to name a few.

Taking a pila bath

Taking a pila bath

To take a pila bath, one wears shorts, or in my case, my swimming suit, for modesty, and uses a bowl, or guacale, to dip water from the pila and pour over oneself.  It’s actually quite an efficient way to bathe.  Shaving without a mirror was a bit trickier, but I managed it without hurting myself by imagining my reflection was actually there in the bushes.

The following day, Sunday, began with a visit to the newly installed water system.  A group of us pretty much filled the bed of a pickup, standing and holding onto the metal frame rising above the bed, for the almost hour ride.  We parked in a clearing and walked the last half mile or so uphill.  The system was quite an impressive sight to see.  The mountain sloped down to a stone and concrete box covered by a hinged, vented green metal lid.  Francisco and Julio explained the system.

Francisco explains the new water system.

Francisco explains the new water system.

The slope leading to the box consisted of the filtering material.  Spring water flows down the mountain and into pipes in the box that carry it to Guajoyo and its neighboring communities.  Excess water flows out of the box down the mountain into the jungle below.

We returned to town just in time to hop in our car and head to the home of Gilma del Carmen Romero, a few miles outside of Guajoyo.  Gilma was the wife of Freddy, a CRIPDES staff member who was shot and killed last year by unknown assailants while waiting for a bus just down the road from his home.  In addition to Gilma, Freddy left three young children.

With the assistance of CRIPDES, the Sister Cities program and CORDES, a sister organization to CRIPDES, Gilma has been able to install a fish pond, an enclosed chicken coop and a new latrine.  We went to visit to view the improvements, but as much, if not more, to offer moral support.

However, perhaps in the future Austin can offer something more concrete.  Working in the fields is the husband’s job in El Salvador, leaving Gilma at a loss in yet another way.  Jennifer, therefore, suggested looking into the possibility of arranging for someone to help Gilma plant her crops.  After a lunch of vegetable soup and grilled chicken, and a long chat between Jennifer and Gilma, we took our leave and headed back to Guajoyo.

Sunday afternoon we, along with a substantial part of the rest of the community, attended a soccer game between Guajoyo and San Miguel, which Guajoyo won.  Then, just at dusk, we attended our farewell party at the school.  Members of the Youth Committee put on a show outside on a concrete slab that could serve as a basketball court or dance floor, as well as a stage.  Members of the drama club put on a short play about the dangers of gangs, the comedy troupe performed a skit about an ugly guy who is granted the gift of beauty, with unintended consequences, and the breakdance team leapt and whirled, all emceed by Catie.  But, although this was our official farewell party, we were not quite finished with Guajoyo yet.

Checking out the Cyber Café with Darwin

Checking out the Cyber Café with Darwin

Monday morning before we left we visited the elementary school to see the students in class, stopping by the now almost functional Cyber Café on the way.  In Guajoyo students go to school only half a day.  Children in kindergarten through fourth grade attend in the morning and those in fifth through ninth grade in the afternoon.  School attendance is free and the national government provides uniforms and supplies through one of its most popular policies.  Most of the classes we visited had desks for up to 20 students, although the kindergarten, where Jennifer delivered a set of blocks she had brought, had room for twice that many.  After visiting the classrooms, we attended our second farewell party.

A farewell dance

A farewell dance

This time, a group of the older students, the girls dressed in colorful dresses and the boys mostly in white shirts, dark pants and straw cowboy hats, performed a traditional folk dance.  Featuring high stepping and intricate patterns, it provided a fitting send-off .

From Guajoyo, we drove to a meeting with the CRIPDES San Vicente team at their headquarters.  This was essentially an update of their activities, but was enlivened by a spirited discussion between Jennifer and a couple of the CRIPDES members, Erika and Esmeralda, regarding priorities.  CRIPDES’ official position is that organizing for political action is their number one priority and projects, such as the Cyber Café for example, are secondary.  Jennifer took issue with this, arguing that organizing and projects should go hand in hand.  After a bit of back and forth, Erika and Esmeralda seemed to largely accept Jennifer’s point of view.

Our next meeting, at the same location, was with a group of scholarship students.  Sister Cities provides scholarships of $25 a month to help high school and university students pay for transportation and food.  In return, the students are expected to not only attend school, but become leaders in their communities, starting by attending monthly assemblies that address such issues as leadership, political formation and gender issues.  In addition, the students should join the Youth Committee and attend meetings of the junta directiva.

Guajoyo’s seven high school scholarship students have to travel to San Nicolas, almost an hour away by public transportation, as there is no high school in Guajoyo.  In addition, Guajoyo has one student, Carlitos, with a scholarship to attend the Lutheran University in San Salvador.  Because of his responsibilities in Guajoyo, he can only attend on Saturday.  This schedule requires him to leave Guajoyo Friday night so that he can catch the first bus from San Nicolas to San Salvador Saturday morning.  He attends classes all day and returns that night.  Sunday, he collects people’s water payments and often leads work teams, including one for the new water system.

Our final meeting at CRIPDES was a briefing on the effects of growing sugar cane in Tecoluca.  Sugar cane cultivation along the coast has expanded greatly in the last decade, primarily due to the demand for ethanol.  This has resulted in farmers switching from growing locally consumed crops, such as corn, beans and millet, to sugar cane.  The sugar cane cultivation is dependent on the use of pesticides that have been linked to greatly increased rates of kidney disease, and, in fact, there has been a significant increase in the incidence of kidney disease and premature death among the men who work in the sugar cane fields.  CRIPDES is pushing for environmental groups and the Salvadoran government to seriously address the situation, so far without much success.

Our meetings with CRIPDES completed, we set out at about 2:30 on the approximately three hour drive to San Jose Las Flores in Chalate.  Crossing the Rio Lempa, I was hit with a wave of nostalgia recalling the Salvadoran army reten, or checkpoint, that was omnipresent there during the war.  Without a safe conduct pass from army headquarters in San Salvador, this was usually as far as journalists were allowed to go.  But now, it’s just another bridge.

Pulling into San Jose Las Flores, a pretty, almost Alpine town with a proper plaza anchored by a large church, we went straight to the alcaldia to meet with Felipe Tovar, the mayor.  Felipe filled us in on the town’s struggle to prevent gold mining in the area.  Initially, the community leaders tried to reason with the mining company representatives, telling them they were not welcome and believing that they had been convinced to abandon their plans.  However, when the mining company went behind the community’s back to try carry out its plans, Felipe and other community leaders decided it was time to employ some nonviolent direct action.

Having discovered that the leader of the mining company, along with three carloads of workers and company representatives from the U.S. and Canada, were planning a visit to the neighboring community of Guarjila, Felipe and the community leaders went door to door the night before to organize a protest.  When the mining company representatives arrived at 6 a.m., they were met by a crowd of 500 residents from the surrounding communities who blocked their way and drove them out of town.  The battle was won, but unfortunately, the war goes on.

We spent the night at a school just off the plaza that’s now used to host delegations and had a simple dinner of bean and cheese pupusas and beer at the comedor, the only restaurant in town.  The next morning we visited the communal projects in San Jose Las Flores, the bakery, which might provide a model for Guajoyo, the handicraft, sewing and screen printing workshops and what can probably best be described as a general store.

The bakery in San Jose Las Flores

The bakery in San Jose Las Flores

As we talked to the workers at the projects, a mixed picture emerged.  While all of the workers were proud of their roles, a consistent theme was that each of the enterprises was barely profitable.  The woman who managed the general store, in the process of showing us the extent of manual bookkeeping required to guarantee transparency, complained that a woman who had previously worked at the store had quit and gone into competition, cutting into business.  This tension seems to speak to the uneasy marriage of socialism and capitalism that the communal projects are trying to pull off.

After our visit to the communal projects, we took a short ride out of town to the Sumpul River Tourist Center for a pescado frito lunch and, in my and Catie’s cases, a swim in the roughly half Olympic size pool, with water slides that Catie insisted be turned on.  In addition to the pool and restaurant, the Tourist Center features a covered pavilion suitable for dancing and cabins that can be rented.  Although largely deserted on this Tuesday, the Center does a big business on weekends and holidays.

Our last scheduled activity of the day was a meeting with Nelson, the principal of the San Jose las Flores elementary school.  But on our way we ran into Sister Theresa, a nun who has lived and worked in Chalate since the war.  She had just returned from a commemoration of the 1980 Sumpul River Massacre where the army killed more than 600 civilians, among them women and children, as part of its scorched earth policy of that time.  She reported a turnout of perhaps as many as 500 people, all of whom had to walk an hour or more each way over sometimes treacherous terrain to reach the site.

We met Nelson at the school and sat outside in the shade as the sun slid down and he explained how he came to his current position and the theory of popular education.  A survivor of the Sumpul River Massacre as a very young boy, Nelson fled to Honduras, only to return to San Jose Las Flores when the community was re-populated in 1986.  A precocious student, and just a little too young to become an FMLN combatant, he found himself a teacher at the age of 13, often instructing students older and larger than himself.  With the peace agreement in 1992, he and his fellow teachers went to university in order to become certified by the Salvadoran government.

Nelson shows us the school garden.

Nelson shows us the school garden.

All schools in El Salvador must teach a core curriculum.  However, there is flexibility allowed as to the manner of teaching.  In San Jose Las Flores, as well as a number of the other Sister Cities, the schools employ the popular education model developed by the FMLN during the war.  This is an interactive approach in which the students and teachers work as a team, with significantly more student input than in a traditional classroom where the teacher spends most of her time standing at the front of the room while the students sit at their desks.  As an example of the popular education model, Nelson and one of the students took us on a tour of the school garden.

The following morning, Wednesday, May 15, we departed San Jose Las Flores at 7:30 for Suchitoto and a meeting with members of PROGRESO and some high school scholarship students.  While central Suchitoto has become a tourist destination, the outlying areas suffer from the same challenges as other small Salvadoran communities, including a lack of jobs and the threat of gang violence.  Still, two of the scholarship students proudly reported having established radio stations in their communities, also a possibility in Guajoyo.  After the meeting the five of us drove to a nearby restaurant overlooking Lake Suchitlan for lunch on our way out of town.

Back in San Salvador, we met with the coordination team of the Movement of Popular Resistance October 12th , better known simply as MPR-12.  The group’s name is in recognition of October 12, 2002, when in response to CAFTA (Central America Free Trade Agreement) countries from Mexico to Panama closed their borders to the passage of goods.  This event precipitated a coming together of popular organizations and unions with the shared goal of mobilizing the people to demand that their needs and ideas be represented in government and the decisions it makes.

Three issues of particular interest that were discussed were metallic mining, which is, of course, a trans-national concern, and human rights and upcoming elections in Honduras and gangs in San Salvador.  In 2009, Honduran president Manuel Zayala was deposed in a military coup, ushering in an ongoing period of repression and violence.  Land rights activists, human rights lawyers and journalists have all been targeted, in some cases resulting in their deaths.  The second elections since the coup are scheduled for November and a Salvadoran MPR-12 delegation of poll watchers plans to attend.

Near the end of the meeting, two high school scholarship students spoke of their efforts to fend off gang violence in their neighborhood.  Although they live surrounded by gangs, they have so far managed to maintain the integrity of their area by organizing mutually supportive youth committees.  It was an inspiring story, especially given its against all odds nature.

From MPR-12, we returned to Los Pinos where we would spend our last night in El Salvador.  Around a dinner at a very pleasant open air restaurant where I finally had my first Pilsener beer, my Salvadoran favorite, of the trip, we held a de-briefing session where we discussed our impressions of the trip and possible future Austin-Guajoyo Sister Cities activities.

Thursday morning we had an early meeting with Marcos Galvez, President of CRIPDES, at which he basically fleshed out the information we received at the briefing with the San Vicente team.  Then it was back to Comalapa where Estela and Catie, our intrepid, gracious and indispensable, not to mention delightful, hosts, dropped us off.  (For more pictures,

About vichinterlangphotojournalist

Vic Hinterlang has been a photojournalist for the past 25 years. He has worked in Central America, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Israel and the U.S. His photos have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, The Economist and The Texas Observer among other publications.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s