I understand that the US news has given good coverage of the effects of Hurricane Mitch. For those who have not already received the word, the part of El Salvador in which I live was not badly affected. We simply had days and days of rain. However, I'm sure you could tell from the news, that the areas of Central America that were hit are suffering badly. There are thousands and thousands of subsistence farmers who have lost their crops. They are displaced with little food, no latrines and a very real threat of an epidemic. The president of El Salvador made a plea, via television, that Salvadorans living in the United States send money. In yesterday's newspaper there was an interview with the president of Honduras in which he identified the most dire needs of Hondurans: basic medicines and milk for the children. Just days following the hurricane, the youth group of my town organized a food and clothing drive to send to those in need. Salvadorans, who barely keep their children clothed and food on the table, came with a small bag of rice for those even more needy right now.
It's difficult to know how to live and interact with the people of El Salvador. My sense of reality, and what life is, is different from theirs - my not having had the day to day struggle of getting food. Even those who do have food have lived with the reality of a war in their own yard. I interact especially with one family here: the family of Nina Tila. ("Nina" is a title of respect for an adult woman in Salvadoran Spanish, like "Senora" in Mexican Spanish.) Nina Tila made me feel a part of their lives right off. When I became sick one night, Nina Tila and her husband gave up their bed for me and slept on the floor. One of the daughters kept my fever down with cold cloths on my forehead. Nina Tila got up with me in the night when I became sick in their yard (They don't have a bathroom and the latrine was too far that night). Nina Tila will tell you, life is difficult in El Salvador. The fear, the struggle, the lack of control, all remain outside of my comprehension. However I get a glimpse of it in some of the people and their stories, like the story of Nina Tila's family.
It was late one night, about 9PM so most of the family had gone to bed. Israel (His real name, though the parallels are uncanny), the only son who lives at home, and I were talking. That day, twelve years ago, was already a bit out of the ordinary since Israel, then 15, managed to cut his foot rather badly the day before. Israel couldn't go out, as he did most days, with his brother, then 13, their cousins and friends. So while Israel nursed his foot at home, the others went to swim in the river. The boys separated from the girls, out of necessity since bathing suits are unheard of. Therefore, it was just Israel's brother, a cousin and a friend that the military soldiers came across while the boys were breaking for lunch. The war was between the military and the rebels. It was not uncommon for a 13 year old, or younger, to be one of the rebels; but those rebel 13 year olds didn't play in the river in broad daylight. The military began to give the boys a hard time, raising enough fuss that it got the girls' attention. So, with the girls watching, for a reason that cannot possibly be justified, the soldiers shot all three of the boys dead.
The loss in Nina Tila's family is not any different from that of any other Salvadoran family. Everyone lost someone in the war; it's just part of reality and the struggle for survival. I didn't know how to react. I could see the pain in Israel's eyes as he talked of the gash in his foot that kept him from the river that day. It didn't seem right that I should hurt from this story, since I know I can't even fathom the pain of Israel and his family. It took me two days to even allow myself to cry. As I wrote in my journal that night, "It's not right that I, someone who has had everything given to me, should pretend, or think, that I could feel pain at all. Have we, in the States, ever even lived?" Not that pain is something that only El Salvador knows. But here I can't separate myself from it, the way I can inner-city violence. It's simply part of the way things are.
Today, November 16, 1998, marks the ninth anniversary of the killings of the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter at the UCA (the Jesuit University in San Salvador). There was a vigil beginning Saturday at 2 PM and continuing until 5AM Sunday, which I attended. The vigil was to commemorate the deaths of the six Jesuits and the approximately 80,000 others who were killed in El Salvador's war. There was a procession followed by Mass. The gospel reading was the Beatitudes, with a homily that spoke of Jesus' emphasis of the importance of the victim: victims of war, hurricanes or simply those forgotten in society. Following communion a letter was read, written by Jon Sobrino on behalf of the UCA community, to be sent to the United States asking that the School of the Americas be closed. The School of the Americas is a military school located in Fr. Benning, Georgia which trains military personnel of Latin America. The SOA was established with the intention of improving relations between the Latin American militaries and the US, and to promote democratic values. Somehow the graduates managed to miss the democratic value training part, opting instead to use what they learned in the US for counterinsurgency - with a rather broad understanding of who the insurgents were. The UN Truth Report, issued in 1993 as a product of the peace accords, identified 65 Salvadoran officers who committed atrocities in the war. Of them 49 were trained at the SOA - and that's just in El Salvador. With the exception of the removal of texts that encouraged torture techniques, used 1982 - 1991, the school itself has done nothing to acknowledge the horrors committed by its graduates. I find the School of the Americas alarming, not because 2 of the 3 officers responsible for Archbishop Romero's death, or 3 of the 5 who raped and murdered the US churchwomen, or 19 of the 26 who killed the Jesuits were trained there; but because my tax dollars paid for the training and arming of the military who did not respect the right to life of a 13 year old playing in a river.
This particular newsletter has outlined a lot of the past. The horrors of the past are the reality to the people of El Salvador. To understand this culture I need to have some understanding of the past. In future letters I'll try to write about the issues of today and how they might be addressed. However, that's not an easy task. I spend my time listening to where Salvadorans consider themselves to be; and right now those I talk to aren't thinking much beyond keeping food on the table.