The day was, like all the others on the trip, hot and humid. My back was stuck to the fake leather of the bus seats, my window propped open as wide as possible to allow any breeze to swirl around my body in an attempt to cool down. I was seated in the middle of the bus, surrounded by sixteen classmates, three teachers, two group leaders, the bus driver and Guadalupe. The bus was full of chatter and laughter, comforting sounds that seemed to complete the beauty of El Salvador. Even with the hot sun streaming in, El Salvador seemed to be the perfect paradise.
I had left the hostel in San Salvador earlier that morning, ready for a day full of new sights, sounds and ideas. I was traveling in El Salvador as part of a group from my high school. We were hopefully to return home with a better understanding of the social and political issues within El Salvador, to return home to MN recognizing that many of El Salvador’s political and social issues are closely tied to the U.S. For almost two weeks I traversed the country in hope of learning about El Salvador. But this was not why I had decided to complete this trip. I was searching for more than just this understanding. My reasons for attending were not as lofty, perhaps, as the stated purpose; I went because I wanted to change. I was tired of my life as it was, I wanted to see and know the world in a new way. Studying the politics of another country was just an added benefit.
August 7th and the bus was winding its way to San Isidro in the region of Cabanas, El Salvador. Halfway through the ride Guadalupe, a senior member of our tour organization SHARE, started to explain why the bus was headed to this tiny pueblo in rural El Salvador. She told of a struggle that had erupted between community leaders and a Canadian mining company after the mining methods utilized were found to be dangerous and detrimental to the health of the area. After speaking in Spanish, Guadalupe abruptly switched to telling her story in English, a security precaution she said. Recently, the struggle between Pacific Rim Mining and community organizers had turned deadly. Marcelo Rivera, a well-known and well-liked community organizer had been kidnapped, tortured and killed on June 18th, 2009 only little more than a month before I arrived. Today, I had been brought to be witnesses to the threats and danger the rest of Marcelo’s comrades found themselves in.
Seated in plastic chairs, the remaining members of San Isidro’s organizers told me of the frequent death threats they received, of the scare tactics they were subject to. They spoke without emotion until they mentioned Ramiro Rivera. That very morning he had been shot in the back eight times. He was in critical condition.
I was so mad and so helpless. As I walked the cobbled streets of San Isidro to the cemetery where Marcelo is buried, I struggled to understand what was happening here. I was filled with questions – what could I do? How could El Salvador, a country that on the ride here had seemed so serene, hold so much danger for its people? What is the worth of a mineral? Where is government protection for those who need it most?
About a week ago I received an email from El Salvador. Ramiro Rivera, the anti-mining activist who was shot the day I was in San Isidro, had been murdered. He was one of the most outspoken activists against mining in Cabanas. To receive this news brought back the anger I felt that morning in El Salvador. I had to act.
My common application essay was written. It was a solid piece of writing; one that I am sure would have been well accepted. But I realized that this story was what I needed to write about. I wrote this essay for Marcelo and Ramiro, for when I was so helpless and asked, what can I do?, there was only one answer that could be given. Spread the word of what happened, they told me. Marcelo and Ramiro Rivera gave up their lives to fight for their families, communities and the environment. They may have been silenced, but I will continue their fight for them, as I know others in San Isidro also continue to do despite the danger.
It is incredible how much one experience can change your life. The night of August 7th, after returning to the hostel, I wrote this in my journal, “Marcelo is kind of like a new Oscar Romero. However, for me, he is a much more real figure. I’ve been to his grave, seen his work and met his family. Marcelo died for what he believed in. I hope I have that courage.” I returned home soon after this, but I still have not forgotten Marcelo or Ramiro’s fight. I left for El Salvador yearning to be changed. I came back a drastically different person. On days when I’m overwhelmed about the world and my position in it, I remember those who continue to fight for what they know is right. I am renewed by the belief that one person can change the world and so I start to fight again.
1) Mariah and her fellow CDH students in El Mozote during their delegation
2) Painting of Marcelo Rivera in San Isidro Cabañas
3) Photo of Ramiro Rivera, courtesy of www.upsidedownworld.org