The following reflection was written by Suzanne Bottelli, who accompanied her students from The Northwest School in Seattle, WA, on a delegation to El Salvador in March 2010. Northwest students actively support their sister region, UCRES, in youth and women's organizing projects and are equally active in advocacy and political action in their home city.
In March of this year I was fortunate to accompany a group of students and faculty from The Northwest School to join a SHARE delegation in El Salvador. We traveled for two weeks in order to have a week to learn about and experience the country and a week to participate in the events surrounding the 30-year anniversary of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s martyrdom on March 24, 1980. There are so many highlights that I could share, but I will tell you about visiting our sister school (in the community of Huisisilapa) and about our visit with Danny Burridge, who is a friend to the St. Pat’s community.
Our first stop on the way out to Huisisilapa was actually in the town of Aguilares, where we visited the offices of UCRES, a regional alliance of communities in the northern part of the country [Union de Communidades Rurales del Norte de San Salvador y Libertad]. Here we had an amazing talk with the current director of UCRES, Alex Torres, and with a few of the program directors as well. The director of Youth Programs, Denis, told us about his own experiences as part of the generation of young people who were kids during the war and yet were often recruited (or kidnapped) by both the army and the rebels and forced to fight as child soldiers during this brutal 12-year conflict. During the war, Denis escaped this fate but his father was assassinated and other members of his family were also killed. Now, these same young people, having had their families devastated and their educations interrupted, are being recruited by gangs and narco-traffickers for a life of even more violence. A striking thing about leaders like Alex and Denis is that they have come up through the youth councils that local communities such as Huisisilapa foster, and many have had access to high school and university training and to leadership opportunities through assistance from organizations such as SHARE.
We made our way to our much loved partner community of Huisisilapa, which was built by a community of families from various parts of El Salvador who were living as refugees in Honduras after the war and who returned to build a new community, literally from bare, burned ground, eighteen years ago this April. We were greeted by Wilfredo Mendoza, the director of the school and a respected and beloved member of the community. Throughout our visit, the students would call him by names such as “Wilf” or “Prof,” and always with affection and a certain amount of delight. He was an exceptional host and tour guide, showing us many parts of this well run community and yet also highlighting the significant challenges faced by the families there, including the contaminated river that runs through it. In stark contrast to our earlier visit to the marginalized community of “Las Nubes,” an informal settlement on the shoulder of San Salvador’s volcano, Huisisilapa boasts electricity, running water, a school, a community meeting center, a church and a clinic building. In addition, the families privately own their homes and the tracts of land on which they sit, while the farmland is collectively owned. Most homes have their own mini silos of milled corn that comes from the fields worked by the residents during the growing and harvest seasons. Unfortunately, November 2009’s Hurricane Ida wiped out the beans that had been planted, so beans that are usually home grown must be purchased this year. This alone has been a challenge in a year when remittances from the US have been drastically reduced by the financial and housing crises. Yet the spirit of determination and solidarity that comes through each time we visit speaks to the difference that such intentional communities as this one can make in the lives of everyone, young and old. In fact, while we were meeting with our young hosts, the pre-school was being cooperatively staffed by the mothers in the community, classes were in session through 10th grade, and a support group was meeting for people with injuries from the war. I am thankful to have had the opportunity once again to visit with our loving and courageous friends in Huisisilapa,
During one of our days in San Salvador we joined our friend Danny Burridge over at the inner city parish Maria Madre de los Pobres. They have celebrated their 25th anniversary recently, and the history of the parish was briefly described as one man’s mission to “live out Romero’s message.” Padre Daniel, as he is known, is a priest who came from Spain to this community in 1984 and slowly built a number of much needed programs during his 21 years of service to the parish. There is a pre-school and day care center, a school, a health clinic (with dental and vision care), a small pharmacy, a library, a sport court, and of course a simple but beautiful church, all carved out of the hillside there in one of the poorest and most underserved neighborhoods in San Salvador. Also, there is an after school program called “Open School,” created and still served by Danny, who is in his final year with the Voluntary Missionary Movement. We had a terrific visit with the kids there. After some sweet and funny greetings and sharing of interests, we did some calisthenics en Espanol and went out to play some basketball. It was a hot day, but it seemed good for some of our students to sweat and play and run around. It was also awe inspiring to visit this peaceful and loving place and to see such beautiful kids getting a chance to be happy and healthy.
To have participated in the 30-year commemoration of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s life this year was a real blessing for me, but to have witnessed the strength, joy and solidarity of these young Salvadorans, and of the many who walk with them, was truly profound.