Mornings and Mournings in Ciudad Romero

Published: February 12th 2008
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When you wake up in the morning in Ciudad Romero, it´s to a dawn of sounds. Around 5 a.m. the chorus of a hundred gallos commence their melancholy howling, encouraging the insects to bring their buzzing from a forte down to a piano. Some time later, the air is sprinkled with the twitters and whistles and cries of the native birds, waking up in the early light. Then the mooing and baaing starts, along with the thumping bass of rancheras, reggaeton and ballenato being played way too loud at 6 in the morning, but loud enough so that the mujeres can listen to it while they start making tortillas and washing clothes on the pilas in the yard.

I have been in Ciudad Romero for almost three weeks now, and I can´t get over the beauty of the mornings. Probably because it´s the only time of the day when it´s cool enough that I can sit in one place without sweating constantly.

San Salvador

The day after I arrived, I got on a bus to San Salvador stuffed with people from Ciudad Romero. We were going to commemorate the second anniversary of the death of Shafik, former leader of
Shafik´s tombShafik´s tombShafik´s tomb

Nohe and his daughter Karin stand in front of a woman standing vigil in honor of the former leader of the FMLN
the FMLN, the association of leftist parties that formed the guerrilla movement during the civil war and is now legally recognized as a political party.
The community of Ciudad Romero (and most of the Bajo Lempa Region) identifies with the FMLN strongly as a part of their culture, and it is not rare to see the letters emblazoned everywhere, from billboards on bridges to inside bathroom stalls. We arrived in San Salvador at the cemetery where Shafik is buried, and where people were standing vigil for days with their left arms raised in a fist. The scene was flooded with red, the color representing the party, and I was not surprisingly the only gringa present. With the support of Nohe and his daughter Karin, and a couple bichas that I had met on the bus (that would later be involved in theatre), we walked up to the tomb and looked around at the convocation of people, flowers, and bees.

Afterwards, we processed through the busy market streets to the central plaza, and I got my first real taste of San Salvador. Many protesters were killed in the same square, time after time, by the fuerza armada, until they realized that non-violent protesting was not an option in El Salvador, and never had been. It was a pensive, packed day for being my second day in this strange country.

Theatre and Activism

I started rehearsing with the "bichos" (teenagers) only a few days after I arrived, and now I have 3 groups of youth and 1 group with the técnicos and "locotores" (crazy DJs of the radio station). I´m insanely busy already! With the youth, we are starting to prepare plays on the history of Ciudad Romero, the history of Nueva Esperanza (a neighboring community), and a play about a massacre that happened nearby during the civil war in an area called La Quesera. With the group from the organization, Asociación Manglé or La Coordinadora, we´re putting together "radionovelas" to spread awareness about organic farming, to hopefully get a local market started and to generate more interest in buying organic products versus those made with chemicals and GMOs (partly as a result of CAFTA).

The group in Ciudad Romero will be interesting...with the bichos trickling in and out when they feel like it (despite repeated attempts at setting an order and routine to the rehearsals), but they´re energetic and passionate about their community´s history. We´ll see what we can make of it with the little time that we have.

The more advanced group is inspiring. They are sure to be leaders in their communities, with an intelligence and maturity that continually surprises me. We did some advanced mirroring exercises, and I was totally amazed.

It´s a busy time, but it´s also an exciting time. Whenever I start feeling overwhelmed, I have to remind myself that I am incredibly lucky to be doing my favorite things: theatre, activism, and traveling.

Ciudad Romero

The history of this community is long and complex, a story of survival (as most here are, I am continually discovering). Nohé has written a book about it, which I´m chewing through in peices, partly because of my español which is improving, and partly because some parts are difficult to read.

The people of Ciudad Romero actually used to live in an area called Nueva Esparta. As part of the Tierra Arrasada (Scorched Earth Policy) during the civil war, the army came through Nueva Esparta and burned their homes, only stopping to mount decapitated heads on poles as warnings to people who might be thinking of joining the guerrilla movement. 365 people escaped and hurried throughout the night towards the Honduran border, seniors, children, and women about to give birth.

Once in Honduras, they were kept captive by the Honduran army, who refused food and shelter, and only offered insults and trauma to the refugees. They shot at helicopters from foreign aid organizations. The people lived off of the juice of mangoes. They surrounded them. The people built small shelters of sticks and plastic. A representative from El Salvador accused them of lying about their homes being destroyed, telling them they were only asking for handouts, and refusing to work. They were a shame to their country.

An offer came through for the refugees after 6 months. They could move to Canada, Nicaragua, or Panama. They chose Panama. The Panamanian government paid for their health care and transport, and gave them an area of virgin land in the jungle to call their own. For 11 years, the refugees lived in a communal lifestyle, trading services as there was no use for money (the closest cities were days away), growing cacao plants, fishing in the Atlantic, and building their houses and schools
First rehearsalFirst rehearsalFirst rehearsal

After the first rehearsal with the advanced group
from the foreign trees.

When they returned, unsurprisingly the government did not want them back. They responded with hunger strikes and fought for a year for repatriation. They finally resettled in this region of the country, and kept the name Ciudad Romero, which they had chosen in Panama to honor their martyr and saint (named by the people, not recognized by the Catholic church) Óscar Romero, a priest who spoke out against the government during the civil war, and on the part of the people--El Salvador´s MLK.

La Quesera

The story of the massacre is equally disturbing, and the torture and trauma are so distressing that the survivors did not tell their stories for 20 years. For the past 7 years, a group of survivors has been meeting to heal the wounds of the past, and now they are beginning exhumations to find the bodies of their families scattered around the region, where they were dropped from helicopters or thrown into the river after being violated by the army, once again part of the Tierra Arrasada tactics--torturing and murdering people who were simply campesinos (farmers), children, and their animals, to prevent them from becoming guerrilleros.

The stories
Representing historyRepresenting historyRepresenting history

The mural that tells the story of Ciudad Romero and the assassination of Óscar Romero--originally painted in Panama, and moved to the church in the Bajo Lempa when they returned to El Salvador.
of the survivors are varied and horrific, and they are united in telling them para que "no se vuelva a repetir" (so it won´t happen again, the name of the play representing the stories of the survivors). I´ve gotten a chance to hear the testimony of Marta, which we´re going to be adding into the play this year.

The former artist, Aryeh, started this project two years ago and we´re continuing with it this year, making a documentary, and it will possibly be performed in the United States as part of the effort to close the School of the Americas this year. For right now, though, we need to focus on rehearsing the play to get it ready for a performance for survivors of massacres from all around El Salvador and representatives from other countries (Guatemala, Honduras, United States) as well.


I haven´t been the only gringo in Ciudad Romero these past two weeks. There was a delegation from AJWS (American Jewish World Service) here during my first week, and I certainly didn´t expect to be sharing a Shabbat dinner at the end of my first week in El Salvador...but it was wonderful to meet some truly

Painted by the first ArtCorps artist to decorate the restaurant run by the women´s cooperative, showing Ciudad Romero in Panama.
inspiring folks. Last week there was a group from Middlebury College also doing volunteer work in the organic farm of La Coordinadora. It´s been good to be able to adjust with the support of other "extranjeros!"

La Vida Salvadoreña

I´m currently living in the dorms at La Coordinadora, but I am eating meals at Nohé´s older sister´s house. Cristina is an amazing woman who was pregnant at 14 when they left the country, and returned to El Salvador 2 months after her child was born, joining with the guerrilla forces. She strongly identifies as a feminist, a leader of the women in the community (she still runs a women´s cooperative in Ciudad Romero where and elsewhere, and is part of the MSM (a women´s organization in El Salvador). She also has a great sense of humor. She has 3 daughters who live with her--Leti (22) and Fanny and Liana (16) who are twins. Her other children are living in the States, and as a result, Cristina´s grandson Jefferson (5) is living here without his parents.

Amazing cooks, they make incredible pupusas, the traditional salvadoran dish (and how lucky, because they´re delicious!). Pupusas are basically tortillas stuffed with cheese
Judy, Luz, and LillianaJudy, Luz, and LillianaJudy, Luz, and Lilliana

Three sisters who are in the Ciudad Romero group
and beans and fried, with some tomato sauce and marinated cabbage on top. But tasting them could be compared to heaven. Only extranjeros eat them with forks, though. Salvadoreños just dig right in with their fingers.

I´m starting to learn how to do daily tasks around the house. Making tortillas is a lot harder than it looks. Mine sometimes appear to resemble circles, but more often than not they´re still uneven, too thick in the middle, without the smooth round edges that Leti and Fanny always succeed in forming (they started making them when they were nine). I made patacones (Ecuadorian dish made from plaintains that I learned in Galápagos) one night, and the neighbors expressed surprise ("La gringa puede cocinar!").

Washing clothes is also an entirely different process--using a huge cement sink called a pila, you scrub the clothes viciously with soap against the stone at the bottom, then pour water over the clothes to rinse them out. You get to know your intimate apparrel much more intimately. The feeling of water and suds around my hands is cleansing, but after a while my fingers prune and turn red from rubbing against the stone and cloth.

The animals. Free range to an extent where they wander from yard to yard, but somehow always find it back home. The baby animals are SO CUTE. My favorites are the cerditos (baby pigs). The male turkeys make this weird spitting hiss sound when they puff out their feathers and tuck in their rainbow colored heads in an effort to be impressive--which they are. I´ve been pursued and barked at several times by the chuchos (dogs) (which was my fear--and it´s still very scary!), but if I bend down to get a rock or shake a stick at them or shine a flashlight in their eyes, they back off.

I´m still getting used to the toothless "Hola, guapa"s from the hombres and bolos who sit at the corner with their bicycles or the guy who drives the shaved ice cart. Maybe I should try the assertive steps with them (thanks, CLIMB).

Vamos a la Playa

I went to the beach with the AJWS delegation, which was beautiful and sad. It seemed to represent the sentiment that derives from this place. It´s desolate and the currents are too strong to swim in the ocean. The stark beach littered with plastic and cow shit is too hot to walk on without shoes. However, looking more carefully, there are some of the most beautiful shells I´ve ever seen, perfectly preserved, diversely shaped, with glorious bright colors.

Additional photos below
Photos: 41, Displayed: 30


Isaiah, Jeremias, and Nohe playingIsaiah, Jeremias, and Nohe playing
Isaiah, Jeremias, and Nohe playing

Some Hebrew, some Spanish, some English...

13th February 2008

incredible account of things that are only within the depths of my imagination right now. I can happily say however, that though I am not melting at the sight of cerditos every day, I have savored many a pupusa in the past few weeks. Did you buy a guitar down here? There's one at FUNDAHMER, which I have been trying to learn on, but if I end up in Sacacoyo, I might think about investing in my own! any tips? Hope all is well! Sounds like it is! Hasta prontisimo xxoo pollita numero dos
20th February 2008

Ciudad Romero
Ahhhhh waking up to the soothing sounds of reggaeton and gallos (makes me nostalgic about Galapagos...tear, tear) Great use of imagery and amazing pics! Can't wait to sweat profusely while I meet some of these extraordinary people!
10th March 2008

Robyn, your adventures sound amazing already!! I really REALLY wish I spoke Spanish. Your work sounds just what I would love to do!!! I was in Ghana in the fall, and did a theatre for development project with Liberian refugee children. They are incredible people, with DELICIOUS FOOD! Oh my god I miss the food so much! I cannot wait to read more of your blogs!
22nd September 2009

me encanto
puedes escribirme cuanto quieras
10th November 2009

soy cunado de nohe

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