Recovering my senses


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Published: February 17th 2009
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It’s amazing how my senses can bring me back so quickly to memories I didn’t even realize I had. Sitting in the back of a pickup truck on my way down to Ciudad Romero, the strong smells of dust, burning trash, and soap (the kind used for washing clothes) reminded me of my first days in the campo last year. The way the light spills golden on the sugar cane fields in the late afternoon and the dust-covered green of the trees. The chorus of insects at night and birds in the morning. The oppressive heat. Now that I’m getting accustomed again, this intense barrage on my senses has become somewhat more normalized. Still, as Laura and I were walking through the market in Guatemala City, we marveled once again at the loudness, the chaos, the bright colors that so characterize Central America. “It’s so nice to be back in this craziness again—to really hear things,” I said to her as we dodged the street vendors and smog-sprouting buses that shouted and roared past us.

I’m back in El Salvador again, after a visit to the United States and a short stint at a convent in Guatemala City for the ArtCorps training. Although I think it should be easier every time to leave my “home” as I continue to live in various places, it just seems to get more difficult and more complicated—especially now that I’ve started to develop important relationships here as well, to start to put down some roots with my work. I felt an urge to stay when I connected with old friends, my family, and when I looked back from the escalator at the airport down at my mom waving goodbye, it was all I could do to turn around and keep walking.

The simple comforts found in the U.S. are certainly tempting as well, I have to admit—hot showers, driving right to a destination, eating out at restaurants, listening to great music, seeing family and friends, and experiencing that sense of comforting insulation. However, I found that I missed the cold showers in the heat, the improvisation and instinct necessary for hitching rides and jumping on crowded buses, the simple and hearty Salvadoran food (I did miss tortillas!!), ballenato and ranchera blasting in the mornings, my friends here, and I felt stifled at times by how small issues get exaggerated when we get so separated from what our basic needs are that we lose touch with reality.

Thanks to everyone who made encouraging comments about my blog; I had no idea that so many people were reading my random rants here. Please let me know what you think!

My first night in Ciudad Romero was a strange transition: I arrived home to a party-like atmosphere: there were chickens being slaughtered and roasted, laughter, and the table was set for dinner and cake. There were two men visiting (a rarity in our house full of women), both of whom have been living in the U.S. for the past 15 years. Instead of starting to practice my Spanish again, I was speaking English. They were getting ready to go back to the States, and I was just arriving in El Salvador. The irony of this “reverse immigration” is never lost on Salvadorans. Beto had come back to El Salvador for knee surgery; he had fallen from a tree while working (pruning branches), and surgery was too expensive in the States. Benito is the father of Cristina’s first child. He was back to go to his brother in law’s funeral…and to visit Cristina. Although they had been separated at the beginning of the war by the burning of their village, and her choice to join the guerrilla, his to go to the U.S., now almost 30 years later, they are rekindling their long-distance romance.

What I experienced during my “vacation” was an itch to get back to work again, to get started with the exciting plans we have for this year. Well, that has been more than satisfied in these first two weeks! We’ve had long planning meetings that expand until late at night. We’ve started working with the theatre group, which we’re transforming into a semi-professional company (with the goal of financial self-sufficiency for the youth program), with intensive rehearsals every night—with some exciting new turns on the La Quesera play. This week, Miguel Munoz, a Spanish theatre director who was involved in the artistic movements after Franco’s reign, is coming to do a 2-week intensive with the 5 youth, working on acting techniques and re-formulating aspects of the play. I will be taking on a more production-oriented role this year, as Tania takes the reins as director!

The educational aspect of the Youth Program is now called the Centro Experimental de Educación Popular y Artes Escénicas (The Experimental Center for Popular Education and Performing Arts), or CEPAE. Since it’s a 3 year program in popular education, community organizing, and artistic skills, we’re moving on to the second year with the 15 youth who finished last year, and we’re incorporating a new group to start in the first year. We’re going to be selecting 28 youth from 70 applicants (already we’re experiencing a demand!), and the first selection workshop will be this weekend. We just had our first selection workshop, and I´m reminded once again how beautiful this work is.

The group going into their second year will be designing and executing their own Proyectos de Aprendizaje (learning projects), which will provide links to other aspects of the organization La Coordinadora: working with the community radio and the agriculture program to possibly investigate and disseminate information about ancestral (indigenous) agricultural practices in the communities. On top of the practical application of skills as community “animators,” we will continue with a more theory-based curriculum of workshops, getting deeper into political, social, historical, and cultural issues through a series of 5 modules, presented by various experts and then explored through artistic media.

If it sounds like I’m speaking Chinese to you, then the best thing to do would be come down to El Salvador and see it in action, since it really is an incredible process—and, like most aspects of popular education, it only makes sense as you’re living it! Something really helpful is Aryeh’s recent donation of a video camera, which we’re already making good use of, filming everything we can to document the process! (THANK YOU!!)

Besides work, Tania and I are currently in the process of looking for a house in Ciudad Romero, where we can live and store materials and costumes. It’s harder than it seems. There are several houses that have pretty much been abandoned by people who have immigrated to the U.S. or Panama, so it would seem like we could just move right in! Well, we’ve experienced a few problems with the houses we’ve looked at:

1) Lack of floor (only dirt), but no lack of bats and other creatures
2) No electricity connection
3) An owner asking for $200 a month (well, this is cheap in the U.S., but it’s about as much as we’re willing to spend in a whole year
Hanging on for dear lifeHanging on for dear lifeHanging on for dear life

In the back of a truck going up to El Carmen
on rent here!)

And, the most recent: we had decided on a house, had moved stuff in, started hosing down the walls and floors that had about an inch thick of dust everywhere, Nohe came over and illegally hooked up electricity (by passing a cable over to the neighbor’s house), doing all of this in our relatively nonexistent “free time,” and then we discovered…the previous owner had taken the deed to the water with him to the States, and we would have to pay $400 to install the water again. Well, this was turning into too much of an investment, especially when the landlord, Don Santos, an 82 year old man who was especially fond of making flirtatious remarks to Tania and I, told us he was unwilling to invest anything in the house, and still expected us to pay rent on top of everything.

This was when I wanted to call for my mom, the property law professor, and ask if she knew anything about Salvadoran property law and our rights as tenants…if it even exists…which I doubt, at least in the campo where things like this are probably usually resolved with machetes.

However, I had my first experience being a firefighter as a result of this house-hunting. As Tania and I were battling the elements and trying rather unsuccessfully to evict the dust from the house while it just kept on sweeping in because of a few days of a freak wind storm, the hay and wood pile of the neighbor’s house caught on fire. The crazy wind didn’t make things any better as we all ran over to help put out the blaze. Neighbors and passer-by rushed over to lend a hand. We hosed down the pile, removed the blazing bits of stored hay to separate the fuel, and pulled up water from the well—using anything we could as the wind whipped up more and more, and also discovered an iguana that had hidden in the woodpile and thus met his crispy end. We were successful—when no fire department exists, the community must come together to put out the flames!

Although I’m exhausted already, physically and sometimes emotionally, working constantly every day and still always having more to do, I’m so inspired by this work and this place, and always the people here. Yesterday, the youth presented their program to the Foundation for Self-Sufficiency in Central America (), the foundation that supports La Coordinadora, and the representatives were impressed at the self-esteem and confidence that every participant expressed while they talked with clarity and enthusiasm about the objectives and activities of the program. Not only is it rare to see this kind of fluid interaction among a group in El Salvador, but also in the U.S. as well. Tania and I hardly had to explain anything, they spoke for themselves. And we’re only just getting started!




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