Seeing poverty first-hand changes one’s point of view. [more]
Editor's Note: I was pleasantly surprised by the response to my writing about our trip to Kenya last month. So, I went back and pulled my notes from a trip we took in 2005 to El Salvador, the first of three such trips we've now taken. Using those journal notes, I wrote this article which I hope you enjoy as well.
It never occurred to me that I might travel to witness poverty first-hand. I guess at another time in my life I would wonder why anyone would do such a thing.
On our first day in El Salvador, our host warned us that “the next seven days will break your heart….but don’t worry, you’ll have the rest of your life to put it back together again.”
The poverty indeed is something we’ve never witnessed in the USA, and Alice and I have been working for years in Cleveland’s inner city. The folks we serve here are “wealthy” by comparison.
Zaragosa and El Zeita are a small town (former) and ghetto (latter) a few miles north of San Salvador, El Salvador’s capital. Families here live in “houses” that are really small rooms, cinder block or mud based with tin roofs over them. Indoor plumbing is rare and the few homes with electricity may have it fed from the car battery of a junk car resting in a front yard.
Very, very few have a real car. Most get to where they’re going by walking and if they must go a distance they stand by the side of the road hoping one of the many repainted school buses or pick up trucks we saw picks them up.
The streets, even what pass as highways, are lined with people walking or waiting. In between the walkers you’ll see hundreds of stands where others are selling whatever they might have to sell – bracelets, coconuts, soft drinks and such. This vast marketplace is what our host called El Salvador’s “informal economy.”
Interestingly, actually startling to me is that the largest segment of El Salvador’s economy (17.1% of GDP in 2005) is called “remittances.” This is money received by families here from their relatives who have moved to the United States.
And of course there is the “polarization” that we expected to see. Statistically, the distribution of income in 2005 was 45% to the top 20% while 5.8% goes to the bottom 20%. More evident to us was seeing the gated compounds of the dozen or so families who control the military industrial complex of El Salvador only kilometers away from the residences of Zaragosa and El Zeita described above.
This is of course not entirely different than in the USA except that it appears a far more stark contrast.
And our last shock came with what are positioned as “security guards.” At every gas station/convenience store we were confronted by young men carrying sub-machine guns. I couldn’t help but thinking they seemed no more prepared or qualified for such duty as your own mall security people, who are unarmed.
Worse, were the pickup trucks loaded with teenagers in camouflage and similarly armed. When I asked our host who they were I was told they are the “informal army.”
El Salvador is only a little over a decade removed from terrible violence. What I thought of as war and casualties in far away times and places such as Vietnam and Iraq are much closer to us in time and distance than that.
Over 80,000 people were killed in El Salvador between 1980 and 1990. The “results” of this civil war are, to this day unclear.
One site of violence that we visited, El Mazote, will stay with me forever. It’s a place where 1,300 women and children were massacred over three days in 1990. The were killed because they were related to men who had left them in their village to fight at another place.
After a peace accord was reached, ending the majority of the violence, the site of the massacre was excavated. When 118 of the first 130 bodies exhumed were children, the excavation was ordered stopped and has never been resumed.
While we stood at this site in silence, praying quietly to ourselves, I felt a small body leaning against me. I looked down to see the face of a girl, perhaps 10 years old. Dirty, poorly dressed and wanting eyes, she reached for my hand.
I’d love to tell you I grasped it, chatted with her and shared some money and a smile with her to make her feel better. I didn’t. I fled.
Back to our bus I went where I sobbed uncontrollably for probably ten minutes until the rest of the party started climbing aboard.
And that’s when our host’s words from day one came back to me. He told me my heart would be broken but he also said I’d have the rest of my life to put it back together again.
So, since that day, I’ve been engaged with the folks of Zaragosa and El Zeita on many fronts. To speak of our work smacks of righteousness to me so I’ll just say that the feeling I get every time we make some progress there reminds me of the promise I made silently to that little girl that day as I watched and waved to her as our bus drove off.
“You will be my inspiration to make a difference and I will pray that work somehow affects you directly.”