People often ask me 2 questions. How did I end up spending the 90s in El Salvador and how did I get into NGO work? I usually give the 140 character verbal version. But the turning point was 20 years ago this week. So here is the longer story.
Back in 1989, I was in my senior year of college, studying anthropology at the University of Southern California (USC) and living in the mid-Wilshire district, home of the infamous Mara Salvatrucha (MS) gang and one of the most violent sections of Los Angeles. The 5th floor window of my 1920s apartment building overlooked a mini-mall where the “underground economy” (as my anthropology teacher liked to call it) took place. (I suppose today you’d call them “anti-social entrepreneurs”? J) Stolen credit cards were used at the public phone on the corner to call El Salvador and Guatemala. Newly initiated teenaged gang members stole handbags and necklaces. Older, tattooed MS smoked cigarettes and observed their territory, or took out bags of brown marijuana at the outside picnic tables, rolling joints and smoking them in public. Throwing up the 18th St. hand sign would get you in big trouble as this was MS territory.
On the other side of the mini mall parking lot, gunshots would go off now and then on Normandie between 7th and 8th, where the MS ran crack. Dealers and buyers used the apartment buildings there, gorgeous old style art deco places that had lost the battle, to hide from police. One morning I was awakened by a crazed, dreadlocked squatter leaning out a window singing Sly Stone at the top of his lungs. I was fascinated and decided to do my senior anthropology project about this ‘underground economy’. I didn’t imagine it would be dangerous since I was part of the neighborhood and no one ever bothered me, aside from saying “hola mamacita” when I passed through on my way to the mini-mart.
I first needed an informant who wouldn’t harass me, and I decided on one of the guys that I would see often in the parking lot, hanging around chatting people up. He worked in the local video store. He wasn’t tattooed and didn’t seem like a gang member, but he seemed to know everyone. He didn’t call me mamacita or make kissing noises when I walked past; he’d just flash me a dazzling smile and say ‘hey-lo’. So I started asking him about the neighborhood, the structure of the MS. Who did what and why. Where people came from. What the graffiti meant.. Though he wasn’t a gang member, he knew everyone. (“That’s how you stay safe here. You has to know them so they protect you.”) His cousin was ‘in the business’ so I got the lowdown on the structure and business strategies of the drug trade in the neighborhood. My Spanish was virtually non-existent and his English was only about 2 steps above that, but we managed to communicate.
Guillermo, “Memo” for short , was 24 at the time. He had come into the US via Mexico when he was 18, during the peak of the civil war, because he felt trapped by parental disputes and the bleak situation in El Salvador. He feared being recruited into one or the other side of the conflict raging in his country. Despite horrific human rights abuses — massacres, death squads, tortures and many disappeared, the US was pouring billions of dollars into supporting the rightwing military government. US policy was that El Salvador was a ‘democracy’ thus it was virtually impossible for Salvadorans to seek entry to the US legally or be granted refugee status. Nicaragua and Cuba? Quite another story.
Memo had grown up in the room of a meson (a U-shaped one-story building made of adobe and tin, with 8-10 rooms surrounding a central courtyard and shared latrine/bathing area/washing area) in one of the oldest barrios in the heart of San Salvador. Some people in the barrio sold tortillas or juice. Some sold fruits and vegetables in the Central Market, shined shoes, or dealt in metal pieces dredged up from the bottom of the Rio Acelhuate, the river-turned-sewer running alongside the barrio, or stolen side view mirrors at the hardware market. There were impromptu car repair shops and tiendas. Some women in the barrio went door-to-door selling freshly made snacks, and some were sex workers in the red light district a couple blocks away. The local economy was mostly informal, supplemented in large part by money sent home from relatives in the US or Australia.
Memo was a handful as a child. His upbringing was difficult but upright, notable from his good manners and clean-cut appearance. As a boy, he’d studied up to 9th grade. He had passed his afternoons locked in the small room at the meson, kicking a soccer ball around with his older brother while his parents worked. They did their best to keep their sons out of trouble. Memo’s mother was a seamstress and his father a hired driver in the Central Market. Memo had begun working as an apprentice in a mechanic shop at age 12.
His journey to the US took place over a period of about 4 and a half months in 1983, most of it spent in Mexico working to save up for the rest of the trip. He arrived to Los Angeles where his cousin and brother already lived, moving into a one-bedroom apartment with 7 other guys. He struggled to find work, losing 4 jobs due to lack of papers but finally found a job through the Salvadoran owner of the video store (who was also involved in the drug trade).
I was fascinated by the world I was getting a look into, and by Memo himself …and the feeling was mutual. We started going out and on Thanksgiving in 1989 we decided to get married. I was only 21, and life was getting more interesting every day. (Credit to my parents for being highly concerned but reasonably hands-off. I only wonder how I’d feel if it was my daughter!) In 1991, we decided to move down to El Salvador, in spite of the fact that the civil war was still going on.
It was my first time traveling out of the States. My new in-laws greeted me at the meson with a stilted welcome and a brand new toilet seat that I was supposed to carry to the latrine with me to place on top of the ‘stone chimney.’ They were embarrassed at the conditions they could offer to their son’s gringuita. We set up house in the meson for about a year, and all eventually moved a half block down the alley way into 2 side-by-side apartments. We used our total savings to purchase our place for around $3,000. (Photo above is the Barrio in 2009).
Memo picked his job back up as a mechanic in the local car shop and we lived on around $3/day for our first 3 years. Barrio Candelaria was an amazing place. My neighbors welcomed me with open arms and I easily became part of barrio life. Eventually we bought a refrigerator and some furniture. On weekends we’d walk a few blocks to downtown get ice cream cones or pizza as a treat. I learned to be a Salvadoran housewife. Niña Alicia, my mother-in-law, taught me to cook, clean, go to the market and small talk with the other women at the Sunday soccer games. She also found Niña Lita, a warm and gentle midwife, to ‘sovarme’ (give me monthly belly massages) and to deliver my son Daniel at home in April 1992. I didn’t trust the conditions at the public hospital. Niña Lita was 70 years old and had been delivering babies since age 15, including her own 15 children, so I felt safe with her. I read voraciously on pregnancy and birth in order to be as prepared as possible.
Three months before Daniel was born, the war ended in Peace Accords and a huge celebration in the plaza a few blocks from our house. Memo enrolled in and completed high school in the evenings and graduated as Valedictorian, moving on to also complete his university degree. I got a job as an English teacher at a private school. I also started a class at the National University. It was the first time that 20th century history had ever been taught in El Salvador due to the conflict and government prohibitions to discuss certain events during that time. A classmate was a Finnish girl, around my age. Her father was the head of an NGO and they were looking for a translator. I gave up my teaching job to take this one, and eventually moved into programs and communications. I’ve been in NGO work ever since.
Niña Lita attended me again in 1996 when my daughter Clare was born. At 10 and a half pounds, it was a difficult birth, and she was so purple that at first I imagined she was dead…. but either Niña Lita was an expert or I got lucky, and we both survived. The post-war violence and crime continued to worsen. People said that post-war was worse than during the war because it was now randomized violence, and you never knew where it would find you. I witnessed several incidents on the bus and saw people stabbed downtown in broad daylight for a watch or wallet, but somehow came out untouched.
With my NGO job, our conditions improved over time and we were able to buy a car and send the kids to an affordable nearby private school – the level of education at the public schools near the barrio was very low. Memo had also gotten a job at an NGO, doing HIV/AIDS prevention and rehabilitation work with inmates in the Salvadoran prison system. We never considered moving out of the barrio since we felt safe there and Memo’s parents were next door. Every step outside the barrio though, and you knew you might not come home. The very day I sat in my interview to start work with Plan, my second NGO job, Memo and his colleagues were assaulted on a rural road by 4 masked men with big guns and held for several hours on a plantation. He came home stunned and depressed, missing his shoes and watch. The elderly plantation guard, armed with only his machete, was killed in the incident.
Cultural differences and the fact that I worked and traveled a lot began to create friction. The palpable sense of random violence and crime everywhere outside the barrio added to the stress. I started to run up against limits on what I could do and achieve in El Salvador and felt trapped. So for many of the same reasons that Memo fled from El Salvador in 1983, so did I in 2001. We parted ways and I moved back to the US with the kids. We have remained good friends and keep in touch, and we go to visit whenever we have enough money for tickets, which unfortunately is never often enough.
So, when people ask me what they should study in order to have a job like mine or how I ended up in El Salvador, I’m a bit hard pressed on what to answer. I usually give a short version that goes something like: “well, I got married to a Salvadoran and joined an NGO in El Salvador,” since the long one is pretty personal and my path to NGO work is not quite something you want to hear about at a job fair. What I do tell some people is that it’s really not what you study, it’s how you grab onto the opportunities that life offers to you and flow with them to see where you end up. It’s being willing to take risks, to follow your heart and do what you are passionate about. You don’t know where you may end up, in development or in something totally different. But the trip will be well worth it. 20 years later… I look back and I wouldn’t change a thing.
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