Before I went to El Salvador in 1991 (read why in my earlier post here), I had never traveled outside the US. I had read lots of articles about the country’s Civil War and intense poverty in the LA Weekly, a lefty newspaper in Los Angeles where I went to school. I imagined El Salvador as a somber, high contrast black and white photo, with some thick red paint dripping down it to represent the bloodshed and suffering of a noble people being crushed by US Imperialism. (yeah, pretty dramatic)
To my surprise, El Salvador was more of a bright, animated 3-D movie with endless layers of depth and detail. The poor, simple, suffering, downtrodden people I had imagined I would live among in San Salvador were in reality intelligent, active, politically savvy individuals who listened to a lot of loud cumbia music (and some Rock en Espanol), privately followed politics with a passion, piled into a pickup truck on Sundays for soccer games, and bustled around with intensity. There were meals to make and bills to pay in spite of the sporadic skirmishes outside of the capital, the possibility of being outed as an opposition supporter or recruited forcibly into the military, and the lack of free speech in the company of certain individuals and in the media.
Kids went to school, played marbles, laughed and flew kites. Although lack of money was an obvious issue and there were scary soldiers with machine guns on every street corner downtown, people lived their daily lives pretty much like people do everywhere, dealing with the good, the bad, and quite a lot of the petty. There were no noble sufferers. There were no simple portraits. Life was not a black and white photo. Rather there were people living within intricate layers of economic, political, family and personal relationships, adapting skillfully to an ugly cold war reality.
Like everywhere, each individual was complex, as was every set of relationships. The man who beat his wife would step aside with a gracious smile to allow you to pass on a narrow sidewalk. The woman who offered to help you carry your basket from the market might also be the one burying effigies and lighting candles to bring down business at the local tienda out of envy. The guy who handed out cash to the kids to buy a soda was likely also the one who was informing the government of the names of people who sided with the opposition. And (as I found out on this trip) the midwife’s daughter, who accompanied your children’s births along with her mother, might one day go to prison for being part of her husband’s organized crime group. These situations were all open secrets to everyone in the Barrio.
The “80% of people living in poverty” statistic (or whatever the number was at that time) didn’t mean a lot once you dug into it. Those newspaper photos of the impoverished, suffering people were a very thin reading of reality. Behind them there were layers and layers of economic hierarchies and social depth.
About 3 years after I moved to El Salvador I started my first NGO job. One of my responsibilities was accompanying delegations to see different community projects. In many cases, as soon as we’d arrive to the communities, people would approach me and unleash the litany of their troubles and poverty, sometimes wringing their hands or their hat, asking for help, painting themselves as victims because I was white, had arrived in a 4×4 with an NGO logo on the side and a group of foreigners, and could translate their pleas for help.
I must have seemed pretty heartless, but it was hard to see people prostrating themselves when they lived in similar conditions to the ones my neighbors and I did in the Barrio, and no one in the Barrio saw me as someone who would fix things for them.
It probably seemed to the foreign visitors that a terrible thing had happened to me. I had become “immune to the suffering”. But what I think was really the case is that I didn’t feel sorry for people. I had no illusions that I could solve anyone’s problems and I felt really uncomfortable in this unfamiliar hierarchy.
My biggest work-related take-away from my time in El Salvador is an awareness of the hidden community dynamics and of what I represent when I visit different communities wherever my work takes me. I’m acutely aware that there’s a lot happening under the surface that I know nothing about, and can’t know about, especially if I don’t speak the language or live in the community for a really long time or develop close and familiar relationships with several people so I can hear different viewpoints. (Perhaps that’s the anthropologist in me).
I’m hyper sensitive that I need to stay in the background. Community members, community organizations and local staff need to take the lead. And when I see that there is a seat for me at that table up in front of the community assembly, I die a little inside. When possible, I grab my camera as an excuse for not sitting there and roam around taking photos (of the non-black-and-white-with-dripping-red-blood variety).
Related posts on Wait… What?: