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Posts Tagged ‘El Salvador’

The first two and half years that I lived in San Salvador, back in the early ‘90s, I didn’t work. I spent my time adapting, perfecting my Spanish, and learning from my mother-in-law how to cook, wash clothes, and take care of a house and family the Salvadoran Barrio way.

The other thing I did was read. I’d read anything I could get my hands on, often finishing a book in a day or two if my supply was plentiful.

A few months after I arrived, however, I had run out of things to read and was getting a little bored. By then my husband had started working as a mechanic in the shop where he had apprenticed as a teenager. We were not taking trips out to the beach or hanging out on the patio anymore, and I had mastered much of the housewifely chore learning. I was looking for something to do with my time and my attention turned to finding books.

Aside from the newspaper, reading was not something that anyone I knew in San Salvador did. Most of the people in the Barrio, including those in my new family, had not studied past 6th or, in some cases, 9th grade, nor did they have extra cash for things like books. (A Finnish friend who lived for a few years in El Salvador once said that she had loved visiting Suchitoto, a town outside the capital, because, “Linda, I saw people sitting around reading! And it wasn’t the bible!”)

I realized that finding books was going to be a challenge. There were no bookstores in downtown San Salvador, which was the extent of my range of movement at the time. So I asked my husband if there was a university anywhere, because certainly they would have a bookstore.

Y vos, ¿quién te crees? Who do you think you are?” he asked, pointing his chin at me, a little surprised at my question. “You think you can just waltz into a university campus and go in their bookstore?”

I didn’t know what to say.

So I asked what the problem was. Why couldn’t we? He explained that people like him, people from the Barrio, didn’t go to universities, and that if poor people went where the fufurufu (Salvadoran slang for wealthy, snobby, fancy, powerful people) lived, the police would chase them out. If as kids he and his brother had dared to walk into places where they didn’t belong, he said, the police (which was, at that time, the feared military police) would want to know what they were doing there and they’d be in big trouble. So they didn’t go to places like that.

With the idea of going to a university bookstore ruled out, he suggested that we go to “La Hispanoamerica,” a school supply shop downtown, to see if we could find something there. I was in luck — Hispanoamerica had a shelf full of classics in Spanish and even some in English, so I started browsing. A clerk quickly came over. She was annoyed that I was behind the glass counter touching the books.

“What book are you looking for?” she asked. “I don’t know, I’m just looking,” I answered. “Pues sí,” she said, “but which one are you looking for?” I answered again that I wasn’t sure, I just wanted to see what they had. By then she was even more exasperated. “Yes, but what is the title? Which book did they tell you to read? Give me your reading list and I’ll find the books for you.”

At this point I understood that this was not a place where people browsed to find something to read, it was a place you came to buy the books that you had been assigned to read. Foiled again.

I felt sheepish for not understanding the situation, and my husband was a little embarrassed by my walking behind the counter in the first place, and because the clerk seemed to think I was an idiot. “You can’t just walk behind the counter,” he told me. I felt like again he was asking me, “Just who do you think you are?” So I ended up not buying anything.

Instead, I asked my mother if she could send me books. She was running an auction house in Indiana at the time. So she would find and send me whatever used books came along that she thought I’d like. (She’d also send me envelopes full of newspaper clippings a couple of times a week. I like to think of this as the original Twitter. :))

These books ranged from romance novels to best sellers to biographies. I’d go to the post office a few blocks away downtown and spend the entire morning standing in lines, filling out paper work and waiting for signatures, purchasing colorful tax stamps at the bank and returning to the post office so that the clerks could wet and affix them to the boxes and mark them with government seals. It was an education in how the bureaucratic system of the country worked, learned through the simple act of picking up a box of used books.

I didn’t have much choice, so once I finally had them back to the house, I read them all. I remember reading a fascinating biography about a woman named Nora Barnacle, the wife of author James Joyce, a famous (I then discovered) Irish author.

At that time in my life, I never imagined that I’d end up one day having a job where I could travel the world. I wasn’t even able to get my hands on a copy of James Joyce’s books at that point, much less think about visiting his home country of Ireland.

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Last week, however, there I was in Dublin, where Joyce did much of his writing. Before leaving home, I grabbed a copy of his book Dubliners from my college-aged son’s bookshelf for the trip. I figured it was high time I finally read some Joyce. Dubliners is a set of short stories written by Joyce when he was only 25 years old, just slightly older than I was when I was milling around San Salvador looking for books, and learning how to live in the Barrio. The stories focus on ordinary life in Dublin in the 19th century, after the city had weathered a long decline. They talk of grimy children, tenements, poor sewage systems, and a working class that struggles to make ends meet. The comparisons with Salvadoran barrios are easy to make.

At dinner in a nice restaurant with friends one evening last week, something triggered me to tell my tablemates the story of finding books in San Salvador, and how it had made me examine my own privilege and to consider the limits that my husband had set for himself as someone who identified himself as being ‘poor’ and ‘from the Barrio.’ How often we self-marginalize because we feel like we don’t belong, or because a dominant class or culture sets clear boundaries that we are not supposed to think about crossing. These boundaries become strong mental and physical barriers and deter us from entering both the spaces and places of the privileged.

Because humans are adaptable, however, these can be learned and unlearned. I discovered, for example, that I wasn’t supposed to do certain things in San Salvador because of the class that I had married into or because I was female, and I altered my behavior. When I moved back to the US, I re-learned things I had unlearned in El Salvador about what women should and shouldn’t, can and can’t do. Similarly, over time, my (now ex) husband learned that he could do things that he thought he wasn’t supposed to. He ended up returning to finish high school, and eventually went on to get a university degree. This was in part because he started to believe that he could, part because universities became more accessible, and part because I had started working and we had a little more money to allow him to pay fees and to work less.

I think about this experience a lot in the work I do, because I’m often working with or writing about marginalized groups and ways to improve inclusion. How can we help people overcome self-imposed barriers? What should institutions and social spaces look like physically, culturally and attitudinally, so that they can be inclusive? How do girls and women in particular self-exclude, and what kinds of wider environments are needed to reduce gender exclusion? I know that these barriers can be unlearned and overcome, but not without some work, support and effort on different fronts, including from those institutions and spaces that are excluding.

***

Book of Kells

Yesterday a friend from the Dublin dinner conversation emailed me while I was sitting in a little coffee shop, getting some work done. He was over at Trinity College at the Book of Kells exhibit. “Was only here for a few moments when I thought of you and your book story,” he wrote. So I met him there to see it. The Book of Kells is a very old bible, from 800 a.d.. It is housed in a glass case, and it’s full of gorgeous illustrations in amazing color. Upstairs from the Book of Kells itself is a library full of other old books. They are all roped off or encased in glass, physically off limits like the ones at the Hispanoamerica and the university bookstore that we were not supposed to go into back in El Salvador — yet for slightly different reasons.

Afterwards, we went to grab a quick lunch. We wandered down a small street where I had spied a sign that looked to me like it said ‘Daily Bread.’ “Let’s see what they have,” I said. (Oh, my terrible eyesight!) The shop was actually a pub called “Davy Byrnes,” but no matter, it was 3pm and they were still serving food. In fact, inside there were a lot of people having an early happy hour and lively conversations. We ordered some hearty food.

My friend ate quickly and ran off to catch his flight. I stayed around to finish my lunch and decided to order a glass of wine, as the atmosphere was warm and friendly (and inclusive!). In the process of eating, I knocked my knife off the table and onto the floor. It clattered loudly and landed in right between the feet of an elderly man with a cane sitting next to me. I apologized and leaned over to pick it up.

“A harrrr!” He turned to me and laughed loud and long, perhaps a bit tipsy from the port he was drinking. “Soooo! Now I’m gonna trow a pen at you!” he said, and reached into his vest pocket while wiggling his eyebrows and staring at me intently with watery pale blue eyes. He cackled like a pirate and threw a pen onto the floor near my feet.

I was being a bit slow, so he explained. “The pen is might-ier than the sword! Ha ha ha ha ha!”

He was ripe for a good chat, and I was enjoying the banter. “Don’t miss the Joyce exhibit while you are here,” he told me. I said that in fact, I was reading Dubliners but had barely cracked the book open yet. “Ah, he said. Dubliners is easy. Now Finnegan’s Wake, that’s the one that’s hard to crack!”

He went on to tell me some short stories of his own, riddled with the kind of swearing that you might expect from a feisty old Irish man you find in a pub. He finally leaned on his cane to get up and head home, leaving behind his book from the Joyce exhibit and his cap. The bartender assured me he would be back to get them.

As I settled up my bill, I asked what was the story of the pub, since it was unlike any other I’d ever patronized. Strangely enough I learned that Davy Byrnes, the pub we’d randomly wandered into, is famous for its association with Joyce. He spent time there, wrote there, mentions said “Davy Byrnes” in his books, and it’s been known since 1889 as Dublin’s most famous literary pub.

It’s weird how people, things and themes wander through your life and come together at points you never expect. The question “Who do you think you are?” has stuck with me, for better or worse, and it pops into mind at different times. “Who do you think you are? Do you think you can just walk in there and…?” It’s a good one for examining privilege, or on the flipside, exclusion.

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Photo from Wikipedia.

As I’ve written before, I moved from El Salvador to Rhode Island in 2001 with my 2 kids. Their father is Salvadoran and they look an awful lot like him.

A few years after we moved, when my daughter Clare was about 7 years old, one of the checkout ladies at the supermarket we frequented said to me, “Your daughter is such a nice child. She’s always so helpful. Where did you get her?”

“Um,” I answered, a little confused, “…I gave birth to her?”

“Ooooohhhhhh! OK,” the lady said. “I thought you had adopted her from somewhere.”

I was annoyed with the lady, at first, for the assumptions she was making. I let it go, however, realizing that it didn’t really matter whether I had adopted my daughter or not. I would love her the same, regardless.

People often ask these kinds of questions without meaning any harm. They say things like “Oh, she’s your daughter? She doesn’t look like you. What is she?”

This question always stumps me. “What is she?” I know that people are asking about her ethnicity, but I find the phrasing odd. So I usually feign confusion or make a dumb joke like “Um, what is she? She’s…. a human?”

Clare is 17 now and she’s been getting into slam poetry. Here is her take on it.

An open letter to the woman at the grocery store that asked my mom “where she got me.”

Home grown.

Sitting on the shelf next to the Autocrat Coffee Syrup and the Del’s Lemonade.

I have made my place here.

I do not belong in the exotic fruits section. The Latin foods section.

It is not for you to decide where I call home.

The sticker on my forehead labeling me “IMPORTED” should not be the only thing you see about me.

I am also organic, fair trade original.

I am my own woman. Not a further perpetuation of the idea that the only way to have such an exotic being is to have taken it. As if to fill a space in your collection.

AND HERE WE HAVE CLARE RAMIREZ RAFTREE. ALL THE WAY FROM EL SALVADOR.

To those who ask, “What are you?”

I am anything I want to be.

(Published with Clare’s permission)

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If you’ve been reading this blog regularly, you’ll know that I have a strong connection with El Salvador where I lived during the decade of the 1990s. Every so often I get nostalgic or something triggers me and I get the urge to write about those days or how they still impact on me and my kids. The Central American child migration situation is in the news every day now, with varying explanations and huge amounts of political manipulation, so it’s something that’s been on my mind a lot lately.

I migrated to El Salvador for love in 1991 and back into the US with my kids in 2001 to get out of a country that was increasingly sinking into terrifying violence and where I could not envision a future for myself or my kids. The very week we left El Salvador, the 9-year-old son of a man who owned a small mechanic shop (eg, not someone who was uber wealthy) was kidnapped and then killed by his captors when the police attempted to rescue him. My son Daniel was also 9 at the time.

Still, leaving El Salvador was the hardest decision I’ve ever made — and I had a plane ticket, family support in the US, spoke the language, had a job, and already had US citizenship, as did my kids. I cannot imagine sending my children on their own, by foot. I cannot imagine having to make the choice between the known day-to-day violence of one kind and the potential yet very real violence of another.

My ex-husband made the journey into the US in the early 1980s when he was 18. It took him four months to make it. He tells of hunger, of sleeping outside, of looking for short-term work in Mexico to replace the money that the police had stolen from him, and being chased through the fields by a man with a machete. He traveled with the clothes on his back and not much else. The heartbreak and fear involved in a decision to send a child on that journey alone is something I can’t fathom. But I know that El Salvador is no place to try to raise children right now either. Even in the 1990s, every time I left the house I wondered if I would return that evening or if I might be caught up somehow in the senseless violence that runs wild in the country. It’s something you learn to live with, and you don’t realize how stressful it is until you wake up somewhere where you feel safe.

Our decision to migrate back to the US continues to be difficult sometimes, as I wrote in this post about my daughter’s experiences dealing with family separation. It’s never easy for families to be separated, and it enrages me when the family bonds, of “others” or of “the poor” are imagined to be less strong or less meaningful than those of more privileged people or of the current citizens of a particular country. Sending a child to walk across a desert is not a decision parents make lightly. Why do people seem to understand that when it’s the “Lost Boys of Sudan” and not when it’s children of Central America?

Yesterday, my son Daniel wrote about his experiences for a newspaper called Brasil do Fato, where he’s interning for the next 3 months as part of a human rights grant he received from his university. He doesn’t elaborate about his childhood in El Salvador in this version, but his original version talked about the joy of growing up in the Barrio where we lived, playing in the alley and the rubble of an abandoned building down the road, and how things have changed since then.

Daniel’s piece gives a quick history of the US’ involvement in Central America and why it’s not an isolated issue, free of history and a broader global context. He also reflects on “how much a person’s fate is determined by the country and family into which they are born and where they fall in the order of social forces that structure the world.” It’s something he understands well, because he’s had the best of his two worlds.

Here’s the original article published on July 24, 2014, in Brasil do Fato (in Portuguese), and I’ve pasted in an English translation here:

Human Rights here and in the wider world

by Daniel Ramirez

I am Salvadoran, on my father’s side. Which means that I share, at the very least, a common history and memories of life in a Salvadoran barrio. In the barrio, I grew up alongside many children living in very difficult circumstances, just like the children who are seeking to flee the country today.

Our lives, however, turned out very differently. I am privileged to be a college student at the University of Chicago, and currently in São Paulo working as an intern for Brasil de Fato thanks to a grant from my school’s Human Rights program. This highlights for me how much a person’s fate is determined by the country and family into which they are born and where they fall in the order of social forces that structure the world.

Throughout the 20th century — especially after 1932 when the Salvadoran government put down an attempted peasant insurrection led by the Partido Socialista Centroamericano, killing up to 40,000 indigenous people in a massacre known as “La Matanza” — economic tension between the Salvadoran oligarchy and its working classes continually increased.

This conflict hit a high point during the global economic crisis of the 1970s, and in 1979 an attempted coup d’etat sparked the Salvadoran Civil War. The United States saw this as an opportunity to ensure communism would not take root in El Salvador, as it already had in Nicaragua, and funded the Salvadoran military’s campaign against popular resistance. On the left, the guerrilla militia named Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (in honor of Farabundo Martí, the leader of the 1932 insurrection) was organized to fight for the Salvadoran people.

It was a brutal war that lasted until 1992. Thousands were killed and human rights were grossly abused on a massive scale. To escape this, many Salvadorans migrated to the United States, including my dad who escaped to the US in the early 1980’s. In 1990, my dad was deported back to El Salvador, and my mom went with him.

I lived in El Salvador until I was nine, then I moved to the United States with my mom and sister.

Since I left, I’ve gone back to visit El Salvador once every couple of years. Now, my old friends have grown up. They work hard for little pay and already have families, and we’ve grown apart. There are still kids hanging out outside, but they’re older, and it seems to me like the character of their activities has become more serious.

The barrio has changed. It now “belongs” to the 18th Street gang. There’s more violence around, some of it between rival gangs, and my dad tells me to be careful who I talk to. The kid who lived directly across from us back in the day was shot and killed along with his mother right in the alley in front of my old house. If I’d been born ten years later, my childhood would not have been the carefree, playful existence that it was.

Violence, Hope and Reality

This is the type of social climate that is causing children to leave for the United States. And if we follow the chain (if not totally causal, then at least telling) from US military funding, to an intensified civil war, to refugee migration, to Los Angeles gangs, to deportation and finally to the pervasive power of gangs throughout El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, we can see how much current migration into the US from Central America has been shaped by the United States’ influence.

Right now, on the United States’ side of the US-Mexico border, thousands of children are arriving at immigration detention centers, most looking to escape violent conditions in their home countries. Meanwhile, President Obama is looking for the power to deport them as quickly as possible, intending to send Central Americans the message that the US will not aid immigrants arriving en masse to its borders, even if they are children.

United States foreign policy in Latin America extended and fueled a brutal civil war in El Salvador. Its domestic treatment of immigrants, refugees and low income communities bred gangs who then committed crimes and who then were deported back to a Central American economy and society that had no room or place for them to reintegrate in a healthy manner.

The United States is a major historical cause of the current influx of child immigrants. It would be just for United States society to take collective responsibility for the harm it inflicted in the past, and do what it can to help remedy the crisis in Central America. But, as can be seen by looking at how United States society treats its African-American community, as a country, it is not very good at taking responsibility for past crimes.

Why I’m Here

Now, I’ve come to Brazil with a critical eye in order to understand the interconnections between my Salvadoran barrio, my experiences in the United States, and the periphery and the social movements in Brazil, specifically in São Paulo, where I’ve come to live these three months.

I hope to see how diverse groups of people organize to fight for themselves. My goal is to consistently articulate my insights, and track the progress of my thinking on the theme of human rights. I’m not sure where this project will go, but I’m excited to go along with it and take it wherever it leads.

 

 

 

 

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The scars you have. The wounds you inflict. The knots wrapped up in your perceptions and the memories that cross generations….

It’s the Sunday after Thanksgiving in Rhode Island, and we are using Skype to call a landline in San Salvador. That side — a father and a grandmother — doesn’t understand how it works, doesn’t realize that this side – a son, a daughter, an ex-wife – is gathered around the computer, all listening.

One-third of this side, the daughter, has dissolved into a puddle of tears. Hyperventilating, choking sobs. The fact that we left 12 years ago for the US has punched her in the gut, and she’s destroyed upon hearing the deep, gravelly voice of her abuelita, who cared for her unconditionally when she was small.

Typical Skype, the connection is not good.

Alo? Alo? No se oye bien. Aqui no se oye. Alo? We can’t hear you well here.

She had buried it. Every mention of facing it or trying to resolve it met with tears. With fear and resistance. With avoidance.

Her recent post-Thanksgiving Twitter feed confesses: I’m late but thankful for my dad’s selfless decision to not ask for joint custody (c) 

…And to let my mom bring us to the US. If I were there I wouldn’t have any of what I have now.

He comes on the line, and his voice, his loss, his sacrifice become tangible to her. She sobs. He tries to reach out.

Why doesn’t she wanna talk? Ahhh, it’s ok. I know how it is…. She can hear me? Then both you kids know I am proud of you. I love you….  She still crying? Bueno, it’s ok. She gets that from me. I am a cry baby too. A cry-man.

The magnitude of his sacrifice hits her. She imagines what it felt like for a father to lose a wife, a son, and a small daughter to the United States. She wonders how he could handle it, how he could keep going. Meanwhile she is living her life carefree, like nothing. She knows it’s not her fault, but the guilt is still there. Somehow until now she has not understood or appreciated it.

Maybe causing hurt can feel worse than being hurt. But even that is preposterous and selfish. The fact is that only some people have the privilege of being able to leave, to come and go as they please, to move on freely and easily to better opportunities.

We hang up and have dinner and try to talk about it. Unsuccessful, we change the subject. We watch a movie about the time El Salvador’s national team made it to the World Cup. It was 1982 and the country was deep in civil war. The team had no funding and arrived through pure grist, themselves wondering what they had done to achieve such greatness. The players talk about how they were bathed in their reputation upon arrival to la Copa Mundial: A country at war. A country of assassins. A country full of poor, hardworking people and violence.

On the field, the team won a sad record — having the most goals scored against them: 10 goles metidos. They returned home ashamed. But the players understand the context that led to their failure, and they talk about el orgullo del pobre — their pride in themselves, their people and their country.

It strikes me that ‘la gente humilde,‘ (humble people) is the polite term sometimes used to describe ‘the poor’ in El Salvador. I keep thinking about what that means.

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OK Festival is in full swing here in Helsinki, and if today is anything like the past two days, it will be full of information and exchange on everything “open.”

A number of us have been working hard to pull together the Open Development Stream, which started yesterday and which followed very nicely on Tuesday’s fantastic series of panels on Transparency and Accountability (with a heavy focus on the Open Government Partnership and Open Data) and the Open Data Journalism and Visualization streams.

Here’s a quick Storify summary of yesterday’s last Open Development session “Taking it Local: 10 ways to make ‘open’ relevant in low resource or marginalized contexts,” It was moderated by Soren Gigler from the World Bank’s Innovation for Governance Team and included superb group of panelists:  David RodriguezMichael Gurstein, Huy Eng, Philip Thigo, and Barbara Birungi.

For the session, my colleagues David and Max Rodriguez from Plan El Salvador did some really great short videos around transparency, internet access, connectivity and related topics and how they are perceived and lived out in rural communities where they are working.

This first video with Marco Rodriguez (he’s also on Twitter), the Sub-Secretary of Transparency for the Government of El Salvador, is just a small example of some of the realities around “open” and accessibility, and the challenges of engaging every day people in some of the initiatives we are talking about here at OK Festival. (Not to mention it and the other videos with Marco and others have a number of fantastic metaphors and soundbites!)

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In the INGO sector, we often discuss ways that development organizations can better bridge development and ICTs. If you ask me, this video shows one of the best ways to achieve it: Hire people like David.

Hire young, local folks who have spent time in communities, who understand local realities, who are passionate about helping make things better, and who are hungry to do new things that make sense. Hire people who are humble; people who listen and who ask questions when they don’t know the answer.

Hire people who are curious, who seek out information, who are self starters, and who are not afraid to work hard, to try, to take risks and to fail. Hire people with creative fire who know how to work in a team, how to collaborate with others and how to learn from those around them. Hire young people who use and understand new technologies and who spend enough time out of the office to know how they can realistically be applied to development issues in difficult settings.

Hire people like David.

But don’t only hire them.

Once you hire them, make sure that they have the conditions to thrive and achieve to their fullest.

Make sure people like David have access to opportunities. Make sure that they get to attend regional and global internal and external meetings to share what they know, to learn, and to make contacts and connections.

Notice people like David. Reward them, honor them, and congratulate them regularly, even if they are too busy getting the job done to spend lots of time on self-promotion or office politics.

Make sure people like David have mentors and managers who can take roadblocks out of their way. Listen to them. Respect them. Question them, yes, but do so with the honest belief that they have the capacity to come up with ideas that can work even if they are not the ideas you would have come up with. Don’t feel threatened by people like David when they know more than you do about something. We can all learn from each other if the space for dialogue is open and sincere.

People like David are the present and future of development efforts.

People like David are the reason I have a hard time giving career advice to folks in the US who are looking for jobs overseas. I’d rather see people like David in these positions.

David recently won the “Most Promising Newcomer” award for the Americas region during Plan International’s Global Awards. Follow David at @2drodriguez and learn more about what he’s up to at the website Mis Derechos Ante Desastres (My Rights in the Face of a Disaster), the project Facebook page, or at @deantede.

**Version Español

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Imate: gocentralamerica.about.com

One of the signature pieces of architecture in downtown San Salvador is the Municipal Cathedral located in front of Plaza Barrios (popularly known as la Plaza Civica). The Cathedral, along with the Plaza are perceived by most Salvadorans as public space. Both the cathedral and the plaza hold a million memories of destruction and rebuilding.

La Armonia de mi Pueblo is the title of the work that Salvadoran artist Fernando Llort created in 1997 to adorn the front of San Salvador’s Cathedral. Armonia is easy to translate into English – it means harmony. Pueblo is a bit more difficult. It’s a term in Spanish that includes the notion of both place and people. It comes from the Latin populus and can refer to a) inhabitants of a nation, country or region who share a similar culture; b) a population that farms in a particular zone (eg., a village or community); or c) the peasant or working class.

So in essence, the title of the work is “the Harmony of my People”.

The cathedral in the 1950s

Rather than a history of harmony, the cathedral itself has a history  of destruction and reconstruction. It was erected in 1888 and destroyed by a fire in 1951. Reconstruction began again in 1956. Archibishop Oscar Romero became the Archbishop in 1977, inheriting the partially restored cathedral. He reportedly deferred work on reconstruction, preferring to spend the church’s funds on projects to benefit the poor. The earthquake of 1986 damaged the structure further. In 1990 reconstruction began once again. The mosaic gracing the front was completed by Llort in 1997 and the current cathedral was inaugurated in 1999.

Aside from earthquakes and fire, other tragedies have marked the cathedral and the plaza.

1979. A massacre took place on the cathedral steps on May 9, 1979, as recounted here by journalist Ken Hawkins in a BBC article called “Witness to a Massacre“. Video footage in this accompanying article 1979: El Salvador Cathedral Bloodbath is eerily similar to the kinds of videos coming out on YouTube lately from Egypt and Syria, with armed troops shooting live ammunition into the backs of protesters. Towards the end of the 1979 video, people clamber up the steps of the cathedral in an attempt to find shelter inside. The military contends that protesters fired first, but witnesses have said the gunfire began on the side of National Guard.

A close friend of mine was present during the May 9th massacre. She took me to a photo exhibit about it last year at The Museo de la Cuidad de Santa Tecla, telling me her personal story as we wandered through. She was 15 years old at the time and had gone to the protest in her school uniform, thinking she would be there just a few hours. She ended up trapped in the church for much longer, fearing what might happen next and helping others tend to those wounded who were still alive.

The museum where we saw the exhibit was originally the Santa Tecla Municipal jail. After the civil war began, it housed political prisoners. My friend used to visit her husband there. He had been captured while participating in activities with the teachers’ union.  The Santa Tecla museum is a remarkable feat in taking a painful history and reclaiming it for the public good. Among other things, it has served as a place for people with similar histories, those former families of political prisoners and the former prisoners themselves, and families of the disappeared and dead, to reunite, share their memories and losses, and build community.

The Municipal Museum in Santa Tecla (photo by Carlos Rodriguez Mata)

My friend told of going to the steps of the cathedral on a recent May 9, the anniversary of the massacre. She found a few other survivors there, standing on the steps, remembering. One of those people was the journalist who had photographed events that day. ‘It was so strange,’ she said, ‘after so many years, we were somehow drawn to each other, there on the steps.’ In addition to the journalist she met a rural man in a straw hat, who had also been there in 1979, and who showed her his gunshot scars. A couple of other women who had lost a relative were also there, sitting on the steps, paying their respects.

1980. Archbishop Oscar Romero, a friend of the pueblo and considered a martyr by many, was assassinated on March 24, 1980, while giving mass at a private chapel. On the 31st, his funeral was held at the cathedral and people traveled in from across the country to pay their respects, packing the Plaza Civica with an estimated 50,000 people, many old women and children.

People filled the square during Monseñor's funeral

A bomb exploded somewhere in the plaza setting off panic and gunfire. Some say it was a ‘propaganda bomb’ designed to blow leaflets out to the crowd. Others say it was some other type of bomb. A journalist recounts his experience here. Dozens were killed in the resulting crush. My Salvadoran mother-in-law tells the story of one of our neighbors’ brothers being trampled to death that day, and how in hindsight, she is glad she wasn’t able to attend the funeral given what happened. The dead and wounded were carried up the stairs into the cathedral and many people hid inside until the dust cleared. Members of the leftist guerrillas were also stationed in and around the cathedral, guns loaded.

Monseñor’s funeral, captured on film here, is usually cited as the official beginning of the civil war in El Salvador.

1992. On January 16, 1992, the Peace Accords were signed and I remember the resulting celebrations. My husband and I were afraid to openly participate in the street fest as you still couldn’t be too sure of what might happen. There were separate celebrations for the opposing sides: Arena and the FMLN; a couple of blocks from each other. Arena celebrated in Parque Libertad, right up the street from our apartment in Barrio Candelaria. The FMLN celebrated in the Plaza Civica, adorning the Cathedral with banners. We wandered through both celebrations, not stopping for long in either place out of fear, but feeling a tremendous joy all around us, especially in the Plaza Civica.

Celebrating the Peace Accords in 1992. Image from the Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen in San Salvador; photographer Francisco Campos.

1997. One thing that I always loved about Catholicism in El Salvador was the way that people made it their own, merging local culture and belief systems into it, and celebrating their spirituality in their own unique style. So when the front of the Cathedral was decorated in 1997 by Fernando Llort, whose art resembles a folk art style popular in La Palma, Chalatenango, it seemed fitting. Given the history of the cathedral, the history of the country, and the events that had happened in the square, to me, the cathedral always seemed to belong to ‘the pueblo.’

2011. I discovered this past weekend, however, that Llort’s tiles and his work, which he considered his greatest achievement of all time, dedicated to ‘God and Monsenor Romero,’ were being removed from the face of the cathedral. Some consider Llort’s work to be commonplace, saying it belongs ‘on a tourist’s towel, not on a church.’ Others feel that his work represents something truly Salvadoran. The latter are outraged that the mosaic was removed with no warning, and they are asking why. They are questioning the legality of the destruction of the mural, and wondering where is the respect given to art and culture in El Salvador.

Photo of the tiles, on the ground in front of the cathedral.

Church leaders have since apologized to the Llort family and to those who are upset by the surprise removal of the tiles. They contend that they consulted with the congregation of the cathedral, and got their approval to remove the tiles. But the Secretary of Culture has called the Catholic church out for their actions, condemning ‘the destruction of the face of the Cathedral,’ and accusing the church of violating the ‘Special Law on Protection of Cultural Patrimony’ which states that ‘although the mural on the Cathedral of San Salvador was not declared a Cultural Site, it was in process of being declared, meaning that under no circumstances should any interventions have been made.’ Any actions should have followed procedures according to the law, and these were not considered, according to an article in La Pagina.

A group has formed on Facebook called Indignados por el Mural (Angry about the Mural) where debate is happening around the value of art and culture in El Salvador. It was originally rumored that the tiles were being removed so that they would not clash with a ‘more elegant and timeless’ sculpture that was being donated. Details about this statue were never obtained, and the reason given officially by the church for the removal of the tiles is that they were damaged and irreparable. Many have questioned this, asking why the tiles couldn’t have been restored as with other works of art.

Tiles being dumped. Photo via Indignados por el Mural, @AnaCanizalez

The cathedral means so much to so many that it’s not surprising to see people upset by the sudden change in its facade. Given the cathedral’s history, one might wonder if the ownership and path of the Salvadoran Catholic church is again being debated, as it has been throughout history. Does it belong to the rich or the poor? Why would such an important piece of art be removed in such an undignified way? Does the cathedral belong to the congregation that attends church there? To the church leaders? To the Vatican? Or is it a public good, belonging to the pueblo?

In the wake of the destruction of the mural, one idea that has been suggested is to gather the smashed tiles and use them to create a new work of art in homage to Fernando Llort and Salvadoran art and culture in La Palma, Chalatenango. Given the cathedral’s history of ruin and rebuilding, and the notable ability of Salvadorans themselves to rise and rebuild from the ruins after earthquakes, floods and civil war, perhaps that is a fitting use for the remains of La Armonia de mi Pueblo. It still makes me sad, though.

…..

(“los mejores artisanos del mundo….”)

Note: updated on Jan 4 to correct errors in the dates related to the construction of the original cathedral.

Updated: In this video, Fernando Llort reacts to the situation in a press conference on Jan 3, 2012. 

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