Members of our group in El Salvador

An update from Roza, a senior majoring in human rights, political science and communication studies:

I am so fortunate to be able to spend 10 days in sunny El Salvador with the Embrey Human Rights Program’s Student Leadership Initiative. Today marks the sixth day in what has thus far been such an incredible trip.

SMU students (including Roza, center) with children in indigenous costumes

On our first full day we learned about Oscar Romero, the resilient archbishop and martyr who courageously fought against injustice and sought to represent the rights of the poor. Romero is both a cultural and religious icon for the country, and Salvadorians have spread his teachings and values throughout El Salvador. Whether it’s in the church, schools or public settings, one can’t escape Romero’s influence.

I found the initiative to intentionally spread Romero’s teachings in nearly every sector of the country attractive because oftentimes in the U.S., we hesitate from holding conversations about religious or social leaders who have had an impact on our country, and when we do, it’s limited to the academic setting. But El Salvador has seen a positive influence as a result of spreading Romero’s message and values in the private and public spheres. I wish in the U.S. we engaged in conversations about internationally renowned leaders who are comparable to Romero, like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., not only in academic settings but also at church and in the public and private spheres.

Learning about indigenous cultures at RAIS, with Professor Recinos (center) translating.

The other organizations and leaders we have met thus far have been equally enlightening. We have explored social, political and economic issues affecting El Salvador since the civil war that ended in 1992. The highlights of our trip include visiting RAIS, an organization committed to promoting the rights of indigenous people and preserving their culture by documenting and collecting pieces of artwork and stories. Our whole group found the visit quite moving because it allowed all of us to reflect on our roots and reminded us to be proud of our heritage.

We also heard from a journalist working for El Faro, the first digital newspaper in Latin America. El Faro reports on a wide range of issues, including narco trafficking, violence, gang culture, sex trafficking, public health and other key issues.

Today we had the privilege to visit Servicio Social Pasionista, or Passion of Social Service. This organization focuses on promoting peace and preventing violence. It works in three municipalities and in 40 communities promoting peace education, social cohesion and social organization. It describes itself as an organization that empowers people rather than a charity.

My favorite part of the visit was hearing from a former gang member who now works as the coordinator of Pasionista’s Rehabilitation service area. He had joined a gang at the age of 12 and described his experiences as a “life of suffering.” He was in and out of jail for six years and explained finally “hitting rock bottom,” which led to a life of exclusion and a sense of hate for society. However, he explained, getting out is not easy; despite these hardships and feelings of exclusion, “we have to continue” gang life because our opportunities and helpers are limited or nonexistent.

Fortunately, despite the suffering, “a beautiful moment comes in your life” and you are given the rare opportunity to escape your horrible reality. After asking God for help, with the help of his mentor, Father Antonio, “I have denounced gang life, all criminal activity, and I’m committed to helping youth get out of gang life,” he said.

Although he experiences discrimination from police and his community because of the stigma of his tattoos and physical appearance, he continues to live a life free of crime and to work to grant opportunities to those like himself who escape gang life. He came to Pasionista with a friend, who was also in a gang, and now they are both tackling the same issues. His only hope is that more youth will make the decision to transform their lives as he and his friend did.

It takes a lot of courage to openly share one’s past, and I am so glad I got to be in the room and hear such a moving and inspiring story. In a country like El Salvador, where gangs have infiltrated society, it’s reassuring to know that organizations like Pasionista exist.

Overall, I am enjoying the trip and learning so much about El Salvador. I’m eagerly looking forward to the visits we have lined up for the rest of the week.