Human Rights in El Salvador 2013

Eight SMU students, led by Perkins School of Theology Professor Harold J. Recinos and Embrey Human Rights Program Coordinator Sherry Aikman, are in El Salvador through Jan 16. The group is looking at human rights atrocities that have occurred in the Central American country during the last 40 years, including the El Mozote massacre, the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the Zona Rosa guerrilla attack, the rape and murder of three American nuns and a missionary, unlawful civilian killings by security forces, forced prostitution, child labor and more. “They’ll also be focused on issues of national reconciliation, truth commissions and healing,” says Embrey Human Rights Program Director Rick Halperin.

Our last days in El Salvador

An update from Justin, a first-year student majoring in biochemistry and world languages with a minor in human rights:

The last three days have been incredible here in El Salvador. The day after coming back from ASAPROSAR and the University of Central America, our team prepared to drive for 5 hours to the department of Morazán. There we would visit El Mozote, the site of the worst massacre of the Salvadoran Civil War, if not of all modern Latin American history.

The drive started slowly through the seemingly endless traffic in the capital city of San Salvador. Gradually we began making our way east and were surrounded by foothills, colorful mountains and looming volcanoes. Needless to say, we stopped to take pictures along the way.

After stopping for lunch at Pollo Campero, the premier fast food chain of Central America, we made it to San Francisco Gotera, the capital city of the department of Morazán. There we met with Father Ventura, the governor of the department (similar to a U.S. state governor). We were enlightened about the issues of Morazán, including its status as the “second poorest department of El Salvador and with 30 percent of the population illiterate.”

The most recent development in Morazán has been the creation of the department’s only center of higher education, a community college that is starting classes in August 2013. This college will give students applicable skills related to artisanal work, government functions, and agriculture in order to keep talent in the department.

Following our meeting, some of the senior citizens of San Francisco Gotera performed some Salvadoran salsa music, causing even some of our own group members to start dancing!

Later that evening we made our way to Perquín, a small town nestled in the mountains of northern Morazán just three miles from the Honduran border. There we stayed in El Ocotal, a hotel made up of wood cabins. After a long day of travel and learning, we enjoyed the vast stars of the untainted sky while relaxing in the hammocks on the cabin porches.

The next day we had the chance to meet with Father Rogelio Ponselle, a Belgian priest who played a crucial role in the Salvadoran Civil War and was subsequently threatened by the Salvadoran government. He explained the ideas of the Base Christian Communities, a concept developed by the Latin American Catholic Church following Vatican II. Though our time was short, it was amazing to meet with someone whom we had read about in our readings.

Later that morning we traveled to El Mozote, where we met up with Governor Ventura and spent the rest of the morning absorbing the history, emotion, and passion of the site. Everyone in the group paused and could feel the sadness of the place, but we all embraced the fact that what happened in El Mozote must not be forgotten.

We made our way to a new monument just outside of El Mozote, where tall statues of social change advocates such as Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, San Francisco of Asis, and Jesus Christ stand. The monument is called the Monument of Peace and Reconciliation. The site stands as a beacon of hope for El Mozote, Morazán, El Salvador, and the world.

After leaving El Mozote we began our long journey back to San Salvador. The Lieutenant Governor of Morazán even rode back with us! How many U.S. State Governors/Lieutenant Governors would be this open with their constituents? By the end of the day, we made it back to our hotel, tired and grateful for all we had seen and heard.

Today was the last full day of our time here in El Salvador. After visiting many nonprofit organizations, cultural sites, historical places, and people, we were ready for a day of reflection with our fellow teammates.

This morning we visited an authentic market in San Salvador, where we had the opportunity to buy some souvenirs. Later, we made it out to Suchitoto, a town first populated nearly 500 years ago that overlooks the vast Lake of Suchitlán. There we visited a museum called the Art Centre for Peace, which houses art of the Suchitoto region, the Salvadoran Civil War, and peace advocates. Not only were the pieces beautiful, but they also manifested a visual representation of the Salvadoran Civil War that I had not yet experienced.

After briefly visiting the historic plaza, we made our way to Playa San Blas, a beautiful beach on El Salvador’s Pacific Coast. The warm, salty breeze complemented the beautiful sunset that permeated the horizon. Only Patrick and I really tried to ride the waves, though Patrick definitely outlasted me.

We returned to San Salvador, cleaned up, and went out to dinner at La Pampa, a nice Argentine restaurant, with everyone in our group. Words cannot express how thankful we were for our bus driver, Miguel; our guide, Edwin; and our amazing professor, Dr. Recinos. With full stomachs, happy hearts, and overwhelming gratefulness, we concluded our time in El Salvador.

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El Mozote: We must never forget

The memorial to the villagers represents that entire families lost their lives in the massacre.

An update from Emily, a junior majoring in human rights and political science:

Woke up to a beautiful morning in the mountains of Morazan, El Salvador. Today is the day that we visited the site of El Mozote, where in December of 1981, around 1,000 men, women, and children of the village were massacred by the Atlacatl Battalion army in the span of three days.

It’s an eerie feeling to see so much beauty in contrast with the atrocities of the past. Only one women, Rufina Amaya, managed to escape the massacre, and she is the only voice that brought true testimony to the killings of El Mozote. Without her witness, the memory of those who lost their lives would entirely be forgotten.

I went on Dr. Halperin’s trip to Poland in the winter of 2010 to visit Holocaust memorials, death camps, and mass graves, so this was not my first experience to a killing site. However, no matter how many places I visit, the impact on my heart remains the same.

The names of every man, woman, and child who was murdered.

I have not been able to comprehend how someone would be able to take the lives of innocent people, nor do I think I will ever understand.

One thing that I do know is that the memory of those who died must live on. We must never forget.

There is now a monument at El Mozote, in addition to the memorial to the victims, to recognize the struggle to uphold human rights around the globe. Statues commemorating international human rights patriots encircle the monument.

Monument to peace and human rights.

The faces of Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Pope John Paul II, and Martin Luther King Jr. look over the mountainsides of El Salvador. Their voices, along with the teachings of Archbishop Oscar Romero, inspired revolutions of social change and emphasized the importance of human rights, and their messages live on to this day.

I cannot believe that my journey in El Salvador will soon be coming to an end, but I cannot wait to return home and share my experiences with my friends, family, and the SMU community.

Dr. Harold Recinos and Governor Ventura of Morazan leading the way.

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Voices of change

An update from Jake, a first-year transfer student majoring in human rights and minoring in Spanish:

Today we traveled to Santa Ana to meet with the ASAPROSAR, a nonprofit organization that works on improving rural health. They recognize that multiple facets create health and that they need to assist the poor in multiple ways. For example, they enter into communities and educate families on the necessity of their children’s education while also providing microloans to families in need of assistance.

In one situation, ASAPROSAR gave a women who fed her family from a trash dump and lived in a makeshift home a microloan that enabled her to successfully start a business and raise her family’s status of living. After we discussed human rights with the organization’s leaders, they gave us a tour of their center for eye health that provides much needed assistance for people from as far away as Guatemala and Honduras. We then left to meet with a daughter organization of ASAPROSAR.

When we stepped out of the bus, seven enthusiastic student leaders greated us with hugs as we gathered in a circle to discuss Barefoot Angels, a school established to keep at-risk youths out of gangs. We immediately discovered that our greeters, despite environments of poverty and violence, had a voice stronger than many young people in the United States. We met with the community leaders who provided the help necessary for the organization to continue without problems in the gang-controlled area.

I found this meeting the most inspiring and rewarding of our discussions so far because of how much happiness, strength, and hope the youth leaders showed in the face of poverty. Reluctantly we said adios and left to eat some delicious pupusas with the ASAPROSAR representatives.

Before leaving Santa Ana and heading back into San Salvador, we said hello to a group of engineering students from MIT who were working with ASAPROSAR in communities on projects like a stationary-bike sorbet maker, a solar dryer, and affordable energy.

Back in San Salvador we stopped at UCA, the University where six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, Elba Ramos, and her daughter, Sicilia Ramos, were massacred on November 16, 1989. First, we entered the museum and viewed the belongings of the priests, their blood-stained garments, and pictures of Elba and Sicilia, whose body was found in her mother’s arms. Later, we walked to the garden where they had been murdered by the soldiers. Roses grew in their memory and for all of the innocent victims of the civil war.

We walked to the chapel, where we sat and admired the religious and artistic work on the back wall that represented the life, death, and resurrection of Archbishop Romero. We also admired a painting that symbolically captured the civil war and images of torture that were used for the Stations of the Cross. I felt the familiar tug of sadness. The whole day reaffirmed for me how fortunate I have been to be a part of the trip.

Our group

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Stories of courage in El Salvador

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.

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