Writing about my visit to El Salvador in September 2007 has been a daunting, yet exhilarating task. The memories of my eight-day immersion experience are fresh and vivid. I find myself mulling over what I learned, my impressions, and my emotional responses. I want to find a way in which I might make a difference. Through this brief article, I hope others will better understand the power and value of Jesuit immersion programs, especially in our borderless world, and why Jesuit involvement in this remarkable Central American country is so inspirational.
After many years working in public health administration in underserved communities and traveling in developing countries, I thought I understood the roots of poverty and deprivation. I went to El Salvador last year to see how students at Santa Clara University were being exposed to Third World conditions, to concepts like social justice and solidarity, and how their sense of social consciousness was being fostered. But it was my own social awareness that was transformed by the experience.
Nothing fully prepared me for what I would experience during the eight days I spent immersed in El Salvador. Our first day, our group of 12 found ourselves walking in “La Chacra,” an infamous barrio in the middle of San Salvador, where poverty, gangs, drug dealing, hovels, pollution, and single parent families are a way of life. The daily reality of living amidst violence and a crumbling social structure was never more clearly seen than in the fresh bullet holes in a woman’s door in La Chacra.
Here gang activity is exploding and drugs are pervasive – shattering families already strained by poverty and migration. Many young men and women come to the United States to find work and send back “subsidies” to support families in El Salvador. Increasingly these remittances have become a way of life and a major source of revenue. Although the U.S. dollar goes a long way toward alleviating poverty, it does not promote self-sufficiency among those left behind.
And fear is a constant presence. We were told many times, “In El Salvador, there are always eyes.” After years of war and oppression, the country’s poor fear extremist government policies and police protection. It was not unusual to see officers stripping someone by the side of the road in a public search. Shortly before I arrived, a new law was enacted that labeled protesters - for example, those protesting the privatization of water - as terrorists who can be sentenced to prison for 7 to 15 years.
The impact of this pervasive fear makes teaching the children of La Chacra human values an enormous challenge. Teaching even the most basic subjects is a tremendous undertaking. We heard from Sister Marcos, the Irish nun who serves as the principal of Fe y Alegria School in La Chacra. Children come to school lacking basic health care. They have been witness to abusive situations and families and need psychological intervention and counseling. I was shocked to learn that governmental support for education totals 4 cents per child a day!
At the same time, we heard this quote from an unidentified politician: “If you teach them to read, they will demand to be heard.” This view from a half day spent in La Chacra is one aspect of life in El Salvador and a segment of the complex political, economic, legal, educational, and health care situation in the country. In addition to visiting La Chacra, we visited a cross section of people – a politician, a businessman, a Jesuit priest, students at the University of Central America (UCA), an advocate for migrant labor, to name just a few. People who showed us another side of the country – people who have devoted their lives to empowering citizens of El Salvador and working for change.
What bolstered me through the trip was the pervasive spirit of courage, bravery, human kindness, and humor among the citizens of El Salvador. The people I met had a deep devotion to the values of peace and freedom. The resilience and faith of the business, political, religious, nonprofit, community, and health care leaders with whom we met was inspiring.
We met peasants who had lived through the agony of war; a justice of the supreme court who had risked her life and family to stand up for democracy and volunteers who assisted migrant workers as they made the dangerous journey to the U.S. I heard personal stories of survival and dedication to the cause of freedom that was nothing short of phenomenal. The amazing work being done by the Jesuits and other religious personnel in the country clearly offers hope for so many in El Salvador.
My understanding of our borderless world was deepened by my visit to El Salvador. Nothing made that realization clearer than the stories of the young Salvadoran scholarship students supported by the Jesuits, and the testimony of students from Santa Clara University and Jesuit universities around the country who are enrolled in Casa de la Solaridad - an academic study abroad program that immerses them in the political, social and economic realities of El Salvador, Central America and the globalizing world.
Their awareness of a world without borders, their sense of responsibility to serve as agents of change in a developing country, and their understanding of social justice and solidarity developed and blossomed during their stay in El Salvador. From these brave citizens and students I learned countless lessons. I am newly committed to finding ways in which I might make a difference. I will be there to support them.
Margaret Taylor earned three degrees from SCU: a BA in 1965, an MA in 1976 and an MBA in 1976.