Let’s start with a cliché:
El Salvador is a country of stark contrasts.
Cliché, but true. I suppose that could be said about most places in the world but given its status as one of the most dangerous countries in the world that isn’t an active warzone, I’d say it’s particularly true of El Salvador. Beneath the poverty and ruin, the gang activity and the garbage that’s choking the jungle, there is a physical and cultural beauty fighting for life.
Thanks to our (US) media, El Salvador is one of those places that’s portrayed as an inhospitable war zone that is thoroughly unsafe for tourists; the US State Department has it classified as a “reconsider travel” country, and it’s one of the places President Trump was speaking about when he talked about the “shitholes” of the world. In some ways, I can’t disagree with the President—it is a crime ridden, dirty country whose people not long ago suffered under an oppressive government and still suffer from lack of stable infrastructure and basic needs like clean water.
But it is so much more than that.
In June 2018 I spent a week in El Salvador doing photo and video work for Companion Community Development Alternatives (CoCoDA), a non-profit organization working in Central America to help Salvadorans and Nicaraguans develop sustainable infrastructure that will provide them with clean water and energy. Unlike many NPOs, CoCoDA is largely hands-off when it comes to its work in the communities it works with, practicing what it calls “asset-based community development”—rather than going in and doing the work for the communities, the organization asks the community what they want and need and then raises money and allows the people of those communities to decide how best to use that money for those projects. Money is raised through what CoCoDA calls a “global ethical training” program that takes North Americans to Central America and immerses them in local cultural through travel around the country, time spent with community leaders, home-stays, and participation in a community work project. In addition to cultural immersion and historical education, the people on these trips learn about international volunteerism, and it is hoped that on their return home they will become ambassadors for the communities they have visited, both by raising money for CoCoDA and by encouraging others to go on these trips, as well as making return trips themselves.
Arriving at the airport, going through customs and immigration, and then traveling to our hostel really was like something out of a movie, and much of what I saw and tried to capture on camera immediately called back much of what I’d seen in news reports and documentaries about El Salvador. Straight off the plane I was warmly greeted by smiling Salvadorans welcoming me to their country, but once through immigration and outside the relative safety of the airport terminal, it was immediately apparent how some things hadn’t been exaggerated by American media. Well-armed federal police and military kept watchful eye over the arrivals and departures, a looming presence in an otherwise colorful and vibrant atmosphere.
The ride from the airport to our hostel saw us go from the more secure and policed areas to less safe areas of the San Salvador urban sprawl. The scenery changed from welcoming and carefully constructed and maintained art and structure under which roadside vendors sold various fruits and souvenirs to bustling crowded streets that seemed to have rifle-carrying police at nearly every intersection; barbed-wire and razor-wire lined the roofs and fences of nearly every building, a harrowing reminder of the crime and gang-activity that rules the Salvadoran underworld. Eventually even the police presence faded away as we moved from the business district into the domestic neighborhoods.
Arriving at our hostel, the International Guest’s House, we were greeted with a lunch of pupusas, a staple of Salvadoran culture, giving the group a chance to get to know each other through casual conversation. We were a fairly disparate group: there was Laura, a teacher from Honduras who immigrated to Kentucky, and her boyfriend Andy, whose family owns a bicycle shop in Kentucky; there was Chad and Michelle from the Indianapolis area, him a lawyer and she a former Peace Corps volunteer, and Chad’s 10ish year-old son, Andy in tow; there was Heidi, a university employee from North Carolina; Ben, a North Carolina detective and world traveler; Michelle, an activist from Pennsylvania; Maria and Jack from the Indianapolis area, she an author and he a retired public attorney; Jim, a friend of Maria and Jack’s out on an adventure; and Tanner, a CoCoDA intern from Canada studying at an Indiana university. All of these people were entirely new to me, and while I had initially intended to keep myself as detached from the group as possible during the trip, over the course of the week I found myself less the observant outsider and more a member of the collective. The rest of the day was spent settling into the hostel, getting to know our travel group more, and ended with dinner being followed by a discussion about CoCoDA’s mission and international volunteerism.
The next day started with a visit to the chapel of the Hospital Divina Providencia, where Archbishop (and recently canonized) Oscar Romero was assassinated, a moment that is often considered the defining start of the Salvadoran Civil War.
In March 1980 Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down and martyred while serving Mass in the campus chapel. He was assassinated for his belief in and preaching of liberation theology, and specifically his work in advocating against poverty and social injustice. His murder was ordered by extreme right-wing politicians and carried out by a government death squad.
There was an attack during Romero’s funeral that resulted in the massacre of between 30 and 50 people (sources differ–official sources reported 31, journalists reported as many as 50 casualties). It is believed that the attack was carried out by government security forces and military personnel.
The nun in the above photo was there.
She never spoke while we were there, giving a single nod when I asked permission to take her photo. I don’t know if she was under a vow of silence, or simply didn’t want to, but she never had to speak; everything you need to know is etched in the lines on her face, and the words of others who were there and shared their stories and the photos of those events were locked in the depths of her eyes. And yet, there was an aura–a halo, you could almost say–of peace around her.
Romero was canonized by The Vatican and given Sainthood in October 2018. His memory and presence are prolific throughout El Salvador, and he is widely regarded as the Patron Saint of El Salvador and the Americas in general. And while I’m not religious, it seems like these days the Americas in general, in particular the US, could use a patron saint whose work was that of fighting poverty, social injustice, and championing humanitarian causes.
Our next stop was the Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen (Museum of the Word and Image), which collects and preserves artifacts and memories of the Salvadoran Civil War.
Chillo works at the Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen, helping curate its collections as well as being a keeper and teller of the history it’s meant to preserve: during the Salvadoran Civil War he was a guerilla fighter in the FMLN. At 9 years old.
That afternoon was spent at El Boqueron National Park, climbing the trails up the San Salvador volcano to the crater rim. Unfortunately, the top of the mountain was shrouded by heavy clouds that prevented us from viewing the caldera; it did however make for really nice imagery in the rain forest, turning the jungle into a soft pallet of grays and greens.
After dinner we visited one of CoCoDA’s scholarship houses, where students from Santa Marta and other rural communities are housed so that they can attend university in San Salvador. El Salvador offers free university education, but the cost of living in San Salvador along with difficulty in finding safe places to live in the city means that it can be difficult for students from rural communities to attend college. Rural villages such as Santa Marta believe that education is key to developing their communities and their partnerships with CoCoDA enable them to send students to university. It’s an investment that’s proving worthwhile—many students choose to return to their home communities after finishing college, and they become leaders and educators in their home towns. Some of them go on to work with national and international agencies, such as Yunior Gomez, a Santa Marta native who is now one of the directors for CoCoDA.
Tuesday morning took us to the Universidad Centroamericana “José Simeón Cañas” (UCA) campus and the location of the site where Jesuit priests were murdered by a government death squad during the Salvadoran Civil War.
The most moving aspect of this visit was the realization of how Salvadorans have preserved the memories of the atrocities committed during the civil war. In the United States, graphic images such as those hanging in the UCA chapel would be relegated to an avant garde art show, not a chapel; where we would generally see something as inappropriate for general public consumption, Salvadorans embrace the necessity of keeping visible and present the memories of war and the things many suffered. What we shirk from and hide as obscene and vulgar they hold up as beacons of “never again.”
We left San Salvador that afternoon for Santa Marta, the roads transitioning from well-maintained highway to rough-hewn paths carved out of the jungle-covered mountainsides. In places where the jungle afforded it, the views were spectacular and I was captivated by the shimmering greens and blues of the forest canopy and misted mountains.
Santa Marta is a fairly remote mountain community, carved out of the mountainside. There is a definite sense that while the jungle could quickly retake the plots of land claimed by the villagers a balance has been struck between Man and Nature.
Life in Santa Marta is fairly slow-paced. People aren’t in a hurry–life happens and things will get done as they get done. Food, which is very much the center of culture and life, is made fresh daily for each meal from mostly locally grown crops and livestock; very little is imported from outside the area, let alone the country.
One of our hostesses (and Matron of her family) in Santa Marta, Antonia, preparing fresh tortillas for one of our meals.
Santa Marta was a stronghold for the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the resistance against the Salvadoran government during the civil war, and reminders of the village’s history dot the area. The flag flies freely in Santa Marta, and the FMLN is now a legitimate political party in El Salvador.
A tunnel carved out of the hillside leading to a small excavated room that was used by FMLN guerilla fighters as a hospital.
At dinner that evening we were honored with the presence of Don Carlos Bonilla, a community leader and one of the most respected men in Santa Marta. Don Carlos spoke at length about the history of Santa Marta, including the evacuation of the village during the civil war and the massacre of its people by government forces at a river crossing as they sought refuge in Honduras.
One of the things that stuck with me most about Don Carlos’ story was when he spoke about how, while in the refugee camp in Honduras, the people understood that education would be the path forward after the war was over; moreover, they took action and began educating people while in the camp, developing new and younger community leaders as part of their preparation for going home. That mentality has continued to the present day, and one of their priority projects once Santa Marta was resettled was the building of a school, which was accomplished with the partnership of CoCoDA.
Developing sustainable infrastructure that would provide the village with clean water and energy while also keeping the village independent of the government’s grid was another priority for the people of Santa Marta, and we started the next day visiting the village’s water treatment station. It’s operational, but not complete, and currently works on a rotating schedule that means that people only get clean water once every three weeks.
After a tour of the village which included a hike through the jungle to show us where women used to have to go to get clean(ish) water, we visited the community greenhouse and garden project, where the group spent the next day working as the “project” portion of this trip.
The project day was spent working in the greenhouse and garden plot helping trim plants and do some clean up work, as well as learning more about how Miguel, director of the greenhouse and garden, and the people of Santa Marta have developed a sustainable and profitable social business that provides a lot of food to the village.
After our work at the greenhouse was done for the day, we had some free time. Tanner, interning with CoCoDA for the summer, took the opportunity to play soccer with local school children.
In the foreground is Ben, a detective from North Carolina, and my roommate for our stay in Santa Marta. Here he’s talking to Billy, the nephew of our hostess. Billy’s been deported from the United States multiple times. When Ben asked why Billy kept going to the US illegally, one of the answers he gave was because prison is safer here than in El Salvador. He didn’t say it outright, but there was an undertone that Billy’d gotten into some trouble with one of the gangs in El Salvador (he wasn’t a gang member), and that it was just safer to leave the country. He also has a US-born daughter in the States; I didn’t catch whether or not her mother was a US citizen.
We finished our final night in Santa Marta being joined for dinner by many of the village’s leaders, most of whom were relatively young (late twenties to early thirties), all of whom have developed various social entrepreneurship skills that they have to put work developing programs and projects for rural Salvadoran communities.
One of the effects of Santa Marta as a community prioritizing education and working with organizations such as CoCoDA to enable their young people to attend college is that they have developed a surplus of young leaders; the result is that while many of them return to Santa Marta after completing college, they also go out into other local communities and become leaders there. Santa Marta has become the standard by which other smaller rural communities have set and measured their goals—a direct result of empowering young people through education.
Thursday morning we had our final meal in Santa Marta and said goodbye to our hosts before heading out for the colonial town of Suchitoto on the shores of Lago Suchitlan. El Salvador’s largest lake, it is a man-made reservoir on the Rio Lempa, whose hydro-electric plant generates much of the country’s electricity.
Suchitoto is a much more tourist-friendly city than other locations in El Salvador, but the police presence there is a reminder that threats of gang and criminal activity are still a concern.
Los Tercios Waterfall, just outside Suchitoto. The waterfall is both a popular tourist destination and recreation location for locals, especially during the rainy season when the water is flowing and the pool at its base is full.
The next morning we went to El Roble, a small community near Suchitoto that CoCoDA works with, helping in the building of a new school and a fully operational water station. We met with community leaders and partners before setting out into the jungle. The man above (regretfully, I forget his name–I’m still learning the ropes of expedition photography) had an Indiana Pacers hat on. He spoke some English, and while we were walking through the jungle, he swept his arm down at the road and across the landscape, and said, “So this is my country!” I replied saying that I was enjoying my time there and that it was very pretty. He answered back with a casual sincerity that carried with it a sense of defeat, “It’s a shithole.”
The school in El Roble. You can’t see much, but the school was nearly destroyed by a 500-lb bomb dropped by a US warplane during the Salvadoran Civil War. School was in session, but because the bomb missed (the crater is about 50 feet to the left as you’re looking at the image–I couldn’t get a good shot of it due to fencing), none of the children in attendance were severely hurt.
The school is currently being rebuilt by the community with CoCoDA partnership, but things move very slowly here.
Bullet holes can still be seen in some of the surviving walls of the original building, as well as in posts and other structures nearby, reminders that the fighting wasn’t on some far off field, but in the communities of the Salvadoran people.
A farmer local to El Roble, outside his home in the jungle. Machetes are a common sight in rural communities, as they are necessary tools for working in both the jungle and on the farms; they also offer the people a measure of protection against criminals.
Livestock is another common sight in communities like Santa Marta and El Roble, whether being walked along town roadways, tied along highways for grazing, or being transported in the bed of pickup trucks.
That afternoon, back in Suchitoto, we met Gerry. A man of small stature, his legacy in El Salvador has been huge. During the civil war he’d been a guerilla fighter who spent most of his time cobbling radios together out of whatever scrap he could find. His work helped enable FMLN forces to tap into government communications and stay a step ahead in the fighting. After the war he turned his engineering skills towards community projects such as designing the water stations built in El Roble and Santa Marta.
Gerry joined us as we took a boat tour to the site of the Copapayo massacre, where 160 civilians were slaughtered by government forces.
Also with us was Orellio, the lone survivor of the Copapayo massacre; as a child he survived the massacre by playing dead beneath the body of his murdered best friend. The cross over his left shoulder marks the site of the massacre. We spent time there hearing Orellio’s story, which he told with a mix of grim remembrance and surprising hope.
Our final night in El Salvador was spent at dinner reflecting on the things we’d seen, heard, and experienced over the course of the week. After, we strolled in groups along the streets of Suchitoto, wearily working our way back to the hostel and our last night of sleep in a country that had very obviously captivated many of us for many reasons.
I learned a lot that week. About a country that I’d not given much thought to prior to planning an expedition there; about my home country, about humanity in general, and about myself.
I learned that people in remote rural community in the middle of the jungle on the side of a mountain a “shithole” country have figured out that education—not money—is the path to cultural and societal improvement, leading to improved living conditions through profitable sustainable infrastructure.
I learned that free isn’t better—community projects whose benefits (such as clean water and power) are offered for free are often undervalued, which results in a lack of financial or labor investments that are needed for maintenance.
I learned that visiting international volunteers are more likely to impede the progress and processes of native populations than to actually contribute any help. People who live in an environment will far better understand the conditions and obstacles they face and how to overcome them than any outsider, no matter how well-meaning or educated.
I learned (again) that people don’t turn themselves into refugees as a matter of desire—they do it out of necessity—the need being their survival.
And there we were, a mixed bag of people from the United States in the middle of the Central American jungle, refugees in our own way–transients provided food and shelter at the grace of the native population who expected nothing from us for their generosity, save to go home and tell others that their country isn’t what the media says it is.
In the end, to come back to the cliché I opened with, El Salvador is a place of stark contrasts, but not really in any way that is so different from anywhere else. And that was both surprising and comforting to me. Surprising because it reaffirmed that people, no matter their ethnicity or nationality or language or religion or culture fundamentally all want the same things: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It was comforting for much the same reason.
Mark Twain is quoted as saying, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” The more I travel, the more I see the truth of this, though there is a catch: one has to be receptive to the cultures of the places one visits, and has to be of open mind and heart in order to truly benefit from the experience.
In the United States we’re told that El Salvador is a dirty, dangerous shithole—a country that is overridden with gangs and other criminals and run by a corrupt government and that it is a place to be avoided by all but the foolish. I saw some of that.
But I also saw a hardy, resilient, and compassionate people who, despite the wrongs inflicted upon them by the meddlings of Manifest Destiny and political machinations and proxy wars, will open their hearts and homes to those who come looking to learn and understand.
I could post a gallery sharing hundreds of images out of the thousands I took on this trip, and I could write hundreds more words about the experience, but I don’t know that it would carry across my experience any better than what I’ve offered here. I don’t know that any amount of imagery or words can adequately tell the story of an overwhelming experience, let alone of an entire culture. But I’ve tried, in the hope that I’ve opened the door to this place and its people in a way that honors and respects them, their struggles, and their legacy. I certainly had moments where I wanted to just be home, with reasons ranging from simply missing my family to being uncomfortable in some of the environments we visited. That said, I find myself continually revisiting my journal, the photos, and my memories from that week, and the more I do, the more I want to go back—the more I miss El Salvador. I’m hopeful that in the near future I can make a return trip to explore more of the country, its people, and their culture.
For more information on CoCoDA and their mission, visit cocoda.org.
All photos by Rob Salem. Copyright © 2018 Rob Salem/The Stormworks.
Rob Salem is an Indiana-based photographer and videographer. In addition to his work for Indiana University Kokomo and local public safety services, he has turned his camera towards humanitarian issues.