Sunday, July 4, 2010

What America's Birthday Means To Me

I can't believe it has been a year since I left for my Immersion trip to El Salvador.

This is how I feel about it

My Metamorphosis: Two Weeks of Shock, Violence, Love,and Hope

Oscar Romero, the late Archbishop of El Salvador once said, “Peace is not the
product of terror or fear. Peace is not the silent result of violent repression. Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all. It is right and it is duty.” This past July I spent two weeks in El Salvador, listening, working, and living with the people, in an attempt to grasp a better understanding of their daily lives and the countless challenges they valiantly face. The situation in El Salvador is dire, but not all hope is lost. The trip deeply impacted me through my realization that in my position of privilege, I have a deep-rooted responsibility to help the people of El Salvador, and that began through witnessing strength in the face of great suffering, and realizing the effect of true love while living in solidarity with the people.

During my trip to El Salvador my group heard numerous presentations, yet one has haunted my dreams ever since. We heard an account of personal civil war experiences from a lady named Alicia. Through an organization called Comadres, Alicia attempted to locate people kidnapped by the death squads. She described how her 12-year-old son was taken off a bus and killed, just because he had a copy of the New Testament. The death squads came into Alicia’s home, raped her and her daughter,violently beat her family, and left them all for dead. She vividly described electric torture, water boarding, and sleep deprivation as just some of the horrors she experienced. By the end of the talk my stomach felt sick and tears were filling my eyes. Leaving that meeting I was thoroughly depressed, contemplating the destructive nature of the human race. Yet, despite all of the sorrow, I felt there was an underlying message of hope. Alicia has spent her life under constant besiegement as she works to improve El Salvador, and I realized that if one day I only possess a fraction of her strength, I will have the ability to make the world a better place.

Before embarking to El Salvador I found it difficult to connect with the harsh realities featured on nightly newscasts. Over the course of the trip, I discovered that in order to truly be in solidarity with the people one must experience their lives first hand. After spending a number of days in San Salvador, our group ventured into the countryside to spend a few days in a Salvadoran village. As we drove into the village I began to feel my nerves swelling up. Looking out of the window of our van, I realized I had never witnessed anything like this before in my life. I was surrounded by pueblo and sheet metal huts, flea-ridden dogs roamed the dirt streets, and there was trash everywhere. After hesitantly disembarking from the van, we unloaded our few belongings, and met our host families. Walking through the village with my hosts I tried to make small talk but failed as my fears got the best of me, struggling with my Spanish, and avoiding eye contact. As we reached their home, I was immediately taken aback as the reality of the situation was setting in. The house had dirt floors, barbed wire covered all the windows for protection, the scent of burned tortillas filled the air, and cockroaches seemed to be everywhere. That night at dinner I began to talk with my host family, and was immediately overcome by guilt. Their lives seemed horrendous, lacking any opportunity. The mother ran a tortilla shop and made a profit of about a dollar a day, while the father worked as a janitor in San Salvador from Monday to Saturday, 4am to 6pm. They have a young daughter, Jessica, who with her innocent buckteeth smile, and adorable dimples, was the cutest little girl I have ever seen. The family lives in extreme poverty, works incredibly hard to survive, and despite all this they are the most loving and welcoming family I have ever met. A clear illustration of this was during my second night in the village when an intense rainstorm hit the area. Despite the tempest surrounding us, we happily sat on dilapidated plastic chairs, playing cards and engaging in light banter under candlelight. These surroundings indicated the family had nothing. Yet, the welcoming attitude and love I felt during that evening felt so incredibly genuine, from the little jokes and humorous asides, them asking me about my family, and Jessica innocently standing up to take a look at my cards. When I left the village, with tears in my eyes, I felt like I was part of their family. I will never forget those five days for the rest of my life. This experience has changed me twofold. First, being able to enter the Salvadoran peoples world, for just a tiny epoch of time, I have realized that I have a responsibility to try and help the country in whatever way I can. Second, it has shown me that true love can exist in a society that is corrupt and manipulative. It occurred to me that when you have no desire or ability to obtain material possessions and all you have is love, family, and faith then these three things can flourish completely unrestricted.

The situation in El Salvador is dire, but not all hope is lost. The trip deeply impacted me through my realization that in my position of privilege I have a responsibility to help the people in El Salvador, and that began through witnessing strength in the face of great suffering, and realizing the effect of true love. I realize that I can’t change the world at seventeen, however I do have the ability to retell the stories and experiences of the trip. My group is currently organizing a series of fundraisers, where we will retell our experiences and all the proceeds will go to our home stay families. I can tell people of Alicia’s strength, my home stay family’s undying love, and through spreading these stories I can only hope to inspire others to make a contribution towards changing the world. As William James once declared “The greatest revolution of our generation is the discovery that human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.”

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