There is nothing like going somewhere new in order to remember — or to realize— just how little you know. This is a daily occurrence for me here in El Salvador. For the last two months, I’ve been studying with a Santa Clara Universityrun program known as La Casa de la Solidaridad. A program aimed at Jesuit university students, Casa seeks to immerse its participants in la realidad — the reality — of this tiny Central American country.
The question then is, of course, what exactly is that reality? Or, how might a gringo college kid here for four months come to access any part of it? While I am still in the process of discerning those answers, I have an
idea about how our program strives to do that over the course of a semester. I am also learning about its limitations.
I spend two full days per week in the urban community of San Ramon, visiting a preschool classroom in the mornings, making home visits with social workers and community leaders in the afternoons and seeking to provide a context for the lives these children lead. We learn of fatherless homes, families affected by alcoholism and domestic abuse, un- and under-employment, water-borne illnesses and poor infrastructure. The list, unfortunately, goes on.
Though we are stationed in the prosperous and relatively safe neighborhood of Antiguo Cuscatlan, Casa emphasizes taking us out of the comfort of our houses (that we share with Salvadoran students) and showing us other parts of the country.
Therefore, we additionally spent a week in the rural part of the country bordering Honduras, where much of the violence occurred during El Salvador’s horrific civil war in the 1980s. (A war in large part financed by the United States — another
topic unto itself.) We heard stories and visited sites from those years, learning about how such a history still has major ramifications for the country and its people to this day.
I recount this to underscore, that unlike when I studied in London last summer with Fordham’s program, here I am constantly interacting with Salvadorans, hearing their stories and traveling through the country, encountering Salvadoran “reality” as much as one can in two months.
Yet I know there is still so much more. What about the hundreds of Salvadorans eating lunch in the air-conditioned food court of the brand-new mall complex near where I stay? Subway, Burger King, Pizza Hut — is this the Salvadoran dream,
what people do here when they have “made it,” when they have enough money that they do not have to worry about what those families in San Ramon confront on a daily basis? Then again, is this any different than the United States? What
effect has the United States had on creating this culture?
So, I ask, what about this reality? What is El Salvador — the war-torn families living in homes made of sheet metal with no running water, or the people who live behind armored gates and have personal drivers? Of course, the reality of El Salvador today is both and everything in between. We should recognize though that the former is altogether more common than the latter.
That said, what this demonstrates is just how hard it is to understand “reality” outside of our own context. For me to understand the world as a gringo who was raised in the United States is hard enough, to desire an
experience of anything else requires even more effort. Now that I am here in El Salvador, I am repeatedly reminded of just how many experiences of this world exist in the year 2012. With seven billion people on this planet, it’s tough to get a
grasp on anything beyond one’s own reality — but I think getting an education demands that we try.