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Blogs from Santa Clara University students studying abroad.

The following postings have been filtered by tag Diana Fitts (El Salvador). clear filter
  •  What is Poverty?

    Friday, Nov. 19, 2010 12:00 AM

    The Human Development Index published a report ranking countries from best to worst based upon their economic stability, frequency of violence, job availability, happiness, ect. In the middle of this list was El Salvador. And with half of the countries of the world fairing better and half worse, El Salvador is the average, a fairly good representation of the world. In some regard, this makes you realize that the world is a pretty sucky place and we often overlook our American privilege and assume its normalcy. But, on the other hand, this report calls attention to our misinformed expectations, our ideas of what we think poverty should look like.

    Along with El Salvador comes an expectation of tragedy and a close encounter with poverty. And as residents from the United States, there is no doubt that this is true. But sometimes we get mad at a Salvadoran for having a flat screen TV or think badly of a business that appears to have nice facilities. We say that these things, things that do not fit into our vision of poverty, are out of place in a country as poor as El Salvador. And when we spend time with these nice people with these nice things in these nice places, we feel that we are jeopardizing our experience, that we are not experiencing El Salvador because we are not experiencing what we believe is poverty. But these nice people and these nice things in these nice places are as much a part of El Salvador as any of the violence and struggle. And by feeling disgust toward a Salvadoran that is lucky enough to have the resources for a nice life, we only continue the stereotype of the elitist American, only traveling to impoverished countries to pity those less fortunate.

    But it's not just the classic hypocritical situation of blaming another for their wealth when you are just as well off. What I've seen is that we are denying El Salvador the opportunity to be what it truly is with the expectation that it live up to the degree of tragedy we have been told it offers. Even after three months in this country, we still find ourselves making comments about the nice neighborhood down the street and the shoes of the women at our university. We say that we won't shower or wash our clothes because we are living in solidarity with the people of El Salvador, when in reality, Salvadorans are almost paranoid about personal hygiene and would be horrified if they knew how little we clean ourselves. We all own water filters, quick dry pants, and mosquito nets from REI in order to survive the jungle of El Salvador, when all we're really doing is emphasizing the American idea of spending a lot of money to be prepared to go out into the world and pretend to have nothing.

    And while this attitude makes us extra sensitive to the poverty around us, we are only beginning to learn what poverty means and are in no place to judge anyone for their relation to it. And our attitudes are ill intentioned, using the right means to reach the wrong end. It seems that any trip taken to an impoverished country is not taken for its luxury, but for its impact factor. And therefore, we want to see the poverty, experience the struggle, and feel the disease. But we do this so that we can say that we did once we return to our comforts and can add 'experiencing poverty' to our resumes. And although we don't hope for struggle and despair in our world, a cell phone or a flat screen TV ruin the dramatics. I'm beginning to think that in order to get rid of this fictional idea, we need to replace the word poverty with the word reality, and thereby eliminate the us versus them tendencies that a division between rich and poor create. Because we don't want this idealistic version of poverty that is used as some kind of inner-conscience for those who can afford to be exposed to it. And I don't know how to stop this kind of thinking, as it is hard to watch a Salvadoran use a Blackberry while hearing a story of another who cannot afford food. However, maybe just an awareness of the discrepancy will be enough.

  •  Foreigners but Friends

    Friday, Oct. 22, 2010 12:00 AM

    Some Salvadorans don't have teeth. And even when they are fully equipped, they can be extremely hard to understand. From what I have heard, the Salvadorans we're encountering talk rather slowly and have an accent that isn't hard to decipher. But, no matter their resemblance to Jim Dale, they are still speaking in Spanish.

    I often think about what superpower I would choose if I was granted one. Usually I lean towards flight, or the ability to see the outcome of any decision and thereby curing indecision. However, now, I would settle for being fluent in Spanish. I wouldn't even be greedy and ask to know every language in the world. Just Spanish would suffice. Now, there is something to be said for nonverbal communication, and here in El Salvador, a smile can go a long way, but it can never take the place of words. This is a program that relies upon the stories of the people to teach us about the reality of El Salvador. And rightly so. We've already become accustomed to the fact that when asked how many children a Salvadoran has, they often use the past tense, as while they might have had five children, it is most likely that they lost two in the war. We also know how much Monsenor Romero and the martyrs mean to this country, as you cannot have a conversation without hearing a comment of thanks to them or seeing a tribute to their lives making up the wallpaper of many houses.

    But, there's also a lot that we haven't learned, just because we don't understand. Now, this is especially problematic for me, as my Spanish is arguably the worst of the group's. More than once I have sat across a Salvadoran, watching them offer everything that they have to the point of emotional breakdown, and all I can do is put on my sad eyes and hope that they don't ask me a question about what they have just said. It's an interesting problem because, in one way, I am here to learn Spanish, and immersion is the best way to accomplish that. However, I'm not sure that learning Spanish is worth what I'm missing. But, this is also a situation that I have no control over and all I can do is be thankful that I have friends that are willing to translate.
    And, it's not as though Salvadorans are expecting full comprehension. They view us as friends, family, a support system, and students. Here to learn, not only about culture and history, but how to communicate. And, they don't view us as infantile. Luckily, Salvadorans never seem to hold back, despite the probabilities of us getting lost. We are here for them through their struggles and they are here for us through ours.

  •  Being Prepared to Live Little By Little

    Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2010 12:00 AM

    I wasn't allowed in the kitchen. It had nothing to do with the smoke that filled the room from the use of a natural fire oven, or that we threatened to ruin the food with our inadequacy, but the fact that the color of my skin made it look as though my insides were not happy with the heat. I tried to explain that I was Irish and not anticipating a heart attack, but it did no good, and I was kicked out of the kitchen.

    So, I sat in the living room, next to the brother that “we don't speak to or about” as he swung his machete, and pretended to make tortillas, while actually shaping them into various animals. The family would make upwards of forty tortillas a day, and when I asked why, Chata just looked at me and said the likes of, “Because people eat them.” Which is true. Tortillas are more than a staple in El Salvador, as they are often the only food that demonstrates any sort of loyalty at meals. The price of rice just went up thirteen dollars. The recent rain storm wiped out all of the bean crops. Vegetables are often infested. But, we've always got the tortilla. Tortillas are so important in fact, that once we mastered tortillaing (yeah, it's a verb in Spanish), we were informed that we were now allowed to marry. I stopped making tortillas.

    Now, our week in the campo was not what Bridget and I had expected. Lacking were the four mile hikes for water, the killing of our own dinner, and the animals that live in the outhouse. We didn't eat raw meat, chop our way through the brush to the front porch, or wake up with cows standing aloof over our faces. But what we did find is that even in the most urban of rustic areas, you will still drink water from the same bucket as the chuchos, chickens, and horses, find whole animals with eyes, beaks, fins, and guts on your plate, and realize that bathrooms aren't any worse off with a couple of toads. Ten at night and seven in the morning is late, there's nothing wrong with hacking up your breakfast onto the floor, and hauling grain is not strenuous, but if you find yourself standing for more than twenty minutes, you better have a tortilla in hand for sustenance.

    Chinda is always at the table, catching you with a hug if you come too close and fixing your ailments and needs before you even know they exist. You know it will be a good day when you wake to her laughter. Papita is never without a cigar, occasionally lighting it with his one arm, but usually just letting it rest between his lips. He only appears in hours of need, holding impaled snakes on the end of his machete, popping joints back into place of the careless children in the neighborhood, all the while with an expression that can never change due to the permanent position of the cigar. Chata is a legend, a great friend, and someone I will miss for a long time. At twenty, her potential outweighs her possibilities and you can only hope that she will someday find a way to defy her static lifestyle.

    On our last morning we sat with Chinda in the living room. The only sound came from the beans as they fell from their pods and our fingers, seeming unusually loud as the normal twelve misfits of the house had been reduced to just us three. “Mi ninas,” Chinda would say, taking a break to admire us struggle to do what she did with ease. Most of our beans were small, unripe, and few in number, a sad profit for the number of hours we had sat at their command. “How do you get enough beans to feed yourselves everyday?” we asked as we tried to imagine where our past meals had come from. Chinda grabbed the handful of beans from our bowl and said “poco a poco, mi amors. Poco a poco.”

    And that's when we learned what the campo is really about. Their slow pace of life is not only a necessity given social constructs, physical ailments, and monetary struggles, but a way in which to endure a hard reality with pause for enjoyment and love for those who enhance it. Little by little. Someday, Chinda's broken ankle will heal, she will sell her embroidery work, and she will harvest enough beans for a sufficient helping. Someday, Elmer will come to term with his parents death, he will realize that twenty-four is so young to wander in a listless state, and he will step outside the house. Someday, Laydi will learn to read, she will see that her generosity and warmth can help a great deal more then she realizes, and she will have confidence. And Chata. Oh Chata. Someday, Chata will be given the financial resources and relief of familial burdens to go to university and realize her potential, she will inspire those who believe that circumstances determine fate to reach higher, and she will change the world. Little by little.

    Our week consisted of tree climbing, pick up games of futbol, seeing my first firefly, falling down mountains, forgetting that we are in El Salvador, loving being a carnivore as the roosters crow in the early hours of the morning, accidentally setting the cows free, meeting family, slowing down, eating up, stepping aside, and stopping to enjoy the view. Home. But, most importantly, we learned that there is nothing wrong with sitting in a guava tree instead of reading for history, clothes feel softer after drying in the sun, and eventually, little by little, you will have enough beans to feed the family. We spent a week living little by little.

  •  A Win Win Situation

    Tuesday, Sep. 28, 2010 10:47 PM

    Hi! This is Diana in El Salvador and here is my second blog! Thanks!

     Most Salvadorans claim to have pena, or a fear of being known. From what I understand, this translates to reserved modesty and an awareness of your presence in any given social situation. Children have pena when they peek out from behind doors as they first meet you. Women have pena when they hide their opinions for the sake of being gracious. Even street dogs have pena when they sneak under parked buses as you pass. Pena is what controls every person of El Salvador, prohibiting them from expressing themselves and forcing a false air of formality. But...we have yet to experience pena. Perhaps there is a confusion in translation or cultural understanding, but from what we have seen thus far, all it takes is one question as to the number of siblings a Salvadoran has to compel the retelling of their life story--traumatic deaths, life changing moments, political affiliation and all. It's more than just hospitality and openness, it's a full on upchuck of the soul. Add some tears, a couple of chickens, and Spanish, and you've got quite a confusing situation.

     But, I guess this is just another reason why Salvadorans aren't Americans. Despite the fact that they listen to Lady Gaga and scream for cake on birthdays, Salvadoran social rules are so drastically different from ours. While it is impolite to pass someone on the sidewalk without a con permiso or buenas, if you are in the street during rush hour, you are asking to die. In fact, there are barely any rules regarding roads-pedestrians have no rights, you can go any speed you please on any side of the road or sidewalk you find appealing, and there is no expectation that you must actually be in the car. I guess pena is lost once you enter a car. It is also lost at some religious services. The church across the street can be heard ever evening and all hours on Saturday and Sunday, praising God as if he is hard of hearing.

     But, actually, I don't think it has anything to do with social norms at all, but instead, has a lot to do with the fact that we're Americans, or not Salvadorans. We met with Trena tonight, one of the directors of the program, as we were overwhelmed and not quite sure we understood the life story of one of our praxis hosts. We had been taken by surprise on Wednesday when, seemingly out of nowhere, our praxis host divulged her entire past, leaving us wondering why she felt the need to be so open so quickly. The problem is that El Salvador is a place where many of the people have traumatic pasts. And, as these histories are usually bound up with political sentiment or affiliation during the war, it could potentially be dangerous for Salvadorans to expose their back stories to just anyone. Therefore, as Trena was telling us, Salvadorans welcome the opportunity to openly share their stories with people that won't come in with a bias, making our presence a benefit to their livelihood even in a small way. Our naivety gives them an excuse to drop their pena, and simply by listening without judging, we gain their full trust. There aren't too many perks to being a foreigner, but this is definitely one of them.


  •  Being Respectful in El Salvador

    Wednesday, Sep. 22, 2010 4:03 PM

    Once you get a Salvadoran talking about something they're passionate about, it's hard to get them to stop. As Dean Brackley, a renowned Jesuit in El Salvador, told us one evening, in a life that is so volatile, all the Salvadorans have are their stories and the mere act of listening is often the greatest sign of respect. The women of La Valencia cannot stop the rain, but talking about it gives them a sense of control. The comfort that seems to come from the Salvadorans' power over words and their ability to share that has been apparent in every town we have visited. The best example of this would have to be our visit to San Ramon, where we spent time with a group of women who practice liberation theology. In a culture that struggles with machismo and religious systems that give preference to men, these women have redefined faith. They strive to follow through on the Gospel's mission to promote justice and equality, trying to eliminate the hierarchical system they often see in the church. Therefore, they don't have any central priest figure and their services consist of an equal sharing of lives, stories, and food.

    And speaking of food, although Salvadorans are more than hospitable, this is often shown through the generous portions they often give. Boy, we're eating a lot of tortillas. And, as it is not socially acceptable in El Salvador to decline mountains of food, we have become quite dedicated to our running group, No Gringo Left Behind. Yeah, we're quite a sight-eight to ten Americans running through the streets of Antigua Cuscatlan at the beginning of the workday. However, despite the ridiculousness we sometimes seem to cause, Salvadorans so far have been nothing short of welcoming. Every drive through town we find ourselves constantly waving to kids on the streets and most greetings are filled with hugs, kisses, and gracias a Dios. And in most cases, it is the people with the most tragic stories that see the most hope and inspire the greatest happiness.

    On our first day of traveling, we visited Giovanni and his family in the hills of Tepecoyo. Their home is typical of those in that region—dirt floors covered by tin roofs with clothes lines overwhelming the walking space. And of course no Salvadoran home would be complete without a handful of aimless dogs, chickens, and toddlers. We sat around Giovanni's wheelchair, watched him smile and listened to his mother's account of his story. A couple of years ago, Giovanni decided to leave school in order to work and pull his family out of economic trouble. However, just last year, Giovanni fell, putting him in the hospital for a great deal of months and leaving him wheelchair bound. Now, not only is Giovanni not able to support his family, he has become their greatest economic burden, making it impossible for them to feed themselves and pay for his treatment. Giovanni's wheelchair is too big for him, leaving his limbs contorted, and as they cannot drive to the city for physical therapy, Giovanni sees a future of dependence on his mother. However, despite their circumstances, as his father put it, Giovanni's smile makes it all worth it. Giovanni loves to talk. He told us of his passion for music, his dream of being able to dance again. He loves working with the kids of Tepecoyo and hopes to some day find a way to resume a somewhat normal life. But despite his troubles, we saw how much love he had for his family, a love that was extended to us, not because we offered financial support to the family or taught Giovanni to walk, but just because we took the time to listen. To Salvadorans, a willingness to listen is often the best thing you can give them and the best way to win their respect.


    “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time...But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together” Lilla Watson

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