Three months have already flown by to see the end of my internship with the Quetzalcoatl Foundation in El Salvador. Time to reflect. I had sworn I would write my blog and let everyone know what and how I was doing, but something in me could not do so. Every time I sat with the idea to write about my experience here in this small country, words would not come out. It was not even just my blog, but my diary suffered too from my negligence. Every time, the blank page. Every time, the clumsiness. I wanted to do justice to this experience and the people in it, but this is no easy task. It had to be subtle, fair, and deeply felt. Confusion reined in my heart.
I will do my best not to go into the extremes of “how awful, violent and hopeless this situation is” or “how fantastic are all Salvadorian women and men” when portraying El Salvador. Both are sometimes true, hell I myself think it in my head a number a times during the week; but by falling into the trap of being overly pessimistic or overly idealist I run the risk of shadowing the experiences lived from one end to the other, which reveal the vibrant and murky colours of humanity.
My work in violence prevention with youth at risk of violence in dangerous communities have helped me scratch some of the complexity of this country. I will acknowledge the extremes, it does not take long to encounter them and I will slowly write my way through the greyer area.
On my first week interning, I had the chance to spend a crazy night out in the fancier club you can find in San Salvador with the young elite. Not really what you expect when coming to a “underdeveloped” country with the highest crime rate in the world. Driving big four wheel drives, valet parking, drinks at $9 each (I know it seems cheap but trust me it is crazy expensive for ES!), fancy clothes, men in suits talking about business and their studies in the US, it just felt surreal. Don’t be fooled, I did have a great time dancing away (and pushing the car home after breaking down at 3am…)
Next day: VL (I prefer to leave the communities’ names incognito) in Ilopango. There you take the bus and the only valet you will find will ask for your keys and your car to be never returned; the name of the club is “Mara Salvatrucha”, who makes sure to welcome you with some great art; and the bouncer is no man to piss off. The entrance is very VIP, not everyone can come in, and in order to keep unwanted people away, the road is full of holes and whole missing parts. Kids play with their kites from tin roof tops and the oldest ones hang out at the street corner.
The shock is hard and I can feel my guts make a big knot inside. The energy is heavy, the graffiti “Ver, Oir y Callar si de la vida querés gozar” (“See, Hear and Be Quiet if you want to enjoy life”) and the giant MS 13 painted on the main plaza might have something to do with it.
We are going to the school, where every week we teach the students some ‘cool stuff’ (yeah coz school is usually lame until we get there!) like sexuality, self-esteem, leadership and values through games and a participative methodology. On my first day, the topic proposed was “scenes of violence” and we asked groups to draw events, situations of violence they might have witnessed or even have lived. The drawings are dreadfully detailed. Gang violence, domestic violence, violence against the police, violence in the classroom between classmates. Lots of red.
This first day felt like a bit slap in my face, in my guts and in my heart. These drawings are not innocent pictures, they reflect a reality that I am never going to be fully able to understand because it is so extremely opposite to my own. Some have told me, you can only give empathy. But empathy, by meaning “I, as a human being can feel what you feel” is also hard to reach. Because no, I do not know what it feels to have been neglected by your mother or father, I do not know what it feels to lose a loved one, I do not know what it feels like to be marginalised and have so few options in life.
But despite these hardships, the kids keep flying their kites on the tin roofs. They keep chasing each other at recess. They keep dancing and laughing.
On this first day I started feeling the grey area.