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Thursday, July 31, 2014

San Jose Las Flores

The crowing wakes us up, at three, three-twenty, four, four-thirty...a flock of renegade roosters
with seriously challenged inner clocks. They wake us up to a dark, dormitory room and the soft
sounds of breathing, the scuttle of a gecko on the wall, the scratch of tree leaves. They follow
us as we walk around the village, in the ditches, in first-scratched gardens, among mango trees.
They are our own fowl compadres.

We have to come to stay in this beautiful village for three days. Ringed by mountains, one with
a guardian crucifix, it is centred around a town square. A concrete square with a gazebo, a
basketball court, a statue of Che Guevera and old government armaments from the civil war.
There is a strangely commercial pizza stand that lies empty all day. Strange because there is
such a strong sense of family and community here, with little signs of commercialism. We stay
in the pastoral centre in two dormitory rooms with high windows, just large enough to let in the
sounds of errant roosters. Hammocks swing in the inner courtyard, opposite the rudimentary
toilets, the cistern and concrete sinks. Rough stairs lead to an upper terrace, a classroom, and
a spare lawn that looks down on the lush, tropical valley. I spend many quiet moments perched
in a child's school desk, writing in my journal and staring out at the valley, sniffing out any slight
breeze that comes through the trees.

We eat the at the local community kitchen, operated by women. It sits on a central street just
down from the bakery, the panadería. Wrought iron doors halfheartedly keep out the always
skinny, always hungry dogs. The women work in the hot kitchen, stirring boiling pots of water and beans, frying plantains, patting out and frying tortillas. We sit and wait at the picnic tables, talking and laughing, watching the life of the street, the dogs circling and sniffing, people stopping and talking, a woman leaning on her stone windowsill calling out to passersby, dropping food for the dogs. Men walk by with machetes, their faces and arms dirty, leaves hanging from their clothes. In the heat, women rock by with large baskets on their heads. The elementary children, in white shirts and blue pants, return from school with mothers. High school students saunter by in large groups, cell phones in hands, ear bug wires hanging down their shirts. When the food comes out, we line up and eat gratefully the inevitable frijoles, eggs and fried plantains.

One afternoon, tired and hot, we seek shelter in the dark community kitchen. Our nurturers are
at the back in the shadows, drinking water and resting. We watch as the room gets darker and
people scurry past. The skies open up suddenly and violently with pelting rain. The water runs
down the tiled roofs and the rough streets. The village is full of the sound of water and thunder.

No roosters.

We visit the village school, written about so well by my friend, Anna. Entering the gates is like
entering an enchanted village, trees everywhere, radiant flowers and butterflies brushing by
our hands and faces. The children seem completely at home, slurping milk, eating tortillas,
running, laughing and playing. Our visit to the kindergarten class, in a new, separate building,
is wonderful. We are serenaded with two songs, with hand actions, and then treated to stories
loudly delivered by Vincente who came from Los Angeles in an airplane and needs to represent
his class. The junior students race around the basketball court, shooting hoops, chasing each
other and calling out, teasing and laughing.

Entering the garden is like being in a children's book where everything is larger, lusher and greener than you can ever imagine. The air is green and humid, the sun beating down on giant sunflowers, eggplants, mangoes. Hens scratch in the few patches of unplanted dirt. Vines climb everywhere, from recycled pop bottles, plastic containers.  Corn is planted precariously on a steep slope between the garden shed and a school building.

All along the cinder block walls of the school buildings are children's pictures of the war, a
living memorial to where they come from and what they work away from. The walls lead to two
outdoor stoves where the school cooks are preparing lunch. The air is full of the smell of hot oil.

We are tired and happy as we walk slowly down the hill from the school. We feel as if we have
been given a gift of being able to visit. Ahead of us, walking just behind the larger forms of Paul
and Miguel, is a young boy going home from school. Dark head bobbing, shirt flapping over his
dusty pants, shoelaces training, and a Japanese animé knapsack knocking against his back.

We are intrigued by his purposeful walk. He crosses the street to a food stand run by two men.
We all watch as he confidently speaks up to the men, indicating which sandwich he would like
to buy, crossing his tiny arms as he waits for his order. His sense of comfort and solitary walk
make the village seem safe.

We do not want to leave the village, our dormitory room, the rough streets, the bakery,
community kitchen, school and church from where the sound of piano music comes in the
afternoons. A woman beckons to us on our last night and we all crowd into her home, one light
burning against the dark. We buy her jewelry collected in a plastic bag and say that we will

The van is strangely quiet as we pull out of the village's narrow streets, its sides almost scraping
the rough hewn buildings. All look out quietly, assembling images and memories of a very
special place.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Escuela San Jose Las Flores

Kindergarten students in San Jose las Flores

No doubt that the trip to El Salvador left unforgettable memories for everyone of us, mainly because this trip was so wonderful and very inspiring in many aspects: beautiful tropical scenery, genuinely hospitable people, a very interesting history of the country with current and past social justice issues and an absolutely amazing group of people to travel with.

For me, the highlight of this trip was a visit at the elementary school in San Jose Las Flores, Escuela San Jose Las Flores.

I heard a lot about the school prior to the trip. Personally, I was wondering if what I was going to see would not disappoint me and didn't. Even more, I still marvel the experience, I only wish I could have spent more time there.

Someone would ask: what is so special about the school in El Salvador. My answer would be: everything.

An African proverb says: “It takes a whole village to raise a child” and the school in San Jose Las Flores is an excellent example of it.

On the way to school!

The school was rebuilt by the community after the 12 year Civil War. Settled at the bottom of beautiful tropical mountains is a home to students from Kindergarten to Grade 9. Students there not only engage in learning and extracurricular activities but also look after the school in many other aspects: cleaning, helping in the school kitchen, and tending the school garden. Their garden is the heart of the school.
It provides not only learning experiences for students but also extra food: vegetables, fruits, herbs. They even have couple of hens. The garden idea came from the school principal, Nelson, a few years ago. With help from the village community the garden grows and prospers. Everything grown there is organic. Nothing gets wasted: coke bottles and plastic bags are used for plant starters, even an old toilet has its function – how about using it as a flower pot?

Why the idea of a garden?

In order to make sure students will be able to attend school every day, present democratic government, FMLN for the first time in El Salvador's history, has been providing children with school uniforms, school supplies, and a daily meal (milk, beans, rice), the school provides the rest, fresh produce from its garden. In many cases students will eat better at school than at home.

Next year, there are plans to produce fish to enrich kids diet and set up an irrigation system.
Walking through the garden we bumped into students and teachers working there. Parents and local villagers also help.

At school students were walking, some running and enjoying their breakfast sitting on benches surrounded by lush, tropical flowers. No teachers on duty (sic!) but everything seemed to be so orderly. A bell rang, some groups quickly disappeared in classrooms, another appeared for breakfast. Everyone looked very happy, younger students were eager to engage in conversations with us.

The regular day at school is divided into two educational shifts: morning for primary grades, afternoon for junior and intermediate. The other half of the day students spend engaged in extracurricular activities of their choice: music, art, working in the garden etc.

Nelson, the school principal, was enthusiastically telling us about his next plans. Interestingly, when he talked about problems his school, teachers and students face, he did not complain, his focus was on the solutions. Such an amazing person, a true visionary who can not only talk about his vision but can deliver it at the same time! His hard work and commitment get people involved.

That evening we visited his family for coffee and homemade cake. The other evening you could spot Nelson sipping beer with locals and chatting, I bet about his new ideas.

Next time you are vacationing in Chalatenango region in El Salvador make sure you visit Escuela San Jose Las Flores in San Jose Las Flores. I can guarantee, it will be worth the effort.

Nelson talking with our interpreter (also named Nelson)

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Thank you El Salvador

I was one tired, rather dissolute chica when we boarded the first plane on our way to
San Salvador on July 2nd at 6 am. It had been a very long stressful year, personally and
professionally. I had hardly thought of the trip before departure given a host of work and
personal responsibilities.

And then we were in the air, in a crowded vessel full of sleep-deprived, fellow passengers.
There was no turning back. We were on our way. Two flights later and I was still in a drowsy,
half-conscious state, lulled by the drone of the flights and the lack of fresh air.

Breathe in! San Salvador airport at 9:30 at night - vital, hot, humid, teeming with people. Past
Customs with my pitiful Spanish and navy blue Canadian passport. Tropical, fragrant air, people
laughing, patched up suitcases and boxes everywhere. Smell of petrol and sweat. Beaming face
of Miguel, our guide, waiting for us all. Unbelievably, luggage of all 6 passengers intact and we
pack ourselves into a blue passenger van in the dark. On the way to the Capital on dark, tree-
lined roads. How many people have been here before me, I ask myself in the dark, aware of a
dark history and sadness.

Our first blessing. At eleven at night, a lovely snack waiting for us in the heat of the guest house:
guacamole, fresh bread and tall glasses of ice-laden coke. We beam, gulp and slurp happily.
We retire to our rooms, fans slapping the air.

The malaise of the year is dissipating. I drink in the city air of morning in a small courtyard, my
incredibly amiable, new friends sipping coffee around wrought-iron tables, laughing and talking.
The morning is alive, in the flowers and plants, in the concrete walls hinged with barbed wire, in
the city buses wheezing and screeching down the steep streets. Our adventure has begun and
there is no turning back.

Thank you, El Salvador, for returning my sense of gratefulness. Thank you, Miguel, Nelson
and Nixon for caring for us and keeping us safe. Thank you, Donna, Tracey, Anna, Marta and
Nancy for your insatiable curiousity, humour and energy. Thank you, Paul, for your leadership
and quiet enjoyment of our first witnessing of this amazing country. Thank you to the many,
intelligent and committed people who told us their stories. Thank you to all, who unfailingly,
greeted us in the capital and the many towns and villages we visited. Thanks you to all,
including my young Spanish instructor, Beatrix, who suffered our attempts at Spanish and were

Thank you El Salvador for returning my sense of humour and pathos. Stories of horror, outrage
and courage were often told with a smile, the small distance between joy and sorrow. I will
never forget what I heard and I now hold in my memory the lives of the thousands of people lost
in the struggle.

Thank you, El Salvador, for returning my appreciation of beauty. Lung-gasping foliage,
mountains, volcanoes, mango trees and blue skies that pierced the eyes.

Thank you for returning my passion and love of life. I was awakened, in a riot of colour, noise
and emotion, after a long winter. I am grateful for all that I experienced, heard and understood.

May I have the grace and fortitude to carry what I learned into my life here in Ottawa.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Rosita and Ieda, Cinquerra, El Salvador

I just had the opportunity of a lifetime to travel with five wonderful women and four just-as-
wonderful men in El Salvador. We had many great adventures and learned a lot about the country and ourselves.

There is one day that stays with with me, the day we toured the village square of Cinquera and
heard stories of the war from Rosita, a slight, beautiful woman with a staggering family history.

We stood in the hot square staring at a painted mural documenting the 12-year struggle. Rosita,
in Spanish, calmy and forthrightly told the story of some of the people of her town. Prominent in
the mural was the face of a young woman, Ieda. A young parish worker, Ieda was passionate
about her work, telling the story of the gospels, carrying her bible as a talisman of justice and
good work.

Ieda's beliefs did not go over well with the army and government that viewed the
bible and the gospel as revolutionary tools of the people.

Ieda's mother still lives in Cinquera. Rosita related the mother's story. One day at their
farmhouse, the army truck pulled up and dragged the young woman from the house, stuffing
her in a coffee bag. There was no recourse for Ieda's mother who watched helplessly as
her daughter was taken away.

Over the course of a number of days, the young woman was interrogated and tortured. She was raped and mutilated, all attempts to kill and humiliate the human spirit. The noonday sun beat on our heads as Rosita related the details of Ieda's humiliation and torture. The ravaged bodies of Ieda and a young man, another enemy of the state, were dumped on the bridge just outside of town, for all, including Ieda's mother, to see.

The mutilated bodies were a message of fear and retaliation for anyone speaking out for justice.
The brave people of Cinquera quickly claimed the bodies and buried them before the army
returned. They took their own back.

All of this was related to us in the blazing sun, in Rosita's calm, measured voice. As she spoke,
a butterfly landed on the face of Ieda. This was not lost on us. We watched mesmerized.

Rosita brought us to a wall that commemorates the names of the fallen rebels, including her
father and two brothers. Another brother killed himself after the peace agreement, ravaged by
the war and what he had witnessed. We went to Rosita's modest home and saw a homemade
mural that chronicled the family's participation in the struggle and the fallen brothers' faces. As
we milled around the mural, Rosita's five year old son and friend played peacefully under the

Rosita's gentle handshake and delicate face belied a will and spirit of iron. She walked quietly
away from us in the afternoon sun, cell phone dangling in her hand, ready to continue the rest of
her day's work.

Guest Post - Hola El Salvador 2014!

This is the first in a series of Guest posts from the educator group who toured El Salvador this July. This was a very strong, articulate group, their posts will be a great addition to the Compadres y Comadres Blog!

What an amazing experience! This trip had the perfect combination - daily educational information on the history of the country, war politics, people, and current social justice issues along with hands-on interactive activities from the El Salvadorian community people!

As a high school teacher, I see this as a perfect opportunity for student education through travel – fits my hyper personality and philosophy in teaching perfectly - no books – just oral history and experiential learning!

I have numerous fond memories, but I must admit acting as car seat dancing “co-piloto” ensuring that our travel van had loud “musica” at all times while on the road is probably my most favourite – the local towns people heard us coming before seeing us! I always greeted them with a “buenos dias” and it was wonderful to see them smile, laugh and greet us back!

“te amo El Salvador – yo regresaré – amiga de por vida”
Dios los bendiga – God Bless+
Fancy Nancy

piloto y co-piloto.jpg
“co-piloto” Nancy y “piloto” Nixon

You can see more of this year's pictures on our Flickr Page

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Cinquera Forest

Cinquera is a little town close to Suchitoto.  During the war, it was a major battleground between the insurgents of the FMLN and the army.  After a long struggle, the FMLN were able to push the army out of the area.

This was a densely populated area before the war.  The hills surrounding the town was dotted with local farms.  All this changed when the war started.  Most of the people left the area to avoid being killed by the army.

The people of Cinquera did not return until near the end of the war.  The surrounding farms however were not recovered.  Over the intervening years, a forest had grown up around the town.  During the war, this forest became a haven for the FMLN.

It is now 12,000 acre shrine commemorating  the struggle.

The Cinquera Forest

The forest is only 35 years old, but it is impossible to find evidence of the farming community that existed here before the war.  It is owned and protected by the community.  It is a source of fresh water and one of the only nature reserves in a country that is 90% deforested.

We spent the afternoon hiking through the forest.  It is wild and beautiful.  While the forest has certainly taken over the farmland, there is evidence of the war everywhere.

This is the stove used by the FMLN in the hills surrounding Cinquera.
It is modeled on similar stoves used by the Vietnamese during the war
against the United States.  It is designed to hide the smoke from
cooking so as to not alert hostile forces of your location.

We walked with our guide for hours through the forest.  She showed us rare trees native to Nicaragua, even rarer Salvadoran trees, trenches used during the war and finally a full FMLN camp.  The camp included a medical treatment area, a small school, a meeting area and a quick escape route.  The camp could have been home to over 30 insurgents during the conflict.

a section of the FMLN forest camp

This is a really beautiful place.  It really shows that the human spirit cannot be suppressed even by years of brutal repression, torture and murder.

Some of the people of Cinquera have returned and have rebuild their town and have created a natural wonder.  The town has also developed a hostel, restaurant, a butterfly farm, a lizard and iguana farm, a youth center and a fruit dehydrator run off of solar power - See more at:

We finished our day with a beautiful dip in a natural swimming hole.  After the long hot climb this was wonderful!

I was again struck by the natural beauty of this place.  It doesn't take away from the horror, but it gives me hope that we can overcome the brutality of the civil war.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Attending the 30th anniversary of CRIPDES

delegates get ready for a great day of story-telling

The 2014 trip is now over.  Most of the participants left for Canada yesterday.  Heather (my wife) and I have decided to stay for an extra week to work on our Spanish and get to know the beautiful town of Suchitoto better.

This gives me more time to reflect on this year's trip.  It is amazing how much you can pack into ten days!

One of the experiences that I am still processing is my day at the CRIPDES 30th anniversary.  I attended this gathering along with Miguel Mejia, our team leader last Saturday in San Salvador.  I sit on the board of Salvaide and so I was honoured with an invitation to the celebration.

We met in the Auditorium Hospitalito la Divina Providencia, just up the road from the chapel where Oscar Romero was assassinated in March of 1980.

We started at 9:00 am and the idea was to finish by 1:00 pm.  The agenda included almost all of the founders including Miguel.  Each person was asked to tell stories about work that involved CRIPDES in the past 30 years.

I missed alot - I continue to work on my Spanish, but it was hard to keep up with the rapid pace of the story-telling!

The speakers talked about the war, the repopulation of villages during the war, the state of human rights during the war, government repression, capture and torture during the period of the conflict and some of the current challenges faced in the different regions served by CRIPDES.

I really wished I could have understood more about what Miguel said, so later in the evening I asked him what he spoke about.

Miguel speaking to the audience at the CRIPDES celebration

He told me he had talked about the time when he was being tortured as a political prisoner and how he warned the guard he needed to go to the bathroom or else.  The guard didn't listen and he ended up cleaning up after Miguel.  

The audience saw the humour in this story.  As Miguel said, Salvadorans always like to see the funny side of things.  Amazing that people can joke about such things, but I think it is better than becoming overcome by the evil that existed during the war.  He actually met his torturer after the war and pointed him out to his son.  The man was terrified, but Miguel left him alone.

It is wrong that these things happened and it is unjust that the killers and torturers got away with what they did.  Salvadorans remember what happened and they still want to see justice done - some day I really hope this happens.

In the meantime they are still able to celebrate the amazing things that groups like CRIPDES have done.

traditional dance at the CRIPDES Celebration

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The struggle against Canadian Mining Companies in El Salvador

Yesterday we visited ADES, a group heavily involved in the on-going struggle against Canadian mining companies here in El Salvador.  This is an incredible story that all Canadians really need to know about.

Canadian mining companies are active throughout Latin America causing significant pollution problems and a high level of strife within communities.  In Guatemala and Honduras there are many examples of environmental degradation caused by mining operations.  In Guatemala, HudBay employees have been accused of sexually assaulting women in one of the communities they operate in.  As a result, a civil suit has been filed in Canada against Hudbay.

In El Salvador, there are over 25 permits pending to start mining operations in this country.  Over 25 permits to mine in a country with a population density of 300 people per square kilometer.  A country where only 3% of the water is drinkable and 90% of the forests have been cut down.

The main Canadian company here has been Pacific Rim.  It has conducted environmental assessments in a variety of locations throughout the country.  They used an American company for these assessments, a company that has misrepresented information in its reports in the past.

Starting in 2004, communities and NGOs in El Salvador started to organize against these companies. They worried that mining operations would pollute the water and land and displace people from the meager holdings they possessed.

The struggle has continued since this time.  In the intervening years, the Church and even the right-wing ARENA government of the time sided with the communities against the Canadians.

Pacific Rim tried a number of tactics to gain the support of the community.  They first tried to bribe community leaders, offering up to a million dollars for ‘development projects’ in their jurisdictions.  ADES, now leading the opposition to these projects always said no to these offers.

Next they tried intimidation tactics including death threats.  In 2009 they went even further.  Marcello Rivera, one of the main activists against Canadian mining was kidnapped, tortured and killed.  He was found 12 days after his capture at the bottom of a 30-meter well.  Later the same year, two other activists were killed – one a woman 8 months pregnant.

part of the mural commerating the work of Marcello Rivera in St. Isodor

That same year, Pacific Rim began an intimidation campaign against the government and people of El Salvador.  They filed a lawsuit demanding $77 million from the Salvadoran Government.  No one understands where this figure came from.  It is estimated that in the 10 years Pacific Rim had been doing explorations they had spent only $13 million.

More recently, Pacific Rim has been sold to the Australian mining company, Oceana Gold.  Oceana is now suing the Salvadoran Government for over $400 million.  There is no logical reason why this amount has been increased from $77 million.

The case will be heard starting September 15.

Why has this been allowed to continue?  This is not something that could happen in Canada, why do we allow Canadian companies to act in such a way in other countries?

Canada is clearly not the good guy in this story.  We are the bully doing all we can to secure profits for a few shareholders.  Canadians need to know this story and pressure their government to do something about these 21st century robber barons. 

Just when El Salvador is finally getting the opportunity to build up its physical and social infrastructure Canadian companies are trying their best to destroy it. 

This should be stopped, we should all be in solidarity with the Salvadoran people.

Our group met with ADES for most of the morning earlier this week