Friday, February 5, 2010

Exploring the Root Causes of Migration in El Salvador

I recently participated in a Regis University delegation to El Salvador. We explored the life and legacy of Archbishop Romero, the reality of military rule and support of the U.S. in the devastation and the current reality of an FMLN (former guerrilla forces during the civil war) president and hope for a better future. Woven into all of this was the underlying current of immigration. My trip began with a brief visit with friend and former AFSC colleague Sarah Gill in Atlanta. We visited the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center and it felt appropriate to start my pilgrimage to El Salvador by paying respects to MLK, a man, like Romero who spoke truth to power and was killed for it.

Below are some musings I wrote while on the trip.

In peace,



From: Gabriela Flora

Sent: Thursday, January 07, 2010 5:10 PM

Subject: Greetings from Suchitoto, El Salvador

Greetings from Suchitoto, El Salvador.

We have been having an amazing trip, learning so much and enjoying the intense exploration of the history and reality of El Salvador and meeting incredible people. The group we are with is wonderful, 6 Romero House Regis students (including Rose who is an intern with us at AFSC) and 6 Regis University faculty/staff and guests (including Jim Walsh, my husband, and myself). Rosa Anaya is our constant accompanier, sharing her own history of her father's murder by the military for his human rights work and her family's carrying on his legacy through their work. Among other things, Rosa does work in the prisons with gang members.

Each day feels like a week, in the good sense that we are learning so much. It is actually hard to believe we have only been here 3 days (plus the day we arrived). We started out at Equipo Maiz, an amazing popular education group going over 500 years of Salvadorian history. We visited Divina Provincia where Romero lived and the church where he was assassinated. A beautiful little old nun showed us around and yesterday we visited his tomb and the church where the military gunned down people attending his funeral. We met with an amazing women's group, where Lucy shared about becoming a guerrilla when she was 15 after experiencing and escaping the massacre near Suchitoto where we now are. In the afternoon, a former FMLN guerrilla, Jonathan, took us to the site where he and 150 other former guerrillas are working to construct the first monument to the FMLN soldiers (there are monuments to civilians but nothing of this scale for FMLN members killed). Jonathan went to the mountains at the age of 12 to join the guerillas after his brother was disappeared. He shared how, after the peace accords he worked with all those who disarmed (FMLN and military) to obtain training and access to services. When I asked him if it was hard to work with the former rank and file military men, he said it was at first, but then he realized they were poor like him and in the same situation (although the former military were given prime land and easier access to credit than former FMLN). Jonathan is now a body guard for Rosa's, our guide, mother who is a supreme court judge.

Today we drove to Suchitoto. We met with the amazing Sister Peggy (she recently game to Regis where we got to meet her) and learned about all her work in creating the Centro de Arte Para la Paz (art center for peace) where young people create all kinds of art as part of a healing process from the war and harshness of life.

Every evening we have reflection where we share how what we are experiencing is impacting us and I need to run off for it now.

love and peace,


Jan. 10, 2010

Since I last wrote much has happened.

In Suchitoto we took a boat to the site of the Copayan massacre accompanied by two members previously from that community. Mercedes happened to be gone the day of the massacre and Rogelio was nine years old when the massacre (now he´s 36). We sat at the site of the former community and Rogelio shared the horrors he experienced and saw when military soldiers (who the U.S. was supporting with arms and training) killed 150 people including all his immediate family. His humble expression of the atrocities was beyond words. Our time at the site ended by holding hands in a circle and praying for peace.

That afternoon we headed to the rural community of Papaturo. There we all stayed with families. Jim and I were hosted by Angelica and her family. The now 80 families of Papaturo were originally from Cabañas were forced to flee to refugee camps in Honduras for 7 years in the 1980s. Life was very difficult in the camps, but the families organized themselves and those skills they learned are seen in the community today. There is an amazing youth leadership that is very rooted in its history. We attempted to go to a vigil with about 18 of the youth leaders from Papaturo in support of the community of Cabañas

that is resisting the gold mining that would destroy their community. Last week the third community organizer against the mines was murdered by death squad-esk murderers likely supported by Pacific Rim gold mining company. I say attempted to go to the vigil, because we drove over two hours and then ended up turning around once we realized we still had an hour and a half to go and we weren´t sure the roads were safe. The bus ride proved a great opportunity to chat with the young leaders. I was blown away by their knowledge and analysis and dedication to working for the good of their community and El Salvador. The end of our bus ride, over 30 of us packed to the gills in a mini bus, we shared songs, switching betwe

en the English and Spanish.

Jim and I woke to the warmth of our hosts and their stories of being refugees, strong organizing and how their hearts ache because they are separated from their daughter and son that are in Miami (two o

f the 2.5 million Salvadorian in the U.S.) helping support the family in a country that has an unemployment rate over 40%.

All for now.

In peace,


January 17, 2009

So we are home from an amazing trip to El Salvador. My memories swirl around the many people we met who graciously shared their story and spirit. Touching just below the surface of most everyone we met, is loss and pain from the civil war years (1980-1992) and yet a strong, determined spirit and so much grace and humility, yes so much grace. From Angelica, our host at the home we stayed at in Papaturo who told of why she and her community had to flee to refugee camps in Honduras. She told of the fear they lived in… how a military soldier chased her when she was 8 months pregnant, how that same soldier later came to her house and demanded to know if she was feeding the guerrillas. “Yes, I feed the guerrillas” she responded. Continuing she said, “and I feed the soldiers too, God said feed the hungry, cloth the naked, house the homeless, he did not say kill and slaughter your neighbor.

Grace…. Damien shared his story of involvement in the guerrilla movement, his capture and

torture. He is now an FMLN diputado (unicameral Legislator). When we asked him about the challenges of working with people who had been on the other side of the conflict, he told of how he is now negotiates on legislation with the man who directed his torture during his second capture. He has chosen to forgive him, while not forgetting what happened.

At the Wall of Remembrance the names of the 70,000 civilians who had been murdered and disappeared are listed on a wall that makes the Vietnam Memorial look small. The 300 massacres listed by the year they took place beginning with 1970 sent a chill down my spine. The Salvadorian people had to fight hard for this important place to name and remember all those kil

led (many who don’t have any other resting place because their bodies were never found), as the right wing ARENA party who was in power until last year did not wish to have a visual memory of the massacres that many party members were behind.

The reality of El Salvador’s colonial exploitation – inequality that led to the war and continues today- and the civil war itself are interwoven with the United States. U.S. business profited from the exploitative relationships and resource extraction and the military was trained at the School of the Americas and funded by the U.S. tax dollars. El Salvador’s contemporary reality continues to be connected to the United States. With an unemployment rate of over 40%, 2.5 million Salvadorians[1] reside in the U.S. and send money home. Remittances make up the largest import and people are the biggest export of a country that still has inequality at pre-war levels.

Nearly every person I spoke with has a relative in the U.S. The U.S. immigration system that c

riminalizes economic refugees painfully keeps family members across borders from seeing each other for countless years. The people I met spoke of how their often da

ily phone conversations keep them connected with their mother, sister, brother or father. Ana, who as a five year old spent months wandering the mountains with her family trying to escape the conflict zone spoke of how her sister who has been in the U.S. for years, asks her to go to their favorite spots in the city and tell her about the sounds and sights she experiences, a

s a

way to connect long distance to her homeland she isn’t able to visit because of her undocumented status in the U.S. .

Experts on migration in El Salvador that I spoke with highlighted that emigration is nothing new for El Salvador. In the 1960s women were the primary migrants. During the war many people fled as political refugees. Experts predicted that once there was no longer an armed conflict that emigration would decrease, but that was not the case as poverty and inequity persisted. Dollarization and a devastating earthquake both in January of 2001 led to an increase in number emigrating, now primarily men although women are also leaving in large numbers. As one expert told me, “Migration is not the problem, it has always been a part of Salvadorian survival strategies, what is a problem is U.S. policy of militarizing the border, criminalizing immigrants and keeping families from being able to see one another.”

Our last day we had dinner with Susana who studied and lived with Salvadorian migrants in Mexico. Her eyes teared up as she described the realities Salvadorians experience in Mexico as they try to get to the U.S. to work to feed their families. I was deeply moved that a woman who had experienced much suffering and struggle during her early life during the war, was still so deeply able to connect to the struggle of others (perhaps this made it even more possible). The war had not hardened her, but rather connected her to the humanity of life. Throughout my time in El Salvador I was inspired by the Salvadorian spirit and bring a piece of it home with me as I return to my work in the U.S. working for immigrant rights.

Gabriela Flora is Project Voice regional organizer for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in Denver, Colorado.

[1] El Salvador has a population of 7 million.

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